Jerusalem: Dark and Satanic

Outremer, the crusader kingdom, and its capital Jerusalem entered a golden age during the 1130s. Simon Sebag Montefiore portrays its extraordinary cast of kings, queens, conquerors and criminals.

A 12th-century French map of Jerusalem showing the main religious sites and crusaders chasing out the infidel.
A 12th-century French map of Jerusalem showing the main religious sites and crusaders chasing out the infidel.

Outremer, literally ‘overseas’, was the French term given to the crusader states, including the Principality of Antioch, the County of Edessa and the Kingdom of Jerusalem, that were established following the First Crusade of 1096-99. A golden age was to follow. Commanded by their constable, Eustace of Grenier (in the absence of Baldwin, who had become the third King of Jerusalem in 1118), the Jerusalemites defeated an invading army of Egyptians at the Battle of Yibneh in early 1123. In 1124 Baldwin was ransomed from the clutches of the Artuqids, the Turkish rulers of northern Syria, and on April 2nd, 1125 the entire city turned out to welcome him home. Baldwin’s imprisonment had concentrated his mind on the succession. His heiress was his daughter Melisende (1105-61), whom he now married to the powerful Fulk, Count of Anjou (c. 1089-1143), descendant of the depraved crusader Fulk the Black (972-1049) and son of Fulk the Repulsive (1043-1109).

In 1131 Baldwin fell ill in Jerusalem and, withdrawing to die in the patriarch’s palace as a humble supplicant, he abdicated in favour of Fulk, Melisende and their baby son, the future Baldwin III (1130-62). Jerusalem had evolved its own coronation ritual. Assembling at the Temple of Solomon (today’s al-Aqsa mosque), wearing embroidered dalmatics, or liturgical vestments, stoles and the crown jewels, Fulk and Melisende mounted gorgeously caparisoned horses. Led by the chamberlain brandishing the king’s sword, followed by the seneschal with the sceptre and the constable with the royal standard, they rode through the cheering city – the first Jerusalemite monarchs to be crowned in the rotunda of the Holy Sepulchre, then being rebuilt following its destruction by fire in 1009.

The patriarch administered the royal oath, then asked the congregation thrice to confirm that these were the lawful heirs: Oill! ‘Yes!’ shouted the crowd.  The two crowns were borne towards the altar. The royal couple were anointed from a horn of oil before Fulk was given the ring of loyalty, the orb of dominion and the sceptre for punishment of sinners and girded with the sword of war and justice. They were then both crowned and kissed by the patriarch. Outside the Sepulchre the marshal helped King Fulk mount his horse and they rode back to the Temple Mount. At the banquet in the Templum Domini (today’s Dome of the Rock) the king offered to return the crown and then retrieved it, a tradition based on the story of Jesus’ circumcision when it was said that Mary brought him to the Temple, offered him to God and bought him back for a lamb or two pigeons. Finally the burgesses brought the food and wine, served to the royals by the seneschal and chamberlain as the marshal held the banner over them. After much singing, music and dancing, the constable escorted the king and queen to their suite.

Melisende was the queen regnant, but at first Fulk expected to rule in his own name. He was a squat 40-year-old soldier with red hair, ‘like King David’ as the chronicler William of Tyre (c. 1130-86) put it and with a poor memory. Though accustomed to ruling his own realm, he found it hard to manage, let alone charm, his imperious queen. Melisende, slim, dark and intelligent, was soon spending too much time with her handsome cousin and childhood playmate Count Hugh II of Jaffa (c.1106-34), the richest magnate in Jerusalem. Fulk accused them of having an affair.

Melisende’s flirtation rapidly became a scandal with serious implications. As queen she was unlikely to be punished; but under Frankish law, if a couple were found guilty of adultery, the woman suffered rhinotomy (nose-slitting), the man castration. One way to prove innocence was single combat: a knight challenged Count Hugh to prove his innocence by duel. But Hugh fled to Egyptian territory, where he stayed until the Church negotiated a compromise by which he would go into exile for three years.

