Holy Lance


The ultimate fate of the lance found at Antioch is unclear. Raymond of Aguilers writes that it was carried into battle when the crusaders marched against the Fāțimid-held city of Ascalon (mod. Tel Ashqelon, Israel) in August 1099, while Fulcher of Chartres comments that Raymond of Saint-Gilles kept the relic for a long time after Peter Bartholomew’s disappointing ordeal.

A relic discovered at Antioch (mod. Antakya, Turkey) on 14 June 1098, identified by many participants in the First Crusade (1096–1099) with the weapon that pierced Christ’s side during the Crucifixion (John 19:33–34).

According to the eyewitness chronicler Raymond of Aguilers, a week after the capture of Antioch from the Turks on 3 June 1098, a Provençal peasant called Peter Bartholomew approached Bishop Adhemar of Le Puy and Raymond of Saint-Gilles, claiming that he had received a series of visions from St. Andrew during the previous months. On one of these visitations, Andrew had revealed to him the spot where the lance that pierced Christ’s side lay hidden within the Church of St. Peter in Antioch. After five days of fasting and penance, twelve men (including Raymond of Aguilers) accompanied Peter Bartholomew to the church on the morning of 14 June 1098 and began to excavate the site in search of the relic. That evening the lance was uncovered by Peter Bartholomew himself. Both Raymond of Aguilers and the anonymous Gesta Francorum report that the discovery of the Holy Lance was greeted with great enthusiasm by the crusaders, at that point themselves besieged within Antioch by Turkish forces. These same sources, as well as a letter sent by the crusade leaders to Pope Urban II on 11 September 1098, relate that the lance was carried into combat when the crusaders broke the siege of Antioch on 28 June 1098. From these accounts, it seems clear that the crusaders attributed their success in that battle to the inspiration and divine protection offered by the holy relic.

Over the following months, however, while factionalism among the crusade leaders delayed the army’s departure for Jerusalem, the authenticity of the lance was called into question, particularly by the Norman followers of Bohemund I, future prince of Antioch. In addition to claiming lordship over the newly conquered city, Bohemund was vying for authority over the crusade army with Raymond of Saint-Gilles, the guardian of the lance, and his southern French supporters. This situation came to a head when certain nobles and the less privileged elements of the army beseeched Count Raymond to lead them to Jerusalem or surrender the lance to those who were willing to continue the march. Raymond acquiesced and led a substantial portion of the crusaders toward Jerusalem in early January 1099.

Nevertheless, a faction led by Arnulf of Chocques, chaplain to Robert, duke of Normandy, persisted in questioning the legitimacy of the relic. This situation encouraged Peter Bartholomew to undertake an ordeal in order to prove the lance’s authenticity. On 8 April 1099, Peter hazarded an ordeal by fire while bearing the lance. Raymond of Aguilers reports that Peter crossed safely between two piles of burning wood, but was mortally crushed by the thronging crowds that greeted him on the other side. Regardless of the exact circumstances, Peter Bartholomew died on 20 April 1099. Though this turn of events did not diminish Raymond of Aguilers’s enthusiasm for the lance, it clearly contributed to the relic’s controversial status among contemporary crusade historians. Fulcher of Chartres, who was at Edessa (mod. Şanliurfa, Turkey) when the lance was discovered, expressed his skepticism about its authenticity and wrote that Peter Bartholomew’s death was a clear sign of his duplicity in the matter, adding that the ordeal’s outcome greatly disheartened the bulk of the relic’s supporters.

Writing around 1115 in praise of the recently deceased Norman crusader Tancred, the chronicler Raduph of Caen excoriated both Raymond of Saint-Gilles and Peter Bartholomew for their fabrication of the supposedly holy relic. Raduph asserts that Peter Bartholomew’s demise was clear proof of the lance’s falsity. Writing from a less polemical standpoint, subsequent generations of crusade historians, including Albert of Aachen, Guibert of Nogent, and William of Tyre, present the discovery of the lance as a moment of great significance during the course of the First Crusade, but also acknowledge the controversy that surrounded the relic and its discoverer’s ordeal.

The question of the Holy Lance’s authenticity was further complicated by the existence of well-known competitors, including a lance kept at Constantinople (mod. Istanbul, Turkey) since the seventh century and one possessed by the Holy Roman Emperors since the tenth century. The ultimate fate of the lance found at Antioch is unclear. Raymond of Aguilers writes that it was carried into battle when the crusaders marched against the Fāțimid-held city of Ascalon (mod. Tel Ashqelon, Israel) in August 1099, while Fulcher of Chartres comments that Raymond of Saint-Gilles kept the relic for a long time after Peter Bartholomew’s disappointing ordeal. According to second-hand sources, Count Raymond may have given the lance to the Byzantine emperor, Alexios I Komnenos, or he may have lost it during his participation in the ill-fated Crusade of 1101. If the lance discovered by the crusaders did find its way to Constantinople, it may have been the same one purchased in 1241 by King Louis IX of France from Baldwin II, Latin emperor of Constantinople.


Outremer’s Demise


Salah ad-Din, or Saladin as he is known in the West, had been born in Tikrit in modern-day Iraq in 1137.



Saladin’s forces besiege the walls of Jerusalem.

Having set to rights the last of Nur al-Din’s legacy, Saladin faced a Frankish problem rather different from the one that had occupied the Almohads in al-Andalus. In Syria the Franks were comparatively isolated from their European sources of support; manpower and supplies were a constant source of weakness for them. Yet Saladin had the backing of the caliph in Baghdad and had methodically crushed or subdued all his Muslim foes in the region. The Almohads never had such luxuries, and so their campaigns against the Franks produced much less satisfying results than did the accomplishments of Saladin.

After touring the last of his newly conquered lands in northern Syria, Saladin was ready to focus on the Franks. He arrived in Damascus in May 1186. On the way, he had summoned his son al-Afdal from Cairo, who set out for Syria after mustering a small army. He was obliged to pause, however, as Frankish raids on the Egyptian border blocked his passage. Saladin was not particularly concerned. By instigating this raid, the Franks had broken the four-year truce they had once demanded and that had inconveniently tied his hands. If the Franks were going to engage in such practices, “then the wheel of ruin will turn against them,” his secretary smugly wrote. In August al-Afdal arrived in Damascus, while other of Saladin’s sons were sent to take charge in Aleppo and Cairo.

Much had happened in the Latin kingdom since Saladin first arrived in Syria nearly a decade earlier. By 1186 the leper-king Baldwin IV was dead, succeeded by his nephew Baldwin V, another child, who ruled only under the regency of Raymond of Tripoli. Then, when this Baldwin died a few months later, his mother, Sibyl, took the throne. As queen of Jerusalem, Sibyl came with her husband, Guy of Lusignan, whom she crowned in the summer of 1186 as king.

