On this day December 12, 1098
The most infamous event from the city’s history dates from late 1098, during the First Crusade. After the Crusaders, led by Raymond de Saint Gilles and Bohemond of Taranto, successfully besieged Antioch they found themselves with insufficient supplies of food.
Their raids on the surrounding countryside during the winter months did not help the situation. By December 12 when they reached Ma’arra, many of them were suffering from starvation and malnutrition.
They managed to breach the city’s walls and massacred about 20,000 inhabitants, as they often did when they captured a city. However, this time, as they could not find enough food, they resorted to cannibalism.
One of the crusader commanders wrote to Pope Urban II: “A terrible famine racked the army in Ma’arra, and placed it in the cruel necessity of feeding itself upon the bodies of the Saracens.“
Radulph of Caen, another chronicler, wrote: “In Ma’arra our troops boiled pagan adults in cooking-pots; they impaled children on spits and devoured them grilled.”
Those events had a strong impact on the local inhabitants of Southwest Asia. The crusaders already had a reputation for cruelty and barbarism towards Muslims, Jews and even Orthodox Christians (the Crusades began shortly after the Great Schism of 1054).
Crusaders are still referred as “cannibals” in many Southwest Asian and north african languages and even centuries later their image as fanatical cannibals was alive in Arabic literature.
Many authors suggest that the crusaders’ behaviour was not really born of their hunger but fanatical belief that the Muslims were even lower than the animals. Amin Maalouf in his book The Crusades Through Arab Eyes points out the most crucial line for such belief among the Muslims: “Not only did our troops not shrink from eating dead Turks and Saracens; they also ate dogs!” by Albert of Aix.