Although less spectacular and displaying less military inventiveness than ÍiÔÔÐn, ÝAyn JÁlÙt was nevertheless one of history’s most decisive battles. It enabled the Muslims not only to escape annihilation, but also to reconquer all the territory the Mongols had taken from them. The descendants of Hülegü, now settled in Persia, soon converted to Islam themselves, the better to consolidate their authority.
In the short term, the Mamluk upheaval led to a settling of accounts with all those who had supported the invader. The alarm had been sounded. Henceforth there would be no more aid and comfort to the enemy, whether Franj or Tartar.
After retaking Aleppo in October 1260 and easily repelling a counter-offensive by Hülegü, the Mamluks planned to organize a sequence of punitive raids against Bohemond of Antioch and Hethoum of Armenia, the principal allies of the Mongols. But a power struggle erupted within the Egyptian army. Baybars wanted to establish himself as a semi-independent ruler in Aleppo; fearing his lieutenant’s ambitions, QuÔuz refused. He wanted no part of a rival regime in Syria. To nip the conflict in the bud, the sultan assembled his army, Baybars included, and set out to return to Egypt. When he was three days’ march from Cairo, he gave his soldiers a day of rest. It was 23 October, and he decided to spend the day at his favourite sport, hare hunting, along with the chief officers of his army. He was careful to make sure that Baybars came too, for fear that he might otherwise take advantage of the sultan’s absence to foment a rebellion. The small party left camp at first light. Two hours later, they stopped for a brief rest. An emir approached QuÔuz and took his hand as if to kiss it. At that moment, Baybars drew his sword and sunk it into the sultan’s back. The two conspirators then leapt on their mounts and rode back to camp at full gallop. They sought out the emir AqÔÁy, an elderly officer universally respected in the army, and told him: ÝWe have killed QuÔuz.’ AqÔÁy, who did not seem particularly upset by the news, asked, ÝWhich of you killed him?’ Baybars did not hesitate: ÝI did’, he said. The old Mamluk then approached him, invited him into the sultan’s tent, and bowed before him to pay him homage. Before long the entire army acclaimed the new sultan.
The ingratitude displayed toward the victor of ÝAyn JÁlÙt less than two months after his brilliant exploit does not speak well for the Mamluks. In extenuation of the officer-slaves’ conduct, however, it should be added that most of them had long considered Baybars their real chief. Had he not been the first to strike the Ayyubid TÙrÁn-ShÁh back in 1250, thus announcing the Mamluks’ determination to assume power? Had he not played a decisive role in the victory over the Mongols? Indeed, his political perspicacity, military skill, and extraordinary physical courage had earned Baybars a position of primacy among them.
Born in 1223, the new Mamluk sultan had begun life as a slave in Syria. His first master, the Ayyubid emir of Hama, had sold him because of some superstition, for he was unnerved by Baybars’s appearance. The young slave was very dark, a giant of a man, with a husky voice, light blue eyes, and a large white spot in his right eye. The future sultan was purchased by a Mamluk officer who assigned him to AyyÙb’s bodyguard. There his personal qualities, and above all his complete absence of scruples, rapidly brought him to the top of the hierarchy.
At the end of October 1260 Baybars rode victoriously into Cairo, where his authority was recognized without opposition. In the Syrian cities, by contrast, other Mamluk officers took advantage of the death of QuÔuz to proclaim their independence. In a lightning campaign, the sultan seized Damascus and Aleppo, thus reuniting the old Ayyubid domain under his authority. This bloody-minded and untutored officer turned out to be a great statesman, the architect of a genuine renaissance of the Arab world. Under his reign, Egypt, and to a lesser extent Syria, again became centres of great cultural and artistic brilliance. The Baybars who devoted his life to destroying any Frankish fortress capable of standing against him also proved to be a great builder, embellishing Cairo andconstructing roads and bridges throughout his domain. He also reestablished a postal service, run with carrier-pigeons and chargers, that was even more efficient than those of NÙr al-DÐn and Saladin. His government was severe, sometimes brutal, but also enlightened, and not in the least arbitrary. From the moment of his accession to power, he took a firm attitude toward the Franj, determined to reduce their influence. But he differentiated between those of Acre, whom he wanted merely to weaken, and those of Antioch, who were guilty of having made common cause with the Mongol invaders.
