Damascus and the Early Campaigns of the Templars, 1129–47

The strategic importance of Damascus cannot be overstated. Nestled in the foothills of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains in south-western Syria, this famous ancient fortified city found itself in the crusader period hovering menacingly over the narrowest part of the Outremer states. Based just 50 miles from the Mediterranean Sea, a well-organised Damascene army could conceivably cut supply and communication links between the Kingdom of Jerusalem to the south and the County of Tripoli to the north. Baldwin II and the Templars must have been aware of the threat.

Fulk and his party of crusaders arrived in Acre in May 1129. The Muslim commentator Ibn al-Qalanisi noted that the Franks at this time had been ‘reinforced also from the sea by the King Count . . . having with him a vast host’. Fulk’s arrival coincided with two recent strokes of fortune. In February 1128 Tughtigin, Atabeg of Damascus had passed away and was replaced by his less competent son Buri. Buri had decided to rid himself of a thorn in his side, the Assassins. The Assassins were an Ismaili sect whose arrival some years earlier in Damascus did not sit well with the Sunni Muslim population of the town. In 1126 Tughtigin had handed the Assassin leader Bahram of Asterabad control of Banyas, the frontier fortress from where the Assassins intimidated the people of the region. Bahram was succeeded by a Persian named Ismail. Buri, following up on Tughtigin’s growing impatience with the Assassins orchestrated a purge of the Assassins in September 1129 starting in Damascus with the murder of the Assassins’ nominal protector and supporter, the vizier al Mazdaghani. Riots ensued around the city and Ismail, nervously observing events from Banyas, went straight to the Franks with an offer. They could have Banyas if they would provide Ismail with protection.

Baldwin arrived with his reinforced army at Banyas in November 1129. The site provided the perfect springboard for the planned campaign against Damascus. He marched to a place called the Wooden Bridge just 6 miles to the south-west of Damascus. With him were the Count of Tripoli, the Count of Edessa, the Prince of Antioch and almost certainly a contingent of Templars. Buri placed his army between the crusaders and the city and waited. The standoff lasted several days until on the crusader side, William of Bures’s forces were caught whilst foraging. They had gone 20 miles south of the Frankish camp to a place called Mergisafar. They were initially large in number but split their forces into smaller and smaller detachments. Command and control seems to have been lost as William of Tyre recounts how the Franks of lesser ranks simply pleased themselves in an ill-disciplined search for booty. They were overwhelmed by Turcomen cavalry, who took advantage of a superior knowledge of the landscape. With no chance of regaining cohesion, even the well-disciplined knights who had been sent out with the foragers to guard them were slain. The defeat was ignominious. William and forty-five of his comrades survived to bring the unfortunate news to the king. The king however, wanted quick revenge and wished to catch Buri whilst his forces were preoccupied celebrating. The order was given to advance against the Muslims. Ibn al-Qalanisi says that there was terror in the hearts of the Muslim forces at this development which was followed by feelings of great relief when a huge rain storm began to turn the plain into a sea of mud with huge rivers cutting through the trackways. ‘Against the will of divine power, the purposes of man can make no progress’, commented William of Tyre. With a heavy heart the crusaders turned back to Banyas and from there to Palestine before dispersing. Opportunities to move against Damascus were rare. In 1126 even after his victory at A’zaz the king had only managed to raid the vicinity of the city. Now, in 1129 with a large force, the elements had conspired against him. In the long term, this failure of the crusaders to take Damascus would have dramatic consequences.

We cannot be sure if Hugh of Payns’ men were amongst those appointed to guard the foragers at Mergisafar, but given Hugh’s purpose and mission at this time and his close links to the king, it seems likely that his forces were involved in the Damascus campaign. It is perhaps worth noting an English source, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in the entry for 1129, which has something more to say after it records Hugh’s visit to Britain that year. ‘Little came of it’ says the chronicler, referring to Hugh’s enticement of western warriors from Britain: ‘He [Hugh of Payns] said that a great battle was set between the Christians and the heathen; then when they came there, it was nothing but lies; thus all the people became wretchedly afflicted.’ If the Templars’ role in the Damascus campaign is enigmatic, then the lack of a mention of the Templars for the next six or seven years is more so. We are on surer ground, however, with evidence of papal support for the order at the Council of Pisa in 1135. This council was called by Pope Innocent II in the face of a challenge against his authority from Anacletus II of Rome. The result of Innocent’s gratitude for the support of Bernard of Clairvaux (and by association that of the Templars) during this schism was clear. Although not able to return to Rome until 1138 on his rival’s death, Innocent, with the wide support of the Frankish clergy, was able to reward the Templars with a mark of gold each year. His chancellor Aimeric provided 2 ounces of gold and each of the archbishops, bishops and ‘other good men’ a mark of silver.

