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Medieval Sourcebook:
William of Tyre:
The Fiasco at Damascus, 1148

[Adapted from Brundage] King Louis and his entourage arrived in the harbor of St. Simeon, near Antioch, on March 19, 1148. Welcomed by Prince Raymond of Antioch, the King and his retainers settled down to enjoy the friendly reception accorded them by their friends, who saw in King Louis' army the potential saviors of the Principality of Antioch and of all the Latin states. And, indeed, the presence of Louis' cavalry forces greatly strengthened the position of the Latins in the East. Although Louis had lost or been separated from the great majority of the troops and pilgrims who had set out with him originally, the Crusading forces which finally Antioch were far from negligible.

Almost at once, Louis was besieged with urgent requests from various Latin princes and noblemen to lend his army to the favorite military schemes of the individual leaders. To all the plans presented to him, Louis demurred. As a Crusader he had sworn when he took the cross to visit the shrines of Jerusalem, and he quickly made it clear that the fulfillment of this vow was to be his first consideration in the East. King Louis' decision was also influenced, no doubt, by the dubious relationship which had sprung up between his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Prince Raymond of Antioch, Eleanor's cousin. Accordingly, King Louis and his army were soon on the march again. They stopped for a short time at Tripoli and then continued on their way to Jerusalem. On their arrival there, they found Conrad of Germany, together with a small contingent of the survivors from his army, awaiting them.

After King Louis had fulfilled his vows by worshipping at the holy shrines of Jerusalem, he was ready to consider proposals to put his military forces to use in the defense of the Latin states. On June 24, 1148, a general council of the princes and military leaders then in the Holy Land was held at Acre, After vigorous discussion of various plans of action, the assembly finally decided to concentrate all the available forces on a supreme effort to conquer the ancient, venerable, and wealthy city of Damascus, a vital center of commerce and communications. Accordingly, the forces of the various sovereigns were mustered.' The King of Jerusalem, Baldwin III, the Templars and Hospitallers, the various lords of the other Latin states, and the French and German kings joined together to justify by military conquest the enormous effort which had brought the Second Crusade to the East.

Damascus is the largest city of lesser Syria and is its metropolis, for as it is said, "Damascus is the head of Syria." [Is. 7:8] The city is also known as the Phoenicia of Lebanon and is named after a certain servant of Abraham who is believed to have founded it. The name means "bloody" or "dripping with gore." The city is located on a plain in a land which is barren and arid, save where it is irrigated by waters brought down for its benefit through ancient canals. A stream descends from a nearby mountain ridge in the highlands of that area and is channeled through the various lower sections of the region so as to fertilize the barren fields.

Since there is an abundance of water, the surplus is used to nourish the orchards of fruit trees which are located on either side of the stream. The stream flows along the eastern wall of the city. When the kings came to the place which had been agreed upon, namely Daria, which was close to Damascus, they organized their lines for battle and settled the order of battle for their legions lest, if they went ahead in disorderly fashion, quarrels should break out among them and hinder their common task.

By the common decision of the princes it was agreed that the King of Jerusalem and his men were to go first, principally because they were supposed to be familiar with the lay of the land. They were supposed to open the way for the rest who were following them. The French King and the men of his expedition were ordered to take the second, or center, place, so that, if necessary, they could assist those ahead of them. The Emperor, by the same token, was ordered to keep in the third and last place, so that he would be ready to resist the enemy if perchance they should attack from the rear. He was thus to make the forces ahead secure from behind. When the three armies had been placed in proper order, they moved the camp forward and attempted to approach the city.