On his return to Jerusalem, Hugh was sitting playing dice in a tavern on Furriers Street when a Breton knight stabbed him. Somehow he survived, but Jerusalem was ‘shaken at the outrage; a great crowd assembled’ and the rumour spread that Fulk had ordered his rival’s murder. Now it was the king who needed to prove his innocence: the Breton was tried and sentenced to be dismembered and his tongue cut out. But Fulk ordered that the tongue remain intact to show he was not being silenced. Even when the Breton had been dismembered with only head, torso (and tongue) left, he still asserted Fulk’s innocence.

It is not surprising that the evident sleaziness of Outremer politics became notorious in Europe. Yet ruling Jerusalem was a challenge: the kings were really first among equals, contending with crusader princelings, ambitious magnates, thuggish adventurers, ignorant new arrivals from Europe, independent military-religious orders of knights and intriguing churchmen; this before they were even able to face their Islamic enemies.

The royal marriage became extremely frosty, but if Melisende had lost her love, she had regained her power. To thaw the queen, Fulk gave her a special present – the sumptuous psalter that bears her name. But, as the kingdom enjoyed its golden age, Islam was mobilising.

Zangi the Bloody: the Falcon Prince

In 1137 Zangi, the Turkish atabeg (governor) of Mosul and Aleppo (in today’s Iraq and Syria), attacked first the crusader city of Antioch and then Muslim Damascus: the fall of either of these cities would leave Jerusalem open to attack. For nearly four decades the loss of Jerusalem had made surprisingly little impression on the divided and distracted Islamic world. As so often in Jerusalem’s history, religious fervour was inspired by political necessity. Zangi now harnessed a rising fury, religious and political, at Jerusalem’s loss, calling himself ‘Fighter of Jihad, tamer of atheists, destroyer of heretics’.

The caliph awarded Zangi the title ‘King of Amirs’ for restoring Islamic pride. Among the Arabs Zangi called himself the Pillar of the Faith; for fellow Turks, the Falcon Prince. Poets, vital ornaments for every ruler in that poetry-loving society, flocked to his court to sing of his glories, but the feral Zangi was a harsh master. He skinned and scalped important enemies, hanged minor ones and crucified any of his troops who trampled on crops. He castrated his boy lovers to preserve their beauty. When he exiled his generals he reminded them of his power by castrating their sons. Demented with drink he divorced one of his wives and then had her gang-raped by his grooms in the stables – while he watched. His cruelties are recorded by Muslim sources. If one of his soldiers deserted, remembered one of his officers, Usamah bin Munqidh, Zangi would order the two neighbouring men to be cut in half. As for the crusaders, they (in a pun worthy of a tabloid newspaper headline) nicknamed him Zangi the Sanguine.

Fulk hurried to confront him but Zangi defeated the Jerusalemites, trapping the king in a nearby fortress. William, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, led the army to his rescue, brandishing the True Cross. Zangi, realising that relief was on its way, offered to free Fulk in return for the fortress. After this close escape, Fulk and Melisende were reconciled, but Zangi kept up the pressure, threatening not only the crusader cities of Antioch and Edessa but renewing his attack on Damascus, which was so alarmed that its ruler, Unur, allied himself with infidel Jerusalem.

In 1140 Unur set off for Jerusalem accompanied by his worldly adviser, Usamah bin Munqidh (1095-1188), a Syrian aristocrat considered the century’s finest Muslim writer.

Usamah bin Munqidh: great events and calamities

During his long career, Usamah bin Munqidh, a Zelig-like courtier, warrior and writer, managed to serve all the great Islamic leaders of his century, from Zangi and the Fatimid caliphs to Saladin, while knowing at least two of the kings of Jerusalem.

