The Fall of Jerusalem


The date of the conquest of Jerusalem was the anniversary of the Prophet's ascension to Paradise . .. The Sultan held court to receive congratulations . . . His manner was at once humble and majestic as he sat among the lawyers and scholars, his pious courtiers. His countenance shone with joy, his door was wide open, his benevolence spread far and wide. There was free access to him, his words were heard, his actions prospered, his carpet was kissed, his face glowed, his perfume was sweet, his affection all-embracing . . . The back of his hand was the qibla of kisses, and the palm of his hand the Ka'ba of hope.

Imad ed-Din al-Isfahani, Secretary to Saladin

The house of Angelus, which had thus found greatness so suddenly and unexpectedly thrust upon it, was neither old nor particularly distinguished. Indeed, it would probably have remained virtually unknown outside the Lydian city of Philadelphia had not one of the daughters of Alexius I, theporphyrogenita Theodora, fallen in love with Isaac's grandfather Constantine Angelus and married him. Thenceforth the family's rise was swift. By the time of Manuel's accession it was one of the most prominent in Constantinople, providing the Emperor with several military commanders of varying quality; and when the time came for the feudal aristocracy to make a stand against the excesses of the last of the Comneni, men found it natural that an Angelus should take the lead.

Nevertheless, it was a sad day for the Empire when he did so; for of all the families who at one time or another wore the imperial crown of Byzantium, the Angeli were the worst. Their supremacy was mercifully short: the three Angelus Emperors - Isaac II, Alexius III and Alexius IV - reigned, from first to last, a mere nineteen years. But each was in his own way disastrous, and together they were responsible for the greatest catastrophe that Constantinople was ever to suffer until its final fall.

Isaac's reign started well enough. In their retreat, the Normans had evacuated not only Thessalonica but also Durazzo and Corfu. Admittedly they had managed to keep the neighbouring islands of Cephalonia -where the great Guiscard had died and Zacynthus, which were lost for ever to the Empire; but even these seemed a small price to pay for what many Byzantines saw as a miraculous deliverance. Meanwhile the second of the Empire's principal enemies, King Bela III of Hungary, proved only too happy to sign a peace treaty, sealing it by giving Isaac the hand in marriage of his ten-year-old daughter Margaret, who adopted the Byzantine name of Maria. Some of the new Emperor's more sensitive subjects may have regretted that he found it necessary to blind both the surviving sons of his predecessor - one of whom died almost immediately afterwards - but for the majority the beginning of his reign was, as Nicetas writes, like a gentle spring after a bitter winter, or a peaceful calm after a furious tempest.

They were soon to be disillusioned. Andronicus, for all his faults, had done much to stamp out corruption; Isaac, continues Nicetas, sold government offices like vegetables in a market. Bribery once again became the rule, the provincial tax-collectors reverted to their old extortionate ways, the army and navy fell into a demoralized decline as the funds which should have gone to their maintenance were used to buy off potential enemies or were frittered away on ever more elaborate court entertainments. Meanwhile the theme system, which had been the backbone of administration and defence, effectively disintegrated; and the feudal aristocracy, which Andronicus had held firmly in check, grew steadily more obstreperous.

Not that the Emperor was entirely inactive. Though he made no effort to recover the lost Ionian islands, Cyprus or even Cilicia (which had fallen to the Armenians), he did at least show considerable energy in the putting down of rebellions and the protection of his frontiers, leading expeditions in 1186-7 against insurgents in Bulgaria and Walla-chia; but he was unable to prevent the formation by two local noblemen of the Second Bulgarian Empire, and a later campaign in 1190 was to end in catastrophe when his army was ambushed and he himself narrowly escaped with his life. Meanwhile the Serbian Grand Zhupan Stephen Nemanja had allied himself with the rebels, and had made full use of the hostilities to increase his own power. Eventually Stephen agreed to a treaty with Byzantium, by the terms of which his son married the Emperor's niece and was given the title of sebastocrator, but by now it was clear to everyone that Serbia was, like Bulgaria, an independent state. The days of Byzantine supremacy in the Balkans were over. They would not return.

