Dorylaeum: The First Christian-Muslim Clash of the Crusades

January 26, 2021 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: CrusadesFirst CrusadeReligionMilitary History

Dorylaeum: The First Christian-Muslim Clash of the Crusades

The Battle of Dorylaeum would influence the tactics, strategy, and mystique of the many Crusades to follow.

Here's What You Need to Know: Dorylaeum was a primer for many battles to come.

The Battle of Dorylaeum, fought on July 1, 1097, marked the first full-scale military clash between the Christian armies of the West and the Muslim armies of the East. As such, it would prove to be an educational experience for both armies, one whose final outcome would have an extreme influence on the course of the First Crusade.

The Origins of the First Crusade

The crusade to retake Jerusalem from the occupying Turks actually began two years earlier, with an impassioned plea by Pope Urban II in November 1095 on the behalf of Europe’s Christian brothers in the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantines, as the nearest Christian targets of the rampaging and ever more powerful Seljuk Turks, had been fighting these persistent raiders for several years.

By March 1095, when Urban II held a meeting of leading European ecclesiastics, he heard from a delegation of Byzantine ambassadors that the war against the Turks was going quite well. Byzantine might had been pushing the Seljuks steadily back. The Byzantines could crush the Turks forever, the ambassadors explained to the pope, if only there were more troops for the army. They asked Urban to rally the European nobility to help save the first line of Christian defenses against the crush of Islam.

Urban did as the Byzantine mission asked—and more. Having been made aware that Christians on pilgrimage to Jerusalem were having trouble getting through Anatolia owing to Turkish harassment and were often turned away at the gates by the Muslims who controlled the city, Urban decided to launch a crusade to free Jerusalem and the entire Holy Land from Muslim domination.

Seated before a large crowd at Clermont, France, Urban decried the suffering of the Byzantine Christians, the loss of Christian territory to the Muslims, and the desecration of the holy shrines by the infidels. He then went a step further, informing listeners about the indignities and injuries suffered by pilgrims en route to Jerusalem. Once he had presented the facts, Urban launched his appeal. The Christian West, he said, should march at once to save their Eastern brethren and free Jerusalem. The French townspeople, some of whom would become the first crusaders, cheered loudly at the plan to re-take Jerusalem, calling out, “Deus le volt [God wills it]!”

“Your brethren who live in the east are in urgent need of your help, and you must hasten to give them the aid which has often been promised them,” said the pope. “The Turks and Arabs have attacked them and have conquered the territory of Romania [the Greek empire]. They have killed and captured many, and have destroyed the churches and devastated the empire. If you permit them to continue thus for awhile with impurity, the faithful of God will be much more widely attacked by them. On this account I, or rather the Lord, beseech you as Christ’s heralds to publish this everywhere and to persuade all people of whatever rank, foot soldiers and knights, poor and rich, to carry aid promptly to those Christians and to destroy that vile race from the lands of our friends. All who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins. Let those who have been accustomed unjustly to wage private warfare against the faithful now go against the infidels and end with victory this war which should have been begun long ago.”

Urban toured throughout France before returning to Italy, spreading the word of his crusade and finding popular enthusiasm wherever he went. European noblemen were eager to join the crusade as well, ensuring that the war would have ample military leadership and experience. Among the leaders were Bohemond of Taranto, an Italian prince of the earlier Norman invaders; Godfrey of Bouillon, often called the perfect Christian knight; and Adhemar, bishop of Le Puy, who was present at Clermont when Urban made his appeal and was the first person there to request permission to take up the cross.

The First Crusader Coalition: Nobles and Peasants, East and West

The armies of the First Crusade marched out from various places. Although this would prove to be largely a French crusade, led by French nobles and fought by French commoners, individual leaders came from all across Europe. By April 1097, the majority of the crusader armies had arrived at the convergence point predesignated by Urban II: Constantinople. While the Crusaders, or Franks, as the Greeks uniformly referred to them, regardless of their nationality, were ostensibly meeting there to defend the Byzantines, their violent behavior suggested otherwise.

