The Crusader Army Crosses into Asia Minor I

On 6 May 1097 elements of the crusader army appeared before the city of Nicaea held by Kilij I Arslan, the Seljuk Sultan of Rhüm (1092–1107). The city lies in a fertile basin bounded to the west by the Ascanian Lake (Iznik Gölü). From the south gate (Yenişehir Gate) the land rises sharply into the 800-metre-high Avdan Daglari. From the north gate (Istanbul Gate) the rise into the much higher Naldökan range which the crusaders had crossed is much gentler and only becomes appreciable after three kilometres. To the east (Lefke Gate), a wide and gently sloping valley rises to a watershed then slopes mildly down to the valley of the Sangarius (Sakarya Nehri) and the military roads to Ankara and the Anatolian plateau. Raymond of Aguilers and Albert of Aachen were much impressed by Nicaea’s fortifications which the leaders examined carefully. Fulcher remarked on the determination and cruelty of its garrison. Its fortifications were Roman, dating from the fourth century, but they had been modified and kept in repair under the Byzantine empire. A great wall, pierced at the points of the compass by four main gates, surrounded the city. It was probably about ten metres high and studded with 114 round or square towers rising to seventeen metres, and its circuit measured 4,970 metres. There was a double ditch around the outside. These fortifications were made the more formidable because the garrison needed to defend only half their circuit. From the north to south gates the western wall of the city followed the Ascanian Lake whose huge size, forty kilometres long, made it impossible to blockade unless the attacker had boats. It is very important to recognise that until the crusaders brought up boats they faced an enemy who had only to defend half the circuit, and this is the key to understanding the course of military events at Nicaea.

Amongst the crusader contingents arriving for the siege was, as we have noticed, a force of Byzantine troops under the command of Tatikios. They were later reinforced by more soldiers and some small boats under Boutoumites who blockaded the Ascanian lake on the western perimeter of the city. This was a comparatively small force for Alexius to send in support of what he regarded as his men, almost his hirelings. This is especially true because, as Anna Comnena says, he had twice before attacked the city which seems to have fallen into Turkish hands in 1078, in 1081 and 1086. Here was an ancient city whose loss to the empire was deeply felt. The Seljuks were converting it from an outpost into a real capital, thus threatening to stabilise their régime, yet the emperor would hazard only a small force, and, above all, would not come himself. Anna stresses that her father was anxious to regain Nicaea, but offers only the feeblest of excuses for his refusal to join the siege – that he feared the enormous numbers of the Franks. Anna’s insistence on the bad faith and untrustworthiness of all Latins is intimately connected with her case that they had broken their oath to Alexius in the matter of Antioch and owes much to hindsight. It is, in fact, a revelation of the extent to which much modern writing about the crusades has been from a pro-Byzantine standpoint that her statement has passed unchallenged. Alexius had reasons to distrust Latins – the expedition of Guiscard is clear evidence – but he distrusted almost everybody else as well and he had actively sought them as mercenaries. His caution on this occasion probably owed much to his attitude to the Seljuks of Rhüm and the curious process by which they conquered Anatolia.

