The Crusades: The Arrival of the Franks in the Holy Land


Saladin / Wikimedia Commons


In July 1096 Kilij Arslan learned that an enormous throng of Franks (Franj) was en route to Constantinople.


By Amin Maalouf


Regard the Franj! Behold with what obstinacy they fight for their religion, while we, the Muslims, show no enthusiasm for waging holy war. – Saladin

In that year, news began to trickle in about the appearance of Franj troops, coming down from the Sea of Marmara in an innumerable multitude. People took fright. This information was confirmed by King Kilij Arslan, whose territory was closest to these Franj.

The King Kilij Arslan whom Ibn al-Qalanisi mentions here was not yet seventeen when the invaders arrived. The first Muslim leader to be informed of their approach, this young Turkish sultan with the slightly slanting eyes would be the first to inflict a defeat upon them—but also the first to be routed by the formidable knights.

In July 1096 Kilij Arslan learned that an enormous throng of Franj was en route to Constantinople. He immediately feared the worst. Naturally, he had no idea as to the real aims of these people, but in his view nothing good could come of their arrival in the Orient.

The sultanate under his rule covered much of Asia Minor, a territory the Turks had only recently taken from the Greeks. Kilij Arslan’s father, Süleyman, was the first Turk to secure possession of this land, which many centuries later would come to be called Turkey. In Nicaea, the capital of this young Muslim state, Byzantine churches were still more numerous than Muslim mosques. Although the city’s garrison was made up of Turkish cavalry, the majority of the population was Greek, and Kilij Arslan had few illusions about his subjects’ true sentiments: as far as they were concerned, he would never be other than a barbarian chieftain. The only sovereign they recognized—the man whose name, spoken in a low whisper, was murmured in all their prayers—was the Basileus Alexius Comnenus, Emperor of the Romans’. Alexius was in fact the emperor of the Greeks, who proclaimed themselves the inheritors of the Roman empire. The Arabs, indeed, recognized them as such, for in the eleventh century—as in the twentieth—they designated the Greeks by the term Rum, or Romans. The domain conquered from the Greek empire by Kilij Arslan’s father was even called the Sultanate of the Rum.

Alexius was one of the most prestigious figures of the Orient at the time. Kilij Arslan was genuinely fascinated by this short-statured quinquagenarian, always decked in gold and in rich blue robes, with his carefully tended beard, elegant manners, and eyes sparkling with malice. Alexius reigned in Constantinople, fabled Byzantium, situated less than three days’ march from Nicaea. This proximity aroused conflicting emotions in the mind of the young sultan. Like all nomadic warriors, he dreamed of conquest and pillage, and was not displeased to find the legendary riches of Byzantium so close at hand. At the same time he felt threatened: he knew that Alexius had never abandoned his dream of retaking Nicaea, not only because the city had always been Greek, but also and more importantly because the presence of Turkish warriors such a short distance from Constantinople represented a permanent threat to the security of the empire.

Portrait of Emperor Alexios I, from a Greek manuscript / Wikimedia Commons

Although the Byzantine army, torn by years of internal crisis, would have been unable to undertake a war of reconquest on its own, it was no secret that Alexius could always seek the aid of foreign auxiliaries. The Byzantines had never hesitated to resort to the services of Western knights. Many Franj, from heavily armoured mercenaries to pilgrims en route to Palestine, had visited the Orient, and by 1096 they were by no means unknown to the Muslims. Some twenty years earlier—Kilij Arslan had not yet been born, but the older emirs in his army had told him the story—one of these fair-haired adventurers, a man named Roussel of Bailleul, had succeeded in founding an autonomous state in Asia Minor and had even marched on Constantinople. The panicky Byzantines had no choice but to appeal to Kilij Arslan’s father, who could hardly believe his ears when a special envoy from the basileus implored him to rush to their aid. The Turkish cavalry converged on Constantinople and managed to defeat Roussel; Suleiman received handsome compensation in the form of gold, horses, and land.

