The Eleventh Century Byzantine Empire and the Arrival of the Seljuk Turks
The First Crusade is recorded on the Bible Timeline Poster with World History during 1096 AD. It began with a series of events starting with Tughril. Tughril (Togrul), the great Seljuk dynasty ruler, accomplished what the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs failed to do hundreds of years before. This was to cut a large swath of Byzantine territories in Asia Minor and claim it all for the Seljuk Empire after Emperor Constantine Monomachos ceded the area to him. Constantine died in 1055, and the throne passed to the minister Michael Gerontas. Tughril, meanwhile, turned south and drove out the powerful Buyids from Baghdad (who, at that point, held the reins of power for the puppet caliphs of the Abbasids). Michael was later ousted by the military due to his advanced age. He was replaced with a military commander named Isaac Komnenus in 1057. Komnenus died after his short stint as Byzantine emperor, and he was succeeded by a government official named Constantine Doukas who ruled until 1067. Romanos IV Diogenes ruled in 1068, but Constantine Doukas’ sons remained as Romanos IV’s co-emperors.
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The Battle of Manzikert (1071)
While the Byzantine crown passed from one hand to another, the Seljuk Sultanate passed easily to Tughril’s nephew died in 1063. This nephew, the ambitious and brilliant Alp Arslan, planned to wrest more of the Byzantine territories in Asia Minor for the Seljuks. Romanos knew that the Seljuks were a serious threat, so he gathered his troops and started a campaign in 1071 to the eastern frontier to drive them out of Asia Minor for good. He was initially successful in driving the Seljuk troops out of eastern Anatolia, but Alp Arslan was only preparing to ambush the Byzantine troops in the Battle of Manzikert in 1071.
The result of Romanos’ miscalculation was a massive loss of life on the side of the Byzantines. He was captured by Alp Arslan during the battle, but strangely, he was later set free. Romanos was as good as dead when he started the journey home to Constantinople as the blame for the disastrous results of the Battle of Manzikert fell on his shoulders. The Doukas family commanded some of their trusted men to intercept Romanos on his way and had him captured. He was later sent to the Monastery of Transfiguration in the Sea of Marmara after he was blinded as punishment for the defeat.
The First Crusade
Things were not working out very well for the Byzantines after the adventurer Robert Guiscard of Normandy wrested the last of their holdings in Italy in the late eleventh century. They were also wracked with infighting and saddled with the emperor Michael VII whose passion for literature clashed with his responsibilities in the Byzantine government. The exasperated John Doukas (Michael’s own uncle) rebelled against him, but it did not succeed when general Alexios Komnenus rallied Seljuk mercenaries and some Byzantine troops against John. Michael resigned in 1078, and the Byzantine crown passed on from one man to another until the formidable Alexios I Komnenus held it between I081 until 1118.
Alp Arslan, meanwhile, had died and was succeeded by his son Malik Shah as sultan. The Seljuks under his command had turned west and conquered the city of Jerusalem from the Fatimids in 1077 after a bloody massacre of Jews and Fatimid Arabs. Malik Shah died in 1092, and his death left the Seljuk Empire divided between his competing sons and brother (meanwhile the eastern portion of Asia Minor was held by the Seljuk vassal, the Sultanate of Rum).
Alex Komnenus wanted to get rid of the Seljuk threat once and for all when he saw that they were in chaos over the succession. However, he did not have enough troops to go up against the Byzantine’s most formidable enemy just yet. So he sent a message through envoys to Pope Urban II and asked him to send his own troops as reinforcements against the Seljuks. Alex Komnenus’ message reached Pope Urban II while he was traveling through Western Francia. He altered Alex’s simple request for reinforcements and weaved religious sentiments into it. In Clermont (Western Francia), he preached and encouraged the people to help the beleaguered Byzantine empire but added that they also needed to pitch into the liberation of the Jerusalem—something that Alex Komnenus did not request.
The Frankish noblemen, knights, and peasants snapped up the chance to wage war against the Seljuk “infidels” in the Levant after Pope Urban promised them the protection of their land while they were away on a holy pilgrimage (for the nobles) and forgiveness for their sins. The pope promised that paradise awaited them as a reward for their courage, and the first to answer the call to engage in the “holy” war was Godfrey, the Duke of Lorraine. His brothers Eustace and Baldwin came along with him, while others, such as Duke Raymond of Toulouse, Bohemond of Otranto (son of Robert Guiscard), and Robert, Duke of Normandy, also volunteered. They brought with them their own troops, and they assembled in Constantinople in later 1096. Count Stephen of Blois and Hugh of Vermandois also joined the list of nobles who started to Constantinople.
After an inauspicious start, Walter the Penniless and his small troops were the first to arrive in Constantinople. They were followed closely by other nobles, knights, and troops until their number swelled to around 100,000 by 1097. The army that gathered in Constantinople were propelled to fight for different reasons which included:
- Religious fervor and the promise of remission of sins upon death in the “holy pilgrimage” to Jerusalem.