Towards the end of 1261 he planned to organize a punitive expedition against the lands of Prince Bohemond and the Armenian King Hethoum. But he clashed instead with the Tartars. Although Hülegü was no longer capable of invading Syria, he still commanded sufficient forces in Persia to prevent the punishment of his allies. Baybars wisely decided to wait for a better opportunity.
It came in 1265, when Hülegü died. Baybars then took advantage of divisions among the Mongols to invade Galilee, reducing several strongholds, with the complicity of part of the local Christian population. He then turned sharply north and moved into Hethoum’s territory, destroying all the cities one by one, in particular Hethoum’s capital, Sis, a large part of whose population he killed, apart from carrying off more than forty thousand captives. The Armenian kingdom would never rise again. In the spring of 1268 Baybars launched a new campaign. He began by attacking the environs of Acre, seized Beaufort Castle, and then, taking his army north, arrived at the walls of Tripoli on the first of May. There he found the ruler of the city, none other than Bohemond, who was also prince of Antioch. The latter, well aware of the sultan’s resentment against him, prepared for a long siege. But Baybars had other plans. Some days later he set out northward, arriving at Antioch on 14 May. The greatest of the Frankish cities, which had held out against all Muslim sovereigns for the past 170 years, now resisted for a mere four days. On the night of 18 May a breach was opened in the city walls not far from the citadel, and Baybars’s troops spread through the streets. This conquest bore little resemblance to those of Saladin. The entire population was massacred or sold into slavery, the city itself ravaged. Previously a prestigious metropolis, it was reduced to the status of a desolate village, sprinkled with ruins that time would shroud in grass.
Bohemond learned of the fall of his city from a memorable letter sent to him by Baybars, though it was actually written by the sultan’s official chronicler, the Egyptian Ibn ÝAbd-al-ÚÁhir:
To the noble and valorous knight Bohemond, prince become a mere count by dint of the seizure of Antioch.
The sarcasm did not stop there:
When we left you in Tripoli, we headed immediately for Antioch, where we arrived on the first day of the venerated month of RamaÃÁn. As soon as we arrived, your troops came out to join the battle against us, but they were vanquished, for although they supported one another, they lacked the support of God. Be glad that you have not seen your knights lying prostrate under the hooves of horses, your palaces plundered, your ladies sold in the quarters of the city, fetching a mere dinar apiece—a dinar taken, moreover, from your own hoard!
After a long description, in which no detail was spared, the sultan concluded thus:
This letter will gladden your heart by informing you that God has granted you the boon of leaving you safe and sound and prolonging your life, for you were not in Antioch. Had you been there, you would now be dead, wounded or taken prisoner. But perhaps God has spared you only that you might submit and give proof of obedience.
As a reasonable—and now powerless—man, Bohemond answered by proposing a truce. Baybars accepted. He knew that the terrified count no longer represented any real danger, any more than Hethoum, whose kingdom had been virtually wiped off the map. As for the Franj of Palestine, they too were only too happy to obtain a respite. The sultan sent his chronicler Ibn ÝAbd-al-ÚÁhir to Acre to seal an accord with them.
Their king sought to temporize to obtain the best possible conditions, but I was inflexible, in accordance with the directives of the sultan. Irritated, the king of the Franj said to the interpreter: ÝTell him to look behind him.’ I turned around and saw the entire army of the Franj, in combat formation. The interpreter added, ÝThe king reminds you not to forget the existence of this multitude of soldiers.’ When I did not answer, the king insisted that the interpreter ask for my response. I then asked, ÝCan I be assured that my life will be spared if I say what I think?’ ÝYes.’ ÝWell then, tell the king that there are fewer soldiers in his army than there are Frankish captives in the prisons of Cairo.’ The king nearly choked, then he brought the interview to a close; but he received us a short time later and concluded the truce.
