The Bloody Conquest of Jerusalem


So, I promised to look at events leading up to the terrible Templar defeat at the Horns of Hattin in 1187, but to understand that event – we have to run the film of history back nearly a hundred years to 1099.  It was in that year that the crusaders first conquered Jerusalem from its muslim rulers.

Hmmm….think I need to go back even further and give you a potted history of Jerusalem in one paragraph.  After all, context is everything.  You know what Jerusalem, according to the bible, was conquered by king David to establish his united kingdom of Israel and Judah somewhere round the 10th century BC.  Fast forward four hundred years, it becomes part of the Babylonian empire and the Jews are enslaved in Babylon before returning and many are now learned scribes who write the bulk of what we call the Old Testament.  Fast forward another two hundred years – and it becomes part of the Greek Empire of Alexander the Great and then part of the Roman Empire which rules it until the seventh century AD when first the Persians and then the new Islamic/Arabic wave from the south swallows it up.

Muslim rule is surprisingly light handed and one might even say tolerant to start with.  The surviving part of the eastern Roman empire, referred to now but not then as the Byzantine empire, shows its Greek heritage more than its Roman political roots and sometimes it comes very close to taking Jerusalem back but by 1099, the Byzantines were in trouble.  A new ethnic group, the Turks, had arrived in the Middle East, converted to Sunni Islam and were emerging as the top dogs in the muslim world.  The Byzantines appealed to the west for help against their territorial aggression, which brought their armies to the gates of the Byzantine capital Constantinople, and along came the crusades.

OK – that’s a pretty crude potted history but you get the drift.  The first crusade – the ‘People’s Crusade’ – was led by the messianic figure of Peter the Hermit who roused the poor in to ‘taking the cross’ and killing a lot of Jewish people along the way through Europe.  That crusade was a dire failure.  But the second crusade, a more conventional affair led by knights and lords, proved much more devastating for the Islamic east.  Moving through Constantinople, it took back key cities for the Byzantines and then descended on to Jerusalem.  By this time, the Byzantines and the western crusaders, drawn from modern day France, England, Germany and the Netherlands, had largely parted company – not least because having retaken Antioch in Syria, the crusaders broke their oath to the Byzantine emperor and refused to hand it over to him.  From now on, the spoils of victory were going to be theirs alone.

Fulk of Chartres chronicled the attack on Jerusalem and described how scaling ladders failed to get men over the mighty walls.  So the crusaders set about pounding the walls and setting fires.  With sheer brute force and plenty of cries of “God help us”, they broke down Saracen resistance and ploughed in to the city.  From then, a scene of bloody mayhem broke out.   This is how Fulk of Chartres described what happened next:

“Forthwith, they joyfully rushed into the city to pursue and kill the nefarious enemies, as their comrades were already doing. Some Saracens, Arabs, and Ethiopians took refuge in the tower of David, others fled to the temples of the Lord and of Solomon. A great fight took place in the court and porch of the temples, where they were unable to escape from our gladiators. Many fled to the roof of the temple of Solomon, and were shot with arrows, so that they fell to the ground dead. In this temple almost ten thousand were killed. Indeed, if you had been there you would have seen our feet colored to our ankles with the blood of the slain. But what more shall I relate? None of them were left alive; neither women nor children were spared.”

The wading through blood is something I had heard before but Fulk goes on to describe the Christian warriors making the unpleasant discovery that the local people had taken to swallowing their gold coins in order to protect their wealth.  Well, your average crusader wasn’t going to take that lying down.  I’ll let Fulk tell you what happened then:

“This may seem strange to you. Our squires and poorer footmen discovered a trick of the Saracens, for they learned that they could find byzants [note: a gold coin] in the stomachs and intestines of the dead Saracens, who had swallowed them. Thus, after several days they burned a great heap of dead bodies, that they might more easily get the precious metal from the ashes.”

Having killed lots of men, women and children and extracted gold coins from smoldering corpses – it was time for a religious celebration.

“Afterward, all, clergy and laymen, went to the Sepulcher of the Lord and His glorious temple, singing the ninth chant. With fitting humility, they repeated prayers and made their offering at the holy places that they had long desired to visit.”

Next post – the formation of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the formation of the Knights Templar.

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