On 27 November 1095, in the town of Clermont in central France, Pope Urban II called on Western Christianity to organize an army to free the Holy Sepulchre from the hands of the infidel. In the following year a great crusade was organized and set out for the East. On the morning of 7 June 1099 the army of the First Crusade arrived at a hill subsequently known as Montjoie, from where they could see Jerusalem in the distance. This was probably Nabi Samâwil, one of the highest hills in the Judaean Mountains and traditional site of the burial place of the prophet Samuel, located 7.5 km north-west of Jerusalem. By dusk they were camped outside the city walls. The six week siege of Jerusalem, the culmination of the three years of the First Crusade, began.
According to the Frankish chronicler, William, archbishop of Tyre, on the Frankish side there were some 1,500 knights, 20,000 foot-soldiers and 18,500 followers. On the Muslim side there were an estimated 40,000 well-equipped soldiers. Iftikhâr al-Dawla set up his headquarters in the citadel (the Tower of David) located beside the western gate, and the citizens, mostly Muslims and Jews, were stationed along the entire length of the walls. Accounts vary as to the initial deployment of the Crusading army on 7 June. According to William of Tyre, it was concentrated in the north-west of the city, ‘from the gate known today as St Stephen, which faces north, to the gate which lies below the Tower of David on the west side of the city’. Count Raymond of Toulouse initially took up a position opposite the wall, between the citadel and the northwestern corner. The Italian Norman, Tancred, faced Qasr al-Jâlûd (sometimes known as the Quadrangular Tower and later as Tancred’s Tower) at the north-west corner of the city, and further to the east along the northern wall were Robert of Normandy, Robert of Flanders and, at the centre of the northern wall near Damascus Gate, Godfrey of Bouillon. The description by Albert of Aachen (Aix), however, places Godfrey opposite the Tower of David to the west, with Tancred to his left, Raymond of Toulouse to his right, Robert of Flanders and Hugh of St Pol behind and Robert of Normandy with Conan of Brittany at Damascus Gate.
The first major action was an ill-prepared and fundamentally pointless direct attack on the walls that took place on 13 June. The attack, which perhaps was dictated by the spiritual mood of the troops rather than by military considerations, was doomed to failure from the start. In medieval warfare a castle or walled city could not be taken without a good supply of timber needed for the construction of ladders and siege machinery. As noted earlier, the Crusader armies had almost none. The Muslims had probably destroyed whatever forests survived around Jerusalem before they arrived. Fulcher of Chartres wrote that the princes had ordered wooden ladders to be made but complained that there were too few of them, resulting in the abandonment of the attack. The anonymous author of the Gesta Francorum wrote that if the scaling ladders of the Franks had been ready the city would have fallen. He does record the use of one ladder, noting that after breaking through the barbican the Franks set it up against the great wall.
But scaling ladders alone were clearly not sufficient for a full-scale attack on a strongly fortified city. Although ill-conceived, the motivation for this direct attack is not difficult to understand in light of the difficult terrain, which greatly diminished the likelihood of an effective blockade of the walls, essential to carrying out a siege. It was obvious that the Fatimids would reply in force to the Crusader advance into their territory and to their attack on Jerusalem. It was essential for the Crusaders to occupy the city as soon as possible and to place the walls of Jerusalem between themselves and the Fatimid army.
The predictable failure of the direct attack resulted in the Crusaders taking a more sober approach to the problem. With the weariness and despondency of the army, the heat and lack of supplies and the impending threat from Egypt, a protracted siege was not a real option. As time was of the essence, the Crusader leaders moved in two directions: on the one hand they attempted to improve the morale of the troops by reawakening their dormant religious feelings through sermons, fasts and prayer, and on the other they made an effort to obtain the wood needed to build siege machinery, making do with what they could find. According to Fulcher of Chartres, battering rams and sows (movable roofed structures used during a siege to approach a wall without being exposed to fire) were prepared, and a tower was constructed ‘from small pieces of wood because large pieces could not be secured in those regions’. Non-combatants were sent to Bethlehem to gather branches and twigs to make coverings for assault machines. The Franks also moved further afield in their search for timber.
On 8 July a barefoot march around the walls was led by priests with crosses and holy relics, ending on the Mount of Olives where a sermon was preached by Arnulf of Choques. The fighting spirit was restored. If the Crusaders had hoped that this march would precipitate a biblical collapse of the walls they were disappointed. However, the search for timber to build siege machinery was at last successful. Wood was found over 50 km distant, near Nablus. Also, according to Albert of Aachen, a local Christian showed the Franks where to find timber four miles towards Arabia (east). William of Tyre records that timber was found six or seven miles distant and that it was used to build siege machines: mangonels (or petraries), rams and scrophae (sows). Ralph of Caen records that Tancred, who was suffering from dysentery and sought privacy during one of the searches for wood, came upon a cave containing some 400 beams of wood conveniently left there by the Fatimids, perhaps from their siege of the Seljuks. Another conveniently timed event was the arrival of Genoese ships at Jaffa on 17 June. At the same time a large Fatimid fleet approached Jaffa. Rather than having their ships sunk by the Muslims, the Genoese dismantled them and withdrew to the citadel. They then accompanied their dismantled ships to the outskirts of Jerusalem, where the construction of siege engines commenced.
