To medieval man, God was as near as the cross he wore around his neck. Near, too, was heaven: war, pestilence and famine combined to give medieval man so slippery a grip on life that fewer than half those born would see maturity, and 30 years was the average man's life span. With eternity so close at hand, the poor, illiterate, overworked and underfed common man, unable to satisfy his hunger for life on earth, focused his hopes on heaven. Fortunately, the path to paradise was clearly marked by the signposts of prayer, penance and pilgrimage, and in following them medieval man devoted his best energies.
Which road to heaven one took was determined mainly by geographical accident. For those born in Europe, it was that espoused by the Catholic Church of Rome. In the Byzantine Empire it was the Greek Orthodoxy of Constantinople. In the eastern Mediterranean and across North Africa into Spain it was Islam. But though the roads were different, their starting points were the same—the sanctified soil of Jerusalem. It was probably inevitable, therefore, in a world and an age when spiritual leadership derived considerable vitality from temporal power, that Christianity and Islam would one day collide over possession of a city holy to both.
That the fateful confrontation did not occur until 461 years after the conquest of Jerusalem in 638 under Muhammad's successor, the Caliph Omar, is attributable to some extent to the moderation and tolerance of the city's Muslim rulers. For the Koran decrees that Christians, along with Jews and Zoroastrians, are with Muslims "People of the Book" who, through belief in a single omnipotent God, share His protection. It was thus that nuns, priests and rabbis tended their shrines and observed their sacred rites in Jerusalem with little interference, and that the Patriarch of Jerusalem could write of the Muslim lords: "They are just and do us no wrong nor show us any violence."
Peace in the Holy Land was a powerful inducement to Christian pilgrimage in the Middle Ages. In the eighth century, six European pilgrimages were made to Jerusalem in safety. Then as later, of course, pilgrims paid a tax in return for protection against banditry in the Holy Land, a protection few European kings could guarantee in their own dominions in the Dark Ages. The ninth century saw 12 pilgrimages, and the 10th, 16. In the 11th century the number rose to 117, including one of 11,000 worshippers. Then as the nomadic Seljuk Turks swept in from the East, captured Jerusalem in 1070 and ended the mild rule of the Fatimid caliphs, they came to an abrupt end.
Worse yet, from the standpoint of European security, the Byzantine Empire, having guarded the ramparts between the West and successive hordes of barbarian invaders from the steppes of Asia for more than 700 years, was now suffering from senile decay. Its motley mercenary army had just been annihilated at Manzikert near Lake Van by a Seljuk horde whose general was ordered by Turkish Sultan Alp Arslan to "Win, or be beheaded!"—and managed not only to keep his head, but to push the Greeks back the length of Asia Minor to the shores of the Bosphorus. Greek Emperor Alexius I Comnenus, observing with dread the Turks' progress toward his capital, already threatened on his European approaches by periodic Bulgar, Norman, Patzinak, Cuman and Russian incursions, appealed to the West for help against the invader. He urged haste, shrewdly pointing out that should Constantinople fall, all eastern Europe would be open to the Turk (a prediction borne out after the city was finally vanquished in 1453, and the Turks poured through the Balkans as far as Vienna). And he added, perhaps unnecessarily, that it is better to fight the enemy on foreign ground than wait until he is at one's doorstep.
The appeal had been made before—and ignored in the West—by Alexius' predecessor Emperor Michael VII to Pope Gregory VII immediately after Manzikert. But now a statesman of vision, Pope Urban II, occupied the throne of St. Peter, and he saw in Alexius' plea an instrument to unite Christendom under the papacy. He saw that war against the Turks would not only usefully divert the energies then expended by Christians in killing other Christians in sterile dynastic disputes, but simultaneously strengthen the Church, the only supranational power capable of directing a common European enterprise. In saving the Byzantine Empire he hoped, furthermore, that a grateful Greek Orthodox Church could be induced to reunite with Rome. Such was the bold vision of Urban II, who molded a simple appeal for troops into the basis for the climactic struggle of the Middle Ages.
