Acre, the City for which the World Contended Part I

Richard, the Lion Heart, On His Way To Jerusalem.

Manuscript depiction of the siege (c. 1280)

The modern town of Akka stands on a hook-like promontory jutting south into the Bay of Haifa. In the middle ages the harbour, the safest on the Syrian coast, was embraced by the curve of this peninsula and was further protected by a mole running eastwards from its tip. The mole was guarded at its landward end by the strongly fortified Tower of Flies. The result was a large military harbour, virtually inaccessible to seaborne attack. The landward defences were still more formidable, consisting of two massive walls which ran due north and due east to meet in a right-angle heavily fortified by the Cursed Tower. Acre had been one of the wealthiest cities of the Christian kingdom and a favoured royal residence. Now it was the chief arsenal for Saladin’s Palestine provinces and its great defences had been restored to war readiness by Karakush, the architect, who had also been appointed the commander of the city. Considerations of strategy and prestige ensured that the coming battle would be hard. It did not seem likely to be very protracted.

Guy had his small army pitch camp in a wide arc from north to south with Acre at the focus. For a complete landward blockade he had to cover the ground from the River Belus in the south to the coast northwards at more than a bowshot range from the city walls. He did not have enough men. If he was to take the city he had also to blockade it from the sea, but in the autumn of 1189 the Muslims were able to sail in and out almost at will. Just how the Christians were able to hold this perilous situation for two years, in the face of Saladin’s massive army, is the critical question of the later years of his career. Regrettably there is no one conclusive answer. The starting point of any analysis must be Saladin himself. Whatever was achieved for Islam in Palestine in the 1180s was the doing of this one man. There was nothing automatic or overriding about the drive to recover Jerusalem. When Nur-ad-Din united Aleppo and Damascus way back in 1154 the Christians had believed, with reason, that their hour had come. Yet twenty years passed and the great champion of Islam died without having made any serious move to recover the Holy Places. The lesser lords of Syria who were eventually forced into alliance with Saladin had little real motivation to join the but fear of him and hope of plunder. Once Jerusalem fell it became another province in his massive empire, and the enthusiasm for battle with the infidel became still weaker. Only the will of Saladin kept the Muslims at war while it was only his skill and personal inspiration on the field of battle that saved them from defeat. Apart from his brother al-Adil, none of his commanders was capable of the sustained effort and imagination that the slogging war against the Franks demanded. Even the dashing Taqi-ad-Din had called up Saladin to conclude the siege of Toron – a standard enough operation – while throughout the Acre campaign only his personal presence could bring success.

But Saladin, now in his early fifties, was beginning to weaken under the strain of a lifetime of work and war. His health had never been strong and a recurrent stomach complaint laid him up more and more frequently, causing lapses in the fighting at often critical moments. For the army in general had little interest in continuing the war. Most of the great cities of the kingdom were now in Muslim hands and the opportunities of plunder correspondingly reduced. Nor did the coming campaign offer much in the way of exciting action. Since its nomadic days the Turkish army had relied on speed and mobility – the static warfare of the siege was not its métier. After Hattin, Saladin had systematically bought towns and fortresses with the lives of the garrisons. Strong Christian forces remained in the field, but the price was worth paying to save his troops the kind of action where they were at their weakest. Once King Guy had begun to establish himself around Acre in the last days of August just such a campaign began to seem unavoidable.

At first, however, things must have seemed promising. For the first month there were almost daily skirmishes and battles between garrison and Franks, Franks and the main Muslim relieving force. The weather was kind and an almost tournament atmosphere developed. Knights and emirs and the soldiery of both sides got to know each other so well that the battle might be halted for an hour or two while they exchanged news and views or even brought up the musicians from the rear for a session. When the entertainment was over the fighting was resumed by common consent. On one occasion a mock battle was even arranged between two lads from the city and two from the besieging army. One of the Muslim boys threw his Christian opposite number to the ground and claimed him as prisoner; a Christian knight solemnly offered the victor a ransom of two dinars, which was gratefully received, and the prisoner duly released.

A note of reality was struck in mid-September when Taqi-ad-Din, commanding the northern wing near the coast, succeeded in forcing a way through the Christian lines. Inevitably Saladin was closely involved. His concern with the details of the operation was ‘like that of a mother, threatened with the loss of one of her children’, for three days he ate virtually nothing. But the outcome was a triumphant entry with his entourage into the city. While the sultan went the rounds of the defences his courtiers enthusiastically shied stones down at the ranks of the besieging army. ‘Great had been the fear of the Franks and they would have fled if they could; but our leaders considered the opening of the road as an unexpected success and did not finish off the job although had they seized the moment they would have exterminated the enemy who were completely demoralised. Given this respite they were able to reestablish their position and close the road.’ Ominously for the future, they began to fortify their camp with trenches and revetments. It was the first experiment in a system of defences that would soon make the Franks impregnable.