Hugh died in around 1136, presumably content that his order was in the ascendancy. His successor as Grand Master was Robert of Craon, a courageous military man and great organiser. Whether the recent financial injection had anything to do with an increasing military profile for the order is not clear. However, the Templars are to be found performing a new strategic role in the Amanus Mountains between 1136 and 1137. The armies of the First Crusade had marched into Syria from south-eastern Cilicia via the Belen Pass about 16 miles north of Antioch. This was a well-trodden path used for centuries by many great commanders. At some stage in the middle of the 1130s the defence of the pass, also known as the ‘Syrian Gates’, was entrusted to the Templars in the form of the fortified site at Gaston (also known as Baghras. But this was not the only pass into Syria. Also entrusted to the Templars was the defence of the Hajar Shuglan Pass situated north of Alexandretta (Iskenderun). The key castles in this more northerly Hajar Shuglan Pass were La Roche Roussel (Chilvan), which dominated its surroundings from an impressive height of 1,200m above sea level, and the unlocated La Roche Guillaume (which may be identical with the site postulated as that of Roche Roussel. Situated between the eastern approaches of both passes sat another Templar castle at Darbsak. Also, in around 1137 the Templars took possession of Port Bonnel on the Gulf of Ayas. The practical consequence of controlling these fortified sites must have been a further boost in the income of the order, for a castle economically as well as militarily dominates its landscape and the advantages of controlling a sea port are obvious to all.

Hundreds of miles to the south at the other end of Outremer, in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the recently militarised Hospitallers were the first order to be granted an important strategic castle at Bethgibelin. Here, the intention of the new King Fulk (who had succeeded Baldwin II and ruled along with his new wife Melisende from 1131) was to threaten Fatimid Egyptian Ascalon. Bethgibelin would soon work alongside the castles of Blanchegarde and Ibelin in the 1140s to both protect the kingdom from Fatimid raids from Ascalon and to provide springboards for offensive operations. The Templars would later be awarded the castle at Gaza as part of the same strategic plan between 1149 and 1150. However, before this they had been awarded the castle of Latrun, otherwise known as Toron des Chevaliers, guarding the road to Jerusalem from Jaffa between 1137 and 1141. This huge castle had been expanded into a larger keep and outer works from an earlier small tower by Count Rodrigo Gonzalez of Toledo whilst he was in the Holy Land on crusade according to the Chronica Aldefonsi imperatoris, a Castilian chronicle. When he had completed it Gonzalez garrisoned and equipped it and gave it to the Templars. It was again expanded later in its history. As for the reasons behind its early establishment we might surmise that the protection of pilgrims had a part to play, but the threat from Ascalon would appear to have dominated the thinking of Rodrigo Gonzalez and his successors.

As the Templars began to occupy these strategic strongholds and continued to perform their role of escorting and protecting pilgrims, there is further evidence of military activity. This time, the action centres on the County of Tripoli and the Templars’ earliest recorded contact with Zengi, Atabeg of Mosul (to which he ascended in 1127) and of Aleppo. Zengi was a much celebrated leader in the Muslim accounts. He represented a new breed of Muslim ruler whose military and political expertise would overcome the disunity of the first few decades of the twelfth century and provide a formidable foe for the leaders of the Outremer states. Early in 1137 Count Pons of Tripoli was killed after being betrayed by Christian villagers to the forces of an aggressive new ruler called Basawash at Damascus. Zengi distrusted the new regime in Damascus and set about besieging Homs which was under Damascene control. For two weeks he camped before the fortification, but on hearing that Pons’s son, the new Count Raymond II of Tripoli, was heading towards him, Zengi raised the siege of Homs and turned his attention to the newly arrived Franks. The result was that Raymond retired in the face of the threat and Zengi headed to the castle at Montferrand (Bar’in) on the eastern side of the Nosairi hills. Originally captured by the Franks in 1115, lost and again retaken in 1126, this castle had great strategic value. Zengi knew that if he could take it he could prevent the Franks of Tripoli from penetrating up the Orontes Valley and thereby allow for Zengi to increase his hold upon Homs and Hama.

