To the Christian army besieging the walled Muslim city of Acre in the spring of 1191, the situation appeared nearly hopeless.
While they tightened the noose around Acre, the entrenched Christians were, in turn, being systematically squeezed by a Muslim relief force commanded by the dreaded Saladin (born Salah-ad-Din Yusuf ibn-Ayyub). Two years of warfare on the sandy beaches and plains near the city had decimated their numbers, as had the ravages of disease and starvation. Stubbornly clinging to their siege works, sandwiched between the walls and Saladin, the Christian Franks were in dire need of both reinforcements and quality leadership.
Located on the Mediterranean coast in what is today northern Israel, Acre had been a goal of the First Crusade nearly a century earlier. In that initial attempt to wrest the Holy Land from the Muslims, European Crusaders in 1099 had captured Jerusalem, the focal point of the Christian faith. Other cities, including Acre, were subsequently seized. As the Europeans, or Franks, settled in the Levant, they created Latin kingdoms buttressed by a series of fortified cities that carried on trade both with Europe and with the Muslims in Egypt and the Near East.
Internal Squabbling, however, began to weaken the unity of the Frankish states. The problem of feuding was compounded by the rise of Saladin in the II70s as Islam’s greatest military leader. A warrior of relatively low birth, Saladin had seized power through war and diplomacy in Egypt and Syria after the death of the Fatamid ruler Nur al-Din. After defeating jealous nobles, Saladin was quick to distribute his wealth to bind vassals to him. Frankish historian William of Tyre noted that the provinces of Saladin’s empire furnished him with ‘numberless companies of horsemen and fighters, men thirsty for gold.’
Saladin was quick to take advantage of the weakening Latin kingdoms. After a series of abortive truces, he brought the Frankish army to bay on the parched plain of Hattin near the Sea of Galilee on July 4, 1187. The shimmering heat was almost as great an enemy to the armored Christians as the Muslim blades and arrows, and they died by the thousands. ‘When one saw how many were dead, one could not believe there were any prisoners,’ wrote Arab chronicler Ibn alAthir, ‘and when one saw the prisoners, one could not believe there were any dead. Never since their invasion of Palestine had the Franks suffered such a defeat.’ Among those captured was Guy of Lusignan, who had been crowned King of Jerusalem the year before.
By July 10, Saladin had hammered through the Levantine littoral, capturing Jaffa, Haifa, Caesarea, Acre and Sidon. In early September, he captured the stronghold of Ascalon, and by the end of the month he had laid siege to Jerusalem, which capitulated on October 2. Only the well-defended bastion of Tyre, under the capable leadership of Conrad of Montserrat, and a handful of isolated Crusader fortresses maintained resistance.
After the debacle at Hattin, the remaining Franks blamed each other for the defeat. Sensing the Christian despair, Saladin released Guy of Lusignan, hoping to further cloud the already murky political waters of the Frankish states. Guy immediately traveled to Tyre to reclaim his right to command as king of Jerusalem. Conrad, however, would have nothing to do with that proposal, and he abruptly slammed the city gates shut on the shocked Guy.
Feeling in need of a decisive event to bolster his sagging fortunes, Guy collected a small army of 400 horse and 7,000 foot and recklessly marched on the Muslim stronghold of Acre. Rising next to the sea, Acre had well-manned battlements and a pair of towers that dominated the landscape: the Accursed Tower, facing landward, and the Tower of Flies, brooding over the harbor. With its rich maritime trade, the city was a jewel that Guy could not resist. However, considering the relatively puny size of his force and the vast scope of the project, he would have done better to eschew the immobility of siege warfare for a war of movement and maneuver against the Muslims.
Saladin, beset by malaria, was surprised that Guy would attempt such a foolhardy venture. He was even more taken aback when the Franks successfully invested the plains stretching north and east of the city and the beaches of a crescent-shaped bay to the south. About a mile east of Acre’s gates, Guy’s soldiers pitched their camp on a series of mounds that they named Toron. They dug protective ditches around the encampment and filled them with water diverted from several nearby streams. With a moat established, the Franks constructed an earthen wall around the tents.