On the western side of Damascus from which our troops approached, and on the northern side, too, the city enclosed far and wide by orchards which are like a dense woods or a shady forest, extending five miles or more toward Lebanon. These orchards are enclosed by mud walls-rock is not plentiful in that region-so that their ownership will not be in doubt and also to keep out trespassers. The orchards are, therefore, enclosed by defensive walls in such a way that each man's possessions are identified. Paths and public roads, though they are narrow, are left open so that the gardeners and those who have charge of the orchards can make their way to the city with the animals which carry the fruit. These orchards are the city's greatest protection. Because of their density, because of the number of the trees, and because of the narrowness of the roads, it seemed difficult-indeed, almost impossible-for those who wished to approach Damascus to do so from that side. From the beginning, however, our princes had decided to bring the army in through this area to gain access to the city. There was a double reason for this: on the one band, it was done so that after the most securely guarded areas in which the Damascenes had the greatest faith had been occupied, what remained would seem easy and would be more readily accomplished. On the other hand, the approach was made in this way so that the army would not be deprived of the benefits of food and water. The King of Jerusalem, therefore, sent his fighting formations in first through those narrow orchard paths. The army could scarcely make headway and did so with great difficulty, both because it was hemmed in by the narrow roads and also because it was hindered by the ambushes of the men who were hidden in the thickets. Also, the army had sometimes to engage the enemies who appeared and seized the circuitous paths.

All the people of Damascus came out together and descended upon the aforesaid orchards in order to block the army's passage both by stealth and by open attack. There were, furthermore, walls and large, tall houses among the orchards. These were defended by soldiers whose possessions lay nearby. They defended the orchard walls by shooting arrows and other missiles and allowed no one to approach them, while the arrows shot from on high made the public roads exceedingly dangerous for those who wished to pass through them. Nor were our men beset with formidable obstacles only on one side. Rather, on every side there was equal peril for the unwary and danger of sudden and unforeseen death. There were, moreover, men with lances hiding inside of the walls. When these men saw our men passing by, they would stab them as they passed, through little peepholes in the walls which were cleverly designed for this purpose, so that those hiding inside could scarcely be seen. Many are said to have perished miserably that day in this way. Countless other kinds of danger, too, faced those who wished to pass through those narrow paths.

As our men became aware of this, they pushed on more fiercely. When they had broken down the barricades in the orchards, they occupied them eagerly. Those whom they discovered within the walls or in the houses, they pierced with their swords or threw into chains as captives. When the townsmen who had come out to defend the orchards heard this, they feared that they would perish as the others had. They left the orchards and returned to the city in droves. Thus, when the defenders either had been slaughtered or bad been turned to flight, a free path forward lay open to our men.

The cavalry forces of the townsmen and of those who had come to their assistance realized that our army was coming through the orchards in order to besiege the city and they accordingly approached the stream which flowed by the town. This they did with their bows and ballistas so that they could fight off the Latin army, which was fatigued by its journey and also so that they could prevent the thirsty men from reaching the river and the water which was so necessary for them. Our men hurried to the river, which they had heard was nearby, in order to relieve their thirst, which bad grown intense from the difficulties of their labors and the dense clouds of dust which were raised by the feet of horses and men. There they saw such a multitude of the enemy that they halted for a time. After a while they collected their men. They were given strength and hardiness by necessity. Once and then again they strove to get to the water, but in vain. While the king of Jerusalem and his men struggled vainly, the Emperor, who commanded the formations in the rear, demanded to know why the army was not moving forward. He was told that the enemy had seized the river and that they were blocking the progress of our men. When be learned of this, the Emperor was angered and, together with his lieutenants, he speedily made his way through the French King's ranks to the place where the fight for the river was going on. They dismounted from their horses and became infantrymen-as the Germans are accustomed to do in the crisis of battle. With shields in hand they fought the enemy hand-to-hand with swords. The enemy, who had earlier resisted valiantly, were unable to withstand the attack. They relinquished the river bank and fled at full speed to the city.

In this combat the Lord Emperor is said to have performed a feat which will be remembered through the ages. It is related that one of the enemy was resisting manfully and vigorously and that the Emperor with one blow cut off this enemy soldier's head and neck with the left shoulder and arm attached, together with part of his side-despite the fact that the foe was wearing a cuirass. At this deed the citizens, both those who witnessed it and those who learned of it from others, were thrown into such a fright that they despaired of resisting and even of life itself.

