Atlit castle or Château Pèlerin. The Knights Templar began building the fortress in 1218 during the Fifth Crusade. One of the major Crusader fortresses, it could support up to 4,000 troops in siege conditions. It was abandoned by its garrison and taken over by the Mamluks in August 1291, shortly after the Fall of Acre. It remained intact for several hundred years, until suffering damage in the Galilee earthquake of 1837. In modern times, the castle is part of a training zone for Israeli Naval commandos. It has been described as the “crowning example of Crusader military architecture”, although T. E. Lawrence found it lacking in elegance and imagination in terms of military architecture, setting on massiveness instead.
For Baybars, the Frankish settlements along the coasts of Palestine, Lebanon, and northern Syria were strategically significant. They threatened the direct route from Cairo to Damascus, and they occupied the best agricultural land. Dominance over the landscape was maintained by a chain of castles commanding the hills of Palestine, Lebanon, and northern Syria. From there, they controlled territory, though at no point did they constitute a coherent defensive system; rather, the territory was a patchwork of independent local fiefdoms owned by the military orders and Frankish barons. As crusader control of territory shrank with the campaigns of Saladin, so the importance of these castles grew. The disaster at Hattin had quenched any Frankish enthusiasm to take on the armies of Islam in extensive, open-field warfare. The thirteenth century saw the military orders, increasingly the only bodies with the resources, construct or remodel castles on a massive scale. They spent money and energy on sophisticated concentric fortifications and defensive features that exposed attackers to heavy counter-bombardment and slowed down the operations of their miners and siege engines. South of Acre, the Templars erected the near-impregnable redoubt of Chateau Pèlerin on a headland above the sea; the Teutonic Knights built their headquarters castle of Montfort, six hundred feet above a valley on an inaccessible bluff; in northern Syria, the Hospitallers remodeled Krak des Chevaliers after an earthquake into the most formidable bastion in all of Outremer. Such fortresses compensated for lack of manpower and allowed small garrisons to dominate landscapes and intimidate local populations and would-be attackers.
The castles’ weakness was that Baybars’s campaigns of attrition were rendering them increasingly isolated. Now, with the reunification of Egypt and Syria and Baybars’s army in a high state of readiness, the sultan felt himself in a position to take on these discrete fiefdoms and their castles in earnest. The Mamluks’ traditional fighting skills were as mounted cavalry, but 1265 saw them deploy the techniques of siege warfare that were ultimately to drive the Franks out of the Holy Land. They had inherited siege craft from earlier Islamic dynasties, but under Baybars they established a competency in the complex technical and logistical requirements of besieging and taking fortified places that surpassed those of their forebears. The siege campaigns begun in the spring of 1265 would last until 1271 and destroy much of the military strength of the crusader states.
The pretext was a threatened Mongol attack of northern Syria. As Baybars scrambled forces to intercept and harry the Mongol invaders—a process hastened by his network of fast couriers—he believed that the Franks had now shifted from the position of neutrality that had marked the march to Ayn Jalut and had tipped the Mongols off that Mamluk cavalry had scattered for the season. Rapid mobilization dissuaded the Mongols from a major assault, but it alerted the ever-watching Baybars to the dangers of the alliance. He wrote to the constable of Jaffa complaining that the Frankish leaders “have committed many wrongs against me, such as their writing to the Mongols to attack my territories.”
Baybars’s first targets were two cities on the coast of southern Palestine, Caesarea and Arsuf, and demonstrated the techniques and resources that the Mamluks brought to the crusader wars: deception, disregard for treaties, technical expertise, deep planning, propaganda for holy war, and overwhelming resources of manpower. Under cover of conducting a lion hunt in the area, Baybars reconnoitered the fortifications of the two cities. At the same time, he began cutting wood for siege machines on site, ordering up a skilled work force of stonemasons, tunnelers, and engineers. Stone balls were prepared, and the troops already gathered were put to work constructing ladders. Prefabricated siege engines that could be disassembled and transported by camels or carried by men were being constructed in Damascus.