Fortune favors the brave; it positively showered blessings on Urban's enterprise. The recent baptism of Slavs and Magyars had opened up a secure passage through the Balkans for Christian troops en route to the Holy Land. The predicament of Constantinople, halfway along the land route to the Holy Land, assured troops from Europe the warmest of welcomes in the Byzantine capital which was, not incidentally, the most impregnable land and sea base in the eastern Mediterranean. Or, if an offensive by sea was deemed desirable, the powerful fleets of Genoa, Pisa and Venice, which had already cleared the western Mediterranean of Muslim shipping, were available. The arbalest, or cross-bow, firing a winch-tensioned iron arrow capable of piercing the thickest eastern armor at great ranges, was now standard European infantry equipment; a succession of popes had forbidden this genocidal weapon, but generals used it anyway. As for manpower for an army, since the year 1000 population in Europe had shot up well beyond the ability of agriculture to support it, and the cold, starving multitudes dreamed longingly of the warmth and abundance of the Middle East, the proverbial land of milk and honey. To lead them was an abundant supply of ambitious younger sons of noble rank, whom the laws of primogeniture excluded from an inherited livelihood, and whose only expectation was what they could carve out for themselves by feats of arms. The Muslim foe against whom the Europeans would pit their strength was, moreover, in sad disarray, fighting other Muslims with as much ferocity as if they were Christians. Finally, the long and so far successful Christian reconquest of northern Spain with the Church's hearty blessing had accustomed Europeans to think in terms of irredentist holy wars, particularly if they had any chance of success.
How influential were these considerations on Urban II's decision to proclaim a holy war is unknown, but they must have weighed heavily in the mind of that pontiff when in 1095 he journeyed to France to sound out national sentiment on his project. The reactions were so uniformly favorable that on November 27, speaking at the Council of Clermont, this first French pope cannily appealed to the nationalistic feelings of his audience of Roman cardinals, 13 archbishops, 225 bishops, 400 priests and unnumbered thousands of Frenchmen, in the most speech of the Middle Ages.
"O race of Franks! race beloved and chosen by God! ... From the confines of Jerusalem and from Constantinople a grievous report has gone forth that an accursed race, wholly alienated from God, has violently invaded the lands of these Christians, and had depopulated them by pillage and fire ..." He dilated on the sacrilege and tortures of the Muslims and their defilement of the holy places, and contrasted their depravity with the bravery, determination and spirit of sacrifice of those present, and concluded with an exhortation to holy war: "Let your quarrels and. Enter upon the road to the Holy Sepulcher; wrest that land from a wicked race, and subject it to yourselves. Jerusalem is a land fruitful above all others, a paradise of delights. That royal city, situated at the center of the earth, implores you to come to her aid. Undertake this journey eagerly for the remission of your sins, and be assured of the reward of imperishable glory in the Kingdom of Heaven!"
The awed silence that greeted his words was suddenly broken by a thunderous cry from the crowd: Deus Vult! Deus Vult! "God wills it! God wills it!" Some noblemen present fell on their knees and consecrated lives and fortunes then and there to the coming battle, and thousands of the peasantry did likewise. Pope Urban, deeply moved by the spectacle, then exclaimed, "It is the will of God, and let this memorable word be forever adopted as your cry of battle ... His cross is the symbol of your salvation. Wear a cross on your breast, as a pledge of your sacred and irrevocable engagement."
For the next nine months Pope Urban II preached the Crusade throughout France, fanning the fires of popular fervor. He offered inducements hard to ignore: to kings he offered cheap land sold to them by barons joining the Crusade; to the barons, all the land they could conquer in the East; to the serfs, freedom from feudal obligations and remission of their sins; to the clergy, release from monastic discipline; to merchants, profits from provisioning the armies; to all, glory serving under the banner of Jesus Christ.
Although Urban appointed August 15, 1096, as the day for the Crusade to begin, more impatient spirits, oblivious of the logistical requirements for successful foreign campaigning, rushed headlong toward the East. Led by a barefoot old monk called Peter the Hermit, whose one asset was a powerful charisma, thousands of peasants, reportedly, dropped whatever they were doing when they heard him speak, and took to the road—men, women and children, all in a jumble. By the time he reached Cologne in April, 1096, Peter the Hermit's ragged horde had grown to 15,000. Preceded by an even more motley crowd of peasants following an ass and a goose they believed divinely inspired, Peter and his pathetic group, now 20,000 strong, set out on the usual route up the Rhine and Neckar valleys to the Danube, then down into Hungary. Despite their almost complete lack of provisioning, their mixture of the young, the old and the feeble, their total indiscipline, these ardent crusaders covered up to 25 miles a day when the roads were good, easily on a par with the best modern infantry units.
Not until they reached the Balkans did their "requisitions" on the countryside excite mass reprisals: there an argument with Hungarian merchants over a pair of shoes flared into a battle that left 4,000 Hungarians dead, whereupon the Hungarian king turned his soldiers loose with appalling effect: more than half of the Hermit's people were captured or killed.
In Constantinople, to which the survivors managed to struggle, the Emperor Alexius was understandably upset by the noisome French and German rabble, and he wasted no time in transporting them across the Bosphorus into Asia with the advice to await regular military forces. The wise counsel was ignored. Peter's peasants ravaged the countryside and captured a Turkish citadel, thus rousing the hostility not only of the Turks who routed them, but of fellow Christians. Only 3,000 of the remaining crusaders escaped death or slavery. Still, their fate was better than that of three other People's Crusades that soon followed: of each group of more than 10,000, less than a handful survived the aroused Hungarian populations through whose midst they had to pass to reach safety in Constantinople. Thus the only result of the People's Crusades were thousands of deaths at the hands of other Christians.
