By Steve Tibble
1170 was a year of drama. In June, a cataclysmic earthquake devastated large areas of the Middle East. Castles were severely damaged. Town walls were thrown over. Lives were shattered beyond repair. An age of piety saw the hand of God in this. People in the crusader states felt the chill omen of destruction in the air.
Omen or not, they were correct. By the end of the year the new Kurdish ruler of Egypt, a young, relatively untried man named Saladin, led his armies north.
On 9 December, he attacked the castle at Darum, on the frontier of the kingdom of Jerusalem. Specialist sappers and miners from Aleppo started to undermine the walls. Batteries of siege artillery swept the battlements. He harassed the garrison and destroyed the local Arab Christian and Frankish settlements before he and his army (said, in an exaggerated estimate, to be some 40,000 strong) moved off.
They headed north on 11 December. The plan was to intercept and destroy the crusader army of Jerusalem. King Amalric had set off to relieve Darum but had seriously underestimated the size of the enemy forces he would be facing. He rode out from the Templar citadel at Gaza with only 250 knights and 2,000 infantry, many of whom were presumably taken from the order’s garrison. When he found out how badly outnumbered he was, Amalric refused to give battle. Instead, he pulled his men into a tight ‘fighting-march’ formation and struggled on. They finally managed to force their way through the surrounding Muslim cavalry and took refuge in Darum.
Saladin eventually withdrew to Egypt. His power base there was still fragile and he may have been nervous about leaving Cairo for too long. But the pattern had been set. Saladin would be back, year after year. He would grind the crusader states down – and the Templars would become his special target. They were the men he respected and feared the most.
Within a few years Saladin had also brought most of Syria under his control. His new empire stretched from North Africa up to Mesopotamia. For the crusaders, this represented a major deterioration of the military situation – always outnumbered, they were now surrounded as well.
By 1177 Saladin was ready. At last he felt confident enough to focus his attention in earnest on the crusader states. His armies invaded the southern frontiers of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem in overwhelming force. Lulled into complacency by their numerical superiority, however, Saladin’s troops, in the words of the chronicler Ibn al-Athir, ‘became over eager and relaxed, moving around the country secure and confident’. Overconfident, in fact.
Sensing that the enemy had become overly dispersed, the small crusader forces ventured out to fight. Moving as quickly as they could, they tracked the Muslim armies down to a place called Mont Gisard and on 25 November they launched a desperate attempt to get to Saladin before his massive numerical advantages could be brought to bear.
The Templars made up a significant part of the Frankish field army and added a degree of professionalism that was virtually unknown in the West. The master, Odo of Saint-Amand, gathered his local troops, including the nearby veteran garrison of Gaza. They were placed at the centre of the battle line. This was the position of greatest danger, but also where they could do most damage.
The brother knights spearheaded the Frankish attack. Significantly outnumbered and outflanked, the Franks had only one opportunity to charge – and that charge needed to succeed.
The Templar squadron, less than a hundred men, led the high-risk but potentially battle-winning assault. They deliberately focused on the person of Saladin and his family, who were protected by ranks of mounted bodyguards. The attack was a triumph. An English chronicler, Ralph of Diceto, explicitly mentioned that it was this Templar charge into the Muslim battle lines that won the day.
Ralph, writing in London and probably using information from one of the Templar newsletters that circulated in the West, confirmed that the master had led the charge in person, launching his company of brother knights into the heart of the Muslim army:
Odo the master of the Knighthood of the Temple . . . had eighty-four knights of his order with him in his personal company. He took himself into battle with his men, strengthened by the sign of the cross. Spurring all together, as one man, they made a charge, turning neither to the left nor to the right. Recognising the battalion in which Saladin commanded many knights, they manfully approached it, immediately penetrated it, incessantly knocked down, scattered, struck and crushed. Saladin was smitten with admiration, seeing his men dispersed everywhere, everywhere turned in flight, everywhere given to the mouth of the sword. He took thought for himself and fled, throwing off his mail shirt for speed, mounted a racing camel and barely escaped with a few of his men.
The headlong assault of the Templar heavy cavalry had a traumatic impact on the centre of the Ayyubid army. In the few mad minutes of the initial onslaught, one of the Templar knights nearly changed the course of history. He got within a few metres of Saladin himself but was eventually brought down by the sultan’s bodyguards. As a Muslim chronicler wrote, the brother ‘got close, almost reaching him, but the Frank was killed in front of him’. Visibly shaken, Saladin was hustled from the battlefield. He ran before any more of the Templars could get to him.
In the aftermath of the battle, many of the fleeing Turks were butchered by their fellow Muslim Bedouin tribesmen, who often acted as auxiliaries and guides for the Templar cavalry patrols. Saladin, scared and humiliated in equal measure, spent the rest of his life trying to exact revenge on the Bedouin – and the Templars. Brother knights who had the misfortune to fall into his hands from this point onwards were almost invariably killed by their captors.
Saladin’s chance to take revenge on a grand scale came soon enough. Eighteen months later, in late August 1179, his armies struck at the construction site of what was to be the definitive Templar castle on the River Jordan – a magnificent fortification which they called Chastellet.
A siege was quickly put in place and mining began. When it became clear that a breach was imminent, the Templar garrison positioned wooden barricades behind the walls. As Saladin’s men tried to push their way in, the knights set the barricades alight and formed up to make a last stand. There was a short pause in the fighting, with the Muslim assault squads understandably reticent about fighting their way across the flames. But there was no hurry. The fires eventually died down. The attackers poured through the breach. The fighting, partially obscured by smoke and dying flames, was brief but terrible.
Saladin personally interrogated all the prisoners so that he could identify which of the mercenaries or local Arab Christians might be considered ‘Muslim converts’. He had these killed first. The Templar prisoners were also executed immediately. This was an interesting, if unwelcome, compliment to their military effectiveness and the fear they had recently induced in Saladin at Mont Gisard. Most of the remaining European prisoners were butchered on the forced march back to Damascus.
But the damage to the order’s fighting strength in the East had been traumatic. The fate of the garrison at Chastellet, combined with the loss of the master and the casualties sustained at the battle of Marj Ayun just a few months earlier, had once again decimated the front-line Templars in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem.
The order’s struggle against Saladin and his armies was increasingly personal.
Dr Steve Tibble is a graduate of Jesus College, Cambridge and London University. He is an Honorary Research Associate at Royal Holloway College, University of London. Steve is a leading authority on warfare and violence in the crusading era.
His Templars: The Knights Who Made Britain (Yale) is due out in September 2023, and his two most recent books (‘The Crusader Armies’, Yale 2018, and ‘The Crusader Strategy’, Yale 2020) were received to critical acclaim. The latter was short-listed for the Duke of Wellington’s military history award, 2021.
He is a contributor to ‘The Cambridge History of the Crusades’ and ‘The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades’, both forthcoming in 2023. You can learn more about Steve on his personal website, or follow him on Twitter or Instagram.
Barber, M., The New Knighthood: A History of the Order of the Temple, Cambridge, 1994
Phillips, J., The Life and Legend of the Sultan Saladin, London, 2019
Tibble, S., Templars – The Knights Who Made Britain, London, 2023