When the river had been won and its banks had been freely yielded, the Crusaders camped far and wide around the city, with the advantage of using freely the orchards, for which they had so strenuously fought, as well as the river. The townsmen were astonished both at the amazing number of our troops and at their courage. They began to be troubled about their own men and whether they could withstand us. They feared a sudden attack by us and counted nothing safe when they considered what kind of men they had discovered us to be in the previous day's battles. They conferred, therefore, and with the ingenuity which is characteristic of those suffering misery and adversity, they had recourse to desperate devices. In all the sections of the city which faced our camps they heaped up huge, tall beams, for they could only hope that while our men were working to tear down these barriers they might be able to flee in the opposite direction with their wives and children. It seemed evident to our men that if the divine favor was with us the city would soon be taken by the Christians. But it seemed otherwise to Him Who is "terrible in his judgments of the sons of men." [Ps 9:4] The city, as we have said, was in despair and its citizens held no hope of resisting or of being saved, but rather they were packing their bags and preparing to leave. At this point, for our sins, they began to work on the greed of our men. Using money, they attempted to conquer the hearts of those whose bodies they could not overcome. With consummate skill they proposed a variety of arguments to some of our princes and they promised and delivered a stupendous sum of money to them so that the princes would strive and labor to lift the siege. They persuaded these princes to assume the role of the traitor Judas. Corrupted by gifts and promises, led on by greed, the root of all evil, these princes fell in with the crime. By impious suggestions they persuaded the kings and the leaders of the pilgrims, who trusted their good faith and industry, to leave the orchards and to lead the army to the opposite side of the city. To camouflage their plot they alleged that on the opposite side of Damascus, which faced south and west, there were neither orchards to strengthen the city nor any moat or river to hinder their approach to the walls. The wall, they said, was low and was made of sunbaked bricks and it would scarcely withstand the first attack. There, they asserted, neither engines nor any great force would be needed. In the first attack the wall could immediately be torn down by band and it would not be difficult to break into the city....

The kings and all the leaders of the army believed them and they deserted the places which they bad earlier won with so much sweat and at the cost of the lives of so many of their men. They transferred all of their formations and, under the leadership of the traitors, they camped on the opposite side of the city.

There they found themselves located far from access to water, deprived of the abundance of fruit, and lacking almost all supplies. They were saddened and they discovered, all too late, that they bad maliciously been led to move from a region of abundance.

The food supply in the camp began to run out. Before the men had set out on the expedition, they had been persuaded to believe that the city would be quickly taken and they had brought along provisions for only a few days. This was especially true for the pilgrims, nor could they be blamed for it, since they were unfamiliar with the country. They had been persuaded, too, that the city would be taken at once in the initial attacks and they were assured that in the meantime a large army could be fed on the fruit supply which they could get for nothing, even if all other food were lacking.

The doubtful men deliberated publicly and privately as to what they were to do. To return to the places they had left seemed hard, even impossible, for, when our men had left, the enemy saw that what they desired had been accomplished. They had entered those places more strongly than before and bad barricaded the roads by which our men had earlier entered. they had blocked them by piling up beams and large rocks and had sent in an immense company of archers who made access impossible. To attack the city from the area where the camps were now located would, on the other hand, involve delay; but the lack of food supplies would not allow a long respite. The pilgrim princes consulted one another. Seeing the manifest discomfort of the men whose spiritual care and whose Crusade had been confided to them and knowing that they could make no headway, they decided to return, despising the false pretenses of the men who had betrayed them.

Thus a company of kings and princes such as we have not read of through all the ages had gathered and, for our sins, had been forced to return, covered with shame and disgrace, with their mission unfulfilled. They returned to the kingdom by the same route over which they had come. Henceforth, so long as they remained in the East, they regarded the ways of our princes with suspicion. With good reason they turned down all their wicked plans and henceforth the leaders of the Crusade were lukewarm in the service of the Kingdom. Even after they had returned to their own lands they constantly remembered the injuries they had suffered and detested our princes as wicked men. Nor were they alone affected. For they also caused others who had not been there to neglect the care of the kingdom, so that henceforth those who undertook the pilgrimages were fewer and less fervent. Even today those who come are careful lest they fall into a trap and they strive to return home as soon as possible.


William of Tyre, Historia rerum in partibus transmarinis gestarum, XVII, 3-6, Patrologia Latina 201, 675-79, Translated by James Brundage, The Crusades: A Documentary History, (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 1962), 115-121
Copyright note: Professor Brundage informed the Medieval Sourcebook that copyright was not renewed on this work. Moreover he gave permission for use of his translations.

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© Paul Halsall December 1997
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