Baybars was by this time no longer concerned about the Frankish knights. He was well aware that the inevitable reaction to his seizure of Antioch would come not from them, but from their masters, the kings of the West.
Before the end of the year 1268 persistent rumours were already circulating promising the early return to the East of the king of France, at the head of a powerful army. The sultan frequently interrogated travellers and merchants on this point. During the summer of 1270 a message reached Cairo saying that Louis had disembarked on the beach at Carthage, near Tunis, with six thousand men. Without a moment’s hesitation, Baybars assembled the principal Mamluk emirs to announce his intention of leading a powerful army to the far-off province of Africa to help the Muslims repel this new Frankish invasion. But a few weeks later another messenger arrived seeking the sultan. He had been sent by al-MustanÒir, the emir of Tunis, to announce that the king of France had been found dead in his camp and that his army had departed, although a large part had been decimated by war and disease. With this danger removed, Baybars decided to launch a fresh offensive against the Franj of the Orient. In March 1271 he seized the redoubtable Hisn al-AkrÁd, Crac des Chevaliers, which Saladin himself had never succeeded in reducing.
During the years that followed, both the Franj and the Mongols—especially the latter, now led by AbÁqÁ, the son and successor of Hülegü—organized a number of incursions into Syria. But they were invariably repelled. By the time Baybars died (he was poisoned in 1277), Frankish possessions in the Orient had been whittled down to a string of coastal cities completely surrounded by the Mamluk empire. Their powerful network of fortresses had been dismantled. The reprieve they had enjoyed during the years of the Ayyubids was at an end. Their expulsion was now ineluctable.
Nevertheless, there was no hurry. In 1283 the truce conceded by Baybars was renegotiated by QalÁwÙn, the new Mamluk sultan. The latter manifested no great hostility to the Franj. He stated that he was prepared to guarantee their presence and security in the Orient provided they would cease acting as the auxiliaries of the enemies of Islam on the occasion of each new invasion. The text of the treaty he proposed to the Kingdom of Acre was a unique attempt on the part of this clever and enlightened administrator to Ýregularize’ the position of the Franj.
If a Frankish king sets out from the West, the text reads, to attack the lands of the sultan or of his son, the regent of the kingdom and the grand masters of Acre shall be obligated to inform the sultan of their action two months before their arrival. If the said king disembarks in the Orient after these two months have elapsed, the regent of the kingdom and the grand masters of Acre will be discharged of all responsibility in the affair.
If an enemy comes from among the Mongols, or elsewhere, whichever of the two parties first learns of it must alert the other. If—may God forbid!—such an enemy marches against Syria and the troops of the sultan withdraw before him, then the leaders of Acre shall have the right to enter into talks with this enemy with the aim of saving their subjects and territories.
Signed in May 1283 for ten years, ten months, ten days, and ten hours, the truce covered all the Frankish lands of the littoral, that is, the city of Acre with all its orchards, lands, mills, vineyards, and the seventy-three villages dependent upon it; the city of Haifa, with its vineyards, orchards, and the seven villages attached to it . . . As for Saida, the château and the city, the vineyards and the suburbs belong to the Franj, as do the fifteen villages attached to it, along with the surrounding plain, its rivers, brooks, water sources, orchards, and mills, its canals and the dikes that have long served to irrigate its lands. If the enumeration was long and detailed, it was in order to avoid any subsequent quarrel. The entirety of this Frankish territory nevertheless seems derisory: a narrow tapered coastal strip bearing no resemblance to the formidable regional power the Franj once constituted. It is true that the places mentioned in the treaty did not exhaust the Frankish possessions. Tyre, which had broken away from the Kingdom of Acre, concluded a separate accord with QalÁwÙn. Further north, cities like Tripoli and Latakia were excluded from the truce.