And worse was to come; for Byzantium - and indeed all Europe -was now swept up in a new crisis. In the middle of October 1187 came dreadful news: the Saracens had taken Jerusalem.

To any dispassionate observer of affairs in the Levant, the Saracens' capture of Jerusalem must have seemed inevitable. On the Muslim side there had been the steady rise of Saladin, a leader of genius who had vowed to recover the Holy City for his faith; on the Christian, nothing but the sad spectacle of the three remaining Frankish states of Jerusalem, Tripoli and Antioch, all governed by mediocrities and torn apart by internal struggles for power. Jerusalem itself was further burdened, throughout the crucial period of Saladin's ascendancy, by the corresponding decline of its leper King, Baldwin IV. When he came to the throne at the age of thirteen in 1174, the disease was already upon him; eleven years later he was dead. Not surprisingly, he left no issue. At the one moment when wise and resolute leadership was essential if the Kingdom were to be saved, the crown of Jerusalem devolved upon his nephew - a child of eight.

The death of this new infant King, Baldwin V, in the following year might have been considered a blessing in disguise; but the opportunity of finding a true leader was thrown away and the throne passed to his stepfather, Guy of Lusignan, a weak, querulous figure with a record of incapacity which fully merited the scorn in which he was held by most of his compatriots. Jerusalem was thus in a state bordering on civil war when, in May 1187, Saladin declared his long-awaited jihad and crossed the Jordan into Frankish territory. Under the miserable Guy, the Christian defeat was assured. On 3 July he led the largest army his kingdom had ever assembled across the mountains of Galilee towards Tiberias, where Saladin was laying siege to the castle. After a long day's march in the most torrid season of the year, this army was obliged to camp on a waterless plateau; and the next day, exhausted by the heat and half-mad with thirst, beneath a little double-summited hill known as the Horns of Hattin, it was surrounded by the Muslim army and cut to pieces.

It remained only for the Saracens to mop up the isolated Christian fortresses one by one. Tiberias fell on the day after Hattin; Acre followed; Nablus, Jaffa, Sidon and Beirut capitulated in quick succession. Wheeling south, Saladin took Ascalon by storm and received the surrender of Gaza without a struggle. Now he was ready for Jerusalem. The defenders of the Holy City resisted heroically for twelve days; but on 2 October, with the walls already undermined by Muslim sappers, they knew that the end was near. Their leader, Balian of Ibelin - King Guy having been taken prisoner after Hattin - went personally to Saladin to discuss terms for surrender.

Saladin, who knew Balian well and liked him, was neither bloodthirsty nor vindictive: after some negotiation he agreed that every Christian in Jerusalem should be allowed to redeem himself by payment of a suitable ransom. Of the twenty thousand poor who had no means of raising the money, seven thousand would be freed on payment of a lump sum by the various Christian authorities. That same day the conqueror led his army into the city; and for the first time in eighty-eight years, on the anniversary of the day on which Mohammed was carried in his sleep from Jerusalem to Paradise, his green banners fluttered over the Temple area from which he had been gathered up, and the sacred imprint of his foot was once again exposed to the adoration of the Faithful.

Everywhere, order was preserved. There was no murder, no bloodshed, no looting. The thirteen thousand poor, for whom ransom money could not be raised, remained in the city; but Saladin's brother and lieutenant, al-Adil, asked for a thousand of them as a reward for his services and immediately set them free. Another seven hundred were given to the Patriarch, and five hundred to Balian of Ibelin; then Saladin himself spontaneously liberated all the old, all the husbands whose wives had been ransomed and finally all the widows and children. Few Christians ultimately found their way to slavery. This was not the first time that Saladin had shown the magnanimity for which he would soon be famous through East and West alike; but never before had he done so on such a scale. His restraint was the more remarkable in that he could not have forgotten the massacre that had followed the arrival of the Christians in 1099.1 The Christians, for their part, had not forgotten it either; and they could not fail to be struck by the contrast. Saladin might be their arch-enemy; but he had set them an example of chivalry which was to remain ever before them in the months to come.

