How Christians lost power over the holy land: The fall of Acre

At the end of the 11th century, crusaders came to the Eastern Mediterranean from Europe. The official reason was to defend the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem from Muslims. However, religion was only a colorful cover for the real reasons of expansion of Christians, which were power and big money.

The papal throne in Rome organized regiments of poor knights, preparing them “with swords in their hands and the name of God on their lips” to boost the church treasury. However, the Crusaders were to dominate the Holy Land for only two centuries.

Control of the Sea gate of Asia

For the completeness and clarity of our history of the loss of Christian control over the eastern Mediterranean, it is worth beginning with the 10th century when the Caliphate (an Arab state with its capital at Baghdad) was at the height of its power. At that time, its armies in the southern Pyrenees advanced close to the borders of France.

Arabs were garrisoned on the islands of Crete, Sicily, and Sardinia. This state of affairs was a direct threat (both political and economic) to the Holy See in Rome and most European monarchies. Berber pirates were tormenting shipping in the region. Control of the 4 largest ports in the Mediterranean – Alexandria, Acre, Beirut, and Tripoli – allowed the Muslims to dictate pricing policies, driving Christian competitors out of business.

A Christian outpost in the Middle East

The situation for Venetian, Genoese merchants, and the Vatican was bleak. However, rather quickly, a brilliant plan was devised in the highest commercial and religious circles to end the Caliphate’s hegemony in the region. Emphasis was placed on the poor and rapidly losing profit and influence, European feudal lords, the Knights, who, largely because of the unenviable trading position of Christians in a ‘business region’ such as the Mediterranean, were suffering financial hardship.

The era of the Crusades had begun. Driven by the thirst for quick wealth and covered by the banners of Christ, Europeans rushed to the East with weapons to “defend the cradle of Christianity”. Recapturing city after city and fortress after fortress from Muslims, European knights established their outposts in the region.

One of these outposts in 1099 was the small fortress of Acre, now in the city of Acre, Israel. The Crusaders took it from the Arabs and made Acre the capital of their kingdom of Jerusalem. The citadel was so strategically important in the region that when it reverted to Muslim possession nearly 200 years later, it was a sign of the end of Christian expansion throughout the Middle East.

The beginning of the end of the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem

How Christians lost power over the holy land: The fall of Acre

By the very beginning of the 13th century, the Kingdom of Jerusalem enjoyed a relatively peaceful relationship with its Islamic neighbors. The Crusaders even allowed the Muslims to establish new settlements in the kingdom and trade with Christians.

Such fragile peace was broken in August 1290. Then papal mercenary soldiers, who had arrived in Acre from Lombardy, sacked and partially destroyed several Arab villages near the crusader capital. These events blew up the whole Muslim world. The Mamluk Sultanate, which ruled Syria and Egypt, rose to defend the co-religionists under European rule.

Sultan Qalawun, head of the Mamluks, took a solemn vow not to rest until there was “at least one Frank” (as the Muslims called all Europeans) in Acre and its surroundings. His son and heir, Al-Ashraf Khalil, took the oath.

The Siege of Acre

How Christians lost power over the holy land: The fall of Acre

In the early spring of 1291, Khalil al-Ashraf brought an army of almost 100,000 Muslims under his banner. The warriors armed with many siege machines, battering rams and advanced towards Acre, the capital of the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem, outside the walls of which some 10 to 20 thousand Christians would confront the Arab armies. Among the defenders were not only knights from several orders but also mercenaries from Europe and ordinary townsfolk.

Guillaume de Beaujeu, an honorary knight and Grand Master of the Knights Templar, volunteered to command the defense of Acre. He immediately requested military reinforcements from Cyprus and Byzantium. He also arranged for fresh water and provisions to be delivered to the port of Acre by galleys. Yet despite this, the siege of the fortress lasted only 42 days.

The Assault and Fall of Acre

The storming and breaching of Acre by the Mamluk warriors was a magnificent spectacle. On the 18th of May, the Arabs, having constructed a highly elaborate system of masts and rope winches, raised huge wooden shields covered in cowhide. These structures protect the attackers from the clouds of arrows and crossbow bolts that fly in their direction from the walls of besieged Acre.

Using huge shields as cover, the Mamluk infantry covers the castle moat with earth and comes close to the city walls. The crusaders desperately fire arrows at the attackers, who retaliate with their bows. Guillaume de Beaujeu, the commander of the defenders, is mortally wounded in one of the skirmishes.

On learning of this, some of the defenders of Acre abandoned their positions on the fortress walls. The Arabs take advantage of the confusion amongst the Crusaders to widen the opening in the wall, already breached by throwing machines, and rush into the city.

A real massacre begins in Acre, with the remnants of the fortress garrison, mercenaries, and townsfolk battling it out to the ships in the port. Dozens of galleys burn, but most retreating men manage to board surviving sailing ships and sail out to sea.

The Knights managed to smuggle the treasury of the Knights Templar out of the occupied city via a secret underground passage. The remnants of the Knights retreat to the town’s citadel, the Templar, where they form the last line of defense. However, the knights are not destined to hold out for long: at the end of May 1291, the Templo falls to the onslaught of the Mamluks.

The Fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem

How Christians lost power over the holy land: The fall of Acre

Acre marks the beginning of the end for the crusaders. Following the capital of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Arabs besiege and seize other port cities – Beirut, Sidon, and Tyre. The Christians of the eastern Mediterranean abandoned their settled homes and evacuated en masse to the European continent.

The Mamluk Sultan of Egypt and Syria, Al-Ashraf Salāh ad-Dīn Khalil ibn Qalawūn (Khalil Al-Ashraf’s full name), organizes a triumphal army procession with a column of captured crusaders in the capital of his sultanate, Damascus. From Acre to Cairo, the gates of the main sanctuary of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, St Andrew’s Church, are transported. They will later be used in the construction of one of the Cairo mosques.

The last Templar stronghold in the Mediterranean region on the island of Ruad (near the coast of Syria) fell to the Mamluks in 1303. For the next 6 centuries, until the very beginning of the 20th century, Europeans would appear in these lands solely as travelers, prisoners, or tourists.

Interestingly, after such a fiasco in the Holy Land, the Order of the Knights Templar did not last long in Europe either. These warriors were respected and feared by European monarchs.

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