So was the fortress of Marqab, held by the order of Hospitallers, or al-osbitar, as the Arabs called them. These monk-knights had supported the Mongols wholeheartedly, going so far as to fight alongside them during a fresh attempted invasion in 1281. QalÁwÙn therefore decided to make them pay. In the spring of 1285, Ibn ÝAbd-al-ÚÁhir tells us, the sultan prepared siege machinery in Damascus. He had great quantities of arrows and all varieties of arms sent from Egypt, and distributed them to the emirs. He also had iron projectiles prepared, and flame-throwing tubes the like of which existed only in the makhazin (Ýmagazines’) and dÁr al-ÒinÁ’ a (Ýthe sultan’s arsenal’). Expert pyrotechnicians were drafted, and Marqab was surrounded by a belt of catapults, three of the ÝFrankish’ type and four of the Devil’ type. By 25 May the wings of the fortress were so deeply undermined that the defenders capitulated. QalÁwÙn gave them permission to leave for Tripoli alive, with their personal effects.
Once again the allies of the Mongols had been punished without the latter’s being able to intervene on their behalf. Even had they wanted to react, the five weeks that the siege lasted would not have sufficed for them to organize an expedition from Persia. Nevertheless, in that year of 1285, the Tartars were more determined than ever to renew their offensive against the Muslims. Their new chief, the Il-KhÁn ArghÙn, grandson of Hülegü, had resurrected the most cherished dream of his predecessors: to form an alliance with the Occidentals and thus to trap the Mamluk sultanate in a pincer movement. Regular contacts were established between Tabriz and Rome with a view to organizing a joint expedition, or at least a concerted one. In 1289 QalÁwÙn sensed that the danger was imminent, but his agents had not managed to provide him with detailed information. In particular, they were unaware that a meticulous campaign, conceived by ArghÙn, had just been proposed, in writing, to the pope and the major kings of the West. One of these letters, addressed to the French sovereign, Philip IV, has been preserved. In it the Mongol chief proposes to launch the invasion of Syria during the first week of January 1291. He predicts that Damascus will fall by mid-February and that Jerusalem will be taken shortly afterwards.
Without actually guessing what was afoot, QalÁwÙn was increasingly uneasy. He feared that invaders from either East or West would be able to use the Frankish cities of Syria as a beachhead to facilitate their penetration of the sultanate. But although he was now convinced that the presence of the Franj was a permanent threat to the security of the Muslim world, he refused to assimilate the people of Acre to those of the northern half of Syria, who had proven themselves openly favourable to the Mongol invader. In any event, as a man of honour, the sultan could not attack Acre, which would be under the protection of the peace treaty for another five years, so he decided to go after Tripoli. It was at the walls of that city, conquered one hundred and eighty years before by the son of Saint-Gilles, that his powerful army gathered in March 1289.
Among the tens of thousands of combatants of the Muslim army was Abu’l-FidÁ’, a young emir of sixteen. A scion of the Ayyubid dynasty, now a vassal of the Mamluks, he would several years later become the ruler of the small city of Hama, where he would devote most of his time to reading and writing. The work of this historian, who was also a geographer and a poet, is of interest primarily for the account it affords us of the last years of the Frankish presence in the Middle East. Abu’l-FidÁ’ was present, sword in hand and with an attentive eye, on all the main fields of battle.
The city of Tripoli, he observes, is surrounded by the sea and can be attacked by land only along the eastern side, through a narrow passage. After laying the siege, the sultan lined up a great number of catapults of all sizes opposite the city, and imposed a strict blockade.
After more than a month of fighting, the city fell to QalÁwÙn on 27 April.
The Muslim troops penetrated the city by force, adds Abu’l-FidÁ’, who does not seek to mask the truth. The population fell back to the port. There, some of them escaped onto ships, but the majority of the men were massacred, the women and children captured; the Muslims amassed immense booty.
When the invaders finished their killing and rampaging, the sultan ordered the city demolished; it was razed.
A short distance from Tripoli, in the Mediterranean Sea, there was a small island, with a church. When the city was taken, many Franj took refuge there with their families. But the Muslim troops took to the sea, swam across to the island, massacred all the men who had taken refuge there, and carried off the women and children with the booty. I myself rode out to the island on a boat after the carnage, but was unable to stay, so strong was the stench of the corpses.
