Post-classical history

Chapter Forty-Eight

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The Seventh Crusade

Between 1244 and 1250, Egypt changes hands, and another crusade fails

DECEMBER IN PARIS, 1244: nearly Christmas. Louis IX of France lay ill, so close to death that he could neither speak nor move. Even the movement of his breath had ceased. “He was in such evil case,” his friend and biographer Jean de Joinville writes, “that, as they tell, one of the ladies who tended him wished to draw the sheet over his face, and said that he was dead.”1

Thirty years old, Louis IX—crowned king at twelve, governed by his mother until he turned twenty—had just finished beating back Henry III’s unsuccessful invasion of the western French lands. He was at the height of his strength, but he had no male heirs; his death would throw France into crisis. The entire palace wept. The doctors left; the doors to his room were flung open for mourners; priests arrived to “commend his soul.” And then, suddenly, the king took a deep breath and sighed.2

He had emerged from his coma; and when he had recovered enough to sit up and speak, he announced that in thanksgiving, he would go on crusade.

This announcement was greeted with joy by everyone except his mother Blanche, who tried to talk him out of it and even offered to pay for mercenaries who could go in his place. But Louis was unmoved. He had made a sacred vow, and he was not Frederick II; he would not renege.3

Even before his illness, Louis IX had probably been contemplating crusade. In the fall of 1244, disastrous news had come from the east: Jerusalem had fallen once more into Muslim hands.

The disaster had been brought about by a complicated five-year series of events. Frederick’s treaty with the sultan al-Kamil had expired in 1239; Islamic law dictated that a treaty made by Muslims with infidels could not last more than ten years. In most cases, treaties were simply renewed once per decade. But al-Kamil had died in 1238, and his two sons had battled over his empire.

The older brother, as-Salih Ayyub, triumphed (and imprisoned his rival for the rest of his life). However, the short sharp civil war had given Ayyub’s uncle as-Salih Ismail, brother of al-Kamil and governor of Damascus under al-Kamil’s sultancy, the opportunity to rebel. He declared himself ruler of the Syrian half of the Ayyubid empire, splitting Saladin’s kingdom in half. Ismail was now the overlord of Jerusalem.

So Ayyub hired mercenaries to attack his uncle’s Syrian domains, hoping to recover them for himself.

These mercenaries were wandering survivors of the Turkish kingdom of Khwarezm, destroyed by Genghis Khan in 1219. When the last Shah of Khwarezm, Jalal ad-Din, had fled into India pursued by Genghis’s men, his army and family had been wiped out, but Jalal ad-Din himself had survived. He had spent the next ten years of his life waging guerrilla warfare against the Mongol conquerors, finally meeting his end at Mongol hands in a desperate mountain battle in 1231. His followers, instead of dispersing, became known as the Khwarezmiyya, nomadic mercenaries, claiming to preserve the last remnants of Khwarezm culture, hiring themselves out to whoever could pay.4

In 1244, ten thousand Khwarezmiyya, fighting on behalf of the Sultan of Egypt, swept down on Syria. On August 11, they stormed Jerusalem. They slaughtered both Muslims and Christians in the streets, broke into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and ripped the bones of the Crusader kings of Jerusalem from their crypts. Ayyub of Egypt claimed the city, now not much more than ruins, for his own.5

News of the fall had been greeted in the west with grief, and with calls for another crusade to retrieve the city. Now, recovering from his illness, Louis IX was ready to answer.

It took him three years to make the proper arrangements. He collected a special crusade tax from his subjects to pay for the expedition, and recruited French barons and their knights to join him. From the city of Genoa, he bought scores of ships; over thirty two- and three-decked sailing ships, transport galleys, war galleys. He sent provisions to Cyprus, where he intended to rendezvous with other Crusader knights; “great stacks of barrels of wine,” says Joinville, who arrived at Cyprus to find the king’s provisions waiting there, “wheat and barley . . . laid in heaps on the fields . . . the rain which had long fallen upon the corn had made it sprout on the outside.” Under the green crust, though, the grain was still fresh.6

Well-prepared, well-victualed, and well-supplied with money, Louis IX began the Seventh Crusade by setting sail from Aigues-Mortes on August 25, 1248. His royal galley sailed at the head of thirty-eight ships and a score of flat-bottomed transports. His queen, Margaret of Provence, sailed with him; so did his younger brothers Charles and Robert. They arrived at Cyprus in early September, ready to embark on what seemed like an inevitable success.7

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48.1 The Seventh Crusade

It was a fiasco.

The Crusader army was led by Louis, his brothers, the Grand Master of the Knights Templar, Jean de Joinville, the English Earl of Salisbury, and Henry III’s unfortunate stepfather, the disgraced Count of Marche. As was now traditional in any crusade, they all disagreed over strategy. Louis wanted to attack Egypt, which now controlled the city; the Grand Master of the Templars thought that the Crusaders should start off by making a play for some of the disputed Syrian lands; and several of the French barons suggested that fall was a bad time to set off by ship, since foul weather was almost a certainty. In the end, the Crusaders delayed on Cyprus until the following May, by which point a good deal of the fervor had faded, and most of the food had been eaten.8

This gave Ayyub plenty of time to prepare for an attack on Egypt. By the time the Crusader ships reached the coast near Damietta, in early June, Ayyub had fortified the city and established a second line of defense at the town of Mansurah, just east of the Nile and seventy-five miles northeast of Cairo.

