“Now there happened to be an Armenian on the tower above guarding the portion of the wall assigned to Bohemund. As he often bent over from above Bohemund plied him with honeyed words, tempted him with many promises and thus persuaded him to betray the city to him.“ (Anna Komnene, “Alexiad”)
|Bohemond climbing the walls of Antioch, as imagined by Gustave Doré|
Once the third largest city of the Roman Empire and still an important trading metropolis at the turn of the 11th century, present-day Antakya on the Turkish-Syrian border was in the hand of the Seljuk Turks since the disastrous defeat of Eastern Rome at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, the trigger that caused Emperor Alexios to call for Western help that ended in the First Crusade.
Antioch did not only occupy a vital strategic position on the road from Asia Minor to Jerusalem but had an immense symbolic value to the Crusaders, since it was the city that allegedly housed the first congregation that called itself Christian – and it was a rich prize on top of it, even though the Frankish princes had sworn to return cities captured outside of the Holy Land to Alexios and the Eastern Roman Empire.
|The Belgian history painter Louis Gallait’s (1810 – 1887) idea of “The Capture of Antioch by Bohemond of Tarente in June 1098” (1840)|
The city with its formidable Byzantine fortifications and determined Turkish garrison proved to be hard nut to crack. During the winter of 1097 / 98 the besiegers suffered probably far more than the besieged up to the point that the Crusaders began to eat their own invaluable chargers. With the rumour that a large Turkish relief force was on the march from Mesopotamia, the commander of the Byzantine contingent accompanying the Crusade decided he’d had it and returned to Constantinople. Things looked bleak.
Bohemond of Tarent though, son of Alexios’ old enemy, the Norman Robert Guiscard, not overmuch worried by his oath to Byzantium, came up with a plan to take the city, if the assembled Crusader lords would assign Antioch to him as his personal princedom. They grudgingly agreed. In the night of June 1st his men assembled at the Gate Tower of the Two Sisters, commanded by a bribed Armenian called Firouz who had promised to admit the Franks. Even Bohemond’s liege men didn’t trust the story that popped up at the eleventh hour and the canny Norman prince climbed up the ladder first, his men then followed, the gates opened and the surprised city was put to the sack.
|Gustave Doré: "The Massacre of Antioch"|
Among the victims were mostly eastern Christians, slaughtered in their thousands by the Crusaders who had actually sworn to free them from the Muslim yoke. On June 2nd, the whole city except the citadel was taken. The advancing relief army was defeated after the moral boost when another Holy Lance was discovered by Peter Bartholomew in Antioch’s St Peter Cathedral. Bohemund, who refrained from further crusading, was finally acknowledged as Prince of Antioch in January 1099.