First Crusade: Siege of Jerusalem

6/12/2006 • Military History

‘Jerusalem is the navel of the world, a land which is fruitful above all others, like another paradise of delights, wrote Robert the Monk in Historia Hierosolymitana. And, indeed, for centuries Jerusalem, sacred to Jew, Christian and Muslim alike, had been the center of attention for a succession of conquering armies–which made life anything but a paradise for its populace.

The summer of 1098 saw the much-fought-over fortress city in Egyptian hands. The Fatimid Emir (commander) al-Afdal Shahinshah had taken Jerusalem from the Seljuk Turks after a 40-day siege, on orders of Vizier (minister of state) al-Musta’li, ruler of Egypt. Many months of political and diplomatic maneuvering with the Franj (Franks–the Arabic term used for all Western European Crusaders) and the Rumi (Romans–actually the Greeks of the Byzantine Empire) had not gotten the vizier the concessions he wanted, so he simply had sent Emir al-Afdal to seize the city the Crusaders were coming to capture, thereby presenting the Franj invaders with a fait accompli.

In the months ahead, the Shiite Muslim poets of the Fatimid court would work diligently to compose great eulogies to the man who had wrested Jerusalem from the Sunni Seljuk heretics. The poetry ended in January 1099, when the Franj departed Antioch to resume their southward march.

These European warriors had first set out on the road to Jerusalem after Pope Urban II made an appeal for troops at Clermont, France, on November 27, 1095. The pope was responding in part to rumors, mostly false, of Muslim atrocities committed against Christian pilgrims visiting the Holy Land, and he also sought a means of uniting Europe’s contentious kings and lords in a common cause. Since then, waves of zealots had made their way toward their ultimate goal–Jerusalem–but the road had been far from easy. Indeed, many of the survivors who tramped their way along that final leg of their journey regarded the incidents that had occurred along the way as a series of trials to weed out all but the most worthy soldiers of the cross.

In 1096, German Crusaders, led by the Swabian Count Emich von Leiningen, vented their religious zeal on unarmed Jews, murdering thousands until they ran afoul of King Kolomon of Hungary, whose army killed some 10,000 of them and drove the rest from his country. Others, led by Peter the Hermit, became so unruly that they were set upon by the Byzantine soldiers who were ostensibly to have escorted them to Constantinople. Thousands of others were slaughtered in their first encounter with the Seljuk Turks, at Civitot on October 21, 1096 (see Military History, February 1998).

The Crusade of the Poor People represented something of a false start to the First Crusade. A second wave, more professionally led by such hardened campaigners as Raymond IV of Toulouse, Count of St. Gilles; Raymond of Flanders; Robert of Normandy; Godfrey of Bouillon; Bohemund of Taranto; and Adhémar of Monteil, bishop of Le Puy, fared better, marching into Syria and taking the fortress of Antioch in June 1098 (see Military History, June 1998). Hardship, disease and discord among the Crusaders’ joint leadership continued to take its toll, however. On August 1, 1098, Bishop Adhémar, the pope’s representative, died during an epidemic. Later that month the king of France’s brother, Count Hugh of Vermandois, departed for home, taking his troops with him. Bohemund quarreled with Raymond of Toulouse over who would rule Antioch until the more zealous Crusaders threatened to raze the city’s walls if the march on Jerusalem did not resume. Raymond conceded possession of Antioch to Bohemund and agreed to lead the Crusaders onward. Bohemund’s Norman-born nephew, Tancred, accompanied the march, partly out of faith and partly, no doubt, to keep an eye out for further opportunities for his family.

