One of the most interesting contemporary accounts of the crusades comes from a twelfth-century resident of Damascus. Ibn Al-Qalanisi was a distinguished scholar in Damascus, and was twice elected the mayor of that city. His Chronicle begins in 1097 with an account of the First Crusade, and continues on to 1159, one year before his death at the age of 90. This work contains many colourful narratives of warfare between Crusaders and Muslims, including the following account of the siege of Tyre in 1111-1112. The Crusaders were led by King Baldwin I of Jerusalem. This account is notable for its lengthy description of the fighting that took place using siege towers.
In this year king Baldwin assembled all whom he could of the franks and marched to the port of Tyre. The governor ‘Izz al-Mulk and the citizens wrote in haste to Zahir al-Din Atabek at Damascus, asking him for help and reinforcements and promising to surrender the city to him. They besought him to make haste to send a large number of Turks and urged that they should come to them speedily to assist and strengthen them, for should there be any delay in sending them assistance necessity would compel them to surrender the city to the Franks, as they despaired of help from al-Afdal, the ruler of Egypt. The atabek dispatched with all speed a large contingent of Turks, consisting of over two hundred horsemen, archers of proven worth, with full equipment. In addition to this contingent, the citizens were reinforced by numbers of footsoldiers from Tyre and Jabal ‘Amilah who embraced their cause, together with footsoldiers from Damascus. The atabek also prepared to dispatch another detachment. When Baldwin learned of the arrangement between atabek and the people of Tyre, he made haste to invest it with the forces which he had assembled, on 25th First Jumada 505 (29th November, 1111). He ordered the fruit trees and palms to be cut down and constructed permanent dwellings before the city, and delivered regular assaults upon it on several occasions, only to retire discomfited and frustrated in his object. It is said that in one attack the people of Tyre discharged twenty thousand arrows in a single day.
Zahir al-Din on learning that the Franks had invested Tyre marched out and made his camp at Banyas, whence he dispatched his squadrons together with bands of brigands into the territories of the Franks with a free hand of plunder, kill, rob, destroy and burn, with the object of causing them vexation and forcing them to abandon the siege. The second contingent which he sent to Tyre attempted to enter the town but was unable to gain entrance. Zahir al-Din himself marched to al-Habis, a strong and forbidding castle in the Sawad, and after a vigorous attack captured it by the sword and put the entire garrison to death. The Franks set about constructing two wooden towers with which to make the assault on the wall of Tyre, and Zahir al-Din deployed his forces against them so that the troops in Tyre might make a sortie and burn the towers. The Franks became aware of his object in these manoeuvres, and having dug a trench around them on all sides, posted armed men along it to defend both it and the towers, paying no heed either to what he might do or to the raids which were made upon their territories and slaughter their inhabitants. When the winter storms commenced, they did no harm to the Franks since they were encamped on hard, sandy soil, while the Turks on the contrary suffered great hardships and bitter distress in their position, yet they did not cease from raiding and making booty, and cutting off supplies and provisions from the Franks, and seizing all that was conveyed to them.
The Turks also cut the mole by which access was gained to Sidon, in order to cut off supplies from it as well, whereupon they changed their tactics and sent out requests to all parts for supplies to be sent to them by sea. Zahir al-Din, realizing this, set out with a detachment of his ‘askar to the district of Sidon and raided its suburbs, killing a number of the seamen and burning about twenty vessels on the shore. And withal he did not neglect to send letters to the men of Tyre, encouraging them and urging them to perseverance in the face of the Franks and zeal in fighting against them.
The construction of the two towers and the battering-rams to be placed with them was completed in about seventy-five days, and the 10th Sha ‘ban (11th February) they began to be moved forward and employed in the attack. They were brought close to the city wall and fierce fighting went on round about them. The height of the smaller tower exceeded forty cubits [one cubit is equal to about 20 inches] and that of the greater exceeded fifty cubits. On 1st Ramadan (2nd March) the men of Tyre made a sortie from the bastions with Greek fire, firewood, pitch, and incendiary equipment, and being unable to penetrate to either of the towers, threw the fire close to the smaller one where the Franks could not protect it from the flames. The wind blew the fire on to the smaller tower, which was completely burned after severe fighting around it and a hand-to-hand struggle in its defence. Many coats of mail, long shields, and other objects were recovered from it as booty. The fire also gained the larger tower. The news spread to the Muslims that the Franks had desisted from the attack on the town owing to their preoccupation with the fire in the tower, whereupon they began to withdraw from the fighting around the bastions. The Franks made a vigorous attack upon them, drove them clear of the tower, and put out the fire that had caught hold of it. Thereafter they set a strong guard of their picked men to protect the tower and the catapults on all sides.
