The Mamelukes

IN 1239 THE TEN-YEAR TRUCE made between Frederick and al-Kamil ran out, but there was no immediate threat to Outremer. Al-Kamil had died the year before and Egypt was riven by factions, while the bitterness between the Cairo and Damascus branches of the Ayyubid family had increased. The Hospitallers favoured continuing close relations with Egypt, but the Templars were opposed. In violation of the truce, the Egyptians had failed to hand over Gaza, Hebron and Nablus, and when Templar emissaries went to Cairo in 1243 they were held as virtual prisoners for six months. The Templars saw this behaviour as a delaying tactic by the new Egyptian sultan, al-Salih Ayyub, giving him time to overcome Damascus and other Muslim rulers, and then to overwhelm Outremer.

Templar policy was to favour Damascus, and this showed some results: through negotiations adroitly handled by the Templars, Damascus and Cairo were lured to win the support of the Christian kingdom by outbidding one another until the Franks gained all the land west of the Jordan except Hebron and Nablus. They were also given a free hand to celebrate Christian services in every former church throughout Jerusalem, and to expel the Muslims from the Temple Mount and to reconvert to Christian use the Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. In a remarkable diplomatic triumph for the Templars they had overturned almost all that Saladin had achieved.

Templar policy against Egypt continued to prevail. When war broke out again between Cairo and Damascus in the spring of 1244, the Templars persuaded the barons of Outremer to intervene on the side of the Damascene ruler Ismail. The alliance was sealed by the visit to Acre of al-Mansur Ibrahim, a Muslim prince of Homs, who on behalf of Ismail offered the Franks a share of Egypt when al-Salih Ayyub was defeated.

The continuing factionalism in Cairo meant that al-Salih could not rely on the regular army, but he had taken steps to counter that by purchasing Mamelukes in large numbers. These military slaves were at various times Nubians, Armenians and Iranians, but Turks were preferred for their fighting qualities.

        They care only about raiding, hunting, horsemanship, skirmishing with rival chieftains, taking booty and invading other countries. Their efforts are all directed towards these activities, and they devote all their energies to these occupations. In this way they have acquired a mastery of these skills, which for them take the place of craftsmanship and commerce and constitute their only pleasure, their glory and the subject of all their conversation. Thus they have become in warfare what the Greeks are in philosophy.1

Turks were also preferred for their physical beauty and not infrequently served as bedfellows for their owners.

In the event the Mamelukes would be hailed as a gift from God and the saviours of Islam. ‘It was God’s benevolence that he rescued the faith by reviving its dying breath and restoring the unity of the Muslims in the Egyptian realms, preserving the order and defending the walls of Islam’, wrote Ibn Khaldun, the fourteenth-century North African historian.

        He did this by sending to the Muslims, from this Turkish nation and from among its great and numerous tribes, rulers to defend them and utterly loyal helpers, who were brought from the House of War to the House of Islam under the rule of slavery, which hides in itself a divine blessing. By means of slavery they learn glory and blessing and are exposed to divine providence; cured by slavery, they enter the Muslim religion with the firm resolve of true believers and yet with nomadic virtues unsullied by debased nature, unadulterated with the filth of pleasure, undefiled by the ways of civilised living, and with their ardour unbroken by the profusion of luxury. The slave merchants bring them to Egypt in batches, like sandgrouse to the watering places, and government buyers have them displayed for inspection and bid for them [. . .] Thus, one intake comes after another and generation follows generation, and Islam rejoices in the benefit which it gains through them, and the branches of the kingdom flourish with the freshness of youth.2

Al-Salih Ayyub, whose great uncle was Saladin, and who was himself a Turkified Kurd, relied mostly on Kipchak Turks from the steppes of southern Russia; bought, trained and converted to Islam, they became his powerful private army. Also al-Salih bought the help of the Khorezmian Turks, ferocious mercenaries then based in Edessa, who had been displaced from Transoxiana and parts of Iran and Afghanistan by the expansion of the Mongols. In June the Khorezmian horsemen, twelve thousand strong, swept southwards into Syria, but deterred by the formidable walls of Damascus they rode on into Galilee, captured Tiberias and on 11 July broke through the feeble defences of Jerusalem and brutally massacred everyone who could not retreat into the citadel. Six weeks later the defenders emerged, having been promised safe passage to the coast. The garrison together with the entire Christian population – six thousand men, women and children – left the city but were cut down by Khorezmian swords, only three hundred making it to Jaffa. For good measure the Khorezmians ransacked the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, tore up the bones of the kings of Jerusalem from their tombs, set the place alight and burned all the other churches of the city, pillaged its homes and shops, then left the smoking wreckage of Jerusalem to join al-Salih’s Mameluke army at Gaza.

