Next year marks the 900th anniversary of Roger of Salerno’s defeat at Ager Sanguinis, the Field of Blood. The battle raged near Sarmada, west of Aleppo, on June 28, 1119. Roger, regent of Antioch (for the child Bohemond II), led his smaller force against the larger Turkic army of Ilghazi, the Artuqid ruler of Aleppo. Overshadowed by the later—and less strategically important—battle of Hattin in 1187, the Field of Blood was a crushing loss for the fledgling Crusader States in the Levant. It was a loss from which they never fully recovered and, according to Nicholas Morton, reverberates into the present day.
Following Pope Urban II’s call to crusade at Clermont in 1095, armies of the First Crusade ventured east in the hope of reclaiming Jerusalem for Christendom. They sought to provide safe passage for pilgrims and offer some measure of protection and assistance to Eastern Christians—Greek, Syriac, and Armenian. By all accounts a stunning success, major centers of trade and commerce—as well as Christian holy sites, such as Edessa, Antioch, Tripoli, and ultimately Jerusalem—were taken by the Crusaders. Newcomers on the political and military scene in the Middle East, the Frankish Crusaders arrived at a propitious time. To the southwest, the Fatimid caliphate in Egypt was crumbling. In the east, the rump caliphate of the Arab Abbasids was riven by chaos as their Turkic overlords fought amongst themselves for the sultanate, the true power in the region. Religious and ethnic divisions—between Shia and Sunni, Turk and Arab—left a vacuum of sorts in which the Franks established themselves as a formidable presence and power that lasted nearly two centuries.
It is a tale of missed opportunities. Had Roger and the Antiochene Franks prevailed at the Field of Blood, Morton argues, Aleppo—one of the major Muslim-controlled cities in the region along with Damascus and Cairo—would likely have fallen. Capturing a major city was a strategic imperative for a medieval army of conquest. This was especially true for the Franks, who needed revenue and defensive fortifications. They also needed to expand beyond the narrow coastal strip under their control if they were to remain permanently in the region. Aleppo—more so than Cairo and Damascus—was the most logical and attainable target in the decades immediately after the First Crusade.
Aleppo stood between the Crusader States of Antioch and Edessa. A rich commercial center with a diverse population, it was also a fractious city routinely subject to internal strife and external threat. Gaining control of it would strengthen the Christian bloc in the north and, along with Cilician Armenia, form a wedge between the Seljuks of Rum and the Great Seljuk Empire to the east. Morton argues that the Franks’ “failure to achieve this goal must sit squarely within any attempt to explain their inability to conquer the Near Eastern region.” It is a persuasive claim, but not a compelling one.
Morton makes a strong case for the city’s tactical and strategic significance. And despite the title of the book, he expands his treatment of the battle for Aleppo to encompass more than Roger’s defeat at the Field of Blood. By Morton’s reckoning the city was in play for seven years, roughly between 1118 and 1125. The conflict involved more than fighting. Negotiations with powerful factions in the city, sieges, the seizure of dependent towns and villages—all of these were included in the back and forth struggle for Aleppo. Morton nevertheless regards the Battle of the Field of Blood as the Franks’ greatest chance to gain control of the city. Given their success in isolating it before Roger’s defeat, his conclusion is convincing.
But Morton is equally unconvincing in his broader claim that Aleppo was the key to establishing Frankish hegemony over the entire Near East in the ensuing decades of the 12th century. The claim simply cannot be sustained. First, it assumes that the Franks—a religious and ethnic minority—would have been able to maintain control over the recalcitrant population of a large city. Second, Morton assumes that, even had they managed to do so, they would have been able to hold out against external enemies, namely the numerically superior Turks. Finally, there is no way to account for the effects of later developments like the fall of neighboring Edessa in 1144 or the rise of Saladin. The point, quite simply, is that the religious, social, ethnic, and military complexities of the Near East during this period admitted of no dispositive event.
The Battle of the Field of Blood actually accounts for little more than a few pages in Morton’s book. As it is central to his argument about the broader, protracted struggle for Aleppo, this is not a drawback. In fact, it lends the book a narrative tension that makes interesting reading. Morton masterly describes the tactical subtleties of medieval combat, especially the limitations of the Frankish heavy cavalry against the lighter, more mobile, and numerically superior Turkic archers. He has an eye for grisly detail, as in describing the death of Roger at the Field of Blood—he took a skull-crushing sword-thrust to the nose—or the horses after the battle, “so riddled with arrows that they looked like hedgehogs.” Morton is also adept at explaining the political decisions that underlay military maneuvers, the sometimes contentious relations between Frankish leaders in particular.
A weakness—strange in a book about religious war—is Morton’s uneven grasp of the religious differences and motivations involved. For example, he states, “The First Crusade was not a deliberately staged war against Islam.” No, it wasn’t. It was, however, a war against Muslims who, in successive waves of conquest, subjected the largely Christian and Jewish Near East to the sword or secondary status. The foundational text of the First Crusade, Pope Urban II’s speech at Clermont, recorded by Fulcher of Chartres, makes this clear:
For your brethren who live in the east are in urgent need of your help, and you must hasten to give them the aid which has often been promised them. For, as the most of you have heard, the Turks and Arabs have attacked them and have conquered the territory of Romania [the Greek empire] as far west as the shore of the Mediterranean and the Hellespont, which is called the Arm of St. George. They have occupied more and more of the lands of those Christians, and have overcome them in seven battles. They have killed and captured many, and have destroyed the churches and devastated the empire. If you permit them to continue thus for awhile with impunity, the faithful of God will be much more widely attacked by them.
Even later instances of Frankish cooperation and alliances with Turkic and Arab factions didn’t negate the overriding religious motivation—abundantly on display in the preaching on crusade and the system of spiritual indulgences—that impelled Western crusaders to risk life and property to secure the Holy Land for Christianity.
Religion was also a motive where divisions within Christianity engendered divergent interests. For example, Morton discusses Byzantine emperor Alexius I Comnenus’ encouragement of Sultan Muhammad’s campaigns against the Franks before the Field of Blood: The “Franks were their common enemy, and religion was not the issue.” After the schism of 1054, religion may not have been the issue, but it most certainly was an issue. The mutual suspicions—and, at times, opposing interests—between Greek Byzantine and Latin Frank were dogged by unfulfilled promises and broken agreements that had as much impact on the events of the day as did religious issues. But, again, these things were not mutually exclusive. Morton’s lack of nuance in this regard detracts from an otherwise very readable book.
It is as much a temptation as a stretch to bring the Battle of the Field of Blood to bear on the current Syrian quagmire. Though historical knowledge is necessary for politicians—a fact seemingly neglected by recent presidents—it is not a guarantee of prudence. As Turks amass on the Syrian border and Russian planes bomb Syrian cities, and as Kurds, Iranians, and foreign jihadis draw out spaces of their own from the chaos, the West should at least consider that the Battle for Aleppo is unlikely ever to end, regardless of who controls it, and that the Field of Blood will only widen in future.
[The Field of Blood: The Battle for Aleppo and the Remaking of the Medieval Middle East, by Nicholas Morton (New York: Basic Books) 256 pp., $17.99]