The Turks are part of a vast family of steppe peoples who include the Mongols. They first appear in western history in the guise of the Huns and later as the Hungarians of the middle Danube. The Patzinacks and Uzes, who were such a scourge of the Byzantine Balkans, are also of the same people. It is, however, with the people of Turkestan – the nomadic tribes occupying a vast area from the Black Sea to Central Asia – that we are concerned, and in particular with the Oghuz who pressed on the frontiers of Islamicised Asia and Persia. Amongst them a pre-eminent family were the descendants of the legendary Seljuk. The expansion of Islam into Transoxania brought these Turks into intimate conflict with Islam along the frontiers where ghazis, Islamic volunteers, and nomads waged war. But the Shamanist Turks began to be converted in large numbers to Islam, and in the tenth century we see the creation of Turkish Islamic powers like the Karakhanids of Bukhara and the Ghaznavids who ruled on the borders of India. Thus the border between Islam and the Turks became porous to Islamicised Turks, some of whom were already established in the Islamic heartlands by a different process. The Arabs who destroyed the Roman and Persian empires in the seventh century were a warrior aristocracy ruling over diverse peoples and sheer military need forced them to incorporate those peoples into their armies. This diversification facilitated the recruitment of peoples with special skills – the Daylamis of the Caspian area provided good infantry until the crusader period. Kurds provided light cavalry and infantry. For a long time Khorasanian horse archers and cavalrymen were important but they tended to be replaced by Turks. At the same time, rulers favoured such processes which lessened their dependence on the tribal elements to which they owed their power. The destruction of the Umaiyad Caliphate of Damascus in 750 and the rise of the Abbasids of Baghdad marked a political transformation which favoured Iranian groups, especially a military élite associated with Khorasan, and Mesopotamian groups at the expense of Arabs. The Caliphate developed a complex military organisation and placed more and more emphasis on mamlūk troops, slave-soldiers who were often recruited from the Iranian and the Eurasian steppe. Under the Caliph Al Mu’tasim (892–902) Turkish troops became well established in the Islamic armies and he created the great palace complex of Samarra near Bagdad to house these élite forces. By the eleventh century Turks were a powerful element in almost all Islamic forces, even as far afield as Egypt, and at this very time political developments on the frontier made them more important. In 1025 a group of Oghuz, having been settled in Khorasan, rebelled and were ejected by the Ghaznavids, but they were followed by another in 1035, pre-eminent amongst whom were Tughril and Chagri who by 1040 dominated all of Khorasan including Merv and Nishapur and drove out the Ghaznavids. While Chagri consolidated their position in the east Tughril turned west. He and his people had imbibed a fierce Islamic orthodoxy and the domination of the Caliph at Baghdad by Shi’ite Buwaihids and others was a scandal upon which he capitalised. His entry into Baghdad in 1055 was a peaceful one facilitated by contacts with Turkish elements around the Caliph, and though he had to fight later, by 1059 Tughril was master of the Caliphate and enjoyed the title of Shah. In the process of constructing his power in the heart of Islam Tughril and his successor, Alp Arslan, were happy to adopt the composite armies of their predecessors in which the tribal element of the Turks was only a part, though Turkish enlistment as slave-soldiers, mamlūks, continued to be important. This was a vital element in the stabilisation of their dynasty and as a corollary they encouraged the nomadic Turks to attack the Fatimids of Palestine and the Byzantine frontier. Patronage of such a holy war would give the Shah prestige and allow the tribes to plunder, while providing a reservoir for recruitment. The scale of their success was remarkable. In 1057 they sacked Melitene (modern Malatya), in 1059 Sebasteia (modern Sivas) and in 1064 Ani and by the late 1060s they were virtually raiding at will in eastern Asia Minor, even devastating the land behind the advance of imperial armies under Romanus IV Diogenes (1067–71) when he campaigned against them in 1069.

Such success owed something to their tactics. Traditionally steppe people ride light ponies, perhaps ten to twelve hands on average, and depend on strings of them to provide speed and endurance in battle. We have very little information about Turkish horses, though in contrast to the Mongol armies we do not hear of large strings of spare horses. When Alp Arslan fought at Manzikert in 1071 he took with him 15,000 picked cavalry, and the fact that all had a spare horse is remarked upon by the sources suggesting that it was unusual and a mark of their elite status. In fact, for nomads the difficulties implicit in the raising of heavier breeds with the need for stall-feeding, stud farms and the isolation of dams were overwhelming. Their special forte was mounted archery and they provided extraordinary fire-power and accuracy combined with speed of manoeuvre. A ninth-century Arab writer remarked of the Turkish troops then becoming common: ‘The Turk can shoot at beasts, birds, hoops, men, sitting quarry, dummies and birds on the wing, and do so at full gallop to fore or to rear, to left or to right, upwards or downwards, loosing ten arrows before the Kharijite [Arab tribesman hostile to the Abassids] can nock one.

