Baibars

The Battle of Al Mansurah was fought from February 8 to February 11, 1250, between Crusaders led by Louis IX, King of France, and Ayyubid forces led by Emir Fakhr-ad-Din Yusuf, Faris ad-Din Aktai and Baibars al-Bunduqdari.

The Mamluks under Baibars (yellow) fought off the Franks and the Mongols during the Ninth Crusade.

The Sultan Baibars al-Bundukdari was a tall, heavy-set Circassian with ruddy cheeks, brown hair, and blue eyes, and he was born on the shores of the Black Sea. Sold into slavery, he was taken to Damascus where, because he was handsome and powerfully built, he was bought for eight hundred copper coins. As a Circassian, he had no loyalty to the sultans; he carved his way to power by the simple expedient of murdering everyone in his path. He killed Sultan Turanshah and went on to kill Sultan Qutuz, who had refused to make Baibars governor of Aleppo. Qutuz was stabbed in the back. It was an especially unpleasant murder. Immediately afterward, there was a great deal of confusion, with people milling about and not knowing what to do. At last a court attendant pointed to the throne and said, “The power is yours.”

Baibars sat on the throne like a man who had been expecting it all his life. Sultans usually gave themselves titles intended to describe their own characters and the future accomplishments of their reigns. Baibars’s first thought was to call himself “the terrible” or “the one who inspires terror.” He thought better of that, and chose “the victorious” instead. Both titles suited him.

He had a curious white spot in one of his eyes, and a penetrating gaze, both of which inspired fear. He condemned people to death with equanimity. He forbade prostitution—on pain of death. He forbade the drinking of alcoholic beverages—also on pain of death, for the Circassian sultan embraced fundamentalist Islam with fervor. In the camp and in the palace his loud voice could be heard denouncing the evils of his time. His secretary complained that he was always on the move. “Today he is in Egypt, tomorrow in Arabia, the day after in Syria, and in four days in Aleppo.”

Baibars provided Islam with something it had not possessed since the time of Saladin: a core of iron, a relentless determination. But they were men of totally different characters: Saladin was a rapier compared with Baibars’s exuberant battle-ax. Saladin had a conscience; Baibars had none. Saladin could murder in hot blood; Baibars could murder at any time of the day and for any reason or for no reason at all. Baibars did not destroy the last crumbling vestiges of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, but he opened the way.

In the summer of 1266, Baibars appeared outside the walls of Acre with a large and well-armed army. He had spies in the city from whom he learned a good deal of disappointing news. He learned, for example, that the garrison had recently been reinforced from France and was not likely to surrender on any terms. He learned, too, that the double walls with their great towers had been strengthened and that a much greater army than he had, with a vast quantity of powerful siege enginees, would be needed to destroy them. He therefore withdrew from Acre and marched on the Galilee. Here, by a ruse, he captured the castle of Safed, overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Having promised the garrison that it would be allowed to go free, he then reneged on his promise and had them all beheaded as they marched out. His chief weapons were treachery and terror. He gave orders to his army to murder any Christians they came upon; and he marched through the Galilee like a red-hot rake.

Meanwhile Qalawun, the best of his emirs, was fighting in Cilicia. King Hethum of Armenia knew that Baibars’s Mameluke army was advancing, and he hurried to the court of the Ilkhan in Tabriz to seek reinforcements for his army. In his absence, in a series of lightning raids, the Mamelukes captured Adana and Tarsus and sacked Sis, the capital of the Armenian kingdom. The palace was plundered, the cathedral was burned to the ground, and the inhabitants were slaughtered or taken prisoner. King Hethum returned from Tabriz to find his capital in ruins, his son Leo, the heir to the throne, a captive, and another son, Thoros, slain. It is significant that Hethum had with him a small company of Mongols. For the first time the Mongols and the Christians were acting in unison.

Baibars may have thought that his campaign against the Armenian cities of Cilicia had put an end to Hethum’s kingdom. If so, he was mistaken. The Armenians continued to fight and to maintain an alliance with the Mongols, who were now well established in Persia up to the Euphrates and could draw on immense reserves of troops throughout central Asia.

In the autumn of 1266, Baibars sent an army to attack Antioch but failed to penetrate the city’s defenses. He was not present; his generals had gathered so much booty that they felt no need to gather more; and it is possible that the Antiochenes were able to bribe the generals to lift a siege which had lasted only a few days. Baibars was incensed by the failure of the army at Antioch.