This reshuffling in the palace at Jerusalem resulted in two changes of direct interest to Saladin. On the one hand, it created a potential new ally in Raymond of Tripoli, the former regent. At court his talents were no longer needed, and he was put out to pasture. As a result he opened negotiations with Saladin and, it appears, entered into a treaty with him, opening passage to the Muslims through his lands around Tiberias. On the other hand, the new situation in Jerusalem also created a new enemy, in the form of Reynald of Chatillon. By 1186 Reynald could not really be called “new” as if he were an unknown quantity. Indeed his problem was that he was all too well known. Formerly prince of Antioch and now lord of Transjordan, Reynald was a hard-liner who came east with the Second Crusade and stayed on to make his name, eventually winding up as a guest in Nur al-Din’s prison in Aleppo for seventeen years. Later, as lord of Transjordan, he had outraged Muslims by sending a squadron of ships out on the Red Sea to attack merchants and pilgrims bound for Mecca. From his base at Karak, he followed the same modus operandi on dry land, harassing the caravans that crossed from Syria to Egypt, even while the truce between Saladin and Jerusalem was supposed to be in effect.

In this context Saladin’s options seemed fairly clear. He badly needed a victory against the Franks to silence those who criticized him for spending so much time at war with his fellow Muslims. Reynald’s actions were provocative, and Transjordan was an important jigsaw piece of territory connecting Saladin’s lands in Egypt to those in Syria. In itself the conquest of Transjordan would be a small gain against the Franks-but perhaps a threat there could lure the rest of the Franks out into the field. When Reynald captured a large Egyptian caravan and its guard, Saladin had his pretext. He demanded the immediate release of the prisoners, but Reynald refused, even (or perhaps especially) when Raymond of Tripoli arrived to serve as an intermediary. In March 1187 Saladin arrived at Karak for retribution and spent the spring harassing the countryside. The peasants fled in droves to Muslim territory. Meanwhile his son al-Afdal was mustering a large army at the Sea of Galilee; he led one impetuous raid to Saffuriya (ancient Sepphoris) in Palestine, where the Muslims overwhelmed a smaller Frankish force. Among the slain was the master of the military order of St. John, or Hospitallers, a valued Frankish commander. By May Reynald’s lands in Transjordan were devastated and virtually every stronghold, including Karak, was in Saladin’s hands. However, when news reached Saladin that his erstwhile ally Raymond of Tripoli had made peace with his fellow Franks, he knew that now was the time to strike at the Latin kingdom.

All of Saladin’s forces that were in the field, from Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia, made for Tiberias. Additional troops were on the move from Egypt if needed, and Saladin’s nephew in Aleppo made a truce with the Franks of Antioch to ensure his army would not be distracted. The sultan even sent a polite invitation to the Byzantine emperor, but he declined to join in. The Franks, led by King Guy, assembled at Saffuriya and had at their disposal the entire army of the Latin kingdom, including Templars and Hospitallers, assisted by much smaller contingents from Antioch and Tripoli. The exaggerated figures given by our medieval sources on the disposition of the Muslim and Frankish troops are hard to swallow, but Saladin’s army, soberly estimated at about thirty thousand, seems to have grossly outnumbered the combined forces mustered by the Franks. Indeed the very size of Saladin’s army may have added to his sense of urgency, as it would be very difficult to muster so many soldiers again and to keep them supplied and in the field for very much longer. If Saladin was to act against the Franks, he needed to act then and there.

In late June Saladin camped with his army at Kafr Sabt, to the southwest of Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee. There he controlled access to abundant sources of water and, more important, to the road running east from the Frankish camp at Saffuriya to the town of Tiberias. The city’s lord, the once-friendly Raymond of Tripoli, was of course away with most of his men in the camp of King Guy, but a small garrison, and Raymond’s wife, remained behind. Rather than stampeding into the Frankish camp, Saladin instead put Tiberias under siege in the hope of drawing the Franks into territory of his own choosing. The plan worked; after much argument, which even the Arabic sources take note of, the Frankish army marched east to relieve Tiberias. As the Franks strung themselves out along the road, a division of Saladin’s army maneuvered behind them to prevent their retreat. Other troops harassed them with feints and arrow fire as they traveled. In the heat of the season (now early July 1187) the battle became, at base, a battle about water. Saladin had ready access to his sources, but the Frankish troops were now sealed off from the secure sources at Saffuriya. Such springs that Guy could gain en route were utterly insufficient to the needs of his army; this seems to be what pushed him to make the fateful decision on July 4 to direct his army to the springs near the little village of Hattin.

At the Horns of Hattin, a double hill formed by the basalt rim of an extinct volcanic crater, the Frankish army saw that their progress was blocked even here. Trapped, unable to punch through the Muslim lines to Tiberias, most of the army retreated to the Horns, where Guy pitched his tent and the walls of ancient ruins atop the hill provided some semblance of cover. The Franks mounted numerous charges against the Muslim army, but Saladin’s men simply closed up around any men who came through. Only Saladin’s former ally Raymond III and a few of his men were allowed to pass through unharmed-a fact that cannot have buoyed Raymond’s stock among the few who survived the battle. The Muslim troops had the Franks on the Horns surrounded by fire and smoke, cut off from retreat or water, exhausted and decimated. By the end of the day the Muslims had managed to gain the summit. Saladin’s son al-Afdal later provided this dramatic eyewitness account:

When the king of the Franks was on the hill with that band, they made a formidable charge against the Muslims facing them, so that they drove them back to my father. I looked towards him and he was overcome by grief and his complexion pale. He took hold of his beard and advanced, crying out “Give the lie to the Devil!” The Muslims rallied, returned to the fight and climbed the hill. When I saw that the Franks withdrew, pursued by the Muslims, I shouted for joy, “We have beaten them!” But the Franks rallied and charged again like the first time and drove the Muslims back to my father. He acted as he had done on the first occasion and the Muslims turned upon the Franks and drove them back to the hill. I again shouted, “We have beaten them!” but my father rounded on me and said, “Be quiet! We have not beaten them until that tent [Guy’s] falls.” Even as he was speaking to me, the tent fell. The sultan dismounted, prostrated himself in thanks to God Almighty and wept for joy.

The Battle of Hattin left the Frankish military gutted and thereby opened the Frankish kingdoms to reconquest by Saladin’s seemingly unstoppable armies. It was celebrated in Saladin’s sword-rattling chancery as “a day of grace, on which the wolf and the vulture kept company, while death and captivity followed in turns. The unbelievers were tied together in fetters, astride chains rather than stout horses.” Those Franks who did not die that day were taken as captives to be ransomed or sold. The most prized were taken to Saladin’s tent to be dealt with personally; Guy and many other lords were eventually ransomed. Reynald of Chatillon did not join them. Instead, following the letter of Islamic law when dealing with dangerous prisoners, Saladin urged Reynald to convert to Islam and, when he refused, personally executed him, as he had twice vowed to do. It was the social implications of the act, not its finality, for which Saladin felt he should apologize, saying to Guy, “It is not customary for one prince to kill another, but this man had crossed the line.” The same process attended the execution of the Templars and Hospitallers, who were considered such a danger that Saladin personally ransomed any such prisoners found in the hands of his men, to ensure that they would meet their end. He also had any Turcopoles (Turkish light cavalry in the service of the Franks) executed as traitors.