With al-Salih’s army standing at Gaza, the Frankish forces which had been scattered throughout the cities and castles of Outremer gathered at Acre. Not since Hattin had such a considerable Christian army been put into the field, its numbers including over 300 knights from the Templars, at least another 300 from the Hospitallers, also some Teutonic Knights, and a further 600 secular knights, as well as a proportionate number of sergeants and foot soldiers. To these were added the yet more numerous, if more lightly armed, forces of their Damascene ally under the command of al-Mansur Ibrahim and a contingent of Bedouin cavalry.

On 17 October 1244 this Christian–Muslim army drew up before the smaller Egyptian army with its elite core of Mamelukes and the Khorezmians outside Gaza on a sandy plain at a place called La Forbie. The Franks and their allies attacked, but the Egyptians stood firm under the command of the Mameluke general Baybars, and while the Franks were pinned in place, the Khorezmians tore into the flank of al-Mansur Ibrahim’s forces. The Damascene forces turned and fled; the Franks fought on bravely, but after a few hours their entire army was destroyed. At least 5,000 Franks died in the battle, among them 260 to 300 Templars, while over 800 Christians were captured and sold into slavery in Egypt, including the Templar Grand Master, who was never seen again. Quite apart from the dreadful cost in human life, the loss represented a punishing financial blow to the defence of Outremer; the cost of maintaining 300 Templar knights for a year amounted to about a ninth of the annual income of the French monarchy. The catastrophe was comparable to Hattin, and when Damascus fell to al-Salih the following year, it looked as though time had run out for Outremer.

Relief to Outremer came in the form of the Seventh Crusade, led by King Louis IX of France, St Louis as he afterwards became thanks to his incessant warfare against enemies of the true faith, be they Muslims or Cathars – it was during Louis’ reign that the Cathars were finally beaten and incinerated at the stake. Now in the summer of 1249 he landed with his French army at the Delta port of Damietta with the familiar idea of overturning the Ayyubid regime in Cairo. Al-Salih Ayyub was suffering from cancer, and when he died in November his wife, Shagarat al-Durr, hid his corpse and kept morale alive by pretending to transmit the sultan’s orders to his army of Mameluke slave troops led by Baybars.

In February 1250 the French advanced through the Delta towards Cairo but owing to the impetuosity of the king’s brother, the count of Artois, suffered heavy losses at Mansoura. He had urged the crusader knights to charge into the town, where they were trapped within the narrow streets, the Templars alone losing 280 mounted knights, yet another massive blow so soon after La Forbie. A stalemate followed, and the crusaders were weakened by scurvy and plague. In April they retreated but were captured by the Mamelukes, along with King Louis himself, who was released only after a huge ransom was paid, to which the Templars, who as bankers to members of the crusade had a treasure ship offshore, refused to contribute.

That same year Shagarat al-Durr openly declared herself sultan, basing her claim to the succession on having borne al-Salih a son, although the child had predeceased the father. The Abbasid caliph refused to recognise her, so she married Aybek, one of her Mameluke slave warriors, and ruled through him instead, then murdered him in 1257, when she suspected him of turning his attentions to another woman. Purchased as a slave by al-Salih, then made one of his concubines, Shagarat al-Durr had eventually become his wife and then became the first and last female ruler of Egypt since Cleopatra. Owing to her courage and resourcefulness she had saved Egypt from the Seventh Crusade, but she proved to be the last of the Ayyubid line. Aybek’s supporters killed her and threw her naked body over the wall of the Citadel at Cairo to be devoured by the dogs. The Mamelukes then made themselves the masters of Egypt in the person of their first sultan, Qutuz.

