Why Islam crushed the crusaders

Thomas Abridge explains why for all their celebrated victories and burning religious zeal - the Christian warriors' attempts to wrest the Holy Land from Muslim control in the Middle Ages were ultimately doomed to failure

The Siege of Antioch during the First Crusade, c1200. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

At dawn on Friday 18 May 1291 a furious Muslim assault upon the crusader city of Acre began. This bustling, heavily fortified port in northern Palestine had been locked into a siege for more than a month: encircled by tens of thousands of Islamic troops; subjected to an aerial bombardment that brought hundred-pound boulders crashing down onto its battlements and buildings.

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Now, on this last morning, the air resounded with the thunderous booming of war drums as thousands of Muslims raced forward, while their archers loosed arrows “in a thick cloud” that, according to one Christian eyewitness, “seemed to fall like rain from the heavens”. Driven forward by the immense force of this onslaught, the Muslims broke through two gates and began rushing into the city.

During a vain last stand, the master of the Templars – leader of an elite Christian military order – was mortally wounded when a spear pierced his side, while his counterpart, the master of the Hospitallers, took a lance thrust between his shoulders and was dragged back from the walls, grievously injured. Before long, the defenders were overrun and the sack of Acre began. One Christian, then in the city, wrote that the “day was terrible to behold. The [ordinary people of the city] came fleeing through the streets, their children in their arms, weeping and despairing, and fleeing to sailors to save them from death”. Hundreds were hunted down and slaughtered.

Acre’s fall was a final and fatal disaster for the Christians of the crusader states – the western European settlements in the Near East that had survived for almost two centuries. Within a few months, their remaining mainland outposts had been evacuated or abandoned. For the Muslims, by contrast, the victory at Acre affirmed the efficacy of their faith, sealing their triumph in the war for the Holy Land. Reflecting upon the wonder of this event, a Muslim contemporary wrote:

“These conquests [meant that] the whole of Palestine was now in Muslim hands [and] purified of the Franks, who had once been on the point of conquering Egypt and subduing Damascus and other cities. Praise be to God!” The crusades had culminated in a categorical victory for Islam.

The crusading era had begun with a seemingly miraculous Christian success: the First Crusade’s conquest of Jerusalem. Answering a papal call to arms, thousands of western European warriors had marched across the face of the known world to reclaim the Holy City from its Islamic overlords. Perhaps 90 per cent of these original crusaders were lost to death or desertion, but on 15 July 1099 a hardened core of survivors forced their way into Jerusalem, butchering much of its Muslim population. In the years that followed, four crusader states – including the kingdom of Jerusalem – were forged.

Through the early decades of the 12th century these crusader states continued to expand, until they covered a swathe of territory stretching from modern-day Israel and Jordan, through Syria and Lebanon, to Turkey. Collectively, they came to be known by contemporaries as Outremer, ‘the land beyond the sea’. But a rising tide of Muslim resistance and counterattack soon placed these isolated western satellites under pressure, and a succession of further crusades were launched from Europe to defend the Holy Land. Through eight major crusading expeditions – including the Third Crusade, during which Richard the Lionheart sought to defeat the mighty Muslim sultan Saladin – and scores of smaller crusading campaigns, hundreds of thousands of Christians fought to preserve this fragile foothold in the east.

Dramatic extinction

Nonetheless, the startling victories of the First Crusade were never repeated, and the strength and geographical extent of Outremer was gradually eroded until the point of its dramatic extinction in 1291. So why did Islam prevail in this protracted struggle for dominion of the Holy Land?

Historians have sometimes suggested that Christendom was defeated because of a gradual slump in crusade enthusiasm after 1200, a malaise supposedly brought on by papal manipulation and dilution of the crusading ‘ideal’. This view is somewhat simplistic. True, the 13th century did not witness the same massive expeditions that had punctuated the period between 1095 and 1193, but recruitment for a plethora of smaller-scale campaigns remained buoyant. Above all, the essential allure of the crusades – the idea of fighting to defend or reclaim sacred Christian territory in return for the reward of spiritual purification – seems to have remained largely undimmed. The call of the cross undoubtedly could still move the hearts and minds of the masses.

One popular outburst of ecstatic piety was witnessed in 1212, when large groups of children and young adults in northern France and Germany spontaneously began to declare their dedication to the cause of the crusades. In the ‘Children’s Crusade’ that followed, hordes of youngsters began marching to the Mediterranean believing that God would oversee their journey to the Levant and then lend them the miraculous power to overthrow Islam and recapture Jerusalem. Unfortunately, the seas did not part to allow these children to walk to the Holy Land and the whole venture collapsed. Undeterred, a similarly popular uprising was witnessed in the so-called Shepherds’ Crusade of 1251.

Yet, although the crusading fire still burned brightly, its force was frequently directed away from the defence of Outremer itself to combat new enemies in different theatres of conflict. In the course of the 13th century the papacy launched numerous crusades against heretics in southern France, eastern European pagans and even its own political enemies within Italy.

