The Impossible First Crusade

In 1099, at the culmination of the First Crusade—an event that would become a watershed moment for Western Civilization—a band of nobles from a wide variety of European kingdoms had marched hundreds of miles East and, through sheer military prowess, defeated enormous Muslim armies and took the Holy City of Jerusalem.

relief sculture showing the sack of Jerusalem during the first crusade

In October of 1097, after a horrendous four-month march across Asia Minor, of which only half of the original army survived, the main force of Crusaders converged on Antioch. Antioch is situated in the great Amuk Plain, an extremely fertile area, where there is lots of grain, sheep, and cattle available. Provisions were plentiful, and the famished army was able to recover from the starvation and battle losses that had plagued them throughout their march. Antioch was a very holy city in the Christian tradition, the place where Peter agreed with Paul to accept the Gentiles into the Christian Church. The majority of the population in the city were Greeks, Syrian Christians, and Armenians. It had only passed into Turkish control in 1086 (just after the Byzantines had paid for a state-of-the-art renovation of the walls).

Stalemate at Antioch

painting of Raymond of Toulouse during the first crusade
Raymond of Toulouse was the oldest and richest of all the leaders on the First Crusade.
painting of Bohemond, Prince of Taranto, leader of the Norman-Italian contingent of the First Crusade
Bohemond, Prince of Taranto, was the leader of the Norman-Italian contingent of Crusaders and a brilliant military tactician.

The initial reaction as they arrived before Antioch was, “Let’s take the city.” Raymond proposed an immediate attack. The princes hesitated, but fortunately for the Crusaders, the political situation played into their hands. The Turkish garrison commander of Antioch, a fellow by the name of Yaghi-Siyan, ruled a city that was largely alienated from him (they were mostly Christians). He had a Turkish overlord in the immediate area at Aleppo, another in Damascus, and third more distant overlord in Mosul. Any one of the three overlords could have launched an army immediately and destroyed the Crusades, and at one point or another all of them brought in relief forces to help out. But Yaghi-Siyan managed to alienate all of his potential masters, and for the most part he was essentially left on his own.

the siege of Antioch during the First Crusade
The Siege of Antioch

The Crusaders conducted the type of warfare you would see in Western Europe. They built towers. They began to conduct more of a blockade than a siege. But as winter approached, the garrison was in no mood to surrender. There were hopes that there would be a relief army. The Crusaders began to suffer again. Through the winter of 1097–1098 was the second great ordeal, almost as taxing as the crossing of Asia Minor. In the course of that siege the bravery and courage of Bohemond became clear. Twice, relief armies showed up, one from Damascus and one from Aleppo. It was Bohemond who rallied the Crusader forces to beat back these large armies.

It was a remarkable victory, leadership of the first order, the feigned retreats, the ambushes, all the tactics that you would associate with these warriors from northern Europe.

In the case of the second rally in February of 1098, Bohemond carried out remarkable tactical victories. He took then the only mounted men in the camp, who numbered 700, marched east and lured the main army from Aleppo into a bushwhack as they crossed over a bridge. He first attacked them and drew them over the bridge, drew them into an ambush, destroyed the front forces, and drove them back in disorder—the whole army retreated in confusion—and won a dramatic victory, while the infantry remained desperately fighting off a sally from the garrison. It was a remarkable victory, leadership of the first order, the feigned retreats, the ambushes, all the tactics that you would associate with these warriors from northern Europe.

Betrayal at the Gates of the City

Nonetheless, as the Crusaders got into the spring of the second year, in May of 1098, they knew there was a vast relief army on the move from Mosul itself. Kerbogha, the leading Turkish military commander in Iraq and in Syria, had assembled an enormous army, summoning his vassals and his Arab auxiliaries into an army that vastly outnumbered the Crusaders. Fortunately for the Crusaders, that army was held up for three weeks trying to take Edessa, which had been seized by Baldwin.