Throughout Syria, it is said, the price of slaves plummeted as the markets were flooded with Frankish captives. According to one source, one Frankish prisoner was traded in exchange for a shoe. When asked, the captive’s seller explained that he insisted on the price because he “wanted it to be talked about.” The nonhuman plunder taken was also said to be considerable. Among the treasures was the relic of the True Cross, which the Franks had carried before them in battle. Its capture was precisely as devastating to the Franks as it was thrilling to Saladin’s subjects in Damascus, who suspended it upside-down on a spear and paraded it through the streets of the city. It was later sent by Saladin’s son al-Afdal as a trophy for the caliph of Baghdad and was never seen again-lost, one presumes, during the Mongol sack of 1258. At Hattin itself Saladin had a “Dome of Victory” constructed to commemorate what was already being seen as a turning point in his life; however, within a few decades, like much Saladin left for his descendants, it was in ruins.

By the end of 1187 Saladin’s armies had captured most of the territory that the Franks had taken since they arrived with the First Crusade. The cities of Syria and Palestine fell one by one, in diverse circumstances. In the wake of the debacle at Hattin, the mere sight of Muslim armies was often enough to convince Frankish leaders to surrender their towns, as at Acre. At Nablus the local villagers-almost all of whom were Muslims-blockaded the Franks in the citadel until one of Saladin’s commanders arrived and accepted their surrender. Jubayl, on the northern coast, surrendered as ransom for its lord, Hugh Embriaco, who had been captured at Hattin. A similar ploy was attempted in the south, where King Guy and the master of the Templars were trotted out to convince the garrison of Ascalon to surrender, but to no avail. Instead Saladin’s armies met fierce resistance, though the Franks there were eventually prevailed upon to surrender. Other cities likewise gave Saladin some serious resistance, as at Beirut and Jaffa. Then again, some places were simply passed over and saved for later, notably the port of Tyre, which Saladin reconnoitered but left untouched not once but twice as he crisscrossed the region. It was an act of expediency he would live to regret.



Siege of Acre 1291 – Guillaume de Clermont Defending Ptolemais from the Saracen invasion. The fall of Acre signaled the end of the Jerusalem crusades. No effective crusade was raised to recapture the Holy Land afterwards, though talk of further crusades was common enough. By 1291, other ideals had captured the interest and enthusiasm of the monarchs and nobility of Europe and even strenuous papal efforts to raise expeditions to retake the Holy Land met with little response.


Map of Acre in 1291

When King Louis IX left Acre in 1254 the kingdom of Jerusalem was, for all practical purposes, leaderless. In that year the absentee king Conrad II (Conrad IV of Germany, 1250-54), the son of the emperor Frederick II and Isabella of Brienne, had been succeeded by his two-year-old son Conrad III (1254-68).

The Mongols were now the dominant force in the region and the Mongol threat actually created a brief period in which the crusader states enjoyed relative peace with their neighbors. Unfortunately, the internal political situation prevented them from taking advantage of this to strengthen their position. The absence of royal authority and the relative freedom from external threat allowed the various factions within the kingdom to give full vent to their grievances.

These included the Venetians and Genoese, who were vying for dominance in the eastern Mediterranean. More crippling, however, was the contest for control of the regency for Conrad II between two factions of the Ibelin family. Their machinations finally led to a state of affairs in which one child, King Hugh II of Cyprus, became regent for another, Conrad III. Hugh’s mother, Plaisance, acted as the regent’s regent. Clearly, in these years, the seat of real power in the crusader kingdom was no longer on the mainland, but in Cyprus.

The five years from 1265 to 1270 witnessed serious losses by the crusader states at the hands of the Mamluk sultan Baibars. In the West, however, attention was focused on internal matters, especially the struggle between the Hohenstaufens and Charles of Anjou. In the critical period of Mamluk expansion, therefore, the crusader states lacked the new infusions of western manpower and money upon which they depended. The internal conflict in the crusader states was partly, or perhaps even mostly, due to the inability of the various factions to find security in a deteriorating situation.

In the mid-1260s another dispute arose over the regency for Hugh II of Cyprus between Hugh of Brienne and Hugh of Antioch-Lusignan. The Frankish barons favored Antioch-Lusignan, one of the most powerful men in Cyprus. They were already looking to Cyprus as the most likely source of their future security.

This was the situation when, in 1265, Baibars launched an offensive against crusader territories of the interior. One by one castles and towns fell, including Caesarea, Haifa, Toron, Arsuf, and, in July 1266, the great Templar fortress of Safad, the key to control of the lands around Acre. In that same year, a second Egyptian army devastated Cilician Armenia. In 1268, Baibars again moved north from Egypt, seizing Jaffa and Beaufort castle. He bypassed Tyre, which was well fortified, and on 14th May besieged Antioch. The city fell on 18th May and was put to the sack.

Antioch, which had been in Christian hands since 1098, was one of the major centers of Christendom and its loss was a disaster for Christianity, removing a key base of support for the Armenians, and an ally of Baibars’ Muslim enemies in the north. The loss alerted the West to the danger that confronted the crusader states. In France, King Louis IX had already taken the cross once more. Lord Edward of England, the future King Edward I, prepared to join him.


So long as the costs of the Crusades were born by the crusaders and their families, there were few who objected to the repeated efforts to free and preserve the Holy Land. But when kings began to lead, the expense of crusading soon was being imposed on everyone, including the clergy and the religious orders, in the form of crusader taxes. Grumbling began at once. The grumbling grew increasingly louder when bloody “crusades” began against “heretics” in Europe: thousands of Cathars, Waldensians, Beghards, and Beguines were condemned by the Church and killed in battle or hunted down and massacred. In the midst of all this, a medieval version of an antiwar movement eventually prevailed; after two centuries of support, the kingdoms in the Holy Land were abandoned.

In February 1289 Saif al-Din Qalawun (or Kalavun), the Mamluk sultan of Egypt, marched a huge army north and laid siege to Tripoli, one of the five remaining crusader ports in the Holy Land. When warned by the Templars that the Egyptians were coming, at first no one in Tripoli believed it. And, confident of the immense strength of their fortifications, they made no special preparations until the enemy was literally at the gates. Much to their surprise, not only was the Muslim army much larger than anyone in Tripoli had thought possible; this Muslim force brought immense siege engines able to smash the citís walls. As the bombardment ensued, members of the Venetian merchant community within Tripoli decided that the city could not be held and sailed away with their most precious possessions. This alarmed the Genoese merchants, and so they, too, scrambled aboard their ships and left. This threw the city into disorder just as the Muslims launched a general assault on the breaches in the walls. As hordes of Egyptian troopers swarmed into the city, some Christians were able to flee to the last boats in the harbor. As for the rest, the men were slaughtered, and the women and children were marched away to the slave markets. Then “Qalawun had the city razed to the ground, lest the Franks, with their command of the sea, might try to recapture it.” He also founded new Tripoli a few miles inland, where it could not be reached by sea.

