The Siege of Acre Through the Eyes of a Foot Soldier

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Environmental Graffiti’s Bennett Blumenberg recounts the siege of Acre in 1291, through the eyes of a common footsoldier
Siege of Acre, 1291Photo:
Hospitaler Master, Mathieu de Clermont defends the walls / D.Papety c.1840
Painting – PHGCOM / Wikimedia

PRELUDE –

“The air stinks! Smells like dead rats and rotten mutton. Piss everywhere, and the kids drink this foul, putrid water that runs down the alleys. At least it’s not too hot, winter and all… Hold onto your purse, thieves here will cut the hide to your belt before you can blink. Fight ’em? You better be real good with a knife. Whores we have, the most exotic in the East as you would expect. Talk to me later about that, anything you desire is here… for a price… Spices, gold, the rarest of gems and rugs; play it safe and you’ll go home to become a rich man. Yeah, one more thing. When you see a Knight, step aside, don’t say a word, even kindly, and don’t stare. They’re all trained killing machines, I don’t care what anyone says otherwise. They’re nice fellows usually, but catch one drunk or angry and you’ll go home in pieces. This advice is for all three Orders. The Templars are forever a mystery, and probably the smartest. The Germans are unbearably fierce and the Hospitallers always have incredible food and never tire. Take their meat, say ‘thanks’ and then get away quickly.”

Crusader States map, 1135Photo:
Crusader States map in 1135
Digital map – MapMaster / Wikipedia

Acre – aerial photoPhoto:
Acre – aerial photo
Photo – Zaraza Friedman / NAVIS II

“Welcome to Acre, a cursed city this winter of 1291 waiting for the savage Mamluks to take it down. Me? I don’t hate the Muselman. All’s fair in love and war, and God is God wherever you find him. Hell, some believe He is a She! Don’t misunderstand, our Christian knights are incredible fighters, but we don’t have enough of them. And there’s no open field for the Templar Charge. Where the hell is the Pope or the Kings of Europe when we need ’em? We’ve heard rumors for years about an alliance with the Horde. Can you imagine that! Franks and Mongols fighting side by side! The last I heard, the Pope demanded the Mongols convert and the Khan demanded the Pope and the Kings of Europe submit to him. Hell will freeze over before any of that happens. They say King Henry on Cyprus will send some fighters, but where are they? Well… here we are; step inside, watch your step, it’s time to get slam, deep drunk… If you sense death around the corner, well that’s Acre, the city where dreams go to die. Remember, you’re in the Kingdom of Jerusalem… what’s left of it…”

Acre - Franciscan ChurchPhoto:
Acre – Franciscan Church / old city
Photo – Priyank Thatte

“OK, so you want to talk about the Crusades. Better refill that mug, we could be here all night. The problem now is that no one cares. The Pope still talks about liberating Palestine and Jerusalem from the Muselman, but show me the money and the will power. Yeah, a handful of exceptions. King Louis IX of France will always be in our hearts. He did what he said he would do, spent decades on crusade and trying to forge an alliance with the Mongols, but all to no avail and then he died so far from home in Tunis. Now, no one knows which way to look. The Mongols are still here after decades of war in the Near East. No longer considered invincible thanks to Egypt, but they are everywhere, there are so many of them. I can’t imagine a crusader army dominating a battlefield against such numbers, particularly with our knights weighed down by heavy armor. We’ve learned that the Mamluks of Egypt are near invincible; they are No.1, not the Mongols. The Sultan wiped the field with Mongol corpses at Ain Jalut in 1260.”

Acre - Franciscan ChurchPhoto:
Ascelin of Cremone delivers letter from Pope Innocent IV to Mongol General Baiju, 1245
Photo – PHGCOM / Wikipedia

Battle of Mari, 1266Photo:
Egyptian Mamluks defeat Mongol Christian allies Armenians / Battle of Mari, 1266 / 15th century manuscript
Photo – PHGCOM / Wikipedia

“Why should the Mongols want us as allies? Long ago, Antioch signed on with the Horde, and Armenia and Cilicia have been fighting with them for decades. But now, I bet the prize would be the Orders. The Templar Charge is still in a class by its own: give ’em a level field and nothing can beat it. In 1260, we let the Egyptian Mamluks through Acre territory to fight the Mongols at Ain Jalut. That is the closest we Franks ever came to an alliance with the Muslim world. Now? It ain’t gonna happen, no way! Each side trades arrogance and poor Acre is squeezed in the middle… Hey, sweetheart, where are the refills? Mugs are now empty on this table…”

SIEGE –

Mamluk Cavalry / Ain Jalut, 1260Photo:
Mamluk Heavy Cavalry / Battle Ain Jalut, 1260 / 16th century Gothic style
Engraving – forum.kafegaul

Muslim hinged, counterweight, catapultPhoto:
Muslim hinged, counterweight, catapult in action during siege of city / 13th century
Manuscript painting – PHGCOM / Wikipedia

“Wake up, damn it get your eyes open! They’re here!! Khalil and his Mamluks are pounding on the door; how the hell can you sleep with that noise? Yeah, the booming thuds are rocks and boulders; I can’t count the number of siege engines pounding the walls. Hell, I think I smell gunpowder! This is what we get when the ‘good citizens of Acre’ – idiots all! – destroyed this city with the War of Saint Sabas, then reject a brilliant piece of diplomacy worked with the Sultan by William Bajeux, the good Master of the Knights Templar. Why the hell can’t we turn over the bastard Genoese to Kahlil? They’ve been attacking and robbing everyone, not just Muslims. Well, all of this is past and now Acre will be punished for all the past sins of Jerusalem: stupidity, greed and believing the Muselman is lower than us, that his God must be no good because Allah isn’t our God. The fucking world has gone insane! OK, yes, good King Henry did get the walls and towers repaired. Now look again… damn it keep your head down… How long do you think this crumbling city can last against that?”

Street fighting during siege of AcrePhoto:
Street fighting during siege of Acre / cgi concept
Screen shot – Assassin’s Creed (Xbox 360)

“Stay close to the walls you idiot! Walk down the alleys and the siege engine stones will knock your head off, or you’ll slip in the blood and break your neck! I don’t know how much more of this we can stand, but we’ll never surrender so long as the Knights are still fighting. If only the Templars and Knights Hospitaller had magic to multiply themselves as needed. But the Knights are not gods, and we know that their night attacks failed badly, horses getting caught up in Muslim tent ropes. How long can they go on before they collapse from exhaustion? How long can any of us stand this? The towers are weak and crumbling; thank God the wells are deep and food still comes in by sea. Alley after alley is running with blood, and now some are escaping by sea while they can. I heard that the Master of those German knights ran some time ago, and King Henry is about to get out of this hell for his kingdom on Cyprus… Do you know your ear is bleeding? Come on… let’s deal with that… we’ll be face to face with Muselman real soon…”

Street fighting during siege of AcrePhoto:
Fighting on the rooftops during siege of Acre / cgi concept
Screen shot – Assassin’s Creed (Xbox 360)

Spain - Crusader Knight /  re-enactorPhoto:
Spanish-Crusader / Cross – St. James of Compostela / Galicia – Order of Santiago
Photo – Galician Flag

“Master, Master where are you going, come back! Look at that! Sir William Bajeaux has walked away from the walls!! Come on, let’s get him back. Maybe he was hit in the head and doesn’t know what he is doing! Look, he turned around and… what is he saying? “Seigneurs, Je ne plus, car je suy mort – vees le coup.” …That he is Dead! I don’t understand… My God, he is dead, look at the blood all over his chest; how can he keep walking? Let’s go, he fell face down and isn’t moving… Easy Sir, don’t move now, the boys are here and we’ll get you back into Acre then find a doctor. The Muselman has honored you, they’ve stopped firing at us, so we can get you back to the city safely. You’ll be all right now, just don’t talk, keep your strength… Where the hell are those clean rags? I can’t stop the bleeding!! Shut up! The last thing the Master needs to hear is that Clermont of the Hospital is dead. We’re going to be face to face, sword to sword, in the alleys before very long. This is the end of Acre and the death of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.”

Fighting in the tunnels during siege of AcrePhoto:
Fighting in the tunnels during siege of Acre / cgi concept
Screen shot – Digital Journal

“Forty-three days of Hell! Can you believe we are still alive! Come on, let’s get to that boat and on to Cyprus. Our magnificent Templars have barricaded themselves in their quarter, in the tunnels. If a miracle is possible, they are it!… There is already talk of coming back, maybe to Ruad. Gotta try, we can’t let Christ down; remember that is what this was all about when the crusades began. Then again, maybe Palestine does belong to the Muselman after all and he is only taking back what rightfully belongs to Allah? It looks like God punished us; maybe we deserved it. I can’t sleep anymore, I can’t get the picture out of my head: how the Master walked away from the walls and died. Then the terrible silence hit all of us, as if the universe could not believe what it saw. Muselman and Christian just stopped without a word being said. Barely breathing, we watched Death take a great knight. Maybe that is why we lost, why Acre fell, why the alleys are stained brown-red. We couldn’t listen to the best among us, so the worst took us down… No, you go find a whore by yourself, I need to be alone now… I can’t stand what’s in my head. Time to get drunk again… That helps for a short while…”

Old Hospitaller KnightPhoto:
Twilight descends upon the Knights Hospitaller
Artist – Marc Carrie (c) 2007

RELEVANT FACTOIDS –

1. The Kingdom of Jerusalem did not encompass all Crusader states in the Near East. The Principality of Armenian Cilicia, Principality of Antioch, County of Edessa and County of Tripoli had equal status and recognition. When two of these states – Antioch and Cilicia – choose to formally ally with the Mongols, the implications were very important even as the Assembly of Acre initially chose to dismiss such developments as trivial.

Port of Acre / 15th - 16th centuriesPhoto:
Port of Acre / 15th – 16th centuries
Engraved Map – Zaraza Friendman / NAVIS 2

2. In April 1291, Acre had a population of ~40,000 with 12,000 soldiers and knights. With its back to the Sea, Acre was able to receive food and small numbers of soldiers throughout the siege. King Henry II of Cyprus arrived with 2,000 additional soldiers on May 6. The size of the Mamluk Sultan’s forces are not well known but likely were between 20,000 and 30,000 with the majority being volunteer siege workers. Massive walls and towers confronted Khalil’s army as the siege began. The Egyptian Mamluk Sultan was fully aware of Acre’s state of disrepair. Continual bombardment from large and small siege engines, in conjunction with sappers placing bombs under the walls and towers, was the preferred strategy and it worked. Forty catapults included an unknown number of hinged, counterweight trebuchets which needed only a small crew and set new records for distance and weight of thrown stones.

Mongol Siege EnginesPhoto:
Mongol Siege Engines in action
Historic Print – sosyaldersleri

3. Ascelin of Cremone delivered a diplomatic letter from Pope Innocent IV to the Mongol General Baiju in March 1245 shortly before the Council of Lyon. Ascelin refused to give the Mongol General the minimal courtesy expected unless Baiju agreed to baptism. Baiju replied by calling the Pope and Christians ‘dogs’. Escaping death because he was a high ranking diplomatic envoy, Ascelin later met several Mongol princes who invited him to travel with them to Karakorum and meet the Great Khan. Ascelin refused and returned to the Pope with two Muslim envoys – Aïbeg and Serkis – sent by Baiju. They met with Pope Innocent IV in 1248 and delivered Baiju’s demand for submission to the Khan. The Pope replied with a Papal Bull asking that Mongols should stop killing Christians, and this failed attempt at laying the groundwork for an alliance came to an end in November, 1248.

Letter from Khan Guyug to Pope Innocent IVPhoto:
Letter from Khan Guyug to Pope Innocent IV in 1246
Historic document – Latebird / Wikipedia.

4. Mortally wounded, Mathieu de Clermont, the Hospitaller Master, was carried to his galley while shouting at his men to put him down and insisting he could still fight. King Hugh and his brother fled with their garrison, and so did Otho de Grandison (Savoyard), close friend of King Edward I of England and Master of the English knights in Palestine, with the remnant of his contingent. The Venetians and the Genoese fled after they stole everything in sight that was not tied down. On the last day of the siege, the only active crusader fighting force was the Templars who had barricaded themselves in their tower by the sea.

Acre – Tunnels in Templar FortressPhoto:
Acre – Tunnels in Templar Fortress
Photo – Priyank Thatte

5. The Templars that held out in the quarter and tunnels of Acre are believed to have been killed to the last man when a tower collapsed on them and some Mamluk soldiers during a failed attempt to negotiate their safe passage. The Mamluk Sultan and William de Beaujeux were old friends, but had been forced to be enemies during the siege. Acre fell and was reduced to rubble by the Mamluk victors, only rebuilt centuries later by the Ottoman Turks. The Kingdom of Jerusalem reorganized on the island of Cyprus. During the next decade, several crusader attempts to return to Palestine failed. The power politics of the Near East had undergone a seismic shift with profound implications that remain with us in the 21st century.

Sources –

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

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