The Crusades were a series of attempts by European Christians to recapture the Holy Land, which began in 1096 with the First Crusade that ended with a siege of Mount Zion in 1099. And now we have evidence that actually confirms a contemporary account of the attack.
In 1095, Pope Urban II called for a crusade at the Council of Claremont, and Catholic kingdoms answered the call by sending armies to fight, including a force led by French noble Raymond de Saint Gille, also known as Raymond IV of Toulouse.
Overall, 35,000 infantry and cavalry marched to the Holy Land during the First Crusade in an effort to take it back from Islamic forces, who had conquered the region in the 7th and 8th centuries and built the Dome of the Rock, which bore witness to the crusades and still stands on top of the Temple Mount.
In the final push to capture Mount Zion in Jerusalem in 1099, the crusaders executed a two-pronged siege, one pushing up the hill from the north, and another led by Raymond from the south.
While the northern push progressed along in a battle of attrition that chipped away at Muslim defenses, the southern push had been hampered by a ditch the defenders dug along a wall, which prevented Raymond’s forces from placing a siege tower against it.
And we know this because of a contemporary account of the siege.
According to the University of North Carolina-Charlotte:
Peter Tudebode, a contemporary chronicler, recounts that the Provencal forces led by Raymond de Saint Gille on the south side, positioned themselves somewhere on Mount Zion and proceeded to attack the wall. However, there was a ditch in front of the wall and they could not get their wooden siege tower up against the wall, and so Raymond asked his men, under cover of night, to fill in the ditch for payment of gold dinars. Though the siege tower was able to proceed, the southern assault still did not succeed because of the defenders’ aggressive counter-measures.
The problem is that no evidence of such a ditch had ever been found during excavations of the site, leading experts to call the account into question.
But thanks to UNC-Charlotte professor of history Shimon Gibson and University of Haifa and Ashkelon Academic College faculty member Rafi Lewis, archaeologists and historians now have proof of the ditch.
“There was, apparently, an extramural quarter of scattered buildings, outside the city to the south, and we excavated a building that was in a ruinous state, possibly damaged by the earthquake of 1033,” Gibson said. “You can imagine the Crusaders coming at and attacking the city from the south, and they find the ditch and this ruined building, and they made use of it for cover, and that explains some of the arrowheads because they would have been raining down upon them.”
That’s a seriously cool find that really tells the story of this assault by Raymond’s forces.
And the reason they believe what they found is a ditch is because of the slope of the layers of earth.
“Just outside the city wall we noticed that, although the slope of the hill went down [from the wall], we found that the slope of a layer of fill was going in the opposite direction, dipping down [towards the wall],” Gibson said. “That was our first clue, there was some feature that had been cut into the ground, which had been filled in later.”
From there, we jump to the reign of King Baldwin III, the grandson of an original First Crusade crusader, who ruled Jerusalem from 1143 to 1163. It was during his reign that a fire broke out on Mount Zion. And because of that fire, the ditch was sealed with a protective layer.
“What was nice was that the ditch itself was sealed with a burnt layer that had coins in it from the time of King Baldwin III,” Gibson noted. “The ditch got filled in and it disappeared, to such an extent that a lot of archaeologists who had been working at different points in time believed that maybe this ditch was a figment of the chroniclers’ imaginations. That’s why this discovery is so important. For the first time, we can confirm details that appear in major historical texts.”
“This is enormously important for Crusader scholarship,” Lewis added, “because not only do we have the remains of the ditch that we only knew about from the sources, but we also have the remains of the frontline battle itself.”
The team even found a piece of jewelry belonging to the Fatimids (Muslims) of Egypt who controlled the region that had likely been looted during the First Crusade when the Catholic forces broke through the defensive lines on the hill.
“It’s large and valuable, not something you would lose, you see,” Gibson said. “This piece of jewelry may have been of Egyptian origin and it seems to have been used as an attachment for the ear, and because of its large size, perhaps also to hold a veil in position around a woman’s head.”
Unfortunately, once the crusaders breached the lines and entered the defenses, they put their faith aside and proceeded to slaughter Jews, Muslims and even Christians who were still in the city and definitely committed what today would be considered war crimes.
“For three days, or perhaps even a week, the crusaders perpetrated every single atrocity under the sun—rape, pillage, murder,” Gibson said. “The chroniclers talk about ‘rivers of blood’ running in the streets of the city, and it may not be an exaggeration. Terrible crimes were committed, and a lot of people died, Christians included. Local Christians were considered just as heretical as the Muslims and the Jews. They turned Jerusalem into a ghost town.”
This cycle of violence would go on for hundreds of years because once the crusaders went home, it left the door open for Muslim forces to recapture the city, resulting in eight more major crusades after the First Crusade up to 1291 when Muslims captured and held Jerusalem for the next several hundred years as numerous minor crusades continued in Europe. Only the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 by the United Nations in the wake of the Second World War wrested Jerusalem from Muslim control.
And conflict in the region continues to this day.
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