The Last Throw of the Dice

The Battle of Wadi al-Khaznadar, also known as the Third Battle of Homs, was a Mongol victory over the Mamluks in 1299.

Mongol operations in the Levant, 1299-1303, showing the location of the Battle of Wadi al-Khaznadar (3rd Homs)

After the fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the Holy Land, shock waves traveled through Europe. Every bishop summoned the faithful to tell them that Christ’s Sepulchre had been irretrievably lost to them. Among the people there was no rage, only a vague sense of loss. For two hundred years they had been hearing about the Crusades, their triumphs, and their failures, and they had little emotion left for the dead who lay buried among the ruins of Acre. The days of the Crusades were over, and they had other matters to attend to. Moreover, they were grateful that they were no longer to be taxed to pay for the Crusades.

But the Crusades were not yet entirely a thing of the past. To end the story with the fall of Acre is to leave out the last brilliant flaring-up of the Crusader spirit, the sudden emergence of a new, heaven-sent opportunity to establish God’s kingdom firmly in the Holy Land. The Mamelukes might seem to be in total control; they had reduced most of the seacoast cities to rubble; they stabled their horses in Jerusalem; but they were not in any practical sense ruling over Palestine, which had become a desert. There remained Armenia, which would survive for 175 years, almost forgotten by the West, under Christian kings who descended from the family of Lusignan. There remained the armed Templars who had taken refuge on the island of Cyprus. There were not very many of them, but they could call upon the Templars in Europe to swell their ranks. Above all, there remained the Mongol army of the Ilkhan Ghazan, and this army, when well led, could sweep everything in its path. Ghazan had been converted to Islam, but he felt kindly toward the Christians and unkindly toward the Sultan of Egypt.

In the summer of 1292, a year after the fall of Acre, the Templars on Cyprus elected a new Master, Jacques de Molay, who was the Marshal of the Templar army, and expert in all military affairs from the construction of fortresses to tactics and strategy. His election was fraught with extraordinary consequences.

Jacques de Molay, who would bear an extraordinary weight of destiny on his shoulders, was a man almost without a history. He was born near Besançon in eastern France to a family of the minor nobility. He was about twenty-one years old when he entered the order, in 1265, at Beaunein the wine-growing region near Dijon. Thereafter, he spent his whole life in the service of the Templars. He was one of those steadfast soldiers who disappear into the army, for nothing very much was heard of him until he became Marshal.

He quarreled with King Henry of Lusignan, because he wanted to retain complete control of the Templars, while the king wanted to command all the forces on the island. The quarrel became violent, and in August 1298, the pope came out openly on the side of the Master. The pope urged Henry of Lusignan, King of Cyprus, to set aside his quarrels with the Templars, because it was beyond doubt that they contributed to the safety of the kingdom and an open break would only jeopardize the lives of everyone in Cyprus. Boniface VIII was not overstating the case on behalf of the Master of the Temple. The number of Templars on the island was probably no more than five hundred, but they were a disciplined force. Jacques de Molay was a fighting knight, and if the Crusaders ever fought again they would need someone like him to lead them.

For nearly seven years the Mameluke army remained quiescent, partly because Egypt was being ravaged by a plague and partly because the army needed time to absorb the treasure it had pillaged from Palestine. Then suddenly two fully equipped Mameluke divisions stormed Alexandretta and advanced into Cilicia to attack Sis and Adana, slaughtering as they went. One by one, the castles of Armenia were demolished. King Constantine of Armenia, acting on behalf of Hethum, the rightful king, who had been wounded in a palace intrigue, summoned the help of the Mongols. The Ilkhan Ghazan offered to lead a combined Armenian and Mongol army against the Mamelukes.

Messengers were sent to Cyprus to warn the king of the coming battles. A small army was hastily put together and ferried to the port of St. Symeon in the autumn of 1299. Here they made contact with Mongol forces encamped in the ruins of Antioch. Jacques de Molay was given command of thirty thousand Mongol soldiers. Hethum, recovered from his wounds, took command of the Armenian army. He had been partially blinded during the palace intrigue, but his sight had returned and he was able to see the immense army brought up by the Mongols. Altogether there were more than a hundred thousand troops: three or four thousand from Cyprus, perhaps fifteen thousand from Armenia, a small army of Georgians, all the rest Mongols. Ghazan decided that the time had come to rid Syria of the Mamelukes.

Hethum, who knew the Mongol emperor well, and indeed was related to him—Ghazan had married a princess of the Armenian royal family—accompanied the huge army on the march to Wadi al-Khaznadar. Ghazan was very small and he had the wizened features of a Mongol. Hethum thought that in all his army there were not two thousand men as small as the emperor, and there were few who were as ugly; neither were there any so generous, brave, high-minded, or sweet-tempered. Ghazan told Hethum that his intention, once he had swept Syria and Palestine clear of the Mamelukes, was to give that land to the Christians.

