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The First Crusade - Antioch

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

In late Summer 1097 the crusaders crossed into Syria1. Between battle, starvation and desertion, their numbers were by now diminished to about half of those who had set out from Constantinople. But now the route was guarded by one of the greatest fortified cities of the Near East: Antioch.

The city was founded in 300 BC, and by Roman times was the 3rd biggest city in the Roman Empire, with a population of 300,000. It was the headquarters of the great Christian apostle St Paul, and was in fact the place where the term 'Christian' was invented. Antioch had formidable walls built by Byzantine emperor Justinian in 560 AD. The city fell to the Muslims in 638 AD but was recaptured by the Byzantines in 969. Then in 1085, just 12 years prior to the arrival of the crusaders, it was taken by the Seljuk Turks who now controlled the whole of Anatolia, Syria and Mesopotamia.

Antioch was still a big city, so it was imperative that the crusaders capture it. If they just passed it by, they would effectively be cut off from the various allies they had made along the way, and their supply routes. So although they were now only 500 kilometres from Jerusalem, the biggest challenge of the crusade lay between them and that goal. It would be eight gruelling months before they fully controlled the city and the area around it.

Antioch was one of three big cities in Syria, the other two being Aleppo and Damascus. Those were ruled by two brothers, Ridwan and Duqaq, who were at war with each other over control of the whole of Syria. Antioch was independent, trying not to overtly support either until a clear victor emerged. As a result, it didn't have any real allies. As the crusaders approached, the city's ruler Yaghi Siyan sent his two sons as messengers to both Aleppo and Damascus, asking for help. One of the sons also went far east to Mosul, a large city on the Tigris river in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq).

The First Siege of Antioch

Somebody, probably Tatikios, advised that a siege of Antioch was not a good idea during the winter, due to the lack of easily available food for the crusaders. He suggested that they should hole up somewhere north of Antioch, gradually taking over all the smaller towns, and leave the big city until spring. After much debate, the committee of nobles rejected this advice, deciding on a siege as soon as possible, but they did take the precaution of capturing the smaller towns in the area first. Then they advanced on the city. To their dismay, it appeared to be impregnable.

The city was roughly rectangular, with the long axis running north-south. To the east was a range of mountains. To the west was a river, the Orontes. The defensive walls completely encircled the city, being 5km long, 2m thick and up to 20m high. In the east, the walls ran up the mountain, then turned and ran along the ridge, so it was not possible to gain the high ground and shoot down on the city. In the west, the walls ran right down to the river for a significant distance. There were six gates in the walls.

The city and the river between them effectively split the countryside into three:

  • East of the river, north of the city with three gates opening into this area
  • West of the river, with one gate opening directly onto a bridge to this area
  • South of the city with one gate opening onto a mountainous area

These three areas were connected only through the city. If you were north of the city and wanted to get to the west, the only way other than through the city was to march 12km upstream where there was another bridge.

The sixth gate, the so-called 'Iron Gate', in the eastern side led to tracks in the mountains which were too narrow and too steep for an army to march, so this gate was not considered as a suitable attack point by the crusaders, although it was used by the Turks as a route for supplies into the city during the siege.

In addition, there was a citadel on the top of the mountain, 350m above the city, which could be defended from attack from within the city as well as from outside, so that even if the crusaders took the city, the Turks could still hold the citadel and launch attacks on them. Given the state of the walls, the crusaders had little hope of breaching them. They decided to starve the inhabitants out.

On 20 October, 1097, the first crusaders arrived at Antioch, and the main army arrived on 21 Oct at about noon. Bohemond's troops were first to arrive - they blockaded the main north gate (the Gate of St Paul). The other troops spread out to surround the northern end of the city, blockading the other two gates there as well - Raymond and Adhémar took the 'Dog Gate' while Godfrey took the third gate. Even at this stage on the first day, the crusaders were already thinking about who would control the city when they conquered it. Bohemond held the best access into the city.

Unable to get into the city, the crusaders sat back and enjoyed the plentiful food in the fields around the city. The Turks stayed inside the city, not venturing out for two weeks.

