This period of history was an era of great pain for the Christian faithful and clergy of the Holy Land. In each episode unfolded the people viewed the future with a spirit of hope, but then they would confront the reality of the situation, a reality marked by emptiness and hopeless delusion.
Unfortunately the liberation of the Holy Places was entrusted to a singular game of fortune-that of military might. For the weary and destitute Crusaders of the Levant, the result of their efforts was always zero. In order to obtain a sense of these unhappy times, we record briefly the most relevant events of the second half of the thirteenth century.
In order to give confidence and courage to the Christians of the Holy Land after the disaster at Gaza (October 17, 1244), Pope Innocent IV (1243-1254) spoke out about the situation. He wrote a letter of protest to the Sultan As-Saleh Ayyub concerning the massacre of innocent Christians and the destruction wrought by the Khawarismians in the Holy Places. (*18) At the Council of Lyons (June 24, 1245) Innocent IV called for another Crusade. Louis IX, King of France, responded. On June 12, 1248 Louis departed from Paris with a large army, embarking from Aigues Mortes on August 25th. By September 17th he landed with his troops at Limassol on the island of Cyprus.
At this news the Christians of the Levant began to daydream, recalling the glory of the First Crusade!
After eight months of preparation and the arrival of numerous reinforcements, the King left Cyprus on May 30, 1240. Such a sad delusion! Instead of sailing for the Holy Land, the navy turned toward Damietta in Egypt. The two preceding diversions of 1202 and 1218 to Egypt had taught nothing. (*19) Meanwhile, after months of inaction, some good news arrived. However, almost immediately afterwards, a series of unhappy reports began to arrive: the retreat from Mansura, and, with it, news of a terrible epidemic, as well as information about the betrayal which resulted in the imprisonment of the King and the army. It was a total catastrophe! Panic and dismay struck the Christian population. All their hopes were shattered. All their dreams vanished.
At last the kind of miracle that sometimes occurs when everything seems lost actually happened to the Christians and the Crusaders. The King of France and a part of the army were set free, but under very difficult conditions.
Louis IX was able to embark from Damietta on May 8, 1250. He sailed to Acre. For almost four years he was practically the king of Jerusalem, although without actually possessing the city or the title. He brought peace, organization, and security to the disordered Latin Kingdom.
In the enemy camp, Turanshah, the Sultan of Damascus, went to Cairo and there proclaimed himself Sultan of Egypt. He was killed by the Mamelukes who were led by the coarse, bold Baybars. This Baybars had distinguished himself at Gaza in battle against the armies of the league. Immediately the Mamelukes elected Aybak, one of their Emirs, as their leader. (*20) Aybak was the first Mameluke Sultan. He was the founder of two dynasties (the Bahri, 1250-1390 and the Burgi, 1382-1517) which would endure until the arrival of the Ottoman Turks in 1517. (*21)
Before returning to France Louis IX made an accord with the Ayyubite Sultan of Damascus for a truce of two years, six months, and forty days. (*22)
He also made an accord with the Mameluke Aybak for a truce of ten years. Moreover he left a personal representative at Acre along with a garrison of soldiers to be maintained by France throughout his lifetime. On April 24, 1254 Louis returned to Paris.
Two years had not yet elapsed when both the Sultans renewed the truce with the Latin Kingdom for another ten years. They were motivated by their fear of an alliance between the Christians and the Mongols of Persia. During the time of the truce pilgrims from both the West and the East were allowed to visit the Holy Places. There were still occasions when the Christians of the Latin Kingdom waged a kind of civil war for either private or political interests. These battles were fought under the eyes of their enemies, who were complacent spectators.
The Christians of Europe viewed the Mongols as a providential force which could be used to humiliate the arrogance of the Saracens. The alliance which was made among the Mongols, the king of Armenia, the king of Georgia and with the Prince of Antioch gave rise to the hope that the day was not far off when Jerusalem would be freed from the strong coalition. However, in the land of the sun, mirages are common. They are marvelous to behold, but then easily disappear in the face of sad reality.
In 1258 the Mongols captured Baghdad. Then in 1259 they captured Halep, and finally in 1260, Damascus. Kitbuqa, a Christian Mongol general, established his headquarters in Damascus. Within a short time he sent some men into Palestine, but it seems that they never arrived in Jerusalem. On September 3, 1260, the same Kitbuqa marched with an army into the Galilee. There he was drawn into a trap at Ain-Jalut and was taken prisoner. Qutuz, the Mameluke Sultan of Egypt, had him beheaded in December of 1259. On October 23, 1260 Qutuz himself received a mortal blow at the hands of the merciless Baybars. The Mongols retreated to Baghdad.