Campaigns and resources were also channelled into the Christian reconquest of Iberia from the Moors and the defence of Constantinople (recently captured from the Byzantine Greeks). The lack of a singular focus upon the Holy Land undoubtedly weakened the war effort in the Levant, but it would be a mistake to imagine that the 13th century passed without its own grand crusades to the east. Indeed, perhaps the most remarkable of these expeditions was led by a king so pious and devoted to the war for the Holy Land that he would later be canonised by the Roman church as a saint.

A saint at war

King Louis IX of France first vowed to go on crusade in December 1244, while in the grip of severe fever. The 30-year-old monarch was confined to his bed, and apparently close to death, when he “asked for the cross to be given to him” there and then. Once recovered, he stood by his promise, dedicating much of his life to the cause of holy war. Louis spent four years laying the most assiduous preparations for his campaign. Selecting Cyprus as his advance staging post, the king set about building up a supply of the food, weaponry and resources needed for war. After stockpiling goods on the island, the vast mounds of wheat and barley awaiting the crusade apparently resembled hills, while the stacks of wine barrels were, from a distance, easily mistaken for barns.

Louis’ crusade targeted Egypt – the heartland of Muslim military and economic power – and began with a startling victory at the mouth of the Nile. On 5 June 1249 the king led around 20,000 crusaders in a desperately dangerous opposed beach landing near the town of Damietta. The troops guarding the coastline for the Ayyubid regime (Saladin’s successors) buckled and fled in the face of the Christians’ fierce, well-coordinated assault, and on the very next day Louis was able to occupy Damietta itself. This was the most stunning opening foray of any crusade.

In its wake, Louis marched his forces down a branch of the Nile to confront the main Ayyubid army at the town of Mansourah. On 8 February 1250 he launched a daring dawn raid on the Muslims camped in front of Mansourah and, catching the enemy unawares and asleep, the assault became

a massacre. As this brutal riot overran the Ayyubid encampment, it seemed that a stunning victory was at hand, but at that moment the king’s brother, Robert of Artois, made a woefully hot-headed decision to lead a large party of knights in pursuit of the Muslim stragglers fleeing towards Mansourah itself. Once they charged into the town, Robert and his men found themselves trapped within a warren of confined alleyways and, falling prey to sniping spear and arrow attacks, they were annihilated almost to a man.

Louis IX’s crusade never recovered from this setback.

The king sought to hold his position before Mansourah for another three months, but food shortages and the ravages of disease brought his army to its knees. With the crusaders reduced to eating cats and dogs, barber-surgeons moving through the ranks to cut away the scurvy-ridden gums of screaming soldiers, and Louis afflicted with dysentery, a general retreat was ordered on 4 April. The withdrawal quickly turned into a rout and almost the entire force was either killed or taken captive.

In the midst of the mayhem, King Louis became separated from of his troops. He now was so stricken with illness that he had to have a hole cut in his breeches. A small group of his most loyal retainers made a brave attempt to lead him to safety, and eventually they took refuge in a small village. There, cowering, half-dead, in a squalid hut, the mighty sovereign of France was captured. His daring attempt to reconquer the Holy Land had ended in catastrophe.

The fact that such a carefully planned crusade, led by a paragon of Christian kingship, had still been subjected to an excoriating defeat horrified western Europe and raised serious doubts about the efficacy of the crusading movement. And even as Christendom was faltering, a fearsome power that would bring Islam full victory in the east was just beginning to emerge.

A new Islamic dynasty – the Mamluk sultanate, governed by members of the mamluk (slave-soldier) military elite – seized power in Egypt in the wake of King Louis IX of France’s failed crusade. Mamluks had been used by Muslim rulers in the Levant for centuries. Fiercely loyal and highly professional, these warriors were the product of an elaborate system of slavery and military training. Most were Turks from the Russian Steppes, north of the Black Sea; captured as boys, they were sold to Islamic potentates in the Near and Middle East and then indoctrinated in the Muslim faith and trained in the arts of war.

Elite slave soldiers

By 1250 regiments of these elite slave soldiers formed the backbone of the Ayyubid army (indeed, they were instrumental in ensuring the defeat of Louis’ invasion) and in the decade that followed they overthrew the last vestiges of Ayyubid rule. In 1260 one mamluk commander emerged as the overall leader of the new Mamluk state – Sultan Baybars – a man hungry for power, unflinchingly ruthless and supremely gifted in the arts of war. This blue-eyed Caucasian slave became an unrivalled champion of Islamic jihad.

Baybars had already proved himself as a general, playing a central role in defeating the ferocious Mongols at the battle of Ayn Jalut. He now set about extending and perfecting the Mamluk military machine – creating perhaps the most formidable fighting force of the Middle Ages.

