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Ascalon [August 22, 1153]

The Second Crusade had done nothing to halt the advance of Islam against the Latin states, and in the years immediately following the fiasco at Damascus the Moslem advance continued apace. The County of Edessa was no longer tenable by the Latins. The Countess Beatrice in 1158 finally recognized the futility of trying to maintain a hold upon the county and accepted the offer of the Byzantine Emperor, Manuel Conmenus, to buy up her rights there. The Principality of Antioch was also in trouble, for its prince, Raymond, had been killed in an ambush in 1149 and King Baldwin III of Jerusalem had taken charge of the Principality as regent for Raymond's widow, Constance . The boundaries of the Principality were, moreover, now painfully constricted, due to the military successes of Nur ad-Din in the upper and middle Orontes Valley. A further blow to the Latin states came in 1152, with the murder by a group of assassins of Count Raymond II of Tripoli. Baldwin of Jerusalem, accordingly, became regent of Raymond's state, too. After defeating an attempt by his mother, the dowager Queen Melisende, to partition the Latin Kingdom itself,4 Baldwin took the offensive against his Moslem enemies by launching a large-scale attack upon Ascalon.

William of Tyre provided perhaps the best account of the period.

Ascalon is one of the five cities of the Philistines. It is situated on the seashore and is shaped like a semicircle whose chord or diameter lies along the shore, while its circumference or arc lies on the land facing east.

The whole city lies in a kind of basin which is tilted down toward the sea. It is girded round with artificial mounds on which are walls, studded with towers. It is solidly fashioned and its stones are held together by cement which is as hard as stone. The walls are of a proper thickness and as high as is proportionally fitting. Even the outer fortifications which circle around the city are constructed with the same solidity and are diligently fortified. There are no springs within the circuit of the walls nor are there any nearby, but wells both outside and within the city supply an abundance of delicious drinking water. As a further precaution the citizens have built within the city several cisterns to collect rain water.

There are four gates in the circuit of the walls. These are most carefully fortified with high, solid towers. The first gate, which opens to the east, is called the Great Gate and is commonly known as the Jerusalem Gate, since it faces toward the Holy City. It is flanked by two very high towers which dominate the city and are its strength and protection. In front of this gate there are three or four lesser gates in the barbican by which one may come to the Great Gate through some winding passages.

The second gate faces westward and is called the Sea Gate because the citizens can pass through it to the sea. The third faces the south, toward the city of Gaza ... from which it takes its name. The fourth faces north and is called the Jaffa Gate, after the neighboring city which is located on the same coast.

Ascalon derives no advantage from being situated on the seacoast, for it offers no port or safe harbor for ships. It has a mere sandy beach and the violent winds make the sea around the city exceedingly choppy so that, unless the sea be calm, those who come there are very suspicious of it. The soil around the city is covered with sand and is unfit for cultivation, although it is suited for vines and fruit-bearing trees. There are, however, a few little valleys to the north of the city which, when fertilized and irrigated with well water, furnish some vegetables and fruits to the citizens.

The city has a large population and it is commonly said that even the smallest of its inhabitants, including the children, receive salaries from the Egyptian Caliph's treasury. The aforesaid lord and his princes take the very greatest care of Ascalon, for it is their opinion that if it were lost and were to come under our control there would be nothing to prevent our princes from invading Egypt freely and without difficulty and from occupying the Kingdom....

For fifty years and more after the Lord had delivered the other areas of the promised land to the Christian people Ascalon still resisted all of our attempts until at last they attempted the difficult and virtually impossible task of besieging it. For, in addition to its walls and barbicans, its towers and ramparts, the city was supplied with arms and provisions beyond all expectation and it had an experienced population accustomed to the use of arms. There were so many of them that from the beginning of the siege to its end the numbers of the besieged were double those of the besiegers.

The lord King and also the lord Patriarch, our predecessor the lord Peter, Archbishop of Tyre, and the other magnates of the realm, both princes and ecclesiastical prelates, together with citizens from each of the towns pitched their tents separately and besieged Ascalon by land. The lord Gerard of Sidon, one of the leading barons of the kingdom, commanded the fleet of fifteen beaked ships which were ready to sail, so that they could blockade the city by sea and both prevent those who wished to enter from getting in and also stop those who wished to leave from getting out.

Our men-first the knights, and then the infantry-made attacks on the town almost every day. The townsmen met them boldly and resisted them vigorously, fighting for their wives and children and, what was most important, for their freedom. Sometimes they came out ahead in these engagements, sometimes we did, as usually happens in this kind of affair, but our men more often got the better of the fight.

