Post-classical history

Alexandria, Capture of (1365)

The capture of the port of Alexandria (mod. El-Iskanderîya, Egypt) was the culmination of a crusade mounted by King Peter I of Cyprus. It had no long-term strategic benefits because the city could not be held for more than a few days.

Peter, along with his chancellor, Philippe de Mézières, and the papal legate Peter Thomas were ardent proponents of renewed crusading in the mid-fourteenth century. Scholars debate whether the king’s enthusiasm stemmed from genuine interest in the recovery of the Holy Land or from a more practical concern for Cyprus’s economy and security, but there is no doubt that his enthusiasm was sincere (despite suffering acutely from seasickness, he spent many months traveling by ship in pursuit of his goals).

There had been much talk of a major crusade in the decades following the fall of Acre (mod. ‘Akko, Israel), the last major Christian stronghold in the Holy Land, to the Mamlūk sultanate in 1291. However, only lesser expeditions had actually been conducted. Peter had shown interest in a crusade from his youth, and when he inherited the throne of Cyprus in 1359, he began a series of raids along the coasts of Anatolia, Cilicia, Syria, and Palestine. In 1362 he set out on an extended tour of Western courts seeking support for a major crusade, a task made somewhat easier by the lull in the Hundred Years’ War following the Treaty of Brétigny between the French and English monarchies in 1360. Peter’s party was lavishly entertained and showered with promises of aid, few of which were kept. Nevertheless, in 1365 Peter amassed French, English, Cypriot, Hospitaller, and other forces amounting to perhaps 165 ships, 10,000 men, and 1,400 horses, which assembled off the island of Rhodes. This was large considering the circumstances, but almost certainly too small to make a serious long-term impact. The expedition’s destination was kept secret until after it left Rhodes on 4 October.

The crusaders arrived at Alexandria on 9 October. They mounted major attacks throughout the next day and found a portion of the wall undefended, an oversight they exploited so effectively that the city was in their hands by the evening. A great sack and massacre resulted, continuing for three days. Seventy or more ships were filled with booty, and 5,000 captives were placed on other vessels. Two of the three land gates of the city were apparently also destroyed, a misjudg- ment that impaired the ability of the crusaders to defend their prize.

As the crusaders met to determine what to do next, a large Mamlūk army was approaching. King Peter, together with Peter Thomas and Philippe de Mézières, argued passionately for remaining and defending the city, which he may have hoped to use as a base to conquer all of Egypt and then the Holy Land. But others, including most of the crusaders from the West, argued for flight. Even the Hospitallers and Peter’s own brothers were against staying. The latter party, whose opinion prevailed, has been accused of cowardice ever since, but it is difficult to fault their reasoning. Previous crusades against Egypt had foundered because of their leaders’ unwillingness to limit their gains or to withdraw before they were trapped. The crusaders had just struck a devastating blow, at least temporarily, at the major center of Mamlûk economic activity, garnering enormous resources that could, at least theoretically, be used to finance further operations. According to the poet Guillaume de Machaut, whose Prise d’Alixan- dre is a major source for the crusade, the king and his entourage were among the last to leave, withdrawing from the beach only as Mamlûk troops were pouring into the city.

This expedition was the last significant crusade to mount an actual attack on a major target in or near the Holy Land. Peter may have hoped to keep his force together and strike again, but this proved impossible. Many westerners, including the noted French knight Bertrand du Guesclin, were inspired by the capture of Alexandria and began to prepare for a new expedition, a scheme that collapsed when the Venetians, who were unhappy at the way the crusade had seriously disrupted their trade with Egypt, spread the false rumor that Cyprus and the Mamlûks had come to terms. Peter continued raiding the surrounding Muslim-held coasts and in 1368 traveled again to Rome in search of support. He was murdered by a disgruntled subject in 1369, however, and his plans came to nothing, leaving the capture of Alexandria as his main, albeit temporary, achievement.

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