The Byzantines had been suspicious of the Franj ever since, but the imperial armies, short of experienced soldiers, had no choice but to recruit mercenaries, and not only Franj: many Turkish warriors also fought under the banners of the Christian empire. It was precisely from his congeners enrolled in the Byzantine army that Kilij Arslan learned, in July 1096, that thousands of Franj were approaching Constantinople. He was perplexed by the picture painted by his informants. These Occidentals bore scant resemblance to the mercenaries to whom the Turks were accustomed. Although their number included several hundred knights and a significant number of foot-soldiers, there were also thousands of women, children, and old people in rags. They had the air of some wretched tribe evicted from their lands by an invader. It was also reported that they all wore strips of cloth in the shape of a cross, sewn onto the backs of their garments.

The young sultan, who doubtless found it difficult to assess the danger, asked his agents to be especially vigilant and to keep him informed of the exploits of these new invaders. He had the fortifications of his capital inspected as a precaution. The walls of Nicaea, more than a farsakh (six thousand metres) in length, were topped by 240 turrets. South-west of the city, the placid waters of the Ascanian Lake offered excellent natural protection.

Nevertheless by early August the serious nature of the threat had become clear. Escorted by Byzantine ships, the Franj crossed the Bosporus and, despite a blazing summer sun, advanced along the coast. Wherever they passed, they were heard to proclaim that they had come to exterminate the Muslims, although they were also seen to plunder many a Greek church on their way. Their chief was said to be a hermit by the name of Peter. Informants estimated that there were several tens of thousands of them in all, but no one would hazard a guess as to where they were headed. It seemed that Basileus Alexius had decided to settle them in Civitot, a camp that had earlier been equipped for other mercenaries, less than a day’s march from Nicaea.

The sultan’s palace was awash with agitation. While the Turkish cavalry stood ready to mount their chargers at a moment’s notice, there was a constant flow of spies and scouts, reporting the smallest movements of the Franj. It transpired that every morning hordes several thousand strong left camp to forage the surrounding countryside: farms were plundered or set alight before the rabble returned to Civitot, where their various clans squabbled over the spoils of their raids. None of this was surprising to the sultan’s soldiers, and their master saw no reason for particular concern. The routine continued for an entire month.

One day, however, toward the middle of September, there was a sudden change in the behaviour of the Franj. Probably because they were unable to squeeze anything more out of the immediate neighbourhood, they had reportedly set out in the direction of Nicaea. They passed through several villages, all of them Christian, and commandeered the harvests, which had just been gathered, mercilessly massacring those peasants who tried to resist. Young children were even said to have been burned alive.

A map showing the movements of Christian armies in Anatolia during the Crusade of 1101 / Image by MapMaster, Wikimedia Commons

Kilij Arslan found himself taken unawares. By the time the news of these events reached him, the attackers were already at the walls of his capital, and before sunset the citizens could see the smoke rising from the first fires. The sultan quickly dispatched a cavalry patrol to confront the Franj. Hopelessly outnumbered, the Turks were cut to pieces. A few bloodied survivors limped back into Nicaea. Sensing that his prestige was threatened, Kilij Arslan would have liked to join the battle immediately, but the emirs of his army dissuaded him. It would soon be night, and the Franj were already hastily falling back to their camp. Revenge would have to wait.

But not for long. Apparently emboldened by their success, the Occidentals decided to try again two weeks later. This time the son of Suleiman was alerted in time, and he followed their advance step by step. A Frankish company, including some knights but consisting mainly of thousands of tattered pillagers, set out apparently for Nicaea. But then, circling around the town, they turned east and took the fortress of Xerigordon by surprise.

The young sultan decided to act. At the head of his men, he rode briskly towards the small stronghold, where the drunken Franj, celebrating their victory, had no way of knowing that their fate was already sealed, for Xerigordon was a trap. As the soldiers of Kilij Arslan well knew (but the inexperienced foreigners had yet to discover), its water supplies lay outside and rather far from the walls. The Turks quickly sealed off access to the water. Now they had only to take up positions around the fortress and sit and wait. Thirst would do the fighting in their stead.