It was a smaller army that marched on Jerusalem, but its soldiers were much tougher. The Crusaders seldom encountered resistance. Many local emirs, guided by the Arab proverb, Kiss any arm you cannot break–and pray to God to break it, aided the Christian host just to ensure that it would move on. Greater conflict continued between Robert’s and Tancred’s Norman followers and Raymond of Toulouse’s knights of Provence. While the Crusaders laid siege to the resistant Muslim town of Arqa, Peter Bartholemew (the peasant who had gained celebrity by discovering a rusty piece of iron in a pit at Antioch and convincing everyone that it was the tip of the holy lance that had pierced Jesus Christ’s side during the Crucifixion) was claiming to have discourse with saints, resulting in prophesies that, the Normans noted, invariably seemed to favor the Provençals. When the Normans denounced Peter as a fraud and questioned the authenticity of the holy lance, he offered to undergo a trial by fire, declaring that God would allow him to pass through the flames unharmed. A gantlet of flames was duly prepared and blessed by the bishops, after which Peter ran through the blaze and emerged badly burned, dying in agony 12 days later. Raymond, of course, said it was the crowd’s lack of faith and not the fire that caused Peter’s fatal burns.

After abandoning their siege of Arqa, the Crusaders marched easily through the more compliant cities of Tripoli, Beirut and Acre. Shortly after they left the latter city, however, a knight’s hawk caught a pigeon overflying the Crusaders’ camp with a note tied to its leg–an appeal from the governor of Acre to all Muslims to rise in jihad (holy war) against the Franj invaders.

Vizier al-Musta’li now regretted interposing himself between the Crusaders and the Turks. It would take months to raise a suitable army to relieve a siege of Jerusalem, and he sent an emissary to Emperor Alexius I Comnenus at Constantinople, asking him to delay the invaders. Alexius asked the Europeans to wait until he could join them. But they had come to distrust the man whose request for assistance in restoring the Holy Land to Christian rule had led to the Crusades, and their response was scathing: We will go all of us to Jerusalem, in combat formation, our lances raised!

The defense of the great honey-colored fortress was now in the hands of Fatimid governor Iftikhar al-Daula (Pride of State). The walls were in good condition, and his garrison of Arab cavalry and Sudanese archers was strong. Iftikhar was a good general who inspired heroism, and his army was intensely loyal to him. Also, an Egyptian relief column was on its way, and there were ample provisions available until it arrived. As the Crusaders drew near Jerusalem, the governor blocked or poisoned all wells that lay outside the walls, moved all animals inside and expelled all Christians, regardless of denomination. Most of the Jews also left, except for those of a sect for whom it was mandatory to reside in the Holy City. In spite of recent persecutions, Christians far outnumbered the city residents of other religions, and by early June 1099, Jerusalem’s population had declined from 70,000 to less than 30,000.

The Franj force that approached Jerusalem numbered little more than 15,000 people, including women and children, and only about 1,300 of them were knights. Starvation had made them rail thin, and hardship had made them strong. An eclipse of the moon on June 5 was seen as a favorable sign from God, and their morale was high on the 7th, when they first spotted the domes and walls of Jerusalem from the Mosque of the Prophet Samuel atop the hill normally referred to by pilgrims as Montonjoie, the Joyous Mountain.

The Crusaders were too few to invest the entire city, so they concentrated their forces where they could come nearest the walls. Robert, Duke of Normandy, stationed his forces along the northern wall at the Gate of Flowers, or Herod’s Gate. Robert of Flanders was to his right at the Gate of the Column, also known as St. Stephen’s or the Damascus Gate. Godfrey of Lorraine took position at the northwest angle of the city as far as the Jaffa Gate, with Raymond of Toulouse to his south. Tancred later joined Godfrey, bringing with him flocks of sheep that he had taken on his march from Bethlehem. Raymond found that the valley lying between his position and the Jaffa Gate kept him too far from the walls, so after two or three days he moved his forces onto Mount Zion. The eastern and southeastern approaches to Jerusalem were not guarded at all.

The advantage was with Iftikhar. He had a steady supply of water, much more food than the invaders and better weapons. The governor strengthened his towers with sacks of cotton and hay, building them higher each night with stone, while waiting for the Egyptian relief column to appear.

