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

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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, these guys accomplished what they set out to accomplish—they captured Jerusalem. Well, OK, what they officially set out to accomplish was to buy the Byzantine Empire some relief from the Seljuk Turks, who were advancing closer to Constantinople all the time, and they didn’t really do very much in that regard. But taking Jerusalem was always the campaign’s not-so-secret real goal, and they did it. And ultimately, 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.

Map - Crusades, Early

Crusades 1-3

Having moved on from their capture of Antioch in June 1098 and 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 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 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.

13th century miniature of the siege (Wikimedia Commons)

The Crusaders caught a break 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 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 opened a gate 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 actually massacred (as opposed to killed in battle) 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 anyway the notion of that much blood flowing through the streets sounds implausible to say the least. Contemporary Arab historian Ali ibn al-Athir estimated that the Crusaders killed at least 30,000 and perhaps as many as 70,000 people, but he too wasn’t there to see it and his figures are so high that many modern historians treat them as suspect.

That said, it’s inarguable that many of the city’s Muslim and Jewish residents were put to death. But even contemporary accounts that describe considerable loss of life say that some Muslims and Jews were allowed to leave the city alive. And if you set aside the religious significance of the city and simply regard it as you would any other medieval city under siege, a heavy loss of civilian life both during the siege and in the wave of violence that followed would have been completely unremarkable. Whether the death toll at Jerusalem was inordinately high compared with the typical aftermath of an 11th century siege is a matter for historians to debate.

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 prepared for this outcome before the expedition began. In fact, at the outset of the campaign the leaders of the Crusade famously promised that they would hand any territory they conquered over to the Byzantines. They quickly scrapped that deal, justifying their decision to welch on the fact that the Byzantines didn’t provide anywhere near the support they’d promised (and, to be fair, the Crusaders kind of had a point there).

Raymond of Toulouse had been the ceremonial overall commander of the campaign, as he was the oldest (and richest) of its senior leaders, so the other leaders offered him the throne. He responded by feigning piety, insisting that he would never dream of ruling Christ’s city, probably assuming that the crown would then be pressed upon him. Hilariously, the other Crusader leaders said, “eh, whatever,” and gave the crown to Godfrey of Bouillon, who titled himself “Protector of the Holy Sepulcher” rather than “King of Jerusalem” (the thinking being that only Jesus could be the real “king of Jerusalem”). Raymond was furious, but he basically outsmarted himself in this case. Godfrey (who died the following year), became the transcendent figure of the Crusade and the model of chivalry back in Europe. Modern Crusades fans might see Richard the Lionheart as the ultimate Crusader, but for contemporaries it was definitely Godfrey.