Bloody Pilgrimage

When he heard the Christian armies were approaching, Iftikhar ad-Dawla, Muslim governor of Jerusalem, readied the city for a siege. He destroyed the wells outside the walls, poisoning some, dumping earth in others. He drove outlying flocks and herds into the city, and then drove Christian inhabitants, who outnumbered the city’s Muslims, out into the Judean wilderness. He strengthened the towers with sacks of cotton and hay, to absorb the shock of bombardment by French catapults. Then he sent a message to fellow Fatimids (a branch of Islam) in Egypt, imploring them to send armed aid.

Meanwhile, along the coastal road of modern-day Lebanon, the Christian armies advanced—color-filled banners fluttering in the wind, relics carefully borne, pilgrims trudging behind, sometimes singing, sometimes chanting, like a monastery on the march. As they made their way during this spring of 1099, they found only light resistance from Muslim cities and fortresses, at least compared to the protracted siege and fierce fighting they had seen in Antioch. At Jaffa, they turned inland and started the slow ascent to Jerusalem.

On June 5, the Christians’ spirits were buoyed by a lunar eclipse—a portent of victory. The next day, one army headed for Bethlehem and conquered it in short order. On the evening of June 7, the main army encamped, finally, within sight of the massive, stone walls of the Holy City.

Thus began a five-week siege, which would culminate in a fierce three-day battle, which in turn would conclude nearly four years of prayer, courage, savagery, and faith we now call the First Crusade.

Taking Up the Cross

It all started at a meeting of church bureaucrats. Pope Urban II had gathered leaders at Clermont, in South- East France, in November 1095. After nine days of sessions among clerics, he invited the public to a speech. In an open field, Urban called upon the men of France to defend their fellow Greek Christians, who had been invaded by the Turks. Furthermore, he exhorted them to liberate Jerusalem, particularly the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, from the infidel Muslims.

When Urban finished, a great cry went up from the crowd: “God wills it! God wills it! ” Immediately volunteers approached and knelt before him. To Urban’s surprise, the Christian imagination had been seized. In the next few months, as he and others preached his message through France and Germany, dukes and counts, knights and foot soldiers, bishops and priests, and poor, simple pilgrims “took up the cross, ” literally sewing the emblem on their shirts as sign of their vow to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

It would be a dangerous 2,000-mile trek, and most had no idea what lay before them. They knew, though, what lay behind. Wrote a chronicler of one man leaving his wife, “He commended her to the Lord, kissed her lingeringly, and promised her as she wept that he would return. ” But whether with families or without, whether gladly or sorrowfully, thousands ventured forth.

They went because they feared Muslims, the fierce and aggressive devotees of a heathen religion. Still entrenched in southern Spain, Muslims had also recently swallowed large chunks of land in Asia Minor and were now an easy march from Constantinople, the capital of Byzantine (Eastern) Christianity. They went because they were outraged. For 400 years, Muslims had controlled the most sacred of Holy Land sites. Though Christian pilgrims were generally permitted to visit sites, their Lord Christ was not, in fact, Lord of his manor, Jerusalem. Worse, he was not Lord of the most sacred church in Christendom, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built over the place where Christ was buried and resurrected, the scene of the greatest miracle in history. They went because they hungered for forgiveness. Vows and pilgrimages to the Holy Land—to touch sacred history and receive partial remission of sins—had become increasingly popular. Now the pope announced a pilgrimage of extraordinary importance. Not only would Jerusalem and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher be delivered from defiling infidels, “Remission of sins will be granted to those going. ” All past sins would be forgiven!

And so they left—men, women, children—a few out of lust for money and adventure, a few to fight someone besides fellow Christian knights, most because they felt something larger calling them. Some went on horseback, some on foot, some glimmering with chain mail and armaments, others in rags.

On their way to Jerusalem, the band had starved and plundered, had killed and been killed. They had seen strategic victories at Nicea, Antioch, and lesser cities. Now one objective remained: the Holy City, and within it, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

The Hermit’s Prophecy

On Sunday, June 12, the princes of the crusading armies surrounding Jerusalem made a pilgrimage to the Mount of Olives. There they met an aged hermit. To their surprise, he exhorted them: “If you will attack the city tomorrow, the Lord will deliver it into your hands. ”

The princes balked. Jerusalem was one of the great fortresses of the medieval world. The walls had been strengthened and maintained since Roman emperor Hadrian had rebuilt them. The eastern wall faced the steep slopes of the Kidron Valley. On the southeast, the ground fell toward the Valley of Hinnom (the Bible’s Gehenna). A third steep valley ran along the western wall. In addition, the princes were short of scaling ladders, mangonels (catapults), and siege towers.

