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The Unlikely Conquest of Jerusalem during the First Crusade

Updated on April 10, 2011

 A Muslim, Fatimid soldier, standing within the strong, fortified Tower of David in early June of 1099, had little reason to worry.  Though an army of approximately 13,000 crusaders stood before the walls of Jerusalem, these Crusaders were hungry, demoralized, and most importantly, suffering from a severe shortage of water.  The Fatimid governor in control of Jerusalem, Iftikhar ad-Daula, had been preparing for this day, and had prepared well.  The walls of Jerusalem needing attention had been repaired and fortified, the water supplies outside of the city poisoned, and the Christians living within had been ordered out among the invaders: a measure that was obviously aimed at ensuring no betrayals from within could occur.1  Aside from these precautions, Jerusalem was garrisoned with additional troops, and a relieving army from Egypt was on the march, an army that would perhaps disperse the Christian army once and for all, if the walls of Jerusalem and its defenders could only hold. 

      But the walls did not hold, the defenders were not victorious, and this seemingly undisciplined and weakened army, suffering from hunger, thirst, and desperation, took the city in an astonishingly short amount of time.  The question to consider then, is how was this possible?  How did an army so far from home, with extremely limited resources and supplies, outnumbered and running out of time, successfully besiege one of the most powerful fortresses within the region?                                 Byzantium, during the period just prior to the First Crusade, was in a precarious position.  In the West, the Normans were conquering Byzantine territories in Italy, but much closer to home, Turkish hordes were raiding Anatolia and threatening the very fabric of the Empire. A military endeavor led by the Byzantine regent Romanus against the Seljuk Turks in Armenia proved to be disastrous.  In the Battle of Manzikert Romanus’s forces were annihilated, the regent was taken captive, and the Turks soon realized that there was little to dissuade them from entering Anatolia in much greater numbers. 2

     By the time Alexius Comnenus took the throne in 1081, little remained of Byzantine’s territorial holdings in Anatolia.  Western pilgrims wishing to visit Jerusalem were denied passage through the peninsula, and the Turkish Sultan Suleiman had established his capital at Nicaea, a city dangerously close to Alexius’ Constantinople.3  This then, was the state of things when Emperor Alexius sent word to Pope Urban II, asking for assistance against the Turkish threat.  While this was definitely the stimulus that caused Urban to propose the First Crusade at the Council of Clermont in 1095, for his audience, and the subsequent others who later hearkened to this call for action, the Crusade was not to assist the Byzantines per se, but rather to liberate Jerusalem and those Christians who were now in the hands of the “pagans.” 4

The Crusading armies, drawn largely from France, Germany and southern Italy, had reached Asia Minor in various contingents by the spring of 1097. Camped in the vicinity of Constantinople, these armies were a source of worry for Emperor Alexius, who saw little reason for them to not take the capital city of Byzantium prior to their hopeful conquest of Jerusalem and everything in between. Robert the Monk, who had accompanied the Franks, wrote in not so glowing terms about Emperor Alexius:

"As he saw the camp of the Lord grow and increase from one day to the next, the crafty Emperor- lacking in courage, devoid of sense and short on wisdom- began to get extremely angry. He had no idea what to do or where to turn, or where he should flee if it became necessary. He was terrified in case such a large army with so many soldiers might turn upon him…This, however, our men had no intention of doing, as they had no desire to fight against Christians."5

An uneasy truce defined the relationship between the Crusading leaders and Alexius, but aside from this suspicious alliance, the initial military strategy was agreed upon: to clear Asia Minor of the Seljuks.

Estimates concerning the size of the Crusading army vary between different eyewitnesses, but most modern sources agree upon a figure of about 35,000 foot soldiers and 5000 knights, the heavy cavalry of the day. Conflicts between the Crusaders and Muslims were, generally speaking, resoundingly successful for the Europeans. The first Crusaders reached Nicaea on May 6, 1097, and by June of that year it had been reclaimed for Byzantium.6 The Crusaders success continued against a large Turkish army at Dorylaeum, and after enduring eight months of a difficult siege (As well as nearly being destroyed), the Crusaders took the strategically important city of Antioch.7 Almost one year later, the Crusaders would surround Jerusalem, the holy city of Christendom and the coveted prize for their undertakings.

