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Mamluks vs Crusaders

Mamluks vs Crusaders


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By Adam Ali

Just how good was the Mamluk army? To most history enthusiasts, their victory against the Mongols at the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260 comes to mind as the Mamluk Sultanate’s claim to military fame. However, the Mamluks fought several other wars and battles against the Mongols and other foes, and they emerged victorious in almost all their major military encounters.

This column will focus on the wars between the Mamluks and the Crusaders / Franks in the Near East. It was a struggle that began in the thirteenth century and would last until the end of the Middle Ages.

The Mamluk wars against Crusaders first emerged during the Ayyubid era (1171–1260), when Al-Salih Ayyub, the last effective Ayyubid sultan, created an army composed primarily of Mamluk units. His past experience of betrayal and imprisonment had fostered a deep mistrust for his freeborn troops and relatives. On the other hand, he put his faith in his mamluk slave soldiers who stood by his side when everyone else had abandoned him.

Al-Salih Ayyub’s Bahriyya regiment was the elite unit of his army. It was superbly trained and equipped. The 1,000-2,000 mamluks that formed the regiment were the epitome of the professional medieval soldier. Their lifetime of training made them versatile soldiers suitable for various types of warfare. They functioned both as heavy cavalry and mounted archers in the field. Although they were primarily cavalrymen, these mamluks were also trained to fight on foot and adept at urban combat as well as in the field.

The Bahriyya first showed their military effectiveness at the Battle of La Forbie (also known as the Battle of Harbiyya) in 1244. Al-Salih, with his army of Mamluks and a band of Khwarazmian mercenaries defeated an allied army composed of the forces of the Crusader States (including the knightly orders of the Templars and Hospitallers) and the Ayyubid principalities of Syria. The mamluk units, bolstered by the elite Bahriyya, held against the Frankish attacks on their lines. The Crusaders launched multiple charges but were unsuccessful at dislodging the mamluks from their positions. Meanwhile the Khwarazmians were able to put the Ayyubids to flight and successfully encircled the crusaders. The battle was a devastating defeat with huge losses suffered by both the crusaders and their Syrian Ayyubid allies. It was last time that the Crusader States successfully put a large and effective army into the field. The defeat at La Forbie was also what prompted the launching of the Seventh Crusade, led by Louis IX, against Egypt.

The Seventh Crusade started off on a promising note. Louis IX’s army landed at Damietta in the summer of 1249 and captured the city without much difficulty. His march on Cairo was delayed due to the flooding of the Nile. He set out early in 1250 and found the forces of Egypt blocking his way at Mansura. The Crusaders launched a surprise attack on the Egyptians after they were guided to an unguarded (or weakly guarded) ford across the Ashmum Canal. The Egyptian camp was overrun by Robert of Artois, the king’s brother, and his knights. However, these troops were the not mamluks, they were conscripts, levies, and mercenaries.

As the crusaders pushed into the city of Mansura they started to face stiffer resistance. The defenders shot arrows from rooftops at the advancing crusaders, who had lost cohesion in the narrow streets of the town, and pelted them with stones. As Robert of Artois and his troops filed into the main square, they were met by the Bahriyya, all heavily armed and armored. The Crusader advance was halted and they were defeated. The defeat at Mansura was the beginning of the end of the Seventh Crusade. Louis and his forces attempted to withdraw to Damietta but they were caught by the Egyptian army at Fariskur, where Louis IX’s army was destroyed, most of those Crusaders who were not killed in the battle were captured, including the French King.

The End of the Crusader States

After Mansura and the rise of the Mamluk regime in 1250, the conflict between the Mamluk sultanate and the Crusader States was, for the most part, one-sided. It consisted primarily of a series of siege operations by the Mamluks against fortified Crusader cities and castles. There were no major pitched battles on the scale of La Forbie, Mansura, or Fariskur and the crusaders were in a constant struggle to survive as they lost more territories to the advancing Mamluks. It was during the reign of Baybars I (1260-1277) that the Crusaders suffered significant losses. Several important castles and towns fell to Baybars including: Antioch, Caesarea, Arsuf, Ṣafad, Jaffa, Antioch, and Crac des Chevaliers.

The Mamluk army, in addition to being a superb cavalry force in the field, was also very adept at siege warfare. A brief description of the siege and capture of Caesarea will exemplify how it operated. The Mamluk army quickly encircled the city upon its arrival at its target. Siege engines such as trebuchets (manjaniq) and cats (dabbaba/zahhafa – a protective shed on wheels that could be pushed up to the wall) were assembled. When the preparations were completed, the attackers proceeded to bombard the city and archers constantly harried the defenders, raking the wall and parapets with arrow fire. The besiegers also attempted to sap the walls. In most cases, as in the example of Caesarea, the city fell quickly. The surviving defenders then withdrew to the citadel, which was more difficult to attack. During the siege of Caesarea, Baybars, along with his personal retinue, ascended a high church tower adjacent to the citadel and showered the defenders on the wall with arrows. The citadel finally fell when it was stormed. The sultan was among those who led the assault. Seeing that fighting was hopeless, the defenders of Caesarea fled under the cover of darkness and the Mamluk army took control of the entire city and the citadel. In other instances the defenders either sued for peace when they saw that fighting was useless or were overwhelmed by the attacking army.

