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Thursday, July 9, 2020

The Sack of Jerusalem - Revisited

On July 15, 1099, after a month long siege, the forces of the first crusade successfully broke through the defenses of the Egyptian garrison, crossed over the walls of Jerusalem and entered the Holy City. What followed has gone down in history as an atrocity of biblical proportions.  It is used to this day as a shorthand for all things vile and unjustified, and was cited an excuse for centuries of jihad, including the attacks of 9/11. It is even trotted out as evidence that Christianity itself is not a religion of peace.
Let's look at what happened -- and put it in context.

After two years of marching and fighting across 2,000 miles, only one in five of the men who had set out on a great armed pilgrimage to liberate Jerusalem from Saracen occupation reached Jerusalem. That is, four out of five crusaders had already given their lives through disease, starvation, cold, wounds or in combat. These roughly 10,000 survivors, of whom roughly 1,200 were knights, were insufficient to surround the city and cut it off from reinforcement and supply. In short, a siege which forced the city to surrender on terms, was virtually impossible.

Furthermore, a large Egyptian relief army was already on the way -- and the Egyptian garrison in Jerusalem knew about it. They had, therefore, no incentive to negotiate terms. They were not short of water, food or other supplies. Reinforcements were already on the way. All they had to do was wait two or three months, and then they could help obliterate the pathetic force camped outside the walls.

The only option available to the crusaders was to assault the city and hope to take it before the Egyptian field army fell on them. A first attempt on June 13 failed miserably with high casualties due to lack of ladders and siege engines. By a stroke of luck, shortly afterwards six Genoese and English vessels arrived in Jaffa carrying building materials. These and the ships themselves were used to construct siege engines outside Jerusalem. With great difficulty and in the face of fierce opposition, the siege engines were rolled into position against the walls of Jerusalem on July 14, 1099, but it was not until the following morning that troops under the leadership of Godfrey de Bouillon gained a foothold on the northern wall. His men then fought their way into the city and opened one of the gates from the inside, allowing the rest of the crusaders to flood in.

According to exultant Christian accounts, a massacre followed. The Gesta Francorum speaks, for example, of a slaughter so great that "our men waded in blood up to their ankles." Raymond of Aguilers is even more over the top writing: "men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins."

Yet the very absurdity of such a claim -- a claim ludicrous in its impossibility -- ought to alert even the most gullible reader that the account is not factual. Medieval readers, unlike modern readers, recognized that the image is taken directly from the biblical account of the apocalypse and was not intended to be taken literally. In short, the Christian accounts of the sack of Jerusalem do not even attempt to be factual.

On the one hand, these accounts, mostly written by clerics who had accompanied the crusaders, were written to make their patrons (the crusade's leaders) the heroes of the decisive conflict of their age. They were consciously reinforcing the self-image of men who saw themselves as the soldiers of God delivering victory over the forces of evil. In short, they eulogies of the victors -- a medieval literary form that had little relationship to reality in any context. On the other hand, the Christian accounts of the capture of Jerusalem were also intended to be symbolic. Their purpose was to conjure up images of Armageddon and suggest that the Saracens had met their Armageddon at Jerusalem on July 15, 1099.

In other words, the Christian sources are next to worthless in attempting to discover what really happened in Jerusalem on July 15, 1099. So let's turn to the Muslim sources. The most striking thing about these is that none of these are contemporaneous, or even nearly contemporaneous, with the event. That is, an assault and sack was was allegedly exceptionally, horrifically, unfathomably dreadful, unusual and unprecedented, didn't even rate a mention. There were appeals to the Caliph and other Muslim leaders to assist in reconquering Jerusalem, but these stressed the fact that Jerusalem had changed hands, that it was now controlled by "infidels" and "non-believers." The fact that Jerusalem was lost excited outrage, but not the manner in which it fell. Not a word was wasted on that.

