When he heard the Christian armies were approaching, Iftikhar ad-Dawla, Muslim governor of Jerusalem, readied the city for a siege. He destroyed the wells outside the walls, poisoning some, dumping earth in others. He drove outlying flocks and herds into the city, and then drove Christian inhabitants, who outnumbered the city’s Muslims, out into the Judean wilderness. He strengthened the towers with sacks of cotton and hay, to absorb the shock of bombardment by French catapults. Then he sent a message to fellow Fatimids (a branch of Islam) in Egypt, imploring them to send armed aid.

Meanwhile, along the coastal road of modern-day Lebanon, the Christian armies advanced—color-filled banners fluttering in the wind, relics carefully borne, pilgrims trudging behind, sometimes singing, sometimes chanting, like a monastery on the march. As they made their way during this spring of 1099, they found only light resistance from Muslim cities and fortresses, at least compared to the protracted siege and fierce fighting they had seen in Antioch. At Jaffa, they turned inland and started the slow ascent to Jerusalem.

On June 5, the Christians’ spirits were buoyed by a lunar eclipse—a portent of victory. The next day, one army headed for Bethlehem and conquered it in short order. On the evening of June 7, the main army encamped, finally, within sight of the massive, stone walls of the Holy City.

Thus began a five-week siege, which would culminate in a fierce three-day battle, which in turn would conclude nearly four years of prayer, courage, savagery, and faith we now call the First Crusade.

Taking Up the Cross

It all started at a meeting of church bureaucrats. Pope Urban II had gathered leaders at Clermont, in South-East France, in November ...

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