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Crusades: The View from the East

The popular image of crusading is derived almost entirely from western accounts of the victorious First Crusade. Yet when historians examine Byzantine sources about the campaign a very different picture emerges, argues Peter Frankopan.

Imperial bodyguard: Viking mercenaries in a 12th-century Skylitzes manuscript. AKG Images / Biblioteca Nacional, MadridOn June 7th, 1099 the knights of the First Crusade reached the imposing walls of Jerusalem, the holiest city in Christendom. The journey had been long and painful. A vast force had set out for the east nearly three years earlier, roused by a passionate call to arms by Pope Urban II, who spent months criss-crossing France to galvanise support for a massive expedition to liberate the place where Jesus Christ had lived and was crucified.

Numbering as many as 100,000 at the outset, the army had shrunk dramatically on its way to Jerusalem. Some had fallen in battle when a massive Turkish force had attacked as the westerners crossed Asia Minor in the summer of 1097; others had been slaughtered before that, when an ill-advised foray to capture a Turkish fort led to surrender and execution. Desertion, too, reduced the size of the force before it reached the Holy City, as men looked to their own safety and fled home.

It was at Antioch, however, that most of the damage had been done. The Crusaders arrived at the city, one of the largest in the Middle East, just after the harvest had been brought in. They found trees groaning with fruit, vineyards bursting with grapes and store pits filled with corn. One wrote:

To start with we ate only the best cuts, rump and shoulders, scorned brisket and thought nothing of grain and wine. In these good times, only the watchmen along the walls reminded us of our enemies concealed inside Antioch.

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