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The First Crusade - Into Muslim Territory

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The First Crusade
Setting Out | Into Muslim Territory | Antioch | Straying from the Path | Jerusalem

In May 1097 the crusader armies set out from Constantinople in the first march towards Jerusalem. They were now going into Turkish occupied territory. Without an overall military leader, they didn't band together for protection as would have been prudent, but proceeded in a number of separate groups. This was leaving the whole venture open to attack - a determined enemy could have picked them off one by one as they marched into unknown territory. Luckily the Turks didn't think that they were a problem, having easily defeated the 'People's Crusade'. As a result, the local Turkish leader wasn't even nearby, being in the east of his country sorting out a local dispute.


The first destination was the city of Nicaea (modern Iznik), the local Turkish capital, about 250km from Constantinople. The Emperor Alexios was very anxious that Nicaea be captured because it was the centre of Turkish operations against Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire. Capturing it would also help the crusaders in wiping out opposition to their passage through Anatolia (modern Turkey). They went along the old Roman road, which was very overgrown, so they had to clear the way with swords and axes. As with the Romans before them, this allowed them to establish a supply line so that food could be brought to the troops at the front. At this stage of the expedition at least, the Byzantines were still very much supporting the crusaders. The first armies, led by Godfrey, Tancred, Hugh of Vermandois and Robert of Flanders, arrived at Nicaea on 6 May and laid siege to the city. They were joined on 14 May by Bohemond's army.

The Emperor had sent two Greek strategists to accompany the Crusade: Manuel Boutoumites and Tatikios - the latter was an unusual character, a half-Greek and half-Arab eunuch. He was an experienced soldier and had a metal nose, having lost his original nose in a battle. He commanded a small army of 2,000 Byzantine soldiers.

Kilij Arslan Returns

Things were going well; the Turkish residents of Nicaea were talking to Manuel Boutoumites and negotiating terms for surrender. Then on 15 May, they suddenly changed their minds and threw him out. Two captured spies revealed the reason why: the local Turkish leader, Kilij Arslan, was returning from the East, with a large army. He would arrive at Nicaea the next day and intended to attack three hours after dawn (about 10am).

At this stage, Raymond's army, about one third of the total Crusading force, was still about a day's march from Nicaea, so it wasn't clear whether he'd arrive in time. As it happened, Raymond arrived at dawn, just before the Turks, who arrived as predicted three hours later. Kilij Arslan miscalculated the strength of the crusaders. He attacked and there was a battle, but he soon decided he was outnumbered and fled.

The Siege

Nicaea was at the east end of a long lake. One side of the city opened onto the lake, the other three sides were protected by impressive walls, 5km long and 10m high. By 3 June all the crusaders had arrived, the last groups being led by Robert of Normandy and Stephen of Blois. This was the first time the full crusader army was together in one place and it was very impressive. There were probably about 75,000 crusaders, of whom 7,500 were mounted knights and 5,000 infantry.

They settled in for a long siege. The first step was to build siege weapons, using wood from local forests. The crusaders did not at any stage carry siege weapons along with them, but built them on the spot from whatever was at hand. These ranged from simple devices such as movable shelters to protect a group from bombardment from the walls, to 'mangonels', a type of catapult which could fire missiles into the city.

Once the catapults were ready, they started on the second step, which was to undermine the spirit of the enemy. They cut off the heads of any Turks killed in the battle. Some of these they stuck on poles around the outside of the city. Others they fired into the city using their catapults. In retribution, the Turks got their hands on some Christian bodies, soldiers who had stood too close to the walls and been killed by arrows. They lowered grappling hooks down and dragged the bodies into the city, then hung them on the walls to rot - a sign of what would happen to any Christian who fought a Turk.

The crusaders built scaling ladders but their attempts to storm the city failed. A knight called Henry of Esch constructed a movable shelter under which 20 men could advance up to the walls, with the intention of digging under them. The defenders threw rocks down on top of it, collapsing the whole construction and killing all the men inside. Raymond's troops were more successful. Their shelter - known as a 'tortoise' - brought them right to the walls, where sappers (trained miners) dug under a section of wall and managed to collapse it just before nightfall. But by the next morning, the wall had been rebuilt from within.

The Crusaders did not yet have the skills to build the really big siege weapons such as towers, or the heavy-duty catapults needed to demolish a wall by bombardment, so the siege was turning into an impasse.


