In the spring of 1291, the largest army that Islam had ever assembled during 200 years of crusader warfare was advancing on the city of Acre. Swelled by a vast number of volunteers and fired by the spirit of jihad it had come to finally drive the Franks back into the sea.
The city that they were approaching was crucial to the crusader project. After Pope Urban II had delivered his rallying call to save Jerusalem in 1095, a crusader army slogged the 2,000 miles round Europe into the Middle East and, against all reasonable expectations, captured the holy city but the venture had been massively attritional. Of the 35,000 who set out only about 12,000 saw Jerusalem. It was clear that the land route was unsustainable. This taught military planners the need to transport armies by ships, the services of the Italian maritime republics to provide them, and the necessity of ports to receive them. Acre, strategically positioned on the coast of Palestine and with a secure harbour, was ideal. Following its capture in 1104 the city became the main port of the Frankish Levant and the principal landing place for pilgrims and armies. Crusader ventures set out through its gates; royal brides arrived at its port; kings were married in its church and died in its mansions. It served multiple functions as a market, port, transit station, logistics centre and hub within the Mediterranean trading system, and it was from here that a crusader marched out to confront Saladin in 1187. They were annihilated at the battle of Hattin.
This catastrophe handed Jerusalem back to Islam and Acre became, once again, a Muslim city. It was recaptured by the forces of the Third Crusade in 1191 after an exhaustive siege that lasted nearly two years and, with Jerusalem lost, it became the principal city of the crusader states. The military orders – the Templars, the Hospitaller knights of St John and the Teutonic knights – moved their headquarters there and built themselves imposing strongholds. The trading republics of Venice, Genoa and Pisa carried on highly profitable trade with the Islamic world from the city. Acre boomed. It was the centre of trade across the whole Mediterranean and the most cosmopolitan city in the world.
It was only regime change in the heart of the Islamic world that began to tilt the balance of power back to Islam. By the 1260s the dynasties of the Middle East were under threat from the Mongols. After the Mongol destruction of Baghdad in 1258, the trade routes moved north, damaging Acre’s economy and the Mongol advance threatened the very existence of Islam. In the process the Mamluks, slave soldiers of the Ayyubid sultans of Egypt, staged a coup and established a new dynasty that brought with it a harder ideology to contest with its enemies.
The Mamluks were traditionally mobile horse warriors but under the great Mamluk sultan, Baybars, they also developed high-level skills in besieging cities. Baybars started to wage concerted warfare against both the Mongols and the Franks. Between 1265 and 1271, Baybars systematically dismantled the chain of fortresses that had provided a defensive wall for the crusader states. His crowning achievement was the capture of Krak des Chevaliers, the Hospitallers’ massive fortress in southern Syria in 1269.
The burden of defence fell increasingly on the military orders. The master of the Templars in the last quarter of the 13th century, Guillaume de Beaujeu, was aware that it was only a matter of time before Acre came under sustained assault. After the neighbouring city of Tripoli fell to the Mamluks in 1289, it was the last surviving crusader stronghold. When a massacre of visiting Muslim merchants took place there in 1290 it provided the Mamluk sultan, Qalawun, with a justification to attack.
During that winter the sultan gathered the resources for war against Acre. Giant trees were cut down in the mountains of the Lebanon and laboriously hauled to Damascus to be fashioned into catapults. Siege miners were summoned from Aleppo. Troop detachments were requisitioned from all the vassal princes in Palestine and Syria. Preaching in the mosques in the name of jihad fired up the ordinary people to volunteer for the cause. The Christians also made increasingly desperate calls to Europe for a new crusade to save the city. The pope issued a general encyclical exhorting people to take the crusade but the response was limited. The appetite for crusading ventures by the kings and great nobles of Europe was dying. In the end only 3,000 men made it. Few of them were professional soldiers.
