The accursed tower, p.1

The Accursed Tower, page 1


The Accursed Tower

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The Accursed Tower


  Copyright © 2019 by Roger Crowley

  Cover design by Ann Kirchner

  Cover images copyright © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY; © Itsmesimon /; © Mega Pixel /; © Krasovski Dmitri /; © javarman /

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  Basic Books

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  First Edition: October 2019

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  The Library of Congress has cataloged the hardcover edition as follows:

  Names: Crowley, Roger, 1951–author.

  Title: The Accursed Tower : the fall of Acre and the end of the Crusades / Roger Crowley.

  Other titles: Fall of Acre and the end of the Crusades

  Description: First Edition. | New York : Basic Books, 2019. | Includes bibliographical references and index.

  Identifiers: LCCN 2019019102 | ISBN 9781541697348 (hardcover) | ISBN 9781541699724 (ebook)

  Subjects: LCSH: Acre (Israel)—History—Siege, 1291. | Crusades—13th–15th centuries.

  Classification: LCC D171 .C66 2019 | DDC 956.94/032—dc23

  LC record available at

  ISBNs: 978-1-5416-9734-8 (hardcover), 978-1-5416-9972-4 (ebook)




  Title Page





  A Brief Timeline of the Holy Land Crusades

  Prologue: The Accursed Tower

  1 The Second Kingdom of Jerusalem

  2 Death on the Nile

  3 Between the Mamluks and the Mongols

  4 The Lion of Egypt

  5 A Puppy Yelping at a Mastiff

  6 War to the Enemy

  7 “My Soul Longed for Jihad”

  8 The Red Tent

  9 “Bolts of Thunder, Flashes of Lightning”

  10 Sorties

  11 Negotiations

  12 “See the Wound!”

  13 The Terrible Day

  14 “Everything Was Lost”

  Epilogue: A Habitation for Snakes


  Discover More

  About the Author

  The Evidence for the Fall of Acre

  A Note on Names in the Book


  Also by Roger Crowley


  For Richard and Sophie

  Explore book giveaways, sneak peeks, deals, and more.

  Tap here to learn more.

  And it is worth noting that they say that Our Lord, when he travelled beside the Syrian sea, did not enter this city, but cursed one of its towers, which today is called Accursed by the inhabitants. But I believe rather that it took its name from another source. When our men laid siege to the city, this tower was the most strongly defended of all; whence they called it the Accursed Tower.


  The Crusader States in the Thirteenth Century.

  The Siege of Acre, 1291.


  1095 Pope Urban II preaches crusade in France.

  1096–1099 The First Crusade.

  1099 The crusaders besiege and sack Jerusalem.

  1104 King Baldwin captures Acre.

  1147–1149 The Second Crusade.

  1171 Saladin becomes ruler of Egypt. Start of the Ayyubid dynasty.

  1171–1185 Saladin consolidates Ayyubid rule over Palestine and Syria.

  1187 Saladin defeats a crusader army at Hattin, takes Acre, and regains Jerusalem.

  1189–1192 The Third Crusade, led by Philip Augustus of France, Frederick I (Holy Roman Emperor), and Richard I of England.

  1189–1191 The crusader siege of Acre.

  1192 Treaty between Richard and Saladin, and departure of Richard.

  1202–1204 The Fourth Crusade sets out from Venice but deviates to capture Christian Constantinople.

  1217–1219 The Fifth Crusade attacks Egypt but is defeated in the Nile Delta.

  1228 Frederick II regains Jerusalem by treaty.

  1239–1241 Small crusading ventures by Theobald of Champagne and Richard of Cornwall.

  1244 The Khwarazmians sack Jerusalem. The city is finally lost.

  1245 Pope Innocent IV sends an embassy to the Mongols.

  1247 Louis IX plans a crusade.

  1248–1254 The Seventh Crusade.