It is said that there was such security in the camps and such an abundance of all kinds of supplies that the people lived in their tents and pavilions just as they were accustomed to live in their houses in the walled cities.

The townsmen took particular care of the city at night and took the watches in turn. Even their magnates took turns keeping watch and marched around the walls through many sleepless nights. Along the circuit of the walls and towers there were glass lamps in the battlements. The lamps were made with glass windows to protect the flame which was fed with oil. Those who made the circuit of the walls used these lamps to provide themselves with a light as bright as day.

Our men in the camps were also given the watches at various times. In addition, the task of keeping guard never ceased, for we feared that the townsmen might make nocturnal attacks upon the camps or that the Egyptians who were hurrying to aid Ascalon might harm the army in a sudden and unforeseen attack. This fear was lessened, however, by the presence of scouts in many areas around Gaza who could warn our men swiftly of the enemy's arrival.

Thus the siege continued in the same fashion for two months. About Easter time the usual passage arrived, which brought in a crowd of pilgrims. A council was held and men were sent from the army to forbid the sailors and pilgrims, on royal authority, to return. They promised them pay and invited them all to participate in the siege and in the work which was so acceptable to God. They also brought ships, both large and small. Thus it happened that quickly, within a few days, because of a good wind, all the ships which had come over on the passage appeared before the city and a tremendous host of pilgrims, both knights and sergeants, joined our expedition. The army increased in size daily. In the camps, therefore, there was joy and the hope of winning a victory. Among the enemy, however, sorrow and worry grew greater and although they were frequently harassed, they lost confidence in their men and rarely emerged to fight. They sent couriers frequently to the Egyptian Caliph and begged him to send them reinforcements in time, for they intimated that otherwise they would soon give up. Through those of his princes who were charged with this work, the Caliph speedly had a fleet prepared and an army mustered. Large ships were loaded with weapons, provisions, and machines. The Caliph appointed commanders and supplied money, called for speed and censured delay.

Our men, meanwhile, had bought ships at a great price. When the masts had been removed, workmen were summoned to construct with all haste a very tall wooden tower. The tower was carefully protected against fire inside and out with wickerwork and hides, so that the men who were to attack the city in it might be kept safe. From the remaining wood from the ships, they built portable sheds, which they set in place for breaking down the walls. From this material, too, they constructed swine" to level the fortifications.

When all these matters had been properly arranged and when it had been decided which sector of the wall could most easily be attacked by our wooden tower, the ramparts of the chosen area were leveled by the aforementioned machines and the tower was brought up to the wall with much shouting. From the top of the tower the whole city could be seen and a hand to-hand fight was carried on with the men in the nearby towers, The citizens struggled and pressed us fiercely, shooting with their bows and balistas both from the walls and from the ramparts, but their labor was in vain, for they could not harm the men who were hidden in the tower and who were moving the machine. A group of the townsmen gathered on the section of the wall just opposite the tower. The bolder men of this group were ordered to try our strength by waging a continuous and long drawn out battle with the men in the tower. In addition, there were skirmishes and serious struggles at various other places along the wall, so that scarcely a day passed without some mortalities, not to mention the wounded, of whom there were great crowds on both sides…

After our men had persisted in the siege for five months on end, it became apparent that the enemy's strength was failing slightly and that our chances of taking the city had improved. Suddenly, however, an Egyptian fleet, sped on by favoring winds, appeared on the scene. When the people of Ascalon saw this they raised their hands skyward and lifted up their voices in a great shout, saying that we would now have to retreat or else we would shortly be overwhelmed….

The enemy fleet approached the city boldly, bringing the townsmen the consolation they had hoped for. There were said to be seventy galleys in the fleet, as well as other ships loaded to the gunwales with men, weapons, and provisions. The fleet was huge and it bad all been sent by the aforesaid Egyptian prince for the relief of the city. The townsmen revived and with help in sight they began anew to do battle with our forces, and they sought combat more frequently and more boldly with our men. Although the townspeople were rather cautious, as a result of their earlier experience with us, the new arrivals were fresh and greedy for glory and so desired to display their strength and boldness. Since they labored without caution, they suffered casualties frequently until they also had had a taste of our firmness and learned to attack more sparingly and to resist the force of our attacks more modestly....

