By Kenneth Harl, PhD,Tulane University
In October of 1097, after a horrendous four-month march across Asia Minor—with only half of their original army—the main force of Crusaders converged to focus on a successful siege of Antioch.
The Siege of Antioch: Approaching the City
Antioch is situated in the great Amuk Plain, an extremely fertile area, where there is a lot of grain, sheep, and cattle available. Provisions were plentiful, and the famished army was able to recover from the starvation and battle losses that had plagued them throughout their march.
Antioch was an incredibly holy city in the Christian tradition, the place where Peter agreed with Paul to accept the Gentiles into the Christian Church. The majority of the population in the city were Greeks, Syrian Christians, and Armenians. It had passed into Turkish control only in 1086, just after the Byzantines had paid for a state-of-the-art renovation of the walls.
The initial reaction as they arrived before Antioch was to take the city. Raymond IV proposed an immediate attack. The princes hesitated, but fortunately for the Crusaders, the political situation played into their hands. The Turkish garrison commander of Antioch, a fellow by the name of Yaghi-Siyan, ruled a city that was largely alienated from him.
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The population was comprised of mostly Christians. Yaghi-Siyan had a Turkish overlord in the immediate area at Aleppo, another in Damascus, and a third, more distant overlord in Mosul.; any one of the three overlords could have launched an army immediately and destroyed the Crusades, and at one point or another all of them brought in relief forces to help out. But Yaghi-Siyan managed to alienate all of his potential masters, and he was essentially left on his own.
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Laying the Siege
The Crusaders conducted the type of warfare normally seen in western Europe. They built towers and they began to conduct more of a blockade than a siege. But as winter approached, the garrison was in no mood to surrender; there were hopes that there would be a relief army.
The Crusaders began to suffer again. The winter of 1097–1098 was the second great ordeal, almost as taxing as the crossing of Asia Minor. In the course of that siege, the bravery and courage of Bohemond I became clear. Twice, relief armies showed up, one from Damascus and one from Aleppo. It was Bohemond who rallied the Crusader forces to beat back these large armies.
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In the case of the second rally, in February of 1098, Bohemond carried out remarkable tactical victories. He took the only mounted men in the camp, who numbered 700, marched east, and lured the main army from Aleppo into a bushwhack as they crossed over a bridge.
He attacked them, drew them over the bridge and into an ambush, destroyed the front forces, drove them back in disorder—the whole army retreated in confusion—and won a dramatic victory, while the infantry remained desperately fighting off a sally from the garrison. It was a remarkable victory—leadership of the first order—the feigned retreats, the ambushes, all the tactics you would associate with these warriors from northern Europe.
Looming Armies and the Betrayal of Antioch
Nonetheless, as the Crusaders got into the spring of the second year, in May of 1098, they knew there was a vast relief army on the move from Mosul itself. Kerbogha, the leading Turkish military commander in Iraq and Syria, had assembled an enormous army, summoning his vassals and his Arab auxiliaries into an army that vastly outnumbered the Crusaders. Fortunately for the Crusaders, that army was held up for three weeks trying to take Edessa, which had been seized by Baldwin I.
In those three weeks, Bohemond negotiated the betrayal of Antioch from one of the lesser officials in the city, who hated the garrison commander. The agreement was that the Crusaders, on the afternoon of June 2, would march west, as if they had given up. The Turkish garrison relaxed. The Crusaders marched into the evening, then, at midnight, stopped, turned around, and marched back to the city.
Bohemond, with 60 knights, at what was known as the Tower of the Two Sisters, appeared. The traitor, a fellow by the name of Firuz, who was an Armenian convert to Islam, had a ladder waiting for them. The knights ascended the tower, overpowered the garrison there, and took part of the wall. Other Crusaders stumbled up, got one of the gates open, and eventually broke their way into the city and captured it. The usual massacre ensued. On June 3 the city was theirs.
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Besieging the Crusaders
In less than 48 hours the army from Mosul showed up, and now the Crusaders were besieged. For the next several weeks, Bohemond strengthened the resolve of those Crusaders. On the 28th of June, in disciplined companies arranged by Bohemond, the army moved out, lined up, engaged this superior Turkish army, and won a stunning victory by a carefully planned cavalry charge after the usual exchange of archery and infantry support. It was a stunning, miraculous victory. Kerborgha’s army was pushed back to Mosul. His Arab allies defected. Antioch was theirs.
The Road to Jerusalem
But at this point, the Crusade was close to breaking up. Bohemond insisted that he was going to keep the city for himself. Raymond I had been too ill to fight in the decisive battles of June, but now he and Godfrey of Bouillon became the new natural leaders. After a considerable amount of dispute, they took over those of the Crusaders ready to press on to Jerusalem, while the Normans and Bohemond stayed in Antioch.
In the spring of 1099, equally audaciously, these Crusaders, or roughly half of the forces that took Antioch, marched more than 300 miles south and arrived in Jerusalem in the blazing sun of June 1099. They happened to link up with the Genoese fleet, who gave them vital military support.
At this point, Godfrey was the senior commander. On July 15, 1099, the Crusaders stormed the city of Jerusalem, having constructed two great towers. After nearly 36 hours of attacking and battering the walls, they broke into the city. The Muslim population was slaughtered along with the Jewish community that had sought refuge in the synagogue. The Holy City had been taken.
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Entering the Holy City
The Crusaders had achieved what no imperial army had done for the last 350 years: they had entered the Holy City. While the massacre was seen by the Islamic world as a hideous disgrace and rekindled notions of jihad, for the Christians it was the manifestation of God’s will. Against all expectations, the Crusaders had won: They had able leaders, skills and logistics, and they had vital support from the various fleets. Nonetheless, it was a triumph of the will of the Crusaders who stormed into the city as well as the inspired leadership of Bohemond, Godfrey, and even Raymond that enabled them to take Jerusalem.
The news reached western Europe. Ironically, Pope Urban II, who had launched the First Crusade, died on July 29, a fortnight after the city had fallen to the Franks, but before the news had reached western Europe. For the first time, the Christians had won a significant victory over their so-called heathen Muslim foe.
It was a stunning success that made Crusading possible for the next 200 years, the remarkable success of the First Crusade was a reminder that followed the western Europeans. Through all the suffering, the images of martyrdom, and exodus, they had achieved the almost impossible, hopeless odds.
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It was always assumed that yet one more Crusade could do it. Although they would lose Jerusalem or the Muslims would close in on it, there was always the chance of retaking the city, and that meant more Crusades for the Islamic world and Byzantium.
Common Questions About the Siege of Antioch
The Siege of Antioch marked the First Crusade in the Holy Land.
Seleucus I Nicator was the founder of Antioch. He had been a general under Alexander the Great.
The Crusades started in order for Christians to end Muslim expansion and take back territory lost to Islamic invaders.