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Friday, November 25, 2016

Montgisard, November 25, 1177

On November 25, 1177 a Frankish army under the command of a 16-year-old leper routed the army of the mighty Sultan of Cairo and Damascus, Salah al-Din. It was a surprise victory to say the least, and won by a mere fragment of the Frankish chivalry (because a large portion of the knights of the kingdom were campaigning in the north) and the hastily summoned, amateur infantry of the arrière ban. 

In 1177, Salah-al-Din (known in the West as Saladin) launched a full-scale invasion of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem.  It was less than ten years since Saladin had assassinated his way to power in the Fatimid Caliphate in Cairo, and only three years since the coup d’etat in Damascus by which he had established himself in the heart of Syria. Although he had yet to take the key cities of Aleppo and Mosul (both of which remained loyal to the son of Nur ad-Din), Saladin had, for the most part, united the Caliphates of Cairo and Baghdad for the first time in 200 years. However, his hold on power was precarious. In Egypt he faced suspicion and opposition because he was Sunni, and in Syria he was viewed as a usurper and upstart because he was a Kurd and had stolen the Sultanate from the rightful heir.

A Contemporary Depiction of Salah-ad-Din from an Islamic Manuscript

Saladin countered these internal doubts and dissatisfaction with his rule with the age-old device of focusing attention on an external enemy: the Christian states established by the crusaders along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. These states represented not merely a military threat to his lines of communication between Egypt and Syria, but had also five times in the 1160s invaded Egypt. The Frankish campaigns in Egypt were not all been wars of aggression, as in three of them the Shia Viziers had requested Christian help against their Sunni enemies.  Nevertheless, the fact remained that army of Jerusalem, often aided by Byzantine fleets, had conducted repeated campaigns on Egyptian territory and once come close to capturing Cairo.

Saladin did not simply beat the drum of alarm concerning an external enemy in order to rally his subjects around him; he took up the cry of “jihad” — Holy War. This was a clear attempt to increase his stature vis-a-vis his remaining rivals in Syria. Salah al-Din means “righteousness of the faith,” and Salah al-Din throughout his career used campaigns against the Christian states as a means of rallying support.

Another depiction of Saladin; Source Unknown

Saladin had not invented jihad. The word itself appears multiple times in the Koran, but with varying meanings. It was also used as justification for the Muslim conquests of the 7th Century.  It had, however, become less popular in later centuries until Nur ad-Din, the Seljuk ruler of Syria from 1146-1174, reinvigorated the concept. Most historians agree, however, that Nur ad-Din used jihad when it suited him, but remained a fundamentally secular ruler. He had, however, unleashed the jinni from the bottle and the concept of “Holy War” soon gained increasing support in the madrassas and mosques across the Seljuk territories of the Near East. By the time Saladin came to power there was a body of already radicalized youth eager to follow the call to jihad.

Meanwhile, in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, King Amalaric, who had been so intent on conquering parts if not all of Egypt, had died.  He had been succeeded by Baldwin IV, a youth suffering from leprosy. Conscious of his own weakness and imminent death, Baldwin IV sent to the West for aid, and in early August 1177, Count Philip of Flanders reached Acre with a large force of Western knights.

On the advice of the High Court, Baldwin IV offered Philip of Flanders the regency of his kingdom, whose armies were preparing yet another invasion of Egypt aided by a large Byzantine fleet. Flanders, however, insisted on being made king of any territories the joint Christian forces conquered. The idea did not sit well with either the King of Jerusalem or the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, both of whom were footing the bill and providing the bulk of the troops for the expedition. The result was that the entire expedition was called off, the Byzantine fleet withdrew and Philip of Flanders took his knights and half the barons of Jerusalem north to attack the Seljuk strongholds of Hama and Harim instead.

A Medieval depiction of a Crusading Host

Salah ad-Din had gathered his forces in Egypt to repel the impending attack. He rapidly learned that not only had the invasion of Egypt been called off and the Byzantine fleet had withdrawn, but that the bulk of the fighting forces of Jerusalem had moved north. It was a splendid opportunity to strike, and the Sultan seized the opportunity with a force estimated at 26,000 light horse — which leaves open the question of whether infantry was with him or not. The force also allegedly included some 1,000 mamluks of the Sultan’s personal bodyguard.

According to an anonymous Christian chronicler from northern Syria, the news of Saladin’s invasion plunged Jerusalem into despair. The king was just 16 years old, had no battle experience of his own, and his most experienced commanders (or many of them) were besieging Hama. The Constable of the Kingdom, the competent and wise Humphrey de Toron II, was gravely ill. But according to Archbishop William of Tyre, Baldwin’s former tutor now his chancellor and our best contemporary source, Baldwin rallied his forces and with just 376 knights made a dash to Ascalon, the southern-most stronghold of his kingdom.

Arriving there only shortly before Saladin himself on November 22, King Baldwin took control of the city, but then hesitated to risk open battle with the Saracens because of the imbalance of forces.  Thus, while King Baldwin's dash to Ascalon had been heroic, it had been less than wise strategically. Salah ad-Din had effectively trapped the King and his knights inside Ascalon, and nothing lay between Saladin and Jerusalem except scattered garrisons. Rather than wasting time besieging a fortified city with a strong defending force, Saladin left a enough of his army behind to maintain the siege of Ascalon and moved off with the bulk of his troops.