Raymond II appealed to King Fulk for help. Fulk headed north with all he could gather which was less than he might have wanted, but which included a force of Templars. Their march was troubled. Many were in a poor state as they weaved their way through the Nosairi foothills. Zengi, who had distanced himself from the king’s forces, on hearing the news about their condition, closed in on them. The Christians were heavily defeated. The Anglo-Norman historian Orderic Vitalis was moved to record it like this:

Countless thousands of the Pagans fell, but by the will of God, whose judgments are just and right, almost the whole Christian force crumbled and all except thirty knights were slain. Only the king himself escaped with ten of his household knights and eighteen knights of the Temple, and fled to a castle . . . called Montferrand where they stoutly resisted, although besieged for some time . . . Zengi, although he had lost thousands of his men by the swords of the Christians, was nevertheless elated at winning the victory he had hoped for.

The Count of Tripoli had been taken prisoner according to William of Tyre. The king, holed up in Montferrand with the Templars, sent out for help from the Patriarch, the Count of Edessa and the Prince of Antioch. They each began to prepare to relieve the siege of Montferrand. By July 1137 these forces were in the region, but the king, acting out of desperation and on the advice of unknown persons, sent out a messenger to Zengi to ask for terms. To his surprise Zengi just wanted Montferrand. The king could have back his prisoners including Count Raymond. In a great ceremony the exchange took place and Zengi took his prize whilst the king’s men marched away and came across the relieving Frankish forces in the fertile Buqaia (the Beqaa Valley) much closer than any of them had expected. It may have seemed to some that a rash deal had been made with Zengi given the proximity of the relieving force, but to others and just possibly to the Templars, the negotiations had meant the king had got off lightly and lived to fight another day.

By 1139 the Templars must have gained for themselves some sort of renown, for William of Tyre’s record of a military defeat near Hebron includes the recording of the death in battle of an individual he describes as a well-known Templar. In these days he says, a certain Burgundian had come to Jerusalem. This was the new Templar Grand Master Robert of Craon. He had brought some of his brothers from Antioch. However, whilst the king’s forces were away besieging a fortress beyond the Jordan ‘certain Turks’ seized the opportunity to cross the Jordan and take possession of Tekoah, south of Jerusalem. Robert, his brothers and a member of the king’s household Bernard Vacher, who bore the royal standard of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, set out from Jerusalem for Tekoah. On hearing of the Christians’ approach the enemy turned towards Hebron further south, with the intention of continuing to friendly Ascalon. In what would appear to be a repeat of the debacle at Mergisafar ten years before, the Frankish forces scattered in different directions to obtain plunder and were overconfident that their enemy had fled before them. But the Turks turned and rallied. They fell upon the unsuspecting Franks. A core of Christian warriors managed to form a defensive line amidst a cacophony of trumpet blasts and a cloud of dust created by their horses’ hooves. But it was not enough. The Turks came on in their swirling masses before the foraging Franks could answer their comrades’ trumpets. Valiant and defiant though the defence was, the Western knights in the remaining line were caught and defeated by their enemies. The casualty count greatly increased in the subsequent rout. There was nowhere for the fleeing Franks to go. A lack of pathways and steep rocky slopes meant that some men were hurled from precipices in the chase. For many miles around the Turks massacred their enemy. In what has sometimes been passed over as a minor skirmish by later observers, ‘many noble and famous men’ fell. These included Odo of Mountfaucon whose death caused ‘universal sorrow and mourning’. William of Tyre tells us that the king’s assault on the fortress beyond the Jordan was a success and that the forces of the king returned home in triumph, but nothing is said of what Robert of Craon may have learned from this dangerous practice of scattering one’s forces in search of plunder, or whether Robert had any decision-making role in such a disaster.

In the same year of the Hebron incident the Templars received their first papal bull of privileges. Pope Innocent II, who had already provided his support at the Council of Pisa found himself in a position to return to Rome after the death of a rival Pope. On 29 March 1139 the bull Omne datum optimum was promulgated. Its title was taken from the Epistle of James which begins ‘Every best gift and every perfect gift descends from above . . .’. It gave the Templars official papal backing in their role as defenders of the Church and attackers of the enemies of Christ. The bull mentioned that the Templars were already wearing a cross on their chest at this time, but does not specify its colour. It also quotes the Gospel of John (15:13):

just as true Israelites and warriors most skilled in holy war, are indeed fired up by the flame of charity and fulfil by your deeds the words of the Gospel that says: ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his souls [friends]’, whence, in accordance with the words of the great Shepard, you are not afraid to lay down your souls for your brothers and defend them from attacks of the pagans.