In May 1267, he led his army right up to the walls of Acre. He used a ruse that always pleased him. Possessing so many captured uniforms, lances, and banners of the Crusaders, he could outfit thousands of troops to resemble a Crusader army. In this disguise, his troops rode through the orchards around Acre, killing Christians in the nearby villages, and destroying everything in their path. But they could not destroy Acre because the guards in the watchtowers had seen them coming and, realizing that they were Muslims in disguise by the way they rode and by their darker features, had sounded the alarm. The attack was repulsed, and Baibars withdrew to his castle at Safed. When envoys came to Safed to sue for a truce, they found the castle encircled by Christian skulls.

When, occasionally, Baibars’s deceptions failed him, he resorted to terror. Massacre appealed to him, and whenever he attacked a city he always threatened to massacre the inhabitants unless they surrendered immediately. In February 1268, he attacked Jaffa, which resisted heroically for twelve long days. He massacred the inhabitants but allowed the garrison to go free. This unusual event may be explained by the fact that the fortress was well defended and the siege of the stronghold would have cost many Egyptian lives if it had been permitted to continue.

From Jaffa, Baibars marched to the castle of Beaufort, which had passed into the hands of the Templars. After ten days of violent bombardment, the castle was forced to surrender. With unaccustomed mercy, Baibars offered to let the women go free, but the Templars were sold into slavery.

Then it was the turn of Antioch, which had been in Christian hands for more than 170 years. Bohemond VI, Prince of Antioch and Count of Tripoli, had left the city in the care of the Constable, Simon Mansel, who was quickly captured when he led a column of troops against the advancing Mamelukes. Simon Mansel was ordered to command the garrison to surrender. The garrison refused. There was heavy fighting, and on May 18, 1268, Baibars ordered a general assault. The Mamelukes succeeded in breaching the walls, the garrison troops fought bravely, and the inhabitants surrendered. Baibars was encouraged by their surrender to order another general massacre, after closing the gates so that none could escape. Those who survived the massacre were given out as slaves to his soldiers. Christian Antioch vanished, never to be reborn.

Because he despised Bohemond VI, Baibars wrote him a strange, taunting letter, which is a masterpiece of venom and invective.

EXCERPTS FROM A LETTER FROM THE SULTAN BAIBARS AL-BUNDUKDARI TO BOHEMOND VI, PRINCE OF ANTIOCH, FROM ANTIOCH, MAY 1268.

THE GLORIOUS COUNT BOHEMOND, magnificent and magnanimous, having the courage of a lion, being the glory of the nation of Jesus, the head of the Christian church and the leader of the people of the Messiah, who no longer bears the title of Prince of Antioch, since Antioch has been lost to him, but is reduced to a mere count, may God show him the way and give him a good death and help him to remember my words.

. . . We took Antioch by the sword on the fourth hour of Saturday on the fourth day of Ramadan, and we destroyed all those you had chosen to guard the city. All these men had possessions, and all their possessions have passed into our hands.

Oh, if only you had seen your knights trampled by our horses, your houses looted and at the mercy of everyone who passed by, your treasure weighed by the quintal, your women sold in the market-place four for a gold dinar. If only you had seen your churches utterly destroyed, the crucifixes torn apart, the pages of the Gospels scattered, the tombs of the patriarchs trodden underfoot. If only you had seen your Muslim enemy trampling down your altars and holy of holies, cutting the throats of deacons, priests and bishops, the patriarchate irremediably abolished, the powerful reduced to powerlessness! If only you had seen your palaces given over to the flames, the dead devoured by the flames of this world before being devoured by the flames of the next world, your castles and all their attendant buildings wiped off the face of the earth, the Church of St. Paul totally destroyed so that nothing is left of it, and seeing all this you would have said: “Would to God that I were dust! Would to God! Would to God that I had never received the letter with these melancholy tidings!”

If you had seen these things, your soul would have expired with sighs, and the multitude of your tears would have quenched the devouring flame. If you had seen those places which were once opulent reduced to misery, and your ships captured by your own ships in the port of Seleucia—your ships at war with your ships—then you would have realized without the least doubt that God, who once gave Antioch to you, had now taken it away from you, that the Lord who gave you this fortress had withdrawn it from you and wiped it off the face of the earth. You must know that by God’s grace we have regained the castles formerly lost to Islam. Know that we have removed all your people from the country; we took them, as it were, by their hair and dispersed them hither and thither. The only rebel now is the river that flows through Antioch. it would change its name, if it could; its waters are tears, once pure and limpid, now stained with the blood we have shed.