The crusader's main weapon in a siege, starvation, was ineffective because of the lake; it was about 30km long, too long to be surrounded, so there was nothing to stop the besieged Turks from getting supplies into the city by boat. They could survive indefinitely. The crusaders decided the only solution was to use boats themselves. They sent a messenger to Alexios, and on this occasion he came up with the goods. Special carts were built and boats were brought to the lake overland, arriving on 17 June, 1097.

The next day, the crusaders organised a combined lake and land attack on the city. On board the boats were trumpeters and drummers, who made an enormous noise, giving the impression that the fleet was much bigger than it really was. The besieged Turks realised that without their lifeline across the lake, they couldn't survive. Within hours they had surrendered. The Greeks took charge, taking control of the city and preventing the crusaders from either plundering or slaughtering the people within. The crusader leaders kept to their agreement with the Emperor and handed the city over to Byzantine control.

The Emperor himself now arrived in person at nearby Pelekanum and met with the leaders of the crusaders. He had already got what he wanted, the return of Nicaea to Byzantine control. He got them to renew their oaths to him, and ordered Tatikios to remain with the crusaders for the moment to offer tactical advice. The crusaders expected that he would also provide an army to accompany them, but none was forthcoming. From here on, they were on their own.

In the last week of June 1097 they set out from Nicaea. If they split up, they would be open to attack by Kilij Arslan who was still in the area. If they went in one mass, they would have great problems getting enough food, as they were now living by foraging and pillaging. They decided to split into two groups, one being led by Bohemond and Raymond.

Meanwhile, Kilij Arslan had been busy negotiating a truce with his neighbours, and they combined to make a bigger force to repel the Christians.

The Battle of Dorylaeum

On 1 July, 1097, Kilij Arslan attacked the smaller group led by Bohemond and Raymond near the town of Dorylaeum (near modern Eskisehir). The Turkish army was probably as big as that of the group of crusaders they were attacking, and all of them were on horseback. The normal Turkish method of fighting was with light cavalry on ponies, with small bone-and-horn composite bows and a light lance, a single-sided sword or a dagger. Unlike the westerners, the Turks could fire arrows from horseback, even when they were retreating. They had two main military techniques: encirclement of the enemy and feigned retreat followed by ambush.

The Turks bore down on the crusaders, screaming and hooting. The crusaders just had time to send out a messenger to the rest of the army, then they were surrounded. They placed all the non-combatants in the centre and armed men on the outside. Some peasants who didn't make it into the centre quick enough were cut down by the Turks. The crusaders then stood their ground, refusing to be drawn out, as they realised the Turks had the advantage. This restraint was unusual for Western knights, who liked to be in the thick of the fighting, and shows great leadership by Raymond and Bohemond. The impasse continued for five long hours.

Shortly after midday the rest of the crusader army arrived at the battle scene and the fighting began in earnest. Eventually Kilij Arslan realised that once again he was outnumbered. The Turks turned and retreated, but the crusaders pursued them and killed many of them. This was the last time that Kilij Arslan or the northern Turks attempted to attack the Crusade. The battle was over, but 3,000 Turks and 4,000 Christians had been killed.

Central Anatolia

The armies now marched across Anatolia and were totally taken unawares by the intense heat of a Turkish summer and subsequent lack of water. Many died of hunger and thirst, as did many of the knights' horses and the pack animals. At Pisidia (modern Antalya), they reached fertile land again where they could forage for food. The nobles even went hunting, and Godfrey was injured by a bear. It took him many months to recover.

The Crusade encountered no resistance: as they reached towns, they found that the Turkish residents would have already fled. The Crusade was coming to what is now Eastern Turkey, a land ruled by the Turks but with a native population of Christian Armenians. The crusaders hoped to enlist local support from these people, which would prevent them from being pursued from behind by the Turks as they marched on.


The land was now getting very mountainous. At Heraclea (modern Eregli), they decided to split the army. The main portion would go northeast as far as Caesarea (Kayseri), then east through the mountains via Coxon (Göksun), south down the far side via Marash (Karahmanmaras) and on to the city of Antioch in Syria.