That left Acre, Tyre, Beirut, and Haifa.

On his deathbed, Qalawun had his son and heir, al-Ashraf, swear he would conquer Acre. So in April 1291, al-Ashraf arrived at Acre with an even larger army than his father had marched to Tripoli and with even more powerful siege machines. The defenders fought bravely and with great skill; several times they sallied out the gates and attacked the Muslim camp. But all the while their fortifications were being reduced to rubble by the huge stones hurled by the siege engines, although supplies continued to arrive by sea from Cyprus and some civilians were evacuated on the return voyages. In May, a month after the siege began, reinforcements consisting of one hundred mounted knights and two thousand infantry came from Cyprus. But they were too few.

Soon the battle was being fought in the streets, and many civilians were crowding aboard rowboats to reach the galleys out in the harbor. But most people were unable to leave, and “[s]oon the Moslem soldiers penetrated right through the city, slaying everyone, old men, women and children alike.” By May 8, all of Acre was in Muslim hands except for the castle of the Templars, which jutted out into the sea. Boats from Cyprus continued to board refugees from the castle while the Templars, joined by other surviving fighting men, held the walls. At this point al-Ashraf offered favorable terms of surrender, the Templars accepted, and a contingent of Mamluks was admitted to supervise the handover. Unfortunately, they got out of hand. As the Muslim chronicler Abu’l-Mahasin admitted, the Mamluk contingent “began to pillage and to lay hands on the women and children.” Furious, the Templars killed them all and got ready to fight on. The next day, fully aware of what had gone wrong, al-Ashraf offered the same favorable terms once again. The commander of the Templars and some companions accepted a safe-conduct to arrange the surrender, but when they reached the sultan’s tent they were seized and beheaded. Seeing that from the walls, the remaining Templars decided to fight to the death. And they did.

Less than a month later this huge Muslim army arrived at Tyre. The garrison was far too small to attempt a defense and sailed away to Cyprus without a fight. Next, the Muslims marched to Beirut. Here, too, resistance was beyond the means of the garrison, and they, too, sailed to Cyprus. Haifa also fell without opposition; the monks on Mount Carmel were slaughtered and their monasteries burned. The last Christian enclave was now the Templars’ fortress island of Ruad, two miles off the coast. The Templars held out there until 1303, leaving then only because of the suppression of their order by the king of France and the pope. After the fall of Acre, the Hospitallers gathered on Cyprus and then, in 1310, seized the island of Rhodes from the Byzantines. There they built a superior navy and played an important role in defending Western shipping in the East.

And so it ended. It should be kept in mind that the kingdoms had survived, at least along the coast, for nearly as long as the United States has been a nation.





Map of the Hittite Empire (c. 1300 BC)

The Hittites occupied the Anatolian peninsula from approximately 1900 to 1000 b. c. e. The origins of this rugged people skilled in mountain warfare remain obscure, but the evidence suggests that their settlement in Anatolia began with the tribal migrations of peoples whose origins lay in the area that stretches from the lower Danube along the north shore of the Black Sea to the northern foothills of the Caucasus Mountains. The date of migration is uncertain but may have been as early as 2500 b. c. e. By 1900 b. c. e., there was clear evidence of the beginnings of a separate society that can be identified as Hittite. The Hittite society lasted until circa 1100 b. c. e., when, like the other states of Syria, Lebanon, and the upper Euphrates, it was overrun and destroyed by the invasion of the Sea Peoples.

Hittite society was a feudal order based on land ownership and fiefdoms governed nationally by a council of great families, called the Pankus. This same pattern of social development is found in early Sumer, Egypt, and Rome. Gradually, a governing aristocracy was formed, with its capital at Hattusas in northeast Anatolia. Social organization centered on the “fiefholder,” who worked the land, and, as the need for defense and military power increased, on the “man of the weapon,” who was given land and income in return for full-time military service to the high king. As in medieval Europe, there was constant tension between the central governing authority and powerful local vassals, who often could not be controlled. Hittite central authority waxed and waned from one period to the next. Only rarely was it possible for the Hittite kings to unify and control their country, and then only for relatively short periods. One result was that to the end of the empire, Hatti remained essentially a feudal society, whose army comprised a core of loyal troops of the king augmented by feudal armies contributed by vassals and foreign client states.

The imperial period of Hittite power is dated from 1450 to 1180 b. c. e. In 1346 b. c. e. a young and vigorous king named Suppiluliumas brought the domestic situation under control and moved militarily against the city-states of the Syrian zone. He succeeded in gaining control of most of the major city-states of the area before moving against the Mitanni. With the power of the Mitanni brought to heel, he installed his own governors there and created a new state to act as a buffer against the growing power of Assyria. Suppiluliumas was succeeded by his youngest son, Mursilis, who continued to strengthen Hittite control in the Syrian zone while bringing the new Mitanni buffer state further within his control. Hatti encroached farther south into the Syrian zone while the Egyptians were paralyzed by domestic turmoil.

Mursilis passed the Hittite throne to his son Muwatallis (1308-1285 b. c. e.), who suppressed revolts in Arzawa and the Gasgan lands, making certain that domestic events did not interfere with the emerging conflict with Egypt. He achieved a temporary diplomatic settlement to blunt renewed Assyrian pressure in the Mitanni region. Egypt was at last ready to attempt to counter Hittite influence in the Syrian zone and began by fomenting unrest in some of the city-states. Muwatallis moved quickly to reduce the threat with armed intervention against Kadesh, Carchemesh, and Allepo, bringing them to heel and installing Hittite rulers and garrisons. This was a clear challenge to Egypt, and armed conflict was inevitable. The basis of Hittite national security strategy remained unchanged for almost five centuries. The goal was to secure the homeland by suppressing domestic revolts and increasing the power of the national authorities to deal with the constant threats on the border.

In 1279 b. c. e. Ramses II, one of Egypt’s great warrior pharoahs, came to the throne. Ramses understood that Egyptian influence in Lebanon and Palestine would never be secure as long as the Hittite threat hung over the Syrian zone. The passage of time would only work to the Hittite advantage as they strengthened their hold on the area. Egyptian strategic thinking held that a threat to Syria was a threat to Palestine, and a threat to Palestine was a threat to the Nile. The world’s first “domino theory” was born. In the fifth year of his rule, 1275 b. c. e., Ramses II set out to destroy Hittite influence in Syria and to drive it back behind the Taurus Mountains. As the room for maneuver narrowed, the clash between the two great powers became certain. When it came, it came at the city of Kadesh on the Orontes River.