In 1261 a ray of hope was rekindled for the Christians of the Levant when the Patriarch of Jerusalem, James (Jacques) Pantaléon, a Frenchman from Troyes (1261-1264) was elected Pope. He was well informed about the local situation and he made use of his knowledge when he promoted a new Crusade. However, the egotism of the Princes of Europe invalidated his efforts. For the most part, only a small number of them understood the importance of the Holy Land.
Only a few moments after the fatal blow was given to Qutuz, Baybars was elected Sultan of Egypt. He was a treacherous, cruel Sultan. He was without scruples and was surely the most anti-Christian Sultan of that century. He himself, or by means of his deputies, invaded the territory of Antioch (1261) and the territory of Armenian Cilicia (1263-1266) in order to punish the allies of the Mongols.
With contempt for both the truce and the Christians he destroyed the Basilica of Nazareth (1263). In this same year he went on the rampage against Jerusalem and against Bethlehem. There he ruined a great part of the Crusader constructions which had strengthened the Basilica. (*23) It was probably this occasion which emboldened him to take away the columns and the beautiful slabs of marble which covered the walls and the pavement of the Basilica for use in his palace and at the Mosque of Cairo. It seems that at this time there was no impediment to such an action, although no one knows for sure what the motivation might have been. (*24) In the following years he captured and destroyed many Crusader castles, the fortified city of Caesarea Maritima, Arsuf (1265), and Safed (1266). It seems that he also drove the Latin clergy out of Bethlehem at this same time. (*25) He captured Jaffa and Antioch, along with their territories. In short, he took advantage of the absence of the Mongols and the disinterest of the European Princes. For the Christians of the Levant these were years of great misfortune (1268).
Their desperate cry for help was heard by Pope Clement IV (1265-1268) who zealously urged the Princes of Europe to undertake another Crusade.
On September 1, 1269, James I, King of Aragon, departed with a large fleet from Barcelona for the Holy Land. A great tempest forced it to return home. A few ships did arrive at Acre. King Louis IX decided to make a second journey to the Holy Land. On June 1, 1270 he set sail from Aigues Mortes with a formidable army. Unfortunately his brother, Charles I of Anjou, King of Naples and Sicily, like a bad cox of the Crusade, diverted his fleet to Tunis. Meanwhile in Egypt, due to the lack of hygiene, the excessive summer heat, as well as other reasons, the plague spread like wild fire. The King died (August 25) and so did much of the army.
From the end of 1269, when Baybars learned about the Crusade of Louis IX, he stopped his harassment of the Christians of the Levant. However when he learned that King Louis had died, he went to the territory of Tripoli in Lebanon and committed a great deal of tyranny.
Little help arrived from Europe. Prince Edward I of England embarked for Acre with a thousand soldiers. Taking account of the desperate situation, he made the most of his advantage and pressed for the very survival of the Christians of Acre. He obtained a truce from Baybars (May 22, 1272) for ten years and ten months. Afterwards he returned to England (September 22). Upon the death of his father he became King of England. The Archbishop of Liege, Tedaldo Visconti, had been a member of his retinue. Visconti remained in Acre. While he was there he was elected Pope of Rome, taking the name Gregory X. He worked strenuously to get the Princes of Europe to undertake a universal crusade. At the Council of Lyons in 1274 he insisted that one of the principal discussions be the liberation of the Holy Places. The council closed without one European prince departing for the Holy Land. The Pope died on January 10, 1276.
For the later history of the Holy Places it is necessary to return to Charles I, King of Naples and Sicily, who was mentioned earlier in this account. Charles was a friend of Baybars. (*26) Because an elderly aunt had given him all his dynastic rights, Charles took the title "King of Jerusalem". (*27)
Charles I sent a representative from Naples to Acre with an escort of six galleons (June 7, 1277). The envoy made everyone recognize the patronage of his king over the baronies of the Levant. After about five years he was recalled to Italy as a consequence of the famous Sicilian Vespers (March 30, 1282). At Acre everything quickly fell apart, returning to its previous state. Charles I could have arbitrated the situation between his brother Louis IX and Baybars, his occasional friend. He could have rescued the Crusade of Louis IX by making a treaty with Baybars for the Holy Places as Frederick II had done before. However, since he dreamed of a Mediterranean Empire built by his own armies, he abandoned this more noble project. In the end, he lost out on both counts.