The young Ayyubid, imbued with the grandeur and magnanimity of his ancestors, could not but be shocked by these futile massacres. But as he well knew, times had changed.
Curiously, the expulsion of the Franj occurred in an atmosphere reminiscent of that which had prevailed at the time of their arrival nearly two centuries earlier. The massacres in Antioch in 1268 seemed to mirror those of 1098, and in centuries to come, Arab historians would present the merciless destruction of Tripoli as a belated riposte to the destruction of the city of the Banu ÝAmmÁr in 1109. But it was only during the battle of Acre, the last great confrontation of the Frankish wars, that revenge became the central theme of Mamluk propaganda.
Just after his victory, QalÁwÙn was harassed by his officers. It was now clear, they argued, that no Frankish city could hold out against the Mamluk army; it was therefore necessary to go on the offensive immediately, without allowing the West, alarmed as it was by the fall of Tripoli, the time to organize any new expedition to Syria. Had the time not come to put an end, once and for all, to what remained of the Frankish kingdom? But QalÁwÙn refused. He had signed a truce, and he would never betray his oath. In that case, his entourage insisted, could he not ask the doctors of law to declare the treaty with Acre null and void? That procedure had been adopted by the Franj often enough in the past. The sultan refused. He reminded his emirs that under the terms of the accord signed in 1283 he had sworn not to resort to juridical consultation to break the truce. No, QalÁwÙn decided, he would seize all the Frankish territories not protected by the treaty, but nothing more. He sent emissaries to Acre to reassure the last of the Frankish kings—Henry, Ýsovereign of Cyprus and Jerusalem’—that he would respect his commitments. Indeed, he even decided to renew the truce for another ten years from July 1289, and he encouraged the Muslims to make use of Acre in their commercial exchanges with the West. In the coming months, the Palestinian port became the scene of intense activity. Damascene merchants flocked there by the hundreds, renting rooms in the inns near the souks and engaging in profitable transactions with the Venetian traders or the rich Templars, who had now become the principal bankers of Syria. Moreover, thousands of Arab peasants, especially from Galilee, converged on the Frankish metropolis to market their harvests. The consequent prosperity benefited all the states of the region, the Mamluks most of all. Since the channels of trade with the East had been interrupted for many years by the Mongol presence, the shortfall could be made up only through an expansion of Mediterranean trade.
The most realistic of the Frankish leaders believed that the new role of their capital as the great exchange-counter linking two worlds held out an unexpected chance of survival in a region in which they could no longer hope to play a leading role. This view, however, was not unanimous. There were those who still sought to mobilize a religious fervour in the West powerful enough to organize fresh military expeditions against the Muslims. Just after the fall of Tripoli, King Henry sent messengers to Rome asking for reinforcements. So effective were his appeals that in mid-summer 1290 an impressive fleet sailed into the port of Acre, discharging thousands of fanatical Frankish fighters into the city. The inhabitants deeply mistrusted these new Occidentals, who staggered about drunkenly, looked like plunderers, and seemed to obey no commander.
Incidents began within the first few hours. Merchants from Damascus were assaulted in the street, robbed, and left for dead. The authorities made some attempts to restore order, but the situation deteriorated towards the end of August. After a banquet with alcohol galore, the new arrivals fanned out through the streets. They hunted down and mercilessly slaughtered every bearded man they could find. Many Arabs perished: peaceable merchants and peasants, Christians and Muslims alike. The others fled, to spread the word about what had happened.
QalÁwÙn was enraged. Was it for this that he had renewed the truce with the Franj? His emirs pressed him to take immediate action. But as a responsible statesman he could not allow himself to be carried away by anger. He dispatched an embassy to Acre to ask for an explanation and above all to demand that the murderers be handed over for punishment. The Franj were divided. A minority recommended acceptance of the sultan’s conditions in order to avert a new war. The others refused, going so far as to tell QalÁwÙn’s emissaries that the Muslim merchants were themselves responsible for the killing, one of them having tried to seduce a Frankish woman.
