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Monday, May 30, 2022

The Achilles' Heel of the Crusader States

 North of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, three other crusaders states had been established: the County of Tripoli, the Principality of Antioch and the County of Edessa. The later two entities proved extremely vulnerable and Edessa would be the first of the crusader states to fall.


The crusader presence in Edessa was not the outcome of conquest. Baldwin of Boulogne had been invited by a local warlord and arrived in Edessa with just 60 knights. Edessa was an ancient and wealthy city that at the time of the First Crusede rivaled Antioch and Aleppo in importance. When in 1098 the First Crusade reached northern Syria, Edessa was in the hands of a Greek Christian warlord, the most recent “strongman” in a long line of short-lived warlords, who came to power by murder or popular acclaim ― only to lose favor rapidly and themselves be murdered or flee. Thoros fearing the fate of his predecessors if he could not fight off the ever present Turkish threat, sought help from the most recent military force to arrive on the scene: the crusaders. MacEvitt suggests convincingly that Thoros was making the same mistake that the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Comnenus had made, namely, of conflating crusaders with Frankish/Norman mercenaries. Thoros wanted the evidently proven military man Baldwin of Boulogne to come fight his battles for him; he never really thought he was inviting in a successor.
Baldwin, however, was not a mercenary. He rejected mere material gifts such as gold, silver and horses, in a bid for something more important still: power and control. When Thoros refused, Baldwin threatened to leave, and “the people” (by which one presumes the chroniclers mean the elites) insisted that Thoros give way. Thoros formally adopted Baldwin in a ceremony (telling) using Armenian relics and customs. Baldwin’s career would certainly have been as short-lived and as forgettable as that of the previous half-dozen “rulers” of Edessa, had he not proved astonishingly adept at building alliances with surrounding warlords, nobles and elites. That process started with the simple expedient of leaving the Armenian administration of the city undisturbed. Baldwin also adopted Armenian symbols and rituals, and he rapidly married into the Armenian aristocracy as well.  
When Baldwin of Boulogne was called away to Jerusalem to take up his elder brother’s mantle, he invited his cousin Baldwin de Bourcq to succeed him as ruler of Edessa. Baldwin II (as he was to be known in both Edessa and Jerusalem) was quick to take the opportunity, and his eighteen-year rule in Edessa truly established Frankish control over Edessa.
However, in 1112, the Principality of Antioch passed to a minor heir still resident in the West, and the regency was given to Roger of Solerno, the brother-in-law of King Baldwin II.  Antioch had been under sustain attack from the Seljuks since its inception, with incursions of greater or lesser strength recorded almost yearly. Subscribing to the philosophy that the ‘best defense is a good offense,’ Roger attacked at the first opportunity. His success in capturing a number of key cities around Aleppo by 1119, however, provoked two powerful Seljuk leaders, Tughtigin of Damascus and Il-Ghazi the ruler of Mardin, to form an alliance aimed at his destruction. 
The two Seljuk leaders fielded a combined army estimated at 40,000 men. In response, Roger called up all his own troops, including many native Armenians, and sent word to Jerusalem that he was under threat. Thinking his own force of 700 knights, 500 turcopoles and 3,000 to 10,000 infantry, was sufficient, however, he opted not to await reinforcements from Jerusalem. On 28 June 1119, Roger confronted his enemies only to suffer a devastating defeat. The Frankish casualties were so high that the battle has gone down in history simply as ‘the Field of Blood.’ Among the dead were Roger himself and virtually all his barons. In addition, Il-Ghazi slaughtered 500 prisoners the day after the battle, increasing Frankish losses. Il-Ghazi then began laying waste to the entire area with impunity; only the city of Antioch, with its massive walls and 400 towers, was comparatively safe. 
King Baldwin hurried north to try to stabilize the situation. He personally assumed the regency of the principality for the nine-year-old prince and prepared to confront Il-Ghazi with troops from the remaining crusader states. This unified Frankish force, however, failed to deliver a decisive knock-out blow. Although il-Ghazi became more circumspect, his army was still intact when Baldwin returned to Jerusalem, leaving the defense of Antioch in the hands of the neighbouring Count of Edessa. 
Three years later, Joscelyn of Edessa blundered into a Saracen ambush and was taken captive along with other leading nobles, leaving both Edessa and Antioch in a precarious situation. Baldwin II again rushed north to defend the flank of his kingdom, only to promptly be taken captive himself on 18 April 1123. It was more than a year before he could negotiate a ransom. After his release, he remained pre-occupied with the insecurity of the northern crusader states, although his absence from his own kingdom cause growing resentment among the barons of Jerusalem. Baldwin II ended up spending roughly 40 per cent of his reign in Antioch and Edessa rather than Jerusalem — without solving the problems there.
The north remained the Achilles heel of the crusader kingdoms for two reasons. First, the Byzantines had never been reconciled to the loss of Antioch, which had been an important part of their empire until only twelve years before the crusader capture of the city. This culminated in a Byzantine attempt to seize the city by force in 1138. The then Prince of Antioch, Raymond of Poitiers, only averted disaster by doing homage to Constantinople for Antioch and agreeing to hold the city as a vassal rather than an independent ruler. Second and more dangerous, the north was threatened by the increasingly powerful Seljuk ruler Imad al-Din Zengi of Mosul.
Zengi was an exceptionally brutal and ambitious ruler who spent most of his career attacking his fellow Muslims, which perhaps explains why Muslim chroniclers readily describe him as ruthless and merciless. He seized Aleppo in 1128, took Homs in 1138 and repeatedly laid siege to Damascus. To save himself from Zengi, the Sultan of Damascus turned to the Franks for support, and the Franks obliged. Yet while this tactical alliance between the Jerusalem and Damascus prevented the latter’s fall to Zengi, it gave him an excuse (if he needed one) to attack the Franks. 
In 1144, taking advantage of Joscelyn II’s temporary absence, Zengi assaulted Edessa. His army broke into the city on Christmas Eve and took the citadel two days later. After the death of Zengi in September 1146, Count Joscelyn briefly retook his city, only to be trapped between the citadel, still in Seljuk hands, and a new army brought up by Zengi’s son Nur al-Din. The result was a massacre of appalling proportions. Significantly, according to a contemporary Syrian Christian account, those who fell into the hands of the Seljuks alive were not merely killed but humiliated — forced to strip naked — and then tortured before being killed. This was not simply the application of the ‘rules of war,’ but a vindictive and cruel act, shocking to both Muslim and Christian contemporaries. Altogether 30,000 Christians lost their lives in the Seljuk capture of Edessa, while another 16,000 ended in slavery. Furthermore, the bodies of the slain were left to rot, the wells poisoned, the defenses destroyed, the city abandoned altogether. This tactic of not just killing and carrying off the inhabitants but rendering a city indefensible and uninhabitable for the foreseeable future foreshadows the tactics of the Mamluks more than a century later. Yet it was exceptional and hugely shocking at this point in time.

 This entry is partially based on an excerpt from Dr. Schrader's comprehensive study of the crusader states.


Dr. Helena P. Schrader is also the author of six books set in the Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades.


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1 comment:

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