This letter is sent to congratulate you that God has seen fit to preserve you and to prolong your days. All this you owe to the fact that you were not in Antioch when we captured it. If you had taken part in the battle, then you would either be dead, or a prisoner, or riddled with wounds. You must take great joy in being alive, for there is nothing so joy f ul as escaping from a great calamity. Perhaps God gave you this respite so that you could make amends for your former disobedience toward Him. And since no one from your city survived to tell you the news, it has fallen upon us to give you these tidings; and since also no one from your city is in any position to congratulate you on your own survival, this too has been left to us. Nor can you accuse us of saying anything false, nor do you need to go elsewhere to learn the truth.

The spectacle of the victor crowing over his victory is not a pleasant one. What is chiefly remarkable about the letter is Baibars’s enduring rage, his almost incoherent vituperation. Yet there is something in his screaming that suggests that he is the victim, not the perpetrator, of the crime.

The reason for his rage is not hard to discover. To enjoy the vengeance he desired, it was necessary to have physical possession of the prince, to kill him or to torture him, to see him suffering, to see him dead; but the prince of Antioch had escaped his net.

Baibars thought of himself as the man destined to sweep the Christians out of the Holy Land. He had conquered Antioch and Jaffa, he had succeeded in weakening Armenia, he had made a near-desert of the Galilee, and he had wrested the castle of Beaufort from the Templars. But these were small things compared with what he wanted. The once-proud edifice known as the Kingdom of Jerusalem resembled a palace riddled with mortar fire and without a roof, with its cornices blown off and large areas reduced to rubble. He wanted the palace destroyed utterly.

The strange kingdom actually possessed a king. He was Hugh III, King of Cyprus and Jerusalem, who had been crowned in Nicosia on Christmas day, 1267. There were other contenders for the throne, including Maria of Antioch, the daughter of Melisende of Lusignan. Later she would sell her claim to the throne to Charles of Anjou. The following year, Charles executed Conradin, the grandson of Frederick II, who claimed the titles of King of Jerusalem and of Sicily, and Duke of Swabia, and whose crime was that he had attempted to regain his Italian inheritance.

Like Conradin, Hugh III was young, vigorous, and sweet-tempered. He was the grand conciliator, the one man who could ensure that the little princedoms would live at peace with one another. He arranged truces, mollified the more quarrelsome of the vassals, and continually appealed for help from the West. The Templars and the Hospitallers distrusted him, and so did the Commune of Acre, which had no patience with kings. He relied often on the advice of Philip of Montfort, the most accomplished of the barons, and he was devastated when Philip was murdered by the Assassins at the instigation of Baibars.

By his ferocious cruelty Baibars had at first outraged the Crusaders, but soon he inspired a fear that threatened to overwhelm them. They remembered the circle of skulls around the fortress at Safed. The blue-eyed sultan, without a trace of Egyptian blood in him, in love with murder, was more like a destructive force of nature than a man. Having no ultimate loyalties, he destroyed as he pleased.

The Kingdom of Jerusalem was now reduced to a handful of cities clinging to the seacoast. And for the first time we hear a note of total despair in the voices of the Crusaders. We hear it in the letter written by Hugh of Revel, the Master of the Hospital, to his friend, the prior of Saint-Gilles in Provence.

EXCERPTS FROM A LETTER FROM HUGH OF REVEL, MASTER OF THE HOSPITAL, TO FARAUD OF BORRASSIO, PRIOR OF SAINT-GILLES IN PROVENCE, FROM ACRE IN THE FORTNIGHT OF PENTECOST 1268.

BROTHER HUGH OF REVEL, by the Grace of God humble master of the Holy House of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, and guardian of the poor of Jesus Christ, sends greetings and sincere love to his dearly beloved in Christ Brother Faraud of Borrassio, Prior of St. Gilles, and to all the brethren attached to that priory.

We know not to whom we should complain and show the wounds of our heart, so pierced and so anguished, if not to those who to our knowledge are moved by deep compassion for our sufferings. Nor do we need to describe the hardships we have endured in the Holy Land for such a long period of time nor the magnitude of our losses in property and lives. We believe that almost all of this must be known to you. These sufferings, these losses, do not appear to be coming to an end; instead, they increase and multiply daily. . . .