Settling Into the Siege

After two weeks, the Turks started to harass the crusaders, firing missiles down on them, or crossing the river by the bridge which they controlled and shooting arrows across the river at them. Robert and Adhémar, who were camped closest to the river, lost all their horses in this way. The crusaders had some boats, with which they could ferry across small numbers of troops. They built a bridge by strapping boats together and putting planks across. Troops and even knights with horses could cross this makeshift bridge-of-boats, although slowly. From the west bank it was only a few kilometres to the port of St Simeon on the Mediterranean, where they could enlist passing traders to bring letters home. They also, as time went on, received supplies via the port from the Byzantines and from their own people in Western Europe. For example, in mid-November, 13 ships arrived from Genoa, Italy, with men and supplies.

There were attacks on the Crusader army coming from the countryside in the northeast. Bohemond was sent out with a small force to find the source, which turned out to be from a Muslim-held town called Harim. Bohemond used a Turkish tactic against the Muslims, organising a fake retreat, then ambushing as they gave chase. Many of the Muslims were killed and they gave up their attacks.

Both the crusaders and the besieged Turks of Antioch carried out calculated atrocities to try and intimidate their opponents. The crusaders took prisoners from Harim, beheaded them in full view of the walls of Antioch, then fired the heads into the city using a catapult. Among other things, the Turks took the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and hung him upside down from the walls, beating his feet with iron bars.

The Terrible Winter

At the end of November the crusaders' food started to run out. The weather got cold and they were surprised to find that Syria could experience heavy rain and even some snow. Despite the various supply routes they had established, the crusaders did not have enough food. According to one report, one in five of them died of hunger over the winter.

Meanwhile, the people of Antioch were not too badly off, as three of the gates were still open and they could receive food supplies from the south through these.

The Battle Against Duqaq

On 28 December Bohemond and Robert of Flanders set out with a large army, including 400 knights, to find food. They travelled quite some distance away from the city to the southeast, and found a region where they were able to gather plenty of food. Early on the morning of 31 December they were near the town of Al-Bara, and they stumbled across a large army of Muslims. The help that Yaghi Siyan had looked for from Damascus had arrived, led by Duqaq. They were on their way to Antioch. There were probably about 10,000 men in Duqaq's army.

The two sides immediately began to fight, but the crusaders did not work coherently as a team; instead it was every man for himself. In the end the knights fled the scene, but most of the crusader infantry were butchered, and all the food they had collected was lost too. The Muslims also lost many men, and decided that these crusaders were tougher than they had thought. They withdrew, and marched back to Damascus. The foraging expedition had successfully repelled the reinforcements from Damascus, but at a cost of losing most of the foot soldiers.

Meanwhile, the Turks in Antioch, seeing the forces besieging the city were down in numbers, had mounted an attack from within the city, killing about 15 knights and 20 foot soldiers. This was not a huge number, but it really dented the morale of the crusaders. In addition, Adhémar's standard had been taken, to his great shame. The Turks would fly it from the battlements to taunt him.

The Siege Continues

By New Year 1098 the siege still only included three of the six gates around the city, with occasional trips across the boat bridge to the fourth gate. The local Christians saw the crusaders as an opportunity to make money - they crept out of the city and sold food to the crusaders at vastly inflated prices. The poorest crusaders, who couldn't afford the food, were reduced to sorting though animal dung for undigested seeds.

There were a number of strange occurrences at this time, which were interpreted as a sign of God's displeasure: an aurora, a comet, an earthquake, and a cross in the air, advancing to the east. The only solution was purification - the spiritual leader Adhémar recommended a three-day fast accompanied by prayers and masses. They also 'drove the women from the army' because they might be an occasion of sin. Accounts don't say where the women went.

Foraging parties of up to 300 men went out, perhaps without permission, looking for food. Some of these were ambushed and didn't return. Peter the Hermit and a knight called William the Carpenter sneaked off, attempting to desert. Tancred himself pursued them and caught them. They were reprimanded by Bohemond and both swore not to desert again. At the end of January the Byzantine general Tatikios left Antioch in search of supplies and reinforcements. He never returned, for which he was never forgiven by the crusaders.

Many of the poorer soldiers deserted and were never seen again. The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Simeon, who was in exile in Cyprus, was in regular correspondence with Adhémar. He wrote a plea to Western Europe for more manpower, because so many had died or deserted at Antioch.