The Crusaders found one untainted source of water, the pool of Siloam below the south wall, but it was so close to the city that drawing water was hazardous. This fountain gushed cool water every third day, an attribute simply ascribed by the Crusaders to the will of God. Soldiers, crazed with thirst, fought each other for access to this pool. Raymond of Aguilers described the scene: Those who were strong pushed and shoved their way in a deathly fashion through the pool, which was already choked with dead animals and men struggling for their lives, and…reached the rocky mouth of the fountain, while those who were weaker were left behind in the filthy water. These weaker ones sprawled on the ground…with gaping mouths, their parched tongues making them speechless, while they stretched out their hands to beg water from the more fortunate ones.

Additional water had to be brought in from more than six miles away, and the garrison regularly sent out raiding parties to ambush the water convoys. Many Europeans died in these surprise attacks. Water became so scarce that a denarius (the silver coin of ancient Rome that is the penny of the New Testament) would not buy enough to quench a man’s thirst. Eventually, anyone who brought in a supply of even foul water could name any price he wanted.

Food was also short, and the hot desert sun was unbearable for people accustomed to a cooler climate, especially to those wearing heavy armor. Even in Europe, some half of all battle casualties among knights were from heat prostration; in the blazing desert of the Middle East this figure must have been much higher.

On June 12, the leaders of the army made a pilgrimage to the Mount of Olives, where they met an aged hermit who urged them to assault the city on the 13th. The princes protested; they lacked the proper machines to launch an attack of such magnitude. God, said the hermit, would give them the victory if they had enough faith.

The attack was launched the next day. According to European historians, the Crusaders had very few ladders. The Arabs say that there were none, but that seems unlikely, since part of the Crusaders’ supplies consisted of the dismantled equipment used to assault other cities on their way through the Holy Land. The defenders were astonished at the fanaticism of the Crusaders and the way they threw themselves at the 40-to-50-foot-high walls. The outer defenses on the north were overrun, but nothing else was accomplished. After several hours, when the Christians had not achieved the victory promised by God, they retired. Everyone was disorganized and dispirited at that point, and if the city’s army had counterattacked, the First Crusade almost certainly would have ended in failure then and there. Raymond of Aguilers, who never lost faith in miracles or hermits, said that the attack would have succeeded had the princes not stopped it too soon because of fear and laziness, but others now realized that further attacks would have to wait until better preparations had been made.

Morale fell to its nadir, and many wanted to end the Crusade and return home. There was much feuding over Tancred’s joining his army with Godfrey of Bouillon rather than with Raymond of Toulouse, to whom he had previously sworn allegiance. There was more feuding over who would get what when Jerusalem was taken, although few still believed that the city could be taken at all.

A priest, Peter Desiderius, then came forth to describe a vision that he had seen. The spirit of the late bishop Adhémar of Le Puy had appeared and given him a blueprint for victory. Those instructions included having the Crusaders turn their backs on sin, fast and make a barefoot procession around the 2 1/2-mile-long wall.

They set out on July 8, a Friday, with close to 15,000 barefoot and bedraggled pilgrims, hungry from lack of provisions and now fasting by choice, staggering in a great line to the sounds of trumpets and the chanting of priests. Priests held aloft altars and relics, including the supposed holy lance that had saved the Crusade at Antioch and the arm bone of St. George, stolen from a Byzantine monastery. All the while, a Crusader noted that the Muslims on the walls jeered and desecrated many crosses with blows and vulgar acts. After the march, there were encouraging talks by several clerics, including Peter the Hermit, who ironically had led tens of thousands to their deaths in the Crusade of the Poor People in 1096.