Had Saladin been able to marshal his forces immediately, their combined strength undoubtedly would have crushed Guy of Lusignan’s army. But distances were great, and by the time troops from Mosul, Sinjar, Egypt and Dujar Bakr had gathered in September, the Franks had received reinforcements from Europe. According to the minstrel-chronicler Ambroise, James of Avesnes from Flanders had arrived with ‘fourteen thousand renowned men-at-arms.’ Shortly thereafter, ‘the fleet of Danemark came with many fine castellans, who had good brown horses, strong and swift.’
These first contingents of the Third Crusade had initially docked at Tyre but had quickly sailed to Acre upon hearing of peace with Guy of Lusignan. So numerous were the Christian ships now moored in the bay and blockading Acre’s harbor that their masts reminded one Muslim observer of ‘tangled thickets.’ Another emir, or Muslim prince, estimated the Franks’ numbers had soared to 2,000 horse and 30,000 foot.
Saladin’s war council decided it was time to test the Franks’ strength. On the morning of September 14, 1189, the Muslims launched an attack, hoping to drive the Christians away from their encampment and punch a hole through to Acre’s walls. But the Christians stood firm. Mounting another attack the following day, Muslim cavalry discovered a weak spot in the lines north of the city, and after an hour of desperate fighting, the Franks were driven back. Just as a Muslim victory seemed near, however, several attacking emirs suddenly abandoned the fray to water their horses and seek refreshments. By the time the attack was renewed, the Christians had re-formed and, according to Imad al-Din,’stood like a wall behind their mantlets, shields and lances, with levelled crossbows.’
Unable to dislodge the Crusaders, Saladin extended his lines to press the Christians from the rear–in essence, besieging them! His tight cavalry also opened a channel of supply and communication with the city. What the Muslims were unable to halt, however, was the seemingly continuous flow of fresh Europeans and equipment coming by sea. The heavily laden ships also bore timber for the construction of heavy siege engines.
More alarming to Saladin than Christian siege weapons was the news that Frederick Barbarossa, king of Germany and emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, had reached Constantinople in August with an army of 200,000 Crusaders. The Muslim leader sent letters to emirs and caliphs throughout the length and breadth of Islam begging for more troops to counter this new threat. To his despair, he not only failed to garner additional support but he also found the fidelity of some of his vassals wavering. Several emirs left the Muslim camp to prepare to defend their own homelands against Barbarossa.
Rain squalls and heavy mists heralded the coming of winter weather prohibiting all but the most foolhardy from venturing out to sea. For the Franks, the season now meant little in the way of reinforcements until spring. To the daring Armenian Muslim Admiral Lulu, however, it offered a chance to whisk men and supplies into Acre’s harbor without having to contend with a heavy Frankish blockade. In December, Lulu led 50 Egyptian galleys into the harbor, brushing aside the few Christian vessels with gouts of Greek fire. Acre’s garrison went wild with excitement.
No major engagements emerged during the winter months, only several probing skirmishes outside Acre’s walls. With the coming of the calming influences of spring, the vast Frankish fleet once more resumed control of the Mediterranean. The influx of fresh troops allowed Guy of Lusignan to stage attacks that broke Saladin’s supply line and isolated Acre.
As the days continued to warm and the soggy ground dried out, the Crusaders constructed siege towers with the wood imported by the Italian merchant ships. Four stories high and capable of holding up to 500 men, these movable towers loomed as high as the walls of Acre. They were covered with hides soaked in vinegar and urine, which, it was believed, could provide protection from the deadly Greek fire that had been flung down by the garrison.
By the end of April 1190, the towers were ready. While Frankish bowmen in the crenelated tops dueled archers on the walls, thousands of Christian peasant soldiers and camp followers scurried to fill the city’s moat with rocks and fascines of brush. Once the ditch was filled, it was hoped, the towers could be pushed up against Acre’s parapets to disgorge their occupants and carry hand-to-hand combat to the enemy.
