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Friday, July 15, 2016

Tale of Two Cities: Acre and Tyre Following the Disaster at Hattin

After the Battle of Hattin on July 4, 1187, the armies of Saladin swept into the Kingdom of Jerusalem. With the field army crushed, its survivors in chains, the forces of Saladin faced no mobile opposition and could move across the countryside at will. Frankish settlers and native Christians in rural communities and unfortified villages were completely at the mercy of the invaders. Yet, dozens of fortified cities and castles remained, and it was to these strongholds that the bulk of the population fled as the news of the catastrophe at Hattin reached them. For Saladin, the defeat of the Kingdom could not be complete until he had captured these Frankish bastions.

Crusader tactics had long dictated the withdrawal to fortified places during invasions, and huge sums of gold had been invested in making some of the most sophisticated and imposing castles in the history of military warfare. Castles like Kerak and Krak de Chevaliers were able to defy Saladin for years (in the former case) or completely (in the latter case) even with small garrisons. But these were military strongpoints build to defend the heartland and population of the kingdom. The population itself was concentrated in a dozen cities: the inland cities of Jerusalem, Hebron, Nablus, Nazareth, and Tiberias, and the economically more important coastal cities of Jaffa, Caesarea, Haifa, Acre, Tyre, Sidon and Beirut.  The largest cities in the kingdom by population were Acre and Tyre, each with an estimated population of 30,000, and Jerusalem with a resident population of probably not more than 20,000 that was almost always swollen by pilgrims to 30,000 or more.

Krak de Chevaliers -- One of the Finest Crusader Castles

For almost a century, the Franks had held (and indeed expanded) their territory by maintaining these well-fortified cities supported by strategic castles. But the strategy depended upon having a field army to come to the relief of a city or castle under siege. The destruction of the Frankish field army at Hattin, made every city and castle in the kingdom vulnerable, particularly since the garrisons had been reduced to a minimum to swell the size of the field army. Furthermore, the rules of medieval warfare were simple and brutal: a city that surrendered without resistance could expect lenient terms including the right to retain one’s life and moveable property, but a city that resisted could expect only sack, slaughter and slavery.

In July 1187, the inland cities of the crusader kingdoms had no hope at all. They were utterly cut off from any hope of relief and, except for Jerusalem, fell without a fight. That Jerusalem resisted had to do with its unique significance to Christianity. It did not resist in the hope of survival but for the sake of martyrdom. (The siege and fall of Jerusalem are the subject of a separate entry.) The coastal cities, in contrast, had a theoretical chance of relief by sea, if they could hold out long enough for word to reach the powerful Christian kingdoms of Western Europe.

But not all coastal cities were equally defensible, and the absence of fighting men and commanders had a devastating impact on both fighting capabilities and morale. Jaffa resisted an army led by Saladin’s brother al-Adil, but fell rapidly and its citizens were slaughtered or enslaved. After this example, it is hardly surprising that Caesarea, Haifa, Sidon and Beirut surrendered within in little more than a month after Hattin. But the fate of the two largest cities of the kingdom stands out: Acre and Tyre.

Acre was the economic capital of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. It had a strong natural harbor and had been extremely well fortified. It took two years for the crusading armies to capture it.  Yet in 1187 it capitulated to Saladin in just two days.  Indeed, it did not put up a fight at all. Tyre, in contrast, defied Saladin not once but twice, in July 1187 and again in December 1187. It was soon the only city of the former Kingdom of Jerusalem to remain in Frankish hands, and — more important — it became the bridgehead through which reinforcements and supplies flooded to support a counter-offensive against Saladin.  It is fair to say, that if Tyre had fallen, the Third Crusade might not have been possible at all, certainly the outcome would have been even more in doubt. It is also fair to suggest that had Acre not surrendered, the Third Crusade would have had a better starting point and better chances of success.

Acre Today
So what accounted for the different responses?