Meanwhile the men in our expedition pursued the campaign they had begun and continued their constant attacks on the besieged city and on what is called the Great Gate. They renewed their assaults, which constituted a grave menace to the townsmen. Volleys of projectiles sapped the towers and walls and, within the city, the huge rocks weakened the foundations of the houses and also caused much bloodshed. The men who were in the tower and who were in charge of it harassed with their bows and arrows not only the citizens who were putting up resistance in the towers and on the walls, but also those who tried to move about through the city on urgent business. The citizens easily concluded that whatever they had to suffer from other quarters, even though it be difficult, was tolerable when compared to what they suffered from these attacks. The townsmen, therefore, took counsel together and their most experienced men advised that, whatever the danger might be and whatever the risk, they must place some dry wood and other suitable kindling which would increase the heat between the tower and the wall so that, when they stealthily set it afire, the tower would be incinerated. Otherwise there seemed to be no hope that they would be saved nor any faith that they could continue their resistance, so oppressed and mightily afflicted were they. Certain strong men, outstanding for their strength and spirit, were aroused by their admonitions. These men prepared to save the citizenry rather than themselves and they exposed themselves to the danger. They gathered wood at that part of the wall which was closest to the tower and pitched it out into the space between the tower and the wall. When they had piled up a very large stack of wood, one which seemed to be large enough to burn up the tower, they poured over it pitcb, oil, and other liquids which would feed flames and increase the beat of a fire. Then they set it ablaze. It was obvious that the Divine Mercy was with us, for, as the fire blazed up, strong winds immediately arose in the east and, with violent gusts, blew the whole force of the fire against the walls. The force of the wind directed the flames and the fire against the wall throughout the night and reduced it to ashes. In the morning, just about daybreak, the whole foundation of the wall between two of the towers gave way so that the sound of the crash aroused the whole army. All of the men in the army, excited by the sound of the wall's destruction, picked up their weapons and rushed to the place where God's will had been made manifest. They were ready to enter the city, but Bernard de Tremelay, the Master of the Knights Templars, and his brethren got there before many of the others and took over the breach in the walls. They allowed no one save their own men to enter. It was said that he barred others from entering so that his men, as the first to enter, would get the greater part of the spoils and the choicer booty, for up to the present time[i.e. the last quarter of the twelfth century] the custom among us-a custom which has the force of law-was that when cities were taken by storm, whatever a man seized for himself was possessed by him and his heirs in perpetuity. Everyone could have entered without distinction and taken the city, and there would have been sufficient loot for the victors, but when an evil stems from an evil root and wicked intentions it rarely produces a good result, for "Property gained in devious ways produces no good result. " Overcome by greed, then, they would not have any partners in the spoils and it was only just that they alone were exposed to mortal danger. About forty of them entered the city, but the others who were following them were not able to get in. The townspeople were seeking to preserve their own lives and were prepared without qualms, to go to any lengths to do so. Thus, when they saw the Templars they drew their swords and butchered them.

The townsmen reformed their lines and, like men reborn, they again picked up their weapons which they bad previously dropped like vanquished men. Now they all rushed together to the place where the wall had been breached. They filled in the gap in the wall by piling up beams of great size and huge quantities of timber, of which they had a large supply from their ships. They closed up the entrance to the city and speedily made that area impenetrable. After buttressing the towers which stood on either side of the area which bad been burned out and which they had deserted when it became impossible to withstand the force of the flames, the townsmen again took up the battle. Once more they assembled their men and, just as if they had met with no reverses, they challenged our men to battle. Our men in the tower, however, were aware that its substructure had been weakened and that the lower parts of its solid framework bad been damaged and they therefore fought with less vigor, since they could not depend upon the tower's strength. The enemy shamed us by dangling the bodies of our dead from ropes thrown over the battlements of the walls. They expressed the joy which bad arisen in their minds by jeering at our men with words and gestures.... Our men, on the other hand, were confused in mind and spirit. They were thrown into sadness and bitterness of heart, they despaired of victory and became halfhearted.

The lord King, meanwhile, assembled the princes . . . [but discovered that] there were differences of opinion among them and they gave varying estimates of the situation. . . . [Finally, after much bickering, agreement was reached and] all of our men took up their weapons. The horns sounded. The sound of the trumpets and the voices of the heralds roused the whole force to battle. They yearned to redress the injuries visited upon our dead; they gathered before the city with unusual eagerness and most heatedly challenged the enemy to battle. Our formations looked as if they had never suffered harm or lost men. They rushed upon the enemy as if they were determined to be wiped out and they attacked with such great vigor that the enemy companies were astounded. The increased force of our men was unbeatable. Their perseverance could not be overcome. The enemy attempted to resist and to overcome the onslaught, but they could not withstand the force of our attack or beat down our swords. That day's battle was fought by most unequal forces, but both our cavalry and infantry forces triumphed everywhere over the enemy and won the victor's palm on every front. There was a very great slaughter of the foe and our reverses three days earlier were more than paid back. There was not a family in the city which did not suffer some domestic sorrow and which was not troubled by worry over its members. The city was covered with distress and earlier perils seemed light when compared with the present dangers. . . .

