Let this then be your war-cry in combats, because this word is given to you by God. When an armed attack is made upon the enemy, let this one cry be raised by all the soldiers of God: It is the will of God! It is the will of God!
Historia Hierosolymitana, Robert the MonkTales of the First Crusade
In Part 1 of the First Crusade, we discussed how the Holy Army was formed, their path into the Holy Land and its leadership. After a couple of close calls against the Seljuk, the Crusaders finally managed to arrive at the doorstep of Syria, knocking on the walls of the mighty city of Antioch on their way to Jerusalem.
The moment of truth arrived. The Seljuk, defeated in Anatolia, now stood steady in Antioch. The Crusaders could have bypassed the city on their way to the Holy Land, but they decided against it and marched towards the Syrian stronghold, showing just how high was their morale and conviction in their Holy purpose.
A mighty obstacle in the way of the First Crusade: Antioch
The importance of Antioch
Lost by the Byzantines in 1085, Antioch had always been a cornerstone between East and West, a city buzzing with life and trade. Alexios I Komnenos, the Byzantine Emperor, valued this city greatly, making sure that the Crusaders never lacked money or supplies up to this moment since he had hoped that they would help him reclaim the city.
The decision to conquer Antioch could have been motivated by the ambitions of Alexios I, which would indicate that by 1097, the relations between Byzantines and Crusaders were still friendly and cooperative. Many authors refute the theory that the Latins were forced to take the city since they could have simply bypassed it or negotiated a truce with its authorities, something that would happen later on with other Muslim cities.
However, other ambitions hovered over Antioch. The Crusade and the Pope wanted to take the city for its religious value since it was there where Saint Peter created the first Christian Church, and it also was one of the seats of the Pentarchy, this is, home of a Patriarch, a leader of the Christian Church.
Some of the Crusader Lords also desired Antioch for themselves for the power and money that the conquest of the Syrian city would deliver
The Muslim defence
Syria was engulfed in a violent civil war after the collapse of Seljuk unitary authority. Yaghi-Siyan was the Seljuk governor of Antioch, a city that was still under the control of the Turkish Sultanate. With only 5.000 men, he had to rely on his defences and high walls to repel the Crusader army that was gathering at his doorsteps. He sent word for the Seljuk warlords of Syria, but for the moment he had to face the Latins on his own.
After taking the small cities and villages that surrounded Antioch, the Crusaders started the siege in autumn 1097. Since they couldn’t afford to establish a complete blockade of the city, the Crusaders decided to block the three main gates of Antioch, placed on the Northwest side of the city.
During the next months, the battle focused on morale and resources, with both sides committing atrocities to destroy each other’s fighting spirits. The Crusaders decapitated the bodies of dead Muslims and either catapulted them into the city or paraded in front of the walls with the severed heads mounted on pikes. The Muslims persecuted the Christian minorities of Antioch, torturing them on the walls in full view of the Latin camp, catapulting their bodies or heads into the Christian camp.
The other battle focused on resources, and the Crusaders were on the losing end. The partial blockade allowed for the Muslims to receive vital supplies and men through the gaps of the Crusader line, whilst the larger Christian army quickly consumed the resources from neighbouring villages, meaning they had to march further into enemy land to find more supplies.
The harsh winter of 1097-1098 saw hundreds of Crusaders perish, mostly because of diseases, and many left the camp to return to Europe, convinced that God had abandoned them. Even Peter the Hermit, the fanatical Crusader and fervent defender of their Holy purpose, tried to abandon the camp and defect.
Regardless, the spring of 1098 brought better news to the Christian soldiers. Baldwin of Boulogne, who had settled in Edessa, sent supplies to aid his Crusader comrades in their effort. English ships arrived on the shores of the city, unloading much-needed supplies, food and siege equipment.
The Crusader lords decided to widen the blockade, setting small strongholds surrounding Antioch and preventing Yaghi-Siyan from receiving supplies by closing the gaps in their line.
Antioch on the verge of defeat. Syria answers the call
Fear for a Muslim army arriving to aid Antioch settled firmly in the Crusader camp. The two contenders for power in Syria, the Seljuk warlords Duqaq of Damascus and Radwan of Aleppo, had answered Yaghi-Siyan’s pleas and attacked the Crusaders. However, their personal differences prevented them from uniting their armies and striking at the same time, which allowed the Latins to defeat them with relative ease.