On February 27, Baybars showed up without warning at the gates of Caesarea, encircled it, and attacked. Laudatory accounts depicted Baybars himself participating in the fighting: the morale of the men demanded that the sultan should be seen. Taken completely by surprise, the outer walls were apparently overcome by ingenious improvisation without the use of ladders. Like climbers hammering pitons into a rock face, “using iron horse pegs, tethers and halters onto which they clung, they climbed up from all sides and set their banners there. The city gates were burnt and its defences torn away.” Caesarea surrendered in a week, and the survivors sailed off to Acre. In the immediate aftermath, Baybars embarked on the complete destruction of the city. Meanwhile, he sent raiding parties off to harry Acre (and various other locations) to distract and pin down potential relief. A Christian delegation that arrived to question the reasons for this attack was warmly and disarmingly received while the sultan quietly prepared his next move.
On March 19, Baybars left Caesarea. Two days later, his army appeared, equally unexpectedly, at the fortified stronghold of Arsuf on the coast twenty-five miles south. For Baybars, a treaty was only a treaty as long as he wanted it to be. In 1263, he had complained to the Hospitallers that they had reinforced the fortifications of Arsuf in breach of an agreement. At the time, gifts had been sent to mollify his anger, and the ambassadors were assured that the city would not come under attack. Now it did.
Arsuf was well fortified and stoutly defended, but the ensuing siege reflected both the asymmetry of numbers and the increasingly sophisticated techniques, and the resources that the Mamluks were able to employ. Substantial tunneling and trench-digging work was undertaken by skilled men, and despite equally professional countermeasures by the Hospitallers who used barrels of grease and fat, ignited and fanned by bellows, to destroy the tunnels, the scale of the siege works allowed the attackers eventually to undermine the outer walls. The Mamluks had brought a range of projectile-throwing artillery to Arsuf, and the catapult bombardment was considerable. Baybars himself was said to have participated in hauling the ropes that launched the stone missiles. Religious enthusiasm was another ingredient that was to become a hallmark of Mamluk mobilization and commitment. Prayers were said in the open, while Baybars himself traveled with a personal tent mosque. A visible religious contingent—“pious people, ascetics, legal scholars and indigent Sufis”—came at Baybars’s behest to inspire the men to fight and die for jihad. Baybars himself was continuously present, close to the fighting: “Now… in the ditch, now at the openings which were being made, and now by the sea shore shooting at the Frankish ships and pulling on the mangonels… he would climb to the top of palisades so as to shoot from there, showing everyone his part to play, ordering them to exert themselves, thanking those who deserved it and giving robes of honour to those who had distinguished themselves by some act of merit.” The presence of the sultan at Arsuf, his energy and his personal bravery, provided inspiration and motivation during the campaigns that followed.
It took five weeks to ready a final attack: rushing the walls, taking the outer city, then subjecting the inner citadel to furious assault with catapults and arrows. On April 29, the outer barbican of the citadel collapsed from mining and bombardment. Baybars offered surrender with a guarantee that lives would be spared. The defenders accepted. They were unable to escape by sea: the harbor was too small and was within range of Baybars’s artillery. As with Caesarea, Arsuf, a city since ancient times, was demolished and never inhabited again.
On May 29, Baybars made a ceremonial entry into Cairo. In his train walked the captured Franks from Arsuf with broken crosses round their necks and their banners reversed. In the aftermath, Baybars lost no time exploiting the propaganda value of the conquest. To Jean d’Ibelin, lord of Jaffa, the bombastic threats would soon become familiar to crusader lords:
We brook no oppression: if anyone takes a field [of ours], in its place we capture a lofty citadel, and for any peasant of ours captured we seize a thousand armed warriors. If they destroy a house wall, we destroy the walls of cities. The sword is in the hand of one who strikes and the horse’s reins are in the grasp of the rider. We have a hand which cuts necks and another which reaches the porticos [of palaces]. Whoever wishes to pick a quarrel [with us] must know what he is about; and whoever wishes [to take] something [from us] will find [disasters such as] those ordained for him.
The numbers on each side at Arsuf had been mismatched. Whereas the defenders could muster just 270 skilled Hospitaller knights, a few auxiliaries, and the efforts of the townspeople, Baybars could draw on thousands of troops. As well as those with specialist skills in the construction and operation of catapults, there were engineers, masons, tunnelers, carpenters, and all the logistical support. Yet Arsuf was a stoutly fortified stronghold, access to which was limited by its position on the sea, and defended by men who also knew what they were doing. The Franks had compensated for a shortage of manpower by placing their faith in their highly sophisticated fortified defenses. These had proved insufficient.