But this was where Salah al-Din miscalculated. The Sultan and his emirs were so confident of victory that they took time to plunder the rich cities of the coastal plain, notably Ramla and Lydda, but also as far inland as Hebron. In Jerusalem, the terrified population sought refuge in the Citadel of David.

The Citadel of David as it appears today.
But Baldwin IV was not yet defeated. With the number of Saracen troops surrounding Ascalon dramatically reduced, he risked a sortie. He also got word to the Templars in the fortress of Gaza, and they sortied out to rendezvous with the King. Together this mounted force started to shadow Saladin’s now dispersed and no longer disciplined army. Frankish tactics, however, required a combination of cavalry and infantry, so King Baldwin could not engage the enemy until he had infantry as well. He therefore issued the arrière ban, a general call to arms that obligated every Christian to rally to the royal standard in defense of the realm. The burgesses started streaming to join him.

What happened next is usually depicted as a "miracle" or just "dumb luck." On the other hand, a number of modern historians, basing their assessment on Arab sources, claim that the real commander at Montgisard was Reynald de Chatillon, the Lord of Transjordan, but this is a red herring. Arab sources had absolutely no insight into the Frankish command structure. The most prominent fighter on the battlefield is not necessarily (indeed rarely) the actual commander. Furthermore, because Chatillon was a familiar figure to the Arabs, so he was recognized. Most important, Arab chroniclers were at pains to justify Saladin's summary execution of Chatillon ten years later after the Battle of Hattin by making Chatillon into a particularly dangerous enemy of Islam. Making him the mastermind of Montgisard fit this agenda, but it proves nothing about who actually devised the strategy and led the Frankish army to victory at Montgisard.

Michael Erhlich in a reassessment of the Battle of Montgisard published in Medieval Military History [Vol. XI, 2013, pp. 95-105] argues convincingly that the Franks lured Saladin into marshy ground, where his superiority of numbers could not come into play. He notes further that the effective use of terrain had to be based on intimate local knowledge of the countryside -- something Chatillon had no more than Saladin. Chatillon was a Frenchman, who had been prince of Antioch, then in Saracen captivity for 15 years, before becoming the Lord of Transjordan; he had no particular familiarity with the coastal plain.

Ehrlich contends compellingly that the kind of familiarity with the terrain necessary for springing the trap on Saladin came from “a local lord.” Not only does this make sense, but it was the custom of Frankish armies to give command of the vanguard of the army to the lord in whose territory an engagement occurred — and that was Baldwin d’Ibelin, Lord of Ramla. Indeed, the battle took place so close to Ramla that it is called the “Battle of Ramla” in the Arab sources.

On the afternoon of November 25, King Baldwin’s host of about 450 knights (375 secular knights and 84 Templars from Gaza), with their squires, turcopoles and infantry in unspecified numbers lured Saladin's army into following them off the main road to Jerusalem and then, in territory where Saladin could not bring his numbers to bear, Baldwin's army struck. The Sultan, as he later admitted to Saracen chroniclers, was caught off-guard. Before he could properly deploy his troops, the Frankish army had over-run much of his army.

A modern portrayal of the Battle of Montgisard by Mariusz Kozik

Although the battle was hard-fought and there were Christian casualties, the Sultan’s forces were routed.  Not only that, Salah ad-Din himself came very close to being killed or captured and allegedly escaped on the back of a pack-camel. Yet for the bulk of his army there was no escape. Those who were not slaughtered immediately on the field, found themselves scattered and virtually defenseless in enemy territory. Although they abandoned their plunder, it was still a long way home — and the rains had set in.  Cold, wet, slowed down by the mud, no longer benefiting from the strength of numbers, they were easy prey for the residents and settlers of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.  The latter, after the sack of Lydda, Ramla and other lesser places, had good reason to crave revenge. Furthermore, even after escaping Christian territory, the Sultan’s troops still found no refuge because once in the desert the Bedouins took advantage of the situation to enslave as many men as they could catch in order to enrich themselves. Very few men of the Sultan’s army made it home to safety in Egypt.

Saladin was badly shaken by this defeat. He had good reason to believe it would discredit him and initially feared it would trigger revolts against his rule. Later, he convinced himself that God had spared him for a purpose. Certainly he was to learn from his defeat. He never again allowed himself to be duped by his own over-confidence and his subsequent campaigns against the crusader states were marked by greater caution. It was not until the crushing defeat of the Frankish armies at Hattin in July 1187 — almost ten years later — that he had his revenge.

The Battle of Montgisard is an important episode in "Knight of Jerusalem," the first book in a three part biography of Balian d'Ibelin.

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  1. Damn it woman! Had you posted this three days ago I could have prepared a proper celebration! Now I have to do something impromptu! :-P

    How the poor Kurds have fallen.

    Another excellent piece, Professor.

  2. I really enjoyed reading that. Thank you.


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