Crusaders Become Cannibals

“On this day in 1098, the Siege of Ma’aarra, a long and infamous siege during the First Crusade in which some Crusaders massacred and feasted on their Muslim enemies, took place in the city of Ma’aarat al-Numan, in modern-day Syria.

It was the First Crusade, and the Crusaders were spirited from a successful siege at Antioch, but hungry and tired from poor logistical planning. Though they had been routed in a previous siege attempt against Ma’aarra in July 1098, the Crusaders decided again to besiege the Fatimid city in November. Since the Crusaders’ previous attempt was an outright failure, the Muslims were initially undaunted, taunting the Crusaders. The city was comprised of an urban militia and civilians with no battle experience, and they were able to hold off the Crusaders for some two weeks, aided by their city’s deep ditches and strong walls. But the Crusaders, cognisant that they had few supplies and winter was approaching, had spent the two weeks building a siege tower. Generally rectangular and maneuverable, the tower would have been built as high as the city’s walls or higher, allowing archers to stand atop and shoot into the city, troops to rush over the city walls, and assailants to hide within and attack. Using this siege tower, the Crusaders poured over the walls of the fortified city on 11 December, leading the Muslims to retreat within.

At this point, both sides agreed to rest for the night before resuming hostilities the next morning. Ignoring the agreement, some Crusaders stormed Ma’aara and plundered it overnight. On 12 December, the next morning, the two sides negotiated and the Crusaders, led by Bohemond of Taranto, promised safe conduct if the Muslims surrendered. The Muslims surrendered, but the crusaders immediately began to massacre the residents. As many as 20,000 civilians are reported to have been killed, despite assurances that their lives would be spared.

The ensuring cold winter months and increasingly meager supplies led the Christian soldiers to extreme hunger. According to reports, some Crusaders began to cannibalise the Muslims, boiling and grilling the dead bodies before devouring them. In a letter to the Pope, one of the Crusaders, Radulph of Caen wrote, “”In Ma’aarra, our troops boiled pagan adults alive in cooking pots; they impaled Muslims on spits and devoured them grilled.”” Another chronicler of the Crusades, Fulcher of Chartres, wrote, “”I shudder to tell that many of our people, harassed by the madness of excessive hunger, cut pieces from the buttocks of the Saracens already dead there, which they cooked, but when it was not yet roasted enough by the fire, they devoured it with savage mouth.””

For centuries thereafter, the horror of Ma’aarra remained in Muslim literature and psyche, the image of fanatical cannibalistic Crusaders passed down from generation to generation through literature and story, further fanning the bloody Crusades.”