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Siege of Jerusalem in 1099: Savage Massacre or Typical Post-Siege Violence?

Posted by on March 18, 2014


After spending two years fighting the Muslims, reconquering land for the Byzantines; faced with starvation, disease and near annihilation, the crusaders finally accomplished what they had set out to do; what their pope had urged them to do. Jerusalem was restored to Christian rule once again. Certainly not on peaceful terms though.

Maddened by victory, the crusaders rushed through the streets, killing everyone in sight. They beheaded men, rapaciously raped and murdered women and children. Historian Steven Runciman wrote that the massacre at Jerusalem ‘emptied Jerusalem of its Muslim and Jewish inhabitants.’ (A History of the Crusades: The First Crusade. Vol.1, p. 287) Thomas Asbridge painted the crusaders in the same dark colour: he referred to them as ‘blood-hungry, ravening packs who overran the Holy City.’ (The Crusades: The Authoritative History of The War For The Holy Land, p. 101) He further writes that ‘the Frankish massacre was not simply a feral outburst of bottled rage; it was a prolonged callous campaign of killing that lasted at least two days and it left the city awash with blood and littered with corpses.’ (p. 102)

Not surprising, Muslim and Jewish chroniclers of that time harbored the same level of resentment towards the Christians. ‘We received tidings of the great disaster and all-comprising visitation which befell our brothers, the Jews living in the Holy City, may God restore it forever, the holy Torah scrolls, and the captives, suffering multiple vexations inflicted upon them by the enemies of God and haters of His people,’ wrote one Jewish chronicler. The medieval Iraqi poet, Abu al-Abiwardi called for Islamic Jihad against the Christians:

‘I see my people slow to raise the lance against the enemy: I see faith resting on feeble pillars. For fear of death the Muslims are evading the fire of battle, refusing to believe that death will surely strike them.’

In 1105, Damascene religious lawyer and philology teacher, Ali al-Sulami shed light on the Muslims’ current situation and called for Holy War against the Christians. ‘Their (the Franks) hopes expand inasmuch as they see their enemies content to be at peace with them, so that they are convinced that all the lands will become theirs, and all the people prisoners in their hands. May God…humble their thoughts by uniting the community and setting it in order,’ al-Sulami wrote.

Reading these accounts, it’s easy to believe that the siege of Jerusalem in 1099 was barbaric and that the crusaders were blood-thirsty savages. The following is a run-down of what medieval Muslim chroniclers and many modern historians alike maintained happened in Jerusalem after the Christians captured it:

Immediately following the siege, a number of Muslim noncombatants retreated to the southern quarters where Iftikhar was still fighting Count Raymond’s forces. When Iftikhar saw the look of sheer terror on his subjects’ faces, he realized that all was lost. So, he and all those who were with him, retreated to the Tower of David where Iftikhar offered Raymond a large amount of money in exchange for his life, the lives of his bodyguard and for the lives of the other noncombatants who were with him. Raymond accepted his offer and they were escorted safely out of the city. They joined the Muslim garrison at Ascalon.

The Muslims who supposedly weren’t so lucky fled to the temple area of the Haram es-Sherif, the area where the Dome of the Rock and the Mosque of Aqsa stood. They had tried to use that area as their last fortress for which to launch an offense, but it was too late. Tancred and his men had forced themselves into the temple area. Desperate to save their lives, the Muslims surrendered with the promise to pay Tancred a handsome ransom. They even flew his banner over the mosque. Tancred, desiring nothing but wealth and property, took their word and, in return, promised to spare their lives. However, that promise was broken – albeit against Tancred’s wishes – when a bunch of knights stormed into the mosque and slaughtered the Muslims to a man. ‘In the Temple of Solomon and the portico (crusaders) rode in blood to the knees and bridles of their horses. In my opinion this was poetic justice that the Temple of Solomon should receive the blood of pagans who blasphemed God there for many years. Jerusalem was now littered with bodies and stained with blood,’ Raymond of Aguilers wrote in the early 12th century.

Meanwhile, the Jewish inhabitants fled to their synagogue. The crusaders, devoid of all love and sympathy for the Jews – they accused the Jews of siding with the Muslims – burned the synagogue to the ground killing 400 Jews. That’s how the story went and that same story lives on.