Wadi al-Khaznadar, halfway between Aleppo and Damascus, was a large walled town on the Orontes. It was well fortified, with walls of black stone, and was famous for its orchards and the beauty of its people. The Mameluke army was camped in and around the town, ready to do battle. The Mongol-Armenian-Christian army rode along the plain in the shadow of the Lebanon mountains until it was a day’s march from Wadi al-Khaznadar. Ghazan called a halt, saying he would remain there until his horses were fully rested. He set up his camp, busied Wadi al-Khaznadarelf with his own affairs, and seemed totally indifferent to the presence of the enemy a day’s march away. There was an abundance of fodder and water, and provisions came from the surrounding villages.

The news that Ghazan was resting in his camp came to the ears of the Sultan at Wadi al-Khaznadar on December 22, 1299. He decided to attack immediately, reached Ghazan’s camp toward evening, and sent his cavalry to destroy the army of the Mongol emperor. Caught by surprise, Ghazan ordered his own cavalry to dismount. They were not to attack the enemy, but to use their horses as a wall and to shoot arrows at the enemy as soon as they came within range. The Mongols were superb archers. They broke the charge, and by nightfall the Mamelukes had fled.

During that night, the Mongols and their allies advanced on Wadi al-Khaznadar. The battle was resumed at dawn, and this time the Mongols had no need to kneel behind their horses. Armenians, Templars, Hospitallers, and contingents of the Cypriot army, Georgians, and Mongols, spent the day slaughtering the Mamelukes until there was scarcely any part of the battlefield uncarpeted by dead bodies.

The allied losses were small; the Mamelukes lost three-quarters of their army. The sultan fled to Cairo with a small bodyguard of Bedouin, while the survivors fled in the direction of Tripoli and were cut down by Christians living in the mountains of Lebanon. The Sultan’s treasure was found intact. Characteristically, Ghazan ordered that the spoils should be divided among the soldiers, and he kept for Wadi al-Khaznadarelf only the sultan’s sword and a pouch containing the seals of the sultanate.

The army rested for five days and then advanced on Damascus. While they were on the march, the governor of Damascus sent ambassadors with costly presents and the keys to the city. Ghazan received the ambassadors, accepted their gifts, and told them he would set up his camp near the city and perhaps make it his capital. Capchik, a Saracen who had ingratiated Wadi al-Khaznadarelf with Ghazan, was made governor of Damascus, while Cotulossa, a Mongol chieftain, was made second-in-command of the army. Toward the end of February 1300, Ghazan had to return to Persia to put down an uprising. Before he left, he summoned King Hethum, and said the time had come for the Christians to take possession of their castles and restore them to fighting strength. Ghazan said he had given orders to Cotulossa to help them in every way.

For six months the Christians, with the help of the Mongol army, were in effective control of the Holy Land. Everything was restored to them. Dazed, they saw the country over which they had fought for two hundred years given back to them. Armenia belonged once again to the Armenians; the cities of the seacoast as far south as Gaza and Jerusalem itself belonged to the Crusaders. At Easter, services were held in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Templars and Hospitallers had entered the city in triumph, and no one had tried to stop them. Ghazan, before leaving Damascus, sent ambassadors to the pope and the sovereigns of Europe, urging them to pour men, money, and armaments into Palestine, which was his gift to them. He wanted an alliance between the Mongols and the countries of Europe against the Mamelukes, and he was prepared to back up the alliance with his vast army.

The Armenians drifted back to Armenia; the Christian knights surveyed the shattered seacoast cities and wondered whether help would come in time. There were less than five thousand of them now, and they realized that it was beyond the power of a handful of men to make a kingdom. Jacques de Molay sent out columns in all directions, pretending to have a force much greater than the one he possessed. The pope told the Mongol ambassadors that the time was not ripe for another Crusade, and the sovereigns of Europe said the same. Ghazan remained in Tabriz; Jacques de Molay took up residence in the Templum Dei in Jerusalem, and fretted over the impossibility of the task entrusted to him. The kingdom was in his hands, but where were the people to till the fields, guard the frontiers, rebuild the churches? The seacoast cities must be rebuilt brick by brick: towers, castles, gates, city walls. Where were the women? Where were the children? With a Mongol army to protect them, with thousands upon thousands of immigrants coming from Europe under the good offices of the pope and the sovereigns of Europe, the kingdom might be restored, but it would have to be done quickly and decisively.

It was the year 1300, the Jubilee Year commanded by Pope Boniface VIII, the most imperial of popes, to celebrate the achievements of the Church and his own power. Enormous crowds flocked to Rome, where the pope sometimes appeared in procession with two swords held before him, representing both spiritual and temporal power. In the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the few remaining Crusaders were desperately seeking help and the pope did not listen to them.

