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Downfall of the Crusader Kingdom
The Battle of Hattin and the Loss of Jerusalem
By W.B. Bartlett
The History PressCopyright © 2011 W.B. Bartlett
All rights reserved.
In the Beginning
For I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away ...
Revelation 21: 1
On 7 June 1099, a Crusader army arrived outside the walls of Jerusalem, following a nightmare journey that had lasted for four years. The city was in the hands of a Muslim garrison, as it had been for over four centuries, but the Christians moving menacingly towards the walls had no intention of letting it stay that way. For this was the city of their God, the place where Jesus had been crucified. Jerusalem belonged to Christ, not to the Infidel.
A major problem was that the city was holy for Muslims too. From the rock over which the dome that is still one of Jerusalem's greatest treasures had been erected, the Prophet Mohammed had ascended into heaven. The Prophet's followers did not recognise the name 'Jerusalem': to them, it was never known as anything except al-Quts, 'the Holy City'.
The garrison's desire to resist, no doubt built on genuine piety, was reinforced by the knowledge of what had happened to the Muslim defenders of the city of Antioch in the previous year. When the Crusaders had taken that city with the help of treachery from within, the result had been a slaughter of apocalyptic proportions. Jerusalem's defenders could expect little mercy from the ragged army that was approaching their city.
It was an equally worrying time for the Jewish population of Jerusalem. The city was precious to them also. Within its walls, centuries before Christ had died there, Solomon had erected his great Temple, which would become the most revered of all Judaic sites. Destroyed long ago, it was still a place of sacred memory to the Jews.
The Jews lived in relative harmony with their Muslim governors, who generally respected the religious freedoms of Jews and Christians alike. The greater threat to their life and limb came from the army outside the walls. In the early stages of their pilgrimage from Western Europe to the Holy Land, many Jews had been slain, their perceived association with the death of Christ making them a target for the more fanatical elements of the Crusader army.
The Crusader host provided a strange spectacle, for in its ranks were many non-combatants, women, old men, children, priests and artisans as well as warriors. And they had suffered horrendous loss on their journey so far. Tens of thousands had died, some in battle, some of exhaustion, some of disease, some of starvation. Others had turned back long ago. So this was a moment of supreme spiritual euphoria for those who were left.
For many of the masses, people largely without the ability to read or write, meaningful possessions or hope, the Holy City had mystical significance. They only knew of Jerusalem through the mass teaching received from their priests, who extolled its virtues as a city above all others and through whom they came to believe they were like the Israelites of old reaching the Promised Land. The monk Robert, who wrote an early history of Jerusalem, called it 'the navel of the world, a land which is fruitful above all others, like another paradise of delights'. Contemporary maps showed the city at the centre of the world, at the heart of their universe. It was a land of milk and honey, to some perhaps literally so, whose streets were paved with gold.
We find it hard to understand, from the standpoint of our increasingly secular society, how religious motivations can inspire ordinary people to undertake extraordinary actions. And yet even we can appreciate something of the mysterious and timeless lure of Jerusalem, if only because it continues to have a disproportionate impact on the affairs of our world even now.
One publication recently described the area around the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock as 'the most explosive piece of real estate in the world'. And so it was then. For the Crusaders, Jerusalem was the vision that enticed men, women and children to endure hardships of unbelievable severity, to live out terrible lives as slaves when they were captured in their droves, to die in their thousands by the roadsides of Europe and Asia Minor.
The reality of Jerusalem, an averagely sized, averagely wealthy city, was of no account to the humble pilgrims who fought their way across mountain, plain, desert and swamp towards their goal. It was, as one commentator has remarked, much more than a physical entity, it was 'before all else, a symbol. The Jerusalem of the Psalms, the celestial Jerusalem of the Apocalypse, lived in the heart of the faithful.'
It was also a literal gateway to heaven. If pilgrims died in pursuit of fulfilling their Crusader vows, then they would be rewarded in the next life. In a world where death walked cheek by jowl with life, sickness with health, famine with plenty, the world yet to come seemed every bit as real as, and often much more attractive than, transient, day-today existence. The juxtaposition of these two concepts, the mystical magnetism of Jerusalem on the one hand and the promise of spiritual rewards on the other, formed the heady brew that gave life to the Crusading movement.
This was truly an apocalyptic era. In the year 1000, many believed the world was about to come to an end, a fear again prominent in 1033 when the millennium of Christ's crucifixion fell. Everywhere, the shadow of death hung over man. Even today, evidence of this can be seen. The quiet and half-hidden church of Tarrant Crawford in Dorset was once adjacent to a monastic establishment. Its chief glory is its fourteenth-century wall paintings, much faded now but still clear enough to see and 'read' some of the images. One in particular is striking. It is of three kings out hunting who stumble across three skeletons who have come to remind them that death is coming, that one day even the great will turn to bones and dust.
