Siege of Shaizar

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The Siege of Shaizar took place from April 28 to May 21, 1138. The allied forces of the Byzantine Empire, Principality of Antioch and County of Edessa besieged Shaizar in Syria, the capital of the Munqidhite Emirate. The siege resulted in the Emir of Shaizar paying an indemnity and becoming the vassal of the Byzantine emperor. The campaign underlined the limited nature of Byzantine suzerainty over the northern Crusader states and the lack of common purpose between the Latin princes and the Byzantine emperor.


Freed from immediate external threats in the Balkans or in Anatolia, the Byzantine emperor John II Komnenos (r. 1118–1143) could direct his attention to the Levant, where he sought to reinforce Byzantium's claims to suzerainty over the Crusader States and to assert his rights of authority over Antioch. These rights dated back to the Treaty of Devol of 1108, though Byzantium had not been in a position to enforce them. The necessary preparation for a descent on Antioch was the recovery of Byzantine control over Cilicia. In 1137, the emperor conquered Tarsus, Adana, and Mopsuestia from the Principality of Armenian Cilicia, and in 1138 Prince Levon I of Armenia and most of his family were brought as captives to Constantinople.[1]

Control of Cilicia opened the route to the Principality of Antioch for the Byzantines. Faced with the approach of the formidable Byzantine army Raymond of Poitiers, Prince of Antioch, and Joscelin II, Count of Edessa, recognized themselves the emperor's vassals. John demanded the unconditional surrender of Antioch and, after asking the permission of Fulk, King of Jerusalem, Raymond of Antioch agreed to surrender the city to John. The agreement, by which Raymond swore homage to John, was explicitly based on the Treaty of Devol, but went beyond it: Raymond, who was recognized as an imperial vassal for Antioch, promised the emperor free entry to Antioch, and undertook to hand over the city in return for investiture with Aleppo, Shaizar, Homs, and Hama as soon as these were conquered from the Muslims. Then, Raymond would rule the new conquests and Antioch would revert to direct imperial rule.[2]


In February, on the Byzantine emperor's orders, the authorities in Antioch arrested all merchants and travellers from Aleppo and other Muslim towns to prevent them from reporting on military preparations. In March, the imperial army crossed from Cilicia to Antioch and the contingents from Antioch and Edessa, plus a company of Templars, joined up with it. They crossed into enemy territory and occupied Balat, on April 3 they arrived before Biza'a which held out for five days. It had been hoped that Aleppo could be surprised, however, the most powerful Muslim leader in Syria, Zengi, was besieging nearby Hama, which was held by a Damascene garrison. He had enough warning of the emperor's operations to quickly reinforce Aleppo. On April 20, the Christian army launched an attack on the city but found it too strongly defended. The emperor then moved the army southward taking the fortresses of Athereb, Maarat al-Numan, and Kafartab by assault, with the ultimate goal of capturing the city of Shaizar. It is probable that Shaizar was chosen because it was an independent Arab emirate, held by the Munqidhite dynasty, and therefore it might not be regarded by Zengi as important enough for him to come to its aid.[3]


File:Siege de Shaizar (1138).jpg
John II directs the siege of Shaizar while his allies sit inactive in their camp, French manuscript 1338.

The Crusader princes were suspicious of each other and of John, and neither wanted the other to gain from participating in the campaign. Raymond also wanted to hold on to Antioch, which was a Christian city; the attraction of lordship over a city like Shaizar or Aleppo, with a largely Muslim population and more exposed situation to Zengid attack, must have been slight. With the lukewarm interest his allies had in the prosecution of the siege, the emperor was soon thrown entirely on his own resources.[4]

Following some initial skirmishes, John II organised his army into divisions based on the nationalities of his soldiery, each with its characteristic arms and equipment, and paraded them before the city in order to overawe the defenders.[5] Although John fought hard for the Christian cause in the campaign in Syria, his allies Raymond of Antioch and Joscelin of Edessa sat around playing dice and feasting instead of helping to press the siege. The emperor's reproaches could only goad the two princes into perfunctory and fitful action. Latin and Muslim sources describe John's energy and personal courage in prosecuting the siege. Conspicuous in his golden helmet, John was active in encouraging his troops, supervising the siege engines and consoling the wounded. The walls of Shaizar were battered by the trebuchets of the impressive Byzantine siege train. The emir's nephew, the poet, writer and diplomat Usama ibn Munqidh, recorded the devastation wreaked by the Byzantine artillery which could smash a whole house with a single missile.[6]

The city was taken, but the citadel, protected by its cliffs and the courage of its defenders, defied assault. Tardily, Zengi had assembled a relief army and it moved towards Shaizar. The relief army was smaller than the Christian army but John was reluctant to leave his siege engines in order to march out to meet it, and he did not trust his allies. At this point, Sultan ibn Munqidh, the Emir of Shaizar, offered to pay a large indemnity, surrender a table studded with jewels and a ruby encrusted cross said to have been made for Constantine the Great, become John's vassal and pay yearly tribute. John, disgusted by the behaviour of his allies, reluctantly accepted the offer. On May 21, the siege was raised.[7][8]


Anatolia and the Levant circa 1140.

Zengi's troops skirmished with the retreating Christians, but did not dare actively to impede the army's march. Returning to Antioch, John made a ceremonial entry into the city. However, Raymond and Joscelin conspired to delay the promised handover of Antioch's citadel to the emperor, and stirred up popular unrest in the city directed at John and the local Greek community. Having heard of an invasion, or raid, by the Anatolian Seljuks on Cilicia, John abandoned his insistence on gaining control of the citadel, merely insisting on a renewal of Raymond and Jocelyn's oaths of fealty. He then left Antioch in order to punish the Seljuk sultan Mas'ud (r. 1116–1156) and return to Constantinople. John had little choice but to leave Syria with his ambitions only partially realised. The events of the campaign underlined that the suzerainty the Byzantine emperor claimed over the Crusader states, for all the prestige it offered, had limited practical advantages. The Latins enjoyed the security that a distant imperial connection gave them when they were threatened by the Muslim powers of Syria. However, when Byzantine military might was directly manifested in the region, their own self-interest and continued political independence was of greater importance to them than any possible advantage that might be gained for the Christian cause in the Levant by co-operation with the emperor.[9]

John II returned to Syria in 1142 determined to take Antioch by force and impose direct Byzantine rule.[10] His death in spring of 1143, the result of a hunting accident, intervened before he could achieve this goal. His son and successor, Manuel I (r. 1143–1180), took his father's army back to Constantinople to secure his authority, and the opportunity for the Byzantines to conquer Antioch outright was lost.[11]

See also



  1. Cinnamus 1976, pp. 21–22.
  2. Runciman 1952, pp. 213–214.
  3. Runciman 1952, p. 215.
  4. Runciman 1952, p. 216.
  5. Choniates & Magoulias 1984, p. 17.
  6. Runciman 1952, p. 216.
  7. Runciman 1952, pp. 215–217.
  8. Cinnamus 1976, pp. 24–25.
  9. Runciman 1952, pp. 217–218; Angold 1984, p. 156.
  10. Choniates & Magoulias 1984, p. 22.
  11. Cinnamus 1976, pp. 27–28; Choniates & Magoulias 1984, pp. 24–26; Angold 1984, pp. 157–158.



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Further reading

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