- The reward of additional money and land for the most pragmatic noblemen and knights.
Alex Komnenus did not expect a large number of additional men that swelled his troops, and apparently, he did not know how to properly deal with the European noblemen who came with these troops. Some of the troops who answered the call were led by a preacher named Peter the Hermit and his ragtag soldiers were later christened the “People’s Crusade.” Alexius asked them to move to the Asian side of the empire as he was worried that they would cause trouble if they stayed near Constantinople. His anxiety was confirmed when the soldiers left their camp in Asia and raided the nearby city of Nicaea which was then held by the Sultan of Rum.
The sultan of Rum sent his own soldiers to counter this leaderless bunch and promptly had them massacred. The survivors of the “People’s Crusade” had to be rescued by Alexius’ own Byzantine army. The emperor learned his lesson when various nobles arrived with their own armies between 1096 and 1097. He had them swear that they would return any territory they recovered during the crusade, but the prominent leader Raymond of Toulouse refused and swore to simply honor him instead. The crusader army first conquered the city of Nicaea from the Sultanate of Rum, and then headed south and wrested the cities of Sardis, Ephesus, Smyrna, and Philadelphia on the way to Jerusalem.
The Siege of Antioch
The army, led by Bohemond, Raymond of Toulouse, and Godfrey, stopped short of the city of Antioch (in present-day Turkey) when they saw the mighty ramparts of the city. They started the siege on October 21 of 1097, but famine and the difficulty of besieging an impregnable city frayed on the Crusaders’ resolve. Some of those who joined them abandoned the siege of Antioch, while those who veered off to other cities (such as Baldwin in Edessa and Stephen of Blois in some Mediterranean city) were better off.
They were encouraged when a ship that was commanded by the English nobleman Edgar Atheling docked and brought them fresh provisions. Edgar himself joined them as one of the crusade leaders and helped them block the provisions coming into Antioch. The crafty Bohemond also sealed a deal with a Turkish soldier inside the city of Antioch by promising him riches if he would open the gates and let the Crusader army into the city. The soldier agreed to the devil’s bargain and let them in, but what ensued was total destruction as the restless crusader army killed many of the citizens of Antioch and spared no one from the massacre.
Three days later, the situation took a turn for the worse when the Seljuk sultan dispatched a large army from Baghdad to rescue Antioch. The besiegers were now the besieged, and the Crusaders shut themselves inside the city when they saw the large Seljuk army that came after them. The rotting corpses left on the streets and the lack of provisions disheartened them, but it was lifted when the “Holy Lance” was discovered by a soldier named Peter Bartholomew. The lance, most likely, was an invention of the crafty Bohemond. The crusader army was encouraged to charge out of Antioch and beat back the Seljuk army.
The Parting of Ways and the Siege of Jerusalem
Although Bohemond swore to Alexius that he would return any land they recovered, he never really took it seriously, and he started to occupy Antioch as his own land in Asia. Raymond of Toulouse disagreed with Bohemond over this, and he left Antioch with Robert of Normandy and Tancred of Hauteville (Bohemond’s nephew). They continued to Jerusalem with Godfrey and their troops, and Bohemond was now free to claim Antioch as his own. Raymond and his troops reached Jerusalem in 1099 and started the siege on the 3rd of June of the same year. The attack they launched against Jerusalem was so fierce, and the crusader troops so determined to take the city that it took only thirty days to complete the siege.
What followed, however, was an equally fierce massacre of Jerusalem’s inhabitants that even later Christian and Muslims chroniclers of the siege were horrified. The Fatimids of Egypt sent an army to regain Jerusalem, but the Crusaders easily drove them back when they arrived. Edessa, Antioch, and Jerusalem were now firmly in Christian hands. However, it was far from what Alexius Komnenus expected as those territories stayed under the Crusaders’ rule. By the end of the first crusade, Raymond of Toulouse served as Jerusalem’s Duke, while Bohemond ruled the Principality of Antioch, and Baldwin ruled the city of Edessa.
Godfrey later died in 1100, and Baldwin started to rule Jerusalem as King starting in 1100 up to 1118. The Crusaders went on to capture the coastal cities of Beirut and Sidon in the following years, but this time, they were aided by the Italians from Genoa and Pisa.
Picture By MapMaster – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
Bradbury, Jim. The Routledge Companion to Medieval Warfare. London: Routledge, 2004.
Comnena, Anna. “Medieval Sourcebook: The Alexiad: On the Crusades.” Internet History Sourcebooks Project. Accessed October 19, 2016. http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/comnena-cde.asp.
Luscombe, David and Jonathan Riley-Smith, eds. The New Cambridge Medieval History. Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Madden, Thomas F. Crusades: The Illustrated History. Ann Arbor, MI: Univ. of Michigan Press, 2004.
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