The Historical Siege of Acre in 1291

Here is another historical battle history and about a battle between the Mamluk and the Crusaders in Acre. In those times, the Mamluk conquered large chunks of the Holy Land, sacked Jerusalem and was numerically speaking superior to the Crusaders. The last remaining military presence of the Crusaders was in the heavily fortified Acre! And as you can read here, beheadings are not an invention from ISIS, but it was a normal practice in those times already.

This is history and it had its impact. This was the effort from the Crusaders to stay in the Holy Land and at the end it failed, despite all their efforts. This had a large impact for 2 centuries on the Holy Land, because the land was totally dominated and harshly ruled by the Muslims. But this defeat had also an political and economical impact on the countries in Western Europe, especially England, France, Germany and the Vatican.

Such stories are part of the collection of stories from the guide in tours of Acre. If the group is interested in the juicy battle-stories, he or she will show you where and what in Acre itself.

Before continuing, an explanation what a Mamluk actually is. A Mamluk is a slave soldier, a member of one of the armies of slaves that won political control of several Muslim states during the Middle Ages. The name is derived from an Arabic word for slave. The use of Mamluk as a major component of Muslim armies became a distinct feature of Islamic civilization as early as the 9th century. But in 1249, the Mamluks took charge of their oppressors and ruled Egypt and Syria for more then 250 years.

Frank Soldier
Frank Soldier
Mamluk
Mamluk

The Mamluk generals  recognized that the city of Acre – the last stronghold of the Franks (the term Frank was used in the east as a synonym for western European, as the Franks were then rulers of most of Western Europe, originally coming from Germany) in Israel, heavily fortified, with two lines of walls and numerous towers, and densely garrisoned–would be no easy target. The Muslim operation, therefore, was planned with great care and forethought.

Mamluk strategy was founded on two principles:

Mamluk Cavalry
Mamluk Cavalry
  1. Overwhelming numerical superiority, with tens of thousands of mamluk cavalry assisted by squadrons of infantry and specialist teams of sappers;
  2. And the deployment of the extraordinary arsenal of siege machinery built up since the days of Sultan Baybars (Baibars was from Turk origin, referring to the Father of Conquests, pointing to his victories, was the fourth Sultan of Egypt from the Mamluk Bahri dynasty).
Trebuchet
Trebuchet

In the last days of winter 1291, Khalil ordered around one hundred ballistic engines to be brought to Acre from across the Mamluk Levant. Some of these weapons truly were monstrous in scale and power.

Abu’l Fida
Abu’l Fida

Abu’l Fida was in the siege train of a hundred ox-drawn wagons transporting the pieces of one massive trebuchet nicknamed ‘Victorious’ from Krak des Chevaliers. He complained that, marching through rain and snow, the heavily laden column took a month to cover a distance that was usually an eight-day ride.

On 5 April 1291 Sultan Khalil’s troops encircled Acre from the north shore above Montmusard to the coast south-east of the harbor, and the siege began. At this point, the city contained many members of the Military Orders–including the masters of the Temple and Hospital–and, in time, the severity of the threat now posed to Acre brought other reinforcements by sea,

King Henry II
King Henry II

among them King Henry II (titular monarch of Jerusalem) with 200 knights and 500 infantry from Cyprus. Even so, the Christians were hopelessly outnumbered.

Khalil set about the task of crushing Acre with methodical determination. With his forces ranged in a rough semi-circle around the city, an aerial barrage began. The largest trebuchets, like ‘Victorious’ and another known as ‘Furious’, had been reassembled and were now pummeling Acre’s battlements with massive boulders.

Meanwhile, scores of smaller ballistic devices and squads of archers were deployed behind siege screens to shower the Franks with missiles. Mammoth in scale, unremitting in its intensity, this bombardment was unlike anything yet witnessed in the field of crusader warfare.

Teams of Mamluk troopers worked in four carefully coordinated shifts, through day and night. And, each day, Khalil ordered his forces to make a short forward advance–gradually tightening the noose around Acre, until they reached its outer fosse.

Eyewitness Latin testimony suggests that, as these efforts proceeded apace, possible terms of surrender were discussed. The sultan apparently offered to allow the Christians to depart with their movable property, so long as the city was left undamaged. But the Frankish envoys are said to have refused, concerned at the dishonor that would be suffered by King Henry through such an absolute concession of defeat.

As the Mamluks pounded Acre, Templars made some vain attempts to launch counter-attacks. Stationed on the northern shore, Abu’l Fida described how ‘a Latin ship came up with a catapult mounted on it that battered us and our tents from the sea’.

Trebuchet The Furious
Trebuchet The Furious

William, master of the Templars, and Otho of Grandson also tried to prosecute a bold night-time sortie, hoping to wreak havoc within the enemy camp and torch one of the massive Mamluk trebuchets. The raid went awry when some of the Christians tripped over the guy ropes of the Muslim tents, raising a commotion.

A bold night-time sortie
A bold night-time sortie

Thus alerted, scores of Mamluks rushed into the fray, routing the Franks and slaying eighteen knights. One unfortunate Latin ‘fell into the latrine trench of one of the emir’s detachments and was killed’. The next morning, the Muslims proudly presented the heads of their vanquished foes to the sultan.