It is important to understand from the outset the vastly different view of the world that Christian Europe had in the medieval period from that we have now. Without such comprehension, the immense sacrifice involved in Crusading makes no sense. Men believed that this life was just a proving ground for the next, and in that world to come a man would be judged by, and punished for, his actions on earth.
This First Crusade had been summoned by Pope Urban II at Clermont in France in 1095. It was an armed pilgrimage, sanctioned – indeed called for – by the Church, and in return for their participation those who fulfilled their Crusader vows would receive spiritual benefits that would ease their passage from this world to the next. Those vows usually involved completing a pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre, supposedly erected over the site of Christ's tomb and the holy of holies for Christians.
The call struck a chord because many were fully aware of their sin and believed that they could only avoid the horrors of Hell with the help of the grace of God. Their participation in the Crusade would help them in this quest. The appeal of Crusading therefore reached out to a society as a whole, not just to warriors, and the expeditions that had made their way east (for there were a number, not just one army) therefore represented a microcosm of the Western world at that time.
Urban had not been slow to seize on the opportunity offered by the fascination exerted by Jerusalem. In August 1096 he wrote to the people of Bologna that
we have heard that some of you desire to go to Jerusalem because you know that this would greatly please us. Know then that anyone who sets out on that journey, not out of lust for worldly advantage but only for the salvation of his soul and for the liberation of the Church, is remitted in entirety all penance for his sins.
To a deeply religious Christian society these rewards were extremely persuasive. Men and women had responded to Urban's appeal in their droves and left the little that they had behind them in France, Flanders and parts of Germany. As they advanced, more joined them in Central and Eastern Europe but their losses along the way had been immense. Those who were left, now ranged outside Jerusalem, were the chosen people from the waves that had set out, to whom God had awarded the greatest honour, that of recapturing His city for Christendom.
The masses assembled outside the forebidding city walls believed themselves to be the latter day Children of Israel. This was in every sense an exercise in religious expression. When early efforts to break through the walls were rebuffed, the Crusaders decided that they would march barefoot around the city, calling on God to help them. This was a revisiting of biblical episodes such as the procession of Joshua around the defences of Jericho, when his army had compassed the city daily until, on the last day that they did so, they let out a great shout and the walls fell down.
But this would be no easy conquest. The walls were substantial and those inside were fighting for their lives. The initial attempts of the Crusaders to break into the city were driven back. The days that followed were trying in the extreme. There was no water for 6 miles and when it was ferried into the camp in ox-hide containers it smelt vile. Food was short and so too was timber, needed to construct the siege engines that had to be built if the city were to be taken. So this also had to be carried in from miles away.
But the Crusaders were nothing if not persistent. The siege engines were erected and the city tightly invested. On 15 July came the breakthrough. On that day, the attack was relentless, resistance desperate. Suddenly, a knight named Lethold jumped across from a siege tower onto the walls of the city. Terrified by the sight of this avenging warrior charging towards them the defenders fled for cover. Emboldened at the sight, other Crusaders followed Lethold and charged into the heart of the city.
An anonymous contemporary chronicle, the Gesta Francorum, takes up the story:
Our pilgrims entered the city, and chased the Saracens, killing as they went, as far as the Temple of Solomon. There the enemy assembled and fought a furious battle for the whole day, so that their blood flowed all over the Temple. At last the pagans were overcome, and our men captured a good number of men and women in the Temple: they killed whomsoever they wished, and chose to keep others alive.
This fierce battle took place around the site of the Temple, holy for various reasons to Christians, Jews and Muslims. The battle here was not just one of survival but was also inspired by powerful religious emotion. Perhaps because of this, the resultant slaughter was awful. The same chronicler tells of soldiers wading up to their ankles in blood and of how men and women captured on the roof of the Temple were all beheaded. He talks of piles of the dead, 'as big as houses', of the terrible stench that hung over the city and almost exults over the extent of the massacre. The Kingdom of Jerusalem had had a violent birth, ushered in by a sea of blood.
The massacre was to have great repercussions, though not all were immediately apparent. It encouraged a desire for revenge among Muslims who saw the bloodletting as an awful stain on their reputation. Despite this thirst for vengeance, the perpetrators were able to find justification for their actions: for example when Joshua took Jericho then 'they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword'.
Other eyewitnesses recalled the End of the World, as foretold in the Book of Revelation. So vivid did these verses seem that some even quoted them in their accounts: 'the winepress was trodden without the city, and blood came out of the winepress, even unto the horses' bridles'. In other words, the slaughter in Jerusalem was not without biblical precedent.
