It is very difficult to estimate the military capacity of the Sultanate of Rhüm in this period. The Turks had never been numerous – Cahen suggests that only about 20,000–30,000 warriors entered the Caliphate at the time of its conquest. As steppe people like the Huns, Avars and Magyars before them, they relied on mobility and a training in horsemanship from birth. It has been suggested of earlier nomad peoples who entered Europe that to maintain their speed of assault each rider needed a string often horses. Therefore, nomad forces needed huge open ranges to graze their ponies. The Hungarian plain, where the Huns, Avars and Magyars settled, could only support 150,000 horses, an army of 15,000 men. We simply do not know if the Turks used such vast strings of spare horses but is likely that they did not. Much of the once rich agriculture of Asia Minor had been destroyed by the Turkish invasions, but there was still a large native population with settled cultivation, while a lot of the land was wild and mountainous. It certainly could not support horses on anything like the scale of the Syrian and Mesopotamian plains where later the Mongols had difficulty in maintaining their huge horse trains. It is only possible to guess, but it seems unlikely that Kilij Arslan could find as many as 10,000 Turks, even with the allies he brought to the field of Dorylaeum. It was not the vast numbers of the Turks that made them dangerous, but their sheer courage, ruthlessness and daring tactics which the crusaders themselves recognised. At the siege of Nicaea, Fulcher testifies to their savagery while the Anonymous author of the Gesta is lavish in his praise of their valour46. Their battle tactics are very well attested as we have noted – their reliance on mobility, seeking to surround their enemies and bombard them with arrows, to draw them into ambush by feigned retreat, breaking up their cohesion before venturing to take them on at close range. A passage from Nicephorous Bryennius describing what he believed happened at Manzikert nicely illustrates Turkish methods:
Taranges divided the Turkish army into many groups and devised ambushes and traps and ordered his men to surround the Byzantines and to discharge a rain of arrows against them from all sides. The Byzantines, seeing their horses struck by arrows, were forced to pursue the Turks. They followed the Turks who pretended to flee. But they suffered heavily when they fell into ambushes and traps. The emperor, having resolved to accept a general engagement, slowly advanced hoping to find an army of Turks, attack it and decide the battle, but the Turks scattered. But wheeling, with great strength and shouting, they attacked the Byzantines and routed their right wing. Immediately the rear guard withdrew. The Turks encircled the emperor and shot from all directions. They prevented the left wing from coming to the rescue for they got in its rear and forced it to flee. The emperor, completely deserted and cut off from aid, drew his sword against the enemy and killed many and compelled them to flee. But encircled by the mass of the enemy, he was struck in the hand and recognised and surrounded on all sides. His horse was hit by an arrow, slipped and fell, and threw down his rider. And in this manner the Byzantine emperor was made prisoner.
This is a description that the crusaders would soon come to recognise. The Anonymous describes their surprise and dismay as the Turks, making an enormous and frightening noise, surrounded the army of Bohemond and poured arrows into it. Raymond of Aguilers commented of a later conflict: ‘The Turks have this custom in fighting, even though they are few in number, they always strive to encircle their enemy.’ Albert of Aachen emphasises, in an attack at Nicaea, that 10,000 mounted bowmen appeared and that just such men surrounded and broke into Bohemond’s camp at Dorylaeum. Turks formed an important element in all the armies which the crusaders faced, and indeed in the Byzantine army, but in Anatolia the crusaders were confronted by forces which were entirely Turkish, and they showed themselves keenly aware of the difference between them and other armies. Raymond of Aguilers speaks of Turks and Arabs, and Albert refers to Turks and Saracens, present in the army of Duqaq of Damascus, but both writers speak only of Turks in Asia Minor. The composite armies of the Sultan and his emirs were quite different from the forces of the Anatolian Turks who were the crusaders first enemy. In Anatolia, the Turks remained largely nomadic and their Seljuk Sultanate had not yet developed, as far as we can tell from inadequate sources, the kind of central administration which could control a composite army. This was the wild frontier of Islam and what confronted the crusaders was a brave, dangerous but not very numerous enemy. However, there must have been some diversity in the Turkish army, for Nicaea was strongly garrisoned and resisted bitterly. It is unlikely that these were simple mounted nomads – presumably some more specialised forces had been recruited to defend this important but exposed city, which the Byzantines had attacked more than once. In this connection it is perhaps important that Nicaea was the only city of Asia Minor to hold out. Iconium was not defended; at Hereclea the Turks tried to ambush the crusaders as they approached, then fled.51 Defence of the cities of Asia Minor was no easy matter for the Turks because these were still populated by Christians: the Turks had not captured them, they had been admitted, as garrisons, by feuding Byzantine lords or after a long period of isolation before a Turkish dominion outside their walls. The countryside was in the hands of the nomads but the cities were different. As soon as the crusaders began to win victories, the peoples of the cities along their route began to eject their Turkish garrisons. The Anonymous says that after his defeat at Dorylaeum Kilij Arslan had to pretend to have been victorious in order to gain admission. The attitude of the native population was to have an important influence on the crusade, as we shall see. It was certainly to have a great influence on the siege of Nicaea for, at the very moment that the army attacked it, Kilij Arslan was preoccupied with far-off Melitene.