The princes objected, “We don’t have the necessary machinery for storming the walls, ” but the hermit persisted.

“God is all powerful, ” he declared. “If he wills, he will storm the walls even with one ladder. The Lord aids those who labor for the truth! ”

These soldiers could not ignore this argument. Since their victory at Nicea early in the campaign, they had witnessed heavenly signs. In early October 1097, they saw a comet with a tail shaped like a sword. On December 30, during the siege of Antioch, an earthquake shook, and the heavens glowed red, and the crusaders spotted a great light in the form of a cross. Just outside of Jerusalem, they had seen a lunar eclipse. All, they felt, showed sure divine approval.

They had also experienced the supernatural. Many soldiers had glimpsed St. George and St. Demetrius, with gallant faces and glimmering armor, leading their armies in the Battle of Dorylaeum. In Antioch, some had seen an army of angels, saints, and dead crusaders leading the fight, carrying white banners and riding white horses.

These men were hardened soldiers, though; they didn’t believe every vision reported. They knew God generally gives victory to the army with tighter discipline, better plans, and more men. The unruly masses led by Peter the Hermit, on a preliminary, brief wave of the First Crusade, were faith-filled pilgrims. But they were not soldiers, and they had been slaughtered outside Nicea by the Saracens (the crusaders’ term for Muslims). These princes had passed through that mountain pass seven months later and marched past their fellow pilgrims’ skulls and bleached bones.

Still, it only made sense that with the golden prize of the journey before them, God would work a great miracle. The princes left the hermit, returned to their camps, and ordered their soldiers to prepare an attack.

Not Enough Ladders

The Christian armies were strategically encamped. On the northern wall camped the army of Robert “Duke of Normandy ” the courageous eldest son of William the Conqueror. Next to him was the army of Robert, Count of Flanders, a younger man whose father had made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem eleven years earlier.

To the northwest sat the army of Godfrey of Bouillon, Duke of Lower Lorraine, a handsome man with yellow beard and hair. He was joined by the army of Tancred, a Norman knight, who brought with him flocks from his recent capture of Bethlehem.

To the south, “near the Church of St. Mary the Mother of the Lord, where the Lord shared the Last Supper with his disciples, ” was the army of Raymond, Count of Toulouse, a man of some 60 years and a veteran of holy wars against Muslims in Spain.

On Monday, after the sun had risen and shown brightly on the city, the trumpets sounded. The crusaders cried, “God wills it! ” and “God, help! ” and rushed the city from all sides. They quickly overran an outer stone defense, and began throwing their few ladders against the main wall.

Knights, one at a time, scaled the ladders, and with swords and spears, fought face-to-face with the Saracens. But they had too few ladders; they couldn’t scale the walls in sufficient numbers to overtake the defenders. After several hours of desperate fighting the soldiers of Christ were forced to withdraw. They returned to their camps profoundly discouraged.

Deathly Thirst

Time was on the Muslims’ side. Though the Muslim army was barely sufficient to man the walls under siege, the city was well supplied with food and water. If the defenders could hold out till the Egyptian reinforcements arrived, the siege, and the crusade, would be over.

On the other side, the crusaders, even before the first attack, were suffering thirst. Their only source of pure water was the Pool of Siloam, below the south walls. But it was only a bow shot from the city. When crusaders dipped their cups into the pool, sometimes a hail of arrows from the walls would drive them back.

The crusaders sewed up skins of oxen for containers and scoured the countryside, sometimes traveling five miles before they found water. On arriving at a pool, the desperate Christians often shoved and fought each other to get at the water. Worse, the Muslims would often sortie out and ambush Christians at these pools, killing them and cutting them to pieces.

