The First Crusade

In AD 1071, the Battle of Manzikert shattered the fragile and tense peace that had settled over the Middle East. The arrival of the Sunni Seljuq Turks had reenergized Islam and led it on the greatest military offensive in centuries. The Roman (Byzantine) Empire was defeated so disastrously at Manzikert that while not the slaughter it is often made out to be the empire never recovered. Civil war broke out, and Asia Minor fell before the onslaught of a Seljuq migration. The Islamic world similarly suffered when the Seljuqs turned on the Shi’a Fatimid dynasty based in Egypt and the Levant was thrown into bloody turmoil. Most horrifying of all from the perspective of the Christian kingdoms was the total disregard the Seljuqs showed regarding the status of the Holy Land. Existing agreements, negotiated by the Roman Emperors, had secured the rights of Christian pilgrims to visit the holiest sites of the faith, especially Jerusalem. However, Muslim antagonism had been rising against the pilgrims for decades, even before the arrival of the Seljuqs. Their appearance on the scene added an unforeseen wild card that finally shattered the image of peace in the Middle East.

In 1081, the civil wars in the Roman Empire ended with the ascension of Alexios Komnenos. A strong soldier-politician Alexios I proved to be exactly the leader to fit the times. Soon he recognized that he could not hope to take the offensive against the Seljuqs with the empire in its current state. In early 1095, following the general pacification of the modern Balkans, he sent a request for aid to Pope Urban II at the Council of Piacenza. Urban responded with enthusiasm and at the Council of Clermont that November, he preached Crusade, a holy war waged for the defense of the Christian faith. Latin Christendom responded with the cry ‘Deus lo Vult!’ God wills it!


The Council of Clermont. By meh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Following the first, unplanned, People’s Crusade of Peter the Hermit and Walter of sans Avoir, the Crusade moved forward in August 1096. Motivated more by genuine piety than anything else the great lords of Europe moved to the aid of the Roman Empire, Urban’s official reason for his sermon at Clermont. The leaders of the First Crusade were Raymond IV of Toulouse, Bohemond of Taranto, and Godfrey of Boullion. Many other lords took part as well, many of them kinsmen of the leaders.

After reaching Constantinople, the Crusaders began to run into problems. Because of bad experiences with the People’s Crusade, the Emperor Alexios was leery of a large army, estimated 35,000, entering Constantinople. There was also the affair of Bohemond, who with his father, Robert Guiscard had fought Alexios over a decade earlier. Eventually, the diplomacy of Godfrey and Raymond prevailed in creating an arrangement suitable to both sides. Alexios promised full military and logistical support to the Crusade for Christian unity. In return, the Crusaders pledged to swear an oath of fealty to the Roman Emperor and restore any lands they captured to Constantinople’s control. The Crusaders agreed, and they gradually moved on to Asia Minor throughout the early part of 1097, finally finishing around late April.

The armies of the First Crusade, in fact, medieval armies, in general, were hardly the unorganized mob of popular imagination and were competently led. In the Crusades, the armies of Latin Christendom were also motivated. Pope Urban II had promised the full remission of sins for any man, regardless of his status in life that died on Crusade. Also, he had, a made a stirring call for Christian unity and the common defense of the faith regardless of denominational differences with the east. As expected, many that could take part did. Members of the knightly class, in particular, took to the idea so enthusiastically that many sold all of their possessions to take part. Entire families left to go on Crusade, both knightly and lower classes.

In siege weaponry, the Crusaders had many choices at their disposal. For our purposes, we will cover one such weapon. Because of the short duration of the siege, the Crusaders were unable to bring to bear many of their heavier weapons, including the siege tower. However, one weapon that did see use, more a defensive measure, was the use of armored mobile roofs. These roofs were large wooden shields armored with hides and interwoven willow rods, called osiers and often mounted onto wheeled frames. Their uses were many, and the armored roof saw use in nearly every major action during the siege.