Baybars sacked Cilicia and the Turkish territories of Anatolia (1275 and 1277) and retired to Damascus. During a feast he drank a poisoned beverage prepared by him for the Sultan of Transjordan, Al-Qaher, son of En-Naser Daud. A few days later he died (June 30, 1277). News of his death brought a sense of relief to the Christians. He was succeeded by Qalaun (December 9, 1279). Qalaun was also a Mameluke, that is, an ex-Turkish slave. The hour of hope was once again short-lived. The history of disasters continued.
At the end of September, 1280, the Mongols made a new alliance with the Armenians and the Hospitallers. Together they invaded Syria as far as Homs and then retired. The Sultan Qalaun was aware of the danger. Since the truce concluded with Edward I, King of England, was about to run out, he renewed it for another ten years (May 3, 1281). In September of that same year, the Mongolian army, reinforced by thirty thousand Armenian Christians, Georgians, Greeks, and Franks, invaded Syria. They met the Egyptian army at Hama. At first the Mongols resisted bravely, but after suffering an upset they sought safety and fled to the other side of the Euphrates River!
Qalaun won the battle but was not to enjoy the fruits of his success. Always fearing the alliance of the Christians at Acre, and thus another Crusade with the troops of Europe united with the Mongols, he renewed the truce again for another ten years (June 3, 1283). He did not forget to punish the Mongols. In 1285 he assaulted the fortresses of the Hospitallers which were in the County of Tripoli.
The new Khan of the Mongols of Persia, Argun (1284-1291), proposed a common military action. He made the offer four times (1285,1287,1289-1290). His intention was to free Acre and to liberate the Holy Land from the Egyptians. The Sovereigns of Europe, involved in their own internal affairs, especially in Sicily and Aragon, did not respond to the offer, even though they were earnestly exhorted to do so by first by the Portuguese Pope, John XXI (1272-1277) and then by the Franciscan Pope, Nicholas V (1288-1292).
Making matters worse was the ceaseless disorder of the heads of the Baronies. Located on the Palestinian and Phoenician coasts, these factions were constantly struggling amongst themselves, changing their allegiances between the Venetians and the Genovese. The whole affair ended disgracefully when they asked for the intervention of Qalaun to settle their disputes. The Sultan paid no attention to them. He had recently occupied Lattakia (April 1287). In 1289 he besieged and occupied Tripoli, a city contested by the Christian groups. His customary pillaging and murder marked the signs of his presence. The small Latin Kingdom of Acre remained free. Henry II, King of Cyprus and Jerusalem, hurried to Acre and sent an embassy to Damascus to obtain a truce for ten years and ten months from the Sultan (August 1289).
Despite this situation, many Italian pilgrims, discontent at not being able to battle against the Saracens, began to plunder and murder the Arabs in the neighboring countryside, villages, and in Acre itself. There was no restraining them. The authorities in Acre sent excuses to Qalaun, but he would not hear them. He declared war. His death (November 1290) did not prevent his son, Al-Ashraf Khalil, from continuing the war preparations. The following year the new Sultan arrived with armies from Egypt and Syria. He positioned himself beneath the walls of Acre. The siege of the city ended on May 18, 1291, with the final resistance taking place on May 18, 1291. It was a time of great destruction. Although many Christians died, a good number were able to flee to refuge in Cyprus.
In the succeeding months the other maritime cities were also easily overrun: Tyre, which had already fallen on May 19; Sidon was occupied on July 14; Haifa, July 30; Beirut on July 31; Tortosa on August 3; and Atlit on the 14th.
The loss of Acre and these cities was as great as the loss of Jerusalem a century before. Thus, after forty years of incessant war, both external and civil, the Latin Kingdom of the Holy Land and the Principalities of Syria ceased to exist. The main cause was the general indifference of the European princes. The hope of the Frankish clergy to return to the Holy Places by military means was over. They had seen the land disappear from beneath their feet. An epoch history that would never be repeated was closed.
For the Saracens, the capture of Acre and the fall of the maritime cities was the end of a long "holy war" fought against the infidels. It was the "will of God" and "the superiority of the Islamic religion over Christianity" which brought about their victory. In their eyes, the Church of the "Qiyame" (Arabic for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was called by the Eastern Christians) became the church of the "Qamame", that is, the Church of the filthy.
