26/05/2024

The Crusades from a Syriac Perspective — Part 3

This article was originally published by This Is Beirut on 13 August 2023. The original can be found here. Related Articles: The Crusades from a Syriac Perspective — Part 1 and Part 2.

By Dr. Amine Jules Iskandar President of the Syriac Maronite Union – Tur Levnon


The wars with the Saracens were significantly present in the Syriac chroniclers’ documentation. These accounts helped paint a picture of the then Christian society. One that was tightly knit, unlike certain preconceived notions. Armenians, Syriacs, and Greeks provided the Latin states with what they lacked most: Christian demographics.

Far from being reduced to Frankish colonies in the East, the Latin states were populated by all of the Christian components: Armenian, Syriac (Jacobite, Nestorian, and Maronite), Greek, and Frankish. They were all involved in the administration through their ecclesiastical hierarchy as well as at the level of secular leaders. Syriacs and Franks shared aspects of daily life as well as major events.


Map of the Levant Latin States. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Relations and Interactions

Upon the death of his friend, the Jacobite Patriarch Athanasios the Seventh (1091-1129), Count Joscelin the First of Edessa convened the Syriac bishops for a council. On the 17th of the month of Shvot (February) 1130, as recorded by Michael the Great, the bishops and Dionysius the Maphrian gathered in the church of the Franks with Count Joscelin the First of Edessa and his knights for the ordination of Patriarch John the Tenth.

Michel the Great explains that in 1157, during the inauguration of the third Jacobite church in Antioch, the Jacobite Patriarch Athanasios the Eighth received Isabelle of Courtenay along with Syriac, Armenian, and Frankish bishops and monks, the same way it still ensues in Lebanon during major celebrations.

According to Gregory Bar Hebraeus, in 1252, when the Jacobite Patriarch Ignatius the Third (1222-1252) made his entry into Jerusalem, he was received with great pomp by the Knights Templar, who escorted him from the Column Gate to the Monastery of Saint Mary Magdalene.


Crusade scene with monks, knights and villains. Miniature of Peter the Hermit leading the popular crusade (Egerton MS 1500, Avignon, 14th century).

Bohemond the Seventh and Maronite Patriarch Jeremiah

A Franco-Syriac complementarity was most strongly felt in the County of Tripoli. Bohemond the Seventh used his influence to have Jeremiah the Third (of Dmalça) elected to the Maronite Patriarchal seat. As noted by Jeremiah the Third himself in Syriac in the Codex Rabulensis, this occurred in the year 1590 of the Greeks (1279 AD), on the 9th day of the month of Shvot (February).

While Joscelin of Edessa’s relations with the Jacobites were mostly characterized by courteous ties, Bohemond of Tripoli’s connections with the Maronites were of an existential nature. Mount Lebanon served as the natural fortress safeguarding the coastline and its cities. The only way the County of Tripoli could fall was if the mountain was taken over, as stated by the Arab chroniclers. According to their historian Ibn-Al-Hariri, the Mamelukes “succeeded in taking Tripoli from the Crusaders only after having eradicated the resistance of their Maronite allies.“

The ties between the two communities were so tight knit that the Maronites got entangled in the Franks’ internal struggles. In his war to crush Lord Guy of Giblet’s insurrection – backed by the Knight Templars, – Bohemond the Seventh proceeded with brutality and terror. After a somewhat brief trial in February 1283, Guy of Giblet, his two brothers Beaudoin and John, their cousin Guillaume of Giblet, as well as André de Clapières, were walled in inside the dungeons of the castle of Nephin (Enfeh), where they died, as recounted by Emmanuel-Guillaume Rey.

In his “Eulogy of Mount Lebanon,” Gabriel Barcleius (1440-1516) recounts these specific events. Like Patriarch Jeremiah the Third (in the Codex Rabulensis), he appointed Bohemond the Seventh of Tripoli as the “king of Jbeil”. He also states that Bohemond waged a war with the barons against Guy the Second and the Knights Templars. In addition, he reveals that fearing excommunication by Pope Martin the Fourth, the count who had contributed to the election of Patriarch Jeremiah the Third asked him to go to Rome and plead his case.