. . . [Y]ou know very well what comes to us from overseas. We have received nothing from Spain except for a few animals. From Italy and especially from Apulia we expected aid, but our hopes have been shattered by the behavior of Brother Philip of Glis, who used up everything we had for his own purposes as he pleased, and because of this same Brother Philip of Glis everything we possessed in Sicily has been ruined and devastated just because he led the brothers of our Order in armed conflict with those who were fighting Charles of Anjou. The houses we possessed in Sicily were therefore razed to the ground, our fruit trees were cut down, our vines were uprooted, the contents of our houses were stolen. I am sure you are aware of our war in Tuscia and how everything we possessed in that region has been destroyed, and therefore little or nothing is sent overseas to us from Italy. From the priory in France it is impossible to obtain anything useful by reason of the debts contracted by the aforesaid Brother Philip—debts that he promised to settle but failed to do so. The priory of England, which formerly provided considerable aid and assistance, has greatly reduced the sending of revenues by reason of the wars going on there

Consider therefore how we can meet our expenses from the small revenues we receive from your priory and from the priory in Auvergne, which is all that remains to us except for the revenues from England, and there is nothing from Germany. We are not bringing these matters to the attention of the brotherhood for any other reason except to warn you not to be surprised if we inconvenience you by asking for your help. Yet there is another reason: Whatever fate is reserved for our fortresses—let us hope that they are spared the worst fate—or whatever fate befalls our land—and much is spoken about this—you must excuse us for having assumed these responsibilities, we and our house, since only a small number of Christians remain here and we lack the strength to resist the unspeakable power of the Saracens. We are quite certain that the city of Acre could not be properly defended even if all the Christians beyond the seas were here to defend it.

Because of the losses sustained by the Christians and the losses they continue to sustain daily, they are so distressed that they lack confidence in themselves to resist the enemy. This year the city and fortress of Joppa were captured in an hour. The fortress at Caesarea, a great stronghold, held out for only two days when attacked by the Sultan. Safed, the pride of the Templars, gave up after sixteen days. They said the fortress of Belfort was so strong that it would hold out for a year, yet it fell in less than four days. The noble city of Antioch was captured. . . .

Such is the condition of our land, and such is the peril that overwhelms us! God will declare what shall become of us. But for God’s sake be moved to pity us with all your heart. Pray God to grant us as much aid as possible. . . .

Hugh of Revel’s letter is a classic of its kind, at once a desperate plea for help and an acknowledgment that help was beyond hoping for—and that if it came, it would probably come too late.

When Hugh of Revel complained that the West had lost interest in the affairs of the Holy Land, he was speaking in relative terms. In the autumn of 1269, there came the Crusade of King James I of Aragon, who sailed out of Barcelona with a powerful fleet. It had scarcely left the harbor when it was scattered in a storm. The king abandoned the enterprise but sent his two sons with a much smaller fleet. The two sons reached Acre at a time when Baibars was once more attacking the city. The small Spanish army, thirsting to attack the Mamelukes, was prevented from fighting because it was felt the soldiers were untrained and less useful in the field than in the garrison. In a few weeks the Spaniards returned to Spain in disgust.

The English also sent their Crusaders under the command of Prince Edward, son of Henry III and heir to the throne. He left England in the summer of 1271, with only a thousand men. Like the Spaniards he wanted action, and he took part in a daring raid into the Plain of Sharon. He was the first Englishman to send an embassy to the Mongols: Reginald Russell, Godfrey Welles, and John Parker went to the court of the Ilkhan to seek aid, which was promptly forthcoming. A Mongol army swept out of Anatolia and captured Aleppo. Baibars, with a huge army, set out from Damascus to give battle to the Mongols, who withdrew wisely. But the Mongol alliance had been strengthened and there was hope that they would return at a suitable time.

Prince Edward was handsome, restless, fond of jousting, capable of compromise, yet utterly merciless against declared enemies. When he became King Edward I, he attacked Scotland so implacably that he became known as the “Hammer of the Scots.” But in Palestine he was kindly and efficient, and like King Hugh III he attempted to unite the Crusaders, who were so often at each other’s throats. Baibars, who saw him as another Philip of Montfort, a man with the power to dominate and unite, ordered his assassination. An Assassin, disguised as a Christian pilgrim, stabbed him with a poisoned dagger. He had a strong constitution and recovered from the wound; but at about this time he heard that his father, King Henry III, was dying. He returned to England to be crowned. In England, he continued to give long-range support to the Christian alliance with the Mongols.

Baibars continued his depradations. He conquered the Templar fortress called Safita and went on to conquer Krak des Chevaliers, which even Saladin had found impregnable. He invaded Anatolia, brushed against the forces of the Ilkhan, and retired to Syria. Fortunately, and to the satisfaction of the Christians, he died of poison in the summer of 1277, having accidentally drunk from a poison cup he had prepared for someone else. But he was succeeded by his chief general, Qalawun, who was equally determined to sweep the Christians out of the Holy Land. It would be easier, now that Baibars had conquered so many places.

In the last days of the kingdom a madness descended on the Crusaders. Knowing that they must unite against the overwhelming force of the Mamelukes, they fought each other instead, and contrived to weaken each other with conspiracies and treacheries, thus playing into the hands of their enemies. The kingdom was being destroyed from within long before it was destroyed by the enemy. Blindly and voluptuously, the little princes who retained title to the seaports on the Palestinian coast hurled themselves on one another without any purpose except private vengeance.