An atrocious torment began for the besieged Franj. They went so far as to drink the blood of their mounts and their own urine. They were seen looking desperately up into the sky, hoping for a few drops of rain in those early October days. In vain. At the end of the week, the leader of the expedition, a knight named Reynald, agreed to capitulate provided his life would be spared. Kilij Arslan, who had demanded that the Franj publicly renounce their religion, was somewhat taken aback when Reynald declared his readiness not only to convert to Islam but even to fight at the side of the Turks against his own companions. Several of his friends, who had acceded to the same demands, were sent in captivity to various cities of Syria or central Asia. The rest were put to the sword.

The young sultan was proud of his exploit, but he kept a cool head. After according his men a respite for the traditional sharing out of the spoils, he called them to order the following day. The Franj had admittedly lost nearly six thousand men, but six times that number still remained, and the time to dispose of them was now or never. Kilij Arslan decided to attempt a ruse. He sent two Greek spies to the Civitot camp to report that Reynald’s men were in an excellent position, and that they had succeeded in taking Nicaea itself, whose riches they had no intention of sharing with their coreligionists. In the meantime, the Turkish army would lay a gigantic ambush.

As expected, the carefully propagated rumours aroused turmoil in the camp at Civitot. A mob gathered, shouting insults against Reynald and his men; it was decided to proceed without delay to share in the pillage of Nicaea. But all at once, no one really knows how, an escapee from the Xerigordon expedition arrived, divulging the truth about his companions’ fate. Kilij Arslan’s spies thought that they had failed in their mission, for the wisest among the Franj counseled caution. Once the first moment of consternation had passed, however, excitement soared anew. The mob bustled and shouted: they were ready to set out in a trice, no longer to join in pillage, but to avenge the martyrs’. Those who hesitated were dismissed as cowards. The most enraged voices carried the day, and the time of departure was set for the following morning. The sultan’s spies, whose ruse had been exposed but its objective attained, had triumphed after all. They sent word to their master to prepare for battle.

At dawn on 21 October 1096 the Occidentals left their camp. Kilij Arslan, who had spent the night in the hills near Civitot, was not far away. His men were in position, well hidden. From his vantage point, he could see all along the column of Franj, who were raising great clouds of dust. Several hundred knights, most of them without their armour, marched at the head of the procession, followed by a disordered throng of foot-soldiers. They had been marching for less than an hour when the sultan heard their approaching clamour. The sun, rising at his back, shone directly into the eyes of the Franj. Holding his breath, he signalled his emirs to get ready. The fateful moment had arrived. A barely perceptible gesture, a few orders whispered here and there, and the Turkish archers were slowly bending their bows: a thousand arrows suddenly shot forth with a single protracted whistle. Most of the knights fell within the first few minutes. Then the foot-soldiers were decimated in their turn.

Battle of Civitot, by Gustavo Doré / Wikimedia Commons

By the time the hand-to-hand combat was joined, the Franj were already routed. Those in the rear ran for their camp, where the non-combatants were barely awake. An aged priest was celebrating morning mass, the women were preparing food. The arrival of the fugitives, with the Turks in hot pursuit, struck terror throughout the camp. The Franj fled in all directions. Those who tried to reach the neighbouring woods were soon captured. Others, in an inspired move, barricaded themselves in an unused fortress that had the additional advantage of lying alongside the sea. Unwilling to take futile risks, the sultan decided not to lay a siege. The Byzantine fleet, rapidly alerted, sailed in to pick up the Franj. Two or three thousand men escaped in this manner. Peter the Hermit, who had been in Constantinople for several days, was also saved. But his partisans were not so lucky. The youngest women were kidnapped by the sultan’s horsemen and distributed to the emirs or sold in the slave markets. Several young boys suffered a similar fate. The rest of the Franj, probably nearly twenty thousand of them, were exterminated.

