When Muslim Mamluk Egypt targeted this crusader state in 1289, the Christian were too busy infighting to heed.
It is 1289, in the waning years of the Christian Crusader states in the Middle East. The preeminent Muslim power of the day—the Egypt-based Mamluk sultanate—is poised to overrun the last Crusader strongholds on the eastern Mediterranean coast.
The Mamluk sultan Qala ¯’u ¯ n plans to march against the Crusader city of Tripoli (in present-day Lebanon), but William of Beaujeu, 21st grand master of the Knights Templar military order, has inside information about the sultan’s plan. William has a paid informant within Qala ¯’u ¯ n’s inner circle— Badr al-Din Bektash al-Fakhri, who oversees the sultan’s armories and part of his guard force. Badr al-Din sends word to William the Mamluks are planning an assault on Tripoli; William in turn sends a representative to warn the people of Tripoli, but the city’s residents refuse to accept his information and accuse him of concocting the report for some cynical scheme of his own.
Even the best intelligence is worthless if no one will believe it. And William of Beaujeu has no one but himself to blame for his lack of credibility.
The Crusader states were established around the turn of the 12th century after the success of the First Crusade (1096–99). Launching the Muslim counteroffensive against them later that century, Egyptian Sultan Saladin took Jerusalem in 1187 and stripped the Franks—as the Muslims called the Western Europeans—of much of their territory. But his desire to extirpate the Crusader states was frustrated by the Third Crusade (1189–92), which, though it failed to recover Jerusalem, recovered much territory and halted the sultan’s advance.
The Crusader states thus survived into the 13th century, though their territory had shrunk dramatically. The feudal aristocracy derived much of its revenues from lands worked by local peasants—with a high percentage of these lands lost, the strength of the aristocracy declined sharply. The burden of defense, therefore, fell increasingly on the monastic military orders, the chief of which were the Knights Templar and Hospitaller. The orders maintained an extensive infrastructure in Europe, which the Crusader states drew upon for recruits, supplies and revenues. The papacy aided them in this task by forbidding secular rulers to tax movable goods transported by the orders. With the military orders’ headquarters in the coastal city of Acre (in present-day Israel), ships from the Italian maritime republics—Venice, Genoa and Pisa—sailed there and to other cities along the coast, stimulating the local economy with Italian trade. The downside was political—the Italian cities were bitterly hostile to each other, and they brought their disputes with them to the Holy Land.
By mid-century the Franks’ greatest external threat was the Egypt-based Mamluk sultanate, a centralized Muslim autocracy dedicated to jihad, or war against the infidels, with the ability to field armies vastly outnumbering those of the Franks. In 1268 the Mamluks overran the Crusader principality of Antioch, leaving just two Crusader states on the mainland: the Kingdom of Acre—the remnants of the former Kingdom of Jerusalem—and the County of Tripoli. Supporting the two Crusader states was the island Kingdom of Cyprus, in Frankish hands since the Third Crusade.
At its peak the County of Tripoli had occupied much of present-day northern Lebanon and parts of western Syria, but by the late 13th century the Mamluk offensive had reduced it to a fraction of its former size. In July 1281 Bohemond VII, prince of Antioch and count of Tripoli, made a treaty with the Mamluk sultan Qala ¯’u ¯n that delimited the boundaries of the County of Tripoli to its eponymous capital, Tripoli, and a strip of territory running south along the coast to the city of Jubayl.
The fall of the Crusader states to the Mamluks is recorded by an anonymous medieval historian known as the Templar of Tyre, although he was not an actual Templar brother. The author, who wrote in Old French, was in fact an Arabicspeaking translator and close adviser to William of Beaujeu. Paul Crawford, English translator of the Templar of Tyre document, speculates the author may have functioned as an “intelligence officer” of sorts for the Templar grand master, as he was privy to sensitive information.
By the 1270s the Franks had their backs to the sea, their powerful enemy biding its time before launching an- other offensive. Meanwhile, mounting hostility among the Franks inflamed counterproductive internecine conflict.