The size of the armies that fought at Kadesh remains the subject of some dispute. The foremost experts on the Egyptian and Hittite armies of the period estimate the size of the Egyptian force at between 25,000 and 30,000 men comprised of four divisions of 6,000 each, plus some nim and allied Canaanite chariot contingents. The Hittite army appears to have been in the neighborhood of 17,000-20,000 men, which was probably the largest combat force ever deployed by the Hittites. The unusual size of the Hittite force is explainable by the fact that the Hittite king, Muwatallish, had been successful in uniting the various vassals of the country and in concluding a number of mutual assistance treaties with the city-states of Syria. Of the other great powers, only the Mitanni deployed forces comparable in size to the Hittite armies, and they, too, relied heavily on allied contingents for maximum national efforts. The full military manpower pool of Hatti was available to the king, as were military contingents from allied states.

The Hittite army was organized around the decimal system common to armies of the area at that time. Infantry, chariots, and archers shared the same organizational structure, with squads of ten, companies of ten squads, and battalions of ten companies. Infantry deployed for battle in companies 10 men wide and 10 men deep, with battalions standing with 100-man fronts 10 men deep. The basic weapons of the Hittite infantry were the medium-length spear, the axe, and the sickle sword. Hittite infantry was flexible in armament, equipment, and manner of deployment.

Hittite infantry had been developed in the rough terrain of Anatolia, where the land itself placed a premium on ground troops used in various ways. Hittite commanders commonly changed the mix of infantry weaponry and even clothing and armor, depending on the nature of the terrain and the type of battle that the infantry was expected to fight. In mountain terrain the infantry carried the sickle sword, dagger, axe, and no spear, a mix of weapons suited primarily to close combat. Mountain infantry were issued metal helmets, good boots, leather or scale armor, and a specially designed shield in the shape of a figure eight. The narrow waist of the shield made it lighter while still affording good, full-length body protection. The narrow waist improved the ability of the soldier to see his adversary and provided greater room for him to wield his sword when in close-order battle. Later, the Hittites adopted the small round shield, a piece of equipment specifically designed for close combat.

The infantrís weapons and equipment were changed whenever the Hittite army was required to fight in open terrain. Under these conditions, the primary weapon was the long stabbing spear, and the fighting formation was the packed heavy phalanx. An army that tailored its units, weapons, and combat formations so readily required a high degree of discipline and training from its soldiers. The Hittite army was constructed around a core professional force loyal to the king and augmented by forces provided by the king’s vassals. Hittite society provided for the “man of the weapon,” who was given the income from land in exchange for military service. The Anatolian terrain placed a premium on stealth, rapid movement, movement at night, and quick deployment from the line of march to fighting formation to avoid ambush. These abilities are the characteristics of a professional army, not an army of conscripts. The Hittite army comprised almost professional-quality soldiers similar in experience and ability to the feudal military classes of Europe during the Middle Ages.

The Hittite arm of decision was its chariotry. The chariot’s role was to close quickly with the enemy infantry, delivering maximum shock, then to dismount and fight as heavy infantry. The Hittite machine was heavier than the Egyptian chariot and had its axle positioned in the center of the carrying platform. This arrangement reduced speed and stability but made it possible for the machine to carry a crew of three. The crew was armed with the six-foot-long stabbing spear designed not to be thrown but to be used as a lance while mounted and as an infantry weapon when dismounted. The Hittites used their chariots as mounted heavy infantry, and they were the key to the success of the Hittite army fighting in open terrain.

One can understand the tactical role of Hittite chariotry by remembering that the Hittite art of war developed in the inhospitable terrain of the Anatolian plateau, which afforded few open plains where chariots could maneuver but offered numerous valleys and defiles from which a hidden army could suddenly strike at an unsuspecting enemy. Under these conditions of short distances to combat closure, even a heavy machine could move fast enough to inflict sudden and decisive shock. Whereas the open terrain of Egypt and Palestine encouraged an emphasis on speed of movement over expanses of open terrain, the Hittite experience emphasized tactical surprise. It was typical of Hittite strategy to attempt to catch the enemy on the march and ambush him with a sudden rush of infantry-carrying chariots and to be on him before he could deploy to meet the attack. This tactic was employed brilliantly at Kadesh and almost destroyed the Egyptian army.

Ilya Muromets – 1914 Giant

The massive Ilya Muromets was the world’s first four-engine bomber-and a good one at that. In three years it dropped 2,200 tons of bombs on German positions, losing only one plane in combat.

In 1913 the Russo-Baltic Wagon Works constructed the world’s first four-engine aircraft under the direction of Igor Sikorsky. Dubbed the Russki Vitiaz (Russian Knight), it was also the first to mount a fully enclosed cabin. This giant craft safely completed 54 flights before being destroyed in a ground accident. In 1914 Sikorsky followed up his success by devising the first-ever four-engine bomber and christened it Ilya Muromets after a legendary medieval knight. The new machine possessed straight, unstaggered, four-bay wings with ailerons only on the upper. The fuselage was long and thin, with a completely enclosed cabin housing a crew of five. On February 12, 1914, with Sikorsky himself at the controls, the Ilya Muromets reached an altitude of 6,560 feet and loitered five hours while carrying 16 passengers and a dog! This performance, unmatched anywhere in the world, aroused the military’s interest, and it bought 10 copies as the Model IM.

The aircraft had a wingspan of nearly 100 feet and weighed more than 10,000 pounds. The most advanced model had a range of 5 hours and a ceiling of more than 9,000 feet. It carried a bombload of 1,000-1,500 pounds and was equipped with up to seven machine guns. Four 150 horsepower Sunbeam V-8 engines allowed the bomber to cruise at 75-85 mph. The rear fuselage possessed sleeping compartments for a crew of five, a washroom, a small table, and openings for mechanics to climb out onto the wings to service the engines during flight. More than 75 Ilya Murometses were deployed against the Central Powers along the Eastern Front from 1915 to 1918. These aircraft conducted more than 400 bombing raids against targets in Germany and the Baltic nations. During the war, only one bomber was lost to enemy action. In February 1918, many Ilya Murometses were destroyed by the Russians to prevent capture by advancing German forces.

After World War I commenced in 1914, Sikorsky went on to construct roughly 80 more of the giant craft, which were pooled into an elite formation known as the Vozdushnykh Korablei (Flying Ships) Squadron. On February 15, 1915, they commenced a concerted, two-year bombardment campaign against targets along the eastern fringes of Germany and Austria. The Ilya Muromets carried particularly heavy loads for their day, with bombs weighing in excess of 920 pounds. This sounds even more impressive considering that ordnance dropped along the Western Front was usually hurled by hand! The mighty Russian giants were also well-built and heavily armed. In 422 sorties, only one was lost in combat, and only after downing three German fighters. Operations ceased after the Russian Revolution of 1917, with many bombers being destroyed on the ground. A handful of survivors served the Red Air Force as trainers until 1922.


