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Cambridge University Library

15th July: Jerusalem falls to the armies of the First Crusade

T-S 20.113
Detail of T-S 20.113
Author: 
Melonie Schmierer-Lee
Thu 15 Jul 2021

It’s the 15th of July, and 922 years since the Christian armies of the First Crusade captured Jerusalem from her Fatimid defenders. The siege of 38 days ended in a bloodbath, according to contemporary accounts, but the Cairo Genizah preserves what may be the earliest written account of some of the events of that day, and its aftermath. Weeks after Jerusalem was looted and burned, the elders of Ashqelon wrote to the Egyptian Jewish community to describe the reports of refugees who had either fled there ahead of the Crusaders or had been captured and released by them. 

… News still reaches us that among those who were redeemed from the Franks and remained in Ashqelon some are in danger of dying of want. Others remained in captivity, and yet others were killed before the eyes of the rest, who themselves were killed afterwards with all manner of tortures; [for the enemy murdered them] in order to give vent to his anger on them. We did not hear of a single man of Israel who was in such plight without exerting ourselves to do all that was in our power to save him. …

From this unique letter, T-S 20.113, translated by S.D. Goitein, we learn that Jewish captives were pressured to convert to Christianity, and that the scrolls and books of the Jerusalem community was looted and offered for ransom by the Crusaders. The Egyptian Jews raised funds to pay the ransoms for captives and books: 

… he could only ransom some of the people and had to leave the others. In the end, all those who could be ransomed from them were liberated, and only a few whom they kept remained in their hands, including a boy of about 8 years of age, and a man, known as [...] the son of the Tustari’s wife. It is reported that the Franks urged the latter to embrace the Christian faith of his own free will and promised to treat him well, but he told them, how can I become a Christian and be left in peace by them [the Jews], who had disbursed on his behalf a great sum. Until this day these captives remain in their [the Franks’] hands; as well as those who were taken to Antioch, but these are few; and not counting those who abjured their faith because they lost patience as it was not possible to ransom them, and because they despaired of being permitted to go free. We were not informed, praise be to the Most High, that the accursed ones who are called Ashkenazim [Germans] violated or raped women, as did the others. Now, among those who have reached safety are some who escaped on the second and third days following the battle and left with the governor who was granted safe conduct; and others who, after having been caught by the Franks, remained in their hands for some time but escaped in the end; these are but few. The majority consists of those who were ransomed. To our sorrow, some of them ended their lives under all kind of suffering and affliction. The privations which they had to endure caused some of them to leave for this country without food or protection against the cold, and they died on the way. Others in a similar way perished at sea; and yet others, after having arrived here safely, became exposed to a ‘change of air’; they came at the height of the plague, and a number of them died. …

It seems that the Crusaders were unfamiliar with local customs that set a fixed price for the ransom of captives, or perhaps their great surplus meant that they didn’t care:

... The community, after having disbursed about 500 dinars for the actual ransom of the individuals, for maintenance of some of them and for the ransom, as mentioned above, of the sacred books remained indebted for the sum of 200 dinars. This is in addition to what has been spent on behalf of those who have been arriving from the beginning until now, on water and other drinks, medical treatment, maintenance, and, in so far as possible, clothing. If it could be calculated how much this has cost over such a long period, the sum would indeed be great. Had the accepted practice been followed, that is, of selling three Jewish captives for 100 (dinars), the whole available sum would have been spent for the ransom of only a few. However, the grace of the Lord, may His Name be exalted, and his ever-ready mercy, has been bestowed upon these wretched people... 

Many of Jerusalem’s ransomed books and scrolls would have ended up in Egypt, and some would have been deposited into the Genizah when they fell apart and were no longer fit for purpose.

T-S 20.113

T-S 20.113 (recto)

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