The civil war began in 1277, setting Bohemond VII against his vassal Guy II Embriaco of Jubayl (present-day Byblos, Lebanon). As with many conflicts throughout history, this war started over a marriage. Guy wished his brother to marry a local heiress, but Bohemond—a feudal lord, who had the authority to approve or block the marriage—initially gave his approval, but then reversed himself. Guy ignored Bohemond’s disapproval and permitted his brother’s marriage anyway. The woman herself had no say in the matter and may or may not have been worth fighting over, but the benefits she contributed certainly were: The Templar of Tyre recorded that Guy “set about enjoying the fief and the rents which his brother had acquired by marriage.”
Having defied Bohemond, Guy knew he needed allies. He turned to the Templars and William of Beaujeu, grand master of the order since 1273. Guy traveled to Templar headquarters in Acre and became a confrère of the order—an affiliated secular knight. William then promised to support Guy in his conflict with Bohemond. That was an unwise decision, particularly because it was based on William’s personal enmities—friends of his were bitter opponents of Bohemond and his party. The purpose of the Templar order was to defend Christian territories against the external Muslim foe; now William had committed the order to take sides in an internal dispute. This wasn’t business; it was personal.
Bohemond was understandably displeased by the Templars’ decision to oppose him. He acted out his displeasure by demolishing the Templar house in Tripoli and deforesting adjacent Templar-owned lands. William responded in haste, loading a host of Templar brothers onto galleys and sailing to Jubayl, seat of his newly made ally Guy Embriaco. From Jubayl the Templar force marched north up the coast and besieged the city of Tripoli for several days. But William was stymied when defenders merely manned the walls and refused to sortie out against him. The Templars, accomplishing nothing at Tripoli, turned and marched back south.
Moving down the coast, the Templars besieged Nephin, one of Bohemond’s seaside strongholds. That proved a greater fiasco than the attempt on Tripoli when a group of Templars on horseback dashed in through the open gate, only to find themselves outwitted, as enemy soldiers stationed above the portal managed to force the gate shut. Capturing 12 Templar brothers and a secular knight who had accompanied them, Bohemond’s men sent them to Tripoli as prisoners. At that point William returned to his headquarters in Acre, leaving behind 30 Templar brothers to reinforce Guy.
Having thwarted the Templars, Bohemond decided to take the offensive and seize Jubayl, source of all the trouble. He led his army out of Tripoli but was advised to remain behind when it was learned Guy had emerged from Jubayl with his army, bolstered by the 30 Templars. The opposing armies were pathetically small, an indicator of the meager resources left to the Crusader states in the late 13th century. Bohemond’s army of Tripoli comprised only 200 mounted men, supplemented by an unspecified number of escuers (senior squires) and footmen. Guy’s army of Jubayl was even smaller: 100 horsemen, backed by retainers.
While small, however, these armies fought with ferocity, and despite their lesser numbers the men of Jubayl prevailed. The Templar of Tyre listed several prominent men of Tripoli who died in the battle, including Balian II of Sidon, a cousin of Bohemond, who met a grisly end; unhorsed and bleeding heavily, he was unable to remove his cuirass and drowned in his own blood. Having inflicted mutual carnage on each other—presumably to the delight of the Mamluk sultan— Bohemond and Guy agreed to a one-year truce.
Upon expiration of the truce in 1279, the inconclusive fighting resumed. The Templars raided the country around Tripoli; in retaliation, Bohemond launched a naval counterraid on the Templar fortress near Sidon, returning to Tripoli with prisoners and much loot. Seeing nothing would come of such raiding, Guy decided to bring an end to the conflict by seizing Tripoli outright.