The fate of the People's Crusades demonstrated to Europe that the Holy Land was not to be won by faith alone. Fortunately for its cause, though no kings stepped forth (ironically France's Philip I, England's William II and Germany's Henry IV were all under papal sentence of excommunication when the Church needed them) champions were not lacking: men like the chaste, handsome, yellow-haired Godfrey of Bouillon, Duke of Lower Lorraine; his brother, the cold, luxury-loving Baldwin; the ambitious Norman Bohemond of Taranto in southern Italy; Bohemond's cousin Tancred, all knightly virtue and chivalric spirit; the easygoing Robert, Duke of Normandy, son of William the Bastard who conquered England; the saintly Adhemar, Bishop of Puy, whom Urban designated as the spiritual leader of the Crusade; and the aged Raymond, Count of Toulouse, vain and obstinate, yet also courteous and devout. The First Crusade—the first 'official' crusade— was thus almost wholly a French enterprise, so that to this day western Europeans are known in the Middle East generally as frangis, Franks.
Selling their lands to raise armies, the nobles moved in four great, disciplined waves through Europe to Constantinople, causing scarcely a ripple as they passed through the Balkans. But in the Byzantine capital, Alexius II and his court viewed with dismay the approach of the Europeans. Having seen the destruction of Peter the Hermit's savage mobs, with good reason the Greeks feared their better-armed, better-led countrymen. Indeed, even before they saw the city walls over the horizon, the Crusade's leaders were arguing among themselves whether it might not be wiser to forego the dangers of campaigning in Asia, and instead sack Constantinople, possibly the richest city in the world.
Alexius, ruler of a city where intrigue was a fine art, dissimulated his fears, received the nobles with extravagant ceremonies, awed them with his riches, flattered them, entertained them, bribed them, made promises he had no intention of keeping—and all the while kept their unruly troops safely outside his walls. After months of leisurely negotiation, in which the crusaders demanded material aid for the coming battles, in return for which Alexius at last wrung from them an oath of fealty, making him suzerain of their future conquests, the Frankish nobles permitted the Greeks to ferry them and their troops across the Bosporus into Asia Minor. Alexius sighed with relief at the prospect of the coming battle, the outcome of which, by weakening two powers both covetous of his empire, would benefit him no matter who won.
In Asia, the 30,000 Franks, who crossed the straits early in 1097, advanced immediately on Nicaea, the Seljuk capital, only 50 miles from Constantinople but a two-week march across rugged ground. Nicaea, with its four miles of walls and 240 stone towers, was impossible to assault, so the crusaders laid siege to it—and were themselves forthwith surrounded by a large Turkish relieving force. They turned on their foe, routed them utterly, and forced the demoralized garrison in Nicaea to surrender after only a month.
The elated crusaders pushed on southeast across Anatolia, in two detachments which in the euphoria of victory neglected to keep in communication. The leading crusading army advanced straight into an ambush by the Turkish Sultan Kilij Arslan and a large Seljuk force near Dorylaeum, and was being decimated under a rain of arrows when suddenly the second crusader army appeared over the horizon and put the startled Turks to flight. It was a significant victory against a Turkish adversary accustomed to defeating Christian armies, and the crusaders marched the 500 remaining miles through Anatolia without serious opposition except from thirst, hunger, mountains and deserts, which claimed more lives than the Turks had yet taken.
Four months after leaving Constantinople the crusaders debouched on the plain of Antioch, the great city with almost impregnable defenses that stood astride the route to the Holy Land. Antioch was a many-horned dilemma: too dangerous to be left in the crusader rear, too well-provisioned to starve into submission, too strong for frontal assault, too united to subvert. While the crusading armies settled around the city's walls in unenthusiastic siege, one Frank, the artful Baldwin of Boulogne, kept firmly in mind the reason he had come to the Orient. With his small but highly mobile force, he struck due east across the Euphrates headwaters to Edessa, which he conquered, and made capital of a patchwork state comprising mostly Christian Armenian administrators and artisans and Muslim vassals, with Baldwin's military caste as the new nobility. For the seigneur of Boulogne, now the Count of Edessa, the Crusades were over.
