Last vestige of the Crusades

June 28, 2020

Roger Crowley’s new book on the fall of Acre will appeal to history enthusiasts and generalists alike

The moment the topic of Crusades comes up, the epic fight between Islam and Christendom grips people’s imaginations. The legendary clash between Saladin and Richard the Lionheart during the Third Crusade and the epic tales surrounding them form the saga that lay at the heart of the battle. Roger Crowley’s new book on the fall of Acre provides a detailed overview of events leading up to the dismissal of Franks from the Levant in 1291 and the decrease of interest in the very idea of waging a crusade in its aftermath.

The changing dynamics of the 13th century in the Levant, the fall of the Ayyubids and the rise of the Mamluks, the tensions that existed and which led to repeated forays and clashes leading up to the eventual fall of Acre in 1291, are discussed thoroughly in this book. The prologue gives an overview about this now lost, great ‘accursed’ tower that secured the northeastern part of Acre’s defences. The very last vestige of Crusading in the Holy Land died with its fall.

Fascinatingly, chapters one to five summarise what transpired between the two great sieges of 1189-91 and the one culminating in 1291 which led to the fall of Acre. Not only was Acre an important trading post in the period during the crusades but amongst the most prosperous cities of the 13th century. The crusading efforts of King Louis IX of France and how its focus shifted towards Egypt, the decaying of the Ayyubid’s rule during the mid-13th century which led to their fall ultimately leading to the rise of the Mamluks in 1249-50.

The fall of the Ayyubids and the rise of the Mamluks coincided with the arrival of the Mongols in Syria which upended the balance of the power in the region. The Mongols brought a trail of destruction in the region and the Franks sensing a weakness tried to align with them to weaken their arch-foes, the Mamluks. However, the relationship and closeness never materialised, as the Mamluks under the leadership of Baybars, after the catastrophic fall of the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad defeated the Mongol juggernaut at the battle of Ayn Jalut in 1260 which led to a consolidation of their rule and becoming the preeminent power in the region.

The Mamluks under Baybars extended and strengthened their grip by skirmishes and battles against the beleaguered Franks whose principalities were eroding with every passing year and hostilities between the two sides only led to more surrenders on part of the latter. During Baybars’s rule, the noose started tightening around the Franks as desperate calls for support in Rome went largely unheeded and those who answered the call were not able to offer anything concrete which could even the equation with the Mamluks.

With the death of Baybars, Qalawun only further raised the pressure on the Franks as their dwindling resources, disunity in Acre between the Templars and Knight Hospitallers caused further weakening in their ranks. Despite signing a truce in 1283 with the Mamluks on punitive terms which spared Acre and provided it with some breathing space to stave off their arch-foes, the writing was on the wall and the Mamluks sought a pretext to lay siege on Acre. The opportunity presented itself after some Muslims were killed by Franks there.

Qalawun sought the counsel of his advisers and after considerable deliberation on whether the treaty had been violated or not, it was decided to lay siege on Acre. Preparations began but Qalawun’s death in November 1290 slightly delayed the inevitable. Under the leadership of Qalawun’s son, al-Ashraf Khalil swore to uphold his father’s vow to dismiss the Franks from the Levant. The preparations went ahead as the Mamluks made their final move to besiege Acre and the Franks prepared for the final battle. However, the situation was desperate for the Frankish side as funds were scarce and disunity exacerbated their problems.

In chapters nine-through-thirteen, the author provides a detailed insight into the climactic siege of Acre (April-May 1291), sharing Muslim and Christian perspectives of the fighting that took place outside the city walls and how the Mamluks used a combination of artillery fine-tuned during the times of Baybars and Qalawun to attack the towers which provided protection to the city.

Despite the numerical superiority of the Mamluks, the Franks fought bravely till the end. As the siege reached its climax, the Mamluks finally broke the resolve of the Franks. On entering the city they unleashed a wave of violence characteristic of medieval warfare. However, the Knight Hospitallers held their ground and fought bravely and the Templars holed up in their castle fought to the last moment.

Immediately after the fall of Acre, all possessions and ports that had been in the hands of the Franks in the Outremer or Levant were destroyed so that they would have no toehold in the region. Acre’s destruction after the siege was no surprise. Those who survived the battle and could afford to pay a hefty ransom were able to leave the port city unharmed.

The culminating chapter provides details of what befell the port city and how it fell into disarray and neglect before it was reoccupied and refortified by the Ottomans.

Crowley’s use of a variety of sources like Baybars al-Mansuri and the firsthand account of an unknown Templar who was present at the siege provide an invaluable insight into the Franks defence and how it failed. The book is succinct and like his previous works on the fall of Constantinople and the history of Venice the author has provided us with a remarkable account that will appeal to history enthusiasts and generalists alike.

The Accursed Tower

The Fall of Acre and the End of the Crusades

Author: Roger Crowley

Publisher: Basic Books (2019)

Pages: 272 (Hardcover)

Price: $17.99 (Kindle)

The writer is a freelance journalist. He tweets @MohammadFarooq_

Last vestige of the Crusades: Roger Crowley’s new book on the fall of Acre will appeal to history enthusiasts and generalists alike