Although Russia was not as industrially advanced as the other European powers, it would enter the First World War with the world’s first four-engine aircraft, the Sikorsky Ilya Muromets. After achieving success with a number of smaller aircraft, Igor Sikorsky joined the Russo-Baltic Railroad Car Factory (Russko-Baltiisky Vagonny Zaved or R-BVZ) in the spring of 1912 and began designing a massive aircraft, the Bol’shoi Bal’tisky (the Great Baltic), which had a wingspan of 88 ft and a length of 65 ft. Sikorsky had originally intended to use just two 100 hp Argus inline engines. Although he managed to take off on 2 March 1913, the Great Baltic proved to be underpowered. Undeterred, Sikorsky added two additional motors, which were installed in tandem with the first two, thereby providing both a tractor and pusher configuration. Beginning in May 1913, Sikorsky made several test flights in the Great Baltic, after which he reconfigured all of the engines to be on the leading edge of the lower wing for a tractor design. This proved far more successful, as indicated by a 2 August 1913 flight in which he carried eight people aloft for more than 2 hours.

Sikorsky’s next version, which served as the prototype of the wartime versions, was introduced in December 1913. It was similar to the Great Baltic, but it had a much larger fuselage that could accommodate up to sixteen passengers. By the spring of 1914, Sikorsky had developed the S-22B, dubbed the “Ilya Muromets” after a famous medieval Russian nobleman, it successfully completed a 1,600-mile round-trip flight between St. Petersburg and Kiev in June 1914.4 With the outbreak of the war, the S-22B and a sister aircraft were mobilized for service. An additional five were constructed by December 1914 and organized as the Eskadra Vozdushnykh Korablei (EVK) or Squadron of Flying Ships.

Because the first Ilya Muromets types had been designed primarily to carry passengers, once the war began Sikorsky started work on a slightly smaller version, the V-type, that could be used as a bomber. Introduced in spring 1915, the V-type Ilya Muromets had a wingspan of 97 ft 9 in. and a length of 57 ft 5 in. Because of Russia’s chronic shortage of engines, the R-BVZ was forced to rely upon a variety of engines for the V-type, including at least one that used different sets of engines; two 140 hp Argus and two 125 hp Argus inline engines. Of the thirty-two V-types produced, twenty-two were powered by four 150 hp Sunbeam inline motors, which provided a maximum speed of 68 mph. They had a loaded weight of 10,140 lbs, including a bomb load of approximately 1,100 lbs. Its crew of five to seven members were protected by free-firing machine guns. Three later versions were introduced during the war: the G-type and D-type introduced in 1916, and the E-type introduced in 1917. Of these, the E-type was the largest with a wingspan of 102 ft, a length of 61 ft 8 in., and a loaded weight of 15,500 lbs. Its four 220 hp Renault inline engines could produce a maximum speed of 80 mph. The E-type carried an eight-man crew, including two pilots, five gunners, and one mechanic. At least eight were constructed during 1917. The E-type went on to serve in the Red Air Force until 1924. The Sikorsky Ilya Muromets were sturdy, rugged aircraft.




Port of Ascalon


General plan of Tell al-Khadra, Ascalon. Having been a port and trade center since the II millennium B.C., the city became famous during the classical era for its temples (Dagon, Apollo, the Heavenly Aphrodite, Atargatis) and many gardens. 1. Cananaean Gate 2. Basilica 3. Bouleuterion 4. Ancient tell 5. Remains of the sea wall 6. “Peace Well” 7. Church of St. Mary the Green.


Ascalon fell to the Franks only in 1153. Its strong walls and outworks, still visible today, were able to repel the Frankish army long after all the other towns in the Holy Land had fallen. Even in 1153 it took two months of siege and the construction of siege towers and battering-rams, constructed as in the siege of Jerusalem from dismantled ships, before the city fell. The Frankish siege tower used at Ascalon was so impressive that it was known about as far away as Damascus, where it was called the ‘cursed tower’. According to William of Tyre, the other trials the citizens had endured were light in comparison to the ills that assailed them from this tower. They tried to set it alight, but the flames spread to the walls which burned all night and finally collapsed. Since the breach of the walls was only partial the siege nearly failed, but the citizens of Ascalon decided to surrender, and fled the city. In 1187, after a two-week siege, the city fell again to the Muslims. However, on the approach of Richard I in 1191, Saladin decided to destroy the city to prevent his regaining it. The walls and towers were filled with wood and burned down. The city burned for twelve days, but the defences were so strong that the principal fortification, the Tower of Blood or Tower of the Hospital, fell only after repeated onslaughts. During a four-month period in 1192 the Crusaders restored the city but, after an agreement with the Muslims the walls were again demolished. In 1240 the Franks built a castle over the ruins, apparently on the north-west hill, but it too was destroyed by Baybars in 1270.

Ascalon is estimated to have had about 10,000 inhabitants. Its walls formed a semicircle surrounding an area of fifty hectares. This was a large area by medieval standards. Jerusalem covered seventy-two hectares and Akko sixty, while Sidon, the next largest town, covered an area of only fourteen hectares. The walls were the continuation of the Roman/Byzantine walls which were rebuilt by the Umayyad Caliph Abd’al Malik in the seventh century and probably restored by the Fatimids in the eleventh. Frankish work consisted largely of repairs and embellishments. The high and very thick walls were built on an artificial mound 7–10 m high, stone-lined to form a glacis, and were constructed of solid sandstone masonry with lateral columns and extremely hard cement. There were also outworks 2 m thick with occasional casemates. There were four gates with indirect access and with high, solid, round and square towers. Sources mention fifty-three towers around the walls, and Benvenisti estimates a distance of about 30 m between them. To the east was the Great Gate (Porta Major) or Jerusalem Gate. It was the best defended of the gates and in the barbican before it were three or four smaller gates with indirect entrances. There was a southern gate facing Gaza (Gaza Gate), a northern gate (Jaffa Gate) and a Sea Gate (Porta Maris). According to Benvenisti the citadel was by the Gaza Gate, where two large towers, the Tower of the Maidens (Turris Puellarum) and the Tower of the Hospital, were located (Benvenisti 1970:124). This area was called the Hill of Towers and is at the highest point of the defences. As mentioned above, however, it would seem that the castle built in 1240 was in the north-west (Pringle 1984a: 144). Frankish remains inside the walls consist of only two of the town’s five churches. The position of the cathedral church of St John is unknown; it was probably located near the centre of the town.