A member of the dynasty that ruled the Syrian fortress of Shaizar, Usamah had lost his right to succession and had become a cavalier – a faris – ready to serve whichever ruler offered him the best opportunities. In 1140, aged 45, he was serving Unur. Usamah lived for fighting, hunting and literature. His accident-prone pursuit of power, wealth and glory was both bloody and farcical: the phrase ‘yet another disaster’ appears frequently in his memoirs, which are entitled Great Events and Calamities. But he was also a natural chronicler. One senses that, even as his schemes collapsed, this aesthetic Arab Quixote knew the stories would make great material for his witty, sharp, melancholic writings. Usamah was a master adib – the refined Arab bellettrist par excellence – writing books and poems on the delights of women, male manners (The Kernels of Refinement), eroticism and warfare. In his hands a history of walking sticks became an essay on ageing.

Unur arrived in Jerusalem with his exuberant courtier, Usamah: ‘I used to travel frequently to visit the King of the Franks during the truce,’ wrote Usamah, whose relations with Fulk were surprisingly courteous. King and cavalier bantered about the nature of knighthood. ‘They told me you were a great knight,’ said Fulk, ‘but I hadn’t really believed it.’ ‘My lord, I am a knight of my race and people,’ answered Usamah. We do not know anything about Usamah’s appearance, but it seems that the Franks were impressed by his physique.

During his trips to Jerusalem, Usamah enjoyed studying the inferiority of the crusaders, whom he regarded as ‘mere beasts, possessing no other virtues but courage and fighting’ – though his works reveal that many Muslim traditions were just as savage and primitive. Like every good reporter he recorded good and bad things about both sides. When he looked back as an old man at the court of Saladin he must have reflected that he saw Jerusalem at the height of the crusader kingdom’s glory.

Melisende’s Jerusalem: high life and low life

Regarded by many Christians as the true centre of the world, Melisende’s Jerusalem was very different from the empty, stinking city conquered by the Franks 40 years or so earlier in 1099. Indeed, in the maps of the city from this time, Jerusalem is shown as a circle with the two main streets serving as the arms of the cross, with its centre on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, emphasising the Holy City as the navel of the world.

The king and queen held court in the Tower of David and its neighbouring palace, while the patriarch’s palace was the centre of church affairs. Life for ordinary barons in Outremer Jerusalem was probably better than for kings in Europe, where even potentates wore unlaundered wool and lived in bare-stone draughty keeps with rough furniture. If few crusader barons could live as grandly as John of Ibelin (c. 1179-1236) later in the century, his palace in Beirut reveals the style: mosaic floors, marble walls, painted ceilings, fountains and gardens. Even bourgeois townhouses boasted rich carpets, damask wall-hangings, delicate faience ceramics, carved inlaid tables and porcelain dishes.

Jerusalem in the 12th century combined the rough edges of the frontier town with the luxurious vanities of a royal capital. The less reputable women, such as the patriarch’s mistress, flaunted their jewels and silks to the disapproval of the more respectable. With 30,000 inhabitants and streams of pilgrims, she was Holy City, Christian melting-pot and military headquarters – dominated by war and God. The Franks, men and women, bathed regularly – there were public baths on Furriers Street; the Roman sewage system was still working and it is likely that most houses had lavatories. Even the most Islamophobic of crusaders had to adapt to the east. At war, the knights wore linen robes and Arab keffiyeh over their armour to prevent the steel heating up in the sun. At home the knights dressed like the locals, in silk burnous and even turbans. Jerusalemite ladies wore long underrobes with a short tunic or long robe-coats embroidered with gold thread; their complexions were heavily painted; and they were usually veiled in public. Both sexes wore furs in winter, though this luxury was specifically banned for the austere Templars, who personified a city devoted to the waging of war and the worship of Christ. The Knights of the Orders set the tone: the Templars in their belted and hooded red-crossed mantles, Hospitallers in their black mantles with white crosses on the breast. Every day the 300 Templars clattered out of the Stables of Solomon to train outside the city. In the Valley of Kidron the infantry practised their archery.