When the news of the fall of Jerusalem reached the West, Pope Urban III died of shock; but his successor Gregory VIII lost no time in calling upon Christendom to take up arms for its recovery; and, as the forces gathered, it became plain to Isaac that the coming Crusade would prove a more dangerous threat to his Empire than either of its predecessors. At its head would be Byzantium's old enemy, Frederick Barbarossa, who

1 See p. 42.

was known to be in communication with the Sultan of Iconium and was already building up support among the newly-independent principalities in the Balkan peninsula. Scarcely more friendly was King William of Sicily, who had also declared his intention of taking the Cross. Fortunately for Byzantium William died in November 1189, aged only thirty-six and leaving no issue; but the marriage nearly four years before of his aunt Constance, to whom his crown now passed, to Barbarossa's eldest son Henry was a clear enough indication that Sicilian foreign policy would remain unchanged. Of the two other Western sovereigns who had agreed to participate, Richard Coeur-de-Lion of England was William's brother-in-law,1 while Philip Augustus of France, remembering the recent sufferings inflicted on his sister Agnes, was unlikely to be any better disposed.

Richard and Philip Augustus elected to travel to the Holy Land by sea, bypassing the Empire altogether. They consequently play little part in this narrative - though it should perhaps be recorded that in May 1191 Richard took the opportunity of an unscheduled stop in Cyprus to conquer the island from Isaac Comnenus (whom he sent off in silver chains to prison in Tripoli), handing it over first to the Templars and then in the following year to Guy of Lusignan, the deposed King of Jerusalem. Frederick Barbarossa on the other hand preferred the land route, setting out from Ratisbon in May 1189 with an army variously estimated at between a hundred and a hundred and fifty thousand - the largest ever yet to leave on a Crusade. He had naturally informed the Emperor of his intentions and had even signed an agreement with Byzantine emissaries at Nuremberg some months before; but Isaac was well aware of his intrigues with the Balkan princes - to say nothing of the Seljuk Sultan - and his misgivings were only strengthened when he heard of the magnificent reception granted to the Western Emperor by Stephen Nemanja on his arrival in Nish, in the course of which both the Serbs and the Bulgars had offered to take an oath of allegiance and to conclude an alliance against Byzantium. He next sent the two former ambassadors to the German court, Constantine Cantacuzenus and John Ducas, to await the great army at the frontier; but instead of greeting Barbarossa as instructed in their Emperor's name they unexpectedly turned their coats and encouraged him to attack their master. Frederick, greatly cheered, occupied Philippopolis as if it were a conquered city.

1 In 1177 William had married the twelve-year-old Joanna, third and youngest daughter of King Henry II of England.

By this time Isaac was close to panic; and when envoys arrived from Barbarossa - with no other object than to discuss the transport of his army to Asia - he lost his head completely and flung them into prison, presumably intending to hold them as security for Frederick's behaviour. It was a disastrous move. The enraged Emperor immediately ordered his eldest son Henry — who had remained in Germany — to secure papal blessing for a Crusade against the schismatic Greeks, to collect a fleet and to bring it with all speed to Constantinople. Meanwhile he sent his second son Frederick of Swabia to take the Thracian town of Didymo-tichum as a counter-hostage. Isaac, faced with the prospect of an amphibious attack on his capital, could only capitulate. Discussions continued spasmodically through the winter, as a final result of which he promised to provide the necessary transport and provisions for the journey across Anatolia in return for an undertaking by Frederick to cross by the Dardanelles rather than the Bosphorus, thereby avoiding Constantinople altogether.