The Fall of Edessa

The wars with the Saracens were significantly present in the Syriac chroniclers’ documentation. These accounts helped paint a picture of the Christian society of that time. It was tightly knit, in contrast to what the Turks of the time had hoped for, and counter to what certain authors nowadays might suggest. A medieval chronicler, known as the anonymous Edessan chronicler, reports that on the 28th day of the month of téchrin-hroyo (November) 1144, Imad al-Din Zengi (Turkish) attacked Edessa, hoping to pressure the Syriacs and Armenians to disengage from the Franks. He encountered a big disappointment when everyone rallied around the unity of their three bishops: Papias (Latins), Basilios Bar Shmona (Jacobites), and Ohannes (Armenians). The Count of Edessa, Joscelin the Second – whose mother was Armenian, – was very close to Bar Shmona and promoted him to the rank of metropolitan.


The Crusader fleet. Louis the Ninth during the Seventh Crusade in 1249. (Guillaume de Saint-Pathus, Vie et miracles de Saint Louis)

However, Edessa fell on December 23rd. After the massacre, Zengi deported the surviving Franks whom he held responsible for the disaster, while the surviving Greeks, Armenians, and Syriacs were granted the right to remain in the city. Having destroyed the churches of the Franks, he had the Jacobite church restored and had it fitted with bells. This special treatment was witnessed on multiple occasions. Indeed, receptive to the Jacobite patriarch’s neutrality, the Muslim conqueror granted him protection, enabling him to save his people, as revealed by Michael the Great.

On the other hand, Zengi’s son, Noor al-Din, as a reply to a second attack by the Franks, carried out massacres and deportations of Syriacs and Armenians. “The number of deaths is estimated at around 30 thousand, and another 16 thousand were enslaved, according to Michael the Great, a number that was later on reiterated by Bar Hebraeus. No woman nor child could escape. They were taken captive to various countries.”

The Fall of Antioch

Gregory Bar Hebraeus elaborated on the fall of Antioch followed by that of Tripoli in 1289. He described the Christians’ resistance, the arrival of reinforcements from Cyprus, and the outpouring of the Mamelukes who arrived in large numbers. He narrated the withdrawal of the Christians and the exodus of the residents who headed to Cyprus. Bar Hebraeus added that the Tayoyé (Saracens), “engaged in significant looting and imprisoned countless boys and girls. They also killed numerous priests, deacons, monks, and nuns. The city seemed like a desert. These events took place during the full moon of the month of nisson (April), in the year 1600 of the Greek calendar (1289 AD).”


Medieval scene of an attack on the city walls. Siege and Capture of Jerusalem, in Roman de Godefroy de Bouillon et de Saladin, fourteenth century. (Image: Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris)

Subsequently, Bar Hebraeus moved on to describe the fall of Saint-John of Acre, which occurred in the month of nisson in the year 1603 of the Greek calendar. These details are still disconcerting and show that all the Christians, regardless of their affiliation, perceived them as tragedies. The Latin states were home to the Syriacs, Armenians, and Greeks, and to the Franks. Amongst the Syriacs, the Maronites were seemingly the closest to the Franks as they integrated their customs, art, and especially ecclesiastical and political influences more so than the Nestorians and the Jacobites. They aligned themselves with the Roman Church, Latinized their liturgy and inherited the feudal structure established in their mountains by the Franks. Along with the Armenians, they formed the core of the native-born military force of the Crusader armies, while the Jacobite Syriacs opted to maintain a politic of neutrality. However, the latter were also protected by the Franks, who handed over old churches and jurisdictions in order to maintain a Christian demographic weight that the Latin component couldn’t safeguard on its own.

* The Jacobites are the present-day Orthodox Syriacs. The Nestorians became the actual Assyrians and Chaldeans.