Today in Middle Eastern history: the First Crusade captures Jerusalem (1099)

For all the grief I give the warriors of the First Crusade, it would be wrong not to note that they actually did accomplish what they set out to accomplish, the capture of Jerusalem. Well, OK, what they officially set out to accomplish was to save the Byzantine Empire from the Seljuk Turks in Anatolia, and they kind of did bupkis in that regard, but capturing Jerusalem was always the campaign’s secret-not-so-secret real goal, and they did it. So, you know, good for them. It only took a little cannibalism along the way to make it possible.

Map - Crusades, Early
The Early Crusades, now in map form!

The Crusaders besieged Jerusalem on June 7 but were at an extreme disadvantage in actually taking the city. For one thing, the residents inside were well-supplied, while the Crusaders were not. Water was scarce (this was true in general, but also because the Fatimids had tried to poison whatever wells they could find in the area before the Crusaders got there), which meant that food was also hard to come by. The besieging army thus had to devote as many resources to bringing water from the Jordan River as it did to the siege itself. This was a huge strain on an army that was less than half the size it had been when it first set out from Constantinople in 1097 (Only around 1500 knights remained in the force out of 5000 when it crossed into Anatolia, for example). For another thing, the Crusaders lacked siege engines and didn’t really have the means to build any (the Fatimids had also tried to clear the surrounding area of trees). But for once, logistics worked in favor of the Crusaders rather than against them.

After an attempt to storm the city walls on June 13 failed, six European vessels arrived at Jaffa with supplies and building materials. Even the ships themselves were pulled apart for their wood, which was combined with whatever materials the Crusaders had been able to forage. The Crusaders then set to work constructing some sorely needed siege towers and ladders, making particular haste after they learned that the Fatimids were assembling a large army in Egypt to relieve Jerusalem. Then, on July 6, a priest in the retinue declared that he had seen the ghost of Adhemar of Le Puy, the bishop who had gone with the Crusaders as papal legate before falling ill and dying in August 1098. Adhemar’s spirit reportedly told the Crusaders to dress in hermits robes and process barefoot around the city (a la the Israelites during the Battle of Jericho), which they did on July 8. Of presumably far greater importance, the siege engines were completed and ready to be deployed on July 13. It took the better part of two days, but on July 15 the forces of Godfrey of Bouillon managed to get one of their siege towers up to the wall and storm the city. They opened a gate and in swarmed the rest of the Crusader army.

It later became accepted fact that the Crusaders simply slaughtered everyone in the city once they were inside. That’s even what you’re told in modern fictional accounts like Ridley Scott’s 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven. But how many Jerusalem residents were actually massacred (as opposed to killed in battle) is still debated today among scholars. Even contemporary accounts that describe considerable loss of life say that some Muslims and Jews (who had fought with the Muslims against the Christians, something people today might not realize) were allowed to leave the city alive. Many of the worst accounts of slaughter come from much later histories or from contemporary writers who were not actually in Jerusalem at the time, so their accounts are suspect.

Still, residents of any besieged city in the 11th century tended not to fare too well if the city was captured. And there remain several modern scholars who believe a widespread massacre did take place and was a matter of deliberate policy rather than the exuberance of the Christian soldiers getting spontaneously out of hand. So it is fair to say that a lot of Muslim and Jewish residents of the city were put to death. Each senior Crusade leader, who basically controlled his own army but worked in concert with the others, may have had a different policy about the treatment of non-Christian civilians. However, reports that the Crusaders also slaughtered Orthodox Christians seem to be later inventions. In fact, as best we can tell all Christians were expelled from the city before the Crusaders arrived due to fears that they would act as a fifth column.

The Crusader leaders–who, as you may recall, didn’t particularly care for one another–then tried to figure out which one of them should rule Jerusalem. This was not something that the Pope or the Crusaders had planned for when they set out initially. At the outset of the campaign the leaders of the Crusade promised that any conquered territory would be restored to the Byzantines. They quickly scrapped that deal, justifying their decision to welch on the fact that the Byzantines broke their promises to fully support the Crusader army. Which, it must be said, was true.

Raymond of Toulouse had been, at least in a ceremonial sense, the overall commander of the campaign, as he was the oldest (and richest) of its leaders, so he was offered the throne. He responded by feigning piety, insisting that he would never dream of ruling Christ’s city, assuming all the while that the crown would then be pressed upon him. But, hilariously, the other Crusader leaders said, “eh, whatever,” and gave the crown to Godfrey of Bouillon, who titled himself “Protector of the Holy Sepulchre” rather than “King of Jerusalem” (which was supposed to be Jesus’s gig). Raymond was furious, but he kind of had himself to blame. As for Godfrey (who died the following year), while modern followers of the Crusades might see Richard the Lionheart as the ultimate Crusader, for people in Medieval Europe it was Godfrey who became the hero of the Crusades and the model of perfect knightly chivalry.

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Author: DWD

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