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Development of the Battle of Salado

30 October 1340

Many of the battles fought between Islam and Christianity have been hailed as the decisive encounter between the two religions. Few of them can have been more decisive than the crushing defeat of the wealthy emir of Marinid Morocco, Abu al-Hasan, inflicted by King Alfonso XI of Castile and King Afonso IV of Portugal on a clear October day in 1340 in the far southwest of Spain. The Battle of Salado was blessed by the Papacy as part of a new crusade against the infidel; a relic of the True Cross was held aloft in the battle by a priest dressed in white, seated on a white mule. Abu al-Hasan put round his neck on the morning of the battle a reliquary holding a fragment of the Prophet’s clothing. He was determined to smash Christian power in Spain with a major holy war, or jihad, after decades in which the Muslim hold on southern Spain had been slowly eroded.

Later chronicles speak of an army of 70,000 cavalry and 400,000 to 700,000 foot soldiers massed at the Moroccan port of Ceuta to cross the straits to Algeciras, a port still in Muslim hands. The best estimate today suggests perhaps a total of 60,000. The Christian kings between them could muster 22,000 horse and foot. Contemporary opinion held that in open battle the Moroccans were difficult to defeat, but open battle is exactly what Alfonso XI sought.

The battle at the River Salado was won against many odds, and not just the numbers on the battlefield. For years Alfonso had had to battle his own nobles, who accepted vassalage or rule from Castile with ill grace. He was forced to balance the threat from Morocco with the challenge from the vassal state of Granada, still under an Islamic ruler, Yusuf I; he had to win support from other rulers, notably from Aragon or Portugal, and this was a laborious and frustrating task. When the threat from the Marinid Empire of Morocco became evident in the late 1330s, Alfonso found himself almost entirely isolated. Only fear of a Muslim invasion persuaded Afonso IV of Portugal to reach an alliance with Alfonso, signed on 1 July 1340.

By this time the invasion was already under way. In 1339, one of Abu al-Hasan’s sons, Abu Malik, began raiding Andalusia from his bases in Gibraltar and Algeciras. In a major skirmish in late October with Spanish knights, Abu Malik was killed. Abu al-Hasan was already preparing an expedition, but his son’s death sharpened his desire for a savage revenge against the infidel. A letter claimed to have been found after the battle, allegedly from the Sultan of Babylon (probably an Egyptian title), called on the emir to ‘smash their children against the wall; slit open the wombs of pregnant women; cut off the breasts, arms, noses, and feet of other women… Do not leave until you have destroyed Christendom from sea to sea.’ Though probably a piece of Christian propaganda, it is at least consistent with the fiery threats made by Abu al-Hasan as he prepared his campaign.

Troops began to cross the straits in July and on 4 August 1340, Abu al-Hasan himself arrived at Algeciras. By this time Pope Benedict XII had declared a crusade and sent Alfonso the necessary banner and additional funds. Alfonso’s real difficulty was money, a problem that meant little to the wealthy Marinids. He could bring with him supplies for only a few days of fighting, and in order to pay for what he needed he had to pawn the royal jewels. On 23 September, Abu al-Hasan, now joined by Yusuf I of Granada with 7,000 cavalry, began the siege of Tarifa, the only port overlooking the Straits of Gibraltar still in Christian hands. He hoped Alfonso would rise to the challenge. A few weeks later, on 29 October, the Christian army arrived at La Peña del Ciervo (The Hill of the Deer) about 8 kilometres (5 miles) from Tarifa, intent on battle. There were 1,000 knights with the Portuguese king, while Alfonso XI counted on 8,000 knights and 12,000 foot soldiers, mostly recruited from Asturias and the Basque provinces. The number of their Moroccan enemy was much lower than the hundreds of thousands suggested by Christian accounts, but was certainly greater than the crusaders. Alfonso reduced the size of his army even more by sending 1,000 knights and 4,000 foot soldiers round the Muslim lines to reinforce the 1,000 men in Tarifa. This was to prove an inspired move.

Abu al-Hasan drew back from the siege and arrayed his forces along the hills surrounding the port. On the morning of 30 October both sides received blessing from their clergy before moving out to face each other. On the Christian left was Afonso of Portugal, reinforced by 3,000 of Alfonso’s men; on the Portuguese flank were the foot soldiers with lances and crossbows; on the right the bulk of Alfonso’s remaining knights. The Islamic armies were drawn up with Yusuf’s Granadans on the right, the emir’s son Abu ‘Umar on the left, in front of Tarifa, and the centre commanded by Abu al-Hasan himself. Exactly what happened in the battle is not entirely clear. The Christian right began to cross a small bridge over the River Salado where they forced back the Muslim defenders. Then the bulk of Alfonso’s force smashed into the army of Abu ‘Umar, driving it uphill towards the Muslim camp. At some point the 6,000 men in Tarifa stormed out and hit the enemy in the rear, causing a panic which left the emir’s baggage train unprotected.

While the Castilians swarmed up to the camp in pursuit of booty, Alfonso found himself temporarily supported by only a small body of troops. Abu al-Hasan tried to wheel his army around to attack the king, but soon found himself surrounded as the Castilians charged back down the hill and the force from Tarifa hit his flank. Instead of fighting for the faith, he fled with his troops, putting his honour, as one account put it, ‘under his feet’. When he arrived at Ceuta. he told his followers that he had won a great victory, but the sorry remnant of his army that returned could scarcely be concealed.

The victorious Christians pursued the enemy for 8 kilometres (5 miles), slaughtering those they overtook, leaving a field littered with bodies, though how many is uncertain. Muslim women and children, including Abu al-Hasan’s wife, Fatima, were murdered when the camp was overrun and all its occupants killed. Only twelve ships were needed to take the survivors back to Morocco, which suggests either a large-scale massacre or that the Moroccan forces were much smaller than most medieval accounts claimed. Either way the defeat was decisive. Africa never again mounted a major invasion of Spain and Castile extended its domination over the peninsula. Algeciras fell to Alfonso four years later, leaving only Gibraltar as a Muslim outpost. Yusuf was lucky to escape, and Granada survived for a further 150 years. The colossal booty in gold and treasure captured at Salado helped to solve, at least temporarily, Alfonso’s financial embarrassments. So great was the wealth that it temporarily forced down the value of gold and silver on the Paris exchange.

The Battle of Kosovo – Reality and Myth


Kosovo Maiden

After the battle of the Maritsa River the Ottomans greatly extended their circle of vassals, who were obliged to contribute to the Empire’s further ascent and consolidation by paying annual tributes and joining forces with the sultan in his military expeditions. They placed the urban strip and important routes along the Aegean coast under their direct rule. In 1383 the Ottomans conquered Serres and its vicinity, expanding toward Thessalonika. The monks from Mt. Athos, whose main estates were threatened, then approached them. Through Gallipoli the Turks fostered ties with their territories in Asia Minor and established relations with the major maritime powers, Venice and Genoa, which had for decades been contending bitterly over the remnants of the Byzantine Empire.

