(TURKS, CONQUESTS and the CRUSADES – continued)

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The Seljuk Turks against the First Crusade

The Near East in 1135

Crusader states are in shades of green. The Sultanate of Rum and the Emirate of Damascus are parts of Seljuk rule. (Wikipedia Commons. Altered by F. Smitha)

In early 1097 a Crusader army from western Europe and a Byzantine army from Constantinople marched into territory in Asia Minor occupied by the Seljuk Turks. The first objective of the Crusaders was the city of Nicaea, 55 miles southeast of Constantinople. After months of siege, the Seljuks surrendered. Constantinople's army entered Nicaea and the Crusaders went ahead without delay toward Jerusalem, to be delayed at the city of Antioch in northern Syria.

Antioch had been taken by the Seljuks in 1085. It had been a Christian city, and without its capture, it is said, the Crusaders would not have been able to move on to Jerusalem. The Crusaders besieged the city for 7.5 months. The Seljuks attacked twice to end the siege but were defeated both times.

While the Seljuks were busy against the Crusaders, the Fatimid caliphate in Egypt sent a force to the coastal city of Tyre, a little more than 145 miles north of Jerusalem. The Fatimids took control of Jerusalem in February 1098, three months before the Crusaders had their success at Antioch. The Fatimids, who were Shia, offered the Crusaders an alliance against their old enemy the Seljuks, who were Sunni. They offered the Crusaders control of Syria with Jerusalem to remain theirs. The offer didn't work out. The Crusaders were not going to be deterred from taking Jerusalem.

The Crusaders passed by Acre, 77 miles north of Jerusalem, the ruler there providing the Crusaders with supplies, as had some other communities. On 7 June 1099 the Crusaders began their siege of Jerusalem, with Fatimid loyalists in defense. The city fell on 15 July 1099. As already described, there was a week of slaughter. The Crusaders seized gold, silver, horses and mules and invaded houses in search of loot. They killed Muslims and Jews, believing that the Jews had killed Christ. Jews who took refuge in Jerusalem's main synagogue were burned to death. And some crusaders were sickened and shamed by the brutality.

The port town of Jaffa (today Tel Aviv) was captured by a force arriving on ships from Genoa. And in August a fleet of ships from Venice put Haifa under Crusader control. The Crusaders gained control over the entire eastern Mediterranean coastline.

Muslims Strike Back

It was decades before the Muslims initiated a substantial retaliation against Crusader gains. Rule by the Seljuk family had been fragmenting and the retaliation was organized by Imad ad-Din Atabeg Zengi, whose father had been a Seljuk governor. Zengi became the chief Turkish potentate in Syria and Iraq. He took the major Syrian city of Aleppo from squabbling local emirs. He was recognized as the ruler of this territory by the Seljuk sultan, Mahmud II, whose position was nominal.

In November 1144, with his added strength through a new unity, Zengi moved militarily against the landlocked, northern-most and least populated of the Crusader possessions: Edessa. He had more strength than he needed. The city was only lightly defended. After a short siege Zengi's troops rushed into the city, killing all those who were unable to flee to the city's citadel. In a panic, thousands were suffocated or trampled to death. Zengi ordered his men to stop the massacre. Prisoners taken by his troops were executed anyway. But there were survivors, and a Christian bishop, Basil, was recognized as leader of the Christian population.

Muslims in the Seljuk empire celebrated Zenghi as a "defender of the faith." Then in 1146 he was assassinated, and like most assassinations little changed: Zengi's power passed to two sons.

Count Joscelin II, of a Crusader family, tried to retake Edessa. His force captured the city's citadel, but with no help from other Crusader states his efforts failed. In November he was driven out of Edessa. Zengi's son, Nur ad-Din, governing from Aleppo, exiled the entire Christian population, leaving the city deserted. Meanwhile, Europeans were responding to news about Edessa and were organizing a return – what would be called the Second Crusade.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.