At times the crusaders drew water that was “all muddy ” and that, borne in skins, smelled putrid. Still, back in camp, it sold for high prices, and often, as one chronicler noted, “a thirsty man hardly got enough to satisfy his barest need. ”

Summer in Jerusalem can reach temperatures above 100 degrees, with few trees for shade. The hot wind and dust dried throats. Animals thirsted to death and rotted where they had stood. One chronicler reported, “Many sick people fell down by the fountain [of Siloam], with tongues so parched that they were unable to utter a word. ”

Weapons Shortage

Still the crusaders had work to do. The failed attack had convinced the princes they needed more siege equipment. That meant, first, siege towers, portable castles that could be wheeled up to a city wall, where a small drawbridge could be dropped, enabling the attackers to enter. They needed scaling ladders to climb the walls. They also needed mangonels, catapults that took 50 men to operate, some powerful enough to hurl a 300 pound stone 150 yards. Mangonels also launched balls of fire—burning wood, straw, and animal fat, wrapped in iron bands—to set cities ablaze.

But the crusaders lacked supplies to build these weapons. As had happened more than once on this expedition, though, hope arrived at just the right time, this time in Jaffa: six Christian vessels, carrying food and ropes, nails and bolts. A party (and later another, because the first was ambushed) was sent to retrieve the supplies.

Now the problem was wood; little was to be found on the bare hills surrounding Jerusalem. So expeditions were formed, which traveled many miles. Eventually Tancred and Robert of Flanders returned from the forests of Samaria, laden with logs and planks, carried on the backs of camels and captive Muslims. Construction was begun.


now, the crusaders’ spirits ebbed. Food had become scarce. Quarrels broke out—not the first time— among the expedition’s leaders.

The first concerned the possession of Bethlehem. Tancred had left his standard flying over the Church of the Nativity, meaning he had taken it as his own. The clergy and rival princes argued that so holy a building should not be in the power of a secular lord.

They also fought about the future status of Jerusalem. Some knights wanted a king appointed. The priests argued that no Christian should call himself a king in the city where Christ was crowned and suffered. After bitter debate, decisions were postponed, but between certain princes bad blood remained.

All along, soldiers and pilgrims had deserted the expedition, despite their vows. Military defeats, famine, disease, and sundry tragedies (one ship carrying 400 crusaders had capsized, drowning all aboard), as well as ongoing exposure to heat, cold, wet, and mud, took their toll. Though a stream of pilgrims had joined along the way, the attrition had been steady.

In 1096 at Nicea, the first city besieged by the crusaders, about 43,000 knights, foot soldiers, and noncombatants were at hand. At Jerusalem now, three years later, the numbers were down to about 15,000. Before the very walls of the city, more crusaders deserted. One company went to the Jordan and were rebaptized; then they gathered palm branches and headed for Jaffa to find a ship for home.

In early July, things came to a head. The crusaders heard that a great army had set out from Egypt to relieve Jerusalem. But even this alarming news could not shake them out of their doldrums. As it turned out, it would take a miracle to do that.

Barefoot Procession

In the early morning of July 6, priest Peter Desiderius told two princes that he had received a vision: Adhemar, Bishop of Le Puy, dead now for many months, had appeared to him.

At the Council of Clermont, Adhemar had been the very first to kneel before Urban, seeking to join the holy expedition; soon Urban appointed him spiritual head of the armies. He proved to be a strong and compassionate preacher, a military tactician, and a careful diplomat—a man all respected. Adhemar’s presence had kept the expedition together until his tragic death after the victory at Antioch.

“Speak to the princes and all the people, ” the bishop had commanded in the vision, “and say to them, ‚ÄòYou who have come from distant lands to worship God and the Lord of hosts, purge yourselves of your uncleanliness! Let each one turn from his evil ways.’ ”

As penance for their selfishness, greed, and quarreling, the crusaders should “with bare feet march around Jerusalem, invoking God; you must also fast. If you do this and then make a great attack on the city on the ninth day, it will be captured. If you do not, all the evils that you have suffered will be multiplied by the Lord. ”

Immediately, the princes gathered an assembly of soldiers and pilgrims. Peter told them of his vision. If they obeyed, God would “open the city to us and give us judgment upon his enemies and ours, who now with unjust possession contaminate the place of his suffering and burial, the enemy who seek to deny us the great blessing of the place of God’s humiliation and our redemption. ”

During this long expedition, many crusaders had received visions: of Jesus, of Mary, of saints Peter and Andrew, as well as of deceased crusaders. Some visions inspired courage, others skepticism; often the most dubious hearers, in fact, were priests and bishops. On this occasion, though, soldiers, clerics, and pilgrims alike believed.

