THE LION OF EGYPT I

1260–1269

For 150 years, with the rare exception of Saladin’s reign, the Islamic Middle East had been too divided to unite in common cause in the face of the inexplicable irruption of the Franks onto the shores of Palestine. The Ayyubids may have talked of jihad, but it was theoretical rather than practical, and the material benefits of long-distance trade with Europe had overridden any unified call to holy war. Rather, the crusader kingdoms had been largely absorbed into the pattern of alliances and conciliations that operated throughout Palestine and Syria. With Baybars and the ascendancy of Turkish peoples from the Asian steppes, everything changed.

Baybars was a first-generation convert to Islam. He had fought at Mansurah to protect Egypt from catastrophe, and on his return in October 1260 he brought back a harder ideology: a commitment to an orthodox Sunni caliphate and the unification of Egypt and Syria under the banner of war. With the threat of the Mongols, the Islamic world had been on the edge of collapse. He now set about unifying the people against their enemies east and west: the Mongols and the Franks. He was single-minded, tyrannical, and puritanical in forging a new Islamic empire.

His arrival in Cairo was met with consternation. The city’s people were expecting to see Qutuz enter in triumphant procession. Instead, they were confronted with yet another cycle of bloody turmoil, a further quick change of sultan within the space of a year. The Turks were outsiders to the orthodox world—potentially usurpers—and Baybars had come to power through murder and a fixed election. The people were horrified and frightened by the prospect of a return to the 1250s, when the Mamluks had brought disorder, violence, and fear to Cairo’s streets. Baybars worked swiftly to alleviate their apprehension. He lowered taxes and set about creating for himself the image of a legitimate Sunni ruler, heir to Saladin and the Ayyubids. Pious works were undertaken—the construction of mosques, the provision of work, and charitable food supplies in time of famine. He repaired the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, as well as Cairo’s dilapidated great al-Azhar mosque, and assiduously cultivated the religious class. He was both farsighted and ruthless. He sidelined his fellow conspirators in the assassination of Qutuz and demolished the grave to prevent it becoming a pilgrimage site. The cult of his personality was projected through both word and image. His heraldic symbol, that of a lion, appeared on coins and the facades of public buildings—gates, fortresses, and bridges. The lion held its right paw raised mid-pounce and ready to strike or in the act of crushing in its claws a trapped rat: the enemies of Islam.

Baybars, in the role of a pious Muslim, revived the office of the Sunni caliphate; a descendant of the last caliph murdered at Baghdad was conveniently discovered, to whom Baybars swore allegiance. The caliph, in turn, invested Baybars as universal sultan in a solemn ceremony. Wearing the black turban of the Abbasid caliphate and a violet robe, and presented with banners, swords, and a shield, he pledged to levy just taxes, restore the caliphate to its ancient glory, and wage holy war. Legitimacy was conferred on what Arab historians of the time called the State of the Turks. Shortly after, the caliph was encouraged to embark on a suicide mission to retake Baghdad with a small force, which was swiftly and conveniently annihilated by the Mongols. A second caliph was effectively a puppet, and the office of caliphate would gradually become merged with that of the Mamluk sultans.

Building a military state was Baybars’s first priority, which he undertook with rigor and efficiency. First, the defense of Egypt. Remembering Louis’s crusade, coastal fortifications, watch towers, and dredging schemes were undertaken to ensure adequate defense of the Nile; then, the rebuilding of the walls of Damascus and other cities that had been razed by the Mongols. The supply of military slaves to bolster the Mamluk regiments required regular shipments from the Black Sea; from the 1260s, it would be the Christian Genoese who would provide the manpower that was destined to confront their co-religionists in the years ahead.

At the same time, Baybars made structural reforms to the army. The enslaved Mamluks were native Turkish speakers and mainly operated under their officers in their own language. Baybars built a core group of about 4,000 Mamluks. Some were his own elite troops, others were owned by his emirs. There was also a corps of freeborn cavalry. Alongside these were infantry, mainly from Syria, and less-trained volunteers. Although his enemies routinely overestimated the total size of Mamluk armies, Baybars could muster perhaps as many as 40,000 men for particular campaigns.

In addition, he fostered military training regimes. He built two new maydans, hippodrome training grounds for the practice and development of military skills and physical fitness. Here the Mamluks would practice the disciplines of archery and fencing, and the use of the mace and the cavalry spear. There would be wrestling and mock combat—particularly the use of the short, whippy composite bow—on foot and on horseback. A skilled archer should be able to loose three arrows in one and a half seconds, and hit a target one yard wide at eighty yards. The Mamluks also employed a wide variety of incendiary weapons and trained their cavalry in fire games. Horseback maneuvers involving these weapons were performed to develop the skill of their riders and the temperament of their mounts against startling at the noise and flames.

