Post-classical history

Acre, Siege of (1189-1191)

The siege of Acre (mod. ‘Akko, Israel) was the determinative military action of the Third Crusade (1189-1192). The Muslim leader Saladin had captured and garrisoned the port city in the aftermath of his great victory at Hattin in 1187. Guy of Lusignan, king of Jerusalem, was released from captivity in 1188 and began collecting forces from among the Franks of Jerusalem and new arrivals from the West. In August 1189 Guy marched to Acre and set up camp on the hill of Toron to the east of the city. Saladin marched to Acre’s relief but was unable to either dislodge Guy or prevent fleets bringing reinforcements from all over western Europe. The Christians dug a double line of ditches across the Acre peninsula, protecting themselves from both Saladin’s field army and the city garrison. A long struggle of attrition ensued, a combination of naval blockade, artillery duel, and trench warfare. Twice Egyptian galley fleets broke through, only to be immobilized in the harbor, their crews needed to man the walls. The remnant of the German expedition arrived in October 1190, that of Philip II Augustus of France in April 1191, and that of Richard I of England on 8 June. Early in July sections of the wall were brought down by mining.

Forced to stay permanently at arms and fearing the consequences if Acre were taken by storm, the heroic but now exhausted garrison surrendered on 12 July. They were to be ransomed in return for 200,000 dinars, the release of 1,500 prisoners held by Saladin, and the restoration of the relic of the True Cross, all to be handed over by 20 August. As the banners of the kings of France and England were raised over Acre, so too was the standard of Leopold V, duke of Austria, leader of the small German contingent. Richard’s soldiers tore it down, as neither he nor Philip had any intention of letting Leopold claim a share of the booty. By 20 August Saladin had not paid even the first installment of the ransom; perhaps he could not, perhaps he was trying to delay things. The crusaders wished to advance toward Jerusalem and could not afford to leave 3,000 prisoners behind in Acre. In the afternoon the captives were slaughtered, only the garrison commanders being spared. According to the chronicler Ambroise, the Christian soldiers enjoyed the work of butchery.

For Saladin the loss of the city and the Egyptian fleet was a heavy blow. For nearly two years the siege gripped the attention of both Muslim and Christian worlds; Western contemporaries compared it to the siege of Troy. The fact that Saladin himself remained nearby throughout the siege demonstrates its importance in his eyes. Its outcome made possible the century-long survival of the coastal rump of the kingdom of Jerusalem.

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