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June 28, 1098: The Battle of Antioch

Editor’s note: The following account is partially excerpted from the author’s new book, Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West (with a foreword by Victor Davis Hanson). 

Today in history, on June 28, 1098, one of the greatest battles between Islam and Christendom took place: that for Antioch.

In the years following the Battle of Manzikert (1071), which saw the Seljuk Turks defeat the Eastern Roman Empire and conquer that ancient bastion of Christianity, Anatolia (modern day Turkey), immense persecutions of Christians followed.  Whether an anonymous Georgian chronicler tells of how “holy churches served as stables for their horses,” the “priests were immolated during the Holy Communion itself,” the “virgins defiled, the youths circumcised, and the infants taken away,” or whether Anna Comnena, the princess at Constantinople, tells of how “cities were obliterated, lands were plundered, and the whole of Rhomaioi [Anatolia] was stained with Christian blood, ” it was the same scandalous tale of woe.

Enter the First Crusade, which, as historian Peter Frankopan shows, was first and foremost a result of the attack on Eastern Christendom. As historian Thomas Madden, paraphrasing Pope Urban II’s famous call at Clermont in 1095, puts it, “The message was clear: Christ was crucified again in the persecution of his faithful and the defilement of his sanctuaries.” Both needed rescuing; both offered an opportunity to fulfill one of Christ’s two greatest commandments: “Love God with all your heart” and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).

Christians from all around Europe, under the leadership of the Franks, hearkened to the call and took the cross. After a long and arduous journey into Turkic-controlled Asia Minor -- which saw the crusaders meet and defeat their Muslim foe in at least two encounters -- by October 1097, the Europeans were at and besieging the walls of Antioch.

Once one of Christendom’s greatest cities, Antioch was now a shadow of its former self. Its Turkic governor, Yaghi-Siyan, had long been persecuting the resident Christians, who still made the majority, including by increasing the amount of jizya-tribute, launching arbitrary wholesale persecutions, forcing Christians to convert to Islam, and converting Antioch’s ancient cathedral into a horse stable.

“Alas! How many Christians, Greeks, Syrians, and Armenians, who lived in the city, were killed by the maddened Turks,” lamented Fulcher of Chartres, who travelled with the crusaders. “With the Franks looking on, they threw outside the walls the heads of those [Christians] killed, with their petrariae and slings. This especially grieved our people.”

In response -- and because the Frankish and Norman warrior aristocracy had no qualms about giving tit for tat -- Bohemond, a Norman prince, “brought those [Muslims] he had captured back to the gate of the city, where, to terrify the citizens who were watching, he ordered that they be decapitated” and their severed heads catapulted over the city walls. (Anna Comnena, who had met and described Bohemond as a towering “marvel for the eyes to behold,” added that “a certain charm hung about this man but was partly marred by a general air of the horrible.”  He was clearly not one to be cowed by Islamic terror tactics.)