This combination of speed of manoeuvre with the range of the bow was extremely difficult to combat. They used the composite bow – wood with horn which reacts to compression bound on the belly side, and sinew on the back to increase elasticity. Thus, despite its shortness, the nomad’s bow had great strength and considerable range. Albert of Aachen salts his chronicle with poetic cliches; his Franks seize helms and armour as they fly to battle, but the Turks seize bows, often described as being of horn and sinew. Such vivid word pictures convey sharply the difference in style of warfare. In a famous passage after his account of the battle of Dorylaeum, the Anonymous praises the skill of the Turks as soldiers, but Albert gives a very much more specific example of their archery. During the pursuit after Dorylaeum, he says, the enemy remained dangerous and often turned at bay. Gerard of Quiersy, spotting a Turk on the brow of a hill, drew across him and attacked with his lance; his intended victim, however, fired an arrow which went through the shield and struck him between the liver and lungs, and while he lay dying the Turk made off with his horse. As the Franks forced the crossing of the Iron Bridge he again mentions Turkish arrows piercing a hauberk. If we think of a Turkish horseman drawing a bow with a pull of between twenty-seven and thirty-six kilograms, he might have an effective range of well over sixty metres so the Anonymous’s comment on their ‘astonishing range’ makes sense. Consider the effect of many such individuals firing together and it is possible to understand the frequency with which the western accounts mention the sleets of arrows which the Turks produced in battle. Fulcher speaks of the clouds of arrows which overcame the army at Dorylaeum, and Albert describes hails of arrows as the Turks fought back in the pursuit after the battle and which destroyed Swein of Denmark’s reinforcements and Renaud of Toul’s force in the final battle at Antioch. Such language is too frequent to be mere extravagance, as are references to the fast horses of the Turks. Raymond of Aguilers describes their hit-and-run tactics in which speed was essential to avoid crusader retribution. Ralph shows them manoeuvring outside ‘Artāh to lure Franks into ambush, while according to Albert warriors on speedy mounts opposed the crossing of the fords near the Iron Bridge and later lured Roger of Barneville to his death. It is possible that they had developed light tubular crossbows, throwing darts to augment their firepower. It was by throwing a hail of arrows that the Turks demoralised their enemies, isolated and broke up their formations before charging in for the kill at close quarters with sword and spear. This was how they had destroyed the forces of the People’s Crusade. Once at close quarters their primary weapon was the sword, at this time a straight edged weapon rather narrower and more sharply pointed than the Frankish weapon, but otherwise little different.

It is difficult to comment on the armour of the nomads. As early as 1037/8, Bayhaqi says that when Tughril Bey entered Nishapur his 3,000 cavalry were mostly armoured. Much of our evidence about the Seljuks comes from Byzantine sources of the twelfth century which show mail shirts and poncho-like garments of mail. By this time Greek influence upon their protective equipment and style of war was becoming very strong. However, there is ample evidence for the use of armour, scale, chain-mail and lamellar armour throughout the Middle East. Strips or scales fastened to cloth or leather seem to have been outmoded in the West, but such lighter equipment would have suited the warfare of the area very well and so have remained in use. There is no reason to think that the nomads of Asia Minor were ignorant of armour. Ralph of Caen gives a very vivid description of the fighting at Dorylaeum and tells us that in the press of battle the Turks ‘trusted in their numbers, we in our armour’ which implies that they did not have armour. However, he does not explicitly say that they had none and it would be very surprising if they were prepared to close with the Franks with no protection at all. In much of the Middle East armour was worn under the cover of other materials, most often in the form of a Hazagand, a leather jerkin with mail or lamellar within and there were variations on this like the later western brigandine. Felt or fur caps were often worn by Turks at this time. We can think, therefore, of the Turkish horsemen wearing rather lighter armour than the western knights, and, above all, carrying a much smaller and lighter shield. However, their skilful horsemanship and tactics were not in themselves a sufficient advantage to account for the victories of the Turks in Asia Minor – they owed far more to Byzantine weakness.