  1248 Louis invades Egypt, his army is defeated in the Nile Delta, and Louis is captured.

  1248–1250 The end of the Ayyubid dynasty. The slave Mamluks gain control of Egypt.

  1250s Baybars emerges as leader of the Bahriyyah Mamluks.

  1258 The Mongols sack Baghdad.

  1259 Qutuz gains control of Egypt.

  1260 The Mongols under Hülegü sack Aleppo and take Damascus. The Mongol army is defeated at Ayn Jalut. Qutuz is assassinated, and Baybars becomes sultan of the Mamluks.

  1260–1264 Baybars tightens his grip on power and reforms the army.

  1265–1271 Baybars embarks on systematic destruction of crusader castles. Acre is repeatedly raided.

  1268 Baybars takes Antioch.

  1270 The Eighth Crusade. King Louis IX attacks Tunis and dies there.

  1271 Edward of England’s crusade to Acre. Baybars captures Krak des Chevaliers.

  1277 Baybars dies. Qalawun gains the Mamluk sultanate.

  1289 Qalawun takes Tripoli.

  1290 The massacre of Muslims at Acre provides the excuse for Qalawun’s attack. The Mamluk army is mobilized. Qalawun dies, and Khalil becomes sultan.

  1291 Khalil attacks and destroys Acre. All remaining crusader outposts in Outremer fall.

  1293 Khalil is assassinated by a group of Mamluk emirs.



  IN THE SPRING of 1291, the largest army that Islam had ever assembled against the crusaders in the Holy Land was moving toward the city of Acre. It was, by all accounts, an extraordinary spectacle—an immense concourse of men and animals, tents, baggage and supplies, all converging on Christendom’s last foothold. The aim was to deliver a knock-out blow.

  Forces had been drawn widely from across the Middle East—from Egypt five hundred miles to the south, from Lebanon and Syria as far north as the banks of the Euphrates, from the great cities of Cairo, Damascus, and Aleppo—a gathering of all the regions’ military resources. The elite troops were enslaved Turkish-speaking warriors from beyond the Black Sea, and the army included not only cavalry, infantry, and specialist supply corps, but enthusiastic volunteers, mullahs, and dervishes. The campaign had inspir
ed a popular fervor for holy war—and a less pious one for booty.

  Visible in this panorama, a vast array of outfits, devices, and armor: lordly emirs in white turbans; foot soldiers in conical metal helmets, chain mail, and leather scale tunics; cavalry armed with short bows, their animals covered in colorful cloths and saddles embroidered with heraldic insignia; camel-mounted musicians playing kettledrums, horns, and cymbals; fluttering yellow banners and weapons of all kinds—maces, javelins, spears, swords, siege crossbows, carved stone balls, naptha for the manufacture of Greek fire and clay grenades. Oxen strained to haul carts laden with timbers from trees felled in the mountains of Lebanon and fashioned in the workshops of Damascus. These timbers were the prefabricated components of stone-throwing catapults—known in the Islamic world as manjaniq (mangonels), to Europeans as trebuchets. The rumbling carts were bringing an unprecedented number of such devices, some of enormous size, to batter the walls of Acre. They represented the most powerful form of artillery weapon before the age of gunpowder.

  A schematic map of Acre from the 1250s. The round Accursed Tower is prominent on the walls, reflecting perhaps its psychological importance, even if by this date the city was double walled with the Accursed Tower now protected by an outer line of defense. The map shows the suburb of Montmusard to the left separated from the old city by an inner wall as well as prominent buildings. (The Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge)

  THE CITY THIS army had come to attack was very ancient and its role in regional power politics continuously significant. It has had many names: Akko in Hebrew, Akka in Arabic; Ptolemais to the Greeks and the Romans; Accon in crusader Latin; St. Jean d’Acre to the French. It has been recorded in Egyptian hieroglyphics, the chronicles of Assyrian kings, and the Bible. Bronze Age people occupied the nearby hill that would later be the base for Acre’s besiegers. It was captured by the pharaohs, used by the Persians to plan attacks on Greece. Alexander the Great took it without a fight, and Julius Caesar made it the landing place for Roman legions; Cleopatra owned it. It fell to Islam in 636, just four years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad.