There were to be many times in the future when Saladin was robbed of a decisive advantage by the unwillingness of his men and their commanders to push home an unexpected victory; but on this occasion he himself may have been hesitant to commit his whole force, as his army was not yet up to strength. Reinforcements were expected from Egypt and three sizeable detachments of the main army were still in the north, blockading the garrisons of Antioch, Tripoli and Tyre. The troops at Acre ranged from the relatively untrained bands of Diyar-Bakr, ‘men completely ignorant of military matters’, as Baha’-ad-Din called them, to veterans who had fought under Shirkuh at the conquest of Egypt twenty years before. They were encamped in a semi-circle round Acre, matching the arc of the Frankish besieging army. But it was more than a camp; it was a standing line of battle carefully planned by Saladin to reduce, as far as possible, the weaknesses of the material that made it up. It was a general principle with him to order his line of march meticulously to be ready for action at any time, and this camp was arranged on the same lines.

The northern anchor point of the two-mile crescent was made up of veterans under the command of Taqi-ad-Din, one of the best soldiers in the army. A firm link between this wing and the forces of the centre was made by further divisions of trustworthy troops, next came the contingents from Nablus, Diyar-Bakr and Mosul, a right of centre bloc consisting of soldiers of less sure loyalty or ability. The centre itself consisted of divisions under al-Afdal and az-Zahir, with their father nominally in overall command. On Saladin’s immediate left the cohorts of warlike Kurds under their commander al-Mashtub and further along the line the forces of Sinjar, of Harran and Edessa under Gökböri, and on the extreme left wing the ever reliable old guard of Shirkuh. Saladin’s HQ was on a low hill a mile or so in the rear. The morning of 4 October found him galloping down to the army to prepare for what looked like a major offensive being mounted by the enemy.

Since Taqi-ad-Din’s mid-September victory the Franks had been reinforced by a force from Tyre under Count Conrad, though the quarrel with Guy was only patched up. He would fight with the king’s army but only if he were treated as his equal. Also with the royal army were the count of Thuringia, with a contingent of Germans, and a force of Templars. It was the biggest concentration the Christians could hope for in the foreseeable future, and the last chance they could expect for a decisive engagement with the Muslims. Both Baha’-ad-Din and Ibn-al-Athir stress that the Christian attack was quite unexpected. That morning ‘the Muslims were about their usual duties, some coming down to offer battle, others doing chores about the camp or going to fetch the provisions for their group for the day.’ From the vantage point of his HQ Saladin had been able to see the signs of unusual preparation in the enemy camp, but there was not time to do more than give the signal for a general muster to action stations as soon as possible. Now the point of that carefully planned camp could be seen. ‘Because the sultan had disposed his troops even in camp, according to their order of battle, they did not have to change their positions when they heard the signal for action.’

The first attack was a charge by the Templars against Taqi-ad-Din. He decided on the time-honoured tactic of the feigned retreat, perhaps to give the rest of the line more time to come to bear by drawing the attack off-centre. Saladin had left the immediate command of the centre to Isa, the governor of Jerusalem, while he ‘rode up and down the battalions, urging them on to the battle and calling on their zeal for the true religion.’ Without his tireless inspiration throughout the battle it is probable that the surprise achieved by the Christians would have brought them a notable victory. As it was the need to be everywhere at once in the opening stages, anxiously keeping an eye on the success with which his emirs were bringing their forces to bear even as he rallied the morale of the troopers, led Saladin into a serious and surprising mistake. Both our two chief authorities for the battle agree that it was by his order that a few contingents were detached from the centre to go to the help of Taqi-ad-Din. Perhaps the sultan assumed the right was as disorganised as some other parts of the line and was in real retreat. He did not have the chance to recover his misjudgement. The enemy high command at once sized the situation up and a phalanx of foot and horse was soon doubling ‘as one man’ towards the weakened centre. Surrounded by foot soldiers the knights’ horses were almost proof against the Muslim bowmen, and then at the last moment they opened up and the cavalry crashed through in perfect order to scatter the ill-fated men from Diyar-Bakr. The rout continued up to the shores of Lake Tiberias – some of the Turks did not stop their flight until they reached the streets of Damascus itself. As for the citizens of Tiberias, they fled their city immediately, on what sounded like the news of a massive Christian victory.