So preoccupied with his parochial hatreds, Guy was blind to the deadly external threat posed by the Mamluks. According to a Muslim source, Guy sent a message to Qala ¯’u ¯n, asking for his help in taking Tripoli, which Guy promised to partition with the sultan. In assuming Qala ¯’u ¯n would allow him to retain a part of Tripoli after the city fell, Guy displayed an odd streak of naivete—a bizarre trait for one immersed in betrayal of his own lord. Not surprising, Qala ¯’u ¯ n agreed to Guy’s proposal and authorized what would today be called a covert operation. The sultan had subordinates arrange to augment Guy’s force with a band of Muslim hill men living near Tripoli.
In January 1282 Guy loaded his small army on ships and landed in the harbor of Tripoli at night. A comedy of errors followed. The Templar house in Tripoli had reopened after the Hospitallers negotiated an agreement between Bohemond and William. Anticipating support from the Templars, Guy went to the their house and asked for the commander, Reddecouer. He was shocked to learn Reddecouer wasn’t there—somehow the plan had fallen through. Soon the soldiers in Bohemond’s palace realized the enemy was among them and raised the alarm. Improvisation was not Guy’s strong suit—once his prearranged plan fell apart, so did he. Panicked, he fled to the stronghold of the Hospitaller order. The building was adjacent to a gate in the city wall of Tripoli, offering a ready escape route. But a distraught Guy led his men up into the structure’s tower instead, thus trapping himself when Bohemond’s men encircled it.
Guy and his men had no choice but to surrender. The commander of the local Hospitaller negotiated an accord, which Bohemond swore on the Gospels to uphold: Guy, his two brothers and their men were to be imprisoned for five years and then allowed to return to Jubayl. But immediately following their surrender, Bohemond broke his oath and chose revenge. Anticipating Edgar Allan Poe by several centuries, he ordered a ditch dug, placed Guy and his brothers in it and then had the ditch walled in, leaving the prisoners to starve to death in the dark.
Bohemond had only five years to savor his triumph. He died on Oct. 19, 1287. As he was childless, his sister Lucia (then living in southern Italy with her admiral husband) became heir. But the nobility and leading merchants of Tripoli blocked her accession, declaring the city a self-governing commune. When Lucia arrived, they sent her a letter claiming that the previous members of the dynasty—her brother, father and grandfather—had treated the city badly, and the leaders of the commune asserted they would only admit Lucia if she recognized their authority. She refused, and a second round of civil war was on.
The military orders sought to negotiate an agreement between Lucia and the Commune of Tripoli but to no avail. Then the Hospitallers, like the Templars before them, became embroiled in an internal dispute. They declared their support for Lucia, as the Templar of Tyre stated, “on the grounds that she was the lady and heir of the prince.” The Hospitallers took up arms on Lucia’s behalf and fought several skirmishes with the men of Tripoli, with casualties on both sides.
Knowing they would need aid, the leaders of the commune appealed to the maritime republic of Genoa, which had long-standing commercial interests in the Holy Land. Genoese Admiral Benedetto Zaccaria duly arrived in Tripoli with five galleys to consider the conditions under which Genoa would grant its support. For starters, Genoa was granted outright control of a section of Tripoli, but, of course, Zaccaria wanted more. He suggested making all of Tripoli a Genoese colony, governed by an administrator sent from the mother republic.
Zaccaria’s proposal horrified Tripoli’s commune leaders. They tried to backtrack and use Lady Lucia as a counterweight to Genoa. In a letter to her the commune leaders agreed to accept her as ruler if she would block any further concessions to the Genoese. But the fair lady had other ideas. After conferring with the Hospitallers, she opened negotiations with the Genoese and reached an accord the Templar of Tyre called “pleasing to both parties.”
It was certainly pleasing to the Genoese, who would attain a dominant position in Tripoli. But the agreement also triggered the most deceitful and ruinous act of betrayal in a story full of betrayals, when two unnamed individuals traveled from the Crusader states to Alexandria, Egypt, to meet with Sultan Qala ¯’u ¯ n. They warned him that if the Genoese established themselves in Tripoli, their fleet would be able to intercept ships headed to or from Alexandria, thereby giving Genoa a stranglehold over trade. The Templar of Tyre knew the identity of the traitors but did not reveal them. Historian Joshua Prawer speculates they might have been Venetians or Pisans—commercial rivals of the Genoese.