By 8 May, Khalil’s inexorable advance had brought the Mamluk lines close enough to the city for sappers to be deployed on the outer walls. They quickly turned Acre’s advanced sewerage system to their advantage, using outflows to start their tunnels.

Third Crusaders’ siege of Acre in 1191
Third Crusaders’ siege of Acre in 1191

Just as in the Third Crusaders’ siege of Acre in 1191, the work of undermining was focused particularly upon the city’s north-eastern corner, but with Acre now protected by double walls there were two lines of defense to breach. The first collapsed at the Tower of the King on Tuesday 15 May and, by the following morning, Khalil’s troops had taken control of this section of the outer battlements.

The outerwalls from Acre were breached
The outerwalls from Acre were breached

With panic rising in the city, women and children began to evacuate by ship. The sultan now prepared the Mamluks for a full-strength frontal assault through the breached Tower of the King, towards the inner walls and the Accursed Tower. At dawn on Friday 18 May 1291, the signal for the attack began–the thunderous booming of war drums that created ‘a terrible, terrifying noise’–and thousands of Muslims began racing forward.

Battle on the walls
Battle on the walls

Some threw flasks of Greek fire, while archers loosed arrows ‘in a thick cloud that seemed to fall like rain from the heavens’. Driven forward by the overwhelming

Sack of Acre
Sack of Acre

force of this onslaught, the Mamluks broke through two gates near the Accursed Tower and began rushing into the city proper. With Acre’s defenses punctured, the Franks tried to make a last desperate stand to contain the incursion, but one eyewitness admitted that attacking the Muslim horde was like trying to hurl oneself ‘against a stone wall’.

In the thick of the fighting, the Templar Master William of Beaujeu was mortally wounded when a spear pierced his side. Elsewhere, John of Villiers, master of the Hospital, took a lance thrust between his shoulders. Grievously injured, he was dragged back from the walls.

Before long, the Christian defenders were overrun and the sack of Acre began. One Latin, then in the city, wrote that the ‘day was terrible to behold. The ordinary people of the city came fleeing through the streets, their children in their arms, weeping and despairing, and fleeing to sailors to save them from death’, but hunted down, hundreds were slaughtered and abandoned infants were said to have been trampled under foot.

Siege of Acre mass execution
Siege of Acre mass execution

Abu’l Fida confirmed that ‘the Muslims killed vast numbers of people and gathered immense amounts of plunder’ once Acre fell. As the Mamluks surged through the city, masses of desperate Latins tried to escape in any remaining boats, and there was utter chaos at the docks. Some got away, including King Henry and Otho of Grandson.

Half dead, John of Villiers was carried to a boat and sailed to safety. But the Latin patriarch fell into the water and drowned when his overburdened craft became unstable. Elsewhere, some Latins chose to remain and face their fate. Khalil’s troops found a band of Dominican Friars singing ‘Veni, Creator Spiritus’–the same crusader hymn intoned by Joinville in 1248 – in their convent, and butchered them to a man.

The end battlesMany Christians sought to take refuge in the fortified compounds of the three main Military Orders, and some managed to hold out for days. The robust Templar citadel was eventually undermined by sappers and collapsed on 28 May, killing the Templars within. Those sheltering in the Hospitallers’ quarter surrendered on promise of safe conduct from Khalil, but Muslim chronicles testify to the fact that the sultan deliberately broke this promise, leading his Christian prisoners out of the city and on to the surrounding plains.

Almost exactly one hundred years earlier, Richard the Lionheart had violated his own pledge of clemency to Acre’s Ayyubid garrison, executing some 2,700 captives. Now, in 1291, Khalil herded the Latins into groups and ‘had them slaughtered as the Franks had done to the Muslims. Thus Almighty God was revenged on their descendants.’

John of Villiers
John of Villiers

Acre’s fall was a final and fatal disaster for the Latin Christians of Outremer. Recalling the city’s sack, one Frankish eyewitness who fled by boat declared that ‘no one could adequately recount the tears and grief of that day’. The Hospitaller Master John of Villiers survived to pen a letter to Europe describing his experiences, although he admitted that his wound made it difficult to write:

I and some of our brothers escaped, as it pleased God, most of whom were wounded and battered without hope of cure, and we were taken to the island of Cyprus. On the day that this letter was written we were still there, in great sadness of heart, prisoners of overwhelming sorrow.

For the Muslims, by contrast, the glorious victory at Acre affirmed the efficacy of their faith, sealing their triumph in the war for the Holy Land. One witness described in amazement how, ‘after the capture of Acre, God put despair into the hearts of the other Franks left in Palestine’.

Christian resistance crumbled. Within a month, the last outposts at Tyre, Beirut and Sidon had been evacuated or abandoned by the Franks. That August, the Templars withdrew from their strongholds at Tortosa and Pilgrims’ Castle. With this, the days of Outremer–the crusader settlements on the mainland Levant–were brought to an end.

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