Massacre in Semlin

Peter the Hermit departed Cologne with his following on around 20 April. He had a much larger following than Walter and it grew bigger as he passed through villages along the Danube River. By the time Peter arrived in Oedenburg, the gateway into Hungary, his force numbered more than 20,000 pilgrims. King Coloman must have forgiven the first wave of crusaders for the trouble they caused in Semlin, or else news of their attempted theft did not reach him. He granted Peter and his followers’ food, other supplies and safe passage through his kingdom on condition they would not pillage and commit murder.

All went well until they entered Semlin. Steven Runciman credited Peter the Hermit as being a genuinely pious and humble man; he sought to build friendly relations with the kings and bishops of Europe because he wanted safe passage for himself and for his followers. He did not, according to Runciman, want his followers to pillage and murder their way through the various villages. Unfortunately, in Semlin dispute over the sale of a pair of shoes escalated into a pitched battle in which Geoffrey Burel, a knight led an attack on the town, killing four thousand Hungarians.

Albert, a chronicler of the First Crusade, painted a much different picture of the events that transpired in Semlin. Word of what the Hungarians had done to several of Walter’s men, reached Peter at Oedenburg, but Peter refused to believe that fellow Christians would do such a thing to their own men until he “saw hanging from the walls the arms and spoils of the sixteen companions of Walter who had stayed behind a short time before, and whom the Hungarians had treacherously presumed to rob.” At the site of their clothes and arms, Peter “urged his companions to avenge their wrongs.”

They raised their banners high and attacked the Hungarians, letting loose a hail of arrows from their bows. The Hungarians, completely caught off guard and unprepared for battle, gathered their strongest knights — who numbered about seven thousand — but they were quickly overwhelmed by Peter’s far more numerical force. Four thousand Hungarians were massacred in that pitched battle, while Albert wrote, only one hundred pilgrims perished.

After their quick victory, Peter and his followers remained in the city for a few days where they gathered enough grain, sheep, cattle, horses and wine to feed and supply the entire army. Then Peter learnt that King Soloman was marching on Semlin with an army to avenge his slain people. Taking all their newly acquired supplies, Peter hastened with his followers to the Save River, but they found very few boats to carry them safely across the river. On the other side, Nicetas ordered his Pecheneg mercenaries to restrict the crusaders’ crossing to one area. Desperate to get away from the Hungarian king’s army, the crusaders repelled the Pecheneg mercenaries; they sank the boats that carried Pechenegs and slay those who had not drowned. Very few of Nicetas’ mercenaries escaped the wrath of Peter and his pilgrims.  Furious and unstoppable, the crusaders descended upon Belgrade, a prosperous city in Bulgaria. There, they found the city abandoned. The townspeople, after undoubtedly hearing about the brutal massacre in Semlin, fled the city. They were wise to do that, for many–if not most–of them would have been slaughtered. Peter and his followers pillaged the city and then razed

The Rise of Islam

To fully understand the reasoning behind Pope Urban’s call to Holy War in 1095, one must understand the historical events that took place in the centuries leading up to the late eleventh century. Those historical events were essentially the rise of Islam.

Islam was born in around 610 AD when a man named Muhammad started receiving revelations from God through the Archangel Gabriel. Muhammad bears much resemblance to Jesus in that he was from a poor family and he was also illiterate.

After he started receiving these revelations, Muhammad had his family and a few others converted to Islam, but the people of Mecca clung to Zoroastrianism — the ancient, pagan religion Mecca adhered to. Like Jesus, Muhammad was forced to flee his hometown (which was Mecca) and seek refuge in a neighboring city. For Muhammad, that neighboring city was Medina. Unlike Jesus who traversed the Holy Land peacefully, preaching the word of God and performing miracles, Muhammad took up the sword and waged war against Mecca. The war was long and bloody, but it finally fell to Muhammad and his followers in 632, just a few years before Muhammad’s death.

Muhammad took what he learnt from the teachings of Christianity and Judaism, but made a new religion that was much more refined and profound: Islam.

‘Islam’ means total submission to God’s (Allah’s) will.

Islam took root in Medina during Muhammad’s life, but much more so after his death thanks to his ardent, loyal followers.

Caliph and common Arab alike believed that Islam was the one and only true religion; the only path to salvation. Every man — Islam regarded women as second class citizens and still does to this day — must submit themselves to the will of God (Allah). This ultimately resulted in an insatiable desire to unite the entire world under the banner of Islam.

From the mid seventh century until the early eighth century, the Muslim armies were unconquerable. Within the second half of the seventh century, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, most of Persia,  and the entire north coast of Africa fell to the Muslims. Then, in 711, Islamic forces invaded the Iberian Peninsula which is Spain and within two decades, they conquered most of Iberia.

The booty and slaves captured from conquered territory brought the Muslims immense wealth. They were also united under one Caliph and their armies, organized. That is what enabled them to keep on expanding. They would have taken over Europe—the whole world for that matter –had not Charles “The Hammer” Martel roundly defeated them at the Battle of Poitiers in 732 AD. Badly beaten and significantly mowed down in size, the Muslim army retreated back to Spain and never again set foot on French soil.

It should also be noted that, as early as the eighth century, Muslim unity had begun to splinter into several factions; another reason why Muslim expansion westward was halted. They began to direct their conflict inwards, against each other, rather than against the ‘infidel’.

What happened to Christians and Jews in conquered territories?                                             

Ironically, the Muslims did not force immediate conversion upon the Christians and Jews. In fact, the Muslims referred to them as “Peoples of the Book.” For this reason, Christians and Jews were allowed to practice their religion, but not without consequence. They were considered as second class citizens, so were required to pay a heavy poll tax. Having to choose between poverty, other forms of persecution, and their faith, many Christians and Jews chose to convert to Islam.

The Treatment of Christians Under Muslim Rule Deteriorated

Christians were never treated well under Muslim domination, but under the rule of Caliph al-Hakim in the early eleventh century, they faced severe persecution.

“The Christians were ordered to dress in black and to hang wooden crosses from their necks, half a metre long, half a metre wide, weighing five ratls. Several people were flogged for playing chess. Churches were destroyed and their contents pillaged as also were their tenement houses and the houses pertaining to them,” wrote Egyptian Scholar, Al-Maqrizi in the fifteenth century.

When pilgrims and other Christians living within the boundaries of the Byzantine Empire heard of al-Hakim’s persecution of Christians, they were horrified. Stories inevitably found their way back west and fuelled Christian hatred of the Muslims, especially among the clergy.

In the early eleventh century, Pope Sergius IV attempted to start a crusade against al-Hakim.

“Let all Christians know that news has come from the east to the seat of the apostles that the church of the Holy Sepulcher has been destroyed from roof to foundations at the impious hands of the pagans…With the Lord’s help we intend to kill all these enemies and to restore and Redeemer’s Holy Sepulcher,” wrote Pope Sergius IV.

However, it wouldn’t be until the end of the eleventh century that this call to arms, call for Holy War, would take on more vigor and intensity. Only one man would set Christendom on fire with crusading zeal: Pope Urban II.