How the First Crusade captured Jerusalem in 1099
In the late 11th century, crusaders marched on Jerusalem to wrest the Holy City from Muslim control. Writing for HistoryExtra, Dr Simon John explores the weeks leading up to the assault – and its bloody climax…
“Shall we relate what took place [at the Temple of Solomon]? If we told you, you would not believe us. It is sufficient to relate that in the Temple of Solomon… crusaders rode in blood to the knees and bridles of their horses.”
With these astonishing words, a contemporary chronicler recounted the culminating moments of the First Crusade in Jerusalem on 15 July 1099. The chronicler, a member of the southern French contingent on the expedition, was present in the Holy City. Though the passage above was likely inspired by apocalyptic imagery drawn from the Bible, it nevertheless leaves no doubt about the dreadful fate of Jerusalem’s inhabitants at the hands of the crusaders as they stormed the city on that day.
The First Crusade’s approach
Most of the crusaders present at the expedition’s bloody climax at Jerusalem had left their homes in the summer of 1096, fired by the promise of spiritual rewards in return for taking part. The plan for the crusade was simple: march to the Holy City and wrest it from Muslim control back into Christian hands. While maybe around 70,000 initially set out, over the course of nearly three years of campaigning many had abandoned the expedition and many more had died in battle, from hunger, or from exposure to the extreme conditions endured on the march. It was therefore a vastly reduced – though battle-hardened – crusader force that finally reached its long-desired goal on 7 June 1099.
While maybe around 70,000 initially set out, it was a vastly reduced crusader force that reached Jerusalem
The crusaders’ journey to Jerusalem had taken them from their homelands successively through eastern Europe, the Byzantine Empire, Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) and Syria. On the way they had captured the key cities of Nicaea and Antioch and defeated several Muslim armies in battle.
Modern historians explain the crusaders’ success by emphasising factors including the expedition’s bold military leadership; the logistical support offered by the Byzantines; and the fact that the Muslim powers of the region were deeply divided in the 1090s, and so never presented a united opposition against the new threat that confronted them. The crusaders themselves, however, had no doubt about why they had prevailed against such huge odds: it was because they were God’s chosen people, and He had aided their efforts to fulfil His task of recapturing Jerusalem in the name of the Christian faith.
The intensity of the crusaders’ devotion rose steadily as they marched closer to their target. At Jerusalem, that fervour reached fever pitch. Though their initial attempt to take the city by siege was repelled by the Muslim garrison, they responded by renewing their efforts. As part of their preparations for a new assault, on 8 July the crusaders instituted a fast before processing around the city’s walls accompanied by members of the clergy carrying crosses and relics and chanting psalms. They also constructed mighty siege engines, including two colossal siege towers that reached higher than the city’s wall. Then, on 13 July they renewed their assault upon the Holy City.
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The intensity of the crusaders’ devotion rose steadily as they marched closer to their target
The critical moment in the siege came at dawn on 15 July. At that point, the contingent fighting at Jerusalem’s northern wall managed to roll its siege tower up to the wall. Through it, the crusaders were able to enter the city. Shortly after, the crusaders attacking from the south also infiltrated beyond the walls. Contemporary accounts relate that as the crusaders stormed the city they slaughtered its inhabitants, most of whom were Muslim. One chronicler from northern France stated that none of them – not even women and children – were spared. As we have seen, the southern French chronicler recounted that many were killed near the Temple of Solomon, the building known to Muslims as the Al-Aqsa mosque.
The crusaders slew so many that the smell of rotting flesh from the dead bodies reportedly still hung over the city five months later. Members of Jerusalem’s Jewish community also suffered at the hands of the crusaders, though some were able to escape, probably after paying a ransom.
Listen: Rebecca Rist responds to listener queries and popular search enquiries about the medieval Christian campaigns in the Middle East, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:
What happened after the capture of Jerusalem?
In the aftermath of the First Crusade, the events of 15 July 1099 at Jerusalem prompted widespread celebration in the Christian world. Within a few years, the new Latin inhabitants of Jerusalem began to celebrate a liturgical feast in commemoration of the city’s capture by the crusaders on that day. Observed every year on 15 July, it became a key part of Latin Jerusalem’s religious calendar alongside established feasts including Easter and Christmas.
In the Muslim world, on the other hand, the capture of Jerusalem on 15 July 1099 came to be regarded as one of the most infamous events in history, with its perpetrators reviled as merciless, barbaric fanatics. When Saladin recaptured Jerusalem in the name of Islam in 1187, he was considerably more lenient in his treatment of the city’s Christian inhabitants, providing generous terms that enabled most to depart unharmed. The contrast between the events at Jerusalem in 1099 and 1187 could not be more striking.
Dr Simon John is senior lecturer in medieval history at Swansea University
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