Manuscript illustration showing the capture of antioch by the crusaders during the first crusade
The Capture of Antioch by the Crusaders

In those three weeks, Bohemond negotiated the betrayal of Antioch from one of the lesser officials in the city, who hated the garrison commander. The agreement was, that the Crusaders, on the afternoon of June 2nd, marched west, as if they had given up. The Turkish garrison relaxed. They marched into the evening, then, at midnight, stopped, turned around and marched back to the city, and Bohemond, with 60 knights, at what was known as the Tower of the Two Sisters, appeared. The traitor, a fellow by the name of Firuz, who was actually an Armenian convert to Islam, had a ladder waiting for them. The knights ascended the tower, overpowered the garrison there and took part of the wall. Other Crusaders stumbled up, got one of the gates open, and eventually broke their way into the city and captured it. The usual massacre ensued. On June 3 the city was theirs.

A Stunning Victory in the First Crusade

An Illustration of Kerbogha Besieging Antioch during the first crusade
An Illustration of Kerbogha Besieging Antioch

Less than 48 hours the army from Mosul showed up, and now the Crusaders were besieged. For the next several weeks, Bohemond strengthened the resolve of those Crusaders. On the 28th of June, in disciplined companies arranged by Bohemond, the army moved out, lined up, and engaged this superior Turkish army and won a stunning victory by, again, a carefully planned cavalry charge after the usual exchange of archery and infantry support. It was a stunning, miraculous victory. Kerborgha’s army was pushed back to Mosul. His Arab allies defected. Antioch was theirs.

But at this point, the Crusade was close to breaking up. Bohemond insisted that he was going to keep the city for himself. Raymond had been too ill to fight in the decisive battles of June, but now he and Godfrey became the new natural leaders. After a considerable amount of dispute they took over those of the Crusaders ready to press on to Jerusalem, while the Normans and Bohemond stayed in Antioch.

The Capture of Jerusalem

portrait of Godfrey of Bouillon, leader of the German Contingent of the First Crusade.
Godfrey of Bouillon was a Frankish Knight and a leader of the German Contingent of the First Crusade.

In the spring of 1099, equally audaciously, these Crusaders, or roughly half of the forces that took Antioch, marched over 300 miles south and arrived in Jerusalem in the blazing sun of June 1099. They happened to link up with the Genoese fleet, and the Genoese gave them vital military support. At this point, Godfrey was the senior commander. On July 15, 1099, the Crusaders stormed the city of Jerusalem, having constructed two great towers. After nearly 36 hours of attacking and battering the walls, they broke into the city. The Muslim population was slaughtered along with the Jewish community that had sought refuge in the synagogue. The Holy City had been taken.

illustration of the sack of jerusalem during the first crusade
The Sack of Jerusalem

The Crusaders had achieved what no imperial army had ever done for the last 350 years: they had entered the Holy City. While the massacre was seen by the Islamic world as a hideous disgrace and actually rekindled notions of jihad, for the Christians it was the manifestation of God’s will. Against all expectations, the Crusaders had won. Yet they had able leaders. Yet they had all sorts of skills and logistics. They had vital support from the various fleets. Nonetheless, it was a triumph of the will of the Crusaders who stormed into the city as well as the inspired leadership of Bohemond, Godfrey, and even Raymond which enabled them to take this city.

portrait of Pope Urban II, the pope who called upon europeans to engage in the first crusade
Pope Urban II

For the first time, the Christians had won a significant victory over their so-called heathen Muslim foe.

The news spread back to Western Europe. Ironically, Pope Urban II, who had launched the First Crusade, died on July 29, a fortnight after the city had fallen to the Franks, but before the news had reached Western Europe. For the first time, the Christians had won a significant victory over their so-called heathen Muslim foe. It was a stunning success, and it made Crusading possible for the next 200 years, because always in front of the Western Europeans was the remarkable success of the First Crusade. Through all of the suffering, through all of the images of martyrdom, through the images of exodus, they had achieved the almost impossible against hopeless odds. It was always assumed that yet one more Crusade could do it. And while they would lose Jerusalem, or the Muslims would close in on it, there was always the chance of retaking the city, and that would mean more Crusades for the Islamic world and Byzantium.

From the lecture series The Era of the Crusades
Taught by Professor Kenneth W. Harl, Tulane University