In late October 1096 Kilij Arslan had totally destroyed the armies of the People’s Crusade. Leaving his family at Nicaea he set out to intervene in Melitene. This city was a vital communications centre on the roads from Anatolia to Mesopotamia and Iran. It was held by Gabriel, a former officer of Philaretus, who claimed the Byzantine title of Curopalate yet nominally held it of the Caliph. It was important for Kilij Arslan that Melitene should not be in the power of the Sultan. In 1097 the divisions of Syria and the rivalries with Baghdad, where the Seljuk Sultan Berkyaruk (1094–1105) was preoccupied with events in the East, offered a splendid opportunity to intervene, but he almost immediately found himself in competition with the Danishmends who also wished to control Melitene. Conflict was avoided for the moment because news reached the Sultan of the new threat to Nicaea, and he hastened westwards. It was perhaps easier for these nomads to move quickly than a conventional army, but this journey of not much less than 1,000 kilometres must have been very tiring. The crusaders reached Nicaea on 6 May 1097 but with only a part of their army. Bohemond and the Normans took up a position along the north wall of the city, with Robert of Flanders and Godfrey to the east. The south gate was left open for Raymond of Toulouse, whose delay at Constantinople we have noted: the North French had not yet arrived at Constantinople. The piecemeal nature of the siege underlines the lack of unity in the crusader force; it was a huge host made up of a number of major armies grouped around important leaders, but there was no overall command. In fact, they approached Nicaea from the north and simply fanned out in order of arrival, probably arranging details by consultations amongst the princes. Kilij Arslan arrived in the general area of his capital shortly before 16 May when his attack precipitated a major battle.
We have two versions of the nature of this attack. According to Raymond of Aguilers it was two-pronged: one force fell upon the Germans on the east side of the city, while the other attempted to enter the city through the vacant south gate, with the intention of sallying out against Godfrey while he was distracted. According to this version, the Provençals happened to come before the south gate and were pitching camp when the enemy arrived; they fought off the southern attack, thereby enabling the Germans to fight off the other force. This account gives the South French a beau rôle indeed, and one wonders just how Raymond could have known of the intentions of the enemy. The Anonymous makes little of the affair, saying that Count Raymond fought off an initial attack which was renewed but defeated ‘by our men’. Albert says that, alerted by the capture of an enemy messenger trying to reach the garrison, the leaders asked Count Raymond to hasten his march, but agrees with Raymond of Aguilers that the Provençals were attacked just as they were making camp. He says that 10,000 enemy archers fell upon the southerners and that the Germans, supported by the Normans of Bohemond, then attacked the enemy who were put to flight. This version is much the more convincing. The enemy attack clearly came from the south; the Anonymous explicitly states that the enemy came down from the hills, and Albert confirms this. From this location the Turks would have had a magnificent view of Nicaea and the basin which surrounds it and so could not have missed the slow progress of the Provençal forces round the city to the south gate. Clearly the Turks chose to attack when they were most vulnerable, as they prepared their camp after the forced march to the city. Kilij Arslan hoped to brush them aside, and at the least reinforce Nicaea, at the most inflict a discouraging defeat on the westerners. The attempt failed because the Provençals put up a stiff resistance (and to Raymond of Aguilers they must have seemed to have been at the very centre of the affair), drawing the Turks into a close quarter battle and so giving time for Godfrey’s attack from the east on Kilij Arslan’s right flank. The sheer numbers of the crusader army were decisive in the narrow area between the wooded hills and the city wall because the Turks had little room for manoeuvre. The Anonymous, who gives the impression of a skirmish, was probably with the Normans to the north of the city. Albert makes it clear that it was a savage and close-fought battle with heavy losses on both sides. There was no overall command on the crusader side but, nonetheless, we can see generalship of a very high order at work. The count of Toulouse held his troops together at a difficult moment as they were making camp, while Godfrey seems to have rallied his forces to their relief quickly. These are not small achievements, especially when one considers the looseness of command and the uneven quality of the western forces. For many this must have been the first experience of battle, and for others their first of anything on a large scale. It was essentially the mass of the crusader army operating in a confined space which frustrated Turkish tactics and drove off Kilij Arslan, but in the circumstances, the cohesion of what must have been pretty green troops in the individual armies within the host was remarkable. Anna Comnena is quite right to speak of the Franks winning a ‘glorious victory’. Afterwards, the crusaders stuck the heads of the enemy dead on lances, and sent others to Alexius as tokens of victory. They were now free to besiege the city as Kilij Arslan fell back to rally more troops.