It remains unclear what these two malcontents had hoped to accomplish by informing the sultan. Presumably they had not intended to trigger an allout Mamluk attack on Tripoli, but that is what exactly what happened. Qala ¯’u ¯n ordered his army to prepare for a campaign and established supply dumps along their marching route. The emir Badr al-Din was part of the sultan’s coterie and soon learned of the plan. The emir regularly received “fine presents” from Templar Grand Master William of Beaujeu in exchange for intelligence. Badr al-Din fulfilled his part of the bargain by sending word to the Templars about the impending attack on Tripoli.
William in turn reported the information to the people of Tripoli but did not receive the reaction he desired. William’s past political activities— particularly his intervention on behalf of Guy Embriaco—had come back to haunt him. The Tripolitans considered him, as British historian Malcolm Barber put it, “untrustworthy and partisan.” They accused William of fabricating the story in order to boost his own prestige. In their suspicious minds he sought appointment to negotiate with the sultan over a nonexistent invasion, only to claim credit when no attack materialized. Only when William sent a senior Templar brother to reiterate the warning did the leaders of Tripoli belatedly start to prepare a defense.
The actual siege and fall of Tripoli were anticlimactic. Templar and Hospitaller brothers arrived in Tripoli along with forces from Acre and Cyprus. Even Genoa’s commercial rivals joined in the fight—two Venetian galleys and an unspecified number of Pisan ships. But the defenders were vastly outnumbered by the Mamluk host, which opened the siege of the city on March 17, 1289.
Mamluk superiority in men and materiel ultimately carried the day. Qala ¯’u ¯n’s army boasted a vast array of both heavy and light artillery pieces. Missiles from the light artillery kept defenders atop the battlements under cover, while the heavy machines focused on weakening the city walls. Further weakening the defenders’ position was the ongoing internal discord, primarily between the Venetians and Genoese. This was to be expected, but even the usually dedicated Hospitallers “had great ill will against the men of Tripoli”—a holdover from the battles they had fought on behalf of Lucia.
After a month of battering, Tripoli’s walls began to buckle. Even the tower built and occupied by the Hospitallers, which the Templar of Tyre described as “new and sturdy,” had a gash in it large enough for a horse to pass through. Precipitating the final collapse of the defense were the Venetians, who abandoned the walls and headed for their galleys in the harbor. When the Genoese saw this, they feared the Venetians would steal their ships and leave them stranded, so they too headed for the harbor. On April 26, when the Mamluks launched a final mass assault on the walls, not enough defenders were there to hold them back.
Lady Lucia escaped by sea, but few of her subjects were as fortunate—the Mamluks massacred much of the populace. Approaching a small island in the harbor, Arab historian and eyewitness Abu ¯ al-Fida ¯ found it heaped with rotting corpses, noting, “It was impossible to land there because of the stench.” Many of the women and children were taken as slaves. Even if Tripolitans had heeded William’s warning, it would not have averted the fall of the city—the Mamluk preponderance of strength was too great—but it may have been possible to evacuate the noncombatants, who instead ended their days in slavery and misery.
Two years later the city of Acre fell, ending Frankish presence in the Holy Land. William of Beaujeu died fighting on the ramparts. The outcome was inevitable—by the late 13th century Mamluk might made the Crusader position untenable. It may have been just as well. Judging from their appalling conduct during their last years in power, the Franks didn’t deserve to win.
Richard Tada has previously been published in Military History, MHQ and on the Armchair General website [www.armchair general.com]. For further reading he recommends The New Knighthood: A History of the Order of the Temple, by Malcolm Barber, and The Crusades, c. 1071–c. 1291, by Jean Richard.
Originally published in the July 2014 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.