The death of Basil II (976–1025) saw the Byzantine empire in a position of strength, extending from Mesopotamia to Bulgaria. But Basil’s success, and the manner in which it was achieved, left considerable problems for the Byzantine state. He significantly changed Byzantine military organisation. In the seventh century the Byzantine army had been reorganised with the division of the empire into Themes, each of which was defended by its own military-force locally recruited, housed and financed. When an imperial expedition was mounted, the army of the themata combined with the central army based at Constantinople, the tagmata, at selected aplèkta, camps on the military highways such as that at Dorylaeum which was the gateway to the Anatolian plateau. However, the settlements of peasant soldiers, which were the basis of this army, were being absorbed into the estates of the aristocracy of Asia Minor who thus were able to control the armies of the Themes. In 987 a group of these families revolted against Basil and were only defeated in 989 with the aid of a corps of 6,000 Russians, the basis of the later Varangian guard. From this time onwards Basil found it prudent to rely more and more on mercenaries for the regular army which was the basis of his successful expansion of the empire in the Balkans. The increasing wealth of the empire, evidenced by the growth of cities, facilitated the replacement of territorial forces by mercenaries.30 As a result, the old armies of the Themes were somewhat neglected, except on exposed frontiers where they continued to serve a useful purpose. At the same time, he revived old legislation to prevent the great families of Asia Minor from absorbing peasant holdings into their estates in order to protect the tax base which was even more necessary to pay his professional armies. On the basis of his victory of 989, Basil established a harsh government which dominated the great noble houses and at the same time demanded a crushing taxation to support a professional army and a policy of expansion. The strains that this imposed on the empire meant that when Basil died there was bound to be change, and this was complicated by the lack of a clear line of succession on the death of his brother Constantine VIII (1025–8) whose daughters’ marriages determined the succession for the next twenty years without ever producing heirs to prolong the Macedonian house. This failure inevitably produced uncertainty and promoted the emergence of aristocratic factions who competed for power; there were thirty rebellions in the period 1028–57, such as that of Tornikios in 1047–8 which was only defeated by stripping the frontiers of troops.

Competition for power amongst aristocratic houses was a feature of Byzantine history, and this period produced able, as well as feeble, emperors, but this came at a time when the empire had severe problems. The rise of a mercenary army imposed massive financial burdens and it is hardly surprising that, with the less expansionist stance after 1025, efforts were made to cut back on military expenditure. Constantine IX Monomachus dismantled the army of the theme of Iberia. The policy was logical for the local army duplicated the mercenary one, but, to its great discontent, this area now had to pay taxes and it was exposed to hostile attack. In the East, the Turks began to press on the frontier, while in the Balkans the Patzinacks were a potential menace and in Italy the Normans became a major force in the 1040s. Thus, economy in military matters came at a time of increasing external threat. Moreover, in the east, there were a number of populations whose religious affiliations made them suspect to the Byzantine authorities (most notably the Jacobite Syrians and the Armenians), and the efforts of Constantine X Doukas (1059–67) to settle problems with these churches, intended to strengthen the frontiers, simply aroused hatred. Thus, every effort of the imperial government worsened the security situation in the eastern provinces and, by the 1060s, the Turks were raiding deep into Asia Minor with Iconium and Chonae falling victim towards the end of the decade. Even more importantly, the vacuum of power at the centre continued to be filled only intermittently and the autocracy was the subject of bitter factional conflict which prevented consistent policies from emerging. The factional struggle allowed other forces to emerge within the state – the church especially under the Patriarch Michael Keroularios (1043–58) became a major factor in the state and not a mere arm of the autocracy, while the mob of Constantinople had also to be considered. This was the background to the reign of Romanus IV Diogenes (1067–71).

When Constantine Doukas died he had invested imperial power in his wife Eudocia, to exercise on behalf of his young sons, but there was widely felt to be a need for a strong ruler and as a result, she married Romanus IV Diogenes, a successful soldier who had defeated the Patzinacks in the Balkans. He consolidated his power and produced two sons, but inevitably this aroused the hostility of the Doukas.

Romanus was determined to end the Turkish attacks on the eastern provinces, but there was considerable uncertainty about how best to do this. A considerable body of thought suggested that he should make the border provinces, with their disloyal populations, a desert and crush the Turks in central Asia Minor. He preferred to try and oust the Turks by a strategy of large-scale expeditions to the eastern frontier which would put pressure upon the Sultan Alp Arslan. But the Turks were steppe horsemen to whom the Anatolian plateau presented a congenial and familiar habitat across which they could move quickly and they melted before the lumbering Byzantine army, returning to isolate the fortresses once they had gone. In 1068 Romanus attacked Aleppo, and the campaign of 1069 was directed against the upper Euphrates although the rebellion of the Norman mercenary Crispin was a considerable diversion. These expensive forays produced no results and it is likely that the emperor’s enemies, led by the Caesar John Doukas were becoming a threat. In 1071, Romanus led a huge Byzantine army with the intention of bringing the Sultan Alp Arslan, who was preparing for an attack on Fatimid Egypt, to battle: Romanus needed a victory. The army was overwhelmingly mercenary with contingents of Greeks, Russians, Khazars, Alans, Georgians, Armenians, Turks and Franks; it was the Germans, amongst these latter, who attacked the emperor at Cryapege when he tried to curb their excesses. Some of the units were very good but there was enormous variation in quality and they were not used to working together. As they moved eastwards there was friction with the Armenians. It was a huge army, though the 300,000 suggested by some Arab sources is a gross exaggeration: it was probably of the order of 40,000–60,000. Alp Arslan was surprised by their coming – he had negotiated a truce with Romanus in the previous year, but the Byzantines saw continued Turkish raiding, over which the Sultan had no control, as a breach. Manzikert (east of modern Erzerum), a fortress recently captured by the Turks, was quickly recaptured, but a large section of the imperial army was dispatched to take Chliat. When Alp Arslan arrived, the Norman mercenary leader, Roussel of Bailleul, and Tarchaniotes who commanded many of the Turks, simply fled. In the crisis of the battle Andronicus Doukas seems deliberately to have betrayed Romanus who was captured in the ensuing rout.