Most of the accounts we have of the siege of Nicaea are quite brief. The Anonymous says that when the crusaders first arrived, and even before the coming of the Provençals, they built siege machinery including towers and undermined the wall, but this was interrupted by the Turkish attack. After the defeat of Kilij Arslan he tells us that the count of Toulouse and Adhémar of Le Puy set troops protected by crossbowmen and archers to undermine a tower, which duly fell, but so late in the evening that the enemy were able to refortify the gap. Thereafter, it was the boats sent by the emperor to blockade the Ascanian lake at the west end of the city which forced a surrender. Raymond of Aguilers mentions fruitless efforts to storm the walls and the building of unspecified machines. He reports the same story of the undermining of a tower by the Provençals which came to nothing and stresses the importance of the boats which brought the siege to an end. This is very much the story told by Anna Comnena who says that the Count of Toulouse built a wooden tower on whose upper stories men engaged the enemy, while others below undermined what she calls the Gonatas tower, but in her account this simply has no outcome. She praises her father for providing the Franks with designs for machines and the boats on the lake, adding much detail on the negotiations for the surrender of the city. Because so many latin sources based themselves on Raymond and the Anonymous they tend to add little. Baudry of Dol gives a few names of participants and stresses losses in the army. The Historia Belli Sacri says, after the story of the Provençal tower, that all the leaders made machines and Robert the Monk mentions the building of wooden towers. Fulcher of Chartres gives a generally vague account but includes a list of the many siege machines used. The reasons for this brevity are clear; Raymond highlights the doings of his Count, while the Anonymous’s master Bohemond does not seem to have had a lot to do. But there are hints of a much more intensive siege and the account of Albert of Aachen makes it clear that the Franks went to great lengths to assault Nicaea with elaborate machinery.
Albert does not mention the early assaults on the city before Kilij Arslan’s attack and his dating is obscure. He says that it was only after seven weeks of siege that the leaders set in train the construction of catapults and assault equipment. The primary element in the assaults seems to have been the penthouse, a wooden structure with an armoured sloping roof within which attackers could undermine the wall in relative safety. Albert mentions an assault in which Baldwin Calderin and Baldwin of Ghent were killed, and another in which the count of Forez and a knight called Guy died. Then, on a day during which the walls were under attack by crusader machines, two men in the force of Godfrey, Henry of Esch and Count Herman, built a penthouse which they called ‘the Fox’, which was brought up against the wall with enormous labour, but it collapsed killing all twenty knights within it, though not the originators of the project who refrained from trusting their lives to the device. Such machinery required careful design and construction skills which were evidently rare, as we have noted from Ordericus’s story about Robert of Bellême. The next major assault which Albert mentions was launched by the count of Toulouse whose forces, covered by the fire of mangonels, crossed the ditch protected by a testudo, the same word as used by Raymond of Aguilers, and assaulted a tower. However, the enemy built a wall of stone within the tower, frustrating the attack which had to be broken off. Albert goes on to tell how boats were brought up to blockade the Ascanian lake and says that Raymond then renewed the attack. This time the Turks burned the equipment which brought the wooden penthouse and other instruments forward, and then repaired the wall which had been breached during the night. When the attack was resumed the next day only a single Norman knight could be found to press it; he was killed and his body dragged up the walls by the defenders and left hanging there. This account broadly corroborates that of Raymond of Aguilers and makes it clear that Raymond’s testudo was a penthouse. All these assaults were causing heavy losses which worried the leaders, especially as the catapults were having no effect on the walls. Then a Lombard engineer offered to build a machine if the leaders would finance him; they agreed to pay him fifteen pounds in the money of Chartres (where in the twelfth century thirty would buy a fine house) from their common fund. This first mention of the common fund points to the development of rudimentary organisation to sustain the siege. In fact, a properly built penthouse was constructed and pushed across the ditch up to the wall which was undermined and propped with wood. These props were fired and in the middle of the night the upper part of the tower fell. This frightened Kilij Arslan’s wife who attempted to flee across the lake but was captured, while the garrison of Nicaea decided to surrender. Albert’s account of the siege fills out considerably the rather schematic view given by the other sources, though it is chronologically confused and it is likely that he was attempting to conflate the stories of several individuals. What it does not make clear is the importance of the boats provided by Alexius, which is very evident in the other schematic accounts. This new attack from the lake, coming shortly after the arrival of the North French on 14 June, effectively doubled the length of the walls which needed to be defended as well as completely isolating the garrison, and was probably the decisive factor in precipitating their surrender on 19 June after another Frankish assault, under cover of which the Byzantines implemented the secretly-agreed surrender arrangements.