For the rest, they were beginning in earnest. Antioch, which the Gesta Francorum calls "extremely beautiful, distinguished and delightful," was the anvil on which the First Crusade was tempered in the heat of battle and the icy winter of 1097. There, where St. Peter founded his first bishopric, the Muslims rested serenely on bulging granaries behind fortifications 10 centuries in the building, and watched with equanimity the crusading army starving outside the walls. By Christmas, stocks of food in the Christian camp were nearly exhausted, and the men were reduced to eating harness leather. One man in seven would soon die of hunger.
Fighting, meanwhile, had so far been limited to Turkish sorties from the city gates, and vain attempts by the crusaders to find a weak spot in Antioch's 12 miles of solid walls up to 60 feet high and interspersed with 400 turrets from which instantly poured a hail of missiles at the sight of a Christian face. It finally became apparent to the crusaders, indifferent siege engineers at best, that they would never take Antioch by storm, and they fell back on the tactics of intrigue which they had so heartily scorned in the Greeks. Money—not for the first time nor the last—proved stronger than arms: with the paid aid of a disaffected Syrian named Firous within the city, they ascended a remote section of the walls at night, threw open the city gates, and in a savage attack, took the city.
They were not a moment too soon. During the eight-month siege a Turkish relief force under Kerbogha and 28 emirs had been raised. It arrived under the walls of Antioch just two days after the Christians took it. For the next 25 days the crusaders, locked up in Antioch and starving once again (the Turks had used up their food stocks just before the Christians broke in), fought off the Turks. Fortunately, when morale was at lowest ebb, one Peter Bartholomew happened to come across the very lance head that had impaled Christ on the Cross nearly 12 centuries earlier. Inspired by this miraculous—and fortuitous—discovery, the crusaders poured out of the city gates, smashed into the Turkish center, and scattered their numerically superior enemy in panic. The most decisive battle of the First Crusade was the easiest. The way to Jerusalem was now open.
But the physically and emotionally exhausted crusaders could not march another mile. Not until January 13, 1099, did they resume their southward progress toward Jerusalem. Leaving behind Bohemund as Prince of Antioch,~ the crusaders toiled down the eastern Mediterranean coast, arriving before the gates of Jerusalem on June 7, with scarcely 12,000 knights and infantry left of the proud force that had left France three years before. By an irony of which history is so fond, the Fatimids had regained the city whose loss to the Turks had precipitated the Crusade, and they offered immediate free access to the city by all pilgrims provided the crusaders forswore their conquest of Fatimid territory. It was a reasonable, even generous offer, but the Christians, their nostrils full of the sweet smell of victory, rejected it. They prepared for siege.
They could easily have failed, for Jerusalem was well provisioned and watered, protected by the valleys of Kedron and Gehenna and walls erected by the Roman Emperor Hadrian and improved by centuries of Muslim occupation, and surrounded on all sides by sere, rugged hills and waterholes thoughtfully poisoned. Again, however, they were saved. Two Genoese and four English ships arrived at Jaffa loaded with materials for siege machines and Italian engineers to assemble them. Spurred on by the news that a Muslim army was on its way to Jerusalem from Egypt, they built siege towers and, on the night of July 13, lumbered toward the north wall. Through the night and into the next day Christians fell beneath the missiles and Greek fire of the defenders, but by noon of the 14th, troops under Godfrey got a firm foothold atop the north wall near the Gate of Flowers, and the crusaders poured into the breach behind them, overflowed into the crooked streets of Jerusalem and, in a spirit hardly in keeping with the ideals of Christianity, slaughtered the inhabitants and took the city.
Had the gentle Adhemar, Bishop of Puy, survived to witness the capture of Jerusalem, there is small doubt that he would have been chosen to rule. But Adhemar had died during the siege of Antioch, and Godfrey of Bouillon was elected by his peers to govern Jerusalem. Had he wished, he could have called himself king, but he modestly declined the title on the grounds that it would be sacrilege to wear a crown of gold in the city where the Savior had worn a crown of thorns. Instead, he called himself Godfrey, Advocatus Sancti Sepulchri—"Defender of the Holy Sepulcher."
The good tidings of the conquest of the city where Christ had lived and died was at once despatched to Rome, to the man who had conceived the Crusade. Too late. Two weeks after the decisive battle, but before the news could arrive in the Eternal City, Pope Urban II died.
Later, the massacres at Jerusalem would rise up to haunt the crusaders; by their savagery, meant to crush the Muslims, the crusaders indirectly were to unify a fragmented Muslim world under a brave and statesmanlike leader. For the moment, however, supremely confident and heady with the wine of victory, the crusaders anchored a fragile ship of state in a vast sea of sand, heat, and implacably hostile Arabs. How long would it stay afloat? God, Who willed its final fate even as He willed its immediate destiny, alone knew.
Daniel da Cruz, author, teacher, correspondent and free-lance writer, contributes regularly to Business Week and Aramco World Magazine.