THE KINGDOM FALLS

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Siege of Acre 1291 – Guillaume de Clermont Defending Ptolemais from the Saracen invasion. The fall of Acre signaled the end of the Jerusalem crusades. No effective crusade was raised to recapture the Holy Land afterwards, though talk of further crusades was common enough. By 1291, other ideals had captured the interest and enthusiasm of the monarchs and nobility of Europe and even strenuous papal efforts to raise expeditions to retake the Holy Land met with little response.

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Map of Acre in 1291

When King Louis IX left Acre in 1254 the kingdom of Jerusalem was, for all practical purposes, leaderless. In that year the absentee king Conrad II (Conrad IV of Germany, 1250-54), the son of the emperor Frederick II and Isabella of Brienne, had been succeeded by his two-year-old son Conrad III (1254-68).

The Mongols were now the dominant force in the region and the Mongol threat actually created a brief period in which the crusader states enjoyed relative peace with their neighbors. Unfortunately, the internal political situation prevented them from taking advantage of this to strengthen their position. The absence of royal authority and the relative freedom from external threat allowed the various factions within the kingdom to give full vent to their grievances.

These included the Venetians and Genoese, who were vying for dominance in the eastern Mediterranean. More crippling, however, was the contest for control of the regency for Conrad II between two factions of the Ibelin family. Their machinations finally led to a state of affairs in which one child, King Hugh II of Cyprus, became regent for another, Conrad III. Hugh’s mother, Plaisance, acted as the regent’s regent. Clearly, in these years, the seat of real power in the crusader kingdom was no longer on the mainland, but in Cyprus.

The five years from 1265 to 1270 witnessed serious losses by the crusader states at the hands of the Mamluk sultan Baibars. In the West, however, attention was focused on internal matters, especially the struggle between the Hohenstaufens and Charles of Anjou. In the critical period of Mamluk expansion, therefore, the crusader states lacked the new infusions of western manpower and money upon which they depended. The internal conflict in the crusader states was partly, or perhaps even mostly, due to the inability of the various factions to find security in a deteriorating situation.

In the mid-1260s another dispute arose over the regency for Hugh II of Cyprus between Hugh of Brienne and Hugh of Antioch-Lusignan. The Frankish barons favored Antioch-Lusignan, one of the most powerful men in Cyprus. They were already looking to Cyprus as the most likely source of their future security.

This was the situation when, in 1265, Baibars launched an offensive against crusader territories of the interior. One by one castles and towns fell, including Caesarea, Haifa, Toron, Arsuf, and, in July 1266, the great Templar fortress of Safad, the key to control of the lands around Acre. In that same year, a second Egyptian army devastated Cilician Armenia. In 1268, Baibars again moved north from Egypt, seizing Jaffa and Beaufort castle. He bypassed Tyre, which was well fortified, and on 14th May besieged Antioch. The city fell on 18th May and was put to the sack.

Antioch, which had been in Christian hands since 1098, was one of the major centers of Christendom and its loss was a disaster for Christianity, removing a key base of support for the Armenians, and an ally of Baibars’ Muslim enemies in the north. The loss alerted the West to the danger that confronted the crusader states. In France, King Louis IX had already taken the cross once more. Lord Edward of England, the future King Edward I, prepared to join him.

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So long as the costs of the Crusades were born by the crusaders and their families, there were few who objected to the repeated efforts to free and preserve the Holy Land. But when kings began to lead, the expense of crusading soon was being imposed on everyone, including the clergy and the religious orders, in the form of crusader taxes. Grumbling began at once. The grumbling grew increasingly louder when bloody “crusades” began against “heretics” in Europe: thousands of Cathars, Waldensians, Beghards, and Beguines were condemned by the Church and killed in battle or hunted down and massacred. In the midst of all this, a medieval version of an antiwar movement eventually prevailed; after two centuries of support, the kingdoms in the Holy Land were abandoned.

In February 1289 Saif al-Din Qalawun (or Kalavun), the Mamluk sultan of Egypt, marched a huge army north and laid siege to Tripoli, one of the five remaining crusader ports in the Holy Land. When warned by the Templars that the Egyptians were coming, at first no one in Tripoli believed it. And, confident of the immense strength of their fortifications, they made no special preparations until the enemy was literally at the gates. Much to their surprise, not only was the Muslim army much larger than anyone in Tripoli had thought possible; this Muslim force brought immense siege engines able to smash the citís walls. As the bombardment ensued, members of the Venetian merchant community within Tripoli decided that the city could not be held and sailed away with their most precious possessions. This alarmed the Genoese merchants, and so they, too, scrambled aboard their ships and left. This threw the city into disorder just as the Muslims launched a general assault on the breaches in the walls. As hordes of Egyptian troopers swarmed into the city, some Christians were able to flee to the last boats in the harbor. As for the rest, the men were slaughtered, and the women and children were marched away to the slave markets. Then “Qalawun had the city razed to the ground, lest the Franks, with their command of the sea, might try to recapture it.” He also founded new Tripoli a few miles inland, where it could not be reached by sea.

That left Acre, Tyre, Beirut, and Haifa.

On his deathbed, Qalawun had his son and heir, al-Ashraf, swear he would conquer Acre. So in April 1291, al-Ashraf arrived at Acre with an even larger army than his father had marched to Tripoli and with even more powerful siege machines. The defenders fought bravely and with great skill; several times they sallied out the gates and attacked the Muslim camp. But all the while their fortifications were being reduced to rubble by the huge stones hurled by the siege engines, although supplies continued to arrive by sea from Cyprus and some civilians were evacuated on the return voyages. In May, a month after the siege began, reinforcements consisting of one hundred mounted knights and two thousand infantry came from Cyprus. But they were too few.

Soon the battle was being fought in the streets, and many civilians were crowding aboard rowboats to reach the galleys out in the harbor. But most people were unable to leave, and “[s]oon the Moslem soldiers penetrated right through the city, slaying everyone, old men, women and children alike.” By May 8, all of Acre was in Muslim hands except for the castle of the Templars, which jutted out into the sea. Boats from Cyprus continued to board refugees from the castle while the Templars, joined by other surviving fighting men, held the walls. At this point al-Ashraf offered favorable terms of surrender, the Templars accepted, and a contingent of Mamluks was admitted to supervise the handover. Unfortunately, they got out of hand. As the Muslim chronicler Abu’l-Mahasin admitted, the Mamluk contingent “began to pillage and to lay hands on the women and children.” Furious, the Templars killed them all and got ready to fight on. The next day, fully aware of what had gone wrong, al-Ashraf offered the same favorable terms once again. The commander of the Templars and some companions accepted a safe-conduct to arrange the surrender, but when they reached the sultan’s tent they were seized and beheaded. Seeing that from the walls, the remaining Templars decided to fight to the death. And they did.

Less than a month later this huge Muslim army arrived at Tyre. The garrison was far too small to attempt a defense and sailed away to Cyprus without a fight. Next, the Muslims marched to Beirut. Here, too, resistance was beyond the means of the garrison, and they, too, sailed to Cyprus. Haifa also fell without opposition; the monks on Mount Carmel were slaughtered and their monasteries burned. The last Christian enclave was now the Templars’ fortress island of Ruad, two miles off the coast. The Templars held out there until 1303, leaving then only because of the suppression of their order by the king of France and the pope. After the fall of Acre, the Hospitallers gathered on Cyprus and then, in 1310, seized the island of Rhodes from the Byzantines. There they built a superior navy and played an important role in defending Western shipping in the East.

And so it ended. It should be kept in mind that the kingdoms had survived, at least along the coast, for nearly as long as the United States has been a nation.

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