Good cops and bad ones: Caesarea in 1101

The Crusaders did not yet have a good port, since Antioch was actually inland a bit on the Orontes River. The ports in this area had all been fortified by Greek or Roman founders, so they had serious walls and other defenses. It took years for the Latins to conquer Tyre and Sidon, and they never captured Ascalon. They could use ports like Jaffa and Haifa, but at first they didn’t control them. Most of the ports readily made contracts with the Crusaders to pay tribute, to keep out of trouble. (It was on a friendly visit to the Muslim governor of Caesarea that King Godfrey had suddenly sickened and died.)

King Baldwin I’s forces were at an all-time low. His chaplain, Fulcher, noted that he had about 300 knights at this time. Most of the territory around the isolated Crusader outposts was hostile. On a hunting expedition, Baldwin was injured nearly to death by a small Muslim raiding party. It was just too dangerous for Franks to settle in and think of the “Kingdom of Jerusalem” as theirs.

Then some ships arrived from Genoa. A Genoese commander whose ships had been dismantled to make siege towers in Jerusalem had sent word home for more sailors and boats. The arrival of the fresh recruits put Genoese commander back in business as a power broker. Baldwin I made a deal to split the loot for any ports they would conquer by working together.

The small port of Arsuf surrendered within three days, and it was rewarded with generous terms. This was a typical practice of the time, meant to be the “good cop” side of the attackers’ public face. The ruler who surrendered might stay on as part of the administration, and the people’s lives would be relatively undisturbed. But the act only worked when the “bad cop” was shocking even in a time when death was a commonplace.

The next big target was Caesarea, a magnificent port built by the Romans but somewhat gone to seed under Arab use. Its walls were three meters thick, and it had inner walls from even older fortifications. In Herod’s time, it had a palace, temples, an aqueduct and a huge amphitheater, as well as massive governmental office buildings. The Byzantines had filled in some of the harbor to build more city out into the water. Arab Caesarea was a Fatimid-ruled city, like Jerusalem (as opposed to being ruled by a Turkish warlord). The city refused to surrender, since it seemed likely that a Fatimid army could rescue them.

On land, Crusaders used mangonels, a type of catapult, to bombard the city’s wall and rooftops. The Genoese ships blockaded at sea. After three weeks, the city surrendered, but this type of surrender was not rewarded with restraint. Caesarea had to pay for its resistance and the cost of three weeks’ siege. Franks, Normans and Genoese rushed into the city and began looting and killing. The men were killed, the women and children enslaved. Chroniclers wrote about rivers of blood and stinking piles of bodies in the streets.

The wealth of the city was divided among the attackers, who all went home rich. The Genoese recorded that they also found a thousand merchants hiding in the mosque and agreed to let them go in exchange for ransom. They knew their priorities!

The Genoese also found a fancy hexagonal cup made of Egyptian green glass. Perhaps because glassmaking was relatively primitive in Europe, the finders believed the cup was carved from a single emerald that had magic properties. The legend grew: the cup was a gift to Solomon from the Queen of Sheba, and it had then become the cup Jesus used at the Last Supper. They took it home, where it is still housed in honor in a cathedral. Unfortunately, it was later taken by Napoleon, and the glass was broken by the time the French returned it.

The next big port at hand was Acra, or Acre. The good cop stopped in for a confidential chat with its Fatimid governors. You may not believe it, but Acre just surrendered. True story.

The next entry begins at a later date in this archive: May 6, 2017.

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