Boulders and fire pots hurled from Muslim mangonels had little effect on lumbering siege machines, which were reinforced with iron. The garrison was saved, however, by the son of a Damascus coppersmith who developed a new formula for making Greek fire. Initially scoffed at, he was finally allowed to try his creation.
On May 5, the new combustibles were shot from a mangonel and allowed to drench the siege towers. The Christians, believing they had nothing to fear, crowded the towers with archers as they jeered the defenders. Then, according to chronicler Ibn al-Athir, the man from Damascus launched a flaming pot: ‘The fire at once spread everywhere, the tower was consumed, and the outbreak happened so swiftly that the Christians had no time to flee. Men, weapons, everything was burned.’ Letters to Saladin’s camp reported that the moat around Acre had become ‘a pool of fire with the tower as a fountain.’
Crusaders and Muslims clashed on eight successive days in June, the heat baking the growing mounds of bodies. Clouds of flies accompanied the terrible stench, and disease gripped both camps. For nearly a month after, little fighting took place.
The Frankish men-at-arms tired at last of the waiting game. On St. James’ Day, July 25, they staged an attack on the Muslim lines north of Acre. It was a poorly conceived affair, with few armored knights participating. The Christian surge was primarily made up of peasant soldiers armed with pikes and axes. At-Adil, Saladin’s brother and the Muslim commander in that sector, lured the Christians into his own camp, where they broke ranks to plunder the tents. Saladin quickly sent reinforcements of Mosuli and Egyptian troops to hem in the enemy. Had it not been for the courageous efforts of Ralph de Hauterive, archdeacon of Colchester in England, the embattled soldiers might have been wiped out. Surrounded by his personal guard, the heavily armored Ralph cut a line of retreat through the Muslim ranks. The damage, however, had been done. A Muslim officer reported more than 9,000 Franks stain, including the gallant Ralph.
Three days later, on July 28, the besiegers welcomed the arrival of 10,000 men under Henry of Champagne. Henry’s army formed the vanguard of a much larger force that King Philip Augustus of France was bringing to the Holy Land. By fall, an English contingent headed by Baldwin, archbishop of Canterbury, landed with word that King Richard I of England had also embarked on the Crusade. It would be some time, however, before either Philip or Richard arrived at Acre.
While Henry of Champagne planned assaults on the city, including the use of battering rams, Saladin received word that Frederick Barbarossa had died while crossing a shallow river near Armenia. Although leadership fell to Barbarossa’s son Frederick of Swabia, the German crusade began to disintegrate. Numerous German nobles returned to Europe. Those who remained with the Duke of Swabia were beset by famine and stain in great numbers by Muslim Seljuk and Kurdish tribesmen. ‘We had many dead,’ reported a German knight. ‘We were obliged to kill our horses and eat their meat, and to feed the fire with our lances.’ Only 5,000 ragged survivors reached friendly Tripoli, finally joining the siege at Acre in October.
Frankish fortunes continued to slide. Henry of Champagne’s heavy mangonets were destroyed in a Muslim sally from Acre’s gates in early September. On September 24, the Christian fleet attempted to destroy the Tower of Flies, which guarded the city’s harbor, by ramming vessels loaded with combustibles into it. At a critical moment the wind shifted, and the ships collided with one another and were badly damaged. A specially built Pisan vessel, resembling a floating castle and outfitted with mangonels, was set afire during a sortie from the harbor by a flotilla of small Muslim boats.
Winter arrived early on the coast, temporarily putting an end to Christian naval supremacy. As the winter lengthened, plague and famine stalked the Crusaders’ camp. Thousands succumbed to an intestinal fever. Henry of Champagne hovered near death for many weeks. Frederick of Swabia, who had suffered through his father’s death and the terrible march from Germany, died in January 1191.
