The First Crusade 1096-99 The conquest of the holy land by David Niccole
THE FIRST CRUSADE
In 1094 the Byzantine Emperor, Alexios I, came to the conclusion that Byzantium’s own military and diplomatic efforts to regain lost territory in Anatolia were inadequate. Alexios decided to ask the Christian states of western Europe for support, which he did the following year.
This can be seen as the genesis of what became the First Crusade. Nevertheless, by 1095 the Byzantine Empire was not in such dire straits as has sometimes been suggested. Successes had been achieved since the Byzantine army’s terrible defeat at Manzikert in 1071 and the Byzantine civil wars that followed.
It was, in fact, the latter rather than the battle of Manzikert that allowed largely nomadic Turkish or Turcoman tribal peoples to take control of most of Anatolia.
After Alexios seized the imperial throne he imposed a unified government on what remained of the Byzantine Empire and took advantage of divisions amongst its most threatening enemies to halt their advances, if not necessarily to defeat them.
Byzantine rule was re-established in much of the Balkans while a potentially lethal alliance between the pagan Pecheneg Turks of south-eastern Europe and the Islamic Turkish amir, Çaka, was broken in 1091.
Çaka had controlled Smyrna (Izmir) but was soon killed by another and more significant Turkish leader – Qilich Arslan I, ruler of the Seljuq Sultanate of Rum (‘Rome’ or ex-Byzantine Anatolia).
Byzantine efforts to reconquer Anatolia began the following year with a naval expedition under John Doukas to regain Aegean islands that had fallen to Çaka. Other campaigns removed rebel Byzantine governors in Crete and Cyprus. Clearly, the threat to Byzantium’s age-old domination of the eastern seas was regarded as particularly dangerous.
Relatively small-scale land and naval operations to regain a part of the Anatolian mainland facing the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea were already underway and had achieved some local success when the First Crusade appeared on the scene.
Interestingly, several Islamic chroniclers saw 487AH (AD1094/95)’ as a doom-laden year, including the later Mamluk historian Ibn Taghribirdi, who wrote: This year is called the year of the deaths of Caliphs and Commanders.’
Those who died included the Fatimid Caliph al-Mustansir of Egypt, his Grand Vizier Badr al-Jamali, and the rival ‘Abbasid Caliph al- Muqtadi in Iraq.
The Great Seljuk Sultan Malik Shah and his Grand Vizier Nizam al-Mulk had already died in 1092. These deaths were followed by a period of confusion and near-anarchy within the Islamic world.
Rampant sectarianism divided Sunni Muslims from Shi’a Muslims and even amongst the Shi’a sects there were bitter rivalries. Furthermore the death of the Shi’a Fatimid, or Isma’ili, Caliph al-Mustansir was followed by a schism between supporters of his sons. The eldest, Nizar, was passed over as Caliph in favor of the younger, al-Musta’li.
Nizar rebelled but was killed, after which his supporters formed the breakaway Nizari movement which, though still Isma’ili, became the so-called ‘Assassins’ of Iran and Syria.
Although Islamic sectarian arguments might have seemed irrelevant to the Crusaders and even to the sophisticated Byzantines, they contributed further to the fragmentation and the weakened state of the Islamic Middle East when the First Crusade burst upon the scene in 1096.
The First Crusade is one of those dramatic episodes where historians cannot agree on ’causes’. All historical events are, of course, part of a chain and a historian’s choice of ‘background events’ generally reflects his own