Today in Middle Eastern history: the Siege of Nicaea ends (1097)
The First Crusade wins its first major victory.
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Before the armies of the First Crusade nearly starved themselves to death at Antioch, twice, before they turned to cannibalism to keep from starving at Maʿarrat al-Nuʿman, and before (in fairness) they captured Jerusalem, their campaign began with a victory over the Sultanate of Rum and the capture of its capital city, Nicaea (the modern Turkish town of İznik). The siege of Nicaea lasted a bit over a month, from May 14 to June 19, 1097, and got the enterprise off to a successful start while also helping to establish many of the features (infighting, backbiting, poor organization, etc.) that would come to define much of the Crusading project.
Before we discuss the siege itself some background is in order. After Pope Urban II (d. 1099) issued his call for a Crusade to aid the Byzantine Empire against the Seljuk Turks (and to capture Jerusalem for Christendom) at the Council of Clermont in 1095, campaign fever swept across much of Europe. A number of lords across the Latin-speaking western parts of Europe heard and answered Urban’s call, but they needed time to assemble their armies and make preparations to depart.
An ad hoc army, or maybe “mob” would be a better term, formed much more quickly thanks to the preaching of a French priest now known as “Peter the Hermit” because calling him “Peter the Guy Who Got a Whole Bunch of People Killed for No Discernible Reason” would be too cumbersome. This ragtag collection of folks descended on Constantinople in early August 1096 and were shuttled over to Anatolia and massacred by the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum in fairly short order. I mention this “People’s Crusade,” which is often considered the first act of the First Crusade, both to contrast it with the more seasoned army that followed and because the Seljuks’ experience with it will cause the Sultan of Rum, Kilij Arslan (d. 1107), to make a monumentally stupid decision a bit later in this story.
The lords who responded to Urban’s call and eventually followed the “People’s Crusade” (this is sometimes called the “Princes’ Crusade” though most/all of these guys were not really “princes”) can broadly be grouped into four contingents: the lords from southern Francia, led by Raymond IV of Toulouse (d. 1105) and papal legate Adhemar of Le Puy; the lords from eastern Francia, led by Godfrey of Bouillon (d. 1100); the lords of northern Francia, led by Robert II of Normandy (d. 1134), Robert II of Flanders (d. 1111), Stephen II of Blois (d. 1102), and a bunch of other nobles; and the Normans of Italy, led by Bohemond of Taranto (d. 1111). It’s estimated that combined these men led a force of around 70,000 to 80,000 fighters, an impressive army that in all likelihood was not what Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (d. 1118) had in mind when he first appealed for help from the Latin West. He was probably hoping for mercenaries, or at least contingents of knights who could be added to his own armies. These large fully formed armies under their own commanders were probably unexpected and represented a potential threat to the empire even as they were supposedly coming to save it.
Alexios’ plan for minimizing that threat was to receive each of the Crusader contingents individually, as soon as they arrived at Constantinople, and try to ensure that they didn’t coalesce into a single army until after they’d all be transported into Seljuk territory. One by one his plan to was to awe these individual lords with the splendor of the Byzantine court and ply them with gifts so they wouldn’t get any funny ideas about turning their focus from the Turks to the Romans. The Crusaders seem to have expected that Alexios would assume overall command of the expedition, which was after all being conducted in his name, but instead he provided them with supplies and transportation into Anatolia while insisting that they swear oaths of allegiance to him. There would later be some disagreement about exactly what these oaths entailed.
Hugh of Vermandois (d. 1101), brother of French King Philip I, was first to arrive so his oath set the template for the rest of the lords. Alexios had him promise to turn any territory the Crusaders conquered over to the Byzantine Empire. In theory this would have included Jerusalem, the Crusaders’ ultimate goal, but it’s unlikely Alexios really believed the Crusaders would get that far and he probably didn’t care. His concern was with clawing back as much of Anatolia as possible from the Seljuks and trying to rebuild his shattered empire. Jerusalem was too far away and, religious significance aside, too unimportant to be of much concern.
Godfrey came next and, having apparently heard about the oath from Hugh, initially resisted his invitation to meet with the emperor. Alexios switched from carrot to stick, informing Godfrey that the empire would neither feed his army nor transport it across to Anatolia until he’d taken the oath. Godfrey eventually ordered his men to attack the city but they were easily driven off by the Byzantines, at which point he finally took the oath. Only Raymond, the most senior of the Crusader lords, avoided taking the oath and simply promised not to take any action that would harm the empire. A couple of other Crusader lords, including Bohemond’s nephew Tancred, managed to get across to Anatolia without taking the oath but eventually were tracked down by Alexios and had no choice but to accede to his demand.
As I say there seems to have been some divergence in terms of the nature of this oath. For Alexios it was a simple loyalty pledge, but the Crusaders seem to have regarded it as a feudal vassalage arrangement under which Alexios was obliged to support their campaign in return for said loyalty. It was Alexios’ failure to fulfill his perceived obligations at Antioch that prompted the Crusaders to break the pledge to return that city, and the rest of their conquests, to the empire.
Ironically it was Bohemond whose visit with Alexios took the longest and may have involved the most intense political negotiations. I say “ironically” because, of all the Crusader lords, Bohemond was the only one who had fought against the Byzantines and thus the one whose relationship with Alexios should have been the most fraught. It’s also ironic because it was Bohemond who later refused to turn Antioch over to the Byzantines and thus broke the relationship between the Crusade and the empire.