The Battle Against Ridwan

At the start of February 1098 news of a new Muslim army arrived. It was from Aleppo, the other major Muslim city in the area, and was led by Ridwan. He had about 12,000 men. By now, the crusaders had only about 1,000 horses left, so their greatest weapon, the mounted cavalry charge, was less effective than it could have been. After the debacle of being surprised by Duqaq's army, the crusaders had posted scouts in the countryside around Antioch, so they had advance notice of the approach of Ridwan's army.

The crusaders were aware by now of the difficulty of synchronising an attack with cavalry and foot soldiers — because of this they had lost all the foot soldiers in the battle against Duqaq. They decided to meet Ridwan's army a good distance from the city, with a troop of 700 knights commanded by Bohemond, and no infantry at all. All the foot soldiers were to stay at the city to maintain the siege. A force of 700 against 12,000 seems like very long odds, but the knights were very well trained and were well protected by their armour. On 9 February they decided to ambush the approaching army, which was about 10km from Antioch and marching straight to the city.

The battle was well managed by Bohemond. He attacked with part of his force, keeping the rest in hiding; this caused the army to bunch together in an attempt to defeat the smaller force. When the enemy were all clumped together, he attacked with the remaining forces in a huge cavalry charge, which was unstoppable. The result was devastating and the Turks soon turned and fled. The crusaders pursued them, and managed to capture supplies and many horses from them.

On the same day, the crusaders received an emissary from Egypt, from the Fatimid Caliphate, to discuss the expedition. The Egyptians were happy to allow the crusaders to continue, since it did not concern any of the land they controlled; they promised not to interfere with any crusader or Byzantine ships in the region.

By the end of February the winter was over, but the city was still unchanged and defiant, and the crusader numbers were down to about 30,000 from the original 60-100,000 that had set out.

Spring Brings Hope

On 4 March ships arrived at the port of St Simeon with supplies, tools and craftsmen. Accounts of the Crusade say that these came from England, but we know the English did not send any troops and there's no record in England of anybody sending these ships, so we really don't know anything else about them. The crusaders decided the best use of this new resource was to build a siege fort outside the Bridge Gate. About 60 knights and many infantry were sent to the port to accompany the craftsmen and their materials on the road to Antioch. But the Turks in Antioch had got word of it. They sent out a party through the other gate, who ambushed the cavalcade, killing two knights and 500 infantry. Then when the group reached the city, the Turks sent out a sortie through the Bridge Gate, and there was a battle in front of the gate. Surprisingly, the crusaders won. Despite the loss of 1,000 men, the crusaders considered it a marvellous victory: God was on their side again.

Outside the Bridge Gate was an abandoned mosque. The crusaders took this over and fortified it. Raymond was set to command it. Having recovered from illness over the previous year, he was determined to take the lead again in the affairs of the crusaders. Commanding the fort at the Bridge Gate gave him a good chance of being the one to take the city and to claim control of it.

The Bridge Gate was one of the major routes out of the city, being the main route both west to the port and south to southern Syria and to Palestine. The crusaders now effectively controlled four of the six gates to the city. In early April the fifth gate, the Gate of St John on the south side of the city, was barricaded by Tancred. This left only the mountainous Iron Gate. Now food was available again in the fields so the crusaders had plenty, while the people inside the city were starting to feel the pinch as their supply routes were cut off one by one.

The Beginnings of a Plan

In early May Bohemond managed to make contact with a traitor within the city, a man by the name of Firuz. He was probably a Christian Armenian converted to Islam. He commanded a tower near the gate outside which Tancred was stationed, and he was prepared to let the crusaders into Antioch. Why Firuz was willing to betray his city is not clear: explanations range from visions of Christ to immense bribes or promises of them. Bohemond now went to the committee of nobles and asked them to agree that whoever gained access to the city should be given the rule of the city. They refused.


Yaghi Siyan had sent his sons out to look for help. Back in the previous October one son had gone to Mosul, a large city in Mesopotamia north of Baghdad. The ruler of Mosul, Kerbogha, was now on his way to Antioch with an army. Kerbogha was a strong Muslim leader who had his eye on the throne of the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad. He reckoned if he conquered Antioch he'd have a fair chance of taking control in Baghdad, where the political situation was in turmoil, and becoming the ruler of the whole Sunni Muslim world. He spent six months putting together a very large army, made up of disparate groups who wanted the likely future ruler to be their friend. Accounts differ on the size of the army: one contemporary account gives Kerbogha command of 1.1 million men. A more conservative modern estimate is 35,000.