They continued their assault upon the city without intermission until the end of Ramadan, and brought the tower close up to one of the bastions of the wall, having filled in the three trenches which were in front of it. The townsmen had recourse to the underpinning of the wall of that bastion which was opposite the tower of the Franks and cast fire at it. The underpinning caught fire and the face of the wall fell in front of the tower and prevented it from being moved close up to the wall. The place which they had intended to attack was now defended only by a low wall, but as it was commanded by the city bastions, the tower could not be brought up to that point. The Franks cleared away the debris, and dragged the tower towards another of the bastions of the city where, having pushed it up until it was close to the wall, they battered the wall with the rams which were within it and shook it, so that some of the stones were dislodged from it and the townsfolk were on the point of destruction. Thereupon a certain man of Tarabulus, one of the leaders of the seaman, who was acquainted with forging, and possessed some understanding and experience of warfare, set to work to construct grappling irons, with which to seize the ram, as it was butting the wall, by the head and the sides by means of ropes, which were then pulled by the townsmen until the wooden tower almost rocked with the vigour of their pulling on them. Sometimes the Franks themselves would then break the ram, fearing for the safety of the tower, sometimes it would be bent aside or rendered useless, and sometimes it was broken by means of two stones tied together and thrown down upon it from the city wall. The Franks made a number of rams, but they were broken in this fashion one after the other. Each of them was sixty cubits in length, and was slung in the wooden tower with ropes and at the head of each was piece of iron weighing more than twenty pounds.
When the replacing of the battering-rams had gone on for a long time and the Franks brought the tower close up to the wall, this same seaman took a baulk, long, tough and strong, and erected it on the city bastion which was opposite the tower of the Franks. At the top of this was another baulk of wood, set crosswise and forty cubits in length, which turned on pulley wheels (by tackles) led to a windlass in whatever direction was desired by the man in charge of it, on the same principle as the [yards on the] masts of sailing-ships. At one end of this rotating crosspiece was an arrow of iron, and at the other end were ropes arranged round about it as the man in charge desired. He used to hoist on this contrivance jars of filth and impurities, in order to distract them from the rams by upsetting the contents over them on the tower. This was very disagreeable to the assailants and distracted them from their tasks and operations. The same sailor also took baskets of vine leaves and rushes, and having filled them with oil, pitch, kindling wood, resin, and peelings of canes, put fire in them, and when the fire caught he fixed them on the contrivance we have described, so that they hung over the tower of the Franks and the fire dropped down on top of it. They would make haste to extinguish it with vinegar and water and he would quickly hoist another, at the same time also throwing boiling oil on the tower in small pots. This caused a great conflagration, and when the fire extended and by spreading from one part to another increased in violence, it overcame the two men who were in charge of the top of the tower, one of whom was killed and the other fled below. The fire now gained control of the top storey, and being fed by the wooden structure overcame all who were in the storeys round about, so that they were unable to extinguish it and fled, together with the Franks who were near it. The men of Tyre then went out to it, and plundered its contents, gaining indescribable quantity of weapons, arms and equipment as booty.
Thereupon the Franks despaired of capturing the city and prepared to retire. They burned the houses which they had built in their camp to dwell in, as well as many of the vessels belonging to them on the shore, since they had removed their masts, rudders, and equipment for the towers. The number of these vessels was about two hundred, large and small, about thirty of them being war vessels, and they used some of them for the transport of their light baggage. They departed on the 10th Shawwal of this year (April 10th), having prosecuted the siege of Tyre for the space of four and a half months, and proceeding to ‘Akka dispersed to their own provinces. The men of Tyre came out and seized as booty everything that they could find, and the Turks who had been sent to assist them returned to Damascus. The number of men whom they had lost in the fighting was about thirty, and they received their pay and allowances there every month. No other tower of the Franks either before or after met such a fate as befell this tower, be being burned from top to bottom, and the cause that contributed to this was that the two towers [that of the Franks and the bastion of the city] were equal in height; had one of them dominated the other, the lower would have been destroyed. The number of the men of Tyre who were lost was four hundred souls, and the losses of the Franks in this engagement, according to a reliable statement, about two thousand souls. The Tyrians, however, did not carry out their promise to surrender the city to Zahir al-Din Atabek, and he did not openly demand it of them, but said, “What I have done I have done only for the sake of God and the Muslims, nor out of desire for wealth or kingdom.” Blessings and thanks were showered upon him for his noble action, and he promised them that when a similar danger should threaten them, he would hasten to the city and do his utmost to assist it. He then returned to Damascus, having suffered great hardship in warring against the Franks until God delivered the men of Tyre from their distress. The Tyrians set about repairing the damage done by the Franks to the wall, restoring the trenches to their former state and digging them out afresh, and fortifying the city, and the footsoldiers who were in the city dispersed.
This text is from The Damascus Chronicle of the Crusades, Extracted and translated from the chronicle of Ibn Al-Qalanisi, translated by H.A.R. Gibb (London: Luzac & Co., 1932)