Battle of Dorylaeum: Crusaders Defeat Muslims during First Crusade

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Battle of Dorylaeum: Crusaders Defeat Muslims during First Crusade

"Battle of Dorylaeum" artist unknown; from Histoire d'Outremer, 14th century manuscript
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

[Today's post is an update to one originally published in 2010]

Today in Military History: July 1, 1097

Nine hundred years ago, the nations of Europe were challenged by the Pope to wrest the lands of Palestine and the Levant from the Muslims. With the full support of the Catholic Church, a crusade was launched to free the Holy Land.

Background to the Battle

For the previous 460 years, the Muslims of the Arabian deserts moved north, west and east to conquer nations and convert them to the "submission" of the god of their prophet Mohammed. By the year 1096, their empire stretched across North Africa to Spain, in Asia Minor threatening the Byzantine Empire, and had destroyed the Sassanid Persian Empire, pushing Islam to the Indus River and into the steppes of Central Asia.

In November of 1095 at the Council of Clermont, Pope Urban II sought to instill religious zeal in his fellow Frenchmen to form a new kind of pilgrimage: a crusade. The pope further sweetened the pot by saying that anyone who went on the crusade would be granted remission of sins and admitted to heaven. In one version of the Pope's speech (there are at least five major versions, all differing widely in wording), the Pontiff whipped the listening crowd into such a frenzy, that the people listening shouted at the end, "Deus vult!" (God wills it)

The causes for the Crusades have been proposed and rejected endlessly. Some of the basic ones included: a desire to recapture the Holy Land from the Muslims; some major objective to rid Europe of the bellicose nobility looking for land and loot; and, a possible desire to re-impose western Christianity on some areas formerly held by the Orthodox Christian Byzantines. However, it seems that the most likely major component to the Crusaders' motivation was genuine, Christian piety. As clergy preached the call to a Crusade throughout France, Germany and Italy, the vast majority of persons who "took the cross" were simple peasants with no wealth or military experience, but a simple faith and passion to do God's work here on earth.

Over the next year, many nobles of various nations, principally France and the Norman duchies, began organizing their forces for the journey eastward. They finally began their crusade in August of 1096, with four separate armies making their way towards Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire. Arriving between November 1096 and April of 1097, the armies were low on food but still high on morale and crusading fervor. However, they were met with suspicion by the East Roman emperor Alexius, who a few months previously had to put up with a mob of peasants – dubbed the "People's Crusade – led by an itinerant monk, Peter the Hermit. Alexius's experience with this badly-led, badly-provisioned rabble had cooled his ardor for allowing "Franks" to fight for his empire.

Map of Asia Minor, c. 1096, created by MapMaster & courtesy of Wikipedia
Map of Asia Minor, c. 1096, created by MapMaster & courtesy of Wikipedia

Once all the French and Norman leaders had arrived before the walls of Constantinople, Alexius arranged a meeting with them. The emperor held a lavish ceremony whereby the crusading leaders swore fealty to him and promised to give back to the Byzantines any territory they conquered from the Muslims. All of the leaders swore the oath, with the exception of Raymond of Toulouse, who instead offered an oath of friendship with the empire. After giving the Europeans food and some supplies, the Byzantines began ferrying them across the Bosporus onto the soil of Asia Minor at the end of April. Alexius also gave them some advice on how to fight the Seljuks.

The Europeans first objective was the nearby city of Nicaea, a formerly Byzantine town which was now the capital of the Seljuk Turkish sultanate of Rûm, ruled by Kilij Arslan. The Crusaders besieged the city beginning in mid-May, with the help of some Byzantine troops and two generals sent by Alexius. Despite Arslan's attempt to break the siege, Nicaea surrendered on June 18, and the city was turned over to the Byzantines. The Crusaders were denied the act of looting the city, an almost sacred rite of conquest, which caused some very hard feelings. Their feeling were somewhat allayed when the Byzantine emperor paid the Europeans a large amount of cash to be distributed to all. Over the next few days, preparations were underway for the march to free the Holy Land.

Prelude to the Battle

The crusader army was a very large army for the time, estimated by modern historians to be between 30,000 and 35,000 soldiers, perhaps as many as 40,000. On June 26, eight days after the fall of Nicaea, the crusader leaders decided to begin the journey to free Jerusalem. [One of the Crusader leaders, in a letter to his wife, thought the trip would take five weeks when it actually was two years before they reached the Holy City.]

European Crusader knights, late 11th century AD, lances couched; Image courtesy of
European Crusader knights, late 11th century AD, lances couched
Image courtesy of

With dwindling supplies, the nobles decided to split their force into two parts, hoping to better facilitate foraging. In the vanguard were the forces of the Normans Bohemund of Taranto; Bohemund's nephew Tancred; Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy and eldest son of the late William the Conqueror; and Robert Count of Flanders. This group numbered about 10,000 effectives, likely 8000 men-at-arms and 2000 cavalry. In addition, the vanguard also had a large number of non-combatant pilgrims, servants and camp followers. [Some chroniclers said there was a disagreement among the various European leaders, so Bohemund and his fellow Italo-Normans decided to go off on their own.]