On 28 May reports reached Antioch of the approach of Kerbogha's army. At the meeting on 29 May the princes gave in to Bohemond's demand that if he could get them into the city, he would be given control of it. Not forgetting the oath they had sworn to the Emperor, they added the condition that should the Byzantines provide the assistance they had promised, the crusaders would hand the city over to the Emperor as agreed.


Bohemond's plan was simple but risky and relied on the traitor, Firuz. First he took Firuz's son as hostage to prevent Firuz leading the crusaders into a trap. A large group of crusaders would march away from the city in full view, then creep back under cover of darkness and assemble at the southernmost gate of the city, near Firuz's tower. A small group would assemble at the tower and climb a ladder to the top of the walls. Once inside the city, they would open the gate. The bigger group would then invade the city, opening the other gates as quickly as possible so that the rest of the crusader army could enter before the Turks had a chance to fight back. At the same time, Godfrey and Robert of Flanders would attack the citadel to prevent help coming from there.

Stephen of Blois, one of the senior leaders, decided on 2 June that the plan was too risky and that they would be annihilated by Kerbogha's army. He withdrew with his troops, leaving the crusade and heading back along the route towards Cilicia.

The City Falls

The same night, the plan was put into effect. At 3am on 3 June, 1098, 700 crusaders gathered outside the gate, while another group got ready outside the citadel. Firuz lowered a rope and hauled up the crusaders' ladder. Some 60 men were chosen to climb the ladder. At first they were reluctant, not wanting to enter a trap, then they all rushed up at once, causing the ladder to fall down. Firuz once again lowered the rope and the process was repeated, this time more cautiously. The crusaders reached the top of the wall and got into the city. They crept to the gate, killing a few guards along the way.

Suddenly they threw open the gates. Trumpets rang out and Godfrey and Robert started their attack on the citadel as Bohemond's group pushed in through the gate. The entire crusader army started to shout, chanting: 'God's will, God's will'. This threw the Turkish inhabitants into confusion. Bohemond raised his banner at a high point on the walls, where it was visible to all. Many of the inhabitants, thinking the city already lost, fled through the gate or jumped from the walls. Christians living in the city turned on their Muslim neighbours and opened the other gates of the city. Within minutes, Antioch was in the control of the crusaders.

A bloody massacre followed. The crusaders struck down all Muslims, and many local Christians who looked like Muslims. The streets of the city were full of the dead. The crusaders also tried to grab any booty they could get their hands on — they had been outside the walls for seven months; now they wanted their reward. But there was precious little in the line of money or treasure left in the city. The residents had spent it all buying in supplies to survive the siege.

The attack on the citadel failed, however. The few remaining Turkish troops in the city climbed the hill and were let into the citadel, which was under the command of Yaghi Siyan's son, Shams as-Daulah. Yaghi Siyan himself fled from the city, but was killed when he was thrown from his horse.

While the crusader army rampaged through the city, Raymond's troops seized many of the buildings around the Bridge Gate, including the Palace. Raymond knew now that he couldn't claim the leadership of the city, but he was not going to make it easy for Bohemond. This would be a bone of contention later.

After 7½ months, the crusaders finally had taken Antioch. And not a moment too soon; the next day, the enemy arrived.

The Second Siege of Antioch

The first outriders of Kerbogha's army reached Antioch on 4 June with the main army arriving over the next few days. Now the situation was reversed, with the crusaders on the inside of the walls and the Muslims on the outside. Kerbogha's army was about twice the size of the remaining crusader force. In addition, the crusaders could not use their best weapon, the heavy cavalry charge, because at this stage they had only about 200 horses left. There were many Turkish horses in the city, but they were not trained for warfare.