The last major crusader stronghold to fall was Acre in 1291. It was Sultan al-Ashraf Khalil (r. 1290-1293) who finished the work started by Baybars and his father (Qalawun, r. 1279-1290) and put an end to the Crusader States in the Levant. His army operated and performed much like Baybars’s at the siege of Caesarea. It surrounded the city, constructed siege engines and began a systematic assault on several weak points. When the walls of the city were breached, the sultan rushed to the breach in person along with his retinue. They were able to take the city, and ten days later its embattled defenders surrendered the citadel. Baybars al-Manṣuri (a mamluk officer) and Abu al-Fida (the Ayyubid prince of Hama), both present at Acre and both of whom left historical accounts in their chronicles, describe their experiences during the siege and the roles that they played. Abu al-Fida states that he was involved in direct assaults on the walls using a cat and in beating back sorties of defenders, and Baybars al-Manṣuri claims to be the one who spotted a weak point in one of the walls, which was eventually breached and became a point of entry for the Mamluk army.

Crusader counterattacks

There were some attempts made by the Crusaders to recoup their losses. However, these campaigns did little more than temporarily slow down Mamluk advances. Prince Edward of England’s crusade (1271-1272), also known as the Ninth Crusade, was launched in response to Baybars’s victories against the Mongols and the crusaders. His forces arrived at Acre in 1271. Baybars was besieging the city and Edward’s timely arrival caused him to lift the siege. However, Edward’s forces, along with the armies of the crusaders states in the Levant, were far too weak to face the Mamluk army in a pitched battle. Most of Edward’s activities were limited to raiding the neighboring domains under Mamluk control, always withdrawing before being forced into battle against the Mamluk army. Edward’s activities and raids also forced Baybars to lift the siege of Tripoli and negotiated a ten year truce with the Mamluks.

Another successful crusader campaign against the Mamluks was the Alexandrian Crusade led by Peter I of Lusignan, the king of Cyprus, in October 1365. The crusade’s target was Alexandria and it was probably motivated more by commercial and piratical rivalries than Christianity. Peter I’s primary objectives were to conquer Alexandria and make it a base of military and commercial operations. If he could not accomplish this, then he aimed to cause as much damage as possible in order to divert its trade to the Cypriot port of Famagusta.

A crusader fleet of 70 ships manned by sailors, soldiers, and knights from Venice, Genoa, Cyprus, France, and Rhodes set sail from Cyprus to Alexandria. The attackers were able to land without much difficulty. They overwhelmed the defenders, and stormed the city. The Crusaders spent several days sacking the city and massacring and enslaving thousands of its people, both Muslims and Christians alike. They then loaded their spoils along with 5,000 prisoners onto their ships and departed upon sighting the Mamluk army as it arrived to relieve the city.

Although Edward’s Crusade and the Alexandrian Crusade inflicted some losses on the Mamluks, they were minor affairs in the big picture. Neither of the crusader armies faced the Mamluk army in the field; the probable outcome of such an encounter would have been defeat. Both crusades attacked and raided areas where the Mamluks were not present or few in numbers. In the case of the Alexandrian Crusade, the fight was made even easier for Peter I’s forces as there were no major mamluk regiments in the city and the governor and many of his men were away on pilgrimage that year. Furthermore, the Mamluks were fighting multiple foes on several fronts including the Mongols of the Ilkhanate and their Armenian vassals, who presented a much greater threat to the Mamluks than the Crusaders and occupied most of their efforts and attention.

The Mamluks vs Cyprus

Even though the Crusader States ceased to exist in the Levant after 1291, the Crusader presence continued in the eastern Mediterranean and used islands such as Rhodes and Cyprus as their bases of operations against the Mamluks. The conflict continued between them and the Mamluks in the form of naval raids and attacks, as exemplified by the Alexandrian Crusade above. The Mamluks constructed a revenge fleet of 100 ships to invade Cyprus a year after the Alexandrian Crusade, but the only action this fleet saw was combat on the Nile in a civil war that erupted between the great amir Yalbugha al-Umari and the sultan, al-Ashraf Shaban (r. 1363-1376), in 1366.

A serious Mamluk invasion of the island of Cyprus would not materialize until several decades later due to internal struggles and civil wars within the Mamluk sultanate, which resulted in the transition from Turkish (Kypchak) to Circassian rule. It was under sultan Barsbay (r. 1422-1438) that Cyprus was invaded on two occasions in 1424 and 1426. This sultan was compelled to focus on strengthening the navy in order to deal with Frankish pirates who threatened the coastal regions of the sultanate and commercial shipping. These pirates’ main base of operation was Cyprus.