Once over the straits, the imperial army marched via Philadelphia, Laodicea and Myriocephalum - where the whitened bones of Manuel's soldiers still littered the battlefield - to the Seljuk capital at Iconium Constant harassment by bands of mounted Turkish archers had already warned Frederick that the Sultan, despite their past communications, had no intention of allowing the army unimpeded passage through his territory; and it now emerged that he had sent an army of his own, under his son Qutb ed-Din, to protect the city. Only after a pitched battle before the walls was Frederick able to force an entry. Then, after a week's rest, he pressed on again through the Taurus towards the coastal city of Seleucia.

On i o June 1190, after a long and exhausting journey through the mountains, Frederick Barbarossa led his troops out on to the flat coastal plain. The heat was savage, and the little river Calycadnus1 that ran past Seleucia to the sea must have been a welcome sight. Frederick, who was riding alone a short distance ahead of the army, spurred his horse towards it. He was never seen alive again. Whether he dismounted to drink and was swept off his feet by the current, whether his horse slipped in the mud and threw him, whether the shock of falling into the icy mountain water was too much for his tired old body - he was nearing seventy - we shall never know. He was rescued, but too late. Most of his followers reached the river to find their Emperor lying dead on the bank.

1 In modern Turkish the Calycadnus is now less cuphonically known as the Goksu.

Almost immediately, the army began to disintegrate. The Duke of Swabia assumed command, but he proved no substitute for his father. Many of the German princelings returned to Europe; others took ship for Tyre, the only major port of Outremer still in Christian hands; the rump of the army, carrying with it the Emperor's body not very successfully preserved in vinegar, marched grimly on, though it lost many more of its men in an ambush as it entered Syria. The survivors who finally limped in to Antioch had no more fight left in them. By this time, too, what was left of Frederick had gone the same way as his army; his rapidly decomposing remnants were hastily buried in the cathedral, where they remained for another seventy-eight years - until a Mameluke army under the Sultan Baibars burnt the whole building, together with most of the city, to the ground.

Fortunately for Outremer, Richard and Philip Augustus arrived with their armies essentially intact; and it was thanks to them that the Third Crusade - although, since it failed to recapture Jerusalem, it too must ultimately be accounted a failure — was at least somewhat less humiliating than the Second. Acre was retaken, to become capital of the Kingdom of Jerusalem for another century until the Mameluke conquest; but that Kingdom, henceforth reduced to the short coastal strip between Tyre and Jaffa, was a pale reflection of what Crusader Palestine had once been. It was to struggle on for another century, and when it finally fell to Baibars in 1291 the only surprise was that it had lasted so long.

On Christmas Day, 1194, by virtue of his marriage nine years before to the Princess Constance, Frederick Barbarossa's son Henry VI had received the royal crown of Sicily in Palermo Cathedral. His wife was not with him. Pregnant for the first time at the age of forty, she was determined on two things: first, that her child should be born safely; second, that it should be seen to be unquestionably hers. She did not put off her journey to Sicily, but travelled more slowly and in her own time; and she had got no further than the little town of Jesi, some twenty miles west of Ancona, when she felt the pains of childbirth upon her. There on the day after her husband's coronation, in a large tent erected in the main square to which free entrance was allowed to any matron of the town who wished to witness the birth, she brought forth her only son whom, a day or two later, she presented in the same square to the assembled inhabitants, proudly suckling him at her breast. Of that son, Frederick - later to be nicknamed Stupor Mundi, the Astonishment of the World — we shall hear more as our story continues.

