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Antioch: Christendom’s First Great Victory Over Islam

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June 3, 2022


Today in history, on June 3, 1098, one of Christendom’s greatest victories over the jihad took place: the liberation of the ancient Christian city of Antioch — where the very word “Christian” was first coined (Acts 11:26) — from under the yoke of Islam.

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In the years following the Battle of Manzikert (1071), which saw the Seljuk Turks defeat the Eastern Roman Empire and conquer that ancient bastion of Christianity, Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), immense persecutions of Christians followed.  Whether an anonymous Georgian chronicler tells of how “holy churches served as stables for their horses,” the “priests were immolated during the Holy Communion itself,” the “virgins defiled, the youths circumcised, and the infants taken away,” or whether Anna Comnena, the princess at Constantinople, tells of how “cities were obliterated, lands were plundered, and the whole of Anatolia was stained with Christian blood” — it was the same scandalous tale of woe.

Enter the First Crusade.  To quote historian Thomas Madden, paraphrasing Pope Urban II’s famous call at Clermont in 1095, “The message was clear: Christ was crucified again in the persecution of his faithful and the defilement of his sanctuaries.” Both needed rescuing; both offered an opportunity to fulfill one of Christ’s two greatest commandments: “Love God with all your heart” and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).

Christians from all around Europe, under the leadership of the Franks, hearkened to the call and took the cross.  After a long and arduous journey into Turkic-controlled Asia Minor — which saw the crusaders meet and defeat their Muslim foes in at least two encounters — by October 1097, the Europeans were at and besieging the walls of Antioch.

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For long, Antioch had resisted Islam; even when “all the East was shaken and the successors of Muhammad were subjugating by force entire provinces to their impious superstition and perverse dogma,” chronicler William of Tyre writes, Antioch had “as long as possible refused to bear the domination of an infidel nation,” that is, until its capture by the Turks in 1084.  Now, more than a decade later, its indigenous Christians were much oppressed by their Turkish master, Yaghi-Siyan, who had demanded more jizya payments, launched sporadic persecutions, forced Christians to convert to Islam, and converted Antioch’s main cathedral into a horse stable

“Alas! How many Christians, Greeks, Syrians, and Armenians, who lived in the city, were killed by the maddened Turks,” lamented Fulcher of Chartres, who travelled with the crusaders.  “With the Franks looking on, they threw outside the walls the heads of those [Christians] killed, with their petrariae and slings.  This especially grieved our people.”

In response — and because the Frankish and Norman warrior aristocracy had no qualms about giving tit for tat — Bohemond, a Norman prince, “brought those [Muslims] he had captured back to the gate of the city, where, to terrify the citizens who were watching, he ordered that they be decapitated” and their severed heads catapulted over the city walls.  (Anna Comnena, who had met and described Bohemond as a towering “marvel for the eyes to behold,” added that “a certain charm hung about this man but was partly marred by a general air of the horrible.”  He was clearly not one to be cowed by Islamic terror tactics.)

After eight months, the strong walls of Antioch could still not be breached. Starved crusaders were reduced to eating dogs, rats, and thistles; many died of starvation, thirst, and pestilence. A particularly severe winter set in.

Eventually, a Muslim tower captain — an Armenian Christian converted to Islam during Yaghi’s persecutions — made a deal with Bohemond.  And so, today in history, on June 3, 1098, under the cover of night, the emaciated Europeans, having clandestinely been brought up over the walls into the city, ran wildly slaughtering anyone in the streets. “Those who were Christians chanted Kyrie Eleison” — the Christian mantra, “Lord have mercy,” in Greek — “to make it clear to our men that they were not Turks but Christians.” Once their shock ended, however, these same Christians, “Syrians, Armenians, and the true believers of other nations, rejoiced exceedingly over what had happened. They at once took arms and joined forces with the army.” The result was a bloodbath not unlike those Muslims had visited upon Christian cities all throughout Anatolia in the preceding decades.

As with the later crusader sack of Jerusalem in 1099, this incident is regularly cited by Islam’s apologists to demonize the crusaders.  In reality, it was a drop in the bucket of what Muslims had done to countless Christians during the preceding decades — an inconvenient fact ignored by Islam’s whitewashers.  Nor were the motives of crusaders and jihadists the same: the former engaged in violence to liberate oppressed Christian cities and regions, whereas the invading Muslims came to conquer what was never theirs.

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On the very next day, Kerbogha, the atabeg or Turkish lord of Mosul, arrived with an enormous relief force.  Antioch was quickly blockaded, and they who only yesterday were the besiegers became the besieged.  Another famine struck — by the time the crusaders took Antioch, most of its stores had been depleted by the besieged — and the besieged warriors were reduced to eating shoes and drinking horse blood.  After marching thousands of miles, fighting, starving, and dying, they were granted nary a day to celebrate the liberation of Antioch.

Was God not on their side?  These were times to try men’s souls.  Morale reached a new low, as captured in the all too contemporary sounding lament of Guy, Bohemond’s brother, who heard of the plight of his brethren:

All powerful God, whose judgement never errs, who never permits the unjust to triumph over the just, why have you betrayed those who, out of love for you, have given themselves over to daily torment and death, who have left their relatives, wives, sons, the greatest honors, their native land, and why have you exposed them, without the aid of your protection, to be cut down by the swords of abominable men? …But so be it. It may be that you want them to die for you, and that you will crown them with glory and honor, yet… [y]ou have plunged the entire Christian world into the depths of despair and incredulity, and you have provoked the worst men [Muslims] to display relentless aggression against your people. From this day forth no man will expect anything great from you, since those who believed themselves dearer to you than all other mortals have been subjected to such an unworthy fate. Therefore, O most gracious one, from now on why should they call upon you, when your own people will expect such a death?

There was nothing to it but for the famished, desperate, and outnumbered crusaders to sally forth and meet the hordes besieging them — but that is another story.

This article was adapted from the author’s book (which also contains the follow up battle against Kerbogha), Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West. Raymond Ibrahim is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center, a Judith Rosen Friedman Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute.

Image: Picryl

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