Manzikert was not quite the overwhelming victory that has been supposed, for much of the army was never engaged and many units escaped intact, but the emperor’s guard was slaughtered. Alp Arslan concluded a very merciful treaty with Romanus, for he was preoccupied elsewhere and had no wish to see a major Turkish power in Anatolia. It was the Byzantine reaction which turned the situation into a disaster. Romanus’s enemies, led by Michael VII Doukas (1071–8), denounced the treaty and blinded Romanus. The Byzantine state now dissolved in a series of civil wars, in which the numerous contenders were all prepared to call in the Turks. This was why the cities of Asia Minor which could have resisted a nomadic people with no experience of siege warfare did not do so. Instead, the keys of their gates were handed over to the Turks by the contending magnates. In the chaos, the Norman mercenary leader Roussel of Bailleul attempted to create a new state in Asia Minor and his success brought 3,000 Franks into his following. In an effort to divide his enemies he championed the imperial pretensions of John Doukas. He was only defeated in Bithynia when the imperial authorities brought in the Turkish Emir, Artuk, whose activities so far to the west are a revelation of Byzantine weakness. Even then, he escaped and in the end was betrayed to Alexius Comnenus. In Cappadocia and Cilicia, independent Armenian princes were happy to see the back of Byzantine rule and to take over the cities of the area. Amongst them was a former Curopalate and Domestic of Romanus IV who had fought with him at Manzikert, Philaretus Brachamius, who refused to recognise Michael VII and created a principality based on Marasch, Ahlistha and Melitene. In 1074 he defeated Isaac Comnenus, duke of Antioch, and by 1078 he had acquired this major city. Nicephorous Botaneiates, who rebelled against Michael in 1078, was a former comrade in arms of Philaretus and recognised his independent principality to which he added Edessa in 1083–4. When Sulayman, leader of the Anatolian Turks, was peacefully admitted to Antioch in 1085, it is not impossible that local factionalism within the city was encouraged to this end by Alexius I Comnenus – in order to get rid of an adherent of the overthrown Botaneiates. When Nicephorous Botaneiates began his rebellion in 1077 he was able to gather very few troops but the government, beset by the rebellion of Nicephorous Bryennius in the west which allowed the Patzinacks in once again, called upon Sulayman, leader of the Anatolian Turks. He changed sides, however, and Botaneiates used his forces to hold down many of the cities of western Asia Minor, including Nicaea which appears to have fallen into Turkish hands at this time. Much of the army which Botaneiates used against Bryennius in the west under Alexius Comnenus was Turkish, and it was turned against Botaneiates whom Alexius succeeded in 1081, only to face the rebellion of his brother-in-law, Melissenus, who turned over more of the cities of western Anatolia to Sulayman. There can be no doubt that for the Byzantine magnates and generals, civil war in their own interests was far more important than defence of Anatolia. It seems almost as if these great nobles were quite happy to loan a vast and rich province to barbarians for whom they had the greatest disdain and whom they never seem to have regarded as rivals, like the Arabs against whom Nicephorous Phocas (963–9) and John Tzimiskes (969–76) had waged a holy war. It was the Emperor, Alexius Comnenus (1081–95), who finally brought to an end the chaos in the Byzantine state and established himself as the head of a group of aristocratic families who dominated the machinery of state. He was not a great soldier: he would suffer heavy defeats, such as that at Dyrrachium, and win few real victories. He was as prepared as any of his rivals to make arrangements with the Turks. He was, in the end, a skilful and cautious politician anxious to nurse his deeply wounded empire. The spirit of the crusade was deeply alien to this cautious politician. He ‘came to power as the head of a powerful aristocratic network’, so it is hardly surprising that he offered no revival of that spirit of holy war which a century before had enabled the warrior emperors, Nicephorous Phocas and John Tzimiskes, to drive the Byzantine frontier deep into Syria. But the Comneni and the families allied to him were all from Asia Minor which they regarded as the heartland of the empire, hence the importance which he attached to regaining it, and hence the appeal of 1095.