Kilij Arslan was jubilant. He had annihilated the Frankish army, in spite of its formidable reputation, while suffering only insignificant losses among his own troops. Gazing upon the immense booty amassed at his feet, he basked in the most sublime triumph of his life.

And yet, rarely in history has a victory proved so costly to those who had won it.

Intoxicated by his success, Kilij Arslan pointedly ignored the information that came through the following winter about the arrival of fresh groups of Franj in Constantinople. As far as he was concerned—and even the wisest of his emirs did not dissent—there was no reason for disquiet. If other mercenaries of Alexius dared to cross the Bosporus, they would be cut to pieces like those who had come before them. The sultan felt that it was time to return to the major preoccupations of the hour—in other words, to the merciless struggle he had long been waging against the other Turkish princes, his neighbours. It was there, and nowhere else, that his fate and that of his realm would be decided. The clashes with the Rum or with their foreign Franj auxiliaries would never be more than an interlude.

The young sultan was well placed to feel certain about this. Was it not during one of these interminable battles among chiefs that his father, Suleiman, had laid down his life in 1086? Kilij Arslan was then barely seven years old, and he was to have succeeded his father under the regency of several faithful emirs. But he had been kept from power and taken to Persia under the pretext that his life was in danger. There he was kept: adulated, smothered in respect, waited on by a small army of attentive slaves, but closely watched, and strictly prevented from visiting his realm. His hosts—in other words, his jailers—were none other than the members of his own clan, the Seljuks.

If there was one name known to everyone in the eleventh century, from the borders of China to the distant land of the Franj, it was theirs. Within a few years of their arrival in the Middle East from central Asia, the Seljuk Turks, with their thousands of nomadic horsemen sporting long braided hair, had seized control of the entire region, from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean. Since 1055 the caliph of Baghdad, successor of the Prophet and inheritor of the renowned Abbasid empire, had been no more than a docile puppet in their hands. From Isfahan to Damascus, from Nicaea to Jerusalem, it was their emirs who laid down the law. For the first time in three centuries, the entire Muslim East was united under the authority of a single dynasty which proclaimed its determination torestore the past glory of Islam. The Rum, who were crushed by the Seljuks in 1071, would never rise again. The largest of their provinces, Asia Minor, had been invaded, and their capital itself was no longer secure. Their emperors, including Alexius himself, dispatched one delegation after another to the pope in Rome, the supreme commander of the West, imploring him to declare holy war against this resurgence of Islam.

Kilij Arslan was more than a little proud to belong to such a prestigious family, but he had no illusions about the apparent unity of the Turkish empire. There was no hint of solidarity among the Seljuk cousins: to survive, you had to kill. Kilij Arslan’s father had conquered Asia Minor, the vast area of Anatolia, without any help from his brothers, and when he attempted to move further south, into Syria, he was killed by one of his own cousins. While Kilij Arslan was being held forcibly in Isfahan, the paternal realm had been dismembered. In 1092, when the adolescent chief was released in the wake of a quarrel among his jailers, his authority barely extended beyond the ramparts of Nicaea. He was only thirteen years old.

The advice subsequently given him by the emirs in his army had enabled him to recover a part of his paternal heritage through war, murder, and subterfuge. He could now boast that he had spent more time in the saddle than at his palace. Nevertheless, when the Franj arrived, the game was far from over. His rivals in Asia Minor were still powerful, although fortunately for Kilij Arslan, his Seljuk cousins in Syria and Persia were absorbed in their own internecine quarrels.