The shock of the Mongol invasion of the Middle East established the Mamelukes as the accepted defenders of Islam against the infidels of East and West. In February 1258 the Mongols, led by Hulagu, a grandson of Genghis Khan, captured Baghdad, put the Abbasid caliph to death, then plundered and destroyed the city. In January 1260 they took Aleppo, and in March Damascus fell. The Mongols appeared to be unstoppable. The Franks sent urgent letters westwards pleading for help; ‘a horrible annihilation will swiftly be visited upon the world’, wrote Thomas Bérard, the Templar Grand Master, in a message carried by a brother of the order to London.3 But it was the Mamelukes who responded to the threat. That summer, when Mongol ambassadors arrived in Cairo demanding Egypt’s submission, they encountered an adversary more ferocious than themselves; Qutuz had them killed on the spot. And in September, after being allowed free passage through Christian lands, a Mameluke army under Qutuz inflicted a stunning defeat on the Mongols in the battle of Ain Jalut, south-east of Nazareth.

But among the jealous Mamelukes victory was no guarantee of success, and a month later Qutuz was murdered by a group of fellow Mamelukes, among them Baybars, al-Salih’s general at La Forbie, who then became sultan. Rejecting the dynastic principle, Mameluke rulers would in future come to power more by the blood on their hands than by the blood in their veins, a practice fatalistically accepted by the religious leadership of the Muslim community. As Baybar’s panegyricist Ibn Abd al-Zahir put it, ‘Fortune made him king’4 – he ruled by the decree of fate.

Ruthless, brutal and energetic, Baybars now held Syria and Egypt under his control. Outremer was encircled, and the Franks were confronted by one of the most formidable fighting machines in the world. Moreover Baybars and his successors possessed overwhelming resources. ‘The Mameluke sultans were able to replenish their supplies of troops by the import of new Turkish slaves from the Caucasus and Central Asia along the trade routes through Anatolia. The Mameluke state could draw on far more troops than the Franks were ever able to do.’5 Moreover, when the time came for the systematic destruction of the Frankish castles, settlements and ports, the Mamelukes could marshal tens of thousands of auxiliary troops, Turkish, Kurdish and Mongol, to execute the task.

Just as systematically the Mamelukes devastated Christianity in the East and heterodox Islam too. Baybars forced the Alawites, mystical followers of Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, to build mosques in their villages, but he could not force them to pray in them. Instead they used the buildings as stables for their cattle and their beasts of burden. But the persecution was relentless: ‘In pursuit of the “scorched earth” policy Mameluke sultans methodically ravaged Lebanon.’6 As for Christians, in 1263 Baybars announced his fanaticism by personally ordering that the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth should be razed to the ground. Baybars well understood the importance of the church, whose origins may have gone back before the time of Constantine and stood over a grotto where, in the view of the faithful, the Christian religion had its beginning and to which Christians had been making pilgrimages since at least the fourth century. His obliteration of the church was so total and systematic that the original ground plan can be discerned only through archaeological excavation; the Mamelukes forbade Christians to rebuild on the site.

In a series of devastating campaigns Baybars captured Caesarea and Haifa in 1265, the Templar castle of Saphet in 1266, Jaffa and the Templar castle of Beaufort both in 1268, and then struck at Antioch in the north, which he captured that same year, treating its inhabitants with a murderous brutality that shocked even Muslim chroniclers. The Templar castle at Baghras in the Amanus mountains was now utterly isolated. Baghras had been their first castle, but now the Templars had no choice but to abandon it. Chastel Blanc of the Templars was surrendered in 1271 together with the Hospitallers’ great castle of Krak des Chevaliers. Baybars then marched on Montfort, between Acre and the Sea of Galilee, and that too was soon handed over to the Muslims by its garrison of Teutonic Knights.

The fall of the crusader castles to the Mamelukes needs some explanation. How could such magnificent structures, built at such vast cost and effort, incorporating the latest military design of the age and defended by men of undoubted courage, have so rapidly capitulated or been captured? There is no single answer. Several factors worked in combination.