Food supplies had dwindled by early spring. In the Frankish camp, a silver penny bought a handful of beans or a single egg. A sack of corn cost 100 pieces of gold. The common soldier ate grass and chewed bare bones. Ambroise recorded that ‘a crowd gathered around whenever a horse was killed, and a dead horse sold for more than it had ever been worth alive. Even the entrails were eaten.’ So numerous were the dead that many bodies were carted to Acre’s moat to help fill it in.
April finally brought relief to the beleaguered Franks. A ship swollen with grain and corn arrived at the camp, followed on April 20 by King Philip Augustus of France in a fleet of ships crammed with soldiers and war engines. Seven weeks later, in June, King Richard I of England hove into view with 25 ships, fresh from his conquest of Cyprus. En route, they had overtaken a large Muslim supply ship loaded with 650 men for the relief of Acre. Richard’s vessel had rammed the enemy ship and sunk it with heavy loss of life. To the English soldiers now surveying the coast as they neared the Crusaders’ bay, the vista ahead seemed to promise an army of Muslims covering mountain and valley, hill and plain. Obvious and ominous, too, were the enemy’s multitudinous, brightly colored tents pitched everywhere.
The arrival of the new French and English Crusaders renewed Frankish hopes. Philip, eight years Richard’s senior, offered leadership based on his experience as French king. He preferred the intricacies of siege warfare as opposed to the hand-to-hand battle relished by Richard. Although the English king lacked ruling experience, he had gained renown as a fierce fighter endowed with great personal courage.
Richard, bearing the famous soubriquet ‘the Lion-Hearted,’ assumed command of the siegeworks. Attempts to scale the walls had failed, but Philip’s sappers had successfully tunneled beneath the Accursed Tower. The timbers supporting the mine shaft were then set on fire. Above ground, a ferocious mangonel bombardment further weakened the tower, which soon collapsed. Committing any able-bodied man who could bear arms to the breach, the Muslim defenders were barely able to fend off the attacking Franks.
Mighty siege engines continued to hurl heavy rocks and fire pots at the weakening city. French engineers constructed a stone-throwing catapult nicknamed the ‘Evil Neighbor’ and a huge mangonel dubbed ‘God’s Own Sling.’ Together these monstrous machines succeeded in fracturing Acre’s walls.
Italian merchant vessels plied the waters around Acre, delivering arms and armor while effectively sealing the city’s harbor. A Muslim chronicler bemoaned the fact that Acre’s garrison was running short of materiel, while the Franks were ‘clothed in a kind of thick felt, and coats of mail as ample as they were strong, which protected them against arrows.’
Sickness, however, struck both Philip and Richard, the latter seriously. Called leonardie by Ambroise, the disease resembled scurvy, with a wasting of body and loss of hair. Weakened, Richard nevertheless ordered that he be borne by litter to the siegeworks, both to inspect operations and to buoy the Crusaders’ spirits by his presence.
Saladin was unable to break through the ring of besiegers to relieve Acre. Volunteer swimmers carried messages from the city to the gathered emirs, pleading for help. A final appeal was sent out on July 7. Acre’s defenders by then were too weak to man the breach made by Philip’s sappers. They probably sensed they would all be massacred if the Christians were forced to take the city by storm. Against Saladin’s wishes, the city surrendered to the Franks on July 12, 1191. The great Muslim leader, noted one chronicler, received the news ‘like a mother who has lost her child.’
The first siege of Acre had taken nearly two years and may have cost more than 100,000 Christian casualties. The tenacity of the opposing armies, coupled with the bloodletting and abominable living conditions, led at least one historian to liken the siege to the terrible Battle of Verdun in 1916. The final savagery of the siege took place after the city had fallen. Perhaps as revenge for Muslim atrocities against Christians-but more likely because a term of surrender involving the return of the true cross (which had been captured by Saladin at Haddin) and payment of 200,400 gold pieces was not being met-Richard I ordered 2,700 of the survivors from Acre’s garrison executed.