‘Thirteenth-century chronicler, Iraqi Muslim Ibn al-Athir estimated the number of Muslim dead at 70,000.’ (Asbridge, p.102). While historians have since discredited that figure, the image of blood-thirsty, savage Christians endures. No one can dispute the fact that the crusaders were violent: they slaughtered Muslims and Jews, not just in Jerusalem, but throughout their journey. They also plundered and looted extensively: All in God’s Holy name, a sin horrific beyond description. They also hated Jews just as much as they hated Muslims. However, was the massacre in Jerusalem a savage massacre, or was it just another example of typical post-siege violence? ‘The contemporary Arab writer Ibn al-Arabi estimated the number of Muslim dead at Jerusalem at only three thousand,’ historian Michael Haag wrote. (The Templars: The History and The Myth, p. 86) Three thousand is a large number, especially for that time. But that figure is a far cry from the over-exaggerated 70,000. It’s also a far more realistic estimate. Moreover, contemporary historians credit Raymond of Aguilers as a crazed fanatic who was delirious with religious zeal and hate for Muslims. No one takes Raymond’s accounts for truth.

A rule of thumb in siege warfare was this: surrender quickly and your lives shall be spared. Fight, and you will all be massacred. Ancient and Medieval times witnessed numerous prolonged sieges that ended in the demise of the besieged. The capture of Jerusalem in 1099 was no different. Historian and sociologist, Rodney Stark argues; ‘had the Muslims surrendered Jerusalem on 13 June when the towers were ready to be rolled against the walls, they would no doubt have been given terms that would have prevented a massacre.’ (God’s Battalions, p. 157) Stark makes a valid point. Since the crusaders were isolated, surrounded by their enemies, they would have embraced negotiations with Iftikhar had he decided to surrender the Holy City that June. Jerusalem would have been restored to Christian rule without a drop of blood being shed and perhaps the Christians’ praises to God would have been justified. Unfortunately it didn’t happen that way.

The crusaders, though, did not kill most of Jerusalem’s inhabitants as historians like Steven Runciman suggest. Translations from documents written shortly after the Christian conquest of Jerusalem prove that to be true. According to the Gesta Francorum, ‘our men took many prisoners, both men and women in the Temple. They killed whom they chose, and whom they chose, they saved alive.’

A letter written by a Jewish Chronicler in the summer of 1100 suggested that there were many Jews who weren’t slaughtered when the Christians captured Jerusalem. ‘News still reaches us that among those who were redeemed from the Franks and remained in Ascalon, some are in danger of dying of want.’

Many Jews and even Muslims were taken as captives. It’s quite possible that more were taken captive than killed. The crusaders forced them to collect the bodies, remove them from the city and burn them. Most likely, the crusaders also had their captives rebuild what had been destroyed during the siege.

It should also be noted that the east and west walls were left unguarded, so no doubt, several Muslim and Jewish inhabitants managed to escape unnoticed.

Given these facts, why was the siege of Jerusalem in 1099 portrayed as a savage atrocity? Muslim chroniclers writing in the 12th and 13th centuries, hyper exaggerated the Christians’ wrongdoings at Jerusalem to inspire Jihad against them. Long after the Christians were driven from the Middle East, western historians and apologists picked up on the belief that the crusaders were blood-thirsty savages who slaughtered all of Jerusalem’s inhabitants. Why? Because the Muslim accounts were so plausible and persuasive that it was easy to take their accounts for gospel.

Granted, it was a ruthless time in history. Warfare was bloody as it is now. Nothing ever pleasant happened in warfare, but the siege of Jerusalem was no more cruel than any other prolonged siege of that time. The violence that the Christians inflicted on Jerusalem’s inhabitants following their capture of the city was just another example of post-siege violence that was so typical of that time.


After they took the Holy City, the crusaders wept and gave thanks to God for their victory. They couldn’t wait to tell their pope the ‘good news’. But news of Jerusalem’s capture never reached Pope Urban II. He died at the end of July; less than one month after Jerusalem fell to the crusaders. The crusaders’ victory was not complete, though. They were faced with the task of setting up a new kingdom, a task not easy to accomplish, especially since they were literally surrounded by their enemies.

Sources Used:

Asbridge, Thomas. The Crusades: The Authoritative History of The War For The Holy Land. Ecco; New York, 2011.

France, John. “The First Crusade: Impelled by the Love of God” in Crusades: The Illustrated History. Ed. Thomas Madden. London; Duncan Baird Publishers, 2004.

Haag, Michael. The Templars: The History and the Myth. New York; London; Toronto; Sydney; HarperCollins, 2009.

Runciman, Steven. A History of the Crusades: The First Crusade. Vol.1. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1951.

Stark, Rodney. God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades. New York; London; Toronto; HarperCollins, 2009.

Ed. Tyerman, Christopher. Chronicles of the First Crusade. Penguin Classics; London; New York; Penguin Classics, 2012.