The tactics of Ottoman expansion had already been perfected. They would become involved in local conflicts at the invitation of the feuding Christian lords, familiarize themselves with the terrain, take what they wanted, and make those they aided their dependants. They undertook expeditions far from their core territory. While ruling only Thrace they sent troops to Ioánnina and Berat in Albania, and later to the Dubrovnik hinterland. A ruler’s death or family clashes were usually used as the grounds for establishing direct rule. Turkish detachments turned up in all parts of the Balkan Peninsula long before the territory of the Ottoman state approached the region.

The Ottomans had already reached Prince Lazar’s territory in 1381, when the prince’s commander Crep smashed the Turks in the battle of Dubravnica (near present-day Paraćin, in the Morava river valley). The Turkish unit had probably strayed there after some military operation in Bulgaria. A few years later, in 1386, a much more serious attack followed. Sultan Murad himself led the army that penetrated into Serbia, all the way to Pločnik in Toplica. There was no battle at the time. On that occasion, or somewhat later, the Ottomans raided Graćanica monastery, where the tower and its books were set on fire.

On the other side, the inherited hostility between King Tvrtko and the Balšićs triggered a Turkish raid into the Bileća region, where commander Shahin was defeated in August 1388. A buffer zone existed between the territories of Prince Lazar and Vuk Brankovic´ on one side, and the Ottomans on the other, consisting of the territories of Turkish vassals (the Dragaši – Dejanovic´s in the east, Vukašin’s heirs in the south). However, it was obvious that the Ottomans were closing in.

Parallel with these events, the vast Hungarian Kingdom created by Louis I Anjou (1342–82), surrounded by vassal territories on all sides, was crumbling. When King Louis died in 1382, he was succeeded by his daughter Maria, who ruled with her mother, the daughter of Bosnian Ban Stjepan II, but was met by resistance from the nobility. The ruling Anjou dynasty had relatives in southern Italy, where part of the Hungarian aristocracy sought an heir for the deceased king. Charles of Durazzo took the Hungarian throne, but soon became involved in court intrigues and was assassinated at court in 1385. The queens were accused of the assassination and open rebellion followed. The queens were captured in 1386 and their palatine (highest court dignitary), Nicolas de Gara the Elder, was murdered. A large group was formed in support of Ladislas of Naples, while Sigismund of Luxembourg, the young queen’s fiancé, tried to rally nobles loyal to the queens.

At first King Tvrtko honored the king’s successor, his cousin, and took Kotor with her approval in 1384. However, when internal rebellion erupted in Hungary he openly sided with Ladislas of Naples, along with Prince Lazar, and challenged Sigismund of Luxembourg. Tvrtko provided refuge for the rebellious Croatian noble brothers Ivaniš and Pavao Horvat, Ivaniš Paližna, and others. For a while Ivanis¡ Horvat ruled Mac¡va and Belin, Hungarian territories in Serbia south of the Sava River. Starting in 1387, Tvrtko conquered territories in Croatia and subjugated cities in Dalmatia. The city of Split resisted the longest and the deadline for its surrender was set for June 15, 1389.

King Tvrtko I and Prince Lazar were cut off from their Christian surroundings because of the conflict with the Hungarian queen and Sigismund of Luxembourg, and were joined only by the supporters of Ladislas of Naples and the Croatian rebels. Both sides of the Hungarian feud sought allies. Florence sided with the Anjou, while Sigismund of Luxembourg was supported by Venice and Duke Visconti of Milan, alleged by his contemporaries to have supplied weapons to the Turks.

Sultan Murad headed for Serbia in the early summer of 1389. He assembled an army of vassals and mercenaries, along with his own troops. By way of his vassals’ territories he reached Kosovo, from which routes led in different directions. Upon receiving news of his approach, Prince Lazar, Vuk Branković, on whose land the battle was fought, and King Tvrtko, who sent a large unit under the command of voivoda Vlatko Vuković, joined forces.

There is reliable information as to where the battle took place: part of the Kosovo Polje (Field of Blackbirds) near Priština, where Murad’s turbe (burial stone) still stands, was noted in sixteenth-century maps. The date of the battle is indubitable: St. Vitus’s Day, June 15, 1389. It is also certain that Sultan Murad was murdered and Prince Lazar was taken prisoner and slain the same day. Some Christian warriors became Turkish prisoners, and Bosnian nobles from Vlatko Vuković’s unit were still being sought in 1403 in Constantinople.

Information regarding other important details was at first contradictory. King Tvrtko reported his great victory with some casualties, but “not many,” in letters to his city of Trogir and his ally Florence. The death of the Ottoman ruler gave the Byzantines, and others all the way to France, the impression that the Christians had been victorious. According to medieval notions, holding onto the battleground was crucial in rating the outcome. The Turks remained in Kosovo for a short time, then headed east so that their new ruler Bayazid could strengthen his position. Vuk Branković, the lord of the territory, remained in place and in power, and did not immediately yield to the Turks.

Indisputable contemporary witnesses stated that contradictory versions of the battle circulated from the very beginning. Five weeks after the battle, no one in Venice knew who had succeeded Murad, and the Venetian envoy was instructed to tell anyone he found in power that the Republic had been informed, “although not clearly,” of the war between Murad and Prince Lazar, “of which different things had been said, but were not to be trusted.” Chalcocondyles, a fifteenth-century Byzantine historian, directly compared the Christians’ claims with those of the Turks, who maintained that the sultan had been killed after the battle, while inspecting the battlefield.

As time passed the tales unraveled further. The leitmotif of treason emerged on the Christian side, first linked with the Bosnian detachment and a certain Dragoslav, and then becoming focused and remaining on Vuk Branković. In the first decades following the battle, the theme emerged of the slandered knight, who went to the Turkish camp to slay Sultan Murad. Under the influence of epic tales of chivalry, Murad’s assassin and Lazar’s traitor were linked together, both becoming the prince’s sons-in-law. In the late fifteenth century the topic of the prince’s dinner and Lazar’s toast was well known. An entire collection of epic poetry was created containing many picturesque details, very far from reality.

The general view of the battle and its consequences was also far from reality. The battle of Kosovo was not a Crusade, nor was it the defense of Christianity, because the hinterland was hostile. At the time of the battle, Sigismund of Luxembourg had started an expedition against the Bosnian ruler. Prince Lazar had managed to achieve peace, with the mediation of his son-in-law Nicolas Gara the Younger, while Tvrtko remained at war with King Sigismund.

The idea that the “fall of the Serbian Empire” took place at the battle of Kosovo is fundamentally wrong, because the state continued to exist for a further seven decades and experienced economic and cultural revival. According to folklore traditions, the battle of Kosovo set off migrations and ruptured the development of clans and families. Of all Serbian historical events, the battle of Kosovo has been the most popular episode, deeply engraved in the national consciousness. It served as an inspiration for courageous deeds and sacrifices up to the twentieth century, and was widely used in condemning and stigmatizing treason.