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The First Crusade was a religo-political war that began in 1095 and culminated with the siege of the holy city of Jerusalem in 1099. Most European accounts of this "pilgrimage" (as it was contemporarily called) were written years after the fact, leading to much exaggeration in regard to individual fighting prowess and the number of lives claimed. For instance, one chronicle mentions men wading through blood up to their horse bridles. However, the Arabist S.D. Goitein discovered a letter from the Cairo Geniza in 1952 that dated to only a few months after the siege. The letter reveals the Crusaders had captured many of the city's inhabitants and held them for ransom. Much of the money was raised by the Jewish community of Alexandria, Egypt and forwarded onto the Crusaders via the Jewish community of Ascalon near the Gaza strip. The captives were sold for less than the going price of 100 dinars for three people (33.3 per person) because the Crusaders could not afford to care for all of them. The letter goes on to say:

[indent]"In the end, all those who could be bought from them [the Franks] were liberated, and only a few whom they kept remained in their hands, including a boy of about eight years of age, and a man known as Abu Sa'd, 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 said to them, how could a Kohen [Jewish priest] become a Christian and be left in peace by those [the Jews] who had already disbursed a large sum on his behalf. Until this day, these captives remain in their [Franks] hand, as well as those who were taken to Antioch, but they are few; and not counting those who abjured their faith [converted to Christianity] because they lost patience, as it was not possible to ransom them, and because they despaired of being permitted to go free."[/indent] (Goitein, S.D. A Mediterranean Society (Vol. 5). University of California Press, 1999, p. 375)

The front and back of the original 12th century letter

(I would like to thank Cambridge University library for the full size scans. I greatly reduced the size so no one can use them for research purposes without their permission.)

Now, the first time I read Goitein's complete translation of the letter I was amazed that history had preserved the name of one of the faceless victims of the First Crusade. Crusader chronicles are always told from the viewpoint of the conquerors and never the conquered. Who was this Abu S'ad? I had to find out more.

From his analysis of the letter, Goitein was able to come up with the following back story:

   "The man was a Kohen and a stepson of a renowned Karaite [Jew] from the Tustari family (who were not Kohens). [Moshe] Gil (The Tustaris, pp. 65-66) quotes a Muslim traveler from Spain who visited Jerusalem in the 1090's and attended a religious disputation in which the Jewish side was represented by "the Tustari," most likely the one referred to here." (Ibid, note 81, p. 612)

So Abu Sa'd was a Jewish priest and step son of a noted Kariate scholar. But there seems to be some confusion in other works that translate the letter differently, which combines Abu Sa'd and the young boy mentioned into one person. The Arabist Moshe Gil states:

   "Among the captives still in the hands of the Crusaders is a child of eight to ten years of age, named Abu Sa'd, 'son of the wife of the Tustari'. this 'wife of the Tustari' was evidently the wife of the Karite writer Sahl b. Fadl (Yashar b. Hesed) al-Tustari, the great-grandson of [the merchant prince] Hesed al-Tustari. We have seen that this Sahl lived in Jerusalem in the [ten] nineties, and we do not know the circumstances of his death; perhaps he was killed during the Crusader's conquest. Nor do we know why the child is called 'the son of the wife of all Tustari' and not ' the son of al-Tustari', and naturall there may be many explanations for this. His captors, the Crusaders, are trying to persuade him to convert to Christianity but he refuses ... It appears that they are hoping to receive a particularly large sum in ransom money for him, as they are aware of his lineage." (Gil, Moshe. A History of Palestine, 634-1099. Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 833)

In a couple of footnotes, Gil mentions:

   "See Goiteins assumption...that his [Zadok b. Josiah] son-in-law was 'the son of the wife of the Tustari' mentioned..., which does not seem to be based on sufficient evidence, for this was a child of eight to ten." (Ibid, p. 832)
   "Goitein...already stated his opinion that this boy was the son of Yashar b. Hesed..., and deduced from this that Yashar, the Karaite writer, lived in Jerusalem until the Crusaders' conquest." (Ibid, 834)

This last quote refers to a much earlier paper written by Goitein that says:

   "Thus we see that Karaites remained in Jerusalem up till the very end, and "the son of the Tustari's wife" most probably was the son of the wife, by a previous marriage, of the noteworthy Karaite scholar Yashar b. Hesed b. Yashar at-Tustari, who, as we have seen, was, according to Poznanski, a son of Abfi Nasr." (S. D. Goitein. "Petitions to Fatimid Caliphs from the Cairo Geniza." The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series, Vol. 45, No. 1 (Jul., 1954), pp. 30-38, p. 37-38)

In a paper on the Karaite Jewish community of Jerusalem, the Arabist Haggai Ben-Shammai mentions Abu Sa'd was one of those held captive by the Crusaders and then states:

   "As far as can be judged from the facsimile of the [original 12th century] document, the letter is apparently torn beyond repair at this particular line. However, the space between the allusion to the boy and his age, on the one hand, and the name of Abu Sa'd, on the other hand, seems more than sufficient for two to three words introducing Abu Sa'd as a separate person. Thus, Goiteins interpretation appears preferable. Nonetheless, "the Tustari" may have been the Prisoner's step father, while the boy's mother may not have been a Karaite in the first place." ("The Karaites" by Haggai Ben-Shammai in The History of Jerusalem: The Early Muslim Period, 638-1099. Ed. Joshua Prawer and Haggai Ben-Shammai. New York University Press, 1996, pp. 221-222)

So even Ben-Shammai seems to think Abu Sa'd was perhaps a rabbanite step son from his mother's previous marriage. The idea of there being a tear in between the reference to the boy and Abu Sa'd is very convincing. I am very surprised that Moshe Gil (the foremost expert on the Tustaris) would overlook something as important as that.

I must note that Rabbanites and Karaites were two competing sects of Judaism. The Rabbanites (the source of "Rabbis") followed the "Oral Law" of the Torah and Mishnah, while the Karaite's only followed the "Written Law" of the Hebrew Bible. Because of these difference, both sects were constantly at odds with eachother. They even had separate sections within the main Jewish community of Jerusalem where they lived. Karaite Jews were by far the wealthiest entrepreneurs in contemporary Egypt. In fact, the Tustaris had family ties with the Muslim Caliphs of Egypt and served as their suppliers of court refinement--such as diamonds and silk.