On the Muslim side of affairs, they were in much worse shape. The Seljuq Turks that had won such a great victory at Manzikert and turned the existing order upside down had shattered. Malik Shah, the son of the victor of Manzikert, had died in 1092 and with his death the stability of the Seljuq state, the dominant power in the Middle East, collapsed. The Seljuq Empire had already been giving signs of internal unrest even while Malik Shah lived, but he managed to hold it together. Now it fell apart into many successor states. The successor state met by the Crusader-Roman alliance at Nicaea were the Rum Seljuqs. Under the leadership of the young Kilij Arslan, the Rum Seljuqs had set up a powerful state in western Anatolia that represented a direct threat to the Romans. It was with good reason that Alexios sought to cripple them

After the arrival of the last of the major Crusader contingents, the question of a target became apparent. Nicaea was a city of major importance both spiritually and strategically. It was at Nicaea the fundamental principles of the Christian faith were laid out in formula (the Nicene Creed). Nicaea was also a great fortress that had been the principal bulwark against attacks on Constantinople from the east. In the present case, the city laid direct in the Crusader line of advance, to leave it in Seljuq hands would be foolhardy.

On May 6th, the armies of Godfrey and Bohemond (under the command of his nephew Tancred) arrived at Nicaea and encircled the city on its northern and eastern sides. The southern side was left unattended to allow Raymond’s troops to take position there. The western wall sat in the water of the Ascanian Lake, making Nicaea impossible to surround conventionally. Nevertheless, the Crusader blockade would prove effective.

Nicaea would prove to be a challenge to the Crusaders. Circuit walls stretching four miles protected the city, and a double ditch in turn surrounded the walls. Along the circuit, some 240 towers ensured that no stretch of wall was left uncovered by arrow fire. However, there were problems. The Seljuqs had not been expecting an attack of this size. Kilij Arslan personally was dismissive of the Crusaders after his experience with the People’s Crusade. As a result when word initially reached him of their arrival in Asia Minor, he turned his attention east to internecine feuding with a neighboring amir. Once reports came in of the real Crusade, he hurried westwards, as the Seljuq garrison was not prepared to handle a siege.

On May 16th, Raymond and his troops arrived at Nicaea. With the arrival of the southern French contingent, the landward encirclement of the city was complete, leaving it cut off by land. Shortly after that the first elements of Kilij Arslan’s field army arrived but was driven off by Raymond’s men. By this time, the Crusaders received much-needed food supplies through camp markets opened by the Romans near Nicaea, according to one account through the efforts of Bohemond, who arrived now in person. Alexios also sent his general Manouel Boutoumites to serve as his principal liaison on the field and to provide technical support to the Crusaders.

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The siege of Nicaea, 1097. By unidentified 13th century ms.Killroyus at pl.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.

On May 21st, the main Seljuq army arrived at Nicaea. The Christian generals met in council and decided to focus on keeping the siege lines intact. Raymond and Robert II of Flanders, who served under Godfrey, were tasked with repulsing the Rum Sultan. In the following battle the Seljuqs, unaccustomed to warfare as practiced in the Latin West, found they were unable to make any headway against the Crusader lines. That night Kilij Arslan decided to abandon Nicaea to whatever fate should occur.

Following the retreat of Kilij Arslan the Crusaders turned their attention to Nicaea again. The Crusaders had already tried breach the walls with tunneling before the arrival of the Sultan but were forced to call it off without making any significant progress. In the final days of May, a concerted effort was made to storm the northern wall but this failed. The most celebrated episode of the Siege of Nicaea occurred when Raymond attempted to breach the “Gonatas Tower” along the southern side with his personal troops. Under the cover of a massive armored roof, his men succeeded in breaching the wall. However, the assault had been poorly timed and night fell before the Crusaders could take advantage of the gap. The Crusader leadership then sent word to the Emperor Alexios asking him for military aid. The Romans responded by putting out a fleet on the Ascanian Lake commanded by Boutoumites. As well as sending a force of archers and infantry commanded by Tatikios, a well-known general.