Anatolia in 1097, before the Siege of Nicaea / Image by MapMaster, Wikimedia Commons

To the east, along the desolate highlands of the Anatolian plateau, the ruler during these uncertain days was an elusive personality called Danishmend the Wise. Unlike the other Turkish emirs, most of whom were illiterate, this adventurer of unknown origin was schooled in the most varied branches of learning. He would soon become the hero of a famous epic, appropriately entitled The Exploits of King Danishmend, which recounted the conquest of Malaya, an Armenian city south-east of Ankara. The authors of this tale considered the city’s fall as the decisive turning-point in the Islamicization of what would some day become Turkey. The battle of Malaya had already been joined in the early months of 1097, when Kilij Arslan was told that a new Frankish expedition had arrived in Constantinople. Danishmend had laid siege to Malaya, and the young sultan chafed at the idea that this rival of his, who had taken advantage of his father SüleymÁn’s death to occupy north-east Anatolia, was about to score such a prestigious victory. Determined to prevent this, Kilij Arslan set out for Malaya at the head of his cavalry and pitched his camp close enough to Danishmend to intimidate him. Tension mounted, and there were increasingly murderous skirmishes.

By April 1097 Kilij Arslan was preparing for the decisive confrontation, which now seemed inevitable. The greater part of his army had been assembled before the walls of Malaya when an exhausted horseman arrived at the sultan’s tent. Breathlessly, he panted out his message: the Franj were back; they had crossed the Bosporus once again, in greater numbers than the previous year. Kilij Arslan remained calm. There was no reason for such anxiety. He had already shown the Franj that he knew how to deal with them. In the end, it was only to reassure the inhabitants of Nicaea—especially his wife, the young sultana, who was about to give birth—that he sent a few cavalry detachments to reinforce the garrison of his capital. He himself would return as soon as he had finished with Danishmend.

Kilij Arslan had once again thrown himself body and soul into the battle of Malaya when, early in May, another messenger arrived, trembling with fear and fatigue. His words struck terror in the sultan’s camp. The Franj were at the gates of Nicaea, and had begun a siege. This time, unlike the previous summer, it was not a few bands of tattered pillagers, but real armies of thousands of heavily equipped knights. And this time they were accompanied by soldiers of the basileus. Kilij Arslan sought to reassure his men, but he himself was tormented by anxiety. Should he abandon Malaya to his rival and return to Nicaea? Was he sure that he could still save his capital? Would he not perhaps lose on both fronts? After long consultations with his most trusted emirs, a solution began to emerge, a sort of compromise: he would go to see Danishmend, who was after all a man of honour, inform him of the attempted conquest undertaken by the RÙm and their mercenaries, which posed a threat to all the Muslims of Asia Minor, and propose a cessation of hostilities. Even before Danishmend had given his answer, the sultan dispatched part of his army to the capital.

After several days of talks, a truce was concluded and Kilij Arslan set out westwards without delay. But the sight that awaited him as he reached the highlands near Nicaea chilled the blood in his veins. The superb city bequeathed him by his father was surrounded: a multitude of soldiers were camped there, busily erecting mobile towers, catapults, and mangonels to be used in the final assault. The emirs were categorical: there was nothing to be done. The only option was to retreat to the interior of the country before it was too late. But the young sultan could not bring himself to abandon his capital in this way. He insisted on a desperate attempt to breach the siege on the city’s southern rim, where the attackers seemed less solidly entrenched. The battle was joined at dawn on 21 May. Kilij Arslan threw himself furiously into the fray, and the fighting raged until sunset. Losses were equally heavy on both sides but each maintained its position. The sultan did not persevere. He realized that nothing would enable him to loosen the vice. To persist in throwing all his forces into such an ill-prepared battle might prolong the siege for several weeks, perhaps even several months, but would threaten the very existence of the sultanate. As the scion of an essentially nomadic people, Kilij Arslan felt that the source of his power lay in the thousands of warriors under his command, and not in the possession of a city, however enchanting it might be. In any event, he would soon choose as his new capital the city of Konya much further east, which his descendants would retain until the beginning of the fourteenth century. Kilij Arslan was never to see Nicaea again.

