By Nicholas Morton
The war between the Mongols and the Mamluks in the second half of the thirteenth century would be the catalyst for the downfall of the Crusader States in the Near East.
In the spring of 1291 John of Villiers, master of the Knights Hospitaller, wrote to his subordinate in Southern France to report the final collapse of the kingdom of Jerusalem. The kingdom’s major city of Acre had fallen a few days previously on 28 May to the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt; an event that prompted the evacuation of all its remaining settlements. The Templar master had been killed in the fighting and John himself had been seriously wounded. The other mainland Crusader States – the principality of Antioch and the county of Tripoli – had already fallen so these events marked the end of the territories established almost two centuries previously either during the First Crusade or in its immediate aftermath.
Many developments contributed to the fall of the Crusader States, but one strand was always the internal divisions within the most powerful of these states, the kingdom of Jerusalem. The kingdom had always been difficult to rule with many different groups seeking to advance their own interests. These included the representatives from the influential Italian mercantile cities of Venice, Genoa and Pisa who constantly sought to strongarm the ruling authorities for additional commercial privileges. Then there were aristocratic factions jockeying with one another for preferment and influence. The military orders of the Templars, Hospitallers and Teutonic Knights generally sought to keep the peace but there were also occasions when they were as likely as anyone else to use their vast resources as political leverage. Then there was the Church, whose leading officials in the kingdom had their own ideas about how the kingdom should be run.
At the centre of all these factions – each clamouring to be heard – was the King of Jerusalem and his High Court, and herein lay the problem. For much of the thirteenth century, the kingdom was ruled by absentee monarchs who attempted to govern via appointed representatives. Back in 1225 the emperor of Germany, Frederick II, became King of Jerusalem through marriage to the reigning king’s daughter. He later travelled to the Kingdom of Jerusalem on crusade where he successfully negotiated the return of the city of Jerusalem by treaty. Nevertheless, Frederick was deeply disliked by many local factions and when he departed from Acre in 1229 he did so under a hail of offal hurled by the city’s butchers.
Frederick never returned to the Crusader States and neither did his son and successor, who inherited this royal title. They sent officials to manage their interests, but these representatives were deeply resented. The outcome was initially a civil war in the 1230s and 1240s, which Frederick’s representatives lost, followed by a long period in which the various other powerbrokers in the kingdom attempted to maintain at least some semblance of stability. The papacy and the military orders in particular worked very hard to maintain the peace and both the kings of Cyprus and the king of Sicily, Charles of Anjou, made efforts to establish control, but neither succeeded in achieving a firm grip on power.
In this condition, the later history of the Kingdom of Jerusalem was punctuated by bouts of violent unrest and the kingdom’s major protagonists never really managed to unify their efforts so as to maximise the kingdom’s defences. This in turn drew criticism upon the Crusader States from commentators in Western Christendom, a problematic situation for the kingdom of Jerusalem given that its deteriorating reputation served to further discourage the already-diminishing number of crusaders setting out for the Eastern Mediterranean.
These internal problems may have weakened the kingdom, but this was not the most important factor underpinning its ultimate downfall. The Crusader States existed in a wider world that was changing rapidly throughout the thirteenth century. The common peril confronting every society in the Near East was the danger of Mongol invasion. The first Mongol foray into the region began in 1220 and by the summer of 1260, all the lands lying to the east of the Crusader States had fallen under Mongol control, the northernmost Crusader State, the principality of Antioch, submitting to the Mongols this same year.
In the event the Mongols never staged a full-scale invasion of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Their forces sacked the coastal town of Sidon, in retaliation for a raid by the local lord, but the kingdom’s diplomats seem to have dissuaded the Mongols from further attacks. Even so the Mongols inadvertently contributed to a chain of events that would lead ultimately to the kingdom’s overthrow.
These developments began in 1260. Unlike the kingdom of Jerusalem, the Mamluk Empire in Egypt – the only other still-independent power in the region – was determined to resist the Mongol advance. Consequently, in 1260 the Mamluks advanced out from the Nile Delta intent on meeting the Mongols in battle. Fortunately for them, the bulk of the Mongol army had withdrawn to the east by this stage, leaving only a garrison to hold their newly conquered lands in Syria and Palestine.