It happened that, by public demand, certain of the leading citizens were sent as intermediaries to the king to ask for a truce for a time so that when we had exchanged the bodies of their dead in return for the corpses of our own dead, each side might hold suitable funeral rites and pay its highest honors to the dead according to their respective customs. The conditions which were proposed pleased our men and, when they had received the bodies of our dead, they buried them with solemn funeral rites.

After the people of Ascalon had witnessed the slaughter of their men and had felt the heavy hand which the Lord had laid upon them, their sorrow and anxiety of spirit was renewed and their spirits were flooded with a vast grief. So that there would be nothing lacking to complete their sadness, it happened on that same day that, as forty of their strong men were carrying a beam of immense size to the place where it was needed, a huge rock was catapulted from our throwing machine and landed by chance on the beam. The men who were bearing the weight of the beam sank to the ground beneath it and were crushed.

The city fathers who were still alive, bowed down by the weight of their misfortunes, assembled the people, who gathered amid weeping and lamentation. All were there, including mothers who held their nursing babes at the breast and old men breathing their last gasp. With the common consent of all, some prudent and eloquent men addressed the whole population in this fashion: "Men of Ascalon, you who live within these gates! You know - none better - what perils and difficulties we have experienced with these cruel and determined Christians during the past four years. . . . The city fathers have, therefore, decided that, if you approve, we shall try to escape at this time from our sufferings. We shall send envoys in the name of the whole people to the powerful King who is besieging us and we shall try to secure definite peace terms to enable us to leave freely with our wives and children, servants and handmaids, and all our household goods in return for the surrender to the King - we say it with groans - of our city, so that we may put an end to such misfortunes."

The speech found favor in the eyes of all and all together they let out a great shout that matters should be thus arranged. Prudent and discreet men of venerable age were elected by all the people to carry the proposals they had decided upon to the King and his princes. The envoys passed through the gate, after arranging for a truce and a safe conduct, and they approached the lord King.

After all the princes had assembled, as the envoys asked, they stated their proposal and explained systematically its details. The King ordered the envoys to leave for a while and took counsel with the princes. He diligently sought each man's opinion. The princes wept for joy and lifted up their eyes and hands to the sky, giving abundant thanks to the Creator because he had deigned to grant such abundant treasure to unworthy men. They recalled the envoys and made their common answer: the conditions would be accepted if the whole city were evacuated within the next three days. The envoys agreed, but demanded that oaths be sworn to them to make the agreement more firm. An oath was solemnly sworn....

After the envoys had first given the hostages who the King named, the envoys joyfully returned to their people. They took back with them certain of our knights who, as a sign of victory, placed the King's banner upon the city's tallest towers. Our army waited with great anticipation. When the royal banner was spotted on the highest towers the people broke into shouts of exaltation....

Although the people of Ascalon, according to the conditions of the treaty, had three full days, they were so terrified by the presence of our men that within two days they had packed their baggage and bad left the city with their wives and children, servants and handmaids, and with all their housebold goods loaded for the journey. The lord King gave them guides, according to the provisions of the treaty, as far as al-Arish, an ancient city in the desert. There they sent them away in peace.

The lord King and the lord Patriarch, together with the princes of the Kingdom, the prelates of the church, and all of the clergy and people, with the Lord's cross leading the way, entered the city singing hymns and spiritual songs. . . . The aforesaid city was taken in the year of the Lord's incarnation 1154. - William of Tyre, Historia rerum in partibus transmarinis gestarum, XVII, 22-25, 27-30, Patrologia Latina 201, 696-708

After Jerusalem was captured in the First Crusade, Egyptian Muslims under al-Afdal attempted its recovery. The Egyptians had the larger army. The hastily assembled Christian army captured the enemy supply train and next day attacked their camp near Ascalon at dawn. Godfrey de Bouillon blocked a flank attack. Robert Curthose and Tancred led the centre charge to win the battle. The Christians captured much wealth, including gold and precious stones. Ascalon settled the establishment of the kingdom of Jerusalem.
- The Routledge Companion to Medieval Warfare






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