The Templar castle of Beaufort, overlooking the southern end of the Bekaa valley in Lebanon, fell to Baybars in 1268 with the help of first-class military engineers. They assembled something like twenty-six siege engines – that is, battering rams and siege towers – as well as catapults, the wooden frames and metal parts bought from Venetian merchants sailing into Egyptian ports. In this case the Templars were overwhelmed by technology. But two years earlier, when the Templar castle of Saphet fell to Baybars, it had been down to treason.

Saphet was the castle in northern Galilee which the Templars had spent a fortune rebuilding less than thirty years earlier, a worthwhile expense as it guarded against raids of Bedouins and Turks who would formerly cross over the Jordan with impunity. Traders could safely conduct their pack animals and wagons between Acre and Galilee, farmers could cultivate their fields in security, and pilgrims could freely visit many sites associated with the ministry of Jesus. Muslim sources acknowledged its efficacy by describing Saphet as ‘an obstruction in the throat of Syria and a blockage in the chest of Islam’7 – that is until Baybars brought about its downfall in 1266. He did so not by attack – he tried three times that year and failed – but by sowing dissent between the small garrison of Templars and the much larger numbers of Syrian Christian servants and native troops inside. He promised the latter free passage and so many wanted to defect that the defence of the castle was called into question. The Templars agreed to negotiate and a safe conduct was arranged for Templar knights and locals alike. But when the gates were opened, Baybars grabbed all the women and children and sold them into slavery and decapitated all the knights and other men.

The willingness of the Templar garrison at Saphet to negotiate points to another factor at work: a sense of isolation and of being overwhelmed, which seems to have played an important part in the fall of the Templar castle of Chastel Blanc and the Hospitallers’ Krak des Chevaliers to Baybars within two months of one another in 1271. Both castles stood in the Jebel al-Sariya, that mountain range separating the interior from the sea; but both became increasingly isolated amid the Muslim advance. Perhaps also the Templar master at Tortosa thought it wiser to concentrate his forces on the coast, but whatever the reason he ordered the evacuation of Chastel Blanc.

Likewise Krak des Chevaliers was not taken but given away. The Hospitallers could no longer raise sufficient manpower to garrison the castle and for its diminished complement of Hospitaller knights the waiting became a terrible immurement. After a month’s siege, Baybars delivered a forged note purportedly from their master at Tripoli, urging them to surrender. Their defences and supplies might have allowed them to hold out for years, but it must have seemed to them that Krak was drifting anchorless and rudderless on an irresistible Muslim tide. Weary, dejected and demoralised, on 8 April 1271 the Hospitallers accepted Baybars’ offer of safe conduct to the sea.

With all their great inland fortresses taken, the Franks were pinned to their remaining coastal defences, crucially Acre and Tripoli, both powerfully fortified cities, and the Templars’ stronghold of Tortosa, which had held out against Saladin, and their castle of Chastel Pelerin, south of Haifa. But meanwhile the Franks gained some relief when Prince Edward, the future Edward I of England, led a fresh crusade to the East and in 1272 persuaded Baybars to agree to a ten-year truce.

Acre, capital of the kingdom of Jerusalem and headquarters of the military orders, was the most powerfully defended city in Outremer. And according to the Templar of Tyre, who knew it well,

        The Temple was the strongest place of the city, largely situated along the seashore, like a castle. At its entrance it had a high and strong tower, the wall of which was twenty-eight feet thick. On each side of the tower was a smaller tower, and on each of these was a gilded lion passant, as large as an ox [. . .] On the other side, near the street of the Pisans, there was another tower, and near this tower on the Street of St Anne, was a large and noble palace, which was the Master’s [. . .] There was another ancient tower on the seashore, which Saladin had built one hundred years before, in which the Temple kept its treasure, and it was so close to the sea that the waves washed against it. Within the Temple area there were other beautiful and noble houses, which I will not describe here.8

In 1273 the Templars elected a new Grand Master, William of Beaujeu, a man with considerable experience of fighting in the East and administering the order. One of his first missions was to attend the Church Council of Lyon, which was convened by the pope in 1274 for the principal purpose of launching a new crusade. At the council William spoke against a proposal to send five hundred knights and two thousand infantry to the Holy Land as the vanguard of a mass levy like that of the First Crusade, arguing that unruly hordes of enthusiasts would not serve the needs of Outremer. Instead, a permanent garrison was required, which would be reinforced from time to time by small contingents of professional soldiers. And he also argued for an economic blockade of Egypt, the Mamelukes’ power base.