The Mamluks then met and routed this force at the battle of Ayn Jalut; a notable feat given the Mongols’ remarkable success in battle in previous years. This famous encounter is often presented as a turning point in the history of the Near East, yet of equal importance were the events that occurred immediately afterwards. The act of defeating a Mongol army drew a great deal of attention. Suddenly, the prospect of resisting their seemingly unstoppable forces looked plausible. This in turn persuaded both warriors and cities in the Mongols’ recently-conquered territories to hand themselves over to Mamluk control. Among these, the Mamluks acquired the large and wealthy Syrian cities of Aleppo and Damascus whose governors turned to them for protection.
With these cities under their control, refugee warriors arriving by the day, and new revenues supplementing their existing Egyptian incomes, the Mamluks were able to build an empire comparable in size to that constructed by Saladin – and they did so very quickly. Through these actions, the Mamluks became a great power, far more powerful than the kingdom of Jerusalem. Even so their rise was overshadowed by one overwhelming question – when would the Mongols return?
In later years, the Mamluks maintained a vigilant watch on the Mongol frontier, yet the seasons passed and no Mongol invasion took place. The Mongols did send a few raiding parties and probing forces against Mamluk border strongholds along the Euphrates river, but their leaders were generally too preoccupied with their own internal concerns to do anything more. The Mamluks used these years to build up their forces, fortify their borders, and enhance their trading relations, all in readiness for a Mongol assault that persistently did not arrive.
In the absence of Mongol resistance therefore the Mamluks were free to employ their rapidly growing forces against the Crusader States. Even if the kingdom of Jerusalem’s many factions had laid aside their quarrels they still could not have competed with the huge armies and resources marshalled by the Mamluk sultanate and from the early 1260s onwards their castles began to fall. The Mamluks conquered Antioch in 1268 and the kingdom of Jerusalem had lost all its inland towns and fortresses by the end of 1271.
When the Mongols finally marshalled their armies for an assault on the Mamluk Empire in 1281 the Crusader States were too weak to offer any real assistance. By this time, over two decades had passed since Ayn Jalut and the Mamluks were strong enough to risk battle with the Mongols’ main field army, which they then decisively defeated near the town of Homs on 29 October 1281.
After this new victory, it was really only a matter of time before the Mamluks swatted away the remaining ports of the Crusader States. For a while, these cities survived due to some long-term treaties but then in 1289 the Mamluks conquered Tripoli. They then conquered Acre in 1291, declaring that the kingdom’s truce with their empire had been broken when a group of Muslim merchants were attacked in the port of Acre.
In this way, whilst the various authorities of the kingdom of Jerusalem never managed to work together effectively to protect their territories, their petty disputes can only really be captioned as a ‘secondary factor’ in the kingdom’s downfall. Rather, the destruction of the Crusader States took place as a side-show within the far more significant confrontation between the Mamluks and Mongols; a useful task for the Mamluks’ forces to perform when they weren’t required to fend off the Mongols. Having said this, the Mamluks were fully aware of the significance of their achievement in destroying the Crusader States. After all, they had overthrown the territories first erected by the armies of the First Crusade almost two centuries previously. Even so, their primary concern was always to guard themselves against the far greater threat posed by the Mongols.
When news of the kingdom of Jerusalem’s final collapse reached Western Christendom in 1291 it was met with horror and in later decades many planners sketched out grand strategies for the rebuilding of the Crusader States. Nevertheless, the outbreak of major conflicts such as the Hundred Years War, the very evident power of the Mamluk Sultanate, and ultimately the advent of the Black Death ensured that this would never take place.
Nicholas Morton is an Associate Professor of History at Nottingham Trent University in the UK. He is the author or editor of several books covering different aspects of Medieval Near Eastern history. These include The Crusader States and their Neighbours: A Military History, 1099-1187 (Oxford University Press, 2020) and The Field of Blood: The Battle for Aleppo and the Remaking of the Medieval Middle East (Basic Books, 2018). You can follow Nicholas on Twitter @NicholasMorto11
Nicholas Morton, The Mongol Storm: Making and Breaking Empires in the Medieval Near East (Basic Books, 2022)
Top Image: Detail of a map of the Middle East by Egnazio Danti (1536 – 1586)