Monday, 23 February 2015

cowboys and indians: parallel construction

Once our adventure got off to a start, more as Pope Urban II had envisioned it and under the sanctioned leadership of penitent princes of Latin Christendom, there were quite a few trials along the learning-curve to sort out first and throughout the interminably long and punishing siege of Antioch. To begin with, a large contingent that the Byzantine Emperor Alexios was welcoming into Constantinople—already being a little miffed by his previously ungracious guests in the peasants’ army, were Italo-Norman mercenaries, the same group that had been conducting raids on Byzantine lands in the Balkans. Much of the rest of the princes were either very ambitious or were impoverished, landless nobility who sought to make their fortunes in the Crusade, and whom, like the poor serfs that did not hesitate over-much in leaving their estates, didn’t have much to lose and a great deal to gain, but there was the universally-respected Bishop Adémar of Le Puy, the papal legate who was officially in charge, and a few excellent strategists to hopefully reign in these more dangerous elements. As Urban had in part sold the idea of retaking the Holy Lands to Byzantium, whose blessing was absolutely necessary for the venture to succeed, with the promise of helping the Eastern Empire regaining territory lost recently to the Seljuk Turks, the Crusaders deployed first to this task.
Although a safe corridor for resupply was also needed, admittedly, these first conquests were a bit half-hearted, as all conquests reverted to Byzantium and the Crusaders, though they surely gained in plunder and spoils, saw less out of the deal than they’d wished for. These lands in Anatolia, extending into the Levant to Syria, were only taken by the Turks about a decade prior and there was still a sizable population, if not an overwhelming majority of Greek citizens in the towns and villages, whom—while not exactly persecuted and yearning to be liberated—were happy to lend aid to this army on the march and help to overthrow the Seljuk Turks.  The apparent cake-walk towards the Holy Land could also be attributed to the political landscape of the region, which was not much different from that of contemporary Western Europe from whence the Crusaders were recruited—local rulers were on the defense and the offense. Powerful families were forever trying to wrest more lands from one another, an there were the same old intrigues, sectarianism, dynastic concerns and marriages of allegiance plus that new order of hashish smoking Assassins to contend with. The Turks, though not wanting their lands attacked, also had little sympathy for seeing rivals suffer, and they assumed that the Crusade was just another bunch of soldiers-of-fortune sent out to reclaim some of the territory of the Byzantine Empire, not suspecting a greater, holier goal since the Crusaders’ deportment did not indicate otherwise. A Shia embassy from Fatimid Egypt, in fact, even visited the encampment, pleased that the Crusaders were making life difficult for their Sunni enemies. Edessa (then called Justinopolis but now known as Şanlıurfa) came under Crusader control, as the native Armenians wanted to free themselves from both Seljuk or Byzantine rule—as did a number of important ports along the coast. The advance halted, however, before Antioch, with its impenetrable fortified walls. Knowing it was vital to take this city, a Christian stronghold and important nexus—not to mention a place of considerable wealth, the Crusaders, numbering some thirty to fifty-thousand souls, warriors and non-combatants, families and support personnel which made up the bulk of the army, encamped themselves in the orchards and fields that lie beneath the city-walls, with designs to starve out the population.
The siege went on for months and months, like the Achaeans before Troy with moodiness and fatigue—not to mention privation, and still Antioch held. Misgivings aside, two events managed to allow the Crusaders access: one was a relationship forged between one of the senior leaders and a tower guard and later the visions of a poor monk. A watchman named Firouz agreed, after much consultation, agreed to toss down a rope ladder to allow an advance group access to the city, who would throw open the city gates to the Crusader army. Just as the Crusaders took Antioch, however, a relief force had arrived from Aleppo, allied with the ruler of Antioch, and greatly outnumbered the Crusaders. After months on end of the Crusaders spent at the gates, Antioch was depleted and now the Crusaders, inside the city-walls, found themselves under siege, the Syrian army encamped on the same pitch that they’d recently left. The second event that brought about the egress came when a priest and servant of one of the wealthy nobles approached Adémar and others, saying that he’d been told by Christ that the Holy Lance was buried beneath a church in Antioch and should it be retrieved; the army bearing the standard of the spear that the gladiator Longius pierced the side of Jesus with would be invincible. Some were a bit skeptical, being as there was already a Holy Lance, enshrined in Constantinople, but no matter as there is a Spear of Destiny today in Saint Peter’s and also one in the Hofburg of Vienna, part of the imperial regalia of the Hapsburgs (which was hidden and kept safe from Hitler, as it was believed to possess the same potent powers), and as the Crusaders had truck with relics, genuine and supposed, which were important monetary-instruments to secure re-supply from the Genoese and Venetians, they let the excavation proceed.
When the sought-after evidence was produced, it became at-large an amazing morale-booster for those invaders now become captives, and the Crusaders successfully fought their way out of the city. Once at liberty to continue their mission, however, the Crusaders did not march straightaway to Jerusalem.  Instead, rather, the squabbling continued as to who should govern Antioch and surrounding lands—no one wanted to cede their conquests to Emperor Alexios, but there were quite a few claimants, chief rivals being the noble that had turned the loyalties of the watchman and the patron of the monk that found the Holy Lance. None were budging and the arrival of re-enforcements by ship—now that the ports were under Crusader control, brought a pestilence to the army, taking many lives, including Bishop Adémar. Now the Princes were not only bereft of a consensus and direction, they also had to nominate a new leader and there was no placating anyone. The undermining was despicable and it looked as if the Crusade would never make it further than Antioch, with no one willing to relinquish his stake. A particularly shameful and needless massacre on the neighbouring town of Ma’arrat al-Numan, whose unspeakable carnage included acts of cannibalism and the eventual total destruction of the settlement—which was only targeted, expressly, to keep the Principality of Antioch under-supplied and at the mercy of the princes who were not vested with that land, really revolted many of the knights who began to march off without their petty leaders and the princes finally agreed that one among them would remain behind to govern the territory and they’d march on.