Now the last phase of the siege took place. The exact circumstances and sequence of events that surround the fall of Nicaea is not apparent and is under dispute. Nevertheless, it seems the appearance of a Roman fleet on the Ascanian Lake was the turning point of the siege. Several chroniclers mention a general assault on Nicaea as causing the city’s surrender, making mention of a Lombard siege engineer who designed a sloping armored roof that allowed the Crusaders to reach the walls. However, they also say the city surrendered to Alexios, not the Crusade leaders. What may have happened was the Crusaders began to launch increasing determined assaults on the city after Boutoumites completed the blockade by sea. The Romans were already determined to make sure Nicaea became theirs again and started negotiations. A combination of these two events may have resulted in the city surrendering on June 19th, 1098 to Manouel Boutoumites. While the Crusaders were angry at being cheated out of sacking Nicaea, the charge of treachery on the part of Alexios would not be made until after the end of the Crusade.

Following the fall of Nicaea, the armies of the Crusade surged onwards. At the battle of Dorylaeum that July the Crusaders managed to inflict a significant defeat on a coalition of Seljuq lords led by Kilij Arslan. Because of the Christian victory, the Anatolian branch of the Seljuqs would no longer pose a threat to the Crusader advance. The following three months advance through Asia Minor in the heat of summer and dwindling supplies proved a far more serious enemy than the Seljuqs had ever been. Relations became tense with Tatikios and his Roman soldiers as the Crusaders became suspicious of their guides, and friction between the sides grew.

They found limited relief in the southeast and east. This region of Anatolia was still mainly Christian; of those Christians, the Armenians were most numerous. Not even a decade previous, the area had been ruled by an independent Armenian warlord state. A series of Crusader misadventures in these lands would result in two important events. First, Baldwin of Boulogne (the brother of Godfrey) would set up the first Crusader state in the east at Edessa, which would become the template for all further Crusader states. Second, the Crusaders’ sweep through Cilicia cleared that region of the Seljuqs, paving the way for the creation of the Kingdom of Cilician Armenia, a state heavily influenced by the Latin presence in the Levant. Finally, in mid-October 1097 the Crusader vanguard breached into the territory of Antioch, held by a Seljuq amir named Yaghi Siyan.

When they reached Antioch, the armies of the First Crusade were still motivated, but physical concerns had taken their toll. As mentioned above the alliance with Constantinople was breaking down and during the siege it would break entirely. Supplies were no longer as forthcoming as the Crusaders had moved beyond the range of Alexios’ ability to provide for them safely. Roman naval activity would soon adjust that problem. Foraging in Anatolia during the summer months had been largely unfruitful because of the retreating Seljuqs taking their supplies with them. The Crusade had come to depend on the goodwill of the local Armenian and Greek Christians. One hope the Crusaders had, supply wise, was that of a possible Crusader fleet.

During the siege of Antioch, the Crusaders had no siege weapons. Unlike at Nicaea, the Crusaders lacked the resources to build siege weapons for most of the siege. However, during the last phase of action at Antioch ladders were used. Instead of weapons, on several occasions the Crusaders built towers at critical locations. As we will see below, these proved to be of great use to the Christians.

On the Muslim side disunity once again wracked their cause. In Syria (a much larger geographic region than the modern nation-state), this was especially bad. Malik Shah’s quarrelsome brother Tutush had once ruled here but on his (Tutush’s) death it split between his sons Duqaq in Damascus and Ridwan in Aleppo. Other lords also dotted the land such as Janah ad-Daula, amir of Homs, Karbuqa, atabeg of Mosul, and the sons of Ortoq Beg, an ally of Tutush. Yaghi Siyan, the amir of Antioch, had been direct answerable to Malik Shah and after the Seljuq sultan’s death; he played a dangerous game of shifting alliances between Duqaq, Ridwan, and Karbuqa. As a result, when it became apparent the Crusade was marching to Antioch Yaghi Siyan was left scrambling for allies and found them scarce.

The main body of the Crusaders arrived on October 20th. To cross the Orontes River that divided the city proper from the rest of its territory, the Crusaders would have to cross a fortified bridge, known as the Iron Bridge. After a hard day of fighting, the bridge was crossed, and Bohemond moved on ahead to set up camp at the walls the following day.

Antioch awed the Crusaders. It was a massive city, with the civilian sections alone stretching three miles long and going as deep as a mile in depth. The walls, like at Nicaea, were circuit walls but on a greater scale. Some 450 towers were interspaced evenly to leave nothing uncovered by arrow fire. However, Yaghi Siyan’s garrison was too small to use the entire length of the defense leaving him to have to put strategic choices to where he put his men.

