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Commemorating the Crusader Attack Upon Jerusalem
by Larry Domnitch
Tisha B'Av, recalls the destruction of the first and second Temples of Jerusalem and other disasters which befell the Jewish people. Long after Roman forces turned Jerusalem into a Roman colony, empires and armies continued to attack Jerusalem and claim its hollowed ground as their own. During Jerusalem's long history of conquests, the attack of the crusaders stands out as one of the most brutal. Jerusalem's Jews were tragically caught in the middle of a conflict between Christians and Muslims over Jerusalem.
For most Roman and then Byzantine rule, which extended for most of the next five hundred years following the Bar Kochba revolt, (132-135 C.E) Jews were only permitted to enter Jerusalem on Tisha B'Av. When the Muslims conquered the city in 638, a small number of Jews were readmitted and allowed to re-establish a Jewish community. The crusaders upon their conquest in 1099 would wreak devastation, destroy its rebuilt Jewish community and again prevent Jews from residing in their holiest city.
On November 27, 1095, Pope Urban II urged a crusade to liberate the Holy Land and Jerusalem from Muslim rule. The first group of crusaders gathered in France under the leadership of Godfrey of Boullion, who urged violence against the Jews as "revenge" for the Crucifixion. By January 1096, crusaders began attacking Jewish communities outside of the land of Israel, wreaking devastation and threatening death to those who would not submit to baptism. As the crusaders made their way into Germany, the Jews there faced the same horrors. Jewish communities along the Rhine River, Speyer, Worms, and Mainz, were savagely attacked. Unleashing their hatred and fury against the Jews, the crusaders committed atrocities whose horrors are etched upon the annuls of martyrdom in Jewish history. Of the thousands of Jews offered the choice of baptism or death, the vast majority - over 10,000 - chose to die as martyrs. It was the crusader mission towards Jerusalem to fight the Moslems, which lead to these horrors.
Prior to the crusader invasion, the Jews of Jerusalem lived under the rule of Muslim empires since their conquest of the city in 638 CE for a period of the past 500 years. Under Muslim rule, Jews and Christians were permitted to live in Jerusalem as Dhimmis (Protected Ones), who are considered subordinates to the dominant Muslim rulers as in all Muslim controlled societies. Some Muslim rulers were tolerant; others were not. Just prior to the crusader invasion, the Fatamids -- who were somewhat more tolerant - ruled Jerusalem.
The crusaders advanced southwards and occupied Syria. Following a grueling two-year siege of the Syrian capital Antioch, they eventually overcame its defenders and continued their campaign southwards. They reached the Land of Israel in the spring of 1099 and headed towards Jerusalem. Their advance sent fear into those who lay in their path. When the crusaders reached the cities of Jaffa and Ramle, they found them empty as the entire populations had fled in terror. On June 7, they arrived at a mountain overlooking Jerusalem, the burial place of the prophet Samuel. There, they prayed and prepared for the upcoming siege of Jerusalem.
The city's defenders - Jews and Muslims - prepared the best possible defenses, well aware of what awaited them should the crusaders overcome them. Jerusalem, possessed many boundaries; surrounded by high walls and deep valleys was already prepared for a long siege. Under the leadership of Boullion, the crusaders set siege for the city's northern walls at the Damascus Gate and from the South, at Mount Zion. They continuously hammered away at the city's walls while its defenders feverishly worked to repair them. However, the crusaders repeated attempts to breach Jerusalem's walls failed as its defenders waged a fierce campaign in its defense. As at the siege of Jerusalem by the Roman General Titus one thousand years earlier, a special siege machine was constructed to enable the crusaders to scale Jerusalem's well-fortified walls. On Friday morning, July 15, 1099, an assault machine was lowered upon the city's walls and battlements, making Jerusalem accessible.
At noon of that same day, with the sound of trumpets and shouts of encouragement, the crusaders forced their way into Jerusalem from the north, entering the city Jewish Quarter. As they streamed into the city, its panic stricken defenders and residents fled through the narrow streets. A massacre of the city's residents ensued. Tens of thousands of Muslims and Jews were slaughtered. Many of Jerusalem's Jews were burnt alive as they were forced into their synagogues, which were set aflame. Others desperately attempted to hide, but were hunted down and slaughtered. The few who survived were sold into slavery.
Following the carnage, the knights of the crusades changed their blood stained clothes and went to pray at their holy places, where they offered prayers of thanksgiving. Over the following days, the crusaders sacked the city, plundering its wealth. Each marauder claimed the house he entered as well as its possessions.
Soon, Jerusalem's population would be replaced with Latins, Syrian Christians and other Christian minorities. Under crusader rule, the city's infrastructure was developed with the expectation that crusader Jerusalem would be permanent. Remnants of their impressive construction are clearly visible today.
Under crusader rule, with one rare reported exception, Jews were again forbidden to live in Jerusalem. The Jewish connection to its eternal capital was no longer marked by the presence of a Jewish community - a presence that helped instill hope within Jews over the centuries.
Soon Tisha B'Av arrived and the Jews living in a world of fear and increasing persecution had even more reason to mourn. The loss of the Temple and exile of the Jews was compounded by the loss of Jerusalem's Jewish community.
But in its desolation, one could envision Jerusalem free of crusaders and a Jerusalem whose ancient splendor would someday be restored. During the dark days of the oppression that hope never faded.
from the August 2003 Edition of the Jewish Magazine