A smaller group would take a route across the mountains to the southeast, down into a land called Cilicia and then over another line of mountains to meet up with the main army near Antioch. Although this route was shorter, it was not considered suitable for the main army because it involved two narrow mountain passes which could be held by the Turks, who could inflict heavy losses on the crusader army. It was worth risking a smaller group, though, because Cilicia was a very fertile land, which means it would be a good source of food. Cilicia was also situated on the coast; if a port could be captured, a route for supplies and possible reinforcements by ship from Constantinople could be established. Two junior nobles, Tancred and Baldwin, were chosen to lead this expedition. Because there was no great co-operation between the different groups, they effectively set off as two separate forces rather than one united group.

Baldwin had a force of 500 men, while Tancred had 200 men under his command. The journey through the mountains and down to the coast was without incident - the pass was not occupied by the Turks - and Tancred's force arrived first at the port of Tarsus, on 21 September, 1097. Tancred's knights put on a show of their skills outside the city's walls and the locals were so impressed that the next morning, 22 September, they surrendered. Tancred's banner was taken inside by the Turks and raised over the citadel, indicating that Tancred was now in control of the city, although he had not yet actually entered the walls.

At the end of the same day, Baldwin's troops arrived to find Tancred's flag flying on Tarsus. He demanded equal shares of any plunder from the city, although Tancred had already officially defeated it. When Tancred was reluctant to agree, Baldwin went to the Turks and talked to them, explaining that he was the brother of Godfrey, the 'greatest of the crusaders', who led the main army (true) and who would be arriving soon (a lie). The Turks were impressed and changed allegiance, taking down Tancred's flag, raising Baldwin's and letting Baldwin's troops into the city. Tancred had been outmanoeuvred. He realised he had lost his chance so he and his troops packed up and headed east.

Then on 24 October a third group arrived at Tarsus, 300 of Bohemond's knights as reinforcements. Baldwin, having tricked Tancred into losing the city, didn't want to lose it now himself, so he wouldn't let them in, forcing them to camp overnight outside. During the night many of the Turks still in the city crept out, silently killed the sleeping knights and then fled. Baldwin's troops discovered the treachery in the morning and went berserk, slaughtering any remaining Turks in the city. They then installed a garrison of knights to hold the city, and the rest continued on east after Tancred.

Meanwhile, Tancred had recruited local Armenian Christians, and with their help attacked the Turkish-held city of Mamistra. Now known as Yakapinar1, Mamistra was, in the 11th Century, a city of 200,000 people, making it bigger than any city in Western Europe. With the help of his allies, Tancred soon conquered it. This time he was quick to establish a presence in the city so that by the time Baldwin arrived, there was no chance of him taking control. When Baldwin showed up there was plenty of ill-feeling, and skirmishing broke out between the two groups of crusaders, the only time that Christians fought each other during the Crusade. Baldwin realised he couldn't win, so he continued the journey out of Cilicia to meet up with the main crusader army at Marash. Tancred fortified the town, left 50 knights there and then set off to rejoin the main crusader army himself.

But he never saw Baldwin again. Before he arrived, Baldwin had already forged his own path.

Baldwin Abandons the Crusade

Led by advice from a local Armenian by the name of Bagrat, Baldwin marched east from Marash with about 100 knights, abandoning the Crusade. Using sheer intimidation, he captured towns along a route to the Euphrates River without a fight. Many of these towns had Armenian Christian residents with Turkish overlords. Baldwin continued across the river to the city of Edessa (modern Sanliurfa). This was ruled by an Armenian, Thonos, but the people had turned against him, suspecting him of selling out to the Byzantines. Thonos saw Baldwin as the answer to his prayers, as he could provide protection for the city from the Turks without involving the Byzantines. He proposed a partnership with Baldwin and his knights. Baldwin was so popular that Thonos appointed him as his official son and heir.

Baldwin immediately set to work guarding the Armenian city from the neighbouring Turkish city of Samosata. In March 1098 the Edessans turned against Thonos again, and he locked himself in the citadel. Accounts differ as to what happened next, but they all agree on one detail: Baldwin let the angry mob into the citadel, where they tore Thonos to pieces. Baldwin was appointed king of Edessa, and he ruled for a number of years. He showed no further interest in the Crusade.

The remaining crusaders now moved from Anatolia into Syria, where they faced the biggest challenge of the entire expedition: the city of Antioch.

The story continues in The First Crusade - Antioch.

1Today Yakapinar is little more than a village just south of a giant industrial park.

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