The city thronged not only with French, Norwegian, German and Italian soldiers and pilgrims, but also with eastern Christians: short-bearded Syrians and Greeks, Armenians and Georgians with long beards and high hats, who stayed in the dormitories of hostels or the many small taverns. Street life was centred around the Roman Cardo, the main north-south orientated thoroughfare leading from St Stephen’s Gate (now Damascus Gate), passing the Sepulchre and Patriarch’s Quarter on the right and then entering the three parallel covered market streets, joined by criss-crossing alleyways, smelling of spices and cooked food. Pilgrims bought takeaways and sherbet drinks from the Street of Bad Cooking, Malcuisinat; changed money on Syrian Moneychangers Street close to the Sepulchre; bought trinkets from the Latin Goldsmiths and furs on Furriers Street.

Even before the crusades it was said that ‘No travellers are as evil as pilgrims to Jerusalem.’ Outremer was the medieval version of the Wild West: murderers, adventurers and whores came out to make their fortunes, but the prim chroniclers tell us little about Jerusalem’s nightlife. However, the local mixed-race soldiers called Turcopoles, second-generation poor and orientalised Latins known as poulains, Venetian and Genoese merchants and newly arrived knights needed the taverns and pleasures of the military town. Each tavern had a clunking chain across the entrance to stop boisterous knights riding into the bar. Soldiers could be seen gambling and rolling dice in the doorways of shops. European harlots were shipped out to service the soldiers of Outremer. The secretary of the sultan Saladin (1138-93) would gleefully describe one such boatload from the Muslim point of view:

Lovely Frankish women, foulfleshed and sinful, appearing proudly in public, ripped open and patched up, lacerated and mended, making love and selling themselves for gold, callipygian and graceful, like tipsy adolescents, they dedicated as a holy offering what they kept between their thighs, each trailed the train of her robe behind her, bewitched with her effulgence, swayed like a sapling, and longed to lose her robe.

Most of them ended up in the ports of Acre and Tyre, with their streets filled with Italian sailors; and Jerusalem would have been policed by officials keen to enforce Christian morals.

When pilgrims fell ill the Hospitallers nursed them in the Hospital established soon after the First Crusade, which could hold 2,000 patients. Surprisingly, they also nursed Muslims and Jews and even had a kosher/halal kitchen so that these groups could eat meat. But death was never far away: Jerusalem was a necropolis where old or sick pilgrims were content to die and be buried until the Resurrection. For the poor there were free charnel-pits in the Mamilla graveyard and the Akeldama in the Valley of Hell. During one epidemic towards the end of the 12th century 50 pilgrims died each day and carts collected bodies each night after vespers.

Life revolved physically around the two temples – the Holy Sepulchre and the Temple of the Lord – and chronologically around a calendar of rituals. In this ‘intensely theatrical age in which every technique was used to heighten public feelings through display’, writes the historian Jonathan Riley-Smith, Jerusalem’s shrines resembled stage-sets and were constantly remodelled and improved to intensify the effect. The capture of Jerusalem during the First Crusade was celebrated every July 15th, when the patriarch led virtually the entire city from the Sepulchre to the Temple Mount where he prayed outside the Temple of Solomon and then led his procession through the Golden Gate – the same gate through which that first crusader, Emperor Heraclius, had borne the True Cross in 630, after its recovery from the Persians – to the place on the northern wall, crowned with a huge cross, where Godfrey of Bouillon had broken into the city on the First Crusade in 1099. Easter was the most exciting set piece. Before sunrise on Palm Sunday the patriarch and clergy, holding the True Cross, walked from Bethany towards the city, while another procession bearing palms came from the Temple Mount to meet the patriarch in the Valley of Jehoshaphat. Together they opened the Golden Gate and processed around the lesser temples before praying in the Temple of the Lord.

One Holy Saturday Jerusalemites gathered at the Church for the Holy Fire. A Russian pilgrim watched ‘the crowd rush in, jostling and elbowing’, weeping, wailing and shouting ‘Will my sins prevent the Holy Fire from descending?’ Fulk walked from the Temple Mount but, when he arrived, the crowd was so tightly packed, overflowing even the courtyard, that his soldiers had to clear a path for him. Once inside, the king, shedding ‘torrents of tears’, took his place on a rostrum before the Tomb, surrounded by his weeping courtiers, waiting for the Holy Fire. As the priest chanted vespers the ecstasy intensified in the darkening church until suddenly ‘the Holy Light illumined the Sepulchre, stunningly bright and splendid’. The patriarch emerged brandishing the fire with which he kindled the royal lamp. The fire spread across the crowd, lantern to lantern, and was then borne across town like an Olympic flame to the Temple of the Lord.