In Palestine the summer was unusually hot. The trees withered; the roads were thick with dust. As usual, there were conspiracies, counterconspiracies, secret agreements. Quite suddenly Jacques de Molay was confronted with a conspiracy designed to shatter his last hopes. Capchik, the Saracen governor of Damascus, the close and trusted friend of the Ilkhan Ghazan, who had innocently raised him to high position, entered into secret correspondence with the Mameluke sultan, offering to place Damascus under Egyptian sovereignty in exchange for a vast treasure, the sultan’s sister in marriage, and the governorship of Damascus to be held by him and his family in perpetuity. Dictating his memoirs to his friend Nicolas Falcon seven years later, in a convent in Poitiers, the monk Haiton, formerly Hethum, King of Armenia, records in his rather haphazard manner the events of that summer and autumn:

When Molay saw that the entire country was in a state of rebellion, he knew he would be unable to make headway with so few men, and that is why he rode to the kingdom of Mesopotamia by the shortest route, and related in great detail everything that had passed in the kingdom of Syria. Ghazan could do nothing because it was summer, but with winter coming up he made all his preparations on the banks of the Euphrates and sent Cotulossa with thirty thousand Tartar horsemen, ordering them, when they reached the country of Antioch, to send word to the King of Armenia and other Christians in the countries of the Orient and Cyprus to join him. While they were waiting for Ghazan Wadi al-Khaznadarelf to march into the kingdom of Syria with all his forces, Cotulossa followed the emperor’s orders.

Cotulossa reached Antioch with his thirty thousand Tartars and sent word to the King of Armenia to join him. The King agreed to march and went to find him; and the Christians in the kingdom of Cyprus, having heard of the arrival of Cotulossa, sent forces to the island off Tortosa. Among them was the Lord of Tyre, brother of the king of Cyprus, who was Generalissimo, and the men in charge of the Hospital and the Temple with their brethren. While they were all preparing themselves to do their Christian duty, there came the rumor that Ghazan was ill and the doctors despaired for his life.

So it came about that Cotulossa returned to Ghazan with the Tartars, and the King of Armenia returned to Armenia, and the Christians who had assembled at Tortosa returned to Cyprus. In this way the expedition to save the holy land was totally abandoned. This happened in the year of Our Lord 1301.

This was not quite the end, because the Mongols and Armenians went on fighting. There were continual small battles and skirmishes, and then at last, in 1303, at Marj as-Saffar, a great plain twenty miles south of Damascus, the combined Mongol-Armenian army was defeated. The remnants of the army retired to Nineveh, where Ghazan received them, promising to continue to wage war against the Saracens and giving King Hethum a sum of money, sufficient to support a thousand Armenian horsemen and a thousand Mongol soldiers to be used in the defense of the kingdom of Armenia. The king returned to Armenia, raised an army and won a victory over the Mamelukes at Ayati, near Tarsus. It was a decisive victory. Of the seven thousand Mamelukes who took part in it, only three hundred survived. The sultan called for a truce. King Hethum was happy to give it to him. Thereupon, remembering that he had always wanted to be a monk, he set his affairs in order, put a nephew on the throne, and traveled to the West.

The monk Haiton was not entirely correct when he said that all the Christian forces returned to Cyprus. He left out of account the handful of Templars who had remained on Ruad. From this small waterless island, the last remaining possession of the Templars, Jacques de Molay had hoped to send landing parties along the coast to recover the Holy Land. The island was well fortified, it had a good harbor, a fine church, tanks for storing rainwater. One day in 1303, the Mamelukes sent twenty ships to the island with ten thousand soldiers. They forced a landing, massacred most of the Templars, and sailed away. Only a few of the Templars on Ruad were able to reach Cyprus.

With the battle of Marj as-Saffar and the fall of Ruad, the Crusades truly came to an end. There would be raids on Tortosa, Acre, and Alexandria by ships based on Cyuprus, and from time to time popes and kings would announce forthcoming crusades either because it suited them to do so for political reasons or because they genuinely felt that such things were possible. Whatever their intentions, these crusades never took place.

Throughout the Crusades there had been a strange sense of fatality, a sense of doom. Even when the Crusades were at their height, when the kings of Jerusalem appeared to be in full control, there seemed to be something wanting. Seen from the villages and cities of the West, Jerusalem appeared in men’s eyes like a dream in shimmering Oriental colors, remote and inaccessible; and even those who walked through the streets of Jerusalem sometimes wondered whether they had really reached the place they had so desired to see. They had heard it called “Jerusalem the Golden,” and they imagined a city made of gold and rubies and emeralds. Instead, it was a dusty place, though the stones were the rich color of crusts of bread. No city created by man could live up to Jerusalem’s reputation. For two hundred years, proud men from the West fought a continuing battle for the city set on one of the mountains of the Judaean desert. For two hundred years, kings, princes, knights as well as the common people suffered from thirst and scorching heat to win and hold a city in the wilderness. Then at last they discovered that Jerusalem was not a geographical place. It was a place in the human heart.

Mamluks vs. Mongols