Barsbay dispatched a small fleet composed of both Syrian and Egyptian ships to raid Cyprus in 1424. The fleet was commanded by the hajib (chamberlain), Jirbash al-Karimi, and was very successful. It defeated a number of Cypriot ships that had been sent to intercept the attackers off the coast of the island. Half of the mamluks on board the ships successfully disembarked onto Cyprus with their horses. Another battle was fought against the Cypriot army, commanded by the king’s brother, and after some heavy fighting the Mamluks put their enemies to flight. The victors then proceeded to ride across the island taking many prisoners and looting several towns and villages. The ships then returned to Cairo laden with spoils. According to the sources, the victorious Mamluk expeditionary force returned with 1,060 prisoners and so much booty that it had to be carried by 170 porters, 40 mules, and 10 camels.

Barsbay launched a second larger attack against Cyprus in 1426, which resulted in the capture of King Janus and the Mamluk conquest of the island. The sultan commanded the army to muster and reviewed it before it embarked on a fleet numbering over 100 ships. The army was able to make a successful landing on the island and in a joint operation with the sailors who remained onboard the ships, took Limassol and sacked it.

The land force, which included several elite Royal Mamluks, then marched on Nicosia. Along the way the Mamluks were ambushed by King Janus and his army and despite being outnumbered and being taken by surprise they proved to be the superior soldiers. After some heavy fighting they routed the Cypriots and captured the king and many of his men. They then continued their march, captured Nicosia, and sacked the city. A Frankish fleet headed to the island to relieve the beleaguered Franks of Cyprus but the Mamluk fleet intercepted and defeated it before any reinforcements could make a landing on the island. The victorious Mamluks returned to Cairo with large quantities of spoils and many prisoners including King Janus. In addition to the massive amounts of wealth brought back to Egypt, the sultanate’s treasury was filled with the 200,000 dinars that the Cypriot king used to pay his ransom. Furthermore, King Janus was only allowed to return to his kingdom as a vassal of the sultan, after swearing allegiance to him, and with the obligation of paying an annual tribute of 20,000 dinars.

Barsbay’s campaigns against Cyprus and the conquest of the island indicated a revival of the military might and awe of the Mamluk sultanate, especially after the setbacks it had suffered in Syria only two decades earlier at the hands of Timur (Tamerlane) and the internal conflicts that had plagued the Circassian regime after Barquq’s death (r. 1382-1389 & 1390-1399). In fact, having heard all about the conquest of Cyprus, a delegation came to Barsbay from Rhodes to pay homage, offer tribute, and to seek assurances that they would not be attacked next.

It is also interesting to note that the sources are quiet about any major internal conflicts in the sultanate during Barsbay’s reign. There is very little mention of revolts, mutinies, riots, depredations, or disorder perpetrated by the army during these years, which was a common occurrence during the reigns of several sultans. The most probable reason for this was that the royal coffers were full with the wealth gained from the wars with Cyprus and thus the sultan was able to pay his army. Moreover, the soldiers who had participated in these campaigns were also kept occupied fighting an external foe and their martial nature and desire for plunder were satisfied in these wars.

Most of the other contacts between the Mamluks and the Crusaders/Franks were in the form of limited raids and skirmishes. For instance, in 1383 a Frankish raiding force landed at Beirut where it managed to occupy several towers. Such incursions were not deemed serious enough to dispatch the main Mamluk army from Egypt. In fact, it was the local Syrian amirs and their mamluks, accompanied by Kurdish infantrymen, who met the Franks in battle, defeated them, and drove them back to the sea.

Barsbay’s successor, Jaqmaq (r. 1438-1453), used his predecessor’s fleet and raided Rhodes in 1443. This raid was smaller in scale in comparison to Barsbay’s invasion of Cyprus and achieved less. However, the Mamluks besieged the city and bombarded it with both mangonels and cannons. The heavy fighting lasted for weeks both on land and at sea. The Mamluks made several attempts to breach the defenses of Rhodes, but to no avail. Unable to take the castle, the Mamluks satisfied themselves with raiding the countryside before returning to Egypt.

The Crusaders/Franks were one of the Mamluks’ main foes at the inception of their sultanate. However, the threat they posed to the sultanate diminished over time, especially after the reigns of Baybars I, Qalawun, and Al-Ashraf Khalil. Although the Franks continued to be enemies of the Mamluks from the 13th to 16th centuries, they were no longer a major threat after the 14th century and rather represented no more than an annoying thorn in the sultanate’s side. By the Circassian period local garrisons or detachments of the Mamluk army were more than adequate to deal with their raids and incursions. Furthermore, even major operations against them during the Circassian period, such as the invasions of Cyprus, did not involve the entire Mamluk army, only certain elements of it.

The Mongols of the Ilkhanate on the other hand, posed a major existential threat to the early Mamluk sultanate. The Mamluks directed the bulk of their military efforts and resources to the war effort against them for several decades. The next column will explore the conflict between the Mamluks and the Mongols, which saw campaigns and battles on a scale that dwarfed those fought against the Crusaders.

Adam Ali is a lecturer at the University of Toronto.


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