However, Bohemond had some things going for him that the other Crusader lords didn’t, like an army that had experience fighting the Seljuks and an ability to speak Greek. He also had ambition. Contemporary scholarship tends to discount the notion that western nobles went on Crusade to get rich—usually it cost far more to outfit and deploy an army than one could possibly expect to gain on campaign. But this first time around it’s possible at least some of the Crusader leaders had visions of wealth in their heads. And if anyone would have been looking to get richer on this quest it would have been Bohemond, whose holdings weren’t all that impressive. It seems that he and Alexios discussed making him the emperor’s Man on Crusade and he may have been promised some sort of future political appointment to govern whatever territories the Crusaders conquered on behalf of the empire. Alexios also seems to have showered more gifts on Bohemond than on the other Crusader lords, which lends credence to the notion that the two men were hatching some sort of side project. None of that, of course, amounted to anything after Antioch.
As the various Crusader forces were ferried into Anatolia they moved on to besiege the city that was Alexios’ first and primary target: Nicaea, which was both the capital of the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum and located close enough to Constantinople to represent a genuine threat to the Byzantine capital. The Seljuks had taken the city from the Byzantines in 1081 and Alexios wanted it back. The Byzantine ruler didn’t join the siege, but rather camped nearby at Pelekanon and managed the supply train ferrying food and other goods to the besiegers.
As the Crusaders were advancing on the city its ruler, Kilij Arslan, was nowhere to be found, and here’s where his experience with the “People’s Crusade” led him astray. Kilij Arslan had crushed that expedition so easily that he never imagined that a genuine threat would follow behind it and so he took the opportunity to head off to the east to campaign against the Turkic Danishmend principality in northeastern Anatolia. Needless to say, when Nicaea’s garrison saw an army of tens of thousands of seasoned, well-armed fighting men approaching the city they sent urgent messages east imploring the sultan to turn around and come back. Which he did, sometime around May 16, only for the Crusaders to learn of his approach and drive his army off after heavy fighting. For all the challenges later Crusader armies would have, it seems initially that the Seljuks and other Islamic principalities in the region were caught off guard by their arrival and their fighting methods and that may help to explain the Crusaders’ initial string of victories.
The garrison of Nicaea was now on its own, but despite their best efforts it took besiegers another month to finish the job. This is largely because they were unable to completely invest the city. The Crusaders laid siege to Nicaea’s land walls, but the city was situated on the eastern shore of Lake Ascanius (now Lake İznik) and the Crusaders had no boats. So the Turks were able to continue receiving supplies via the lake and the effort to starve the garrison out was futile. Neither were the Crusaders able to make any progress in their assaults on the land walls. They were stalemated, with the advantage to the garrison.
Ultimately it was the Byzantines who brought the siege to an end—one that didn’t really go the way the Crusaders would have preferred. Alexios ordered one of his generals, Manuel Boutoumites, to lead a convoy of naval vessels overland, mounted on carts, to Lake Ascanius. A small contingent of Byzantine soldiers, around 2000 of them, also participated under the command of another senior general, Tatikios. Once the Byzantine fleet arrived, on June 17, they were able to complete the encirclement of the city. Good news for the Crusaders, yes? Well, not exactly. Boutoumites was under orders from Alexios to make contact with Nicaea’s garrison and negotiate the city’s surrender—to the empire, not the Crusaders.
Details of Boutoumites’ negotiations aren’t forthcoming as far as I know, but I think we can assume he offered the defenders a chance to leave with their lives and at least some of their possessions, which was a better fate than they would’ve faced had the Crusaders taken the city by force. In an attempt to quell Crusader suspicions, on June 19 Tatikios and his men participated in an assault against the city, while along another part of Nicaea’s walls Boutoumites and his men pantomimed an assault that seems to have been intended to mask the garrison’s prearranged surrender. Boutoumites immediately proclaimed himself duke of the city and used that new authority to bar the Crusaders from entry (at least in large groups that could have posed a threat) and to kick the Turks out. He rewarded the Crusaders for their service, but probably not as richly as what they would’ve gotten in a full fledged sack of the city, and as it became clear what had really happened it seems like the Crusaders were left with a fairly sour taste in their mouths.
Feeling perhaps less than fully satisfied, the Crusaders nevertheless prepared to continue on their way, and it was at this point that Alexios made it fully clear that he would not be going with them. He had a number of reasons for doing so, many of them understandable. For one thing, the Byzantine western flank wasn’t altogether locked down following the arrival of the Turkic Cumans to the Black Sea region a couple of decades earlier. Going on an extended eastern campaign could leave the empire vulnerable from the other direction. An extended absence from the imperial capital also brought internal risks at court. Additionally, Alexios had visions of using the Crusader campaign as cover for retaking the western coast of Anatolia, a project that was off to a great start after Nicaea, but he couldn’t very well do that and lead the Crusaders to Jerusalem. Plus I can’t imagine he was thrilled by the prospect of going on campaign surrounded by tens of thousands of not hostile but also not quite friendly western knights.
The emperor did dispatch Tatikios to accompany the Crusaders with a small imperial contingent. He was intended to serve as a guide and as the emperor’s representative, so that when the army captured a new city it could immediately turn its conquest over to him. Perhaps his most important function would be to ride at the head of the Crusader column, to minimize the chances of any unfortunate interactions between the westerners and the locals. Alexios’ main hope for the remainder of the campaign was probably bringing the city of Antioch back under imperial control. Things, uh, didn’t quite go as he wanted.
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