The rear crusader force was under the command of: Godfrey of Bouillon; his brother, Baldwin of Boulogne; Raymond Count of Toulouse; Stephen Count of Blois; and Hugh Count of Vermandois, younger brother of the king of France. This force numbered between 20,000 and 25,000 soldiers – about 3000 of which were knights and cavalry – and was following a few hours ride behind the lead group. Raymond of Toulouse commanded the largest component of this group, about 8500 men-at-arms and 1200 cavalry.

On June 29, the Crusaders saw Turkish scouts shadowing the lead column. Bohemund's men managed to capture one of them, and after questioning it was learned that Kilij Arslan and his Turks meant to ambush the Crusaders near the ruins of the city of Dorylaeum (the modern-day Turkish city of Eskişehir). This information put the entire force on alert, as they continued to move forward. On the evening of June 30, the Europeans made camp in a meadow on the north bank of the River Thymbres, within sight of the ruins of Dorylaeum. Since leaving Nicaea on June 26, the Crusaders had marched an unheard-of 85 miles in four days.

The Battle of Dorylaeum

At dawn on July 1, the Muslim army launched an attack on the slumbering camp of the Crusaders. [The size of the Turkish army has been estimated at between 6000 to 8000 men, possibly as large as 30,000.] The entire force was mounted archers, and their tactics and mobility stunned the Europeans. As the chroniclers of the time reported, "The Turks came upon us from all sides, skirmishing, throwing darts and javelins and shooting arrows from an astonishing range." The Turks also "began to whistle and chatter and shout at the top of their voices, uttering a diabolical sound," so in addition to the terrific missile barrage, the Muslim attack was pressed forward with battle cries, screams and the relentless sound of drums.

Seljuk Turk horse archers shooting, 11th century AD; Image courtesy of
Seljuk Turk horse archers shooting, 11th century AD
Image courtesy of

Despite being caught either sleeping or at breakfast by the furious morning assault, Bohemond gathered his available knights and, according to various chroniclers, gave a short speech appealing not only for divine help, but to his troops' base greed, saying, "Hodie omnes divites si Deo placet effecti eritis." (This day, if it pleases God, you will all become rich.) Apparently, the Norman leader knew his men had not lost their instinctive Norse proclivity for plunder. The Norman knights were professional fighters, and as such reacted swiftly to the surprise attack, unlike their allied mercenary contingents and noncombatants.

Bohemond left orders for the European foot soldiers to finish pitching camp and prepare to defend it. He also managed to quickly organize numbers of camp followers to carry water to the knights and armed foot soldiers. He had very little time to react and organize his men, however, as the Turks fired and then charged, cutting down numbers of dazed and disoriented Christians as they tried to form lines of battle.

While many of the foot soldiers and camp followers huddled together in the camp, fearfully singing, praying and confessing their sins as Turkish arrows cut them down, Bohemond formed up those knights he could rally and tried to blunt the Muslim attack. He also had to restrain his brother, Tancred, and other Normans from impetuously charging the elusive Turkish horse archers. Bohemond's men were united in their reliance on each other for survival. With a tremendous show of courage, the Norman knights bought time for the rest of the army to form a cohesive defense.

The helplessness and vulnerability of the pilgrims and camp followers to the archer fire and slashing Turkish swords motivated Bohemond to take a defensive posture. Sending messengers out to find and warn the other crusader army of his situation, the Norman leader sought to preserve his army in the face of the unrelenting Muslim assault. More than 2,000 men reportedly fell victim to the enemy's arrows over the next several hours. The majority of the casualties were unarmored foot soldiers and pilgrims. With the Turkish horsemen infiltrating sections of the camp, the Italo-Norman force began to fall back toward the riverbank.

Battle of Dorylaeum, July 1, 1097, first phase; Image courtesy of
Battle of Dorylaeum, July 1, 1097, first phase
Image courtesy of

The Turks found the Western European knight much tougher to kill than the less-armored foot soldier. The knights (who the Saracens would later call 'men of iron') would take numerous missile hits and still fight on. But the Turks had the Crusaders virtually surrounded and kept their archers supplied with a constant supply of arrows. Even an armored knight could take only so many hits before he fell.

The Norman leader managed to maintain some semblance of order in his ranks, even though the Turks had by now captured a large portion of their camp and were swarming around the Crusader army, cutting off individuals and small groups, forcing the main body slowly back to the riverbank. Throughout the clashes, the women of the camp continued to bring water to the front ranks, encouraging the warriors. Again and again, small groups of mounted knights would make futile charges, only to be forced to fall back, as the elusive Turkish horsemen retired beyond reach of their swords and lances, still pelting them with arrows from their composite bows.