More practical help had already arrived in the form of six ships that anchored at Jaffa, which had been abandoned by the Arabs. Two were Genoese galleys; the other four ships were almost certainly English. In their holds were food and armaments, including rope and hardware needed to build siege engines. At the news of their arrival, Count Geldemar Carpenel, a member of Godfrey of Bouillon’s staff, set out with 50 knights and 50 infantrymen to ensure that the supplies were delivered safely. Almost immediately the wisdom of sending so small a force was questioned, and Raymond Piletus was dispatched with 50 knights to reinforce them. Still later, William of Ramleh, from the army of the Count of Toulouse, rode forth.

Iftikhar dispatched 400 of his finest Arab soldiers and 200 Turks to destroy them. They waited at Ramleh, a few miles from Jaffa on the road to Jerusalem, then attacked Geldemar on the plain of Ramleh. The Muslim force surrounded the Europeans and began firing arrows. Geldemar stationed his knights and archers in his first rank, with all others behind, and advanced. Five knights, including young Achard of Montemerle, and all the archers were killed. Some 30 Europeans were still alive when a dust cloud was seen on the horizon–the 50 additional knights led by Raymond Piletus were coming to the rescue at full charge. Broken by the shock of this onslaught by heavy cavalry, the Muslims fled. The Crusaders killed many Muslims in the chase that followed, strewing a total of 200 dead on the field of battle, and much plunder was taken.

An Egyptian fleet now appeared off Jaffa. One English ship was off on a plundering expedition and managed to escape by using oars and sail. The other ships were abandoned and their crews joined the Crusade. The men and their supplies were very welcome, but the Crusaders still needed timber, although they managed to obtain some by dismantling two of the stranded ships. Several more long-range expeditions brought back little more until Tancred, Robert of Flanders and their followers traveled as far as the forests around Samaria. According to Radulph of Caen, Tancred was suffering from dysentery, and after wandering off until he found a rocky hollow surrounded by trees where he could relieve himself in privacy, he found himself facing a cave filled with 400 pieces of prepared lumber. Sometimes the Lord does work in mysterious ways.

The expedition returned with camels and 50 or 60 Muslim laborers laden with planks and huge logs. The bishop of Albara was put in charge and made the Muslims work like slaves. The local Christians gladly acted as guides for those supply expeditions, something that they may have later regretted when the Europeans refused the Orthodox priests any rights within the city and tortured them to learn the location of the True Cross of the Crucifixion.

Using their newly acquired timber, the Franj, with the aid of Genoese engineers, began building two huge siege towers, catapults and a battering ram. Those towers, or malvoisins (bad neighbors), were huge, wheeled castles with everything needed for an attack, including catapults and bridges that could be lowered to provide access to the top of the wall. These drawbridges were hinged to the second deck of the towers and, before being lowered, shielded those inside.

The Genoese, under William Embriaco, were quite skillful, and even the old men and the women joined in the construction. Everyone except the professional craftsmen was working without pay. Count Raymond paid his craftsmen from his own purse, but those who worked on the other tower were paid from a collection taken among the people. For several days they labored in the midst of sirocco winds, something to which the Crusaders were unaccustomed. Gaston, Viscount of Béarn, was in charge of construction of Godfrey’s mobile castle to the north of the city, while William Ricou supervised at Raymond’s to the south. Fresh ox and camel hides soaked in vinegar were nailed onto the towers to protect them from Greek fire.

On July 10, the towers were completed and wheeled into position. For the first time Iftikhar became concerned, issuing strict orders that he be notified if either tower moved closer to the city.

The defenders were concentrating their forces in front of the towers, so Godfrey of Bouillon made a last-minute decision. During the night his tower was slowly wheeled a half mile down the line to face the north wall near Herod’s Gate. The other siege machinery was dismantled, moved and reassembled–even a trebuchet, the most-used throwing machine of the period, consisting of many huge pieces of timber, hundreds of stones that were used as ammunition, and heavier stones for the counterweight that propelled the missiles. To disassemble, move and reassemble such a machine in the dark must have required a nearly superhuman effort.