Such a blockade would not be possible, however, as long as Outremer depended on the ships of the Italian maritime republics, for these were the very same merchant marines who since the Latin massacre at Constantinople had turned to trading so profitably with Egypt. The Venetians, for example, supplied Baybars with the metal and timber that he needed for his arms and siege engines, and the Genoese even provided him with Mameluke slaves. Instead, the Christians needed to gain the naval ascendancy in the Eastern Mediterranean. William’s advice was accepted, and the council ordered the Templars and the Hospitallers to build their own fleets of warships.

William of Beaujeu had arrived at this plan not least because he recognised the contribution that was already being made by the French monarchy to sustaining the existence of Outremer. William’s own uncle had fought with Louis IX in Egypt, and through his paternal grandmother he was related to the Capets, the French royal family. The kings of France were already paying for a permanent force of knights and crossbowmen at Acre, and the ambitious Charles of Anjou, who was king of Sicily and the younger brother of Louis IX, was helping to extend French power throughout the Mediterranean. But William’s plans were overthrown by a popular uprising in 1282 known as the Sicilian Vespers, which sent Charles fleeing from the island to Naples.

Pope Martin IV, who was himself French, now declared a crusade against the Sicilian rebels and their supporters, the house of Aragon in Spain. Worse, he ordered funds held at the Paris Temple and intended for Outremer to be diverted to the house of Anjou in support of their war against fellow Christians to regain control over Sicily. Christians throughout Europe, and in particular the Templars, were outraged, and a few years later, after the fall of Tripoli in 1289, one Templar told Martin’s successor Pope Nicholas IV, ‘You could have succoured the Holy Land with the power of kings and the strength of the other faithful of Christ but you have armed kings against a king, intending to attack a Christian king and the Christian Sicilians to recover the island of Sicily which, kicking against the pricks, took up just arms’9 – another example of the growing trend to put secular interests over religious ideals.

Charles of Anjou’s ambitions to build a Mediterranean empire and to combine his kingdom of Sicily with the kingdom of Jerusalem had kept Baybars’ own ambitions somewhat in check. But in 1277 Baybars died, and after a brief power struggle the most capable among the Mamelukes was elevated to the sultanate, Baybars’ brilliant commander Qalaun. The Sicilian Vespers, followed by Charles’ death in 1285, removed any Mameluke hesitation in pursuing the destruction of the Christian states in the East.

Within six years the few crusader possessions along the coast would fall and the two-hundred-year struggle to defend Christianity in the East would end.

Medieval Christians believed that God’s judgement was revealed through history, and that he often declared his will by determining the outcome of a battle. As St Bernard had written in his panegyric In Praise of the New Knighthood, a Templar was a knight of Christ and ‘the instrument of God for the punishment of malefactors and for the defence of the just’. A defeat in battle could mean that the Christians were paying the price for some sin. Confession, prayers and penance would cleanse their souls and lead to ultimate victory. But what were Christians now to make of the repeated defeats in the Holy Land? After Baybars captured Caesarea and Haifa in 1265, a Provençal troubadour called Bonomel, who may have been a Templar, sang that given this, ‘Then it is really foolish to fight the Turks, now that Jesus Christ no longer opposes them [. . .] Daily they impose new defeats on us: for God, who used to watch on our behalf, is now asleep, and Bafometz [Mohammed] puts forth his power to support the sultan.’10 Another Provençal poet wrote that because God and Our Lady wanted Christian troops to be killed he would become a Muslim. As defeats continued, it became impossible to attribute Muslim victories to the sins of the generality of Christians, and increasingly the military orders, and especially the Templars, attracted the suspicion and resentment of a disillusioned Christian world.

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