The first Crusader attack began on the morning of June 5. A swarm of small boats brought the Crusaders to the shore, where they fought so fiercely that by midafternoon, the Turkish defenders had retreated back into Damietta. That night, under cover of dark, the Damietta garrison decided to evacuate the city. The following morning, the Crusaders found it nearly empty and marched triumphantly in.

Ayyub, furious over the easy victory, executed the generals who were responsible for the surrender. He was ill, suffering from what seems to have been progressive gangrene, and his temper was short.

He was expecting an immediate Crusader advance, but the Nile floods were due to begin, and Louis had learned his lesson from tales of the disastrous Fifth Crusade. “We felt sure that we would not leave Damietta until the feast of All Saints [November 1], because of the rise of the river . . . ,” his chamberlain John Sarrasin wrote back to France. “No one can go to Alexandria or Babylon or to Cairo when it has flooded across the land of Egypt.” Instead, they lingered in the city, transforming its mosque into a cathedral, digging additional fortifications, and waiting for the Nile to recede.9

On November 20, Louis led a Crusader army—reinforced by the arrival of a third royal brother with fresh men—out of Damietta, towards the Sultan’s encampment at Mansurah. By the time they arrived, Ayyub was dead.

His son and heir Turan-shah was fighting in Syria, but the elderly general Fakhr-ad-Din had taken charge of the Egyptian defense. The Crusaders camped across the river from Mansurah and prepared to attack. On February 7, Louis’s brother Robert forded the river to lead part of the Crusader army in a surprise attack on the Muslim encampment outside the town. It was brilliantly successful, but then Robert—instead of returning for reinforcements as planned—decided to lead his knights into Mansurah itself. There, the advance party came face-to-face with most of Egypt’s army, and was slaughtered.

The loss of Robert and his army had weakened the Crusader force too much for it to take Mansurah itself. They camped in front of its walls. Meanwhile, Turan-shah arrived unexpectedly and cut the Crusaders off from behind, blocking their line of supply from Damietta.

The Crusaders slowly began to starve. William of Tyre’s chronicle says that the men first ate horses, donkeys, and mules; and then “much worse things. Anyone who could find a dog or a cat would eat it as a great delicacy.” Disease followed: “The bodies of our men whom [the Egyptian defenders] had killed came to the surface of the water,” Joinville writes, “. . . all the stream was full of dead men from one bank to the other. . . . And for the unwholesomeness of the country . . . the sickness of the host came upon us . . . the flesh of our legs altogether dried up, and the skin of our legs became blotched with black and earth-colour, like to an old boot; and on us that had this sickness there grew rotten flesh upon our gums.”10

By Easter, it had become clear even to Louis that it was time to flee. He led the army north, but the men were hungry, weak, and constantly bombarded by Muslim attackers. Three weeks into the march, with men dying around him, Louis sent an envoy to Turan-shah, offering to surrender.11

Turan-shah accepted the surrender and put the king and his noblemen under guard. In an unexpected act of callousness, he ordered all of the sick and wounded slaughtered; Joinville, shocked by the executions, says that his guard told him that it was done for fear that the plague would spread.12

Damietta too was forced to open its gates. Louis’s wife Margaret had given birth to a son in his absence; with no midwife in the city, she had been forced to ask one of the old knights, a man of eighty, to help her deliver the baby. Before the surrender, she was bundled out of the city with her new baby and taken back to Acre, where she waited for news of her husband.

In exchange for 800,000 “Saracen bezants” (nearly 400,000 pounds of gold), half of it to be paid on the spot, and the freedom of all Muslim prisoners, Turan-shah agreed to free his captives. But the deal almost went sour when Turan-shah was suddenly killed in an uprising of the Turkish soldiers who made up a good part of his armed force.

Like the Muslim Ghurids in India, the Ayyubid rulers of Egypt had long relied on mamluks, Turkish slave warriors, to beef up their armies; perhaps half of Fakhr-ad-Din’s army was mamluk. And the most elite fighting force in the Egyptian army was a thousand-strong mamluk regiment known as the Bahri Regiment, originally formed as the personal bodyguard of the sultan Ayyub himself. (“He bought more Turkish mamluks than had any other member of his family,” notes Ibn Wasil, “until they became the major part of his army.”) When Turan-shah had arrived in Egypt, though, he had high-handedly promoted his own favorites into key positions instead of advancing the senior mamluks of the Bahri Regiment. He had also, incautiously, announced at a drunken dinner party that he intended to chop down his father’s mamluks, as easily as he might sweep his sword through a row of lighted candles. Angry over the slight, one of the Bahri Regiment’s commanders, a Turk named Baibars, plotted Turan-shah’s assassination.13

The murder left Egypt without a sultan. But Turan-shah had not been in Egypt long enough to be popular—in fact, his butchered body, swelling with decay, lay on the ground outside his camp for three days before anyone bothered to bury it—and no reprisals followed. Baibars and his confederates, setting themselves up as a military government in Cairo, decided to honor Ayyub’s widow as the titular ruler of Cairo, while they ran the government to suit themselves.

After threatening to void the deal, they also—eventually—agreed to honor Turan-shah’s arrangements. On May 5, Louis handed over his half ransom and was set free, along with his two surviving brothers and most of his barons. He set sail immediately for Acre, arriving on May 14. “All Acre came in procession down to the sea to receive him at his coming, with passing great joy,” Joinville writes.14

The king had survived, but there was little else to rejoice in. Hundreds of Crusader soldiers remained prisoners in Egypt. Louis had spent every penny and owed still more for the balance of his ransom. And the Crusade itself had failed: Jerusalem was still in Muslim hands.

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