The town of Ma'arra, now known as Ma'arrat al-Nu'man or Ma'arat an Numaan, lies in Syria, where it sits on top of the main road heading south through Damascus (Dimashq) to Jerusalem. It is best known as the home of the poet Abul Ala al-Ma'arri (973-1057), the author of the immortal lines, "The inhabitants of the earth are of two sorts: Those with brains, but no religion, and those with religion, but no brains", and for being the site of one of the more bloody engagements of the First Crusade.
In the year 1098 the army of the First Crusade set out from Constantinople towards its goal of 'liberating' the holy city of Jerusalem. Enroute its leaders decided to capture the city of Antioch, which finally succumbed after an eight month siege on the 3rd June 1098, only for the Crusaders themselves to be besieged in turn by the Turkish army of Kerbogah between the 4th and 29th June, which was only relieved when the attackers turned defenders were inspired by the discovery of the Holy Lance and rode out from the city to scatter the opposition.
No doubt the inhabitants of Ma'arra were concerned about the arrival of this crusading army, as its own walls were not particularly strong, and it was in the middle of a plain and so possessed no natural defences. Indeed in July 1098 a Provencal knight named Raymond Pilet captured Tell Mannas to the east of the town, and then made an attempt to similarly seize Ma'arra, only to be "badly mauled by the garrison". However Ma'arra was "neither a large nor an important place", and the town could easily have been bypassed by the Crusaders enroute to their ultimate goal of Jerusalem. Unfortunately, for the citizens of Ma'arra at least, many of the leaders of the Crusade were more concerned about building their own independent kingdoms and keeping the army occupied, rather than making their way to the holy city.
The Siege of Ma'arra
It was the Flemish contingent of the crusading army who first arrived at Ma'arra sometime before the 27th November 1098, and so it was Raymond of Toulouse and Robert of Flanders who led the first assault on the city walls on the 28th November. Unfortunately they only had two ladders available when they could have done with six, and so the attempt failed. On the following day Bohemond arrived and led his own assault which the exact same result. The crusaders then decided to build a siege tower, although as they set down to the work the resulting delay led to a "great hunger in the army", since the area had already been scoured of food during the lengthy siege of Antioch.
The siege tower was eventually deployed on the 11th December 1098, and since it wasn't constructed with a bridge, it wasn't used to directly assault the walls of Ma'arra, but rather as a platform from which such men as Evrad the Huntsman and William of Montpellier could throw stones and other projectiles down on the defenders on the walls. It therefore served largely as a cover for the mining operations that were being carried out at the foot of the tower, and as a distraction from another attempt to scale the walls. This time around the assault was successful and one Geoffrey of Lastours was first to get on the wall. Although he and his men were then left stranded as the ladder broke, the mere appearance of the enemy on the walls of their city was sufficient to persuade the inhabitants to abandon their defence of the walls and retreat into the city itself.
The final assault on the city took place on the following morning. It certainly appears that Bohemond, the effective leader of the besieging army, then agreed to spare the lives of the inhabitants in return for their agreement to stop fighting. Whether or not Bohemond intended to keep to this promise is unclear, but he was clearly unable to control the men under his command, as they promptly went about the business of slaughtering the inhabitants notwithstanding what had previously been agreed. Indeed according to the Muslim chronicler Ibn al-Ahtir this resulted in the death of "more than a hundred thousand people", an exaggeration by a factor of at least ten, and perhaps as much as a hundred, but nevertheless most, if not all, of the civilian population of Ma'arra were killed that day.
All of us together cannot tame King Tafur
However the siege of Ma'arra is to be remembered for more than simple mass slaughter, as Fulcher of Chartres was to write in his Historia Hierosolymitana; "I shudder to say that many of our men, terribly tormented by the madness of starvation, cut pieces of flesh from the buttocks of Saracens lying there dead. These pieces they cooked and ate, savagely devouring the flesh while it was insufficiently roasted". His sentiments were echoed by the chroniclers Radulph of Caen, who wrote that in "Ma'arra our troops boiled pagan adults in cooking-pots; they impaled children on spits and devoured them grilled", and Albert of Aix who noted that "the Christians did not shrink from eating not only killed Turks or Saracens, but even dogs".
The finger of blame was pointed at one particular group of crusaders known as the Tafurs, who have been variously described as "desperados" and "a hard-core of poor men" who were organised under the leadership of their very own, and most likely entirely legendary 'King Tafur'. According to Guibert of Nogent these Tafurs were the "poorest in the crusading army", and likely the last remnant of the People's Crusade, whom he described as being "barefoot, shaggy, clad in ragged sackcloth, covered in sores and filth" and "such a ferocious band that any country they passed through was utterly devestated". It was also said that they "looted everything they could lay hands on, raped the Moslem women and carried out indiscriminate massacres", since these "holy madmen" appeared to believe that those professing the Muslim faith were the 'the race of Cain' and 'the sons of whores' and that in so doing they were merely the agents of divine justice.
It certainly appears as if these Tafurs were responsible for at least the vast majority of the acts of cannibalism. The local Muslims were, in any event, terrified of them and considered them the "living devils", whilst the Tafurs themselves revelled in the reputation they obtained in this manner. There are however those who doubt whether the accusation of comsumming grilled child is entirely accurate, and note that baby eating "is a standard accusation in Western civilisation against one's religious or political opponents", and that this meant nothing more than that the monastic chroncilers of the First Crusade simply disapproved of the fanatical Tafurs. It has also been noted that Guibert of Nogent wrote that the Tafurs "roasted the bruised body of a Turk over a fire as if it were meat for eating, in full view of the Turkish forces", which implies that the Tafurs were engaged in a form of primitive psychological warfare and were therefore rather seeking to intimidate the enemy rather than actually eat one.
Nonetheless it is perfectly clear that acts of cannibalism did take place as when the Emir of Antioch protested about the cannibalism of the Tafurs, the noble princes of the Crusade did not deny the acusation, but merely admitted that "All of us together cannot tame King Tafur".
Lurid tales of the fate of the inhabitants of Ma'arra and of the actions of the crusaders on the storming of the city eventually
spread throughout the Muslim communities of the Middle East and helped inspire the later counter-crusade of Saladin. Even today when the history of the Crusades is considered in the light of modern relations between the West and the Middle East, the events of the Siege of Ma'arra are recalled.
- ArchNet: Ma'arrat al-Nu'man
- Amin Maalouf, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, (Saqi Books, 2001)
- Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages
- John France, Victory in the East: A Military History of the First Crusade (Cambridge University Press, 1996)
- Helen Nicholson, Frequently Asked Questions on the Crusades