Returning from their invigorating chase over the hills of Galilee, the knights made for the hill on which Saladin’s tent was standing, killing a few camp-followers and chamberlains as they went. ‘It was only by God’s grace that they did not cut down Saladin’s tent for if they had, the whole Muslim army would have realised how far they had got and that the centre of their own army had fled before the enemy, and this would have led to a general flight.’ As it was, a little tired from their exertions, they looked about to find with some surprise that they were divided from their own people by a fierce battle. On the right, Taqi-ad-Din still held firm and forced the Christian troops launched into the gap into the centre to turn aside and deal with this opposition first. On the left the Muslim ranks were almost unbroken and some detachments were moving up to cut off the retreat of the Christians returning from the rout. Even the centre was reforming, inevitably as we have now learnt to expect, under persuasion and threats of the ubiquitous Saladin. And it was with a group of horse drawn from this demoralised section of the army that the sultan tipped the scales decisively against the Franks. Under his leadership they were once more a fighting force and were straining to get at the small, isolated body coming down from the hill. Saladin, who had marshalled them in a fold in the ground, held them back until the knights had passed and then unleashed the charge. The rest of the Christian army saw their supposedly victorious brothers stampeded into a panic flight and rushed pell mell back to their lines.

The moment could be turned into a crashing victory and Saladin prepared to gather his men for the coup de grâce. The whole engagement had shown him at his brilliant best as a commander in the field. The careful planning at the outset of the campaign had ensured the army was virtually on a war footing at a moment’s notice, and it was his tireless energy at the moment of battle that had raised the whole line into action. The mistake of the weakened centre, if it was in fact his and not that of Isa of Jerusalem, had been magnificently recovered, and the final charge, made possible only because he, yet again, had restored the shattered morale of the centre, had revealed his incisive tactical sense. Now, even after exhausting hours of battle, he grasped the nub of the reversed tactical situation and was girding for the conclusive encounter – only to find his army would not follow. An alarm was spreading all along the line that the camp had been pillaged and men and officers were peeling off in all directions to check the safety of their possessions and hard-earned booty from earlier campaigns.

The rout of the central divisions and the pell-mell cross-country pursuit by the Franks had been seen from the tents behind the battle lines where the servants and camp-followers had deduced the total defeat of the Muslim army. Supposing their masters dead or in flight, they looted the rich camp furniture and stored plunder, and, taking the pack horses, made their best speed eastwards. When the battleweary warriors got back to their tents it was to find that they had ‘escaped the danger of death only to fall into other misfortunes. The rich found themselves paupers and the bravest man hesitated.’ Himself overgenerous when dividing the spoils of war between his emirs, Saladin now found himself obliged to leave a won battle to organise a treasure hunt for their lost possessions. There was nothing else to be done if he expected still to have an army the next day. Messengers and armed posses were dispatched across the hills to bring back the miscreants and a proclamation read through the camp that everything was to be brought before the specially convened court of redistribution.

To add insult to injury, it was Saladin who had to preside over the court. Yet he did it with ‘a firm and generous heart, a smiling demeanour and with the rectitude of judgement he had shown in trust in God and that energy he had in the defence of religion’. Somewhat unnecessarily the chronicler adds that the whole business was for Saladin ‘a great fatigue’. It is a measure of the man’s strength of will that he was able to remain completely unruffled while he dealt with a matter supremely indifferent to him but vitally important to the loot-hungry captains who manned his armies. It is evidence of his shrewdness as an adjudicator that we hear of no disputed claims afterwards. Despite the disruption all this had caused, Saladin called a council of war within the week and urged a new attack in force before the Franks could recover their position completely. But ‘they reached the conclusion that it would be best to withdraw the army a few miles further back and allow the men to rest’.

It must be confessed that the emirs may have had other good reasons on their side. The stench from the thousands of decaying corpses, either on the battlefield or dumped in the River Belus, chief supply of fresh water to the Christians, was threatening to become a major health hazard. Saladin, exhausted by the almost ceaseless exertions of the past week, had again relapsed with his old illness; while the soldiery at large, having been in the field for an unbroken fifty days, was entitled to a respite. Even so it was this week more than any other which made possible the Third Crusade. The Franks used it to strengthen their defences. Their camp became transformed into a strongly fortified town with numerous sally ports and posterns, which made it easy for them in the future to launch sorties where and when they wished. ‘Every day the spies informed Saladin of the Franks’ activities and the seriousness of the situation. But he, sunk in illness, was in no state to act.’ His advisers could now see, as the walls and trenches continued to grow round the Frankish perimeter, what the hesitation of a few days previously was going to cost the Muslims, and some urged Saladin to send the army back under a different commander to put a stop to these activities. Perhaps if al-Adil had been there to take charge Saladin would have considered the proposal but he knew the rest of his staff commanders too well. ‘If I am not there with them they will achieve nothing whatsoever and might well do more harm than good.’