However, in November 1290, with the siege preparations well advanced, Qalawun unexpectedly died and siege preparations stalled. The people of Acre breathed a sigh of relief. They believed they had been spared, but Qalawun’s son, Khalil, vowed to press on. In March 1291 his army was on the move. It was by all accounts an extraordinary spectacle – an immense concourse of men and animals, tents, baggage and supplies, all converging on Christendom’s last foothold. The aim was to deliver a knock-out blow. Forces had been drawn widely from across the Middle East – from Egypt 500 miles to the south, from Lebanon and Syria as far north as the banks of the Euphrates, from the great cities – Cairo, Damascus, and Aleppo – a gathering of all the regions’ military resources. The elite troops were the Turkish-speaking Mamluks and the army included not only cavalry, infantry, and specialist supply corps, but enthusiastic volunteers, mullahs and dervishes. The campaign had inspired a popular fervour for holy war – and a less pious one for booty.
Visible in this panorama was a vast array of outfits, devices and armour: lordly emirs in white turbans; foot soldiers in conical metal helmets, chain mail, and leather scale tunics; cavalry armed with short bows, their animals covered in colourful cloths and saddles embroidered with heraldic insignia; camel-mounted musicians playing kettledrums, horns and cymbals; fluttering yellow banners and weapons of all kinds: maces, javelins, spears, swords, siege crossbows, carved stone balls, naptha for the manufacture of Greek fire and clay grenades. Oxen strained to haul carts laden with the prefabricated timber components of stone-throwing catapults – known in the Islamic world as manjaniqs (mangonels), to Europeans as trebuchets. The rumbling carts were bringing an unprecedented number of such devices, some of enormous size, to batter the walls of Acre. They represented the most powerful form of artillery weapon before the age of gunpowder.
Acre was well defended. It comprised a dense urban centre backed onto the Mediterranean Sea so that it could only be besieged from one side and was protected by a double line of walls surmounted by towers and fronted by deep ditches, but the disparity between the number of troops on each side was huge. Acre could draw on about 700 to 800 elite mounted knights and about 13,000 infantry. Qalawun had marshalled perhaps 100,000 in the cause of holy war.
The logistical and organisational skills of the Mamluks were extraordinary. They brought to the walls probably the largest number of siege catapults ever assembled – perhaps 90 in total. The majority of these were fast-firing traction devices, relying on teams of men hauling in unison to send stone balls hurling against the walls. Alongside these came a number of giant counterweight devices, with names such as The Furious and The Victorious, which could launch projectiles up to 165 kilograms in weight. In early April, Khalil set up his red tent on a hill overlooking the city and his men set to work bombarding the walls and undermining them.
The defence of the walls – two kilometres in total – was divided up among the different military factions – the Templars, the Hospitallers and the Teutonic knights, the troops of the king of Cyprus, detachments from England and France, and local militias. Crucially, however, there was no overall command structure.
The ferocity of the initial assault was awe-inspiring. Mamluk military strategy favoured a quick knock-out blow not a prolonged siege. The catapult bombardment was unrelenting. Day and night a blizzard of projectiles forced the defenders to duck behind their battlements. This allowed time for the attackers to advance a ring of stout wooden screens towards the city’s outer ditch, which the defenders were powerless to destroy. Behind these the miners started to dig tunnels snaking out towards the walls.
The defenders soon became aware that passive defence would not save the city. It was necessary to strike back. The first operation caught the Mamluks off-guard. A detachment of Pisans mounted a catapult on a ship, sailed round outside the walls and started to bombard the Mamluk camp. Taken completely by surprise it spread panic, but luck was not on the Christian side. The sea became rough and smashed the catapult. Destroying the heavy counterweight devices however remained urgent. The Templars and Hospitallers launched a series of night sorties in an attempt to burn the tormenting machines. On the first attempt, the man tasked with hurling Greek fire panicked and missed the target, the horses got entangled in the guy ropes of the Muslim camp. Men went sprawling to the ground and were picked off. A succession of follow-up attacks also failed. It became increasingly clear that the Mamluks had been forewarned, probably by a Muslim sympathiser within the city firing arrows over the walls with letters attached.
As the mood darkened the people of Acre waited on the promise of reinforcements from Cyprus. On 4 May Henry, the king of Jerusalem, arrived with forty ships and 700 men. Spirits rose in the city. In the see-saw of morale, it dipped in the Muslim camp. Henry, however, quickly realised that the situation was hopeless: he decided to sue for peace. On 7 May a truce was called. The firing stopped and two knights came out of the city to parlay with the sultan at his tent. Khalil was blunt. ‘Have you brought me the keys of the city?’ he asked. The ambassadors declared they had no authority to do so. In the midst of this discussion, a stone fired from a catapult within the walls crashed on the ground nearby – either by accident or design. Khalil drew his sword and threatened to kill the knights but was restrained: they were evidently blameless. With this act the chance of a negotiated settlement was gone.