The first Muslim accounts devoted to any kind of comprehensive treatment of the crusades were not written until half a century later and, like their Christian counterparts, are more religious tracts than histories. Nial Christie in his excellent study Muslims and Crusaders: Christianity's Wars in the Middle East 1095-1382, From the Islamic Sources concludes: "...later writers, many of whom were religious scholars, used their works as a means by which to teach moral lessons....[I]t is difficult to tell to what extent facts have been skewed to fit the writer's agenda...." (1)

In consequence, modern scholars of the crusades have looked beyond the chronicles of both the crusaders and their enemies to find other clues to what happened. For example, Jewish records from Alexandria provide proof that Jews from Jerusalem were ransomed. Dead men are not ransomed, so all allegations that the entire Jewish population of Jerusalem was massacred by the crusaders are false. There are also records of ransom negotiations for Muslim prisoners. So ends the legend that "all Muslims" were slaughtered by the crusaders. As for native Christians, these were expelled from Jerusalem before the crusaders even invested the city because the Fatimid garrison feared the native Christians might aid the crusaders. Based on the fragmentary evidence of these other sources, serious crusades scholars nowadays estimate that between 3,000 and 5,000 people (including the Egyptian garrison, i.e. troops) were slaughtered by the crusaders in their initial assault.(2)

The slaughter of three to five thousand people certainly qualifies as a massacre and an atrocity in the twenty-first century. Yet before we let our outrage carry us away, it is useful to put things into perspective. First, the right of a victorious army to put the inhabitants of a city taken by storm "to the sword" is as old as the Iliad -- if not older. Second, this was hardly the first time the Holy City of Jerusalem had been subjected to such a fate. In 614, for example, the Persians captured Jerusalem from the Byzantines after a 21 day siege and then massacred 26,500 men and enslaved 35,000 women and children.  In 1077, the emir Atsiz ibn Uvaq slaughtered "the entire population" of Jerusalem as punishment for an insurrection. Furthermore, in the thirty years before the crusaders' arrival, Jerusalem changed hands violently four times between Seljuks and Fatimids.

Other points of comparison are the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258. This was characterized not only by slaughter and plunder, but by the wanton destruction of priceless cultural monuments and treasures including mosques, palaces, hospitals and no less than thirty-six libraries. The Mongols are said to have turned books into shoes. The number of civilians slaughtered is estimated at 100,000 -- and possibly twice that -- leaving the city shattered and depopulated for generations.

Likewise, the savage sack of Antioch by Baybars provides perspective on the crusader assault on Jerusalem in 1099. In 1268, the Mamluk general ordered the gates of the city closed while his troops slaughtered every living thing inside -- and then he sent a letter bragging about his brutality to the Prince of Antioch, who had not been present. Below an excerpt:

The churches themselves were razed from the face of the earth, every house met with disaster, the dead were piled up on the seashore like islands of corpses…You would have seen your knights prostrate beneath the horses’ hooves…your women sold four at a time and bought for a dinar of your own money… your Muslim enemy trampling on the place where you celebrate mass, cutting the throats of monks, priests and deacons upon the altars…your palace lying unrecognizable…. (3)

The scale of destruction shocked the world, including the Muslim world, and was recognized at the time as the worst massacre in crusading history. It too destroyed the economic prosperity of the city, turning it into a ghost-town for generations to come. To this day it has not recovered its prominence as a cultural, intellectual, political and economic center. 

The slaughter of the garrison and civilians during the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 besmirches the reputation of crusaders, but it was not unprecedented, exceptional or extraordinary either in its scale or violence.

(1) Niall Christie, Muslims and Crusaders: Christianity's Wars in the Middle East, 1095-1382, From the Isalmic Sources [New York: Routledge, 2014] 21.

(2) Thomas F. Madden, The Concise History of the Crusades [New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014] 32. Also Andrew Jotischky, Crusading and the Crusader States [New York: Pearson Longman, 2004] 60.

(3) Baybars letter translated by Francesco Gabrieli in Arab Historians of the Crusades [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957] 311.

1 comment:

  1. People whose mentalities cannot put aside their twenty-first century mentality have no business reading about history, much less are they qualified to comment on it.

    Another outstanding piece, Professor. Looking forward to more.


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