At the time of Frederick's birth, his father was already contemplating a new Crusade. Not surprisingly, Henry saw the debacle that had followed his own father's death as a humiliation for the Empire. Had Barbarossa lived, he had little doubt that Jerusalem would have been recovered; it was plainly his duty to retrieve the family honour. In doing so, he would also increase his prestige among the nobility of the Empire, both lay and ecclesiastical, and perhaps improve his own distinctly chilly relations with the Papacy, thereby indirectly facilitating his acceptance by his Sicilian subjects. In Easter week of 1195 he took the Cross; on Easter Day - 2 April - at Bari, he issued his public summons to the Crusade; and a few days later he wrote a firm letter to the Emperor Isaac, making it clear to him that he was expected to contribute to the coming expedition rather than to obstruct it - more specifically by the provision of a fleet. For good measure he added a demand that Isaac should return to him that part of the Balkan peninsula between Durazzo and Thessalonica formerly conquered by the Sicilian army, and finally that the basileus should pay compensation for the damages suffered by his father while crossing Byzantine territory.

The letter was a typical piece of imperial bluster; but it missed its target. On 8 April 1195 — quite possibly on the very day that his letter was written - Isaac Angelus fell victim to a coup engineered by his elder brother Alexius, who deposed and blinded him and had himself crowned Emperor in his stead. If Isaac had been a poor Emperor, it can only be said that Alexius III was a good deal worse. Given his weakness and cowardice, to say nothing of his lack of any semblance of administrative ability, it is difficult to understand why he should have coveted the throne as he did. Isaac had at least displayed some degree of energy where the Empire's external affairs were concerned; Alexius showed none. During the eight years of his reign the disintegration of the Empire became steadily more apparent, and he was to leave it, as we shall see, in a state of total collapse.

To Henry VI, these developments in Constantinople were of little interest; he had no intention of relaxing the pressure, and he soon discovered that Alexius was every bit as easily manipulated as his predecessor. Thus, when he demanded a heavy tribute to pay for his mercenary troops, the terrified Emperor immediately instituted a special tax known as the Alamanikon, or 'German levy', which made him more than ever unpopular with his subjects; and when even this proved inadequate, he supplemented it by stripping the precious ornaments from the imperial tombs in the church of the Holy Apostles. Two years later, in May 1197, Alexius was obliged to stand impotently by while his niece Irene, daughter of the blinded Isaac, was married off by Henry to his own younger brother, Philip of Swabia. This was a brilliant move on Henry's part. He had found Irene in Palermo, where she had formerly been married to the son of Tancred of Lecce, a bastard cousin of King William of Sicily who had seized the throne on William's death and had ruled, competently if illegitimately, over Sicily until his own death a little over four years later. Whether or not the rumours were true that Isaac had promised to accept the couple as his heirs, their marriage enabled Henry to pose as a defender of their rights; and it was to do much to strengthen Philip's position during the Fourth Crusade.

But the Fourth Crusade was not yet; and so what, it may be asked, became of the great expedition proclaimed by Henry in 1195? Many of the foremost names in Germany had responded to his call: the Archbishops of Mainz and of Bremen, no fewer than nine bishops - one of whom, the Bishop of Hildesheim, was Chancellor of the Empire - the Dukes Henry of Brabant (Count-Palatine of the Rhine), Henry of Brunswick, Frederick of Austria, Berthold of Dalmatia and Ulrich of Carinthia, and countless lesser nobles. They had sailed from Messina throughout the summer of 1197 and on their arrival had immediately advanced against the Saracen foe. During the first weeks of their campaign they were relatively successful, advancing north as far as Sidon and Beirut, which were abandoned and destroyed at their approach. By the end of October, however, the news reached them that on 28 September Henry, who had remained in Sicily to deal with a major insurrection, had died of a fever at Messina. Many of the greater nobles decided to return at once to protect their interests in the later power struggle, and when later reports told of the outbreak of civil war in Germany most of the others followed. Thus it was that when, at the beginning of February 1198, the German rank and file were preparing to confront an Egyptian army advancing up from Sinai, they suddenly realized that their leaders had deserted them and panicked. There followed a headlong flight northward to the safety of Tyre - where, fortunately, their ships were waiting. A week later they were gone. The second German expedition had been, if anything, a still greater fiasco than the first.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!