According to the Gesta Francorum, when the defenders discerned the construction of the siege weapons, they reacted by strengthening the fortifications and increasing the height of the defences. The Frankish siege machines included three large siege towers, which were placed on Mount Zion and at two different positions on the northern wall. These were the only parts of the city’s defences where the natural topography allowed the use of siege towers, which could only be used on fairly flat terrain. The Gesta relates that it took the Franks three days and three nights to fill the ditch and bring the towers up to the walls. Two of the towers were partly destroyed in the fighting but the third, under the command of Godfrey of Bouillon, was brought up against the forewall east of St Stephen’s Gate (Damascus Gate). On Friday 15 July, a battering ram was used to knock down the barbican. According to William of Tyre, the fighters in the siege engines ignited sacks of straw and cotton, spreading black smoke onto the ramparts and causing the defenders to abandon their positions. At nine o’clock two Flemish brothers, Lethold and Gilbert of Tournai, mounted the wall, followed by Duke Godfrey, and entered the city. The Franks later raised a cross on the wall at this place to commemorate the event. Godfrey sent a number of knights to open the northern gate and the entire army entered the city.
In the south, on Mount Zion, Raymond of Toulouse’s men scaled the walls with ladders and ropes and entered the city. The Muslim defenders fled to the citadel. After negotiations, the Fatimid commander surrendered the citadel to Raymond; in return the Muslim and Jewish fugitives who had taken refuge there were permitted safe passage to the coastal city of Ascalon.
However, the fate of most of the population of Jerusalem was less fortunate. The First Crusade ended true to form. The slaughter of the Jewish communities in the Rhineland in 1096 and of the Muslims in the town of Magharat an-Nu‘aman near Antioch in January 1099 was not to eclipse the massacre carried out by the Crusaders during their first three days in Jerusalem. There are a number of graphic descriptions of this slaughter. Part of the population sought refuge on the roof of the al-Aqsa Mosque. They were promised the protection of Tancred and the banners of Tancred and Gaston of Béarn were displayed as proof of this, but they were slaughtered nonetheless. In the words of Raymond of Aguilers: ‘wonderful sights were to be seen. Some of our men – and this was the more merciful course – cut off the heads of their enemies; others shot them with arrows so that they fell from the towers; others tortured them longer by casting them into the flames. Piles of heads, hands and feet were to be seen in the streets of the city.’ Muslim and Jewish captives who had somehow escaped the slaughter were employed to dispose of the dead, and contemporary accounts paint a horrible picture reminiscent of atrocities in more recent times. One Frankish source, the Gesta Francorum, notes that the Crusader leaders ‘commanded that all the Saracen corpses should be thrown outside the city because of the fearful stench, for almost the whole city was full of their dead bodies. So the surviving Saracens dragged the dead ones out in front of the gates, and piled them up in mounds as big as houses.’ According to Raymond of Aguilers: ‘It was necessary to pick one’s way over the bodies of men and horses . . . in the Temple and porch of Solomon, men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins . . . The city was filled with corpses and blood.’ The corpses were so numerous that when Fulcher of Chartres visited the city five months later, the foul odour was still overwhelming: ‘Oh, what a stench there was around the walls of the city, both within and without, from the rotting bodies of the Saracens slain by our comrades at the time of the capture of the city, lying wherever they had been hunted down!’
These graphic and appalling accounts of the events should however be regarded with reservation as to their accuracy. The Christian sources no doubt exaggerate the magnitude of the slaughter, probably motivated by pride in the extent to which they were carrying out the papal call to destroy the gentiles (infidels). The Muslim sources exaggerate the number of dead in order to gain sympathy and emphasize the barbarity of the Crusaders. The description of Ibn al-Athîr illustrates the unreliability of the details. He writes: ‘In the masjid al-Aqsâ the Franks slaughtered more than 70,000 people.’ This number far exceeds even the highest estimate of the entire population of Jerusalem at the time of the siege. Fulcher gives nearly 10,000 killed in the Temple of Solomon, as does William of Tyre, who adds no less than 10,000 for the rest of the city. While it is clear that the massacre was on a large scale, Benjamin Z. Kedar has recently presented a new perspective, suggesting that the various horrendous accounts of the massacre are perhaps more in the nature of religious narratives in the tradition of apocalyptic texts than historically accurate descriptions of the events. This was the ‘baptism by fire’ from which the new ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ was to arise.