On July 15, 1099, the Crusader siege of Jerusalem succeeded in breaking through the Fatimid defense of the city and conquering it. Taking possession of the site where Jesus had been crucified and, according to tradition, resurrected, was the stated purpose of the First Crusade, and it resulted in the establishment of the Kingdom of Jerusalem (1099-1291).
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The First Crusade had been initiated by Pope Urban II in November 1095, at least nominally in response to the Fatimid Muslim destruction of the Holy Sepulchre in 1009 and the fall of Jerusalem in general into non-Christian hands, and to the Turkish Seljuk invasion of Asia Minor, which elicited Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos’ request to the pope for assistance in defending the Eastern Orthodox Empire.
It was only in early 1099 that the various Crusader armies began to arrive in northern Palestine, and to make their way down the Mediterranean coast toward Jerusalem. On June 7, the first Crusaders reached the walled city, whose Christian residents had earlier been expelled by Jerusalem’s Fatimid governor, Iftikhar ad-Daula. The invading armies, who totaled some 1,200 knights and 10 times that many foot soldiers, were led by Raymond IV of Toulouse, Godfrey of Bouillon, Robert of Flanders, Robert of Normandy and Tancred.
A month-long siege remained stymied until July 14, when the Crusaders wheeled up siege towers they had constructed to the city’s walls, enabling them to breach them. Once a few were inside, they opened the gates and let their fellow fighters in.
Historians of the Crusades continue to be occupied with the question of whether the conquest of Jerusalem was accompanied by a massacre – of either the Muslims or the Jews residing there. One contemporary source and eyewitness, Raymond D’Aguilers, provides the images that have resounded through the ages: “If I tell you the truth, it will be beyond belief. Let it suffice to say that in the temple [the Dome of the Rock] and around the portico of Solomon [Al-Aqsa], they were riding in blood to their knees, and up to the reins of the horses.”
Historian Jay Rubenstein, while not denying that Raymond D’Aguilers believed that he saw what he wrote, suggests that he was heavily influenced by the New Testament’s Book of Revelation (14:20), which, in describing apocalyptic times, tells how an angel of the lord will gather the earth’s harvest, and run it through the wine press of God’s wrath: “And the wine press was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the wine press, as high as a horse’s bridle, for a distance of about 200 miles.”
On the other hand, Raymond D’Aguilers also reports how a number of Muslims who took refuge in the Tower of David had their lives spared when they surrendered and were permitted to leave the city with the Fatimid caliph.
The fate of the city’s Jews at the time is also the subject of some historical controversy. There were Jews who sided with the Muslims in defending the city, and when Jerusalem fell, they supposedly retreated to their synagogue to wait to be slaughtered. Although some Muslim sources describe how the synagogue was burned down with the Jews inside, a contemporary letter found in the Cairo Geniza by historian S.D. Goitein, though it mentions the burning of the “glorious sanctuary,” makes no reference to human victims of the fire.
In fact, Goitein suggests that most of the Jewish population of Jerusalem had left the city during the course of the preceding century, as Seljuk and Fatimid Muslims fought for control. In any case, as opposed to the memorial chronicles written by Jewish communities of the Rhine to record the names of brethren who were massacred during the passage of Crusader armies through their towns, no similar documents have been found noting by name Jewish victims of the Crusader conquest of Jerusalem.