 The Muslim world during these years, though militarily strong, was in disarray.  Conflicts between Sunni Muslims, of whom the Seljuk Turks belonged, and the Shi’is, who’s power was centralized in Egypt under the Fatimid dynasty, were so inflamed that destroying each other took precedence over defeating the Christian threat.8  Disputes existed between the Turks as well.  The death of Seljuk Sultan Malik-Shah in 1092 resulted in a power struggle between his four sons,9 and while the Crusaders were taking Antioch, the Fatimids were battling the Seljuks for possession of Jerusalem.  Jonathan Phillips, in his book The Crusades 1095-1197, summarizes the situation well when he states, “…when Christians reached the area they were confronted by a series of small rival lordships more concerned with fighting each other than in defeating the crusade.”  Phillips also points out that, “the Muslims, unsurprisingly, failed to recognize the crusade as an army of religious colonization, and evidence suggests that they saw it as another raid from the Byzantine Empire rather than an army set on the capture and settlement of land.” 10 Obviously, misinformation was a crucial aspect of the crusader’s success as well.

The Crusaders who reached Jerusalem were a battle-hardened lot. For over two years they had endured starvation, extreme cold and heat, skirmishes, pitched battles, and sieges.  In fact, they had even endured the experience of being besieged, when during the conquest of Antioch the Crusaders found themselves trapped within the city, between Muslim armies outside the walls, and a substantial garrison within the inner citadel.  The culmination of all these hardships must have been advantageous for the Crusaders, for though they were about to endure some of the worst deprivation of their entire military operation, they had, to some extent, endured it all already.  And to come this far and meet defeat at the walls of the very city they hoped to conquer must have been nearly unthinkable. 

The city of Jerusalem was every bit as fortified as any city the crusaders had so far encountered, and probably more so.  Fulcher of Chartres, a chaplain to one of the crusading leaders, wrote about Jerusalem’s defenses in A History of the Expedition to Jerusalem:


It is generally conceded that the city is laid out in such a proper proportion that it seems neither too small or too large.  Its width from wall to wall is that of four bowshots.  To the west is the Tower of David with the city wall on each flank; to the south is MountZion a little closer than a bowshot; and to the east, the Mount of Olives a thousand paces outside the city.  The aforesaid Tower of David is of solid masonry half-way up, of large squared blocks sealed with molten lead.  Fifteen or twenty men, if well supplied with food, could defend it from all assaults of an enemy.11


The siege began on June 7, 1099, but was largely ineffective for more than a month. The Crusaders, in addition to suffering from thirst, were ill-equipped to take such a well-defended city. Even though the Crusaders fought aggressively, there were simply not enough ladders or siege machines to properly take Jerusalem. Bands of foraging parties were sent out often to search for water, and often these parties were ambushed and killed. However, for the most part, the Crusading army surrounding Jerusalem was largely unharrassed, a fact that greatly contributed to their victory.12 After nearly three weeks of little progress, the parched and disheartened Crusaders were saved by the arrival of English and Genoese ships to the port of Jaffa, a sea port north of Jerusalem that had been deserted by its Muslim defenders. The ships were laden with rations, as well as the tools and supplies necessary for the construction of siege machines.13

While the Crusaders may have been relieved by this much needed support, they remained dangerously low on water. Guibert de Nogent describes this problem in his The Deeeds of God through the Franks:

…the army was suffering from a terrible thirst, which compelled them to sew together the hides of cattle and oxen, in which they carried water from six miles away. They used the water carried in such bags, which were putrid with recent sweat, and multiplied the great suffering of caused by hunger, to make barley bread for the army…How terribly were their fine stomachs revolted by the bitterness of the putrid liquid.14