For the next several days, the Crusaders would set up camp. The Christian leadership soon discovered they could not blockade Antioch in its entirety due to not only its sheer size but also because of geographic constraints. The entire southern part of the city rested on a mountain; it would difficult to traverse such terrain. Nevertheless, a blockade was set up on the northeastern and western sides opposite the gates. Bohemond set up camp in the west, opposite the Gate of St. Paul. Raymond and Godfrey took position on the northeastern side opposite the Gates of the Dog and the Duke respectively. The remaining gates were left unintended, with the rest of the Christian army either waiting behind Bohemond or spread across the countryside. Godfrey took the initiative and built a bridge of boats across the Orontes behind his camp to give the Crusaders access to the village of Talenki. A camp built there would allow the Crusaders access the roads to the ports of St. Symeon and Alexandretta (which Tancred had captured).

Almost immediately, arguments broke out among the Crusaders. Raymond counseled a direct assault on the walls as soon as the camps were set up. He proclaimed that faith would grant them victory at Antioch. However, the other leaders, led by Bohemond, were not so sure. They wanted to wait. Bohemond had his reasons for urging patience. The success of Baldwin at Edessa had inspired him to set up a kingdom of his own, and Antioch was a prime choice. The arguments of Raymond were ignored; the Crusaders would wait. To keep up with news inside the city, Bohemond organized a network of informants made up of Christian men expelled from Antioch. Yaghi Siyan, who used those same Christians to spy on the Crusader camp, exploited this. By the following month, the Seljuqs became bold enough to raid the besiegers, usually as a form of cover for supply caravans coming into Antioch. In November, Bohemond successfully took the castle of Harenc, which supported Antioch and turned it into a Crusader outpost. About the same time, the much hoped for Crusader fleet arrived at St. Symeon, allowing them to secure the port. However, even though the fleet carried much-needed reinforcements and new weapons, it did not bring food. The Crusade leaders had failed to restrain their men early in the siege, and now food supplies were rapidly running out. Foraging expeditions were forced to go out further and further afield from the safety of the camps, making them choice targets for Seljuq raiders. A decision was reached to build a fortified tower on the hills near Bohemond’s camp, dubbed Malregard. The responsibility of maintaining and operating the tower was shared equally.

By Christmas Day, 1097, the supply situation had become critical. Food had nearly run out by this time and Godfrey fell ill. On December 28th, Bohemond and Robert of Flanders led a party of knights out of the camps to forage around the vicinity of the Muslim fortress-city of Hama. Raymond assumed over-all command in their absence and had already moved his camp up around Godfrey’s area, as his former camp had been rendered unusable by rain. This news cheered Yaghi Siyan. The amir of Antioch was already aware that Duqaq had finally answered his pleas for aid and his route of advance would intersect with the Crusader foragers. This left Raymond, who Yaghi Siyan was confident he could dislodge. The following day the garrison charged out, but Raymond repulsed them handily once the shock wore off and made his assault in turn. Only the fall of night prevented Raymond from taking the city. Meanwhile Bohemond and Robert had encountered Duqaq’s relief force and routed it at al-Bara on December 31st.

1098 opened badly on the Crusade. Even with recent battlefield success, spirits in the Crusader camp was still low. Starvation set in within days and at the lowest ebb of the siege about mid-January some of the besiegers even tried to desert, only to be brought back. Aid from the local Christians, especially the Armenians, brought some relief, but this aid was not enough to fix the Crusaders’ supply problems. Within Antioch, Yaghi Siyan managed to convince Ridwan to come to his aid after the failure of Duqaq, as well as the Ortoqid brothers. In early February, the Roman general Tatikios suddenly left the siege camps and the Crusade. The exact reason for Tatikios’ withdrawal is unclear, and later propaganda further obscures the issue. Bohemond exploited the moment for all it was worth, building up support for his planned seizure of the city. Not long afterward, Harenc fell to the arriving forces of Ridwan and his allies. The Christian leadership reacted swiftly, and on February 8th the battle was joined. The Latin knights defeated Ridwan, and the infantry repulsed Yaghi Siyan’s breakout. It would prove to be the beginning of the end. On March 4th, a second Crusader fleet arrived at St. Symeon with much-needed building material and engineers. On the 6th, a series of skirmishes resulted in the defeat of the Seljuq raiding parties, allowing the Crusaders to bring in the material and engineers. A fortified tower was then built to give the Crusaders control over the roads to St. Symeon and Alexandretta as well as the Gate of the Bridge in late March. Only the Gate of St. George remained in Seljuq hands. This was corrected the following month with the construction of the Tancred’s Tower, overseeing the gate. The tide had turned decisively. While the Iron Gate on the southern side remained open, the mountainous terrain made it impossible to get through supplies. All caravans meant to provide the garrison with food now supplied the besiegers and with the beginning of spring, the food problem was over.

However, problems arose on the horizon. By May, it was clear a third attempt to break the siege was mobilizing, led by Karbuqa. Of personal threat to Bohemond was the news of a new Roman offensive led by the emperor, which threatened his plans to claim Antioch. Clearly, Bohemond would have to hurry the fall of the city. As it was, he found a way to make it happen with the aid of an Armenian Muslim named Firuz. With his help, a plan was made allowing Bohemond to scale the walls and take the city. Karbuqa’s delay in Edessa through the majority of May allowed the project to be hammered out and refined. On June 2nd, Bohemond revealed his plan to the other Crusade leaders. They all agreed to take part. That evening the Crusaders moved into position, masking their movements as quitting the siege to confront Karbuqa and waited for the Gates of St. George and the Bridge to open. As promised Firuz allowed Bohemond’s men to scale his tower and the gates flew open. The garrison and Muslim population were surprised. Yaghi Siyan was killed in the confusion, and the Christians took the entire city save the fortified citadel on the southern side. However now the Crusade held Antioch it would have to defend it.

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Antioch falls to Godfrey and Robert II of Flanders. By Jacob van Maerlant [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By June 3rd, the Crusade had invested Antioch, but this was not the end of events there. The remnants of the garrison, now under the command of Shams ad-Daula (the son of Yaghi Siyan), were a problem from their position in the citadel. While too weak to contest the city with the Crusaders, Shams, and his men still posed a threat that had to be watched, taking away men who could be used for other purposes. The Crusade leaders soon realized that they could not cut off all contact between the citadel and the outside world. The Crusaders had problems of their own. The food was running low again, and the much hoped for supplies within the city had already been eaten during the sack. Bohemond and Raymond had begun to quarrel again over the ownership of Antioch. However, the threat of counter-siege by the Muslims forced all petty concerns off the table for the moment. The Crusade leadership agreed to concentrate on clearing the city of the dead and the manning of the walls by their separate contingents. On June 5th the army of Karbuqa, with the might of much of Muslim Syria (Seljuq and Arab) behind him, arrived at the Iron Bridge.

The Crusaders, despite their problems, were still in high, but declining, spirits. The capture of Antioch had been an impressive feat, and many took heart from simply being in the city in which their spiritual ancestors were first called ‘Christian.’ It had been for the defense of the faith that Raymond of Toulouse and Bohemond put aside their differences. However, the supply problem still loomed high in the minds of many, as did fear of the Muslim army attempting to dislodge them. Hope, while small, was found for many in the specter of possible military support from the Emperor Alexios, campaigning in Anatolia.

In terms of siege weaponry, the Muslims brought none. While it is probable that they brought the materials needed for construction, he opted for a strategy of blockade similar to what the Crusaders had used. Also like the Crusaders, Karbuqa made use of ladders to scale the walls.

While large, the Muslim army was not unified, and division continued to afflict their cause. Karbuqa’s leadership of the army was owed largely to his personal prestige and the support of such men as the Ortoqid brothers, but few accepted his leadership. Karbuqa acted like a sultan and attempted and behaved high-handedly with the other leaders. This they resented, as many of them were amirs while Karbuqa was but an atabeg. Previously existing friction between the leaders further hurt the Seljuq-Arab forces and only added to the commander’s problems.

Within two days of their arrival, the Muslim army encamped around Antioch. Using the same camps the Crusaders used, the relieving army arrayed themselves to assault the city. Karbuqa was confident that he possessed the numbers to carry the death easily. His plan was to attempt to breach into Antioch through the citadel. For this purpose, he removed Shams ad-Daula from command and placed his sub-commander, Ahmad ibn Marwan in charge. Raymond and Bohemond caught on to this plan and built a wall to cut off the citadel from the rest of Antioch. On June 9th, ibn Marwan launched an attack on the wall, only to be repulsed with much bloodshed. The failure of June 9th convinced Karbuqa a direct assault would not work and decided to encircle the city and starve the Crusaders out. This was completed the next day, June 10th, despite fierce resistance from inside Antioch.

Morale plummeted among the Christians. Supplies had run out and talk of desertion spread throughout the city. That night a body of Crusaders abandoned Antioch and broke through the Muslim siege lines, making way for St. Symeon. Once there they convinced the fleet at anchor that all was lost, and fled further on to Tarsus. From Tarsus the deserters made their westwards, eventually meeting the Roman Emperor at Philomelium, in ancient Pisidia. There they convinced him the Crusade had failed, and as a result, the Roman offensive to the east turned back. Alexios’ decision was to earn him the hostility of the Crusaders, and they never forgave him or his empire for what they perceived as treachery.

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Karbuqa besieges Antioch, 1098. By Maître de Fauvel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile back at Antioch Karbuqa was meeting limited success. An assault on June 12th momentarily gave the Seljuqs control of one of Antioch’s towers, only to be cast out before they could take hold. Following this Bohemond proposed to his fellow princes that they burn down the streets near the walls, to allow themselves more room for maneuver. The others agreed, taking care to evacuate the inhabitants beforehand. About this time, rumors began to spread that the Holy Lance, the spear that was used to pierce Christ’s side at the Crucifixion had been revealed to be in Antioch by visions. Initially, Bishop Adhemar of Le Puy, the spiritual leader of the Crusade, was not inclined to believe in the first vision brought to his attention on the 10th. His reluctance was because Peter Bartholomew, the man who had the vision, was ill regarded. However, now more visions had occurred, and the rumors spread. The Bishop accepted these later visions as genuine. Adhemar called together the leaders of the Crusade on the 13th and proposed they swear an oath not to abandon the siege. All did so, and morale began to soar. On the 15th, a delegation led by Raymond of Toulouse began to dig at the Cathedral of St. Peter, where the visions had pointed to the Lance being buried. Initially nothing was found, but then Peter Bartholomew went into the trench and lifted up an iron spearhead. This was taken to the Lance, and it was mounted on a spear shaft and paraded through the streets of Antioch. The effect was electrifying, and the whole city erupted in religious euphoria. Latin and Greek Rite alike sang out hymns of thanks to God.

This marked the turn of the tide in the siege. While the Christians were strengthened, the Muslims were weakened. Karbuqa was finding it increasing harder to hold his coalition together, and desertions became widespread. In desperation, he appealed to Ridwan of Aleppo, who had thus far remained neutral, and angered Duqaq in the process. This ignited several similar arguments among the other lords, and it looked as though the Seljuqs and Arabs would defeat themselves with no intervention from their enemies. On June 27th, a Crusader delegation arrived to negotiate. The Crusade leaders were no strangers to negotiation and had, during their siege of Antioch, negotiated with the Fatimid regime in Egypt as well as intrigued into the Ridwan-Duqaq feud. Karbuqa rejected the embassy out of hand made it clear he would accept nothing less than unconditional surrender. The negotiators returned far from empty-handed, however, as they had taken advantage of the truce to scout out the enemy camp. Following this Bohemond proposed a general charge of the six leading armies of the Crusade. The other leaders agreed, but Raymond due to his illness would be left behind to watch the citadel. On June 28th, the Crusaders crossed the Iron Bridge to challenge Karbuqa. The field battle following was a total victory for the Christians as neither the Seljuqs nor Arabs proved able to withstand a Latin cavalry charge. Karbuqa’s army fractured into its constituent pieces and scattered. Back in Antioch, the remaining defenders in the citadel surrendered, only to take it back once they realized Raymond was in charge. Ahmad ibn Marwan surrendered for real once the Norman leader returned to the city, converting to Christianity with many of his men shortly after that. Antioch had withstood the Islamic counterstroke, the question of what do now presented itself.