The miners continued to advance their tunnels. In the week that followed, a series of towers began to collapse. Sections of the outer walls crumbled. Morale inside the city drained away. On 15 May, the Mamluks achieved a key objective: the face of the strategic King’s Tower on the outer wall was brought down. Seizing the moment, that night the Mamluks constructed a causeway of sand over the jumbled masonry and established a critical forward position. They now faced the major gateway into the city – the ominously named Accursed Tower. On the 16th they mounted a full-frontal attack along a broad front. After fierce fighting it was beaten back, but the attackers still commanded a long stretch of the outer wall. The exhausted defenders knew that the next attempt might prove fatal.
Next day there was a lull. Khalil rested his men. Inside the city, an attempt was made to evacuate women and children by ship, but the sea was too rough and the people were sent home. In the mother church of the Holy Cross there was a last church service. The bishop of Jerusalem exhorted the men to fight and die for the Faith.
18 May, 1291. An hour before dawn. The Mamluks launched a mass attack. To the clashing of cymbals, blaring of trumpets and the beating of drums they surged forward. For a while archers and crossbowmen tore holes in the onrushing Muslim ranks. On the roofs of houses the townspeople waited with piles of rocks to rain down on the intruders if they broke in. Elsewhere, the Templars and Hospitallers fought to prevent a concerted break in. For a while the line held, but wave after wave of attackers wore down the defence. The Mamluks started to pour through the walls. As the defence collapsed, Guillaume de Beaujeu himself, a man in his late fifties, conventionally past fighting age, hastily donned armour and committed himself to the fray. With fresh impetus the Templars strove to push back the enemy now flooding through gaps in the walls and broken gates, when disaster struck. Beaujeu was grievously wounded by a spear that penetrated his armour. To those fighting alongside Beaujeu the damage was invisible, and a great cry went up from the men as he turned to withdraw. Beaujeu called out ‘Sirs, I can do nothing more, for I am dying. See the wound!’ then he slumped in the saddle and started to slip from his horse. He was carried away to the Temple castle on a shield. At the sight of this, the defence collapsed.
What followed was a massacre. People ran for the harbour. The city was set alight. Some of the wealthy escaped in ships, the poor were enslaved or killed. Beaujeu lay dying in the Templar castle with the sound of fighting fading in his ears, but the castle itself remained a safe haven. The last of the Templars regrouped behind its massive walls and a large number of the town’s population also sought shelter there. For ten days after the rest of Acre was in Muslim hands the Templars held out. Frustrated, Sultan Khalil offered a truce and safe conduct for the survivors, but when Muslim troops were allowed to come in to supervise evacuation, they started to snatch the women and children. The Templars promptly closed the gates, killed the Muslims inside and threw the bodies over the walls. They prepared for a desperate final defence and the Mamluk sultan set his miners to bring down the fortifications. The defenders retreated step by step into a last tower. On 28 May, this final stronghold was undermined and it was clear that further resistance was pointless. The survivors either surrendered or were captured and beheaded. In a grand finale it appears that when a large band of Muslims tried to enter the tower to plunder, it collapsed killing Christians and Muslims alike.
‘Thus everything was lost’, a survivor wrote, ‘so that altogether the Christians did not hold a palm’s breadth of land.’ With their last crusader foothold gone there could be no comeback. Among religious men the fall of Acre marked a spiritual crisis. It was God’s punishment for sin and the possibility of a final victory of Islam seemed lost too. Crusading projects for the reconquest of the Holy Land would be hatched for hundreds of years, but across Europe the spiritual fervour that had spurred the early crusades was dying. It was all over for the Templars too. In the aftermath the blame fell on them heavily. Without a crusading mission they had no purpose and their wealth was tempting. Their land was confiscated, their knights tortured into outlandish confessions by the king of France with the connivance of the papacy. The Templars had been doomed by the events of 1291.
Roger Crowley is the author of The Accursed Tower.