Nevertheless, the threat of Muslim reinforcements was still very much alive, and in summer of 1098, the Crusaders had to face their biggest threat yet: 40.000 Muslim soldiers marched on Antioch, led by Kerbogha, “Atabeg” (governor) of Mosul.
The Crusaders panicked. They had lost many men and horses during the siege and morale was wavering, and there were many talks of retreat. Bohemond of Taranto had other ideas.
Using an inside man, a renegade from the Muslim garrison called Firouz, Bohemond ordered his soldiers to climb the walls that led to the tower which was under the control of Firouz, and using the cover of night, they slaughtered the Muslim soldiers that patrolled the area and opened the gates.
Antioch dawned with cries of “Deus Vult” (God Wills It). After eight months of suffering and pressed by the incoming Muslim army, the Crusaders entered the city destroying everything in their path. Bohemond made sure that the other leaders agreed to let the city be owned by him since the plan was his. On June 3rd 1098, the flag of Bohemond waved over Antioch, certifying that the city belonged to him.
This broke the oath that the Crusaders made to Alexios I since the city should have been conquered in his name, but the Latins soon had other things to worry about. The very next day, on June 4th, the army of “Atabeg” Kerbogha arrived at Antioch. The besiegers were now besieged.
Against all odds
The situation was grim for the Crusaders. The Muslims had consumed most of the food resources of the city, meaning that their supply issues were still a huge problem.
Their greatest hope, the arrival of the Byzantine army, quickly faded since Alexios I moved his army back to Constantinople, convinced that the Crusaders were about to be exterminated, a betrayal that the Latins would never forget. They were left alone to face the army of Kerbogha, an experienced and battle-hardened general.
The forces of Kerbogha immediately started to prepare the “Second Siege of Antioch”. The Muslims launched assaults on Antioch, during the 10th of June, that lasted four days. The Crusaders were barely able to repel these attacks, with many of them defecting to the enemy camp.
Most of the army, however, resisted with great tenacity until Kerbogha decided to starve them out. Desperation fell like rain on the battered defenders, who knew that they couldn’t last long in these conditions.
The Battle of Antioch. The First Crusade against Seljuk might
During the 14th of June, a group of Latins found the “Holy Lance”, the spear that was used to pierce the side of Christ. Even though many of the leaders doubted its authenticity, the soldiers saw it as a sign that God was with them again, pushing them to go fight the infidel horde that awaited them.
However, the situation remained critical despite the morale boost: Food was at a shortage, the disease was taking its toll within the city walls and the Muslims outnumbered the Crusaders 2 to 1.
After trying in vain to parley with Kerbogha, offering him the city in exchange for their lives and free passage to Europe, the Crusaders decided to die fighting.
All or nothing
Less than 20.000 men were able to fight, with the Crusader heavy cavalry, the elite unit of the army, greatly reduced due to the lack of horses. Motivated by the finding of the Holy Lance and by the need to survive, the First Crusade crossed the city gates on June 28th, with victory or annihilation as the only possible outcomes of the imminent battle.
Kerbogha allowed the Crusaders to exit the city in order. He needed a crushing victory to finally take control of Antioch. His army was scattered surrounding the city to maintain their effective blockade, so he waited for his army to regroup whilst the Crusaders advanced against his vanguard.
Kerbogha then made a massive mistake. He ordered his vanguard to advance without waiting for the rest of his army to arrive. The Crusaders, although desperate and weakened by both sieges, were veteran soldiers that would not let slip a golden opportunity like the one presented by the Seljuk general.
The Crusaders resisted the Muslim onslaught and kept advancing. Kerbogha decided to flank the Crusaders whilst dragging them inland, away from the city, to harass them with their archers. Bohemond had already anticipated this move and sent a division of his men to counter the enemy flank force whilst the rest of the army kept on advancing.
The Muslim vanguard, badly battered, started to retreat amid great chaos and disorder. The rest of Kerbogha’s army arrived at the battlefield, but the retreating vanguard had spread chaos in the Muslim lines. The Crusaders used this to great advantage, charging the enemy reinforcements and setting them on the run as well.