Following the defense of Antioch and the shattering of the Syrian Seljuqs the Crusade seemed to fail. Infighting among the principal leaders of the Crusade over secular concerns in a war of faith was a great blow to morale and put the offensive into limbo. Raymond and Bohemond jockeyed over control of Antioch and attempted to outmaneuver the other. Matters finally reached the boiling point when the footmen and knights of the Crusade refused to take part in the bickering in December; 1098.They demanded the Crusade make for the city of Jerusalem, to liberate the holy city from Islam. First Raymond and then Robert of Flanders and Godfrey of Boullion agreed to the army’s demands and on January 13th, 1099 Raymond left Syria for the Levant, a month later Robert and Godfrey followed. Bohemond and Baldwin of Boulogne stayed in Syria.

Meanwhile in the Levant the political situation had changed dramatically. The Christian success against the Seljuqs had weakened them, and the Fatimids took advantage. In the autumn of 1098, they conquered the entire Levant up to modern Beirut, Lebanon. The Crusaders’ course soon brought them in territory still under Arab control in February-March, resulting in a series of diplomatic negotiations that led to either ensuring the neutrality or outright alliance with the local powers. A series of adventures occurred leaving the Crusaders in control of the port of Tortosa and besieging Arqa.

Eventually, the attack came to nothing and on May 19th after rejecting the last peace missives from the Fatimids the Crusade crossed into the Holy Land. As had happened in southern Syria and Tripoli the cities of the Holy Land were eager to negotiate and avoid a battle with the Crusaders. In the morning of June 7th, the Crusade leaders gathered on the hill of Mountjoie for their first look at Jerusalem. By that evening, they had encamped.

Much had improved for the Crusaders since the days at Antioch. The supply problem had been solved during the march south as the Crusaders stocked up on supplies from the Levantine cities. Contact was also kept as long as possible with Crusader fleets patrolling the region. Large herds of pack animals and livestock also came into the possession of the Crusaders, through various means. The arrival at Jerusalem at lifted the spirits of many in the Christian camp and made the sacrifices and suffering they had endured over the past two years feel worth it. While Jerusalem had not been on Pope Urban’s mind when he called the Crusade, for many, poor and noble alike, there had never been any question of what their purpose was.

In terms of siege weapons, the siege of Jerusalem would see many machines. Most common of all was the use of the mangonel. Much controversy surrounds the mangonel, as no two sources agree on what it was. For our purposes, we will suppose the mangonel was a rotating beam throwing weapon with a fixed counterweight hutch. The other major machine used at Jerusalem was the siege towers of Godfrey and Raymond. The siege tower was a favored weapon in siege assaults in Europe, and the Levantine kingdoms would use them extensively after the First Crusade.

On the Muslim side, the Fatimids would prove to be different foes then the Seljuqs had been. The Fatimid Caliphate of Egypt had once contested control of the Middle East with the Roman Empire and commanded a formidable navy and army. However, the caliphate had declined since then but under a succession of competent grand viziers had begun a revival. Unlike the Seljuqs, the Fatimids were not wracked by internal dissension. Also, the Fatimid military had a degree of professionalism in the manner of the Romans.

The Crusaders moved quickly to surround Jerusalem. However, this would not be easy. The holy city was one of the greatest fortresses in the world in that time, and its walls were formidable, dating from the age of Hadrian and improved since by every power to occupy it. Natural features also protected Jerusalem, on the eastern side the valley of Kedron protected the walls. On the southeast side was the Vale of Gehenna. A third valley protected the western wall, but it was not as formidable as Kedron and Gehenna. Only the southwestern (cutting across Mt. Zion) and northern stretches of the wall was open enough for a full-scale assault.

Nevertheless, the Crusaders took up position opposite the gates of the city they considered most vulnerable or strategic. Robert of Normandy took position opposite Herod’s Gate, Robert of Flanders opposite of the Damascus Gate. Godfrey of Boullion did not take position around any of the gates but encamped around the whole of the northwestern part of the defenses. Near the Jaffa Gate, which the Tower of David protected, was the camp of Tancred and to his south was Raymond and his men. On June 9th, Raymond moved his camps to Mt. Zion itself, as he judged his original position too far away from Jerusalem. Meanwhile Iftikhar ad-Daula, the Fatimid governor of the whole region, had not been slack. He had expelled the Christian population of Jerusalem and poisoned the water supply outside the city in anticipation of the arrival of the Crusade. Also, Iftikhar had driven into Jerusalem any herds of livestock to be found nearby. Finally, he had word sent to Egypt for reinforcements.