Baybars ploughed massive financial reserves into building, training and refining the Mamluk army. In total, the number of mamluks was increased fourfold, to around 40,000 mounted troops. The core of this force was the 4,000-strong royal mamluk regiment – Baybars’ new elite, schooled and honed in a special practice facility within the citadel of Cairo. Here recruits were taught the arts of swordsmanship – learning to deliver precise strikes by repeating the same cut up to a 1,000 times a day – and horse archery with powerful composite recurve bows.

The sultan emphasised rigid discipline and rigorous military drilling across every section of the Mamluk host.

His mamluks were also encouraged to experiment with new weapons and techniques, some archers even attempting to use arrows doused in Greek fire from horseback. To reinforce the human component of the Mamluk armed forces, Baybars invested in some forms of heavier armament. Close attention was paid to the development of siege weaponry, including sophisticated counter-weight catapults or ‘trebuchets’ – masterpieces of advanced military technology.

In 1265 the sultan turned the terrifying might of this Mamluk army against the fractured remnants of the crusader states. For the Christians of Outremer, themselves riven by factionalism, the results were calamitous. Baybars was able to move through the crusader states unhindered, crushing settlements and castles almost at will. No force, nor fortress could stand before him.

In that first year the mighty crusader fortifications at Arsuf and Caesarea were overrun and demolished. In 1268 Baybars marched into northern Syria, broke through Antioch’s legendary battlements in a single day and then put thousands of its citizens to the sword. The ancient city was left in a state of ruination; one from which it would not recover for centuries. Even the mighty Krak des Chevaliers – perhaps the closest thing to an impregnable castle in the medieval world – fell before a Mamluk onslaught in 1271.

Baybars’ demolition of the crusader states was all the more remarkable given that the primary concern of his reign was not the waging of a holy war against the Christians, but preparing for another Mongol invasion. In many ways, the destruction of the crusader states became little more than a sideshow, as these two new superpowers – the Mamluks and the Mongols – fought for control of the Near and Middle East. After Baybars’ death in 1277, Outremer’s inexorable obliteration continued, as the sultan’s successors conquered Tripoli in 1289 and finally targeted Acre itself in 1291.

Baybars did not live to see this final triumph, but he was undoubtedly its chief architect. For the next six centuries, first under Mamluk and then Ottoman rule, the Holy Land remained in the hands of Islam.


Crusader reverses

1144 Edessa, capital of the first crusader state, is captured by the merciless Turkish warlord Zangi

1148 Attempt by the Second Crusade to besiege Damascus ends in crushing failure

1187 Saladin defeats the forces of the kingdom of Jerusalem at the Horns of Hattin and goes on to recapture Jerusalem

1192 Richard the Lionheart leads the Third Crusade to within a day’s march of Jerusalem, but then turns back, judging that the Holy City could not be held even if it could be conquered

1221 The Fifth Crusade’s invasion of Egypt ends in defeat

1229 German emperor Frederick II negotiates the temporary return of Jerusalem to the Christians

1244 The forces of the kingdom of Jerusalem are annihilated at the battle of La Forbie

1268 Sultan Baybars sacks the city of Antioch, massacring its populace

1289 Baybars’ successor, Qalawun, captures crusader Tripoli

1291 Crusader Acre is conquered by the Mamluks – the crusader states on the Levantine mainland come to an end


The lie of the land

The crusades to the Near East were waged on what was tantamount to ‘home ground’ for the Muslims. This simple geographical reality played a fundamental role in the war for the Holy Land. Indeed, it was probably this factor more than any other that accounted for Islam’s ultimate victory over the Christian crusaders.

For the western Europeans, the difficulties of conducting sustained military campaigns thousands of miles from home during the medieval era were manifold. Issues of transport, supply, communication and logistics all posed almost insuperable challenges.

The early crusaders effectively walked 2,000 to 3,000 miles to the Holy Land – often taking years to do so – and although naval travel became the norm for Christian warriors from the later 12th century onwards, the costs involved were crippling.

Maintaining the European crusader outposts of Outremer also proved a struggle, isolated as they were amidst a sea of potential enemies. Perpetually short of fighting manpower, the crusader states had to rely upon military reinforcements, and injections of financial and material aid from the west.

Yet, evocative and potent as the fate of Jerusalem and the Holy Land might be, western Christendom often remained immune to Outremer’s urgent appeals for assistance.

Domestic problems and concerns – from succession disputes and dynastic rivalries to failed harvests and outbreaks of heresy – might only-too-easily trump the distant needs of the crusader states.

The eventual outcome of the medieval crusades attests to the practical and conceptual difficulties associated with fighting wars far from home. Arguably the same issues surrounding regional spheres of influence continue to play a prominent role in modern conflicts, in spite of advanced technology, and help to explain the progress of recent American-led incursions into Afghanistan and Iraq.

Thomas Asbridge is reader in medieval history at Queen Mary, University of London. He will present a major BBC Two series, filmed across Europe and the Middle East, due for broadcast in early 2012, based on his book The Crusades: The War for the Holy Land.

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This article was first published in the January 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine