End of the Crusades: Mongols, Mamluks, and Muslims

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End of the Crusades: Mongols, Mamluks, and Muslims

By the middle of the thirteenth century the situation in the Middle East had grown completely chaotic. The Seljuk Empire, which ruled over western Asia, was beginning to fall apart, and in 1244 a new clan of Muslim Turks, the Khwarismians, sacked Jerusalem, leaving few Christian survivors. The remaining Franks (as Crusaders in the Middle East were called) tried to form an alliance with the Syrian Muslims to drive the Turks out, but the Turks decisively defeated a combined Crusader-Syrian army in the Battle of Harbiyah in October 1244. These events triggered the Seventh Crusade, which began in the summer of 1248 and ended with the defeat of King Louis IX of France in 1250 (see "The Seventh Crusade" in Chapter 6).

The invasion of the Mongols

To understand events in the decades following the Seventh Crusade, it is necessary to go back to a time before that Crusade. As he was preparing for the Crusade in the late 1240s, Louis IX was looking for allies in his fight against the Muslims. One potential ally was the Assassins, the western
term for a Shiite Muslim sect, or subgroup, called the Ismailis. The Ismailis opposed the orthodox, or mainstream, Sunni Muslims who ruled Islam from Baghdad (see "The Assassins" in Chapter 5). The Assassins' opposition to Sunni Islam was so deep that they often formed alliances with the Christian Franks. But the Assassins were a fanatical (passionate and dedicated) sect that could offer little real help. The eventual fall of Baghdad and the Baghdad caliphate (the dominion of an Islamic leader) in 1258 ended the Ismaili movement (see Chapter 7 on the Cairo/Baghdad caliphate split).

A more promising ally was a tribe of warlike Asians called the Tatars, or Mongols, who were sweeping westward in the thirteenth century and driving out the Seljuks. Years earlier the Mongols had been led by a ruthless general, the famed Genghis Khan, who had begun invading Turkish territories as early as 1219. For Louis, the chief attraction of the largely pagan Mongols was that they were not Muslims; instead, they worshiped many gods. Louis believed that he could convert them to Christianity and forge an alliance with them; together they could defeat Islam. He held this belief in part because some Mongols were already Eastern Orthodox Christians. They were descended from the Eastern Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople, who had been driven out by the Romans in the fifth century and had settled in Asia.

The king had sent ambassadors to the Mongols before the Seventh Crusade. The ambassadors returned in 1247 and reported that the Mongols expressed some interest in an alliance but were more interested in capturing territory. Such an alliance, they suggested, would distract the Muslims, making it easier for the Mongols to attack Muslim-held territory. Then, in 1248, Mongol ambassadors visited Louis as he was docked at Cyprus (an island south of Turkey in the Mediterranean) to make preparations for the Seventh Crusade. These ambassadors said that the Mongols were willing to help the Christians free Jerusalem from Muslim control. In another round of negotiation, Louis sent to the Mongols an ambassador named William of Rubruck, who was en route during the Seventh Crusade. Meanwhile, the pope, too, had sent an ambassador to Asia to conduct discussions with the Mongols.

William returned with disappointing news. The Mongols, he said, showed no interest in converting to Christianity. Worse, they accepted gifts that Louis had sent as "tribute" (payment) from him and referred to him as their new "vassal" (a person in service to a lord). Louis's strategy had fallen apart. It is quite possible that if Louis had not insisted that the Mongols convert to Christianity, he might have won a powerful ally in them. Louis, though, was known for his extreme religious piety (he was made a Catholic saint at the end of the century). So strong was his resistance to an alliance with non-Christians
that he missed a chance to defeat the Muslims and, quite possibly, restore Jerusalem to Christian control. On the other hand, the Mongols were driven solely by the desire for territorial conquest. Historians can only speculate about what the effects of a Christian-Mongol alliance would have been.

Louis stayed in Outremer (the Europeans' term for "the land overseas," or the Christian colonies in the Middle East) for four years after the end of the Seventh Crusade. During that time he strengthened the fortresses at some of the remaining Crusader-held cities, including Acre, Tyre, Jaffa, and Sidon. He also tried to stop the ongoing quarreling among the Crusader barons over territory and succession to thrones. Finally, though, he had to return to France.

After Louis left Outremer in 1254, a state of near civil war prevailed in Acre (in modern-day Lebanon). Merchants from Venice and Genoa, Italy, were openly fighting for their commercial interests in the city. The Knights Hospitallers supported the Genoese, while the Knights Templars supported the Venetians (see "Knightly Orders: The Hospitallers and the Templars" in Chapter 9), and sometimes fighting between the two orders of knights erupted. Few gave thought to freeing Jerusalem or the tomb of Christ, except for Louis. For thirteen years he remained obsessed with his failure to recapture Jerusalem. In 1267 he announced that he was going to return to the Holy Land, and he departed in July 1270 for what is sometimes called the Eighth Crusade. He never arrived. Along the way, an outbreak of disease struck Louis's Crusader force, and in August, Louis died.