What Arsuf demonstrated was that the Mamluks had rapidly grasped and refined the elements of siege craft. This siege was the prototype of successive blows about to fall on Outremer. Its strategies would be repeated again and again: dissimulation, careful planning and logistical arrangements, religious motivation, inspirational—and intimidating—leadership, large numbers of troops, the combined skills of mining and artillery bombardment, and a frenetic pace to deliver quick knock-out blows. Sieges usually ended in surrender in the face of the inevitable, less frequently with a full-front assault and a massacre. It became standard practice to demolish coastal installations that might provide beachheads for counter-crusades. Disorienting raiding and economic warfare were one arm of Baybars’s campaigns. Isolating and picking off stoutly fortified castles one after another was the other. In the next few years, Baybars would come close to decapitating the Frankish states, and these twin techniques would be in play right up to the walls of Acre in 1291.
At about this time, Baybars added to his list of honorific titles that of “annihilator of Mongols and Franks.” Inscriptions praised him as the Alexander of the Age, “the victorious prince, the pillar of the world and religion, the sultan of Islam and the Muslims, the killer of infidels and polytheists, the tamer of rebels and heretics, the reviver of justice in the two worlds.”
The following spring, in 1266, Baybars opened his campaign by ravaging the area around Tripoli and showing up outside the walls of Acre, Tyre, and Sidon, but these were just sideshows to intimidate and confuse. His real target was the Templar castle of Safad. It was the last Christian fort in inland Palestine, strategically placed to threaten traffic to Damascus. In a trope often applied to Christian fortifications and cities, it was “an obstruction in the throat of Syria and a blockage in the chest of Islam.” At the same time, Baybars was busy improving communications within the kingdom with bridges across the Jordan river. While the pattern of raids distracted and alarmed—and even his commanders, equipped with sealed orders, were kept in ignorance of his objectives until the last moment—siege equipment was being prepared in Damascus. When he arrived suddenly outside the walls of Safad, a host of embassies from other pillaged places quickly showed up and sought treaties and offered gifts. They were all dismissed. The ruler of Tyre’s representative was reproached for alleged treaty breaking: “If you want me to grant you security, then drive out my Frankish enemies from your midst. For it was part of our oath that my enemies should be yours.”
The siege was timed to open on the feast day that ended the Ramadan fast. Pious religious practice was rigorously enforced on his troops: any who celebrated by drinking wine would be hanged. Full-hearted zeal was nonnegotiable; when a first direct assault failed in the face of resolute resistance, Baybars temporarily imprisoned forty of his emirs for insufficient effort. The siege skills that had reduced Arsuf gradually prevailed and when his army had broken through the outer wall, the defenders withdrew to their inner citadel and attempted to negotiate surrender. The end was played out in disputed versions—either Baybars was again using his dominant position to break an agreement or the Christians had breached the sworn terms.
The defenders thought they had brokered a safe conduct. Instead they were detained: Baybars declared they had breached the agreement by trying to depart with concealed weapons. It was clear, though, that throughout the crusader period Islam particularly detested the military orders. The Templars were marched to the top of a nearby hill where they had executed their own Muslim prisoners, and all 1,500 were beheaded. According to the Christian chroniclers, the remnants were left there as a grim warning: “He had a circular wall erected around them, and their bones and heads may still be seen.” Only two survived: an Arabic-speaking Armenian who had negotiated the deal (and who may have been complicit in the Templars’ fate), and one other who was sent back to Acre to bear witness to what had happened and what would come. Baybars was waging war to the knife. There would be no quarter without unconditional surrender. Unlike the coastal fortifications, which were all demolished, Safad was occupied and rebuilt to guard the way into Syria.
In 1268, Baybars was on campaign again: the same tactics and mobilizations. In March, he attacked Jaffa, vulnerable after its lord’s death in 1266, and reduced the city to ashes. In April, it was the turn of the Templars’ castle at Beaufort, which surmounted a crag in southern Lebanon. In between, there were raids to Tripoli and Acre. Each of these campaigns not only removed substantial defensive structures; they also induced the voluntary surrender of other small forts, along with concessions, placatory gifts, and new treaties on terms increasingly disadvantageous to their residents or defenders.
