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Monday, July 18, 2022

Siege and Surrender of Jerusalem 1187

 Returning to a chronological review of the history of the crusader states, I look today at the siege and surrender of Jerusalem following the Christian defeat at the Battle of Hattin.


 In the aftermath of Hattin, Jerusalem was flooded with refugees from the surrounding countryside and other parts of the kingdom. As many as 60,000 people are believed to have taken refuge there in the weeks following Hattin, bringing the total population to approximately 80,000. Accounts speak of people having to camp in the streets because there were no available lodgings. According to eye-witness accounts, there were 50 women and children for every man, and only two knights in the entire city.

While still outside Ascalon, Saladin asked Jerusalem to send a delegation to discuss surrender. Significantly, this delegation was composed of ‘burgesses’ and represented the people of Jerusalem, not the government or nobles. Noting that ‘Jerusalem was the house of God’, Saladin offered extremely generous terms: if no reinforcements arrived by Pentecost of the following year, the burgesses were to surrender the city in exchange for being allowed to depart with all their movable goods. The burgesses rejected these terms saying: ‘they would never surrender that city where God had shed His blood for them’.[i] Infuriated by their intransigence, Saladin vowed to initiate a bloodbath when he took the city.

Among those in the city were Queen Sibylla and the Dowager Queen Maria Comnena. The latter was Balian d’Ibelin’s wife, and the baron obtained a safe-conduct from Saladin to escort her and their four young children out of the city. The terms of the safe-conduct required him go unarmed and remain only a single night. On his arrival, however, Ibelin was besieged by the population, who begged him to remain in the city to organize the defense. The Patriarch absolved Ibelin of his oath to Saladin, and Ibelin informed the sultan of his situation. Saladin had no interest in a Byzantine princess being caught up in what promised to be a bitter siege and sent some of his Mamluks to escort Maria Comnena from Jerusalem to Frankish held Tripoli. Saladin also allowed Queen Sibylla to join her captive husband at Nablus. With no thought for her kingdom, her subjects or her God, Sibylla rushed to her husband’s side, putting the ruling queen of Jerusalem voluntarily in Saracen hands. This is perhaps the best evidence that her marriage to Guy was one of passion not political convenience.  

On 20 September 1187, Saladin’s army encamped around Jerusalem. For the next four days, the fighting was so bitter that the Arab chronicler Imad ad-Din fabricated ‘70,000 Frankish troops, both swordsmen and archers’[ii] to justify the failure of Saladin’s forces to overwhelm the defenders. The more reliable historian Ibn al-Athir makes no claims about the number of defenders but acknowledges: ‘Then began the fiercest struggle imaginable; each side looked on the fight as an absolute religious obligation.’[iii] He also reports that the Frankish knights made sorties in which they inflicted serious casualties. Another account claims that at least one such sortie drove the attackers all the way back to their camp.

On 25 September, Saladin redeployed his army against the northwest corner of the city. He employed sappers to undermine the walls, protecting them with artillery and cavalry so they could work unhindered. On 29 September a segment of the wall roughly 30 meters long collapsed. At this point the city was no longer defensible, although one last sortie out of the Golden Gate appears to have been aimed at capturing or killing Saladin, who was camped on the Mount of Olives. This sortie was rapidly driven back into the city.

On the following day, Ibelin sought terms. Saladin dismissed the proposal out of hand; one did not surrender a city already held. Ibelin countered that if he and his men had no hope of surrender, they would kill all the Muslim prisoners, the women and children, and then destroy the Holy Sites before sallying forth to seek a martyr’s death. Saladin was undoubtedly moved by the threat to the Holy Sites, which he had tried to protect by offering generous terms before the start of the siege.  He agreed to consult with his emirs about the offer, and after lengthy negotiations Ibelin secured a surrender. This gave those trapped in the city forty days to raise a ransom with which to buy their release.

The ransom was set at ten dinars per man, five per woman, and two per child. While this was ‘peanuts’ to the wealthy, for the poor and the masses of refugees who had already lost everything, such a ransom was simply impossible. Wages in this period ranged from between two and thirty-eight dinar per year.[iv] How was a widow with several children supposed to find nine, eleven or thirteen dinar? Ibelin had recognized the problem immediately and haggling over a lump-sum payment for the poor had drawn out the negotiations. Ibelin ultimately negotiated Saladin down from a demand of 100,000 dinar for the entire population to a lump sum of 30,000 dinar for 8,000 paupers, while the rest paid their own ransoms.

Ibelin had miscalculated. When the forty days were up, there were still roughly 24,000 inhabitants unable to make the payment. Only 8,000 were covered by the 30,000 dinars Ibelin had promised — funds paid, incidentally, by the Knights Hospitaller from money deposited with them by Henry II of England. This left 16,000 paupers with no ransom. Ibelin and the Patriarch offered to stand surety, while an effort was made to raise the necessary ransoms from abroad. Saladin turned them down, although as a gift he released one thousand poor without a ransom. Nevertheless, roughly 15,000 Christians could not be ransomed and went into slavery. Their fate is best described by Imad ad-Din in the following chilling passage:


Women and children…were quickly divided up among us, bringing a smile to Muslim faces at their lamentations. How many well-guarded women were profaned, how many queens were ruled, and miserly women forced to yield themselves, and women who had been kept hidden stripped of their modesty, and serious women made ridiculous, and women kept private now set in public, and free women occupied, and precious ones used for hard work, and pretty things put to the test, and virgins dishonoured and proud women deflowered…and  untamed ones tamed, and happy ones made to weep![v]

[i] The Old French Continuation of William of Tyre. Chpt. 49, 55.

[ii] Imad ad-Din. The Conquest of the Holy City. Translated by Francesco Gabrieli in Arab Historians of the Crusades. [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957] 154.

[iii] Ibn al-Athir, The Perfect History. Translated by Francesco Gabrieli in Arab Historians of the Crusades. [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957] 140.

[iv] These figures are very rough and involve multiple assumptions about exchange rates. Nevertheless, they represent the best attempt to estimate wages and cost of living in the Latin East undertaken by leading crusades archaeologist Professor Adrian Boas of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. See: Boas, Adrian. Domestic Settings: Sources on Domestic Architecture and Day-to-Day Activities in the Crusader States [Leiden: Brill, 2010] 228.

[v] Imad ad-Din, 163.

The bulk of this entry is 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. The siege of Jerusalem is described in detail in Defender of Jerusalem.


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