The Mongols, meanwhile, under a khan (king) named Hulagu, were making deeper inroads into the Middle East. They had already attacked in Poland and Hungary, and in 1243 they had defeated the Seljuks in Anatolia (a region in western Turkey). They took most of Persia in 1256 and captured Baghdad in 1258, ending the Baghdad caliphate (see "Response to the First Crusade" in Chapter 7). All of Europe rejoiced, for Baghdad was the capital of the Islamic empire. The Crusaders could very well have marched on Jerusalem with success, but as noted earlier, they were too divided among themselves to take advantage of the opportunity the Mongols had given them. Meanwhile, in Syria, the Mongols captured the Syrian cities of Aleppo and Damascus in 1258, breaking the back of the Seljuks.

The Mamluks

Even with their victories, the Mongols had not satisfied their desire for empire and territory. After gaining control of Syria, they set their sights on Egypt. Hulagu sent an ambassador to Cairo, who demanded that Egypt submit. But by this time military power in Egypt was in the hands of a group called the Mamluks (sometimes spelled Mameluks). The Mamluks were a select fighting force of Turks. They had all been seized as children and raised as Muslims under strict military discipline. Not knowing their real fathers, all were given the name Ibn Abdullah, meaning "son of Abdullah," referring to the father of Muhammad, the founder of the Islamic faith in the seventh century. As the personal bodyguards of the Egyptian sultan (the king of a Muslim state), the Mamluks were trained to give the individual sultan they served their undivided loyalty. Accordingly, when a sultan died, all of his Mamluk warriors were replaced.

During the Seventh Crusade the sultan of Egypt was deposed, or removed from power, by Saif al-Din Qutuz. Before Qutuz could replace the Mamluks, they came to realize that they were a powerful force in their own right and did not need to be replaced. They were a military force looking for someone to fight, and the rise of the Mongols now gave them an enemy. Qutuz, too, knew that he faced a threat from the Mongols, so he made no effort to replace his Mamluk guard and, in fact, became their commanding general. With no intention of submitting to Hulagu, he and the Mamluks killed Hulagu's ambassador in Cairo and in 1260 marched through Crusader-held territory to take on the Mongols. The Crusaders were content to watch.

Behind Qutuz's rise to power was one of his Mamluk guards, Baybars, who himself had risen to power through a series of political assassinations, or murders. Baybars helped Qutuz become sultan, and together the two marched on the Mongols. At the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260, Baybars pretended to attack the Mongols and then retreated. The Mongols pursued him and galloped into an ambush laid by the main body of Mamluks. The Mongol army was destroyed, ending the Mongol threat to Islam.

Baybars asked the sultan to make him governor of Aleppo as a reward. The sultan, suspicious of Baybars's ambition, refused, so Baybars assassinated him, marched into Cairo, and proclaimed himself sultan. Firmly in control of Egypt, he then marched on Aleppo and Damascus, easily capturing those cities. Now the Mamluks, not the Mongols or the Muslims, were in control of Syria.

The end of the Crusader states

With Baybars, more formally known as Rukn al-Din Baybars Bunduqdari, in control of Egypt, the Crusaders were doomed. In 1265 he marched on Caesarea (the old Roman capital of Palestine), captured the city, and destroyed it. He then took the cities of Haifa and Arsuf (in present-day Israel). In 1266 he marched on the Crusader castle at Safed (often spelled Saphet), one of the last strongholds of the Knights Templars, near the Sea of Galilee. The Templars surrendered when they were told that they could escape safely to Acre, but the treacherous Baybars had them all beheaded. The Mamluks then marched on Toron, on the coast, while another Mamluk force moved on Cilicia (a region of Turkey). Along the way the Mamluks killed every Christian they encountered.

By this time all that remained of the Christian kingdoms on the Levant (the countries on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean) were Acre, Jaffa, Antioch, Tripoli, and a few other small towns. Baybars moved on Acre in 1267, but the town was heavily fortified, so he agreed to a truce. It was at this point that Louis IX in France tried to mount an Eighth Crusade to rescue the city. Meanwhile, the Venetian merchants in the city were selling supplies to Baybars, including timber and iron from Europe that he could use to build siege engines (see "Siege Warfare" in Chapter 10). Not to be outdone, the Genoese merchants were selling slaves to Baybars.