3 Responses to Siege of Jerusalem in 1099: Savage Massacre or Typical Post-Siege Violence?

  1. ginnyjaques

    Interesting assessment. It’s certainly hard to get reliable, unbiased, first-hand accounts of history, especially this long ago. Your bringing in of information from a variety of sources about the people left in the city after the massacre, and your analysis of the overall nature of warfare of the time gives a more balanced perspective. The killings were horrid, for sure, but they were a way of life for people living in those times. We need to keep that perspective.

  2. Ginu George

    A lot of history is studied through inference, deduction and analysis. However, this approach to history is very modern and is still in its nascent stage. History has often been politicised and twisted to suit nefarious needs. This is universal. The Crusades were no different. A lot of the accounts found today are negatively inclined to the Christians. There could be a lot of reasons behind this. Some of it might even be true. But quite certainly, all of it cannot be true. If one were to check up on the facts and infer and analyse it as unbiasedly as possible, a better, more logical perspective can be drawn.

    Let us consider the variables and the ground realities. Firstly, what was the general situation during a siege in medieval times? This too varied depending on the value of the area being besieged. In the case of Jerusalem, this was the prime pinnacle of a long, enduring, exhausting and astounding military campaign. Moreover, it was the most important target of any siege hitherto attempted by a European army, period. What then is the preferred method during any siege? Definitely targeting a quick capitulation from the enemy. Furthermore, it is crucially vital to be able to hold the city you have successfully besieged. These two parameters are the most important determinants while devising any siege strategy.

    Now Jerusalem in June 1099:- Two years of torturous campaigning later, the depleted Crusaders have arrived at their long awaited target. Half of their Norman contingent has left them at Antioch. Resources have reached an almost fatal low level. Several accounts have talked about Crusaders resorting to eating horses and corpses. This story of cannibalism has been flouted around for quite some time mainly by Radulf of Caen who spoke eloquently about grilling pagan/infidel corpses. It is most likely hogwash but one cannot be certain of it. Nevertheless, it indicates in some measure the desperate situation the Crusaders found themselves in. Deserters abounded. Many leaders who were present in the beginning of the Crusade had left much earlier. Stephen of Blois and Hugh of Vermandois. Both of them were only counts unlike the Dukes Godfrey and Raymond but they did carry off with them a significant portion of knights and prestige, Hugh being the king’s brother and also married to the last living descendant of the Karling family, Adele.

    Unlike Antioch, possibilities of bribing a traitor within to enable easy entry was not available as Ifthikar like Radwan of Aleppo had banished the Christians living within the city walls at Jerusalem. Pure military tactics were all that was left. So, now we consider the Crusader position-
    1. Surrounded by hostile territories on all sides
    2. Dwindling resources
    3. Lack of new resources to replenish dwindled ones.
    4. Exhaustion at the end of a new campaign
    5. Strife amongst the leaders of the campaigns threatening morale and the campaign itself.
    6. Most importantly, the Fatimids under Al-Afdal had set sail for Jerusalem and would reach them shortly. In their current state, the Crusaders could never dream of fighting the Fatimid army and the Jerusalem garrison.

    These factors are what determines the course of events during the siege of Jerusalem. Like you said, “Count” Raymond-He is more of a Duke actually, was an incompetent military leader left to his own devices. It was his status as the wealthiest of the Crusader princes that kept his place high amongst the Crusader ranks. His colossal failure during the siege of Jerusalem from his base at Zion, would have only compounded the Crusaders’ mission. But Godefroy had two things going for him. The arrival of the Genoese merchant vessels and the fact that Tancred de Hauteville of the Norman contingent was with him. This was the error I believe in your accounts. The FRANKS did not engage the Byzantines militarily. The Normans of Sicily-the de Hauteville family did. Tancred’s grandfather and maternal uncle had raided the Byzantines during the 1080’s. They had the knowledge of Greek Fire.

    Finally, they broke through the walls of Jerusalem. Now what? They had to, really had to get control of the city as soon as possible and then prepare to fight the Fatimids if necessary. Intimidation was one method. Strike as much terror as possible into the enemy and force them to surrender. Obviously this will involve killing as many of the enemy as possible. Raymond offered ransom to Ifthikar and sent many to Ascalon. Tancred did the same afterwards. Accounts talk about casualties numbering 60,000 or so. This is absolute bollocks. You have just conquered your dream city. You have to hold it. A large enemy could be reaching your city very soon. You do not have enough resources. What could you do? You could collect as much ransom money as possible. You have to rebuild the walls and fortifications you destroyed to conquer the city. This requires manpower which means slaves. First you have to reduce the chances of your captives rebelling and revolting. Now they are terrified. What do you now do as a military leader?

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