To unify Egypt and Syria, Baybars set about systematically undermining or destroying autonomous Ayyubid princelings and linked the furthest reaches with a remarkable communications network. He established an efficient postal system of swift riders, relay stations, pigeon messenger services, and fire signal towers, and built bridges to speed troop movements and couriers. Intelligence gathering lay at the heart of his state building; he consistently surprised opponents with his ability to respond rapidly. His postal riders, who reported directly to him, were well rewarded. They could bring a message the six hundred miles from Damascus to Cairo in four days. He alone could open and read the correspondence, which he responded to immediately by day and night. On one occasion it was observed that “while he was taking a bath in his tent, the post arrived from Damascus. Without waiting an instant, without giving himself time to cover his nakedness, the prince had the letter read.” The reply was back in Damascus four days later.

Baybars was the sultan commander who slept little and never relaxed. Over the seventeen years of his reign, he ruled from the saddle, rode 70,000 miles, and fought thirty-eight campaigns, twenty-one of these against the Franks. He waged war even in harsh winter weather. He acted secretly, unnerved even his most loyal emirs by his unpredictable appearances, walked the streets of his city incognito, never divulged in advance the objective of a military expedition. Surprise and deception were weapons of war. If, as usurper of Turkish origin, he kept himself aloof from the indigenous population, his emirs also felt themselves continuously watched, and his enemies were kept guessing. A truce was only ever provisional, to be abrogated as the situation demanded. This restlessly energetic, controlling figure both rewarded the loyal, the brave, and the pious and carried out exemplary acts of cruelty—blindings, crucifixions, and bisections—to terrify and command obedience.

External threats were the justification for tyranny; Baybars’s policies were all framed with the eventuality of warfare with the Mongols and the Franks. The help given to the Mongols by Antioch and Armenia led him to consider the activities of the two as linked. Both were enemies and he was wary of the possibility of fresh crusades from the West. The threat of Mongol incursions loomed large after 1260, but a major invasion by Hülegü never happened. The Mongol Empire, stretched to its geographical limits, was starting to fragment. Hülegü, as khan of Mesopotamia, was at loggerheads with Berke, ruler of the neighboring Mongol khanate of the Golden Horde. Berke, a convert to Islam, was outraged by the Mongol destruction of Baghdad. By 1263, the two were at open war. Baybars was able to establish cordial diplomatic relations with Berke, thus neutralizing a larger threat to the Islamic Middle East. Looking west and aware that the papacy was making diplomatic overtures to the Mongols, Baybars also established cordial relations with its rivals, the Hohenstaufens, rulers of Sicily, and then with the Hohenstaufens’ own enemies, the Byzantine emperors, through whose waters the cargoes of military slaves from the Black Sea had to pass.

By 1263, Baybars had stabilized his position as the sultan of Egypt and Syria and was readying his army to move against the Franks. Training, morale, and discipline were critical. He commanded the men to ensure that they were properly equipped: each was personally responsible for providing his own armor. The arms market in Damascus boomed. To ensure compliance, Baybars staged reviews in which the sections of his army filed past one at a time to prevent the men from exchanging equipment. The spirit of jihad was prominent in these mobilizations and the language uncompromising: the troops were enjoined “to remove all excuse for abstaining from the Holy War.” He forbade the brewing and drinking of beer and threatened to hang miscreants for drinking wine.

Baybars then embarked on a series of stop-start campaigns to intimidate and undermine the crusaders’ fragmentary possessions that had survived Saladin’s reign—Jaffa, Caesarea, Acre, and Tripoli—but his particular anger was directed against Bohemond VI, ruler of Antioch and Tripoli, and the Armenian king Hethoum I for their support of the Mongols. Baybars waged asymmetrical warfare—a bewildering combination of sieges and raids. His armies would appear quite suddenly, ravage the countryside, show their flags outside the walls of castles, and vanish again. These tactics were used to apply political pressure, to intimidate into favorable treaties and concessions, and to inflict economic damage. Objectives were always hidden, motives undeclared. The Mongols provided a convenient justification. Almost every year there would be scares of their incursions from across the Euphrates; few materialized, but for additional security the pastureland of northern Syria was routinely burned to deny grazing to Mongol horsemen. The Mongols were to be given nothing. Their threat both justified and required attacks on the crusader states.