This battle proved that the Muslim force had very low cohesion and integrity since they scattered very soon without sustaining many losses yet. The Crusaders pursued the fleeing enemy for a bit, slaughtering most of Kerbogha’s army.
They then returned to Antioch, a city that they now owned completely. Their will, tenacity and faith had saved them from what seemed like certain defeat.
The Muslim defeat at Antioch allowed the First Crusade to consolidate their rule over Antioch, now firmly controlled by Bohemond, since the Byzantine betrayal during the Second Siege of Antioch had convinced many of the Crusader leaders that Alexios I was not worthy of their trust and loyalty.
Furthermore, the Latins started to consolidate their position in Syria as a whole, with many cities and villages surrendering to their new Christian overlords.
On May 16th, 1099, 10 months after the victory in Antioch, Raymond of Toulouse abandoned his failed offensive over Lebanon and decided to march on the real prize, the Holy City of Jerusalem.
The Siege of Jerusalem. The end of the road for the First Crusade
The great march
In August of 1098, the Fatimid Caliphate had taken Jerusalem from the Seljuks, since their forces had been severely weakened after their defeat in Antioch. This, together with the growing restlessness of the Crusaders, who wanted above all to take Jerusalem to fulfil their Holy Mission, made Raymond cede to his men and abandon his offensive over Lebanon, finally moving his army south, via the coastline.
Most of the Muslim villages and cities that the First Crusade encountered on their way to Jerusalem were peaceful and sometimes even friendly, mostly due to the Crusade’s unbeatable reputation. This way, the Muslim strongholds of Tyre and Acre, amongst many others, signed truces with the Latins, even allowing their merchants to trade with them.
By the time the Crusade reached Arsuf they left the coastline and moved inland, straight towards the Judaean Mountains. The Fatimid stronghold of Ramla was the last stone on the road, but to their surprise, the Crusaders found that it had been abandoned by the enemy. The road to Jerusalem laid open, and on June 7th, the First Crusade reached the Holy City.
An unconquerable fortress
The Crusaders quickly realized that taking the city wouldn’t be as easy as marching towards it. Placed in the middle of the Judaean Mountains, on a highland, and surrounded by deep valleys, Jerusalem was guarded by a double-layered wall 18 meters long and 3 meters wide. The 5 main doors of the city were protected by towers, and the city also had two great forts, one of them being the famous Tower of David.
The Latin army was divided into two parts. Raymond of Toulouse led a smaller portion of men facing the southwest side of the city, right in front of the Zion Gate. The majority of the army followed Godfrey of Bouillon, who placed his men close to the Damascus Gate, in the northern side of the city.
With news that the Fatimid army was mustering in Egypt to come to the aid of Jerusalem and with the knowledge that their forces were too few to effectively blockade the city, the only way forward was to take the city by force.
On the 13th of June, the Crusaders launched a frontal attack against the walls, but their lack of proper siege equipment immediately hindered their offensive. Godfrey was forced to rethink his strategy.
He ordered his men to find materials with which they had to build siege engines, whilst also looking for water, a precious resource that was quite scarce in the hot Palestinian summer, especially after the Muslim defenders had poisoned many of the nearby wells.
Luck was again on the Crusader side. 6 Genoese ships docked in Jaffa and their crew marched to join their Christian comrades in taking the Holy City. Though they brought few warriors, the Genoese had a lot of skilled artisans. The Crusaders also found a couple of woods relatively close by, having the timber transported by camels back to the camp so the Genoese artisans could start construction on their siege engines.
For three weeks the Crusaders worked frantically to build ladders, catapults and rams, knowing that time was of the essence. Iftikhar al-Dawla, the Fatimid governor of Jerusalem, didn’t waste time and started to fortify his defences for the coming onslaught.
A battle against time
By early July, the Crusaders received word that the Fatimids were mustering men ready to march on Jerusalem, making double their work on the siege engines, which were finally finished during the second week of July. Everything was ready, rituals and prayers were made, and the battle preparations were finished.
On the 14th of July, the Crusaders launched an assault on Jerusalem. Godfrey attacked the Northern segment of the walls. Using the catapults and archers as support, Godfrey advanced a huge ram to the walls. It successfully managed to tear the outer wall to shreds before being burned. Godfrey’s forces now had the main wall in their grasp.