Before his departure, he sent a farewell message to the city’s defenders, informing them of his painful decision and urging them to act in the light of their own interests’. The meaning of these words was clear to the Turkish garrison and the Greek population alike: the city must be handed over to Alexius Comnenus and not to his Frankish auxiliaries. Negotiations were opened with the basileus, who had taken up a position to the west of Nicaea, at the head of his troops. The sultan’s men tried to gain time, probably hoping that their master would somehow manage to return with reinforcements. But Alexius hurried them along. The Occidentals, he threatened, were preparing the final assault, and then there would be nothing he could do. Recalling the behaviour of the Franj in the environs of Nicaea the year before, the negotiators were terrified. In their mind’s eye they saw their city pillaged, the men massacred, the women raped. Without further hesitation, they agreed to place their fate in the hands of the basileus, who would himself establish the modalities of the surrender.

The Lefke Gate, part of Nicaea’s city walls / Photo by QuartierLatin1968, Wikimedia Commons

On the night of 18–19 June soldiers of the Byzantine army, most of them Turks, entered the city by means of boats that slipped silently across the Ascanian Lake; the garrison capitulated without a fight. By the first glimmerings of dawn, the blue and gold banners of the emperor were already fluttering over the city walls. The Franj called off their assault. Thus did Kilij Arslan receive some consolation in his misfortune: the dignitaries of the sultanate would be spared, and the young sultana, accompanied by her new-born son, would even be received in Constantinople with royal honours—to the great consternation of the Franj.

Kilij Arslan’s young wife was the daughter of a man named Chaka, a Turkish emir and adventurer of genius, famous on the eve of the Frankish invasion. Imprisoned by the Rum after being captured during a raid in Asia Minor, he had impressed his captors with the ease with which he learned Greek, for he spoke it perfectly within a few months. Brilliant and clever, and a magnificent speaker, he had become a regular visitor at the imperial palace, which had gone so far as to bestow a noble title upon him. But this astonishing promotion was not enough for him, for he had set his sights far higher: he aspired to become the emperor of Byzantium!

The emir Chaka had devised a coherent plan in pursuit of this goal. First he left Constantinople to settle in Smyrna, on the Aegean Sea. There, with the aid of a Greek shipbuilder, he constructed a fleet of his own, including light brigantines and galleys, dromonds, biremes, and triremes—nearly a hundred vessels in all. During the initial phase of his campaign, he occupied many islands, in particular Rhodes, Chios, and Samos, and established his authority along the entire Aegean coast. Having thus carved out a maritime empire, he proclaimed himself basileus, organizing his Smyrna palace on the pattern of the imperial court. He then launched his fleet in an assault on Constantinople. Only after enormous effort did Alexius manage to repel the attack and destroy a part of the Turkish vessels.

Far from discouraged, the father of the future sultana set to work to rebuild his warships. By then it was late 1092, just when Kilij Arslan was returning from exile, and Chaka calculated that the young son of SüleymÁn would be an excellent ally against the Rum. He thus offered him the hand of his daughter. But the calculations of the young sultan were quite different from those of his father-in-law. He saw the conquest of Constantinople as an absurd project; on the other hand, all in his entourage were aware of his intention to eliminate the Turkish emirs who were then seeking to carve out fiefdoms for themselves in Asia Minor, in particular Danishmend and the ambitious Chaka. The sultan did not hesitate: a few months after the arrival of the Franj, he invited his father-in-law to a banquet, plied him with drink, and stabbed him to death, with his own hand it appears. Chaka was succeeded by a son who possessed neither his father’s intelligence nor his ambition. The sultana’s brother was content to administer his maritime emirate until one day in 1097 when the Rum fleet arrived unexpectedly off the coast of Smyrna with an equally unexpected messenger on board: his own sister.

