Today 915 years ago, on July 15, 1099, one of the most heinous and barbarous war crimes in the long bloody history of the human race occurred on the soil of perhaps the most contested place on planet Earth: Jerusalem. After a siege of a little more than a month, European knights of the First Crusade forced the Muslim Fatimid governor of Jerusalem, Iftikhar al-Dawla, to yield the city. When the Crusaders entered their holy city on that blazing afternoon, the bloodbath that resulted still has the capacity to shock the world today, even against the backdrop of the horrific brutality of the Middle Ages that makes our own nuclear era look like a paragon of peace. The Christian crusaders proceeded to slaughter thousands of Jews and Muslims within the walls of Jerusalem in cold blood, possibly killing as many as 10,000 innocent people.
The story of the First Crusade is an extremely long and involved one, as you might expect from so complex a topic in medieval history. The idea of a coalition of Western European knights, with papal blessing, carrying out a military expedition against the Muslim world was originally hatched by the Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus, who appealed to Rome for European military help against the Seljuk Turks who had recently delivered a terrible blow against the Byzantines at the Battle of Manzikert. Pope Urban II, however, decided to think bigger, and suggested instead that Christian knights should set their sights on Jerusalem, the holy city that had been held by Muslims since 614 C.E. Essentially, it was a war of religious conquest by a coalition of French, German, English and Italian nobility, held together more by convenience and religious ideology than by nationalism, seeking to encompass a crucial part of the Middle East into the Christian, rather than Islamic, world.
Nearly four years after the Crusade was called in 1095 the armies of Raymond of Toulouse, Godfrey of Bouillon and several other knights drew up against the walls of Jerusalem, after a long series of battles and sieges in the Holy Land. Al-Dawla, anticipating the siege, had already expelled the 5,000 civilian Christians from the city before the siege began and poisoned wells in the area to deprive the Crusaders of water. Indeed, the siege was initially harder on the Europeans than it was on the Muslim and Jewish defenders of Jerusalem. In sweltering desert heat with limited food and dwindling water, it didn’t seem that the Crusaders could hold out for long. However, two Genoese ships arrived at Jaffa just in time, bringing fresh supplies. More important were the ships themselves. The Crusaders dismantled them and used the wood to build siege towers. On the evening of July 14, 1099, they sent them against the thick stone walls of Jerusalem.
Godfrey of Bouillon, a French knight, was one of the commanders of the siege. He refused to become “King” of Jerusalem, but served briefly as its political leader.
When Flemish knights crossed over the walls into the city and Muslim and Jewish resistance began to flag, the end was in sight. Each group–Muslims and Jews–retreated to their holy shrines within Jerusalem to wait for expected death. They didn’t have long to wait. Rampaging Crusaders tore through the streets, slashing, spearing and bludgeoning warriors and civilians alike. A terrible slaughter of Muslims occurred inside the Dome of the Rock mosque, spilling blood across the floor and walls. Traditional histories of the siege speak of thousands of Jews being barricaded inside their synagogue, which Frankish knights then set on fire. Modern historians have raised some doubt as to whether this happened, but there’s no question that many thousands of Jews were massacred alongside Muslims inside the walls of the city.
This massacre was completely senseless. With the city in Crusader hands there was no military need to kill all the defenders who’d already surrendered, much less civilians. Religious fervor and the desire to loot, pillage and kill drove the Crusaders to commit this horrifying war crime. This same bloodlust by another group of Crusaders more than 100 years later caused a similar war crime in Constantinople, when it was sacked during the Fourth Crusade of 1204. Fewer episodes in medieval history are as tragic or as difficult to understand.
When the dust settled and the bodies stopped moving, ironically the Crusaders had some trouble finding one of their commanders who wanted to be King of Jerusalem. Raymond refused the dubious honor. Godfrey of Bouillon agreed to become the secular political leader of Jerusalem, but refused the title “King,” claiming that only Christ could be a king in Jerusalem. He lived barely a year, dying in 1100 and was succeeded by his brother, Baldwin of Boulogne, who became King Baldwin I of Jerusalem. Jerusalem itself remained in Christian hands until surrendered in another siege in October 1187, where French knight Bailan of Ibelin yielded the city to the Sultan Saladin.
It’s hard to know exactly how many people died in the Jerusalem massacre of 1099. Casualty counts from medieval battles and massacres are almost always grossly inflated in surviving sources, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that 10,000 people died. Certainly the scars of both the Jewish and Muslim communities of Palestine have not healed over the incident, and certainly not over the more recent conflicts that have consumed the area, century after century. As I write this yet another terrible war is occurring in the Holy Land, a reminder that perhaps we in the modern world haven’t come so far from our barbarous medieval past as we’d like to think.