The Fall of Acre

AT ACRE the old merchant communities of Genoa, Pisa, Venice, Amalfi and Marseille were joined by new trading colonies from Florence, Lucca and Ancona in Italy, by bankers from Siena, merchants from Montpellier and Barcelona, and by English merchants too. In turn traders from Acre were found in Egypt, Asia Minor, Constantinople, Kiev and at the great fairs of Champagne in France. The commercial interests of the city so far outweighed the religious that its coins were struck in Arabic for circulation in the surrounding Arabic-speaking countries.

According to Ludolph of Suchem, who visited Acre long after its fall but had reports from people who remembered how life had been there,

        The public squares, or streets, within the city were exceedingly neat, all the walls of the houses of like height with one another and built without exception of hewn stones, being wondrously adorned with glass windows and painting. Moreover, all the palaces and houses of the city were built not simply to serve ordinary needs but designed with a care for human comfort and enjoyment, being fitted up inside and decorated outside with glass, painting, hangings, and other ornament, as each man was able. The public places of the city were covered over with silken sheets or other splendid stuffs for shade. [. . .] Not only the richest merchants but the most diverse folk dwelt there [. . .] all the strange and rare things which are to be found in the world were brought thither.

Ludolph, as he listened to those memories, was overcome with the sensation of a long lost world where ‘all the inhabitants of the city deemed themselves like the Romans of old and carried themselves like noble lords, as indeed they were’.1

The ten-year truce agreed in 1272 between Baybars and the Franks had allowed the Mamelukes to direct their energy towards renewed Mongol threats, in this case directed by Baybars’ successor Qalaun, who came to power in 1279. Qalaun then made fresh agreements with the Franks, in 1282 a ten-year truce with the Templars at Tortosa, and in 1283 a truce with Acre, also for ten years. Almost immediately, however, Qalaun resumed Mameluke aggression against parts of Outremer not covered in the agreements, starting with the Maronite Christian community in the Lebanese highlands, which was ravaged by a Muslim army in 1283; soon enough he found excuses to break his agreements with the Templars and Acre too. Now the coastal cities and castles began to go the way of the inland defences; in 1285 Qalaun took the Hospitaller castle of Margat, perched on a salient of the Jebel al-Sariya overlooking the sea, the Muslims celebrating the event from the heights of the citadel with the call to prayer which ‘resounded with praise and thanks to God for having cast down the adorers of the Messiah’;2 and in 1287 he easily took the port city of Latakia after its walls were damaged in an earthquake.

Yet in 1286, in the midst of these campaigns and with extraordinary insouciance, the Franks celebrated the visit of King Henry II of Cyprus, who had come to assume the crown of Jerusalem. The Templar of Tyre recorded the festivities at Acre, when the king

        held a feast lasting fifteen days at the Auberge of the Hospital of Saint John. And it was the most splendid feast they had seen for a hundred years [. . .] They enacted the tales of the Round Table and the Queen of Femenie, which consisted of knights dressed as women jousting together. Then those who should have been dressed as monks dressed up as nuns, and they jousted together.3

Beyond the walls of Acre, however, the outlook was grim. In 1289 Qalaun overwhelmed Tripoli. ‘The Muslim troops forced their way in and the citizens fled to the harbour. A few got to safety on ships’, recorded the chronicler Abu al-Feda, who was an eyewitness to the events, ‘but most of the men were killed and the children taken captive.’ When the killing and looting were finished, Qalaun razed the city to the ground. But that still left a small island across the harbour, and on it the church of St Thomas. ‘When Tripoli was taken a great many Franks fled with their women to the island and the church. The Muslim troops flung themselves into the sea and swam with their horses to the island, where they killed all the men and took the women, children and possessions. After the looting I went by boat to the island, and found it heaped with putrefying corpses; it was impossible to land there because of the stench.’4

Finally turning his attention to Acre, and vowing not to leave a single Christian alive in the city, Qalaun set out from Cairo in November 1290, but he fell ill and died along the way. His son Sultan al-Ashraf Khalil pledged to continue the war against the Franks, and in early spring 1291 his immense forces, gathered from Syria and Egypt, converged on Acre, ‘cutting down and wasting all the vineyards and fruit trees and all the gardens and orchards, which are most lovely thereabout’,5 instead planting the environs with over a hundred siege engines, including various kinds of catapults. On 5 April al-Ashraf Khalil himself arrived, and the siege began. At most the Franks were able to muster about a thousand knights or mounted sergeants and fourteen thousand foot soldiers; the civilian population of Acre was thirty to forty thousand, and every able-bodied man took his place on the ramparts. Although the Mamelukes could not blockade the town by sea, they had complete control of the land, and their numbers grew with a continuous number of recruits and volunteers who joined the regulars, so that eventually al-Ashraf Khalil’s troops outnumbered the defenders by at least ten to one.

