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

The First Crusade also happens to be the most successful one.

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One thing that sets the First Crusade apart from the rest of the Crusades, apart from it being first, is that it actually succeeded. Without qualification, without changing the conditions in the middle of the campaign, the army of the First Crusade accomplished what it set out to accomplish—it captured Jerusalem. Well, OK, what it officially set out to accomplish was to relieve the Byzantine Empire from the Seljuk Turks, who were advancing closer to Constantinople all the time, and it didn’t really do very much in that regard. But taking Jerusalem was always the campaign’s not-so-secret real goal, and, hey, Mission Accomplished. To be honest, you could even say the conquest of the city was a little anti-climactic. Fighting through the Seljuks to the north was a lot more challenging than taking Jerusalem from the rapidly-declining Fatimid Caliphate.

Having moved on from their capture of Antioch in June 1098 and having survived their bout of starvation and cannibalism at Maʿarrat al-Nuʿman later that year, the Crusaders besieged Jerusalem on June 7, 1099. Initially, however, they were at an extreme disadvantage. For one thing, Jerusalem’s residents were well-supplied, while the Crusaders were not. Food was hard to come by, but of even greater concern was the scarcity of water. Jerusalem isn’t exactly situated in a rainforest, and compounding the challenges posed by its natural geography, the Fatimids had tried to poison whatever wells they could find in the area before the Crusaders got there. The besiegers thus had to devote nearly as much effort to bringing water from the Jordan River to sustain themselves as they 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. On top of their resource problems, the Crusaders lacked siege engines and didn’t really have the means to build any.

The Crusaders caught a break on that latter front a week or so into their siege. After an attempt to storm Jerusalem’s walls on June 13 failed, six European vessels arrived at Jaffa with supplies and building materials. The Crusaders quickly set to work constructing those missing siege engines, making particular haste after they learned that the Fatimids were assembling a large relief army in Egypt. Then, on July 6, a priest in the Crusader 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 around the city, which they did on July 8. Of presumably greater importance, the Crusaders deployed their newly build siege engines 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 fought their way to a gate, opened it, and the rest is history.

It later became accepted that the Crusaders slaughtered everyone in the city once they were inside. It’s a sentiment still found in modern fictional accounts like Ridley Scott’s 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven. But how many Jerusalem residents were massacred by the strict meaning of that term (as opposed to killed during the siege) is still debated today among scholars. Many of the worst accounts of slaughter come from contemporary writers who were not actually in Jerusalem at the time. For example, Crusader writer Fulcher of Chartres put the death toll at 10,000 and remarked that there was so much blood in the streets that it stained the “ankles” of those present, but he was in Edessa when the city fell and it seems pretty clear that he took some artistic license with his description. Contemporary Arab historian Ali ibn al-Athir estimated that the Crusaders killed as many as 70,000 people, which is likely more people than the city could have reasonably held.

It’s inarguable that the Crusaders did put Muslim and Jewish residents of Jerusalem to death. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, could have been killed, though again it’s we can’t really know whether they were killed in battle or after the city fell. Many successful medieval sieges involved heavy loss of life both as a consequence of the siege itself and as a result of the violence and looting that went on afterward. Jerusalem being as symbolic as it was, and Crusader nerves being what they probably were by this point, it’s entirely conceivable that the loss of life in this case was heavier than the norm. How much heavier, or indeed whether it was heavier, is a matter for historians to continue debating.

The Crusader leaders, who—as you may recall from previous episodes—didn’t particularly care for one another, then tried to figure out which one of them should rule Jerusalem. Clearly they had not worked these questions out in advance. Raymond of Toulouse had been a sort of nominal overall commander of the campaign. I say “nominal” because it’s obvious that few or perhaps none of the campaign’s other leaders actually regarded him as their superior. But he was the oldest (and richest) of the Crusader lords, so the others did offer him the throne first. He responded piously, insisting that he would never dream of ruling Christ’s city. Most modern historians assume he was putting on airs, trying to look like a Good Christian while assuming that his fellow Crusaders would insist that he take the crown and he would “grudgingly” have no choice but to accept.

Unfortunately for Raymond, his peers had no interest in playing along and instead quickly offered the crown to Godfrey of Bouillon, who had no problem accepting. In deference to religious symbolism, Godfrey refused to style himself “King of Jerusalem,” the thinking being that only Jesus could be the real “king of Jerusalem.” Some sources have him going by the title “Protector of Jerusalem,” though for the most part he seems to have gone with “prince” or just “duke,” which was his title back home. Raymond was furious, but I think you’d have to say he’d outsmarted himself.

Godfrey being anointed king (or something like it), from a manuscript of William of Tyre’s Histoire d’Outremer in the British Library (Wikimedia Commons)

Godfrey (who died the following year), became the transcendent figure of the Crusade and the model of chivalry back in Europe. Modern Crusades aficionados might see Richard the Lionheart as the ultimate example of the Crusading knight, but for contemporary Europeans it was undoubtedly Godfrey.