With Acre under a truce, Baybars marched on Jaffa in 1268. After a siege that lasted just twelve hours, he entered the city and destroyed it. He then turned to Antioch, the richest of the Crusader states, where his forces looted the city and butchered every Christian he found. Equipped with massive siege machines, he then took a major Crusader castle, the Krak des Chevaliers, that had resisted siege attempts since the Third Crusade.

The fall of Acre

By now, the only city of any importance that remained in Christian hands was Acre. Baybars, though, died in 1277, so the final Mamluk attack on the city was delayed for fourteen years. In 1285 Baybars's successor as sultan of Egypt, al-Mansur Qalawun, instead captured the last outpost of the Knights Hospitallers, the castle at Margat (sometimes spelled Marqab). He then laid siege to Tripoli, which he captured in 1289.

Baybars's Note to Bohemond

When Baybars destroyed Antioch, its Christian ruler, Bohemond, was away in Tripoli. Baybars sent him the following letter, quoted by Francesco Gabrieli in Arab Historians of the Crusades, gloating about his victory:

Our purpose here is to give you news of what we have just done, to inform you of the utter catastrophe that has befallen you.… You would have seen your knights prostrate [face down] beneath the horses' hooves, your houses stormed by pillagers and ransacked by looters.… You would have seen the crosses in your churches smashed, the pages of the false Testaments [the Bible] scattered, the Patriarchs' tombs overturned. You would have seen your Moslem enemy trampling on the place where you celebrate the mass, cutting the throats of monks, priests and deacons upon the altars.… Since no survivor has come forward to tell you what happened, we have informed you of it.

Few in Europe cared about this development, for Europeans, in general, were sick of crusading. The surviving Mongols in the region sent an ambassador to the king of England, Edward I. They proposed an alliance against Qalawun, but Edward was busy fighting the Scots in his own realm. King Philip IV of France, too, showed no interest. The pope sent a force of Italian Crusaders in 1290, but their presence proved to be a disaster. Qalawun had signed another truce with Acre and may very well have decided to leave the city alone, but the Italian Crusaders were not interested in truces. They had come to kill Muslims. One day most of them became drunk, and they butchered a number of Muslim farmers who were bringing their crops to the market in Acre. The barons of Acre were furious, but the damage had been done.

Qalawun vowed revenge. He massed his army to march on the city, but he never lived to get his revenge, for on the way to Acre he died. His son, al-Ashraf Khalil, promised to do what his father had intended. To that end, he assembled an overwhelming military force—sixty thousand cavalry, one hundred sixty thousand foot soldiers, and an impressive collection of siege engines. Meanwhile, the Crusaders tried to fortify the city and shipped out women, children, and the elderly. Remaining in the city were about a thousand knights, fourteen thousand foot soldiers, and some thirty thousand citizens.

The siege of Acre began on April 6, 1291. It continued for six weeks, as al-Ashraf's men rained missiles and firebombs down on the city and one by one destroyed the towers that defended it. Some of their siege engines could hurl missiles weighing a quarter ton. On May 18 al-Ashraf launched a general assault and seized the city. The scene was eerily like the one that had taken place on July 15, 1099, when the Crusaders had entered Jerusalem at the end of the First Crusade and butchered the city's Muslims. Now, in the last battle, the Muslims massacred Acre's Christians. All of the Templars defending the city, some three hundred, were beheaded. The city was then destroyed.

All that remained of the Crusader presence was a Templar castle at the town of Ruad, which held out for twelve years. The Crusades, though, had ended at Acre, and all that remained to mark where they had been were heaps of rubble. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, talk circulated in Europe of mounting a new Crusade, but little came of it. The Christian rulers of Cyprus retained the title king of Jerusalem, and one, Peter I, managed to gather a European force that attacked Alexandria, Egypt, in 1365. His goal was to capture the city and trade it for Jerusalem. His knights, however, looted the city and returned home. In 1396 King Sigismund of Hungary tried to lead a Crusade, but his army was slaughtered by Turks before it got out of Bulgaria. In 1458 Pope Pius II called a Crusade and even "took the cross" himself, but he died before he could act on his vow. Because these last attempts failed, the Crusades are said to have officially ended in 1291. Nearly two hundred years of bloodshed had finally come to an uneasy finish.

For More Information


Forey, Alan. "The Military Orders, 1120–1312." The Oxford IllustratedHistory of the Crusades. Edited by Jonathan Riley-Smith. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Gabrieli, Francesco. Arab Historians of the Crusades. Translated by E. J. Costello. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969.

Hamilton, Franklin. The Crusades. New York: Dial Press, 1965.

Mayer, Hans Eberhard. The Crusades. 2nd ed. Translated by John Gillingham. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Web Sites

Dafoe, Stephen. "The Fall of Acre—1291." Templar History Magazine 1, no. 2 (Winter 2002). http://www.templarhistory.com/acre.html (accessed on July 27, 2004).