Melisende embellished Jerusalem as both Temple shrine and political capital, creating much that we see today. The crusaders had developed their own style, a synthesis of Romanesque, Byzantine and Levantine with round-headed arches and massive capitals, all carved with delicate and often floral motifs. The queen built the monumental St Anne’s Church, north of the Temple Mount, on the site of the Bethesda Pool; it stands today as the simplest and starkest example of crusader architecture. Previously used as a repository for discarded royal wives and later the home of Melisende’s sister, Princess Yvette, its convent became the most richly endowed in Jerusalem. A few of the shops in the marketplaces are still marked ‘ANNA’ to show where their profits went; other shops are marked ‘T’ for the Temple.

Outside the walls, Melisende added to the Church of Our Lady of Jehoshaphat, where she was later buried (her grave survives today) and built the Bethany Monastery, appointing Princess Yvette as abbess. In the Temple of the Lord she added an ornate metal grille to protect the Rock (now mostly in the Haram Museum, though a small section still in situ may have held Jesus’ foreskin and later enclosed the hair from Muhammad’s beard).

Usamah bin Munqidh and Judah Halevi: Muslims, Jews and Franks

On their state visit to see Fulk and Melisende in 1140, Usamah bin Munqidh and his master, Unur, were allowed to pray on the Temple Mount, where they encountered both the insularity and cosmopolitanism of their Frankish hosts. Usamah had become friends with some of the Templars, whom he had met in war and peace. They escorted him and Atabeg Unur on to the Temple Mount, the thoroughly Christianised headquarters of the Templars.

By this period some Crusaders spoke Arabic and built houses with courtyards and fountains like Muslim potentates; some even ate Arabic food. Usamah met Franks who did not eat pork and ‘presented a very fine table, extremely clean and delicious’. Most Franks disapproved of anyone going too native: ‘God has transformed the Occident into the Orient’, wrote the French chronicler Fulcher (born c. 1059). ‘He who was a Roman or a Frank has in this land been made into a Galilean or a Palestinian.’ Similarly, there were limits to Usamah’s friendship with the Templars and to their openmindedness. When one Templar was returning home, he cheerfully invited Usamah to send his son to be educated in Europe so that ‘when he returns he will be a truly rational man’. Usamah could scarcely contain his disdain.

As they prayed in the Dome of the Rock, one of the Franks approached the atabeg to ask: ‘Would you like to see God when he was young?’

‘Why yes’, said Unur, at which the Frank led him and Usamah to an icon of Mary and the boy Jesus.

‘This is God when he was young’, said the Frank, much to Usamah’s amused contempt.

Usamah then walked over to pray in the Temple of Solomon, formerly al-Aqsa, welcomed by his Templar friends, even though he was openly reciting ‘Allahu Akhbar – God is Greatest’.

But then there was an unsettling incident when a Frank rushed up to me and grabbed me and turned my face towards the east, ‘Pray like this!’ The Templars hurried towards him and took him away from me. ‘This man is a stranger’, the Templars explained, apologetically, ‘who has just arrived from the Frankish lands’.

Usamah realised that ‘anyone recently arrived’ is ‘rougher in character than those who have become acclimatised and frequented the company of Muslims’. These new arrivals remained ‘an accursed race that will not become accustomed to anyone not of their own race’.

It was not only Muslim leaders who visited Melisende’s Jerusalem. Muslim peasants came into town daily to sell their fruit and left in the evening. By the 1140s the rules banning Muslims and Jews from Christ’s city had been relaxed – hence the travel writer Ali al-Harawi (d. 1215) said: ‘I lived long enough in Jerusalem at the time of the Franks to know how the trick of the Holy Fire was achieved.’ There were already a few Jews in Jerusalem, but pilgrimage was still dangerous.