On the Southeast side of the city, Raymond faced less success. Iftikhar al-Dawla thought that the main attack would come from Raymond’s camp since that segment of the wall was judged as weaker since it didn’t have an outer wall like the Northern side did, but it did have a dried moat.
This made the Fatimid governor concentrate most of his artillery on the Southeast side, hammering the Crusaders in their attempt of pushing a huge siege tower to the walls.
After many hours and many casualties, Raymond was forced to retreat. The next day, he tried again to push the tower against the walls, but Muslim artillery and flaming arrows managed to tear it down and destroy it. The attack on the Southeast side of Jerusalem had failed completely, but it divided the Muslim garrison and resources into two, allowing Godfrey to face reduced resistance.
Godfrey wasted no time and moved his siege tower against the main wall through the gap in the outer wall. Flaming arrows and firebombs threatened the integrity of the tower, but it resisted due to its flame-resistant leather protections. The tower was only a few meters away from the wall, and the Muslims decided to use their secret weapon: A huge piece of wood sodden with Nafta and set ablaze. The Muslims threw it at the feet of their wall, in front of the tower, creating a firewall to prevent the tower from advancing any further.
Nafta is very much like Greek Fire, this meaning that once its set on fire, it couldn’t be extinguished with water. However, vinegar could, and Godfrey knew it. He had his men carry wineskins filled with vinegar, and once the Muslims threw their flaming barrier, the Crusaders quickly extinguished it and moved it aside.
With no further obstacles, the siege tower finally reached the walls and the Crusaders launched their assault. One of their catapults had successfully burned a defensive enemy tower closeby, unleashing chaos and disorder amongst the Muslim defenders. Also, the siege tower was higher than the walls themselves, which allowed Godfrey’s men to launch a decisive rain of arrows on the defenders.
Using the chaos from the burning tower to his advantage, Godfrey ordered for ladders to be placed in the wall, allowing for more men to reach the walls, whilst the soldiers from the siege tower set the enemy on the run. The confused Muslim garrison panicked and was mowed down by the Crusaders, with thousands of them entering the city by this point.
News of the Northern breach soon reached the Muslim defenders of the Southside. Raymond was at the verge of defeat, but the enemy soldiers abandoned their posts and fled. The Southern Crusaders didn’t waste any time and climbed the walls. With cries of “Deus Vult”, Christian soldiers poured in the city like ants. Jerusalem had fallen, and the slaughter was about to begin.
The Conquest of the Holy City.
“Some of the pagans were beheaded mercilessly; others, skewered with arrows, fell from the towers, and others, after long tortures, were burnt alive in lancinating flames. In the houses and streets piles of heads, hands and feet were formed, and both men and knights walked back and forth stepping over piles of corpses”
The Crusaders showed little mercy to the surrendering Muslim garrison. According to the sources of that time period, they stormed the city and put men, women and children to the sword, Muslims and Jews alike. A horrible combination of looting and butchering took place. The Holy City burned and bled for two days.
Muslim historians suggested that 70.000 men died, whilst the Christians stated that only 10.000 lost their lives. Recent studies suggest however that 3.000 peoples died by the hands of the Crusaders. If anything, the number of casualties must be taken with a grain of salt, but not the barbaric acts that befell on Jerusalem.
The First Crusade stood victorious against all odds, beating the armies of both Seljuk and Fatimid and conquering two of the greatest strongholds in the Middle East. Their success sparked an unprecedented response, both in Christendom and in the Muslim world, laying the foundations for centuries of holy wars, with Jerusalem changing ownership several times during this time period.
9 Crusades would be called between 1095 and 1271 with varying success. Arguably, the First Crusade was the most successful one since it managed the conquest of not only Jerusalem but a good portion of the Middle East and the Levant, allowing the Christians to form several “Crusader States”.
Alongside the County of Edessa and the Principality of Antioch, both already mentioned, the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the County of Tripoli were formed, ruled by Christian law and Christian men. The last of them would be the Kingdom of Jerusalem, disappeared in 1299 after the fall of Acre.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We’ve just covered the First Crusade and its victory. The Muslim world witnessed the Christian triumph with horror, but they soon readied for war. Their response would be swift and powerful.