Kerbogha's first act was to attack the fort at the Bridge Gate. After three days of fighting, the commander of the fort withdrew into the city, burning the fort behind him. Next, Kerbogha contacted Shams as-Daulah, who controlled the citadel. He passed control to Kerbogha, who moved in a contingent of men. This gave him a critical advantage over the crusaders. Because the citadel had gates which opened both inside and outside the walls, Kerbogha now had great flexibility in where he could mount his attacks. Bohemond set up a camp on the mountain south of the citadel, inside the wall, effectively giving him control of the mountain wall south of this point, but Kerbogha controlled the wall north of the citadel.

On 10 June Kerbogha tried to take the walls south of the citadel, simultaneously launching an attack on the city from the citadel itself. This offensive lasted two days with no apparent shortage of manpower. Panic spread through the city, some knights letting themselves down the walls on ropes and fleeing, others leaving through the gates of the city which were not yet closed — at this stage, Kerbogha had not yet fully surrounded the city. Bohemond and Adhémar commanded the gates to be closed to prevent the crusaders deserting. The fighting on the mountain continued, with the leaders in the thick of it. There are indications, however, that the crusading foot soldiers were less enthusiastic. Bohemond actually set fire to part of the city at one point because soldiers were hiding there to avoid having to fight!

Visions and Things

Also on 10 June, a French peasant called Peter Bartholomew came to Adhémar and Raymond. He said he had had a meeting with two men clad in brilliant clothes. He believed them to be St Andrew and Christ himself. He had been having these visions since the previous December. Their message was that the Roman lance which had pierced Christ's side as he was dying on the cross was here in Antioch, buried in a location which they revealed to Peter. Anyone who carried this lance with them would never be beaten in battle.

Crusaders were interested in such relics — there were many of them throughout the Western World, and Constantinople itself had the biggest collection of items claimed to be holy relics. An object which had touched the body of Christ would be considered magical to them, a treasure beyond price. Adhémar was not impressed, particularly since the so-called Holy Lance had already been discovered and was in Constantinople. Raymond, on the other hand, decided it would be a great morale booster if they found this lance. He set 12 men digging along with Peter Bartholomew in St Peter's Basilica. By the end of the day, they had found... something. It was metal, but that is about all we know about it. Nevertheless, the crusaders, with the exception of Adhémar, proclaimed that it was the genuine article, and there was much rejoicing. It was a sign of God's support for their venture.

The crusaders' own accounts of events put this as the turning point of the siege. Fired by holy vigour, they decided on the spot not to lurk any longer in the city but to attack boldly. In fact, there was a delay of two weeks after the discovery of the lance before the crusaders burst out of the city, so other factors must have influenced them. On 11 June Stephen of Valence, a priest, saw a vision of Christ and the Virgin Mary. He said that the crusaders should purify themselves for five days. On the night of 13 June a strange light was seen in the sky, which 'approached and fell upon the Turkish army'. Whatever it was, it strengthened the crusaders' spirits.

On 14 June Kerbogha decided on a change of plan, as his attacks on the mountain were not working. He blockaded the three main gates of the city (the St Paul Gate, the Bridge Gate and the St George Gate). He was going to starve them out. The crusaders had no food because the Turks had eaten it all during the seven-month siege, and the crusaders had not had time to get in supplies in the 12 hours between them conquering the city and the arrival of Kerbogha's army. As hunger struck, they were forced to eat anything they could - including horses, thistles, the leaves of trees and their own shoes. People died both of starvation and of eating poisonous plants. Yet even at this stage, the crusaders still bought food from the Christian residents of the city, rather than just taking it.

The Emperor Turns Back

Alexios I Comnenos, the Byzantine Emperor, was out campaigning in south-west Anatolia with his brother John. Between them, they regained much territory from the Turks. In mid-June Alexios was ready to march to Antioch to join the Franks. On 20 June a group of deserters, including Stephen of Blois, met with Alexios. Perhaps to justify his own desertion, Stephen told Alexios about Kerbogha's army and said that the situation at Antioch was hopeless. It's possible that Alexios never had any intention of helping the crusaders capture Antioch, but that he intended to take it from them once they had secured it. He now decided he was not going to go into battle against an enormous Muslim army, so he turned back. The crusaders could expect no more help from that quarter.

