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Turning Points in History: The Siege of Antioch

posted on: Mar 16, 2022

13th Century depiction of the battle outside Antioch

By Steven Brander / Arab America Contributing Writer

This series will explore moments in history in which the fates of civilizations and regions teeter upon a knife’s edge. Here, we will delve into those key moments in which the course of Arab history was incontrovertibly altered. This article covers the Siege of Antioch during the First Crusade, which marked the first major instance of Western European military and political intrusions into the Arab world.

The First Crusade

In 1096, following communications from the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos requesting Western Christian troops in support of Roman efforts to hold back the Seljuk Empire in Anatolia and the eastern Mediterranean, Pope Urban II orchestrated what would become known as the First Crusade. Urban II traveled around Frankia, recruiting soldiers and binding them with holy oaths. His overzealous efforts led to a force far beyond Alexios’ requests to help stiffen the defenses between the Christian West and Muslim East. Their sights were now set on holy conquest and expulsion of non-Christians from the Holy Land. 

This religious zeal actually led to a preliminary force, known as the People’s Crusade (as opposed to the Prince’s Crusade that is more generally referred to as the First Crusade), composed mostly of poorly armed peasants. The disorganized People’s Crusade, barely better than a large mob, crossed into Seljuk Anatolia where they were almost effortlessly massacred by the much more organized and experienced Seljuk military. 

The Prince’s Crusade, by contrast, was much more organized and better led. Estimating the numbers involved is a matter of great contention, ranging from just 50,000 to well over 100,000, including noncombatants, but what is certain is that this was the greatest military undertaking in centuries. Due to its immense size, as well as the fact that none of the great princes who were the crusade’s nominal leaders were willing to submit to a single overall commander, the force would split into several different configurations over time.

The crusaders’ first test was the taking of Nicaea, a former Byzantine city on the western edge of the Seljuk Empire. Taking the city would involve a lengthy siege, but the size and suddenness of the incursion along with substantial Byzantine support eventually allowed the crusaders’ to defeat the Seljuk relief force and take Nicaea. 

The Great Ordeal

Following another major victory against Kilij Arslan’s forces at Dorylaeum, the door to the Anatolian plateau was open for the crusaders. However, the journey through the sparse, mountainous territory rapidly turned from the romantic adventure advertised to the crusaders into a hellish trudge through enemy territory. Following his defeat, Kilij Arslan swept across the plateau clearing out the forage-able supplies ahead of the Western columns. 

With Absent food and even water, the crusade began to bleed manpower as soldiers either died or deserted in the face of starvation. Camps were cleaned out of anything edible, as the immense force was reduced to eating rats, pets, and even horses, in spite of their martial utility, in their search for calories. Though exact numbers are unclear, the massive force that started out was much reduced, with some sources their numbers had been halved by the time the Westerners finally set eyes upon Antioch, the greatest obstacle into the rest of Palestine. 

The First Siege

Antioch's walls upon the slopes of Mount Silpius
Antioch’s walls upon the slopes of Mount Sipylus

The sight of the city must have been an intimidating one for the crusaders. The city’s defensive structures were a testament to its importance as a regional center. Massive walls encircled its perimeter, and even stretched up to incorporate Mount Sipylus, denying any attackers’ ability to lay siege from its heights. The crusaders determined that a direct assault was unlikely to be a winning strategy due to their diminished numbers and moved to encircle the city. Their strategy was to set up close to the walls, preventing movement, communications, and supplies from reaching the city until Antioch was forced to surrender. 

The besiegers, though, quickly became the ones without supplies. While Antioch’s governor had begun stockpiling supplies once word of the invasion force reached him, the crusaders had little in the way of supplies and were forced to range further and further away from their own blockade in order to gather food. Their blockade, too, was somewhat ineffective due to the immense breadth of Antioch’s walls. Communications went out seeking help from the surrounding Seljuk sultanates, neighbors and potential allies. Meanwhile, Antioch’s defenders made sorties outside the walls, attacking and harassing the would-be invaders. 

Once winter settled in, the crusaders’ supplies were once again at a critical level. In order to resupply, the princes decided to send out a substantial force under Bohemond, one of the Norman leaders, and Robert of Flanders, and hope that their reduced numbers would either go unnoticed or that they would still prove sufficient to repel any attack. Bohemond and Robert headed up the Orontes River but, unbeknownst to them, a relief force from Damascus was headed straight at them. Meanwhile, the remaining besiegers under Raymond managed to weather multiple large-scale attacks by Antioch’s garrison, who were attempting to take advantage of the crusaders’ split forces. Though initially surprised by the Damascan force, Bohemond and Robert were able to break them, apparently through sheer force of will. Each side had suffered heavy casualties in the fighting though and much of the supplies the crusaders had managed to gather were lost forcing them to limp back to Antioch. 

Once spring arrived, the crusaders’ food situation improved somewhat. However, news arrived that another relief force, this time from Aleppo, was on its way to uproot the siege. This time, Antioch’s defense closely coordinated with the relief army. Their aim would be to strike at the Westerners from both sides at once, crushing the invasion between them. 

The crusaders again divided their forces to address the dual threats, though this time they would send only what remained of their cavalry, less than a thousand knights total, against the army from Aleppo. The cavalry detachment, with both the strategic use of terrain and likely no small sense of desperation, managed to rout the relief army while the remaining infantry repulsed Antioch’s sortie. 

As the siege carried on, word came to the crusaders that a third relief force was on its way, this time from Mosul. This new force was far larger than the previous two, and had actually managed to incorporate the remainders of those failed forces. 

Bohemond and his Norman troops scale the walls of Antioch
Bohemond and his Norman troops scale the walls of Antioch

However, before this new threat arrived, the crusaders managed to find a traitor among Antioch’s defenders, who coordinated with Bohemond to allow a small number to scale the walls under his command. Once inside, the crusaders opened one of the city’s gates, allowing a more substantial force inside. With the walls breached and garrison taken unawares, Antioch’s leaders and civilians alike were massacred by the triumphant crusaders. 

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

What remained of the city’s leaders and defenders barricaded themselves in the citadel while the crusaders had their way with the rest of the inhabitants. After a few short days, the relief force from Mosul appeared and encircled the city. The crusaders were now trapped between the Antioch’s citadel and it’s outer walls. 

Yet again, the crusaders faced the prospect of another battle while short on food. Several desertions had also sapped their morale, and starvation began to deprive them of ever larger portions of their numbers. The council of princes determined the only possible move was to face the Mosul force head on. Buoyed by holy visions (possibly hallucinations caused by severe lack of food) and the “finding” of the Holy Lance of Longinus, the crusaders faced down their opponents outside the walls. Despite heavy casualties inflicted by Turkish arrows, the Westerners continued to move forward against the Muslim position. The loosely bound relief force watched as these Christian fighters weathered the assault and, one by one contingents called their own retreats and deserted the field until none were left. 

A Door is Opened

The taking of Antioch represents one of the key points in the history of the Arab World, and arguably the wider Mediterranean. Following the city’s fall, the First Crusade would take Jerusalem and set up additional Crusader states in the Levant. The campaign set the precedent for the Western & Northern European polities to inflict their excess military power upon the Arab world, which they would do for the next several hundred years. This period of conflict would re-inaugurate the bloody history of conflict in and around Jerusalem between Europeans and Middle Easterners for the first time since the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

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