Both cities were well fortified and had excellent harbors capable of receiving reinforcements and supplies. Furthermore, the economic structure of the two cities would have been very similar. Both would have been dominated by merchants engaged in the lucrative trade that passed through these cities on the interface between East and West. Particularly notable would have been the various Italian “communes” made up of merchants from Pisa, Genoa and Venice. The cities were also centers of export industries such as sugar, olive oil, pottery, soap and perfumes, and (in Tyre) glass-making. They were home to an exceptional number of religious houses and communities, including (in Acre) major commanderies of both the Templars and Hospitallers. These elites were supported by a large and diverse population of tradesmen, shopkeepers, and service providers from tavern keepers to livery stables. 

Ethnically, both cities were diverse. Both housed remnants of the pre-crusader population composed of Muslims and Jews as well as Greek, Armenian and Syrian Christians. Both also had a large (for medieval cities) population of both Italian and “Frankish” immigrants. The proportions between these elements are now impossible to determine, but studies suggest there were more Muslims the farther north one went toward Tripoli, so Tyre may have had a marginally larger population of Muslims. In neither city, however, did the Muslims make up a significant portion, much less a majority, of the population.

Acre's Harbor Front Today

Two factors appear to have made the difference. The survivors of Hattin led by the barons of Tripoli, Sidon and Ibelin made for Tyre. Tripoli and Sidon both had their power bases north of Tyre, and Tripoli continued to his own county. Why Ibelin chose Tyre is unknown. The consequence was that, in contrast to all other cities in the kingdom, Tyre did have a substantial number (maybe as much as 3,000) fighting men with which to defend and man its walls. Acre did not.

Yet, even without fighting men, the population of Acre was so outraged when they learned the city had been surrendered without a fight that they rioted and started burning their own homes. Acre did not lack fighting spirit.  Tyre, on the other, despite having an ample number of fighting men was reportedly on the brink of surrender. In both cases the fate of the city was determined not by the population at large but by the commanders. Acre was surrendered by the ever ineffective and perpetually inept titular Count of Edessa. Tyre was defended by Conrad de Montferrat.

The County of Edessa had been lost to Zengi in 1144, and five years later Count Jocelyn II also fell into Zengi’s hands, never to be released. Jocelyn III Count of Edessa was his son, the brother of Agnes de Courtenay, and so uncle of both the leper king, Baldwin IV, and Sibylla I. His only claim to fame was that he helped Sibylla usurp the throne in 1186—and had a reputation for rapacious greed. Because he was in a position to surrender Acre (in exchange for being able to remove all his movable wealth from the city), it is widely assumed that he somehow escaped the field of Hattin along with Tripoli, Sidon and Ibelin. However, I have never seen a shred of evidence that he was ever at the battle! Although he had accumulated income from his nephew and niece, he does not appear to have been a particularly martial personality. By 1187 was also probably well into his fifties, if not older.  I believe that Edessa remained at Acre when the rest of the army marched out, and that it was his concern for his personal welfare that dictated the surrender of the economic jewel of the Kingdom, Acre.

Tyre on the other hand was saved by the timely arrival of an outsider. Although the survivors of Hattin had initially concentrated in Tyre, the Count of Tripoli continued with his step-sons to his county and stronghold of Tripoli, leaving Sidon and Ibelin in Tyre. Ibelin, however, was either obsessed with saving his family (which was trapped in Jerusalem), or was intent on defending Jerusalem itself. Whatever his reasons, he left Tyre to go to Jerusalem, where he organized a dramatically successful defense with women, priests and children. Sidon was left in Tyre, but his own barony lay to the north and reportedly he opened negotiations for the surrender of Tyre with Saladin. Whether these were genuine or a ruse to buy time is the subject of debate to this day. Again, whatever his motives, the people of Tyre appear to have believed he was contemplating surrender.

But at this critical juncture Conrad de Montferrat sailed into Tyre harbor, took over the command of the defense, and flatly refused to surrender the city. Even his detractors (and he had and still has many!) credit him with restoring the fighting spirit of the men gathered there and ensuring that at least one city remained in Frankish hands.

The defense of Tyre is described in Envoy of JerusalemBuy now in paperback or kindle!

1 comment:

  1. Ah, the weak willed and self-centered shall ever be our downfall.


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