  Acre’s long habitation and value lay in its site and strategic location. The city backs onto the Mediterranean Sea, on a hooked and rocky promontory that provides a small but reasonably sheltered harbor. To the south lies a coastal plain and a long sweep of bay of the finest sand, valued from the time of the Phoenicians for glass making, through which runs the river Naaman, watering the city’s hinterland. Visible on the next headland, ten miles away, is the equally ancient city of Haifa. Acre’s position midway along the shores of the Levant has rendered it a natural halting place—a hub for maritime trade, south to north from Egypt to the Black Sea and east-west across the Mediterranean. Acre has been an entrepot for the exchange and transshipment of goods, linked by land as well as sea to routes along the coast and into the heart of the Middle East. In the process, beneath the surface of war, it has been a door through which crop species, goods, industrial processes, languages, religions, and peoples have passed and enriched the cycle of trade and the development of civilization.

  To the crusaders, Acre always mattered. When, in November 1095, Pope Urban II preached his incendiary sermon in a field near Clermont in France, calling for the salvation of Jerusalem, the city where Christ had lived and died, he ignited the imagination of Western Christendom—with astonishing results. The First Crusade saw ordinary people set out spontaneously for the East in large numbers—and perish miserably—and then a more professionally organized expedition under the great barons of Europe. Thousands of soldiers slogged the 2,000 miles round Europe into the Middle East. Against all expectations, they captured Jerusalem in July 1099, trampling over the corpses of Muslims and Jews on their way to the Temple Mount. But despite this achievement, the first long march to the Holy Land had been massively attritional. Of the army of 35,000 that left Europe, probably only 12,000 saw Jerusalem. This quickly taught military planners the need to transport armies by ship, and the necessity of ports such as Acre to receive them. Acre was initially taken in 1104 by Baldwin of Boulogne, the first crusader king of Jerusalem, and then became the chief landing place for pilgrims and the armies to protect them. It was so valuable that when a leading crusader lord, Gervais de Bazoches, Prince of Galilee, was captured in a raid four years later, the ruler of Damascus tried to exchange his prisoner for the city, plus Haifa and Tiberias further down the coast. Baldwin chose to sacrifice the man. Gervais’s scalp, tied to a pole, became an Islamic banner, his skull the emir’s drinking cup.

  Holding Acre proved critical to the continuation of Outremer (“Overseas”), as the French called the principalities on the shores of Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria they had established during the First Crusade. But almost a century later, in 1187, Islam regained the city. It came off the back of the destruction of a crusader army at the battle of Hattin a few days earlier. In the aftermath, Acre was quickly surrendered, its inhabitants allowed to depart unharmed.

  This formed the prelude to the most exhausting military encounter of the Holy Land crusades. For 683 days, between 1189 and 1191, a Christian force struggled to regain Acre. The contest for the city involved the champions of the age: Saladin, prince of the Ayyubid dynasty, pitted against the crowned heads of Europe, Philip Augustus of France and Richard I of England, Guy de Lusignan king of Jerusalem, and the forces of the Third Crusade. This was a titanic struggle, in which the besieging crusaders were at times themselves besieged. It involved naval battles, open-field warfare, sorties, and skirmishes. The walls were pummeled by catapults and battering rams, assaulted from siege towers, undermined by tunnels, defended by counter-bombardment with stones, arrows, and incendiary devices. Men were hacked to pieces with swords, maces, and spears, and burned alive by Greek fire. Each side in turn was brought to its knees by starvation, disease, and despair.