But the defenders were prepared and, confident in the strength of their fortifications and supplied by sea, they put up the most determined resistance. On 15 April, William of Beaujeu, the Templar Grand Master, led a night attack on a section of the Muslim lines. At first surprise won them the advantage, but the Christians got caught up in the enemy’s tent ropes and were eventually beaten back. Under a hail of arrows and a bombardment of stones by the catapults, Mameluke engineers were able to advance close against the walls and mine the defences. In the second month of the siege breaches appeared, and fighting became incessant. On 16 May the Mamelukes pressed so heavily on St Anthony’s Gate at the angle where the city walls joined those of Montmusard that the defenders made a desperate attempt to put their women and children aboard ships to safety. Ludolph of Suchem recorded how ‘they fled to the sea, desiring to sail to Cyprus, and whereas at first there was no wind at all at sea, of a sudden so great a storm arose that no other ship, either great or small, could come near the shore, and many who essayed to swim off to the ships were drowned’.6

On 15 May, after six weeks of constant battering, the Tower of Henry II commanding the vital north-east salient of the city’s walls was taken by the Mamelukes. William of Beaujeu was fatally wounded trying to force the enemy back. He was placed on a shield and carried to the Temple enclave, where he was buried before the high altar while the desperate fighting continued outside. By now townspeople were pressing onto the quays to board whatever ships they could to escape from the doomed city. Merchant captains made fortunes extorting money from the rich desperate to escape, as did also, it is thought, Roger of Flor, captain of a Templar galley called The Falcon, who used his profits to found his later career as a pirate. But there were also noble acts.

        I have heard from a most honourable Lord, and from other truthful men who were present, that more than five hundred most noble ladies and maidens, the daughters of kings and princes, came down to the seashore, when the city was about to fall, carrying with them all their jewels and ornaments of gold and precious stones, of priceless value, in their bosoms, and cried aloud, whether there were any sailor there who would take all their jewels and take whichever of them he chose to wife, if only he would take them, even naked, to some safe land or island. A sailor received them all into his ship, took them across to Cyprus, with all their goods, for nothing, and went his way. But who he was, whence he came, or whither he went, no man knows to this day. Very many other noble ladies and damsels were drowned or slain.7

On 18 May a general assault forced first St Anthony’s Gate and then the Accursed Tower, the Pilgrims’ Gate and finally the other gates along the eastern front of the inner wall. The survivors of the fighting and the non-combatant population were now trapped in the various strong buildings about the town. As the Mamelukes stormed through the streets, they killed everyone in sight, including women and children. ‘So many men perished on either side that they walked over their corpses as it were over a bridge.’8 Those who hid indoors were taken captive and sold on the slave market of Damascus, where the glut of women and girls reduced their price to a single drachma.

By that evening all Acre was in the hands of the Mamelukes except for the Templar fortress built against the sea-waves at the south-western extremity of the city. Fleeing through the streets or racing through the secret Templar tunnel that ran beneath the town from the Pisan quarter, the last knights and civilians sought protection within the Templar walls. There they held out, commanded by the marshal, and were kept supplied by sea from Cyprus.

On 25 May, Peter of Sevrey, marshal of the Templars, agreed to surrender provided those inside were granted safe passage out of Acre, but as the Muslims entered they began to molest the women and boys, provoking the Templars to fight back. That night the Templar commander Theobald Gaudin was sent out of the fortress with the order’s treasure and sailed up the coast to Château de Mer, the Templars’ sea-castle just off the coast at Sidon.

The Templar fortress in Acre fell three days later, and at Sultan al-Ashraf Khalil’s command all those left alive were led outside the walls, where their heads were cut off, and their city was smashed to pieces until almost nothing was left standing.

Forty years later Ludolph of Suchem came upon the spot and found only a few peasants living amid the desolation of what had once been the splendid capital of Outremer.

        When the glorious city of Acre thus fell, all the Eastern people sung of its fall in hymns of lamentation, such as they are wont to sing over the tombs of their dead, bewailing the beauty, the grandeur, and the glory of Acre even to this day. Since that day all Christian women, whether gentle or simple, who dwell along the eastern shore [of the Mediterranean] dress in black garments of mourning and woe for the lost grandeur of Acre, even to this day.9

From Sidon, Theobald Gaudin sailed to Cyprus with the Templar treasure. His intention was to bring back reinforcements. But Gaudin never returned. Instead, a message came from the Templars in Cyprus urging their brethren in Sidon to abandon their castle there, and on the night of 14 July they put to sea. Cyprus had long been a Frankish kingdom. A century earlier Richard the Lionheart had seized it from the Byzantines, and after a brief period in Templar hands, Richard sold it on again to Guy of Lusignan, the former king of Jerusalem, whose dynasty would continue to rule Cyprus for nearly three hundred years. Meanwhile the Templars and the Hospitallers had built castles in Cyprus, and now, as the Franks were being driven from the coast of Outremer, the island became a refuge for both military orders.

In the Holy Land, after the fall of Acre and Sidon, only Tortosa and Chastel Pelerin remained in Christian hands. Both were Templar strongholds, but as the Mamelukes gathered for the kill, the knights slipped away to Cyprus from Tortosa on 3 August 1291 and from Chastel Pelerin eleven days later. ‘This time’, wrote the Templar of Tyre, ‘everything was lost, so that the Christians no longer held a palm of land in Syria.’10 As the Templars looked back along the receding mainland, the devastation was already beginning. For some months after the fall of Tortosa in 1291, Mameluke troops laid waste to the coastal plain. As usual, the Muslims saw this as an act of sanctification, Abu al-Feda writing, ‘Thus the whole of Syria and the coastal areas were purified of the Franks.’11Orchards were cut down and irrigation systems wrecked, while native Christians fled into the Jebel al-Sariya. The only castles left standing were those far back from the sea, and Margat, high up on its coastal mountain, all occupied by the Muslims. Contemptuous of the lives and welfare of the local people, anything that might be of value to the Franks should they ever attempt another landing was destroyed.

Even four centuries after the Franks were driven from this coast, the devastation wrought by the Mamelukes was still apparent. In 1697 the English traveller Henry Maundrell recorded the ‘many ruins of castles and houses, which testify that this country, however it be neglected at present, was once in the hands of a people that knew how to value it, and thought it worth the defending’.12

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