As he did not have the numbers to decisively check the encircling Turks, Bohemond dismounted his knights and formed them in a large circle, protecting the panicked pilgrims and camp followers from the murderous Muslim fire; the marshy banks of the Thymbres protected the Crusaders from any mounted cavalry assault. Bohemond placed the thousands of women and children along the banks of the river, protected by the reedy marshland. The Crusaders were stuck, with no chance of retreat, but surrender was out of the question. Meanwhile, the knights sweltered in the hot sun, many probably were overcome by heat stroke, dehydration or exhaustion.

"The Battle of Dorylaeum" by Gustave Dore (1875); Image courtesy of
"The Battle of Dorylaeum" by Gustave Dore (1875)
Image courtesy of

Bohemond could only watch as his army died slowly from the "arrows and javelins…falling as thick as hail, the savage, piercing shrieks of the enemy, and the diabolical swiftness of their cavalry, constantly darting in to the attack and then away again," as one chronicler described the situation. The Crusaders' morale was failing. The chronicler Fulcher of Chartres wrote, "We were all indeed huddled together like sheep…trembling and frightened, surrounded on all sides by enemies so that we could not turn in any direction…we had no hope of surviving."

After withstanding the Turkish assault for seven hours, just after midday the first relief contingent from the rear column arrived, a group of fifty knights led by Godfrey of Bouillon. One chronicler's description of the first attack on the encircling Muslim horsemen states it was led by a pair of knights in shining armor, who appeared to be impervious to the enemy's missile fire. [One of these knights would, in Christian mythology, be identified as Saint George, come to rescue the Crusaders in their hour of extreme need.] This claim of divine intervention would become a mainstay of Crusader legends. More realistically, the very ferocity of the rescuing knights' shock assault probably caught the Turks by complete surprise.

The fighting became increasingly desperate, with chronicles from both sides complementing the courage of the soldiers of the other army. Kilij Arslan compared the Crusaders to hungry lions, while a Norman Crusader said of the Turks, "No one could have found more powerful, braver or more skillful fighters than they." [Of course, 30 years after the battle of Hastings, the Normans would want to pad their fighting resumé with strong, resourceful opponents.] As time passed into the mid-afternoon, several more contingents of knights and cavalry arrived to reinforce the ring of soldiers protecting Bohemund's force. They could not, however, dislodge the Muslim force from their seeming death-grip on the surrounded Crusaders and their accompanying noncombatants.

Battle of Dorylaeum, July 1, 1097, final phase; Image courtesy of
Battle of Dorylaeum, July 1, 1097, final phase
Image courtesy of

Finally, late in the afternoon, another seeming miracle turned the tide of the battle. A final force of cavalry, led by Raymond of Toulouse and Adhemar of Le Puy, the papal legate and spiritual leader of the First Crusade, arrived. These men had used the cover of some hills to screen their arrival from the Turks, crossed the River Thymbres and fell on the rear of the Turkish force. At the same time, some of Raymond's men attacked the Turkish camp, and set many of the tents aflame. Seeing their camp on fire, it was now the Muslims who lost heart and retreated. With the Turks routing from the field, the Crusaders descended upon the abandoned Muslim camp, and plundering and pillaging began in earnest.


Casualties for the Crusaders were estimated by modern historians at about 4000 killed, with Muslim deaths estimated at about 3000. Kilij Arslan, besides losing the battle, lost his treasury to the Franks.

Footnote #1: After losing his capital of Nicaea the previous month, Kilij Arslan began to take a greater interest in events in the eastern portion of his realm, thus allowing the Crusaders to proceed through Asia Minor virtually unopposed. Arslan did, however, have his forces burn any crops or supplies the Crusaders might collect, as well as block up or poison water wells. The next several months would be arduous for the Europeans. By the fall, they would approach the next step in their expedition, the city of Antioch.

Footnote #2: Despite the fighting skill of the Normans and the leadership of Bishop Adhemar in rescuing the Crusaders' vanguard, most of the credit for the outcome of the battle of Dorylaeum was credited to divine intervention. This theme would occur again and again throughout the First Crusade and the succeeding Christian expeditions over the next 200 years.

Footnote #3: When the Franks succeeded in achieving their main objective – the capture of the Holy City of Jerusalem – many Crusaders viewed their task as complete, and returned home. Cooler heads realized that the recently gain lands in Palestine and the Levant needed to be defended. This would lead to many years of warfare, political in-fighting and intrigue. Not to mention political marriages, assassinations, all the other fun activities that European nobility thought they would leave behind.

Footnote #4: After the Franks' initial successes in the First Crusade, the Muslim nations of the Middle East realized their peril. Political and military cooperation became the hallmark of Muslim opposition in the succeeding Crusades. Not until 1291, when Muslim forces besieged and captured the port city of Acre, were the last vestiges of the Crusader kingdoms removed from the Middle Eastern lands. [The First Crusade was the only one of the military pilgrimages to the Holy Land in the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries that actually achieved its objective.]

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