In January 1282, Guy II Embriaco, Lord of Jebail, outfitted three ships to transport a small army consisting of twenty-five knights and four hundred foot soldiers to Tripoli. He hoped to take Tripoli by surprise and to capture Bohemond VII, who had succeeded his father Bohemond VI in 1274, and put him to death. He left Jebail at night and reached Tripoli before dawn, anchoring his ships near the house of the Templars and coming ashore in the darkness. With all his men, who were mostly Genoese, he entered the house of the Templars. He had his agents there, including the Templar commander Reddecoeur, but for some reason the commander was absent. Perhaps Reddecoeur no longer wanted to take part in the plot, or perhaps there was a simple misunderstanding about the time they would meet. Guy II Embriaco panicked, hastily left the house of the Templars, and took refuge with his knights in the house of the Hospitallers.

Dawn came up. The alarm bells were rung. Bohemond VII was informed about the strange behavior of these visitors from Jebail, who had taken possession of one of the towers of the house of the Hospitallers and threatened to sell their lives dearly. All of Tripoli now gathered at the foot of the tower, clamoring for the death of the invaders. The commander of the Hospitallers offered to act as mediator. Before the tower could be stormed, an agreement was reached that Guy’s life and the lives of all his knights would be spared if they surrendered. Guy would serve a five-year sentence of imprisonment, and at the end of that period all his possessions would be restored to him.

Guy might have known that this was only a ruse to make him descend from the tower, for Bohemond VII had given orders that the Genoese should have their eyes put out. Guy and his brothers John and Baldwin, and his cousin William, were kept in prison for six weeks while Bohemond considered the various forms of punishment suitable for such an occasion. Then they were taken to Nephin, where they were set down in a ditch. A wall was constructed around them, the ditch was filled with earth, and they were left to die of hunger.

John of Montfort, Lord of Tyre, an ally of the lord of Jebail, marched with all his knights to Jebail, hoping to protect the city from the vengeance of Bohemond. He found that the city had already been captured and the fires of victory were burning on the battlemented walls. He returned to Tyre in disgust, realizing that his city might fall to Bohemond before it fell to the Mamelukes.

The Pisans in Acre were overjoyed when they learned the fate of the Genoese expedition to Tripoli. They celebrated with music, dancing, and fireworks. It pleased them especially that Guy II Embriaco had been buried alive; and their pleasure was a sign of the corruption of spirit that affected all these coastal princedoms. None was immune. The Hospitallers hated the Templars, who were also hated by Bohemond VII and by the king of Cyprus and Jerusalem.

Vast triumphs and absolute disaster were close companions in those times. To the north and east, a new power was entering the scene. A huge Mongol army, numbering a hundred thousand men, was preparing, in alliance with King Leo of Armenia and the Hospitallers, to do battle with the Mamelukes. Qalawun commanded the Mamelukes, Mangu Timur commanded the Mongols, and Leo commanded the Armenians. The battle of Hims, which took place on October 30, 1281, was one of the bloodiest ever known. A quarter of a million men took part in it. When the advantage seemed to be going in the direction of the Christian-Mongol forces, Mangu Timur was wounded. He panicked, and gave orders for a retreat. Qalawun’s army had suffered too much to be able to follow the Mongols beyond the Euphrates, so there was neither victory nor defeat. Leo distinguished himself during the long and difficult retreat to Armenia. The Mongols could fight another time and choose their own battlefield.

On the night of March 30, 1282, Charles of Anjou received the greatest shock of his life. The Sicilians, exasperated by the behavior of the French army of occupation, rose up and massacred every Frenchman they could lay their hands on. The Sicilian Vespers came as an inevitable result of Charles’s depradations, arrogance, and incompetence. With this uprising, his dreams of a Mediterranean empire, with himself as emperor of Byzantium and king of Jerusalem, crumbled. Charles would no longer play any role in Crusader affairs.

Meanwhile, Qalawun continued to ravage the Christian outposts in the Holy Land, capturing the great Hospitaller castle at Marqab, but was not yet ready for the final assault on Acre. He watched from a distance while the kings of Jerusalem succeeded one another. King Hugh III died. His eldest son, John, a graceful and delicate boy of seventeen, followed him. John died a year later, and his younger brother Henry was crowned at Tyre on August 15, 1286. His coronation was attended by elaborate festivities. Henry was fourteen, handsome, gracious, very brave, and an epileptic. In less than five years he would see the downfall of his kingdom in the ruins of Acre.

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