Nicholas Morton, The Field of Blood: The Battle for Aleppo and the Remaking of the Medieval Middle East (New York: Basic Books, 2018).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Nicholas Morton (NM): Back when I was an undergraduate student, I remember distinctly being told that for the first twenty years of their existence, the Crusader States—the countries established in the Near East during and shortly after the First Crusade (1095-1099)—were expanding rapidly on all fronts. Even so, by the end of my degree, I still did not understand why this rapid expansion stopped. Why did the crusaders not continue their expansion indefinitely? Who prevented them? And when?
This gap in my knowledge lingered in the back of my mind for many years until, while reading various primary sources, I began to see that a major turning point took place in the fortunes of war between the years 1118 and 1125, with the battle of the Field of Blood being a moment of great importance. This sparked my interest, leading me ultimately to write a book addressing the question: when and why did the crusaders’ advance stall?
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
NM: Fundamentally, the book is concerned with addressing the above question, but it also considers several other topics of the first importance. For example, it is commonly thought that the crusades were essentially a straightforward struggle between Christianity and Islam. However, this book offers a rather different view. It discusses a conflict in which there were often Christian and Muslim forces on both sides. By extension, the crucial battle at the center of the book—the Battle of the Field of Blood (1119)—was fought between a Turkish commander named Ilghazi and the Frankish commander Roger of Salerno who were former friends and who, only a few years previously, had been closely allied with one another.
The Field of Blood also looks at themes of warfare, examining how the various combatant factions sought to gain the tactical advantage over one another. Within this, there is discussion on Turkish light cavalry, Armenian archers, Arab horsemen, Frankish knights, and siege warfare.
Perhaps this book’s most important aspiration, however, is to explore the medieval Near East from multiple perspectives. I strongly believe that historical events are best understood when the perspectives, objectives, and fears of all the protagonists are fully understood, making it possible to build a bigger picture. Thus, this book considers the tumultuous events of the early Twelfth Century from the Frankish, Arab, Armenian, and Turkish perspectives while also considering the roles played by other groups.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
NM: In recent years, my research has focused on the events of the First Crusade (1095-1099). In particular, I have spent a lot of time thinking about how the various communities who were involved and impacted by this war viewed one another. I pondered questions such as: how did the crusaders view and interact with the Turkish and Arab peoples they encountered? How much did they know about them beforehand? How were they viewed in turn by the peoples of the Near East? These are fascinating questions, and I published my findings in a book entitled Encountering Islam on the First Crusade (Cambridge University Press). From this starting point, it was very natural to think about how the relationship evolved between the many different religious groups in the Near East in the years following the First Crusade. These interests, when connected to my longstanding curiosity about the fortunes of war in the Near East, led me to carry out this present project.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
NM: This book was written to be broadly accessible; it certainly was not written anticipating any prior knowledge. I hope that anyone looking to find out more about this period in history will find it informative and fun to read. Having said this, many aspects of my argument are largely/entirely new, and consequently, even seasoned academics should find much to interest them.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
NM: At present, I am looking to develop my research in this period, writing a military and diplomatic history of the Near Eastern region covering the period 1099-1187. This will be published with Oxford University Press in a few years’ time.
Excerpt from the Prologue:
In the heady, early years of the Crusader States, commentators from many civilizations viewed the Franks as an unstoppable force, whose eventual victory was all but certain. So, far from anticipating that the Christian invaders would inevitably be driven back to western Christendom, there was a serious concern that the regional capitals of Aleppo, Damascus, and Cairo would be engulfed by marching columns of Frankish knights. So what stalled this advance? When were they forced onto the back foot?
In any failed war of conquest there are generally two sets of turning points. The first are those key events that bring the conquerors’ advances to a halt, forcing them to shift from the offensive to the defensive. The second set are those later moments when the final structural supports maintaining the conquerors’ presence within their already-acquired territory are removed or destroyed, leading to the general collapse of their position. To date, historians of the Crusades have tended to focus their attention on the latter turning points, seeking to identify the moments that led to the final collapse of the crusading project. This book asks rather different questions: Why didn’t they succeed?3 How did the Franks’ enemies manage to halt their steady initial advance across the Near East and prevent them from conquering further inland?
To answer these questions, this book focuses on one of the most hard-fought military struggles in the history of the Crusader States: the war for Aleppo in 1118–1128. This conflict effectively ended the Frankish advance in the north. In the preceding years, the Franks had been making dogged progress across northern Syria, and by 1118 they were poised to take control of Aleppo. Possession of this crucial city would have strengthened their position across the board, giving them the resources and strategic positioning to potentially conquer the entire region. Their ultimate failure to win this struggle stands as a major turning point in the history of the Crusader States and represents the high-water mark of their expanding dominations in northern Syria.
During this crucial decade, 1118–1128, the pace of conflict was relentless, and every year was punctuated by a persistent cycle of attack and counterattack. Nevertheless, in the midst of the ongoing slaughter, two encounters defined the course of the overall conflict.
The first was the more important: the catastrophic crusader defeat at the Battle of the Field of Blood in 1119. This reverse broke the momentum of the Frankish advance across northern Syria, leading to years of chaotic fighting among the embattled factions.
