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Saturday, March 25, 2023

The First Crusade part IV: From Antioch to Jerusalem

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Marching south into Syria

On January 13, 1099, Raymond, barefoot and in the attire of a pilgrim, led the army south into Syria. What the army found there were a number of petty emirs willing to pay if their towns were left unmolested. The course of the crusade’s progress through the late winter and early spring was profitable and comparatively easy. The powerful Turkish rulers in Damascus and elsewhere had no interest in defending these rebellious small fry. Besides, Palestine was now in Shi’ite Fatimid hands. Why should the Sunni Turks lift a finger to protect them? On the contrary, many of the Turks watched with glee as the “Franks” (as they called them) bore down on the Egyptians who had so recently taken Jerusalem from them. For his part, the Arab ruler of Egypt had been sending envoys to the crusaders since their march across Asia. He applauded their martial prowess and offered to join with them in their war against the Turks, but his overtures were wasted on the westerners, who made few distinctions among Muslims. Now, as the crusade approached the newly won Fatimid territories in Palestine, the caliph again offered an alliance if the crusaders would remain outside his domains. Clearly, the Egyptians understood neither the purpose nor the motivations of the crusade.

Straight to the Holy Sepulcher

On May 19, the crusade entered Fatimid territory just north of Beirut. Beirut and its coastal neighbors to the south—Sidon, Tyre, Acre, and Haifa— were willing to provide the crusaders with supplies on the condition that they leave the cities and their suburbs unmolested. Because the crusaders were interested only in reaching Jerusalem, they were glad to oblige. Just north of Jaffa, the army reached the inland road to the Holy City. It was June 3. Word had reached the leaders that the Egyptian army was mobilizing. Some argued that to head to Jerusalem now was foolhardy. The city’s fortifications were immense, and a siege during the brutal summer would take a horrible toll on the army. When the Egyptian army arrived, the crusaders would be crushed beneath the walls of Jerusalem. If the Holy Land were ever to be secure, they must first destroy the Muslim power base in Egypt. Only then would Jerusalem fall into their hands. Strategically, this was a sound policy and one that would inspire more than one future crusade, but it did not square with the crusaders’ role as pilgrims. Their task was to make their way to the Holy Sepulcher, not the pyramids. Had God not preserved them thus far? Would he not continue to do so if they remained brave and did not lose faith? The decision was made to march directly to Jerusalem. Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ, a city entirely Christian, hailed the crusaders as liberators on June 6. That night, the army was amazed to see a lunar eclipse—a clear sign from God, they felt, that the Muslim crescent was waning. The following day, the crusaders climbed the hill they later named Montjoie (Mount of Joy) and gazed at last on the imposing spectacle of the Holy City, Jerusalem. Behind its monumental walls and spiring heights they could see the many domes of the city’s rich mosques and churches. At last, they had arrived at their destination.

Can the Holy City be Captured ?

Even for a well-supplied army in the best of times, Jerusalem was a difficult nut to crack. These were not the best of times. The size of the city made a full-scale siege impossible, which was just as well since the news of the forming Egyptian army meant that the crusaders had no time to wait out the city’s defenders. The Fatimid governor of the city had seen to the necessary preparations for the crusaders’ arrival. He expelled all Christians, lest Jerusalem fall by the same treachery that sealed Antioch’s fate. He was also careful to poison most of the wells around the city, thus forcing the crusaders to devote manpower to bringing in water from the Jordan River. If Jerusalem were to
be taken, it would have to be soon.

Preparations for the Siege

It was decided to launch an all-out attempt to capture the city by storm on June 13. Yet despite the crusaders’ brave efforts, the city’s defenders repulsed the attack with little trouble. The crusaders lacked sufficient scaling ladders and siege machinery to threaten seriously Jerusalem’s towering walls. Without such equipment, the city simply could not be taken. Just then, almost miraculously, six Genoese and English vessels carrying building materials sailed into Jaffa. Praising God, the crusaders quickly set to work building catapults, ladders, and wooden castles on wheels that could be rolled up to the walls of Jerusalem. It was long, slow, and horribly hot work. Water was a constant problem. Tempers flared. Early in July, the crusaders received the news that the Egyptian army was on the march. It would arrive at Jerusalem within the month. Once again, their situation was desperate.

Singing prayers and bearing relics the Cursaders are ready to assault Jerusalem

As had happened at Antioch, it was a vision that restored the spirits of the host and turned events around. On July 6, Peter Desiderius, a priest of Raymond’s retinue, announced that he had seen the spirit of Adhemar, the late papal legate. Adhemar rebuked the crusading leaders for their quarreling
and ordered them to turn their attention to the Holy City that they had sworn to liberate. He further assured them that all was not lost. If the army would fast, do penance, and lead a procession around the city, Jerusalem would fall nine days later. Immediately, a fast was proclaimed throughout the host. On July 8, the Muslim defenders on the walls of Jerusalem watched with astonishment as the army of the Franks became a barefoot, unarmed pilgrimage. Singing prayers and bearing relics, most prominently the Holy Lance, the army of the First Crusade walked around the walls of Jerusalem, coming at last to the Mount of Olives. There, Peter the Hermit delivered a sermon, inspiring the assembled thousands just as he had done on the plains of France so long ago.

Fall of Jerusalem and the subsequent massacre

With the siege machinery in readiness, the assault on Jerusalem began on the night of July 13–14. The hope of the crusaders lay in their great wheeled castles. All of July 14 was spent trying to bring them against the city’s walls. By evening, Raymond’s tower had reached Jerusalem’s fortifications,
but fierce resistance kept his men from gaining a foothold on the wall itself. Early in the morning of July 15, Godfrey also succeeded in bringing his tower against the wall, successfully defeating the defenders in that region. His men of Lorraine fought their way to the Gate of the Column, opened it, and allowed the main army to enter. In a flood, the crusaders rushed into the city. By the standards of the time, adhered to by both Christians and Muslims, the crusaders would have been justified in putting the entire population of Jerusalem to the sword. Despite later highly exaggerated reports, however, that is not what happened. A great many of the inhabitants, both Muslims and Jews, were killed in the initial fray. The best modern estimates put the number of dead between three and five thousand people. Yet many others were allowed to purchase their freedom or were simply expelled from the city. Later stories of the streets of Jerusalem coursing with knee-high rivers of blood were never meant to be taken seriously. Medieval people knew such a thing to be an impossibility. Modern people, unfortunately, often do not.

A successful Crusade

The dream of Urban II had come true. Against all odds, this struggling, fractious, and naïve enterprise had made its way from western Europe to the Middle East and conquered two of the best-defended cities in the Western world. From a modern perspective, one can only marvel at the improbable course of events that led to these victories. Medieval men and women did not marvel; they merely thanked God. For them, the agent of the crusade’s victory was God himself, who had worked miracle after miracle for his faithful knights, delivering unto them the land of Christ.


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