On June 12th, the first major assault was launched on the advice of a hermit living on the Mount of Olives. The attack was repulsed, and the Crusaders feared it was because of a lack of adequate machinery to back up their attacks. On June 15th, the Crusade leaders agreed to hold off any further assaults until they had a better supply of mangonels and ladders. However, they found they lacked the building materials and expertise necessary. The arrival of a fresh fleet at Jaffa provided much of the needed equipment as well as food and engineers. These were all escorted back the camps under guard, resulting in skirmishes with Fatimid garrisons all along the road. However, the Christians were still short on wood. This was solved by the actions of Tancred (in the best imitation of his uncle) and Robert of Flanders who brought down plentiful wood from Samaria. Ladders, batteries of mangonels, and even two siege towers were all put under construction.

The rest of the month would go badly for the besiegers. By this time thirst had set in, and foraging parties were forced to go further and further outward in search of fresh water. The Pool of Siloam was close by, but it was in range of Jerusalem’s southern wall. The local Christians were more than willing to show the Crusaders to fresh water, but the Muslims knew of these spots and ambushes were common even out as far as the Jordan. Within Jerusalem, Iftikhar had taken measures against bombardment by the mangonel batteries by using bales of cotton and hay to strengthen the towers. The herds of livestock and pack animals began to die off as a combination of thirst, and the heat of a Judean summer took their toll on the besiegers. To make matters worse Raymond, Tancred, and the other leaders began to bicker over the division of territory. Morale plummeted and eventually some troops started to desert. As June ended, and July began, news arrived that al-Afdal Shahanshah, the vizier of the Fatimids, was marching to relieve the city. Something had to be done.

As at Antioch, a timely vision served the Crusaders’ cause well. A priest named Peter Desiderius claimed to have received a version of Adhemar of Le Puy (who had since died) scolding the Crusaders for being bogged down in secular concerns. He called for a fast and for them to circle Jerusalem barefoot, saying that if they did this with a repentant heart God would give Jerusalem over to them in nine days. The vision was initially dismissed until the brother of Adhemar announced his acceptance of it. The Crusaders went on fast and circled Jerusalem on July 8th. When the garrison heard of this, they lined the walls to mock the barefoot besiegers, but the Crusaders simply took this in stride. A sermon on the Mount of Olives was then held, and the leaders agreed to put their quarrels aside. On July 10th, Iftikhar ad-Daula and his men beheld to their shock two siege towers being rolled toward the walls, a third joining them later. Raymond and Godfrey had done a good job in masking the construction of these engines. Almost immediately, the garrison tried to bring them down, but the Crusaders had fortified the towers well with wood and ox-hide (and occasionally camel-hide). The attack was planned for the night of July 13-14th.

The final assault of the First Crusade had begun. Godfrey’s tower would assault the northern wall with the third tower pulling off a diversionary attack on the northwest corner. Raymond’s tower was tasked with attacking the walls opposite Mt. Zion, but this would prove difficult because of a ditch between Zion and the walls. The defense of Jerusalem was fierce especially in Raymond’s sector where the governor led the Fatimid troops personally. In the morning of July 15th, Godfrey’s tower successfully bridged the wall near Herod’s Gate. As the Crusaders poured in the Damascus Gate was opened to allow the troops of the two Roberts (Flanders and Normandy) to enter. Ladders scaled the walls all along the breached sector. Tancred soon became the effective leader on the ground, and the Muslims fell back. By early afternoon, Iftikhar had become aware resistance was useless and surrendered his last post, the Tower of David, to Raymond. Jerusalem had fallen, and the First Crusade ended in triumph. The massacres that followed remain controversial to this day, as much remains unclear.


Godfrey’s tower assaulting Herod’s Gate, July 15th, 1099. By Anonymous ([1][2]) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.