The army had a considerable knowledge of siegecraft and we can discount Anna’s view that Alexius invented machines for them. They prosecuted the siege vigorously and suffered heavy casualties which worried the leaders; of the thirteen dead named by Anselm of Ribemont, two died in battle and three of disease during the siege of Nicaea. Albert’s mention of a common fund indicates that, although the armies in the host were grouped round several leaders, the need to cooperate was forcing organisation. The army must have relied on the Byzantines for supplies – wood, clamps, nails etc. and certainly it was Alexius who provided the boats which closed the Ascanian lake. The major problem of a besieging army, especially one this size, was food, and both Albert and Fulcher stress that Alexius sent this in good quantities, although the Anonymous remarks that some of the poor died of starvation. By and large the alliance had worked well in a military sense. The surrender of the city came as a surprise to the crusaders who must have sensed the intrigue from which they were excluded, but the emperor seems to have been reasonably generous in distributing the spoils of war to the westerners. Stephen of Blois tells us that Alexius sent food for the poor during the siege and agrees with Anselm of Ribemont and the Anonymous that he was subsequently very generous to the knights and princes. Only Raymond of Aguilers complains about this and his general attitude is deeply hostile to Alexius. The freeing of the Turkish garrison, however, deeply disturbed the Anonymous who feared they would later attack the Franks. The military value of the Byzantine alliance had been clearly demonstrated, and they prepared to march into Anatolia with an imperial contingent commanded by the Turk Tatikios.
However, this was not the only military assistance which they received. Anna reports that Alexius warned them of Turkish tactics, but he seems to have provided them with other information and ideas. During the siege Alexius had observed events from nearby Pelekanum and after the fall of the city he met most of the leaders, presumably to discuss strategy. It may well be that this followed up earlier discussions, of which we hear nothing. According to the Historia Belli Sacri he suggested that they send an embassy to Egypt seeking the friendship of the ‘Emir of Babylon’. It was as a consequence of this that an Egyptian embassy came to the siege of Antioch, happily at the very moment when they inflicted a heavy defeat upon the Turks at the Lake Battle in early February 1098. The encouraging noises made by these envoys probably exercised a considerable influence over the leaders in the summer and autumn of 1098. It was a skillful piece of diplomacy, reflecting Alexius’s intimate knowledge of the politics of the Middle East. The decay of the Abassid Caliphate in the later ninth century and the ensuing disorders enabled the dissident Shi’ites to establish a Caliphate of their own in Tunisia in 909, and from there they grasped Cairo in 969 where they set up the Fatimid Caliphate. The Fatimids sought to expand their control over Syria, but the restoration of Abassid power under the implacably Sunnite Seljuks after 1055 threatened these new conquests. In 1060 serious internal conflict broke out in Egypt amongst the diverse elements of the army which, on the pattern of the other Islamic powers, was a composite of peoples, in this case Berbers, Sudanese, Africans and Turks. By 1077 an Armenian general, Badr al-Jamali, was able to restore order but revolt and Seljuk intervention meant that Egyptian power in Syria and Palestine was confined to the cities of the coast, and by 1079 Malik Shah’s brother Tutush held Damascus and was overlord of Jerusalem, held of him by Artuk. The fragmentation of the Seljuk Sultanate after the death of Malik Shah in 1095, offered the Egyptians an opportunity to recover their lost dominion in Syria and Palestine. Badr al-Jamali’s son al-Afdal saw the crusade as offering golden opportunities. The proliferation of tribes and powers in the Middle East meant that the precise nature of the crusaders’ interests were not perceived by the Islamic powers – they were simply another factor in a complex game, to be used, allied with as self-interest dictated. Alexius shared this mentality, and the crusader leaders were eager to capitalise.