An ill-led, ill-provisioned, and ill-conceived “People’s Crusade,” led by Peter the Hermit, a bizarre religious leader, had arrived in Constantinople several months before the military professionals. While there, the mob of peasants, criminals, and fanatical mystics managed to thoroughly anger and insult their Byzantine hosts before marching away. When Godfrey and the other noble leaders arrived, it took only a few weeks before clashes between East and West began, first through raids against scattered country homes to seize provisions, then in attacks against homes outside of Constantinople for the sake of destruction, and finally a limited assault on the city itself.

The two alleged Christian allies were coming to blows—and during Holy Week, no less—destroying any sense of respect or mutual trust between the crusaders and the Byzantines before the armies were ever sailed across to Asia. Nevertheless, at the request of Emperor Alexius, the Crusaders agreed to fight alongside the experienced Byzantine forces to attack the Seljuk capital of Nicaea and clear a main road running to Jerusalem. The fortress-city was formidable and well defended. It was surrounded by a four-mile-long stone wall, which was in turn studded by no less than 240 towers. The city was bordered on one side by the Ascanian Lake, with walls coming right out of the shallow water. An assault would be difficult and a siege lengthy. The attack, however, struck at just the right time. At that moment the Seljuk sultan, Kilij Arslan I, was away in the East with most of Nicaea’s garrison, fighting the Danishmend emir, Ghazi ibn Danishmend, over territorial disputes.

Nicaea Falls to the Byzantines

By June 3, 1097, the entire crusader army had arrived before Nicaea and had spread out to invest the city.  Kilij Arslan, when informed of the city’s investment, at first attempted to attack the crusader lines surrounding Nicaea. The attack failed and Kilij decided to sacrifice the city in order to carry on the fight later on the open ground of Anatolia. The crusaders continued to attempt to take the city by escalade and by mining the formidable walls, but to no avail. Crusader attempts to choke off the city failed because supplies were still being ferried across the Ascanian Lake. Byzantine Emperor Alexius was asked for assistance and dispatched a flotilla to drive off the supply ships, at which time the garrison requested to parley with the Byzantine commander for a truce.

As the discussions wore on and the Turks stalled for time, garrison leaders were informed that the crusaders were planning a general assault on the city for June 19. When the sun rose that day, the crusaders were utterly shocked to see the Byzantine imperial standard flying over the city. The garrison had surrendered overnight and allowed Alexius’s forces to enter through a gate facing the lake.

The crusaders felt betrayed and angered. Not only were the nobles deprived of the glory they might earn through an attack, but they were also deprived the chance to capture and ransom Turkish nobles. The Turks instead were escorted to Constantinople under the protection of Alexius’s troops for a comfortable incarceration. The crusaders were also deprived of the chance to gather booty and vent their rage on helpless citizens, an ugly but accepted aspect of medieval warfare. The crusaders had been promised great wealth fighting for the Byzantines, yet at the first opportunity to engender goodwill, Alexius had proven stingy. This was seen as both cowardly and dishonorable, and ruined whatever sway the emperor might have held with the crusader leaders.

Dorylaeum: On the Road to Jerusalem

The acrimony at Constantinople and the betrayal at Nicaea had a tremendous impact on the upcoming Battle of Dorylaeum. No longer having any faith in Alexius or his promises for assistance, Godfrey and other crusader leaders spurned his suggestions to approach Jerusalem along the coast, thereby keeping one flank protected and allowing provisions to be delivered to the army by the Byzantine navy. Alexius’s suggestion was made in good faith, based upon years of experience fighting the Turks and knowledge of the approaching terrain, but despite the imminent logic of Alexius’s suggestions, the crusaders were no longer in a frame of mind to hear any Byzantine points of view, regardless of how intelligent they may have been. The crusaders, wanting to avoid lengthy siege operations against a series of coastal towns, chose a quicker, more direct route through the heart of Asia Minor, one that would lead them directly to Dorylaeum.