The First Crusade: The Siege of Antioch and Fall of Jerusalem

From a lecture series presented by Professor Kenneth Harl, Ph.D.

In October of 1097, after a horrendous four-month march across Asia Minor, which only half of the original army survived, the main force of Crusaders converged to focus on a successful siege of Antioch.

Painting of the Siege of Antioch, Jean Colombe for article on the first crusade
Siege of Antioch, Jean Colombe

The Siege of Antioch: Approaching the City

Antioch is situated in the great Amuk Plain, an extremely fertile area, where there are a lot 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.

Learn more: Urban II Unleashes the First Crusade

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 passed into Turkish control only in 1086, just after the Byzantines had paid for a state-of-the-art renovation of the walls.

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 a 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.

Learn more: The People’s Crusade

Laying the Siege

Image of Bohemend of Taranto
Bohemond of Taranto

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. 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.

Learn More: The Crusades

In the case of the second rally, in February of 1098, Bohemond carried out remarkable tactical victories. He took 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.

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He attacked them, drew them over the bridge and into an ambush, destroyed the front forces, 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 you would associate with these warriors from northern Europe.

Looming Armies and the Betrayal of Antioch

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.

Bohemond I

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 2, would march west, as if they had given up. The Turkish garrison relaxed. The Crusaders marched into the evening, then, at midnight, stopped, turned around, and marched back to the city.

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.

Learn more: The Conquest of Jerusalem

Besieging the Crusaders

In 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, 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.

Painting of the Capture of Antioch by Bohemond of Tarent, by L. Gallait
Capture of Antioch by Bohemond of Tarent, by L. Gallait

The Road to Jerusalem

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.

In the spring of 1099, equally audaciously, these Crusaders, or roughly half of the forces that took Antioch, marched more than 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.

Painting of "Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, 15th July 1099" by Giraudon, The Bridgeman Art Library
“Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, 15th July 1099” by Giraudon, The Bridgeman Art Library

Learn more: Crusaders Capture Jerusalem—1099

Entering the Holy City

The Crusaders had achieved what no imperial army had 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.  They had able leaders. 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 that enabled them to take this city.

Image of A Battle of the Second Crusade
A Battle of the Second Crusade

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 the suffering, through all the images of martyrdom, through the images of exodus, they had achieved the almost impossible, hopeless odds.

It was always assumed that yet one more Crusade could do it. And although 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.

Keep Reading:
The Impossible First Crusade
The Third Crusade: The Great Kings
The Rise of Europe in the Middle Ages

From the Lecture Series: The Era of the Crusades
Taught by Professor Kenneth Harl, Ph.D.

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