Baybars had little regard for the advantages of Levantine trade that had seduced the Ayyubids to cooperate with the Franks. He worked to encourage the rerouting of commerce to Egypt. In the interim, though the Muslims held no harbors on the coast north of Gaza, he found ways to turn some of the Frankish ports to his advantage. When Jaffa, the most southern of the Frankish coastal cities, submitted, he used it to import grain for famine relief. When it was no longer useful, Jaffa was destroyed. Where the Ayyubids had recognized local Christians as a clearly protected minority, a greater intolerance now prevailed. Baybars had not forgotten their celebrations at the fall of Damascus to the Mongols. His actions were punitive, barring pilgrimage to Jerusalem and ordering his troops to raze to the ground the hugely significant church of St. Mary in Nazareth, the supposed site of the Annunciation.

The pressure he brought to bear on the crusader states became increasingly alarming. Acre, which he had secretly reconnoitered on his way to Ayn Jalut, was subjected to continuous visitations. In April 1263, his army suddenly appeared outside the city and attacked some of its outer defenses. There was fierce fighting that forced the defenders back. An Arabic chronicler left a vivid, if partisan, account:

The Franks retired, routed, to Acre, while the Muslims burned the surrounding towers and walls, cut down trees and burned the fruits. There was nothing to be seen but smoke, clouds of dust, flashing swords and cutting, gleaming spear points. The Muslim army rode up to the gates of Acre, killing and taking prisoners… the remaining Franks then rushed to the gates of the city walls and came down to defend them. They were all shouting together: “The Gate! The Gate!,” in fear that an attack was going to be made on them. Meanwhile the sultan was standing on the Acre side of the summit of the Tell [a nearby hill], making gifts and promises.

Then, just as suddenly, Baybars withdrew. It was not a concerted attempt to take the city, rather a policy of softening up, disrupting agriculture, keeping opponents on edge. Every time his army moved, anxiety rippled throughout Outremer. Acre was raided in this way on an almost annual basis, its orchards uprooted and its crops burned. Baybars was back in 1265, again in the vicinity in 1266. In May 1267, he got up to the city gates by deception, flying the banners of the Templars and Hospitallers. He surprised the peasants working in the fields and captured and killed five hundred of them. He came again in 1269.

Often these attacks were diversionary episodes designed to distract from more major operations against crusader castles. The 1266 raid on Acre was only one of a number that year. Baybars had the military resources to send simultaneous raiding parties against Tyre, Sidon, and the Teutonic Knights’ castle at Montfort, throwing dust in the eyes of Christian defenders, while his main army besieged the Templar castle at Safad. Tripoli and Antioch each experienced three such assaults during the 1260s. In 1270, the Hospitallers’ stronghold of Krak des Chevaliers, the most formidable fortress ever constructed in the crusader era, was softened up with a devastation of its hinterland. He was scorching away the economic foundations of the last crusader states. The damage to Acre’s agricultural lands was so severe that Muslim writers felt compelled to find religious justifications for malicious destruction. In the area around Tripoli, he destroyed irrigation channels and aqueducts dating back to the Roman Empire. This devastation of fertile land to inhibit, demoralize, and economically weaken was to scar the coastal strip of Palestine and Lebanon for hundreds of years.

The Franks did not help themselves. Unable to put out enough men to risk open battle, they resorted to tit-for-tat counterattacks that lacked strategic forethought or coherent effort. After the raids of 1263, the two sides patched up a truce. This did not prevent the Templars and Hospitallers, acting as autonomous bodies, from mounting further sorties two months later. This was followed shortly after by the arrival in Acre of a small contingent of French troops, eager for action. They promptly attacked nearby Muslim villages, snatched people and animals, and set fire to houses. Whereas Baybars engaged in such tactics with strategic intent, these uncoordinated Christian initiatives, with no clear purpose beyond releasing pent-up frustration, served only to alienate local Muslim people and to infuriate Baybars.

At no point were the crusader states capable of combined action. Each made its own piecemeal truces with the Mamluks in the hope of temporary respite and usually on disadvantageous terms. When Acre tried to arrange a prisoner exchange with Baybars, both the Hospitallers and the Templars refused to participate because the Muslims they were holding were skilled craftsmen and too expensive to replace. Such actions earned them growing criticism from fellow Christians for selfishness and self-interest: “They ought to have made the exchange, for the sake of God and the deliverance of the poor Christian slaves,” was one critical verdict.4 They not infrequently made their own agreements with Baybars regarding territory they controlled around their inland castles, while the Frankish barons were capable of reckless bouts of destruction. All this served to broaden support for the State of the Turks, and further legitimize Baybars’s claim as Sunni sultan and liberator.

But the language of power spoke louder than the language of diplomacy. Baybars could pick and choose his terms. In 1267, he refused a truce with Acre while the grand master of the Hospitallers signed a humiliating ten-year agreement in return for nonaggression against their castles in Lebanon, with the sultan’s right to abrogate it whenever he wished. Truces with the Frankish states were frequently canceled by Baybars on grounds of minor technical infringements or simply uncorroborated assertions.

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