So on Friday, July 8, a solemn, barefoot procession slowly wound around the city walls. Bishops and priests came first, bearing crosses and holy relics. Princes and knights followed, then the foot soldiers, and finally the pilgrims. Muslims gathered on the walls and mocked them. They placed crosses in yokes, striking them and performing other obscene acts.

Then the crusaders ascended the Mount of Olives, where the fiery Peter the Hermit and two other preachers exhorted them: “Now that we are on the very spot from which the Lord made his ascension and we can do nothing more to purify ourselves, let each one of us forgive his brother whom he has injured, that the Lord may forgive us. ” Princes, who for weeks (and years) had been quarreling and vying for power, embraced.

Thirst and fasting could not now dampen their enthusiasm. In the next two days, mangonels were completed and ladders built, and finishing touches were put on the siege towers. Pilgrims sewed camelhide and nailed it on the exposed parts of the towers, to protect them from the fire balls Saracens would hurl. Crossbows and battering rams were readied; spears, spikes, axes, and swords were sharpened.

On Sunday, the wooden towers were wheeled to their stations, one against the north wall, one against the south; a third, slightly smaller, was put against the northwest corner. The Christians’ work had been carefully guarded, so the Saracens were alarmed at seeing the structures. Iftikhar, the city governor, quickly shored up weaker sections of his defenses and began bombarding the siege towers with stones and fire.

All was ready.

Fresh Assault

On Wednesday evening, the horn sounded, and soldiers climbed the towers and charged the walls with shouts of “God wills it! ” The main attacks were from the south (Raymond) and northeast (Godfrey and Tancred), with a diversionary attack on the northwest (the two Roberts).

The first objective was to bring the wooden towers right up to the walls, but that meant filling up the ditch that ran around the city. All night long and during Thursday, the crusaders dug and filled, while rained on by stones and fire.

For the next day and a half, battering rams thudded, arrows whirred, huge stones crashed, and streaks of fire shot through the skies. Wrote one chronicler, “Thus the fight continued from the rising to the setting sun in such a splendid fashion that it is difficult to believe anything more glorious was ever done. ”

Thursday evening, Raymond’s men, on the south, had succeeded in wheeling their tower over the ditch against the wall. But the defense was fierce, for Iftikhar himself commanded this sector. In the end, Raymond could not establish a foothold on the wall.

That night, anxiety settled in both camps, according to one crusader. “The Saracens feared that we would take the city during the night or on the next day, for the outer works were broken through and the ditch was filled. . . . On our part, we feared only that the Saracens would set fire to the machines that were moved close to the walls. . . . So on both sides it was a night of watchfulness, labor, and sleepless caution. ”

Good Friday

In the morning, the trumpets blasted again, and the crusaders, with banners flying and shouts of “God wills it! ” rushed the walls. Priests and pilgrims prayed, sang, and chanted at a safe distance; some brought water to cool thirsty soldiers. The Saracens defended themselves fiercely. By mid-morning, the wooden towers and many mangonels were badly shaken by the blows of the huge Saracen stones; some were burned.

The soldiers, weary from nearly two days of battle, sank in discouragement. There were just too many defenders to get a foothold on the wall. The walls still stood high and strong, and in one Christian’s words, the “great resources and skill the enemy exhibited in repairing their defenses seemed too great for us to overcome. ”

A council was held to decide whether the towers should be withdrawn. But as the council met, some soldiers with Godfrey, on the north, spotted a knight on the Mount of Olives. He waved his shield to advance. One chronicler noted, “Who this knight was, we have been unable to find out. At this signal our men began to take heart. ”

The loud, steady battering of the wall began afresh; fresh attempts were made to scale the walls. On the north, archers shot burning arrows at the nearby Saracen tower, and the fire caught on reinforcing wood. Soon smoke was bellowing forth, and the men guarding it were forced to retreat.

Godfrey released the long drawbridge on his tower; it swung down and made a bridge to the wall. Two Flemish knights led an army across, soon followed by Godfrey himself. One chronicler noted that the crusaders were entering the city on “the day of the week when Christ redeemed the whole world on the cross. ”

Once that sector of the wall was captured, other attackers scurried over the walls from ladders, and now everything seemed to happen at once. In one chronicler’s words, “With trumpets sounding and with everything in an uproar, exclaiming, ‚ÄòHelp, God!’ they vigorously pushed into the city and straightaway raised the banner on the top of the wall. ” Godfrey remained on the wall, shouting encouragement to the newcomers; he sent men to open the city gates to let other crusading forces in. Tancred and his men, having come across the drawbridge, were soon deep in the streets of Jerusalem. The Saracens, “completely terrified, ” ran for their lives through the narrow streets.