It was only a few days after this that he received definite confirmation that the German Crusade which he had long been dreading and preparing for had been on the march since May. The royal chancellery was set hard at work and on 23 October an embassy left the camp at Acre on the road north to rally support for the jihad. It was led by the secretary Baha’-ad-Din, who carried letters for the rulers of Sinjar, Mosul and Irbil – to send yet more troops – and for the caliph, to lend his support to Saladin’s appeals. Hoping to shame the Islamic leaders into action he bitterly compared the Muslims – ‘lacking in zeal, not one of them responding to the call’ – with the zeal of the Christians – ‘for Him they worship, and in defence of their faith’. ‘In defence of their religion they consider it a small thing to spend even their life, and they have kept their infidel brothers supplied with arms and champions in war.’ Muslims with Saladin’s army were genuinely astonished by the degree of European support that was arriving. A prisoner told Ibn-al-Athir that although he was his widowed mother’s only son she had sold their house to equip him for the Crusade. There were many similar tales to fire the indignation of Saladin’s courtiers when they considered the general indifference of Islam, for the fact was that the only territories to send troops to the Holy War were those whose rulers were Saladin’s subordinates or clients. The caliph sent merely good wishes, a consignment of arms and incendiary chemicals used in the making of Greek fire, and authority to raise taxes up to 20,000 dinars from some of the western provinces nominally under Baghdad’s authority.

In November al-Adil arrived with the reinforcements from Egypt; these replaced the contingents from the eastern cities, most of which were returning home for the winter. At the end of October fifty galleys had broken through into the harbour, while in December a large Egyptian fleet under the personal command of the renowned admiral Lulu brought supplies and men. But these were the only successes Saladin could boast for months ahead. Torrential rains reduced the plain about Acre to a sea of mud. However, if this stopped all Muslim attacks it did not prevent the Christians from completing their trench and walls of circumvallation, so that by the end of November Acre was almost completely blockaded by land. Moreover, the Christians too were getting new recruits, men who had become impatient of the political saraband which was keeping the kings of England and France in Europe, and with the slow progress of the Germans. In the early winter months, Danes, Frisians, Flemings, Frenchmen, Germans and Hungarians were among those to make landfall on the broad beaches in the bay below Acre. Then, in March, Conrad was able to sail up the coast to Tyre and return with more men without any effective opposition from the Muslim ships.

Apart from desultory fighting at the Christian fortifications, more than six months passed without Saladin’s men making any attempt to dislodge their enemies. During the spring of 1190 the contingents from Harran, Aleppo and the other eastern cities began to return to the camp, but many of these were immediately sent northwards to watch the passes where the Germans were expected. For their part the Christians did not make another attempt to force a full-scale battle; they were content to keep within their massive defences and keep up the pressure on the garrison. At the end of April they were ready for a major assault. Conrad had come back from Tyre with a load of specially seasoned timber and other materials with which the army carpenters built three siege towers, each about ninety feet tall and with five separate floors crowded with troops. They overtopped the walls so that the bowmen could keep the defenders under heavy fire while the fosse at the foot of the walls was being filled up. If this could be done, and the siege towers rolled up to the walls, the future of the city would be black. An operation on this scale would be able to put enough troops on the walls to force a massive bridgehead.

Saladin ordered heavy attacks on the Christian defence works, and for eight days battle raged without a break. The Frankish attack on the walls was slowed down but by no means halted. From contemporary accounts it is clear that the siege towers were exceptionally well designed and well protected. Not even constant bombardment with Greek fire destroyed them, and the garrison commander, Karakush, was almost frantic with fear that the town was lost. At last he was persuaded to listen to the proposals of a Damascene inventor and scientist who, apparently, had come to settle in Acre after its capture. He asked and got temporary command of the garrison’s ballistas and directed the fire. The first salvo was of the standard naphtha canisters which had so far produced no results, and when they again failed the defenders saw their enemies dancing in derision on the top of the towers. But then followed the patent compound, and almost at once the towers burst into a sheet of flame. Perhaps this anonymous twelfth-century chemist had discovered an explosive compound which detonated spontaneously on mixing, and, lacking the technology of fused, compartmented shells, was obliged to discharge the constituents separately. Whatever it was, his invention was a total success. The first tower was destroyed with all hands; by the time the artillery had trained round to the other towers their soldiers had fled back to the lines and watched the destruction of the doomed military hardware. It was the end of the attack and the city was saved. The inventor was granted an audience with Saladin, who asked him to name his reward. To the sultan’s astonishment, no doubt, the reply came: ‘I want no reward but the love of God.’ It must have been a refreshing change to meet a man truly devoted to the ideals which Saladin had so often proclaimed.

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