Just at this time, in 1141, Judah Halevi, poet, philosopher and doctor, is said to have arrived from his native Spain. In his love songs and religious poetry he craved ‘Zion perfect in beauty’ while suffering because ‘Edom [Islam] and Ishmael [Christianity] riot in the Holy City’. The Jew in exile was ‘the dove in a strange land’. All his life, Halevi, who wrote poetry in Hebrew but spoke Arabic, believed in the return of the Jews to Zion:

O city of the world, most chastely fair,
In the far West, behold I sigh for thee.
Oh! had I eagles’ wings, I’d fly to thee,
And with my falling tears make moist thine earth.

Halevi, whose poems are still part of the synagogue liturgy, wrote as poignantly as anyone has ever written about Jerusalem: ‘When I dream of the return of thy captivity, I am a harp for thy songs.’ It is not clear if he actually made it to Jerusalem but, according to legend, as he walked through the gates he was ridden down by a horseman, probably a Frank, and killed, a fate perhaps foreseen in his words: ‘I would fall with my face upon thine earth, and take delight in thy stones and be tender to thy dust.’

This death would not have surprised Usamah, who studied the violence of Frankish laws. On his way to Jerusalem he had watched two Franks solving a legal problem – one smashed in the skull of another: ‘That was but a taste of their jurisprudence and their legal procedure.’ When a man was accused of murdering pilgrims his trial was to be trussed up and dipped in a pool of water. If he sank he was innocent, but since he floated he was found guilty and, as Usamah put it, ‘they applied some kohl to his eyes’ – he was blinded.

As for their sexual customs, Usamah gleefully recounted how one Frank found another in bed with his wife but let him off with a mere warning and how another ordered his male barber to shave off his wife’s pubic hair. In medicine, Usamah described how, while an Eastern doctor was treating a Frank’s leg abscess with a poultice, a Frankish doctor burst in with an axe and hacked off the leg, with the immortal question – would he prefer to live with one leg or die with two? But the man died with one. When the eastern doctor prescribed a special diet to a woman suffering ‘dryness of humours’, the same Frankish doctor, diagnosing a ‘demon inside her head’, carved a cross into her skull, killing her too. The best doctors were Arab-speaking Christians and Jews: even the kings of Jerusalem came to prefer eastern doctors. Yet Usamah was never wholly biased – he cites two cases where Frankish medicine worked miraculously.

The Muslims regarded the crusaders as brutish plunderers. But the cliché that the crusaders were barbarians and the Muslims aesthetes can be taken too far. After all, Usamah had served the sadist Zangi and, if read in full, his account presents a picture of Islamic violence no less shocking to modern sensibilities: the collecting of Christian heads, the crucifying and bisections of their own soldiers and heretics and the story of how his father, in a rage, lopped off the arm of his page. Violence and similarly brutal laws ruled on both sides. The Frankish knight and the Islamic faris had much in common. Both were led by self-made adventurers who founded warrior dynasties, such as the Baldwins and Zangi. Both systems depended on the granting of fiefs of property or income-streams to leading warriors. The Arabs used poetry to show off, to entertain and to spread propaganda. When Usamah served the Damascene atabeg, he negotiated with the Egyptians in verse, while crusader knights spun the poems of courtly love. Both knight and faris lived by similar codes of noble behaviour and shared the same obsessions – religion, war, horses – and the same sports.

Few soldiers and few novelists have captured the excitement and fun of war like Usamah. To read him is to ride in the skirmishes of Holy War in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. He gloried in his battlefield anecdotes of derring-do, devil-may-care cavaliers, miraculous escapes, terrible deaths and the exhilaration of wild charges, flashing steel, sweating horses and spurting blood. But he was also a philosopher of Fate and God’s mercy: ‘Even the smallest and most insignificant of things can lead to destruction.’ Above all, both sides believed that in Usamah’s words ‘Victory in war is from God alone’. Religion was everything. Usamah’s highest praise for a friend was: ‘a genuine scholar, a real cavalier and a truly devout Muslim’.

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