The Christians of Egypt and Syria, during and after these wars, were held in contempt. They were always considered suspect, guilty of conniving with the Franks. Accordingly, they became easy victims of persecution whenever some action was taken against the Saracens, whether by land or by sea. Not being privy to the policies of war, they were innocent victims.
After many failures the European Christians became aware that the raising of armies was not the best method to obtain the liberation of the Holy Places. They needed to search for another solution for this international problem. Above all those who should have sought this route were the religious and lay people who wasted their time writing tracts ("paper crusades") in their attempts to elicit support from Popes and Sovereigns for other false dreams. (*28) Both the Saracens and the Christians needed a more practical and peaceful solution. (*29) If such a goal could be realized, its authors would be considered true benefactors for the Holy Places and for all humanity. Peace and prosperity for the Holy Places, honor, and Christian worship should have been their concern.
*19 - The Fourth Crusade was diverted to Constantinople. The Fifth Crusade, intending to defeat the Saracens in Egypt, disembarked at Damietta, but was not successful.
*20 - This Arabic word (mamluk in the singular, mamalik in the plural form) signifies a thing or person possessed by somebody or belonging to somebody, therefore “a slave”. The mameluks were Caucasians: Turks, Kurds, Circassians, Armenians, Georgians. They were numerous in Egypt and formed the best part of the army. They obeyed their "emirs" (princes or generals), who were of the same social class. As a consequence of this, they grew so powerful that they enthroned or deposed Mameluk Sultans at will.
*21 - Strictly speaking, the Arabic word "bahr" means "sea or ocean", however, in both ancient and modern oriental languages the term also signifies any quantity of water, and therefore could mean lake, river, swamp, or puddle. All these were also called "bahr". The Mameluke soldiers were called the "Bahri" or "Bahrites". The origin of this nomenclature can be found in the area of their barracks which was on an island of the Nile called "Er-Rawda". It was in the same area as Cairo. In 1279-1280 the Sultan Qalawûn sent other soldiers to live at the Citadel of Cairo. These newcomers were called "Burji" or "Burgites". Their name has its origins in the Arabic word "burj" which means tower, castle, fortress, or citadel. The Burji were mainly Circassians, people of the Caucasus. Twenty-four Bahri and twenty three Burji sultans ruled in Egypt. Many of them were very young when they suffered violent deaths.
*22 - The Ayyubid sultans reigned in Egypt before the Mameluke Era (1250-1517). The founder of the Ayyub dynasty called himself Ayyub (Job). He was a Kurdish military chief. The Ayyubid Sultans were numerous: 8 in Egypt (1171-1250); 6 in Damascus (1186-1249); 3 in Aleppo (1186-1260); 5 in Mesopotamia or Iraq. There were also other collateral dynasties (cf. G. Levi Della Vida, "Ayyubidi", Enciclopedia Italiana, v. 5, Milano - Roma 1930, 686-687). The Kurds are an ancient people who have never had their own national government. Today they can be found in the confines of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. To this day, they aspire to an independent national unity.
*23 - Vincent - Abel, Bethléem, 190.
*24 - Bagatti, Gli antichi edifici sacri di Betlemme, 58: "Connesso a queste lastre marmoree è il ricordo di un leggendario serpente che poteva essere qualche bruciatura di marmi ovvero qualche venatura un po' marcata. Riferisce la nota leggenda per il primo il P. Burcardo nel 1283”. Cf. also S. De Sandoli, Itinera Hierosolymitana Crucesignatorum, IV, Jerusalem 1984, 197.
*25 - Vincent - Abel, Bethléem, 197.
*26 - R. Grousset, Histoire des Croisades, III, Paris, 1936, 663, 666, 672, 673.
*27 - Charles of Anjou followed his brother Louis IX in the Crusade of 1249-1254; in Egypt he engaged in a counterattack. Grousset says (t. III, 455) that "le frère de Louis IX fut, ce jour-là, digne des fleurs de lys et mérita l'admiration de l'armée".
*28 - This ironic phrase was written by Franco Cardini in the fifth chapter of his book Le Crociate (Roma 1971): Canonists, polemicists, theorists. The Crusade of Ink.
*29 - The idea of the Franciscan Tertiary Raymond Lull, to learn the Arabic language in order to convert the Saracens, was accepted at the Council of Vienne (France) on November 13, 1312.