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Acre: the battle that ended the Crusades

In May 1291, the world entered a new era. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the world left an era behind, because this was the month that saw the end of Crusader power in the Middle East. The decisive event was the Siege of Acre, which – as depicted in the first episode of Knightfall – culminated in the bloody defeat of the Templars and their Crusader brethren. Acre was their last major stronghold – after this, it was only a matter of time before the Christian presence in the Holy Land was extinguished.

Acre was the capital of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, a once-mighty Crusader state. Its former capital, the city of Jerusalem, had been captured by the Muslim military genius Saladin back in 1187. Perched on the coast of the Mediterranean, the new capital of Acre served as a major trading hub and crucial nerve centre for the Crusader presence in the region.

In 1291, however, it came under assault from an ominous enemy: the Mamluk Sultanate. The Mamluks were descendants of slave-warriors who’d been recruited (or enslaved) in various regions of the world – including the Balkans and East Asia – and evolved to become a powerful military force in Islamic societies. They eventually rose up to establish their own dynasty to rule Egypt and Syria from the mid-13th Century. The time of the Ayyubid Dynasty, forged by the great Saladin, was over. The Crusaders now had to deal with the fearsome aggression of the Mamluks, who were determined to drive the Western forces from the Middle East.

The Mamluk Sultan Qalawun had his sights set on Acre after having already taken another Crusader state, the County of Tripoli, in 1289. He just need a good pretext to launch an attack, and that came in August 1290. A group of reckless Italian crusaders, sent over to Acre to serve as reinforcements in the event of an enemy attack, wound up in an ugly confrontation with Muslim locals in Acre, killing them. When Acre’s leaders refused to allow the extradition of the murderers to face justice, Qalawun was able to declare war with impunity. He himself would die that same year, which meant it was his son, Al-Ashraf Khalil, who would lead the eventual charge against Acre.

The Mamluk attack was ‘mammoth in scale, unremitting in its intensity’

The siege began in April 1291, and the Mamluks planned it meticulously. They had to, since Acre was well fortified with walls and towers. It also boasted formidable defenders in the form of the Teutonic Knights, Knights Hospitaller and Knights Templar, among others. On their part, the Mamluks had huge numbers of troops, as well as some terrifyingly lethal siege engines, including massive catapults nicknamed Furious and Victorious. These were used to launch rocks against the fortifications, while lines of archers rained arrows down on the Crusader forces within Acre.

As medieval scholar Thomas Asbridge writes in his book The Crusades: The War for the Holy Land, the Mamluk attack was ‘mammoth in scale, unremitting in its intensity’, with the Mamluks working day and night to achieve a bombardment that was “unlike anything yet witnessed in the field of Crusader warfare.”

The knights, meanwhile, tried to counter-attack as best they could. The Templars and other knights carried out daring, night-time raids on the Mamluk camps to kill enemy soldiers and set fire to their siege engines. One such sortie ended when a Christian tripped over the ropes of a Mamluk tent, alerting the enemy and leading to a particularly messy confrontation – 18 knights were slain, including one who fell into a latrine and was killed in the filth.

The inexorable assault ground the defenders down, until – on 18 May – the Mamluks broke through into the city in a violent surge, accompanied by the thunderous din of war drums carried by hundreds of camels. A mass slaughter ensued, and one of the major figures to fall was William of Beaujeu, the Grand Master of the Knights Templar. According to legend, William’s men were appalled when he dropped his sword and seemed to give up in the midst of the fighting. He replied, ‘I’m not running away, I am dead. Here is the blow’, raising his arms to show the fatal wound.

In the chaos, women and children fled through the streets, desperate to flee on boats that were hastily being launched from the docks. Wealthy merchants brandished coins and begged to be let aboard. Over-crowded boats capsized, drowning their desperate passengers. Other Acre residents resigned themselves to their fate – including a group of Dominican Friars who sang a hymn before they were cut to pieces by the enemy troops.

Although some Templars managed to resist for several more days, holing up in a fortified corner of the city, they too were eventually defeated. In the words of a Christian witness, ‘no one could adequately recount the tears and grief’ of the people of Acre, as the last great stronghold of the Crusaders was pillaged.

What remained of the Kingdom of Jerusalem limped on with settlements in other locations, like Cyprus, but after Acre the game was effectively up. No further serious attempts were made to take the Holy Land. As the Mamluk historian Abu al-Fida said, the region was ‘purified of the Franks’ and the ‘the whole of Palestine was now in Muslim hands.’ The era of the Crusades was, effectively, over.