By the fourth week in June the crusaders still hadn't heard any news of the Emperor, but hope was receding of any help. They were starving. On 24 June they sent an emissary to Kerbogha's camp. Contemporary Crusader accounts say that the emissary demanded that Kerbogha should withdraw, which makes little sense. Armenian and Muslim accounts say that he came to surrender — the crusaders were willing to give up the city if they could be guaranteed safe passage so that they could continue their journey. In both versions, Kerbogha refused. He thought he had more than enough manpower to take the city. The crusaders' only option now was to fight, as Kerbogha was not willing to negotiate and no help would come from outside, so the sooner the better, as what food they had would only decrease with time.

The Great Battle of Antioch

On 25 June they started to plan a frontal attack on Kerbogha. Bohemond was elected commander-in-chief for the battle, as he had the most experience. A three-day purification rite was undertaken to cleanse their souls, involving fasting, processions and masses.

On 28 June, at first light, they marched out - possibly 20,000 men with only 200 mounted knights against a far bigger mounted army. On the other hand, these knights who no longer had horses were still very well armed and armoured, and were by now used to war. The enemy were not all outside the walls waiting for them. There were groups of Muslims at the main gates of the town but, crucially, most of the enemy were camped about a kilometre to the north of the city, while Kerbogha himself was camped about three kilometres from the city. His army, while large, was not particularly united.

Bohemond decided to attack via the Bridge Gate. He started with a line of archers, who advanced firing as they walked. The defenders fell back, leaving room for the army to march out, fanning out as they did so. The remaining crusaders quickly crossed the bridge, infantry in front. The troops were divided into four groups. The first three groups were commanded by Godfrey, Adhémar and the two Roberts; the fourth group was commanded by Bohemond himself and held in reserve so that they could join the fray wherever they were most needed. The Holy Lance was carried by Raymond of Aguilers, a priest who later wrote a personal history of the Crusade. Raymond of Toulouse, who was suffering from illness again, was left in charge of 200 knights to protect the city from attack from the inside from the citadel.

The Turks in the citadel raised a black flag which indicated to Kerbogha a few kilometres away that something was afoot. Kerbogha could have rushed forward with his main army and picked the crusaders off one by one as they emerged from the gate. Instead, he was unsure what to do, and waited. He didn't want the crusaders to run back into the city, as a long siege was not in his interests. He thought that if he let them all emerge, he could kill them all in one go. Various explanations for Kerbogha's inaction were offered by contemporary chronicles. He was distracted by playing chess; there were so few crusaders that the Muslims thought they were just deserters fleeing from the city, and so on. For whatever reason, Kerbogha waited, but then changed his mind and decided on a full attack with his main army.

Meanwhile, the Muslims who were encircling the city all moved against the crusaders, threatening to surround them. The Christian soldiers, however, held rank and continued to march forward in an orderly configuration. The Muslims in front of them started to panic, turned tail and fled back towards Kerbogha's camp. Just at this moment the main army arrived, and was met by a wave of their own people fleeing. The front of the army was thrown into disarray.

The crusaders, still in battle formation, ploughed into the confusion of the Muslim army and started to wreak mayhem. This was the sort of warfare they liked the best, and they knew they were fighting for their lives. The Muslims, on the other hand, were fighting for the chance to be on the winning side when Kerbogha became ruler of Baghdad. As the battle turned more and more to the advantage of the crusaders, it looked as if Kerbogha was losing it, so one by one the Turks abandoned the fight and left Kerbogha to fight on his own.

So, despite not having lost very many men and starting with a much bigger army, Kerbogha found he had lost the battle and the chance to take Antioch. He himself turned and left, heading back to Mosul where he came from. He abandoned his camp; the crusaders took it and found much valuable supplies as well as treasures. Contemporary accounts of the battle attributed the success directly to God. By carrying the Holy Lance, the crusaders were blessed by God. Christ himself appeared on a white horse with an army of cavalry on white horses to help them. Although the decision to hold the battle seems to have been dictated more by circumstance, the religious zeal which the crusaders brought into battle certainly appears to have carried the day.

The battle was over, and the biggest army in the Sunni Muslim world had failed to defeat the crusaders. They were in possession of Antioch, the strongest fortified city in Syria, and there now appeared to be nothing to stop them from fulfilling their crusade.

The story continues in The First Crusade - Straying from the Path.

1Antioch, modern Antakya, is now in Turkey, but in the 11th Century it was in Syria.

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