The First Crusade: A Brief History

By the end of the 11th century CE, the fractured petty kingdoms, confederated states, and feudal monarchies of Europe were fast approaching an unusual and historical call to arms.


Sebastien Mamerot’s Les Passages d’Outremer.

Byzantium, now a tired remnant of its former glory, called on the west for defensive aid against the invading Seljuk Turks, a nomadic host from the East. The Papal States under Pope Urban II responded by offering conquest instead, promising to return Byzantium’s lost holdings in Anatolia in addition to capturing Jerusalem for all of Christendom. The knights, barons, and lords in attendance famously responded to the pope with “Deus Vult!”, and thus they began the pyrrhic success that was the First Crusade. (Philips 1998)

Although the holy land was perhaps not as balkanized as 11th century Europe, the Islamic world faced the same internal and external threats as European kingdoms did. The Fatimid Caliphate ruled from Egypt and commanded a strong military and economic presence in the region, but like the Byzantines, they too had lost territory to the invading Seljuks and engaged in frequent battles with their nomadic warbands. Other recalcitrant kingdoms and fiefs remained independent, or at least consistently attempted to express their independence, especially within Seljuk Turkish lands where nobles and heirs bickered and quarreled about succession and land distribution. To further complicate the political and social landscape of the region, the Seljuk Turks practiced Sunni Islam, while the Fatimids were Shia. As such, loyalty was largely a matter of religion for many border states, and each religious group resisted incursions by soldiers of the other. (TimeMaps, World History Timeline Islamic Caliphate)

The importance of internal turmoil and intrigue cannot be understated when trying to understand how societies across the world operated at this time. The Islamic world was certainly a place of marvelous art, architecture, science, medicine, and learning, but those oft-centralized societies were just as susceptible to decline or even collapse as any other state on the planet. Disputes of succession, ethnic infighting, and intra-noble conflict feature very prominently in much of Arabic history (three of the four rightly guided caliphs were assassinated after all). Moreover, the Arab slave trade was extremely prominent at this time, with many Nubian slaves in particular being imported into the region to serve as foot soldiers in bloody conflicts or laborers for any number of endless public monuments and infrastructural projects. Several large slave revolts supposedly occurred as a direct result of the Arab slave trade, with one revolt in particular, the Zanj Rebellion, claiming some five hundred thousand lives with some sources suggesting that as many as two million were killed. These revolts and riots ultimately played an important role in the decline of the Fatimid Caliphate less than a hundred years later.

The first crusaders arrived in Turkish Anatolia in a pitiful state. The so called “People’s Crusade” was made up of unarmored and poorly armed peasants and low ranking professional soldiers. On their march through Europe, the Peoples Crusaders sacked, burned, and plundered many villages and cities. Although the Pope and many other religious figures were disturbed by this violence, particularly the slaughter of many European Jews, the army lacked discipline and an effective leader and was virtually impossible to control. The mob moved through Eastern Europe and into Seljuk territory, brutalizing both Christian and Muslim peasants along the way and lacking in any motivations besides plunder and self aggrandizement. (Europe : The First Crusade – I: The People’s Crusade)

With superior tactics and numbers, familiarity of the terrain, and better logistics, the Seljuks were able to effectively cripple the first army of crusaders in the hinterlands of Antioch, leaving only 3,000 of the original 20,000 men to make a hasty retreat back to Constantinople. Women and children were spared, but the men were executed unless they converted to Islam. This was hardly an unexpected result; the first crusader armies were untrained, under equipped, and faced an extremely hostile environment.

The Turks were renowned horsemen, and quickly and brutally swept through Anatolia and the Levant from the East when establishing their empire. They embraced steppe tactics; namely speed, agility, and versatility. Light horse archers could continuously harass enemy formations while maintaining a safe distance, and heavy horsemen and lancers could easily punch holes in the opposition’s lines. The famous “Parthian Shot”, or backward facing shot, allowed Seljuk horsemen to continuously loose arrows on a pursuing enemy, while their light armor and armament allowed them to outrun most armored belligerents. As such, the Seljuks preferred hit and run tactics to wear down an enemy army while simultaneously attempting to cut off their supply lines and deny them local materiel. (Seljuq)

Further South, the Fatimid Caliphate ruled over Egypt, the holy land, and large swaths of North Africa along the mediterranean coast. Although the Byzantines called on the Papal States for aid against the Seljuks, the Fatimids were in control of Jerusalem at the time of the crusades, making them an equally viable target. The Fatimids ruled an ethnically diverse caliphate, with Berbers in the west, Nubians in the south, and Arabs, Turks, and Bedouins in the East. For their military, the Fatimids drafted and utilized soldiers from each ethnic group and played to their respective strengths in battle. The Berbers made excellent skirmishers and light cavalrymen, and also frequently utilized camels which were far more resilient to the local climate than many horses. Nubian soldiers were drafted or purchased from the region of modern day Sudan, and were primarily utilized as levied foot soldiers or heavy infantry alongside Arab and Syrian infantry and archers. Finally, the Fatimids employed Turkish soldiers in battle primarily as heavy lancers or horse archers. Although the Seljuk dynasty was ruled by the “Turkish” ethnic group, many other turks allied themselves with the surrounding nations. Most notably, the “Turcopoles” often fought alongside Christian military orders as mercenaries throughout the relatively short history of the crusades. (Fatimid Dynasty)