Omne datum optimum conferred significant privileges upon the order. One of these will have had an impact on the approach to warfare. The Templars were permitted to keep the spoils of war. It said ‘you can confidently put them [the spoils] to your own use, and we prohibit that you be coerced against your will to give anyone a portion of these’. The appetite for plunder, already in evidence, would now have official backing. All donations were to be placed under the protection of the Holy See. The order as a whole was answerable to the Pope alone, marking a significant (although not total) shift away from the Patriarch of Jerusalem. The Grand Master could be chosen from the ranks of the Templar knights without outside interference. The order was also given its own priesthood for the first time and these priests answered to the Grand Master despite the fact that he himself was not ordained. The Chaplains were full members of the order and could hear confessions and absolve the brothers. All this made the order independent of the diocesan bishops of Outremer. The Templars were also granted their own oratories where divine offices could be heard and were also granted exemption from tithes but were in turn free to collect tithes on their own properties.

Unsurprisingly, the Templars’ privileges did not meet with universal approval. Criticism of the order was still very strong as late as the Third Lateran Council of 1179. There were some, such as John of Salisbury, writing in the 1150s who saw the privileges as at best confusing. He could not understand why those whose job it was to ‘shed human blood in a certain way presume to administer the blood of Christ’. This sense of distance created by Omne datum optimum was soon compounded by two other papal bulls promulgated in relatively quick succession. On 9 January 1144 a new Pope, Celestine II (1143–4), issued Milites Templi, a bull which was addressed to the prelates of Christendom. It carried a strong message. The Knights of the Temple at Jerusalem were the new Maccabees. Here, the comparison was with the Jewish warriors who had risen in revolt against the Syrian King Antiochus Epiphanes (175–164 BC) after Antiochus had brought in a pagan cult at the Temple in order to eradicate Judaism. Through the Templars the bull said, God had ‘freed the Eastern Church from the filth of the pagans and defeated the enemies of the Christian faith’. The Templars’ successes to date were thus lauded by the Pope. As the Templars laid down their lives for their brothers and for the protection of pilgrims, the Pope called for the order to be given practical help from the prelates of Christendom. A carrot was waved in front of the readership:

Indeed, whoever helps them out from his own resources, accumulated through God, and becomes a member of this most holy brotherhood, granting it benefices annually . . . we will grant him an indulgence of the seventh part of any penance imposed upon him. If he dies and has not been excommunicated, ecclesiastical burial with other Christians will not be denied him.

The bull went on to say that when Templars went to any city, castle or village on the business of collection, and if that place had been placed under interdict (a papal prohibition on Christians practising certain rites within a specified region), then churches should be opened once a year to receive the knights. Divine offices could be heard in such churches, provided no excommunicates were present. Furthermore, the Templars’ persons and goods were to be protected with no damage or injury to be inflicted on them.

Pope Celestine’s short pontificate ended in March 1144. He was succeeded by Pope Lucius II who died in February 1145 and was himself succeeded as Pope by Eugenius III (1145–53). On 7 April 1145 another papal bull entitled Militia Dei further strengthened the Templars’ position. The order was given the right to take tithes and burial fees and to bury their own brothers or sergeants in places where they had their own oratories. The prelates to whom the bull was addressed must consecrate these oratories and bless the cemeteries.

It may seem that the continuing granting of privileges to the Templars was being met with some consternation in certain clerical circles. It is unlikely however, that successive popes through three different papal bulls were trying to prop up a failing organisation. They were building on success. From the military point of view, we cannot know how many skirmishes or minor battles have gone without mention, but by 1145 when Pope Eugenius’s Militia Dei was promulgated, the order had already seen numerous military actions fighting alongside the secular nobility of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The three papal bulls reflect a continuing and growing need to promote and fund the Templars. Eugenius knew that the need was most pressing indeed, for in December 1144 a disaster had befallen Outremer.

Zengi, Atabeg of Mosul and Aleppo, had surrounded and besieged Edessa, the capital of the important crusader buffer state in the north-east. For a month from the end of November his siege engines and engineers battered and undermined the walls of the city with no apparent counter-mining repost. On 24 December 1144 part of the walls near the Gate of Hours collapsed and Zengi’s men rushed through the breach. Many citizens were caught in the stampede and trampled underfoot or slaughtered where they stood, with some managing to retreat to the citadel, but there was no hope of defence. One of Zengi’s commanders, Zayn ad-Din Ali Kutchuk, was appointed governor of Edessa, and whilst its remaining Christian population were spared, the news of the disaster began to travel back to the West. Outremer had been founded on the crusading zeal of dukes, princes and other European nobility during the First Crusade. Now, with the earliest established of those crusader states being the first to fall, Pope Eugenius would soon call upon none less than kings to help. The Templars would play no small part in what happened next.

 

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