The final assault was launched on the night of July 13. According to Raymond of Aguilers, a reliable source, the effective strength of the army was now 12,000 fighting men, including the workmen, the sailors and other nonprofessionals, and 1,200 to 1,300 knights. He did not try to assess the number of old men, women and children. Raymond of Toulouse, in position along the southern wall, struggled to fill in the moat and maneuver one siege tower against the wall, but the defenders kept him at bay. Heralds announced that any man who brought three large stones to hurl into the ditch would receive one denarius. Thus was the job completed.

Godfrey of Bouillon, Robert of Normandy and Tancred chose to attack the northern wall just east of Herod’s Gate. Their huge battering ram pounded a hole in the outer wall, and the rubble was used to fill in the moat. In mail and helmets, with an overhead ceiling constructed of shields, the attackers stormed the walls through a hail of arrows and stones. The straw reinforcing the walls was set afire with flaming arrows.

As the huge siege tower inched ever closer to the wall, the Egyptians responded with catapult loads of Greek fire. The sulfur-and-pitch-based compound (the exact composition of which was a closely guarded secret and still a mystery today) was the napalm of the Middle Ages. Flaming pottery full of Greek fire shattered upon impact to splatter clinging flames over everything and everyone nearby. Rags soaked in the substance were wrapped around wooden bolts, imbedded with nails so they would adhere to whatever they hit, and hurled against the huge towers. Again and again the towers were set on fire, and each time the flames were extinguished with water and vinegar or by beating out the fire.

Bales of hay, soaked in oil and wax so they would burn long after they reached the ground, were hurled over the walls, especially around the two towers. Buildings were burning, there were pools of fire outside the walls and smoke permeated the air. Two Muslim women were observed casting a spell over the nearest catapult, but a stone from the hexed machine killed them and, according to the Crusaders’ account, broke the spell.

The Crusaders fought all night and day of the 14th without establishing a foothold. By evening, Raymond had succeeded in wheeling his tower against the wall. The defense was fierce, with the governor in personal charge of this area. Raymond could not secure a foothold, and the tower was eventually burned to the ground on July 15. Few who were inside escaped.

Crusaders’ accounts grudgingly praised the accuracy of the Muslim catapults, which destroyed many of their machines. The Crusaders’ ram became stuck and blocked the path of the northern tower. But the next morning Godfrey’s tower, with its three fighting levels surmounted by a large gilded figure of Christ, was against the north wall, close to Herod’s Gate. Godfrey and his brother, Eustace of Boulogne, commanded from the top story. The defenders lassoed the tower and tried to topple it, but knights cut the ropes with their swords.

Later that same morning, the Crusaders began to feel exhausted from the continuous fighting, and they met to debate whether the battle should be ended. Before a decision was reached, a knight atop the Mount of Olives signaled for the Count of Toulouse to advance. Godfrey of Bouillon ordered his men to renew their fire attack against the bales of hay and cotton shielding the walls. The wind changed; huge clouds of smoke choked and blinded the defenders, causing some to flee.

Immense timbers had been attached to the walls to keep the towers from closing with them. The Crusaders seized one of these and nailed it to the tower, then swung the bridge into place. The Franj now had a way into the city. Two Flemish knights, Litold and Gilbert of Tournai, led the pick of the Lotharingian contingent across. Godfrey himself soon followed. With him were his brother, Eustace, the Count of Flanders and Robert of Normandy. It was about noon on Friday, July 15, and many were acutely aware that they were entering Jerusalem at the hour of Christ’s death.

According to Professor Joshua Prawer of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, this most crucial part of the fighting took place along a portion of the wall 65 meters (71 yards) between the second tower east of Herod’s Gate and the first salient square in the wall beyond it, across the road between the present-day Rockefeller Museum and the wall. Control of a section of the wall allowed the invaders to use scaling ladders to pour more and more men into the city. Godfrey remained on the wall, encouraging the newcomers and directing men to open the Gate of the Column to allow the masses of the Crusaders inside. It was said that the ghost of Adhémar of Le Puy was seen among those rushing to open the gate.

