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Friday, July 29, 2016

Battle of Jaffa - Part 1

By July 1192, the crusader forces under Richard I of England and the Duke of Burgundy had established Frankish control of the coastal strip from Tyre to Ascalon, but failed, despite two attempts, to take Jerusalem. While Tyre remained a bastion and Acre was rapidly turning into one, most of the cities along the coast such as Haifa, Caesarea, and Arsur, remained ghost towns, vulnerable to attack, and the countryside in between was empty, ravaged and slowly being reclaimed by the sand dunes.  Yet, Richard had also recaptured and fortified the strategically important cities of Jaffa and Ascalon. Jaffa was important as the port closest to Jerusalem, and so inevitably the base for any future attempt to recapture Jerusalem.  Ascalon was critical because it was located on the caravan routes between Egypt and Syria and therefore posed a threat to Saladin’s lines of communication. What the Franks now needed, was to re-establish control of the coastal strip northwards from Tyre to re-establish contact with the County of Tripoli and beyond Tripoli, the Principality of Antioch.  In consequence, Richard I started gathering his forces at Acre for a campaign up the coast of the Levant to retake Sidon and Beirut.

His plans were shattered when on July 29, the Sultan Salah ad-Din (Saladin) launched a surprise attack in the Frankish rear — at Jaffa. It was a brilliant strategic move. If Saladin could take Jaffa, he would cut Ascalon off from the rest of the Frankish-held territory, ensuring his ability to re-establish Saracen rule there as well.  The capture of Jaffa would in addition make future attempts on Jerusalem more difficult and so more unlikely. To achieve these critical objectives (and incidentally refurbish his own tarnished image), Saladin brought to bear a force which the Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi[1] describes as 20,000 Saracen horsemen and “countless” infantry.

Although the garrison resisted courageously, Saladin brought up siege engines and sappers, and on July 31 a massive breach in the walls opened up. The garrison sued for terms, including the right to withdraw with their lives, arms, and chattels, but the Sultan’s army had been in the field for over a year without any opportunity for plunder. The Kurds, Turks, Syrians and Egyptians fighting under Saladin were not a cohesive and disciplined force, but a coalition of units more loyal to their own leaders. The orders not to plunder were not popular, and the Sultan soon lost control of his troops. They ran riot in the town. The garrison fled to the citadel, but those who could not make it in time, notably the sick and wounded in the Hospital of St. John along with their care-takers, were killed. Saladin’s troops then engaged in an orgy of pillage that included smashing the wine-casks to pour the forbidden substance in the gutters and slaughtering the entire pig population—another food forbidden by Islam.   

Salah ad-Din, angered that his troops had disobeyed the terms of the surrender, ordered his Mamlukes to stand at the gates of the city and confiscate the plunder from his men as they staggered out of the city laden with loot. While the gesture demonstrates Saladin’s sincerity in treating with the garrison, it was bitterly resented by his own troops, and would have consequences later. Meanwhile, however, the seizure of Jaffa in just three days demonstrated how vulnerable the precarious new conquests of the Third Crusade really were.

The word that Jaffa was under siege reached Richard I in Acre on or about July 29 or 30. He immediately abandoned his plans to recapture Sidon and Beirut and took ship for Jaffa. He took with him only his immediate household, some fifty-five knights, and some two thousand Italian crossbowmen in a half-dozen ships. This was never intended to be anything more than an advance guard that would stiffen the morale of the garrison. The main relief force was the army of Jerusalem made up of the barons of the Kingdom (Ibelin, Sidon, Tiberius etc.) under their new king Henri de Champagne and the Templars and Hospitallers. This army of heavy horse, Turcopoles and infantry set out from Acre heading south on the coastal road to Jaffa. 

Meanwhile, Richard’s squadron of ships was delayed by light wind and arrived off Jaffa after the city had already fallen to Saladin. From off-shore, the relieving force could see both the Saracen camp around the base of the city and the Saracen banners floating over the city walls. It appeared their help had come too late—until a man jumped from the wall of the citadel and started swimming toward the Frankish ships. (Both the Arab chronicler Baha al-Din and the Itinerarium mention this heroic dive from the citadel walls.) One of Richard’s galleys risked going closer to shore to pick up the swimmer, while the Saracen troops from the camp outside the city swarmed the beaches shouting challenges and insults at the little squadron of ships.

The swimmer was able to report that the citadel still held out, and the King of England immediately gave the order to beach the galleys. With the crossbowmen providing covering fire, Richard led the assault, leaping over the side of his galley into hip-deep water, a crossbow in one hand and a Danish battle axe in the other. He fought his way ashore, followed by his companions. That they were not all slaughtered is probably a function of the fact that by this time Saladin’s army was no longer a disciplined force. The bulk of the cavalry had already been redeployed to block the road from Acre and harass the army of Jerusalem coming to relieve Jaffa. Of the troops left behind, an estimated three thousand were still inside the city plundering. Those that rushed to the shore to defend it were apparently leaderless. Furthermore, the distance between the shore and the city walls was maybe no more than 100 to 200 yards. Richard led his landing force to the base of the walls and then inside a postern in the tower of the Templar commandery that the Saracens had incomprehensibly left unlocked — further evidence of a singular lack of discipline, command and control.

According to the Itinerarium, Richard himself was the first man to enter the city, climbing up a spiral staircase of the Templar tower. He then ordered his banner raised on the rooftop, signaling to the garrison that he was inside the city.  The garrison at once sortied out to join forces with him and his landing force. Together, the garrison and Richard’s men cleared the city of (evidently surprised!) Saracens, while Salah ad-Din withdrew with his entire baggage train. 

Salah ad-Din had taken Jaffa in just three days, but it took Richard the Lionheart only that many hours to regain it. His situation, however, remained precarious. The breach in the wall was not repaired, the streets full of corpses, the stores plundered, and Salah ad-Din’s cavalry was still intact and only hours away.

The second stage of the Battle of Jaffa is the subject of next week’s entry. 

The Battle of Jaffa is an important episode in “Envoy of Jerusalem,” which has just been released. Buy now in paperback or kindle!

[1] The Itinerarium is a contemporary chronicle of the Third Crusade, much of it based on eyewitness sources, but heavily biased in favor of King Richard I of England.


  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.


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