She was slow to realize the reasons for the Byzantine emperor’s solicitude towards her, but as she was being led to Smyrna, the city in which she had spent her childhood, everything suddenly became clear. She was told to explain to her brother that Alexius had taken Nicaea, that Kilij Arslan had been defeated, and that a powerful army of Rum and Franj would soon attack Smyrna, supported by an enormous fleet. In exchange for his life, Chaka’s son was invited to lead his sister to her husband, somewhere in Anatolia.

Once this proposition was accepted, the emirate of Smyrna ceased to exist. With the fall of Nicaea, the entire coast of the Aegean Sea, all the islands, and the whole of western Asia Minor now stood beyond the control of the Turks. And the Rum, with the aid of their Frankish auxiliaries, seemed determined to press on further.

In his mountain refuge, however, Kilij Arslan did not lay down his arms.

Once he had recovered from the surprise of the first few days, the sultan began actively preparing his riposte. He set about recruiting troops and enrolling volunteers, and proclaimed jihad’, notes Ibn al-Qalanisi.

The Damascene chronicler adds that Kilij Arslan asked all Turks to come to his aid, and many of them answered his call.

Expansion of the Sultanate of Rum, c.1100–1240 / Image by DragonTiger23, Wikimedia Commons

In fact, the sultan’s prime objective was to cement his alliance with Danishmend. A mere truce was no longer enough: it was now imperative that the Turkish forces of Asia Minor unite, as if forming elements of a single army. Kilij Arslan was certain of his rival’s response. A fervent Muslim as well as a realistic strategist, Danishmend felt threatened by the advance of the Rum and their Frankish allies. He preferred to confront them on his neighbour’s lands rather than on his own, and without further ado he arrived in the sultan’s camp, accompanied by thousands of cavalry. There was fraternization and consultation, and plans were drafted. The sight of this multitude of warriors and horses blanketing the hills filled the commanders with fresh courage. They would attack the enemy at the first opportunity.

Kilij Arslan stalked his prey. Informers who had infiltrated the Rum brought him precious information. The Franj openly proclaimed that they were resolved to press on beyond Nicaea, and that their real destination was Palestine. Even their route was known: they would march in a south-easterly direction towards Konya, the only important city still in the hands of the sultan. During their entire trek through this mountainous zone, the flanks of the Occidental army would be vulnerable to attack. The only problem was to select the proper site for the ambush. The emirs, who knew the region well, had no hesitation. Near the city of Dorylaeum, four days’ march from Nicaea, there was a place at which the road narrowed to pass through a shallow valley. If the Turkish warriors gathered behind the hills, all they would have to do was bide their time.

By the last days of June 1097, when Kilij Arslan learned that the Occidentals had left Nicaea, accompanied by a small force of Rum, the apparatus for the ambush was already in position. At dawn on 1 July the Franj loomed onto the horizon. Knights and foot-soldiers advanced serenely, seemingly with no idea of what was in store for them. The sultan had feared that his stratagem might be discovered by enemy scouts. Apparently, he had nothing to worry about. Another source of satisfaction for the Seljuk monarch was that the Franj seemed less numerous than had been reported. Had some of them perhaps remained behind in Nicaea? He did not know. At first sight, however, he seemed to command numerical superiority. This, combined with the element of surprise, augured well. Kilij Arslan was anxious, but confident. The wise Danishmend, with his twenty more years of experience, felt the same.

The sun had barely risen from behind the hills when the order to attack was given. The tactics of the Turkish warriors were well practised. After all, they had assured their military supremacy in the Orient for half a century. Their army was composed almost exclusively of light cavalry who were also excellent archers. They would draw near, unleash a flood of deadly arrows on their enemy, and then retreat briskly, giving way to a new row of attackers. A few successive waves usually sufficed to bring their prey to their death agony. It was then that the final hand-to-hand combat was joined.