In their discussions with Alexius at Pelekanum and before, the princes must have discussed the coming journey. Stephen of Blois did not join the other leaders at Pelekanum but he must have known of their discussions and in a letter to his wife written from Nicaea he refers to Antioch as their next target. The crusaders must have been aware from pilgrim days of the importance of this city which lay firmly across the road to Jerusalem. But they did not intend to conquer all the cities between Nicaea and Jerusalem, and Stephen’s letter holds out the possibility that, Antioch might not resist. This surely reflects knowledge of the situation in Syria. The death of Malik Shah in 1092 precipitated a bitter succession conflict between his brother Tutush, who held Syria, and his son Berkyaruk. When Tutush was killed in 1095 Syria was divided between his sons, Ridwan of Aleppo and Duqaq of Damascus. Malik Shah’s governor of Antioch, Yaghisiyan, was able to achieve much independence. For Alexius the reconquest of Antioch was an alluring possibility. Sulayman of Nicaea had attempted to seize the lands of Philaretus in 1086 and had died at the hands of Malik Shah for his pains. The old duchy of Antioch stood between Anatolia and Syria and within striking distance of the great route centre at Melitene. It offered considerable opportunities to any power of Asia Minor. To the crusaders it was important to have it in friendly hands as they entered Syria and Palestine, the real object of their quest. Between the Byzantines and the crusaders there was a considerable community of interest.
But the crusaders appear to have been aware of other factors in the political situation of the lands they were entering. In the Taurus area there were a number of independent Armenian princes amongst whom Thoros of Edessa was very important. Oschin, who claimed to be descended from the Arsacids, held the castle of Lampron and was loyal to Alexius whom he served as governor. He seized part of Adana as the crusaders approached. Constantine, son of Roupen, claimed to be a descendant of the old Armenian ruling family of the Bagratids and held the fortress of Partzapert near Sis. Tatoul was at Marasch, Kogh Vasil at Raban and Gabriel at Melitene. These princelings throve in the complex politics of the area, playing off the Turkish emirs of neighbouring cities. It is clear that the crusader leaders had heard about them, for Matthew of Edessa says that they wrote letters to Thoros and to Constantine son of Roupen. It is probable that such matters were discussed with Alexius who perhaps suggested a course of action to take advantage of the situation. The Armenians had a tradition of hostility to Byzantium, as we have noted. Constantine, son of Roupen, was particularly hostile but on the other hand Oschin was friendly. Furthermore, both Gabriel of Melitene and Thoros of Edessa claimed to be imperial officials – Curopalatoi; the latter, we are told, was ‘expecting to hand it [Edessa] over to the emperor’. It is possible that the Armenians themselves made contact with the Franks but were this the case Alexius would surely have wanted to control subsequent events. When Tancred entered Cilicia and appeared before Tarsus in late September 1097 he was met by an Armenian, who was already known to him and had resided with him, who offered to attempt to negotiate the surrender of the city. At Nicaea Baldwin of Boulogne, Godfrey de Bouillon’s younger brother, had made the acquaintance of Bagrat, brother of Kogh Vasil of Raban. Baldwin also entered Cilicia, but on Bagrat’s urging left for Ravendan and the great adventure which eventually made him lord of Edessa. The hope of support from such eastern Christians was probably fed by the uprisings in the cities of Anatolia after the crusader victory at Dorylaeum, and it seems likely that it had a profound effect on crusader policy. What we have to see at this stage is that the crusaders probably knew a great deal about the lands into which they were venturing. Norman and Frankish mercenaries had long served in the Byzantine armies. Roussel of Bailleul, Crispin and, before them, Hervey had held land in the Armenian theme. William of Apulia wrote his Gesta Roberti Wiscardi as the crusaders left for the East and could give a good account of the battle of Manzikert, presumably from Norman veterans of the Byzantine service. So Alexius had no monopoly of information, but for the moment he and the Frankish leaders enjoyed a community of interest, but it was not one to which he was willing to contribute more than a few troops under Tatikios, charged with guiding the crusaders and taking over any cities they might capture. Anna’s caveat, ‘if indeed God granted them that favour’, probably reflected Alexius’s thinking. He would take what profit he could without heavy commitment, for there was much danger ahead for the expedition. They were not venturing into the unknown, merely into a dangerous hinterland that had been Turkish now for a generation.