The Forgotten Crusade: Egypt

Victory and Defeat – part III of the BBC series ‘The Crusades‘ aired tonight in the UK.  Jerusalem had fallen once more to Islam while three Christian kingdoms – Antioch, Tripoli and (confusingly) Jerusalem – clung on to the coastline. But now a new Crusade was born moving into a new arena of conflict: Egypt.

Their survival was more and more thanks to the Knights Templar and Hospitallers as well as the Teutonic Knights.  The Templars in particular built impressive castles across the Holy Land and were the elite fighting units of the remaining Frankish territories.

By the turn of the thirteenth century – these warrior monks, dripping in wealth, were at the forefront of keeping the Saracens at bay.  The programme shows the recently excavated Hospitaller headquarters in Acre, which are stunning.

Acre was – in spite of the loss of Jerusalem – a thriving trading city minting its own currency in the millions.  The gold coins made by the crusaders bore Arabic script revealing that even though Muslims and Christians were at each other’s throats, they were also transacting business and getting rich.

So opulent was Acre under the Christians that one visiting bishop likened it to a second Babylon.  Jacques de Vitry was scandalised to find murder and prostitution were rife with clerics even renting out their rooms for whores to use.

The crusades in the east had faltered.  Popes had become pre-occupied with more successful crusades against the Baltic pagans in north eastern Europe and the Muslim rulers of Al-Andalus, modern southern Spain and Portugal.  But then along came king Louis of France.

A man imbued with spiritual fervour who acquired the crown of thorns in 1238, which he housed in an impressive chapel in central Paris.  After an illness, he resolved to go east on crusade.  His life would be dedicated completely to fighting the Saracens – in spite of his less than impressive physical build.  Louis was going to get Jerusalem back in to Christian hands no matter what it took.

Jean de Joinville chronicled the holy war that Louis now set about planning.  The French king more or less mortgaged France to pay for the crusade.  He rounded up the nobility and over four years made huge preparations for the fight.  So concerned was Louis that God would bless this endeavour that he even set out to root out corruption in all branches of royal government in France.  His soul had to be spotless if Islam was to be driven out of Jerusalem.

Joinville said the sea was covered in sails as 1800 ships departed for outremer.  25,000 well equipped professional troops left…but not for Palestine.  Louis decided that it was Egypt which had to be attacked – the heartland of Islamic strength. In the year 1249 they arrived at the mouth of the Nile, Damietta, and the Sultan was waiting for them.  But the sight of the Saracens did not deter the crusaders whose landing craft hit the beaches and out poured the soldiers – eager to taste blood.  And they got their wish.  Arrows and spears rained down on the invaders.

Louis saw his standard planted in Egyptian soil and was so excited he plunged in to the water at chest level.  He  had to be restrained by his men so keen was the king to slash and cut down his enemies.  The crusaders were victorious.  Muslim casualties were about 500 while the Franks hardly suffered a scrape.  Louis now decided to cut off the serpent’s head and head straight for Cairo.  But unfortunately for the king, a vast Saracen army was in his way.

The Egyptians had no doubt they faced a grave threat.  Louis headed for the river Tanis and the fortified town of Mansourah.  An informer led the crusaders across the river, which had seemed unfordable.  The king’s brother and a Templar force took a Muslim camp and cut down one of the sultan’s right hand men.  Blood was shed in all directions.  But now the force made a terrible mistake.  They headed straight in to Mansourah and were trapped.  Horrifically, they now faced a taste of their own medicine.  Louis’ brother was killed and many of the Templars.

The tide of war turned.  A once confident crusader force limped back to Damietta and they were picked off and set upon by Egyptian soldiers.  Joinville watched as Saracens broke in to the crusader camp and slaughtered already sick or wounded troops.  The king himself had dysentery.  He was hiding in a run down hut with a hole cut in his breeches when he was captured.  A huge ransom had to be paid but Louis returned to France largely in disgrace – having never seen Jerusalem.

And who were these Egyptians who defeated Louis?  The Mamlukes – once slaves but now masters in the Islamic world.   And for how long did they enjoy their victory?  Not very long – because now, Islam had to face an enemy far worse than the king of France….because crashing in to the Middle East came a force nobody could have anticipated – the Mongols!

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