In 1096, four crusader armies from Europe rallied around Constantinople. The so called “Princes Crusade” was made up of about 30,000 men-at-arms with at least 5,000 cavalry. The second wave of crusaders was far better trained and equipped as many of them were veteran soldiers and mounted knights from other wars. European combat at this time emphasized heavy armor, large kite shields, heavy lances, crossbows, and swords along with pikes, maces, and polearms. The European invasion of Anatolia truly began with the siege of Seljuk Nicaea. The crusaders encircled most of the city and began constructing siege engines to take the walls. After a long period of cat-and-mouse battles with the Turks, the crusaders defeated an army of some 10,000 Seljuks while Byzantine reinforcements arrived to finally reconquer the city.

The next major battle occurred near the city of Dorylaeum. Several thousand Seljuk horse archers attacked the crusaders in their camp, loosing arrows and running down many soldiers before the crusaders were able to regroup. For hours, the crusaders stayed tightly packed in a shieldwall to block the constant rain of arrows. A Turkish arrow could easily kill an unarmored opponent, and although the Christian knights were well protected (albeit shot full of arrows) by their armor and shields, many thousands of men were killed. However, the crusaders had a decisive advantage over the Turks. The Christian men-at-arms had a single option: fight to the last man or perish. The Turkish armies were in friendly territory, meaning that they could flee the field of battle any time they chose to. The crusader armies, now battered and thinned, began a counteroffensive by outflanking the Turks and burning their camp. Demoralized by the loss of their camp, the Seljuks now faced a direct charge from the crusader forces and eventually routed off the field in the face of such zealous brutality. (Europe: The First Crusade – IV: Men of Iron)

Turkish horsemen were not well suited for prolonged hand to hand combat, preferring to skirmish the enemy down instead. Their emphasis on the use of horses in battle allowed them to constantly and quickly resupply their ammunition with supply trains and maintain consistent missile fire. By contrast, European crusaders excelled in melee combat on the ground and on horseback. Arguably, the west possessed some of the best heavy cavalry in the world at this time. Horses might have weighed anywhere from a thousand to fifteen hundred pounds depending on where they were bred, and might have run twenty to twenty five miles per hour at full gallop. The impact would have been tremendous and if a rider’s lance hit right, the lance itself would have shattered into pieces on impact with an enemy.

Both the Turks and the Fatimids utilized heavy cavalry in battle, but generally placed greater emphasis on speed and mobility than their European counterparts. That being said, heavy cataphracts with armored horses and lances still played a vital role in combat throughout history in this region. Some of the most beautiful examples of historical armor come out of the Islamic world, with incredible specimens of decorated steel chainmail, heavier ornamented lamellar, and beautifully constructed steel helmets with armored face masks. Generally speaking, swords in the Islamic world were not straight like their European counterparts, but curved to be well suited for fighting on horseback. Moreover, shields in this region tended to be smaller than in Europe, and round in shape for easier use and better structural integrity.

The next target for the crusaders was the sprawling city of Antioch which had a large wall topped with some four hundred palisade towers. The Christian soldiers were unable to surround it fully, meaning that it could continuously be resupplied throughout the siege. One of the crusader leaders managed to bribe a city guard to surrender his tower, allowing the army inside of the walls. Once inside, the soldiers promptly slaughtered most of city’s inhabitants. This indiscriminate violence was a common trait for the christian armies; they lacked the leadership necessary to remain cohesive and essentially acted as a conglomerated band of brigands until the establishment of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Once inside the city, the crusaders were ironically besieged within it by a large army of Muslim soldiers who arrived shortly afterwards. After a period of siege skirmishes, a lowly priest conveniently discovered the “Holy Lance”, the very spear which pierced Jesus’ side while he hung from the cross. Inspired by the discovery and exhausted from the siege, the crusaders charged out of the gate and miraculously defeated the Seljuk armies. Drawn into a melee, the lightly armored Turks stood little chance against such odds and were almost immediately routed. This particular battle illustrates how important morale is for men on the field. Once again, the crusader armies had to fight for their survival while the loosely organized, often quarrelsome Turkish armies had other options. In addition, the bloodlust and zealotry inspired by the discovery of the Holy Lance was equally vital to their success.

Such battles were brutal to no end and yet the traditional battle arrangements of the day would have been a beautiful sight. Broad contingents of cavalrymen held long, flagged lances with intricate Arabic calligraphy and symbols, or crosses and banners depending on whom the lance belonged to. Heavy infantry contingents with shining mail armor would stand sternly ahead of a myriad of colorful bannermen and a back line of light skirmishers and men carrying pikes fifteen feet in length. The crash of metal and men would knock many off their feet and into the dirt, while others were simply crushed to death in the brawl. Many Muslim armies made good use of maces and hand-axes, both of which had the power to break through enemy chainmail and puncture helmets. Should a cavalry contingent be foolish enough to charge a Muslim or Christian pike wall, they would be gored by a seething mass of spearheads, with each pike being held and thrusted by a well trained man.