  Eventually, the struggle narrowed to one particular point. Medieval visitors came up with vivid analogies to describe the city’s layout. It was pictured variously as being shaped like an axe or like a crusader’s shield, or more crudely as a triangle, with the sea its base. The other two sides were formed by the north and east sides of the city’s single wall, punctuated by gates and towers and fronted by a low fore-wall and ditch. These met at the triangle’s apex. This was both the most vulnerable and most heavily fortified sector, and it was here that the contest for Acre was at its fiercest. The apex was guarded by a formidable tower—the keystone of the defense, which the crusaders called the Turris Maledicta, the Accursed Tower. There is no clear explanation for the origin of this name. Legends surrounded the ill-omened tower: Christ had cursed it as he traversed the Holy Land and so never entered the city. Or that it was complicit in his betrayal: the thirty silver coins for which Judas Iscariot sold him were said to have been minted there. The name may have predated the siege, but the churchman Wilbrand van Oldenburg, who visited the city shortly afterwards, expressed a healthy skepticism for apocryphal explanations. He believed simply that “when our men laid siege to the city, this tower was the most strongly defended of all; whence they called it the Accursed Tower.”1

  The fight for this bulwark had been brutal. During the spring and summer of 1191, its walls were subject to terrific bombardment by powerful stone-throwing catapults. The defenders responded in kind. The tower was undermined and countermined; men fought in pitch-black tunnels, then agreed a subterranean truce. When a section of wall adjacent to the tower collapsed, the French sought glory with a frontal assault over the strewn rubble and were massacred; one of the great nobility, Albéric Clément, lord of Le Mez and the first Marshal of France, was killed in the attempt. And it was here, when miners finally brought down the tower on July 11, 1191, that the city’s Muslim defenders bowed to the inevitable and surrendered.

  At enormous cost, the crusaders had retaken the city. Perhaps the tower embodied the whole ordeal, its name simply giving expression to all the frustration, pain, and suffering the armies had endu
red before Acre’s walls. Its capture ensured that the wars between the Franks and the Saracens, as each side called the other, would go on for another century.

  THE AFTERMATH OF the siege left a bitter legacy. On August 20, 1191, shortly after the surrender, King Richard I of England—the Lionheart—bound the Muslim defenders of Acre with ropes, marched them onto the plain outside the city, and beheaded them. There were probably around 3,000 of these men, and according to an agreement reached with Saladin, they were due for exchange. In the moves and countermoves in the contest for Acre, mistakes were made on both sides, but Saladin missed a golden opportunity to sweep the infidels into the sea once and for all. He had been finally forced to seek a deal and surrender the city. When he was considered to have reneged on the agreed terms, Richard, in a decision taken in council, called his bluff and acted ruthlessly.

  The Third Crusade, of which this siege of Acre was the prologue, failed in its objective of retaking Jerusalem. Richard turned back from the ultimate prize fifteen miles short, having judged the risks too great, just as Saladin was preparing to evacuate the city. The contest between these two great adversaries ended in stalemate: the City of God unrecaptured, the crusaders clinging tenaciously to the coast of Palestine. In the aftermath, Acre became the hub and the heart of successive crusading ventures. After 1191, the survival of Outremer rested on it heavily. The city was swiftly repopulated by the crusaders and, by a linguistic fiction, on it was conferred the title of capital of the Second Kingdom of Jerusalem, while Jerusalem itself remained, for all but a short time, in Muslim hands. Acre’s monarchs gloried in the all-important and frequently contested title of King of Jerusalem and similarly the city’s supreme religious authority, who answered only to the pope, was titled Jerusalem’s patriarch.

  The execution of the Muslim garrison remains a controversial episode in the history of the crusades, one for which no clear explanation has been reached. “God knows best,” reflected Baha al-Din, Saladin’s adviser at the time.2 Exactly one hundred years later, the fate of the executed garrison would be remembered. In 1291, it would be an Islamic army battering Acre and the Christians defending a reconstructed Accursed Tower. This book is an account of the road that led back to the city’s gates that spring and what happened there—the final act in the two-hundred-year struggle known to Arabic historians as the Frankish wars, to Europeans as the Holy Land Crusades.

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