On this date in 1098, the Turkish commander of Antioch put to flight by the invading Crusader army was seized and beheaded as a trophy of the victory.
Yaghi Siyan, the Seljuk governor known to European chroniclers as Acxianus, Gratianus or Cassianus, found himself in a bad way when Christian forces of the First Crusade laid siege to Antioch late in 1097.
Although the Europeans were famished, they maintained the siege for the best part of a year, finally surging into Antioch on the night of June 2-3, 1098, with the help (as so often the case in siege warfare) of an inside man who agreed to open a gate.
Yaghi Siyan showed unparalleled courage and wisdom, strength and judgment. If all the Franks who died had survived they would have overrun all the lands of Islam. He protected the families of the Christians in Antioch and would not allow a hair of their head to be touched.
After the siege had been going on for a long time the Franks made a deal with one of the men who were responsible for the towers. He was a cuirass-maker called Ruzbih [or Firuz, or Firouz] whom they bribed with a fortune in money and lands. He worked in the tower that stood over the river-bed, where the river flowed out of the city into the valley. The Franks sealed their pact with the cuirass-maker, God damn him! and made their way to the water-gate. They opened it and entered the city. Another gang of them climbed the tower with ropes. At dawn, when more than 500 of them were in the city and the defenders were worn out after the night watch, they sounded their trumpets … Panic seized Yaghi Siyan and he opened the city gates and fled in terror, with an escort of thirty pages.
Yaghi-Siyan fell from his horse in flight; his
companions tried to lift him back into the saddle, but they could not get him to sit up, and so left him for dead while they escaped. He was at his last gasp when an Armenian* shepherd came past, killed him, cut off his head and took it to the Franks at Antioch.**
A borderline “execution” at best, but close enough for our purposes; the Turkish garrison Yaghi-Siyan left behind to face the music was receiving similar treatment from the Crusaders, as were civilians, Muslim and Christian alike.
The month following Yaghi-Siyan’s death was a strange and pivotal one in the strange and pivotal history of the Crusades.
The city of Antioch was almost immediately invested again — by a relief force of Turks who had arrived too late. Facing seemingly long odds on the other end of the siege, and still near to starvation, the Crusaders discovered the “Holy Lance”† and managed to repel the Turks, enabling the upstart Christian army to march on to Jerusalem.
* Having had their homelands overrun by the Seljuks during the preceding decades, there was no small tension in the Armenian relationship with their Turkish rulers; the man who betrayed the city was himself said to be an Armenian who had been forced to convert to Islam. The account of the city’s capture by Raymond d’Aguiliers reports that our day’s victim “was captured and beheaded by some Armenian peasants, and his head was brought to us. This, I believe, was done by the ineffable disposition of God, that he who had caused many men of this same race to be beheaded should be deprived of his head by them.”
** Different accounts give slightly different versions of how Yaghi-Siyan came to his end — whether thrown from his horse or caught attempting to take refuge — and the station in life of the Armenian (everyone seems to agree on the nationality of the executioner) who decapitated him.
† The spear supposed to have pierced Christ on the cross, whose discovery was directed by Peter the Hermit at the direction, he said, of St. Andrew. Ibn al-Athir had a more skeptical take:
a holy man who had great influence over them, a man of low cunning … proclaimed that the Messiah had a lance buried in the Qusyan, a great building in Antioch … Before saying this he had buried a lance in a certain spot and concealed all trace of it. He exhorted them to fast and repent for three days, and on the fourth day he led them all to the spot with their soldiers and workmen, who dug everywhere and found the lance as he had told them.