Of all the notorious atrocities which took place during the First Crusade (1096–1099), the Siege of the Syrian city of Ma'arra stands out. The gruesome aftermath of the city's fall and occupation by the invading European Crusaders saw some of them resort to cannibalism of the Muslim dead due to lack of food and subsequent starvation.
What: The siege, massacre and cannibalism in Ma'arra by Crusaders.
When: 12 December 1098
Antioch — in modern-day Turkiye — was captured by the Crusaders led by Raymond of Toulouse and Bohemond of Taranto in June 1098 after a year-long siege. This was followed by the fall of the fortified city of Ma'araat Al-Numan, in what is today Syria, which surrendered to the Crusaders who had laid siege to it around the end of November the same year. The invaders wanted the city to boost their dwindling supplies and extend their control of the Holy Land. The ultimate prize was Jerusalem in Palestine, which fell on 15 July 1099, and had to wait 88 years to be liberated by Sultan Salah Al-Din Al-Ayyubi (known in the West as "Saladin").
Initially, a few of Ma'arra's Muslim residents fled the city following news of the fate of Antioch, and some made it to the more secure cities of Aleppo, Homs and Hama. By the time the Crusaders under Raymond arrived at Ma'arra, though, most of the inhabitants were still there, fewer than 10,000 people who thought that they'd be safe behind the city's walls which had so far helped to repel invaders.
Having failed at his first attempt to take the city, and being ridiculed by the locals in the process, Raymond combined forces with his ally and political rival Bohemond. They failed again, so adopted a different strategy and surrounded the city. As winter approached, it became essential to secure supply lines, especially to feed the troops, who had started to suffer from hunger.
The siege succeeds
Eventually the invaders built siege towers, which were completed within ten days. They managed to breach the walls on 11 December, forcing the citizens into the city defended by a poorly trained and equipped militia. For the most part, the Crusaders decided to settle down for the night before plundering the city the next day. A peaceful surrender was negotiated with leading members of the town which included safe passage. However, by dawn, some of the poorer and hungrier Crusaders began to plunder the city.
On the morning of 12 December, the other Crusaders realised that whatever little food was left had been taken. They went on a violent rampage across Ma'arra. Nobody was safe. One contemporary observer recorded that, "No corner of the town was clear of Saracen corpses, and one could scarcely go about the streets except by treading on their dead bodies."
The carnage didn't end with the mass murder of men, women and children; the starving Crusaders turned to cannibalism with the many corpses. One chronicler, Radulph of Caen, noted that, "Some people said that, constrained by the lack of food, they boiled pagan adults in cooking pots, impaled children on spits and devoured them grilled."
Fulcher of Chartres acknowledged the savagery committed by the Christian soldiers: "I shudder to tell that many of our people, harassed by the madness of excessive hunger, cut pieces from the buttocks of the Saracens already dead there, which they cooked, but when it was not yet roasted enough by the fire, they devoured it with savage mouth."
There has been some scholarly debate as to the root cause of this infamous episode in the First Crusade, with some placing blame on the most impoverished soldiers, known as the Tafurs, while a desperate general response to starvation has also been suggested. Some sources state that the poorer Christian forces cut open the bodies of the dead to look for coins hidden in the stomachs before cooking and eating scraps of flesh from the bodies. Eventually the human remains were dragged outside the city, where they were burnt in large piles.
The cannibalism itself is said to have shocked and reviled Crusaders and Arab Muslims alike. Most of the invaders sought to distance themselves from the act of the minority.
For the Muslims however, the incident had a lasting impact, one that would not be forgotten. According to the author of The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, Amin Maalouf: "The memory of these atrocities, preserved and transmitted by local poets and oral tradition, shaped an image of the Faranj [Crusaders] that would not easily fade."
Such is the sensitivity that surrounds the Crusades and their cultural and psychological impact on the Middle East to this day, it was not surprising that some England football fans at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar were banned from entering stadiums wearing replica Crusader costumes.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.