How To Lose the City of Jerusalem in Two Weeks

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A Brief History

On October 2, 1187, one of history’s most significant sieges ended: The Siege of Jerusalem in which Saladin captured Jerusalem after 88 years of Crusader rule.

Digging Deeper

Jerusalem must hold some kind of record for the number of times a city has been besieged or at least sought after by so many different people over such a long expanse of history. Long before the Crusades, the originally Hebrew city had been besieged by Egyptians in 925 B.C., Assyrians in 701 B.C., Babylonians in 597 B.C. and again in 587 B.C., Romans in 63 B.C., Herodians in 37 B.C., Romans again in 70 A.D., Persians in 614 A.D., and Arabs in 637 A.D. During that time, control of Jerusalem switched around among monotheistic Jews, Christians, and Muslims in addition to various polytheists. In 1099, during the First Crusade, Christian forces successfully recaptured the city from Muslims after nearly five hundred years of Islamic control of one of the world’s purportedly holiest cities.

Capture of Jerusalem by the Crusaders (19th-century artist impression)

Unfortunately for the Christians, not a hundred years would pass before the surrounding Islamic forces would find a skillful and formidable commander named Saladin to challenge the much maligned new Christian king of Jerusalem, Guy of Lusignan. In the campaign leading up to the siege, Guy suffered a catastrophic defeat at the Battle of Hattin on 4 July 1187. The king himself was captured by Saladin who next set his sights on Jerusalem. The siege began in September of that year, but it did not end as rapidly as Hattin, for commanding the Christian forces was a brave defender named Balian of Ibelin. Despite a gallant defense, Saladin triumphed once again.

What makes the siege significant is that it shocked the Christian monarchs in Europe into sending a much more extensive Crusade (the Third!). This time, not mere counts would command the Christian forces, but rather three of the most powerful monarchs in Europe would personally lead this next crusade: King Richard Lionheart of England, King Philip Augustus of France, and Emperor Frederick Barbarossa (aka “red beard”) of the Holy Roman Empire. Their names alone are among the most badass in history! Yet, fate just did not seem to be with the Crusaders. Frederick drowned on route to the Holy Land and Richard and Philip were not exactly best friends. Not surprisingly, they failed in their objective.

“Death of Frederick of Germany” by Gustave Doré

The Christians did briefly reclaim Jerusalem in 1229 via treaty under another Holy Roman Emperor named Frederick, only to have the city recaptured once again in 1244. The city continued to be fought over and even in the present day remains a major source of conflict, this time especially between Israelis and Palestinians, each of whom claim the city.

Indeed, one of the great tragedies of human history is that one city has been fought over by so many over matters of religion, perhaps ironically if not frustratingly, when the scripture of these religions suggest such things as “You shall not murder” and “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”

Jesus taught turning the other cheek during the Sermon on the Mount.

Question for students (and subscribers): Why is Jerusalem so important to both Christians and Muslims?  Should it be Israel’s capital today or should it be an “international” or “free” city belonging to no one country?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Proof

To learn more about this siege, a rather fascinating way to understand it is to consider the History vs. Hollywood approach to our past.  Professional historian Cathy Shulz offers a nice summary of the factual  inaccuracies of the film Kingdom of Heaven, which is about the events leading up to and including this siege.  You can read her article at and you can find a similarly effective discussion of the real battle versus the depiction in the film in Jonathan Perry, “Kingdom of Heaven,” Now Playing: Learning World History Through Film (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014-yes, that date is what it says in the book…), 28-31.

Although I greatly prefer the extended version of the movie, the regular version’s DVD release contains two excellent documentaries on the history behind the movie: “Movie Real: Kingdom Of Heaven” as seen on The A&E Network and “History vs. Hollywood: Kingdom Of Heaven” as seen on The History Channel.

The featured image in this article, Balian of Ibelin surrendering the city of Jerusalem to Saladin, from Les Passages faits Outremer par les Français contre les Turcs et autres Sarrasins et Maures outremarins, c. 1490, scanned from Terry Jones and Alan Ereira, Crusades (New York: Facts on File, 1995), 161, is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.


About Author

Dr. Zar graduated with a B.A. in French and history, a Master’s in History, and a Ph.D. in History. He currently teaches history in Ohio.