The second was the failed attempt to besiege Aleppo by an allied Frankish-Arab army in 1124–1125. These moments, more than any other, were the turning points when the crusader project to conquer Aleppo failed. This defeat represents the first and most important block to the Franks’ strategic advance across the Near East.
This book re-creates this epic encounter. It begins, in the first two chapters, by exploring the early rise of the Crusader States following the victories of the First Crusade and the steady growth of Christian power in the Aleppan region of northern Syria. The third chapter then opens the great struggle for Aleppo, focusing specifically on the crucial battle at the Field of Blood, exploring why the Christians lost so heavily after years of steady progress. The fourth chapter turns to the battle’s aftermath and the ongoing struggle for Aleppo as later Frankish rulers sought to reassert an aggressive military policy in the north and regain their former expansionist momentum.
The final chapter places this contest against the wider backdrop of the history of the Crusader States. The struggle for Aleppo was the moment when the Franks came closest to conquering one of their enemies’ major centers of power, but in the following years the conflict would continue and later Frankish rulers launched their own unsuccessful campaigns to seize the other major Near Eastern capitals of Damascus and Cairo. This section deals with these later ventures, in which the Franks attempted to resume an aggressive policy and drive inland, and will suggest an answer for the much broader question of why the Crusader States ultimately failed in their war aims to conquer the entire Near Eastern region.
The Battle of the Field of Blood and the broader struggle for Aleppo was an intensely complex affair, drawing in many factions—Frankish, Turkish, Armenian, Arab, and Byzantine. Like so many of the Crusader States’ wars, it was rarely a simple matter of Christians versus Muslims. It is a common misconception that the Crusades were a straightforward duel between two combatant religions. The sources underpinning this book offer a rather different—and much more sophisticated—picture.
In the story of Baldwin’s epic combat against the dragon Sathanas, the Turks led by Corbaran may have been his captors, but they were also valued friends who marched to his aid when he needed help. The world of the medieval Near East was every bit as complex as this tale implies, and Frankish Christians often found themselves fighting as allies alongside different ethnic or religious groups. Friendships and alliances formed across cultural and spiritual divides, and coreligionists often went to war against one another.
As we shall see, the world of the Crusader States defies easy categorization, and the battle lines were rarely simple. Drawing out the diversity of the medieval Near East, this book will go beyond the interests of the Franks to consider the perspectives of other protagonists involved in the Field of Blood and the struggle for Aleppo. Among these, it was the Turks who were both the crusaders’ greatest adversaries and the dominant force across the region. Like the Franks, they too were conquerors, newly arrived in the Near East. During the century preceding the Crusades, the nomadic Turks had departed from their homelands in the central Asian steppe region and had migrated south in vast numbers. They broke upon the Muslim world, conquering much of the Islamic caliphate and overthrowing those who stood in their path. In 1055 they took control of Baghdad, and later they moved west into Syria and the Jazira, displacing the Arab and Kurdish rulers who governed the major cities.
Soon afterward, the Turks invaded Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), staging a series of assaults on the great Christian empire of Byzantium. The Byzantine Greeks labored for decades to protect themselves against these attackers, but they steadily lost ground.
Their most famous defeat was at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, when the Turkish sultan Alp Arslan decisively defeated a major Byzantine field army, fragmenting the empire’s defenses and paving the way for Turkish tribes to move permanently into the area. These defeats prompted the Byzantines to send emissaries to the papacy in Rome, requesting aid against this powerful foe, and these appeals helped lay the foundations, in time, for the First Crusade.
When the crusaders began their crossing of Anatolia in 1097— en route to distant Jerusalem—they were entering territory that had been under Turkish control for only a few decades. The Turks were determined to confront this new Frankish menace, and they became the crusaders’ primary opponent during their long march.
Still, the Turks’ struggle against the First Crusade was complicated by the deep divisions within their own ranks. The First Crusaders arrived to find the Turks in the midst of a civil war that prevented them from unifying their efforts against the oncoming crusaders— some Turks even sought the crusaders’ protection. The Turks and the Franks were the leading pugilists in the Near East, and they would continue to spar for control of the region during the years following the crusader conquest of Jerusalem.
The Turks may have dominated much of the Near East during this period, but they were minority rulers, governing a broad and diverse population of Arabs, Armenians, Syrian Christians, Kurds, and many other minorities, who often resented their Turkish masters.
The victories of the First Crusade weakened the Turks’ control over these peoples, encouraging many to resist their overlords.
These peoples all played their parts in the events surrounding both the Battle of the Field of Blood and the broader struggle for Aleppo. They rarely felt much love for the conquerors dividing up the region, whether Frankish or Turkish, but were guided, rather, by the desire to plot a safe course through the unfolding chaos. This was a complex world, molded by many agendas. Some fought for God, others for wealth or power, but many fought simply for survival.
[Adapted from The Field of Blood: The Battle for Aleppo and the Remaking of the Medieval Middle East by Nicholas Morton, with permission from Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books Group, a division of Hachette Book Group. Copyright © Nicholas Morton, 2018].