But on the day of the battle of Dorylaeum, the sultan, ensconced with his general staff atop a promontory, noted anxiously that the tried-and-true Turkish methods seemed to lack their usual effectiveness. Granted, the Franj lacked agility and seemed in no hurry to respond to the repeated attacks, but they were perfect masters of the art of defence. Their army’s main strength lay in the heavy armour with which their knights covered their entire bodies, and sometimes those of their mounts as well. Although their advance was slow and clumsy, their men were magnificently protected against arrows. On that day, after several hours of battle, the Turkish archers had inflicted many casualties, especially among the foot-soldiers, but the bulk of the Frankish army remained intact. Should they engage the hand-to-hand combat? That seemed risky: during the many skirmishes around the field of battle, the horsemen of the steppes had come nowhere near holding their own against these virtual human fortresses. Should the phase of harassment be prolonged indefinitely? Now that the element of surprise had worn off, the initiative might well shift to the other side.

Some of the emirs were already counselling retreat when a cloud of dust appeared in the distance. A fresh Frankish army was approaching, as numerous as the first. Those against whom the Turks had been fighting all morning turned out to be only the vanguard. Now the sultan had no choice but to order a retreat. Before he could do so, however, a third Frankish army came into view behind the Turkish lines, on a hill overlooking the tent of the general staff.

This time Kilij Arslan succumbed to fear. He leapt onto his charger and headed for the mountains at full gallop, even abandoning the rich treasure he carried with him to pay his troops. Danishmend was not far behind, along with most of the emirs. Taking advantage of their one remaining trump card, speed, many horsemen managed to get away without the victors’ being able to give chase. But most of the soldiers remained where they were, surrounded on all sides. As Ibn al-Qalanisi was later to write: The Franj cut the Turkish army to pieces. They killed, pillaged, and took many prisoners, who were sold into slavery.

During his flight, Kilij Arslan met a group of cavalry coming from Syria to fight at his side. They were too late, he told them ruefully. The Franj were too numerous and too powerful, and nothing more could be done to stop them. Joining deed to word, and determined to stand aside and let the storm pass, the defeated sultan disappeared into the immensity of the Anatolian plateau. He was to wait four years to take his revenge.

Nature alone seemed still to resist the invader. The aridity of the soil, the tiny mountain pathways, and the scorching summer heat on the shadowless roads slowed the advance of the Franj. After Dorylaeum, it took them a hundred days to cross Anatolia, whereas in normal times a month should have sufficed. In the meantime, news of the Turkish debacle spread throughout the Middle East. When this event, so shameful for Islam, became known, noted the Damascene chronicler, there was real panic. Dread and anxiety swelled to enormous proportions.

The ramparts of Antioch climbing Mons Silpius during the Crusades (lower left on the map, above left) / Wikimedia Commons

Rumours circulated constantly about the imminent arrival of redoubtable knights. At the end of July there was talk that they were approaching the village of al-Balana, in the far north of Syria. Thousands of cavalry gathered to meet them, but it was a false alarm: there was no sign of the Franj on the horizon. The most optimistic souls wondered whether the invaders had perhaps turned back. Ibn al-Qalanisi echoed that hope in one of those astrological parables of which his contemporaries were so enamoured: That summer a comet appeared in the western sky; it ascended for twenty days, then disappeared without a trace. But these illusions were soon dispelled. The news became increasingly detailed. From mid-September onwards, the advance of the Franj could be followed from village to village.

On 21 October 1097 shouts rang out from the peak of the citadel of Antioch, then Syria’s largest city: They are here!’ A few layabouts hurried to the ramparts to gawk, but they could see nothing more than a vague cloud of dust far in the distance, at the end of the broad plain, near Lake Antioch. The Franj were still a day’s march away, perhaps more, and there was every indication that they would want to stop to rest for a while after their long journey. Nevertheless, prudence demanded that the five heavy city gates be closed immediately.

In the souks the morning clamour was stilled, as merchants and customers alike stood immobile. Women whispered, and some prayed. The city was in the grip of fear.


From The Crusades through Arab Eyes, by Amin Maalouf (Osprey Publishing, 07.12.2005), published by Erenow, public open access.

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