Tancred and his men, who had been close behind the Lorrainers, penetrated deep into the city. The Muslims fled toward the temple area and took refuge in the al-Aqsa Mosque, but Tancred was upon them before they could establish their defenses. They quickly surrendered, offered a large ransom, and Tancred gave them his banner to display over the mosque. Tancred’s forces had already pillaged the Dome of the Rock, one of the holiest places of Islam, earning them a great fortune.

The people of the Jerusalem reeled back in confusion, trying desperately to escape the invaders. When the Crusaders overran the southern walls, Iftikhar realized that all was lost. Withdrawing into the Tower of David, he prepared to make his last stand.

The Tower of David, the strongest part of the entire defensive network, was an octagonal citadel whose foundations had been welded together with lead. Although it was obvious to them that the city was lost, Iftikhar and his soldiers continued to fight. In the words of Amin Maalouf, What else could they do?

Then the Franj stopped fighting, and a messenger brought an offer from Raymond of Toulouse. The Egyptian general and his men would be allowed to leave if they would surrender the tower to him.

Although Raymond was respected for his skill and valor in battle, the white-haired sexagenarian also had a reputation for treachery. By continuing the battle against the Egyptians, however, he and his Provençals were missing out on the looting that was then in progress. The Franks were arguing about who would get which house, and Raymond was being left out. Iftikhar finally agreed to surrender if Raymond would personally guarantee the safety of him and his men. Raymond agreed and they departed that night. They were the only Muslims to escape the fall of Jerusalem. Most of the others were killed, while a few were taken as slaves.

The Crusaders spent at least that night and the next day killing Muslims, including all of those in the al-Aqsa Mosque, where Tancred’s banner should have protected them. Not even women and children were spared. The city’s Jews sought refuge in their synagogue, only to be burned alive within it by the Crusaders. Raymond of Aquilers reported that he saw piles of heads, hands and feet on a walk through the holy city. Men trotted across the bodies and body fragments as if they were a carpet for their convenience. The Europeans also destroyed the monuments to Orthodox Christian saints and the tomb of Abraham.

There were no recorded instances of rape. The massacre was not insanity but policy, as stated by Fulcher of Chartres: They desired that this place, so long contaminated by the superstition of the pagan inhabitants, should be cleansed from their contagion. The Crusaders intended Jerusalem to be a Christian city–and strictly a Latin Christian city. This is a day the Lord made, wrote Raymond of Aguilers. We shall rejoice and be glad in it.

The Crusaders cut open the stomachs of the dead because someone said that the Muslims sometimes swallowed their gold to hide it. Later, when the corpses were burned, Crusaders kept watch for the melted gold that they expected to see flowing onto the ground. While the slaughter was still going on, many churchmen and princes assembled for a holy procession. Barefoot, chanting and singing, they walked to the shrine of the Holy Sepulchre through the blood flowing around their feet. Reports that the blood was waist deep are believed to have come from a later misreading of a Bible passage. However, in the official letter To Lord Paschal, Pope Of The Roman Church, to all the bishops and to the whole Christian people from the Archbishop of Pisa, Duke Godfrey, now by the grace of God Defender of the Holy Sepulchre, Raymond, Count of St. Gilles, and the whole army of God, the Crusaders recorded that in Solomon’s Portico and in his Temple our men rode in the blood of the Saracens [Muslims] up to the knees of their horses.

There would still be a few battles, including one at Ascalon on August 12 in which 10,000 Crusaders led by Godfrey of Bouillon easily routed what they called the army of the Babylonians–actually, the belated Egyptian relief column under Emir al-Afdal–but the First Crusade had accomplished its ultimate purpose. The holy city of Jerusalem was in Christian hands.

This article was written by Michael D. Hull and originally published in the June 1999 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!

Tags: ,