QalÁwÙn hesitated no longer. He assembled his emirs and announced his decision to put an end once and for all to the Frankish occupation that had dragged on for so long. Preparations began immediately. Vassals were convoked from the four corners of the sultanate to take part in this final battle of the holy war.
Before the army left Cairo, QalÁwÙn swore on the Koran that he would not lay down his arms until the last Franj had been expelled. The oath was especially impressive since by that time QalÁwÙn was a somewhat feeble old man. Although his exact age was unknown, he seemed to be well past seventy. The impressive Mamluk army set out on 4 November 1290. The sultan fell ill the very next day. He summoned his emirs to his bedside, had them swear obedience to his son KhalÐl, and asked the latter to pledge himself, just as QalÁwÙn had done, to carry the campaign against the Franj through to the very end. QalÁwÙn died less than a week later, venerated by his subjects as a great sovereign.
The death of the sultan postponed the final offensive against the Franj by just a few months. In March 1291 KhalÐl led his army into Palestine. At the beginning of May large numbers of Syrian contingents joined him in the plain ringing Acre. Abu’l-FidÁ’, who was then just eighteen, took part in the battle along with his father and was even entrusted with some responsibility: he was placed in command of a formidable catapult, nicknamed Ýthe Victorious’, so large that it had to be dismantled and transported in pieces from ÍiÒn al-AkrÁd to the environs of the Frankish city.
The carts were so heavy that the trip took us more than a month, although in normal times eight days would have sufficed. By the time we arrived, nearly all the oxen drawing the carts had died from exhaustion and exposure.
The battle was joined immediately. We men of Hama were stationed, as usual, on the far right flank of the army. We were alongside the sea, and from our positions we attacked Frankish boats topped by wooden-covered turrets lined with buffalo hide, from which the enemy fired at us with bows and crossbows. We thus had to fight on two fronts, against the army of Acre opposite us and against their fleet. We suffered heavy losses when a Frankish vessel transporting a catapult began to hurl chunks of rock at our tents. But one night, there were violent winds. The vessel began to pitch back and forth, rocked so violently by the waves that the catapult broke into pieces. Another night, a group of Franj made an unexpected sortie and advanced as far as our camp. But in the darkness some of them tripped on the tent cords; one knight fell into the latrine ditches and was killed. Our troops recovered and attacked the Franj from all sides, forcing them to withdraw to the city after leaving a number of dead on the field. The next morning my cousin al-Malik al-MuÛaffar, lord of Hama, had the heads of some dead Franj attached to the necks of the horses we had captured and presented them to the sultan.
On Friday 17 June 1291 the Muslim army, now enjoying overwhelming military superiority, finally penetrated the besieged city. King Henry and most of the notables hastily sailed off to take refuge in Cyprus. The other Franj were all captured and killed. The city was razed.
The city of Acre had been reconquered, Abu’l-FidÁ’ explains, at noon on the seventeenth day of the second month of JumÁdÁ in the year of the Hegira 690. It was on precisely this day, and at this hour, that the Franj had taken Acre from Saladin in the year of the Hegira 587, capturing and then massacring all the Muslims in the city. A curious coincidence, is it not?
The coincidence is no less astonishing by the Christian calendar, for the victory of the Franj at Acre had occurred in 1191, a hundred years, almost to the day, before their ultimate defeat.
After the conquest of Acre, Abu’l-FidÁ’ continues, God struck fear into the hearts of those Franj still remaining on the Syrian coast. Thus did they precipitately evacuate Saida, Beirut, Tyre, and all the other towns. The sultan therefore had the good fortune, shared by none other, of easily conquering all those strongholds, which he immediately had dismantled.
Indeed, in the heat of his triumph, KhalÐl decided to destroy any fortress, along the entire length of the coast, that might be used by the Franj if they ever sought to return to the Orient.
With these conquests, Abu’l-FidÁ’ concludes, all the lands of the coast were fully returned to the Muslims, a result undreamed of. Thus were the Franj, who had once nearly conquered Damascus, Egypt, and many other lands, expelled from all of Syria and the coastal zones. God grant that they never set foot there again!