Interestingly, the severe water shortage, increasing the overall desperation of the crusaders, was probably a factor in the ferocity of their attacks. The Christian army was in a dire situation, compounded by the fact that an army from Egypt was fast approaching. For the next three weeks, the crusaders feverishly constructed ladders, catapults, battering rams, and siege towers: wheeled, wooden towers filled with men that could then be pushed up against the walls of the defending city, releasing its soldiers against the parapets. Perhaps the most devastating of the wooden war machines constructed by the crusaders though, was the trebuchet. A good description of this machine comes from John France in his book, Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades: “It was essentially a beam pivoted between two high uprights: when the beam was pulled at one end by a team of men, the other flew up until a missile was released in an arcing trajectory either from a cup, or more effectively, from a sling.” 15



The crusaders were now in position to seriously damage the defending city.  They were equipped with the necessary machinery to besiege Jerusalem, and, like a cornered beast, were hopelessly desperate to take the city, lest they die from thirst, or from the relieving army en route.  The final piece of the puzzle, morale, was now put into place.  Guibert de Nogent relates the event:

…before the attack took place, the bishops and priests directed the people who were their subjects to sing litanies, and to undertake fasts, to pray, and to give alms.  The bishops remembered what had once happened at Jericho, that the walls of the perfidious city had fallen when the Israelites’ trumpets sounded, and they marched seven times around the city...They too circled Jerusalem in their bare feet, their spirits and bodies contrite, as they tearfully cried out the names of the saints.  Both the leaders and the people came together in this time of necessity, to implore divine assistance.  When this was accomplished with great humility, on the sixth day of the week…they had attacked the city with great forcefulness.16

After this spiritual procession in the shadows of such a holy site, inspirational preaching ensued, exhorting the soldiers to take back the city of Christ for the Christians. 

            On the morning of July 15th, a section of wall on the north side of the city was taken by the Duke of Lower Lorraine, Godfrey of Bouillon and his soldiers.  This first breech of the city’s defenses was disastrous for the Muslim defenders.  Around the same time, in the southern section, Raymond of Saint-Gilles was fighting against Iftikhar and his men.  In desperation, Iftikhar retreated within the Tower of David, eventually exchanging the tower, and a good deal of money, for his life.17 Within hours, Jerusalem was a veritable bloodbath, and indiscriminate slaughter of its inhabitants ensued until the bloodlust of the crusaders had abated.  Against the odds, the armies of Christ had prevailed against the so-called pagans. 

            Success for the Crusaders can be accounted for in many ways.  The first, and probably most crucial reason behind their victory was the lack of coalescence among the Muslims throughout Asia Minor and the Levant.  Sunni and Shiite disparity was so intense and deep-seated that the destruction of each other was more favorable than the destruction of the Christians.  Had Muslim unity existed during this period, or even had the sons of the deceased Sultan Malik Shah put aside their power struggle for a mere six months, the outcome may very well have been much different. 

            Ignorance played a role as well.  Not only had the Seljuk Turks initially considered the Crusaders to be little more than raiding bands of Byzantines, Malik Shah’s first exposure against the undisciplined rabble under Peter the Hermit had led him to believe there was little to fear from these men.  This had a direct impact on the ease with which Nicaea was taken.  The first serious military action of the Crusaders, the siege of this city, would have most certainly failed had not the Seljuk Sultan, Kilij Arslan been fighting against Danishmend princes in the eastern region of his empire.  Kilij, having fought against the opportunistic, undisciplined army of Peter the Hermit, had little respect for the battle prowess of the crusaders.  Unfortunately for him, the real army had yet to reveal itself, and when it did, the consequences were disastrous for the Turk.  This siege helped to increase the experience of the crusaders who had had little exposure to such a massive undertaking, and it likely boosted Christian morale, as well as exposing them to the tactics, strategies and attitudes of their Turkish enemies.

            Muslim mistakes and disunity, while certainly fortuitous for the crusaders, were only a part of the overall reasons for their victories.  The planning which went into the First Crusade, the timely reinforcements, and the partial backing of Emperor Alexius were all factors.  Added to this were the military technologies held by the Europeans.  Chain mail, trebuchets, and the devastating charge of a heavily armored, battle-experienced knight, ensured that, win or lose, the Crusaders would make an indelible mark on the world of Islam.


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