Meanwhile, on the southern wall, Raymond couldn’t get a foothold, but it became apparent to him and Iftikhar that all was lost for the Muslims. Iftikhar retreated to the tower of David, a citadel he could have defended for many days. Iftikhar immediately began negotiating a surrender, offering to turn over to Raymond a great treasure for the return of his life and that of his bodyguards. Raymond accepted and occupied the tower. Iftikhar and his men were escorted out of the city. They were nearly the only Muslims to get out of the city alive.

Worship at the Tomb

A chronicler noted, “Now that our men had possession of the walls and towers, wonderful sights were to be seen. Some of our men (and this was more than merciful) cut off the heads of their enemies; others shot them with arrows, so that they fell from the towers; others tortured them longer by casting them into the flames. ”

Some Muslims fled toward the temple area, where the Dome of the Rock and the Mosque of al-Aqsa stood. They intended to use the latter as their last fortress. But as they crowded in and up on the roof, Tancred was already upon them. He began pillaging the Dome of the Rock. The Muslims hastily surrendered to him, promising a heavy ransom. Tancred accepted and gave them his banner to display over the mosque as protection.

Meanwhile, crusaders rushed through the streets and into houses and mosques, killing everyone they met— including women and children. All Friday afternoon and night, the killing and looting continued as soldiers and pilgrims rushed through the city, “seizing gold and silver, horses and mules, and houses full of all sorts of goods. ”

It was a frenzied attack, and yet not without rules. Whichever looter “entered the home first, whether rich or poor, was not to be harmed by anyone else in any way. He was to have and to hold the house or palace... They mutually agreed to maintain this rule. ”

Saturday morning the blood flowed unabated. Tancred’s banner, turned out, was no protection to the refugees in the Mosque of al-Aqsa. A band of crusaders forced entry into the mosque, killing those on the roof with arrows, hacking others to pieces with swords. “If you had been there, ” one chronicler said, “your feet would have been stained up to the ankles with the blood of the slain. ”

Another reported, “Indeed, it was a just and splendid judgment of God that this place should be filled with the blood of the unbelievers, since it had suffered so long from the blasphemies. ” The Jews of Jerusalem fared no better. They had fled to their chief synagogue, but since they were believed to have aided the Muslims, the building was set on fire.

No one was safe: “With drawn swords, ” one chronicler reported, “our people ran through the city; nor did they spare anyone, not even those pleading for mercy. The crowd was struck to the ground, just as rotten fruit falls from shaken branches, and acorns from a windblown oak. ”

evening, soldiers and pilgrims, “weeping from excess of gladness, ” picked their way through the bodies of people and horses, past piles of heads, hands, and feet, and made their way to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. There, “singing a new song unto the Lord in a high-sounding voice of exultation, and making offerings and most humble supplications, [they] joyously visited the Holy Place as they had long desired to do. ”

“Oh, time so longed for! ” this chronicler continued, “Oh, time remembered among all others! Oh, deed to be preferred before all deeds! Truly longed for, since it has always been desired by all worshipers of the Catholic faith with an inward yearning of the soul. ”

Another wrote, “This day, I say, will be famous in all future ages, for it turned our labors and sorrows into joy and exaltation; this day, I say, marks the justification of all Christianity, the humiliation of paganism, and the renewal of our faith. ”

Heading Home

In the hot summer sun, it didn’t take long for the smell of decaying bodies to become revolting. So, the few surviving Saracens were commanded to drag the dead ones outside the walls, where they were thrown into piles “as big as houses ” and set on fire.

On July 22, a week after the Christians had entered the city, the princes gathered and elected Godfrey as ruler (not king) of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. And on August 1, a Latin patriarch (Roman Catholic bishop) was elected.

On August 12, crusading armies resoundingly defeated a rescuing Egyptian army at the Battle of Ascalon, thus securing the safety of Christian Jerusalem for nearly a century to come. By the end of the month, the bulk of the crusaders, having fulfilled their vows, headed home.

That December, Fulcher of Chartres, who would shortly compose his chronicle of the First Crusade, visited Jerusalem. He noted that both inside and outside the walls of the Holy City, the stench of death still lingered.

By Mark Galli

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #40 in 1993]

Mark Galli is managing editor of Christian History.
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