Anna Comnena clearly understood the importance her father attached to Asia Minor. She portrays him as a Byzantine hero, but his relations with the Turks were complex. There was never any question of holy war, on either side. It was during his reign that Byzantine sources began to refer to Sulayman of the Seljuk house and leader of the Turks of Anatolia as Shah – a title not conferred by either the Sultan or the Caliph at Bagdad. Sulayman was killed in 1085, and it was not until his son Kilij Arslan escaped from the Sultan’s custody in 1092 that the Sultanate of Rhüm, as it came to be called, could rise again. The Turks remained a largely nomadic people and their dominion consisted of garrisons in the cities and control of the key routes. Kilij Arslan held the important cities of Nicaea and Iconium, but on the Aegean coast were emirs like Chaka at Smyrna, and Tangripermes at Ephesus, who were at best his allies and at worst his rivals. Cyzicus, on the Propontis, was held by another emir, as were some of the ports along the Black Sea coast. At Erzerum the Saltukid Turks had established a dominion as had the Menguchekids at Erzinjan. Further south, the Danishmends had carved out a great principality based on Sivas, Kayseri and Ankara. Then there were lesser powers like Baldaji or Hasan, who ruled an enclave including much Armenian territory in Cappadocia. Underlining the precarious nature of these conquests were the independent Armenian princes in the Taurus range, prominent amongst whom were Constantine son of Roupen, Pazouni and Oschin, Gabriel a former associate of Philaretus who held Melitene and Thoros of Edessa.40 The Turkish powers enjoyed a very uncertain relationship with the centre of power at Baghdad where Malik Shah (1072–92) ruled. When Sulayman had threatened to become a power in Syria after his conquest of Antioch, he was defeated and killed by the Sultan’s brother Tutush in 1085 and Antioch was absorbed into the lands of the Sultan Malik Shah. Faced with this complex situation, Alexius proceeded carefully. He sent forces against Nicaea in 1081 but the attack of Guiscard in the west forced withdrawal, and he was unable to take real advantage of the weakness of the Sultanate of Rhüm on Sulayman’s death because of threats in the Balkans from the Patzinacks and others. In 1086 Malik Shah had been prepared to consider an alliance against the Turks of Asia Minor, which would have cleared the western part of the peninsula, and at the time of his death, was negotiating with Alexius for an imperial marriage which might have opened the way for an alliance against Rhüm. In the rivalries of the rulers of Asia Minor and the tensions between them and the Sultan at Baghdad Alexius could see opportunity which was, if anything, increased by the deaths of Malik Shah in 1092 and his brother Tutush in 1095, leaving Syria divided between the latter’s bickering sons, Duqaq of Damascus and Ridwan of Aleppo. It was presumably in an effort to exploit this complex situation that Alexius had asked Urban II for aid. He was presented with an independent force, the crusade, which, despite his best efforts, was not entirely within his control. His refusal to join the army as it marched against Nicaea, and indeed his whole policy towards the Franks, has to be seen in the light of this situation. To back the Franks so unequivocally as to join them in person would make relations with Rhüm difficult, should they fail. And failure might trigger internal unrest. Better by far to leave them to fight, so that, if they failed, other means could be pursued and his relations with Kilij Arslan could remain. Alexius had not attacked Nicaea in person before – he had used his generals and now he continued this policy. Alexius would support the Franks as long as they succeeded. With this equivocal ally a comfortable distance behind them, the crusader army prepared for battle against the first of its enemies – the Seljuk Sultanate of Rhüm and its principal city of Nicaea.

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