Richard the Lion-Hearted then carried the Third Crusade deep into Palestine. Squabbles had already caused contact to be broken with Conrad of Montserrat and Philip Augustus, the latter returning to France, but the Franks still were strong enough to win stirring victories at Arsuf and Jaffa. The recapture of Jerusalem, however, was a goal not to be attained.
Acre knew relative peace and prosperity as a Christian city over the next century. The rise of the Mamelukes, ferocious slave-warriors from Egypt, in the mid- 13th century signaled an end to the Frankish states of the Levant. Under Sultan alMalik Baibars, the Mamelukes took Syria from the rising new Mongol powers. In 1268, Jaffa and Antioch, former Frankish strongholds, were captured. A series of truces kept the Mamelukes at bay until negotiations broke down in 1289. Tripoli was destroyed as the sultan Qalawan turned his attention to driving all Christians out of Palestine.
Acre, by then, had been heavily fortified with double walls and a string of 12 towers set at irregular intervals on both the inner and outer walls. The 14,000 defenders consisted of Acre’s citizenry, Pisan and Venetian pilgrims to the Holy Land, a contingent of Cypriots, and a small group of English and Swiss knights. The bulk of the defense rested on the knights of the Teutonic, Templar and Hospitaler military orders.
AI-Ashraf Khalil, the Mamelukes’ new sultan, had raised an army of more than 100,000 cavalry and foot. Among his huge siege weapons was a catapult dubbed ‘Victorious,’ which had to be transported in pieces on a train of specially constructed carts. ‘The carts were so heavy,’ noted Muslim chronicler Abu’l-Feda, ‘that the trip took us more than a month, although in normal times eight days would have sufficed.’
On April 5, 1291, Khalil arrived before the walls of Acre. His siege engines rained stones and fire pots upon the city. A steady fire was returned by the city’s mangonels and by a Frankish ship sporting a heavy catapult. The Mamelukes were also peppered with arrows, according to Abu’l-Feda, from ‘Frankish boats topped by wooden-covered turrets lined with buffalo hide, from which the enemy fired at us with bows and crossbows.’
Khalil ordered a general assault on Acre on Friday, May 18. Driven by the boom and bang of 300 drums and cymbals, the white-turbaned Mamelukes rushed the walls as mangonels and archers kept up a blistering fusillade. They stormed the Accursed Tower, rebuilt after its destruction a century earlier. A furious counterattack led by Hospitaler Marshal Matthew of Clermont stymied the Mamelukes for a time, but their numbers were too great. Tower after tower fell. The Templars and Hospitalers died in bands, surrounded by the screaming Egyptians. Matthew of Clermont finally fell as the Mamelukes burst into the city streets.
Defenders and noncombatants in Acre streamed to the harbor, where Venetian vessels waited to rescue them. There were too few ships, however, to save all the fugitives. Those Christians unable to leave the city were slaughtered by the Mamelukes.
Meanwhile, a desperate standoff developed at the castle of the Templars in the northwest part of Acre. The besieged knights fought valiantly for several days, and were actually offered their freedom–until treachery cut that hope short. Cypriot ships hovered about rescuing women and children from the castle’s seaward wall. Mameluke tunnels, however, crumbled the main landward wall. Sultan Khalil impatiently ordered 2,000 warriors to break through the dazed defenders at the breach. The sagging foundation of the castle suddenly collapsed, burying Christian and Muslim alike. As the dust settled, Acre had finally been returned to Muslim hands.
To make sure Acre never became a Christian bastion again, Sultan Khalil ordered its walls, castles and buildings to be torn down and burned. Boulders were rolled into the harbor to end its days as a port facility.
The fall of Acre to the Christians in 1191 had ignited a new wave of Crusading fervor that bolstered the faltering Latin Kingdoms. Richard I emerged as a larger-than-life hero in one of history’s last great sieges before the use of gunpowder. The city’s ultimate demise in 1291 at the hands of the Mamelukes was a bloody epitaph to 200 years of Crusader warfare.
This article was written by Kenneth P. Czech and originally published in the August 2001 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!