Today in Middle Eastern history: the Battle of Ascalon (1099)

If you’re interested in history and foreign affairs, Foreign Exchanges is the newsletter for you! Sign up for free today for regular updates on international news and US foreign policy, delivered straight to your email inbox, or subscribe and unlock the full FX experience:

Most modern historians of the Crusades agree that the way we separate and number the multiple Crusade expeditions is ahistorical at best and misleading at worst. For one thing, the flow of European warriors to the Holy Land was not nearly as organized and episodic as the numbering system suggests. For another thing, treating the Crusades this way obscures the fact that the Crusader states along the eastern Mediterranean coast were a continuous presence there for almost two centuries, quite apart from the various calls for Crusade that went on in Europe.

Even so, if you were going to number any of the Crusades, the First Crusade seems more definable than the others. It had a clear beginning, since it was the first one. And it also had a clear end, the successful conquest of Jerusalem. Except, as it turns out, most historians don’t consider the siege of Jerusalem to be the end of the Crusade. They actually mark the end of the First Crusade with this partially successful (spoiler alert) attack on the city of Ascalon. Why? Well, one reason is that even in failure, the battle the Crusaders fought at Ascalon secured their conquest of Jerusalem. But the more important reason is that it was right after Ascalon when most of the knights of the Crusade—the ones who weren’t sticking around in the new Kingdom of Jerusalem—left the Holy Land.

Ashkelon, which was called “Ascalon” by the Crusaders (and me, for the purposes of this post), is located on the southern Mediterranean coast of modern Israel (just north of Gaza). At this time, it was controlled by the Fatimid Caliphate of Egypt. You can probably understand why the Crusaders felt as though they couldn’t allow a hostile power to retain control of a city in such close proximity to the prize they’d just won. This was doubly true given that there was a newly-arrived Fatimid army sitting in Ascalon at that very moment, preparing an imminent march to Jerusalem. Godfrey of Bouillon, the new ruler of Jerusalem (he’d faux-modestly refused the formal title of “king”), marched his army toward Ascalon on August 10 and was joined along the way by the army of Raymond of Toulouse, who was still peeved about getting passed over for Godfrey, but was willing to bury the hatchet in the face of a major Muslim threat against Jerusalem.

A 13th century miniature of the battle (Wikimedia Commons)

Together the Crusaders had an army that was probably about 10,000 men strong, far fewer than the army led by Fatimid vizier al-Afdal Shahanshah at Ascalon. They assembled with Godfrey commanding the left flank, Raymond on the right, and their more junior commanders (Tancred, Robert of Normandy, and Robert of Flanders) in the center.

I say that al-Afdal was the Fatimid “vizier,” but you should understand that by this point in Fatimid history the caliphs were a complete afterthought in terms of having any actual authority, and so al-Afdal was the de facto ruler of the caliphate. The Fatimids probably had somewhere in the neighborhood of 20,000-30,000 men, though it may have been higher than that. However, they apparently felt so certain that the Crusaders would elect to remain within the safety of Jerusalem that they were totally unprepared when the Crusader army showed up before their camp. Godfrey and Raymond literally caught them sleeping, and the battle was a total rout. The Fatimids likely lost more men than the Crusaders had in their entire army.

The remainder of the Fatimid army, led by al-Afdal, hightailed it back to Egypt post-haste, so Jerusalem was no longer at risk. But Ascalon’s garrison refused to surrender. It was then that the Crusade leaders ruined their chances to capture the city by resuming their favorite pastime—arguing with one another. Godfrey claimed the city for himself, as ruler of Jerusalem, but Raymond also claimed it. While they tried to sort out their grievances, many Crusader knights started to wonder what the heck they were still doing in the Holy Land when the thing they’d signed on to do—capturing Jerusalem and fulfilling their “pilgrimage”—was already done. Once the knights started leaving to go back home, there was no chance for the Crusaders to take Ascalon, and so it remained in Fatimid hands for the time being. It wasn’t until 1153, when the Fatimid Caliphate was really falling apart, that the Crusaders finally were able to capture it.