More and more, the crusaders began traveling into Muslim dominated regions although they faced little resistance throughout their march. The local populations were aware of their approach and offered them supplies and assistance in the hope of maintaining peace. In addition, this region of Anatolia was primarily Sunni, making them disinclined to assist the Shia Fatimids. After a long march, the crusaders finally reached the Fatimid controlled city of Jerusalem and wept as they had finally reached their goal. The army had no hope of besieging the massive city, and instead decided to assault it directly. The initial assault was repelled as fewer than 13,000 men were left in the Christian armies while the city was well defended by a sizable garrison. More preparation was made for the subsequent assault and the crusaders built several siege engines including catapults and wheeled siege towers. (First Crusade 1096-1099)

The garrison at Jerusalem was made up of several hundred cavalrymen and a large number of Muslim troops, including some Nubians. Even if vastly outnumbered, the Muslims could easily defeat an opposing army if they had sufficient defensive positions. Jerusalem had two walls in addition to many palisade towers; to take the city would mean leading an army of men to the walls while under fire, climb the walls, then descend to the secondary wall all while being constantly harassed by enemy projectiles. Some of the garrison troops likely had armor, although European crossbows would have still posed a significant threat to these men. Crossbows were not terribly common in the Muslim world at this time, but in Europe their ease of use and effectiveness against armor made them a common feature of many armies. Fewer than fifty years after the first crusade, the Pope declared it a crime for a Christian to kill another Christian with a crossbow, but any other religious group was obviously fair game. Even Muslim cavalry were hardpressed to survive in the face of European crossbow volleys. Crossbows can be made extremely powerful, and their bolts are small and hit with rib cracking speed. Over time, Muslim armies adopted crossbows for their value on the field and when laying siege.

The crusaders launched their assault on the city and began by moving their siege towers forward. The battle was hard fought, but in the face of certain defeat, the Fatimid garrison retreated and the Christian soldiers reached the city center. What occurred next is a particularly brutal piece of history, something that is well remembered today. The crusaders began slaughtering as many civilians as they could find, specifically targeting Muslims and Jews. Men of god patrolled through the streets, breaking doors apart and mercilessly butchering the families inside. Blood ran up to their ankles through the streets, and men stood in blood to their waist inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque, a temporary refuge for Muslims.

After the slaughter was completed, bodies lined the streets and narrow passages in every district of Jerusalem. The few remaining urbanites piled the rotten bodies into massive pyramids outside the city walls and then lit fire to them. The blood was washed away, the bodies removed, and the houses repaired, but the Muslim world would never forget such brutality in this holy place. The crusaders had reconquered parts of Anatolia for the Byzantines and taken the holy land from the Levant to Jerusalem, ostensibly for all of Christendom. The first crusade, for better or worse, had come to an end with unexpected success and ended up capturing more of the holy land than any other crusade.

And life continued on. The Kingdom of Jerusalem became a powerful force in the region, one which emanated zealots and knightly orders throughout the holy land. Muslims responded in kind with armies of jihadists, flying the black flag of Islam atop banners and lances. Many more battles were fought after this point including an instrumental crusader victory at the Battle of Ascalon. Although the crusade nearly tore itself apart at several points throughout its journey, it somehow managed to remain cohesive enough to reach and secure Jerusalem. The next century in the holy land would see an enormous amount of monetary support from Europe and the eventual creation of the Knights Templar, the Knights Hospitaller, and the Teutonic Order. The Muslims responded with their slave-soldier armies, some of which were skilled heavy cavalry and foot soldiers called Mamluks. (Crusades 2010)

For the next two hundred years, the Holy Land was occupied by Christian orders. The constant infighting in the region prevented both the Seljuks and Fatimids from effectively mobilizing soldiers to defend much of their territory, and the nature of European warfare and the support that the crusaders were able to accumulate both played a significant role in their success. Jerusalem was lost, but only temporarily. As with all invaders, the crusaders found themselves increasingly alone in the midst of Muslim kings, until the kingdom disappeared completely.


**This paper was written for my Islam 1560 class**





Phillips, J. R. (1988). The medieval expansion of Europe. Oxford, OX: Oxford University Press.

TimeMaps World History Timeline Islamic Caliphate. Retrieved from

Europe : The First Crusade – I: The People’s Crusade – Extra History [Video file]. (2015, August 08). Retrieved from

Europe: The First Crusade – IV: Men of Iron – Extra History [Video file]. (2015, August 29). Retrieved from

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. (2012, August 24). Seljuq. Retrieved from

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. (1998, July 20). Fatimid Dynasty. Retrieved from

First Crusade (1096-1099). Retrieved from Staff. (2010). Crusades. Retrieved from


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