The Crusaders' victory in Palestine owed much to the disunity of the Muslim forces that had been arrayed against them. The Islamic world was split into two major camps, the Sunni and Shi'a. The eastern half of Islam, simplistically modern Persia, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, was primarily a Sunni sphere of influence. Egypt on the other hand was mainly in the hands of the Shi'a Fatimids. These two major divisions of Islam were constantly at odds with each other – a situation that, again, continues to play itself out in our own times.
One of the fault-lines where these two major Muslim groupings clashed was in Palestine. As a result, when the Crusaders marched through Asia Minor and down the Mediterranean coast of Syria, resistance to their advance, though on occasion fierce, was largely disjointed. Unbeknown to the West, their invasion had been launched at the perfect time, a moment of relative weakness among the Muslims. But this turned out to be a short window of opportunity because within a few years things started to change for the worse.
A perennial problem for the new kingdom which came to be called Outremer – 'The Land beyond the Sea' – was how to raise enough men to defend the lands that had been so dearly won. There were not enough settlers to fight off the Muslims, particularly if the latter ever managed to unite. As partial compensation for this deficiency, regular influxes of Crusaders from the West helped to boost the forces available on a short-term basis. Large numbers of new recruits made their way to Palestine to complete a pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre. Forced to make their way across Asia Minor, major expeditions that set out for Outremer in 1101 were cut to pieces by the Turks in the region, now reunited and determined not to let the Crusaders pass.
From the start it was clear that Outremer was in a difficult position. If the Muslims united then it would be very hard for the kingdom to resist. The Muslims far outnumbered the Christians and had the advantage of logistics on their side: reinforcements and supplies could be moved throughout Syria or Egypt whereas any such commodities for the Kingdom of Outremer would have to make a months'-long crossing over the Mediterranean. The only saving grace for the Franks as the twelfth-century began was that Egypt and Syria served different masters. The Turkish fightback in Asia Minor in 1101 was a short-term phenomenon which did not yet presage a complete resurgence in Islamic fortunes.
In the aftermath of the triumph at Jerusalem several separate Christian principalities were created. The Kingdom of Jerusalem formed the most important part of Outremer, but principalities were established in Tripoli and Antioch too. The rulers of the latter sometimes saw the king in Jerusalem as primus inter pares (though at others they did not), but in practice operated with a good deal of autonomy.
The Kingdom of Jerusalem was like no other on earth in the sense that it was based around a city that had unique symbolic pathos for Christendom. So unusual was the situation that the first ruler of the kingdom, Godfrey of Bouillon, refused to accept the epithet of 'king' and instead adopted the title 'Defender of the Holy Sepulchre'. He humbly refused to declare himself a monarch when this was God's city. This reluctance to take on all the worldly trappings that normally went with kingship, however, did not survive his death: his successor, Baldwin I, had no such problems in calling himself a king.
In theory the King of Jerusalem was elected by his peers, but Outremer quickly developed many of the characteristics of Western monarchy. The crown partially became a hereditary possession, though there were certain crises that hit the realm when the absence of a suitable heir made this impossible, and on these occasions the expedient of election was adopted again. In theory, the barons of the kingdom were always required to elect a king, but in practice their choice normally fell on a close relative of the last monarch if there was a suitable candidate available.
While a series of laws was adopted to set the appropriate balance between king and state, and, initially, the monarchy was the preeminent institution, as the twelfth century advanced the nobility of the kingdom grew in power and the position of the king weakened in diametrical proportion. The change was to have profound results for the kingdom and would seriously undermine its foundations. Ambitious warlords were empowered by this shift in the balance of power to interfere much more in affairs of state, with unfortunate consequences.
In the early decades of the twelfth century the Kingdom of Jerusalem was lucky with its kings (or, as it would have been perceived at the time, it was protected by God, who ensured that the kingdom had a succession of capable monarchs). There were occasions when the monarchy was threatened, for example when King Baldwin II was captured in 1123 and spent years as a prisoner of the Muslims. But the strength of the new kingdom was evidenced by the way that the state managed to survive, and even to an extent thrive, while the king was out of commission.
Historians in times past have tended to see the kingdom as an extension of feudalism in Europe but this view is subject to increasing challenge and revision. Although the early settlers in Outremer inevitably brought with them their own paradigms of the world that influenced the design of the political structure they created, they also had their own vision that built in subtle variations from the institutions and norms they had left behind them in the West.
Excerpted from Downfall of the Crusader Kingdom by W.B. Bartlett. Copyright © 2011 W.B. Bartlett. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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