But it was Antioch on which Baybars’s fiercest anger was turned. The alliance of its ruler, Bohemond VI, with the Mongols still rankled. The sultan surrounded this large and populous city, whose extensive perimeter was stoutly walled. He demanded an annual tribute of a dinar a head of the whole population—a large sum, but no more than they had been paying the Mongols. Antioch’s refusal was unwise, given its expanse and an insufficient number of defenders. Baybars issued a final ultimatum. No response. On May 15, 1268, his army stormed it, breaching the walls. The sultan ordered the city gates closed so that no one could escape, then gave it over to slaughter and sack. Tens of thousands were trapped inside. Those who were not killed were enslaved, and the city’s wealth produced huge booty. Each soldier in the army was granted a slave; so many slaves were taken that there was a glut on the market and a huge drop in prices. Then much of the city was torched.
Antioch, a city of Biblical significance, was iconic in crusader memory. It had been the gateway to the Holy Land for the First Crusade. Its almost miraculous capture after eight months of perilous endeavor and retention against overwhelming odds had paved the way for the taking of Jerusalem. It fell to Baybars in a single day.
After this sack, Antioch never recovered its former prominence. With its loss, the last Templar outposts were abandoned and only the tiny coastal port at Latakia remained. Frankish Syria had collapsed.
Bohemond, absent from his capital at the time, received a taunting letter from Baybars congratulating him on his survival. Written with threat and flourish, it conjured images of apocalypse and hell to be visited on the infidel:
We took the city by the sword on the fourth hour of Saturday, the 4th of the month of Ramadan (19 May). We killed all those whom you had chosen to guard and protect it.… You could have seen your horsemen thrown down between the legs of the horses, houses in the power of the plunderers… your goods being weighed by the qintar, your ladies being sold in fours and being bought with a dinar of your own money.
If you had seen your churches with their crosses broken and rent, the pages of the false Testaments scattered, the graves of the patriarchs rifled, your Muslim enemy trampling down the sanctuary; had you seen the altar on which had been sacrificed the monk, the priest and the deacon… if you had seen the fires burning in your castles and the slain being consumed in the fire of this world, the state of your palaces altered,… the churches… tottering to their final ruin—had you seen these things, you would have said: “Would that I were dust”…
This letter then gives you good news of the safety and prolongation of life that God has granted to you because you were not staying at Antioch at this time.… The living rejoice in the preservation of their own lives when they see the dead. Perhaps God has granted a delay only that you may make up for your past lack of obedience and service.… Since no one escaped to tell you what has happened, we have told you ourselves.
By the end of the 1260s, Baybars could draw a pause to his campaigns. The yellow flag of the Mamluks had been hoisted on one captured citadel after another, but they had been hard-won victories. The sultan had pushed forward campaigns through rain and cold, and in the height of summer. Crossing the mountains of Lebanon in the spring snow in 1268, it was recorded that his army “could find nothing [to eat] except snow, which they ate themselves and fed to their horses.” Baybars later boasted to the hated Bohemond that there was no crusader fastness to which he could not haul his siege artillery and no season in which he would not campaign. He described how, in order to attack the crusader-held fort of Akkar in northern Lebanon in 1271, we transported the mangonels there through mountains where the birds think it too difficult to nest; how patiently we hauled them, troubled by mud and struggling against rain; how we erected them in places where ants would slip were they to walk there; how we went down into valleys so deep that were the sun to shine through the clouds there it would show no way out except the precipitous mountains.
Despite the exaggerations, siege warfare was a terrible slog. And the Lion of Egypt had been cautious; he had never yet attempted to drag a siege train to the walls of Acre. After the near collapse of Islam, his campaigns were, in large measure, defensive. It was necessary to pick off enemies one at a time, above all to avoid provoking a working alliance between the Mongols and the Christians or inciting a major new crusade from Europe.
In July 1269, he made the pilgrimage to Mecca in strictest secrecy to ensure no insurrection among dissident emirs. Elaborate arrangements concealed his departure. It was given out that he had gone hunting. His confidential messengers continued to bring him the mail; replies were dispatched as if he had never gone. When he returned from Mecca at the end of August, he arrived without warning in Damascus, and then in Aleppo. His aim was to keep his provincial governors in uneasy obedience, aware that he was always watching and could unexpectedly call them to account at any moment.