Friday, November 17, 2017

Saladin's Armies

The crusader kingdoms consistently faced an enemy that significantly outnumbered them, and it is often this sense of "massive hordes" that dominates descriptions of Saracen armies. Yet while the size of Saracen armies was certainly a factor in their success, it was by no means their only significant feature. On the contrary, Saracen armies were extremely complex and understanding them better helps explain Frankish tactics.

Saladin's Army as depicted in "The Kingdom of Heaven"
Perhaps the most important yet often forgotten characteristic of Saracen armies was their ethnic diversity. The term "Saracen" simply means "Easterner" and referred collectively to the Muslim opponents of the crusaders.  Yet while the use of this term is convenient, it plasters over and so disguises the ethnic differences within the "Saracen" armies. The "Saracen" armies included not only Arabs and Turks, the two largest ethnic groups engaged in warfare against the crusaders. They also included Kurds (Saladin himself was a Kurd), Nubians, and Berbers. Furthermore, the Arab elements need to be sub-divided into Syrians, Bedouins and Egyptians, and the term "Turk" actually covers a variety of Turkmenish tribes. 

Each of these ethnic groups had their own more or less distinct ways of fighting along with their own language, dress, and preferred weapons. In broad terms, the Nubians were famous infantry archers, who fought with large powerful bows but without shields of any kind, making them very vulnerable in close engagements.  The Arabs, Kurds and Berbers generally fought on horseback with lance, javelin and sword, but Bedouins fought more often as infantry archers. The Turks were the masters of mounted archery. 

It was the Turks with their highly mobile cavalry and mounted archers that most impressed the crusaders. Based on Christian descriptions, the crusaders found the infantry and even the heavy cavalry of their opponents unremarkable. The mounted archers on the other hand, with their tactics of pressing in close for a volley of arrows only to flee when challenged, frustrated and won grudging respect from the Franks. The Turkish tactic of pretending flight to lure Frankish cavalry into an ambush was well-recorded and highly effective--over and over again. The comparison to a pesky fly is colorful but somewhat deceptive since these "flies" could kill. 

The diversity of tradition in Saracen armies had advantages and disadvantages. Good commanders could exploit the strengths of their various troops and use them to complement one another. Less effective commanders found their armies disintegrating or the units operating independently of one another. It was easy for the infantry to get left behind, forgotten and slaughtered. Cavalry without infantry support was vulnerable when they stopped to rest and water their horses, and utterly useless in siege warfare--which was the dominant form of engagement in the crusader period.

In addition to the ethnic differences within the Saracen armies, there were different kinds of service as well. At the one extreme and completely unknown in the West, Saracen commanders always had a contingent of slave-soldiers completely devoted to them. These slave-soldiers or Mamlukes (also Mamelukes and Mamluks) formed the personal body-guard of commanders and lords. They were composed of men who had been acquired as children (carefully selected, one presumes, for their physical appearance and health) and trained meticulously and rigorously for years to make them crack troops. Although technically "freed" on completion of training, they remained emotionally and financially bound to their master. They were professionals, with no other interests or purpose other than to serving their master in war.

In contrast, the bulk of the troops in a Saracen army were similar to feudal levees in the West. They were men with land and families, who served in the army when called-up, or as volunteers, but who were not professional soldiers. The quality of such troops obviously varied widely. Some of them, young, virile and ambitious were undoubtedly very good. Others, aging, ailing or just disinterested, were not so good. 

One element that was of mixed value were the jihadists. These men joined Saracen armies engaged in warfare against the crusader states for religious purification. While often untrained and poorly armed, they were fanatical and often keen for a martyr's death in battle against the "polytheists."  In consequence, these troops could be used for particularly dangerous tasks such as storming a breech in a wall or scaling a siege ladder.

As in the West, most of Saracen troops (like the Mamlukes) owed service to a lord or emir, not to the Sultan directly. Thus, as in the West, a Saracen army was composed of small, close-knit clusters of troops bound to a land-owner, who himself owed service to a larger land-owner, who owed service to an even larger land-owner etc. until one came to the top, the Sultan himself. Yet while all theoretically served the Sultan directly or indirectly, the reality was that men served the men they personally knew. If their immediate lord changed sides or just decided to go home, then they did so too. As a result, the only troops the Sultan could rely on 100% were his Mamlukes (until they too revolted, cut the Sultan to pieces and took control for themselves, but that wasn't until the mid-13th Century.)

In short, the Sultan, like a medieval King, was dependent upon the loyalty and support of his most powerful emirs, and the emirs had power similar to barons in medieval Europe, with one important difference: the emirs did not hold territory on a hereditary basis. They served as administrators of territory or other sources of revenue (such as customs, or markets) for the Sultan. In theory at least, the Sultans could dismiss them and replace them at whim.

While one might expect this made them more loyal, the evidence suggests the opposite.  Lack of tenure created a sense of insecurity and tended to make emirs more mercenary. Without a vested interest in a specific territory, they were always open to alternative opportunities -- from a different Sultan, or a brother, cousin or son willing to challenge the reigning Sultan. With no long-term perspectives, there was also a strong bias toward plundering one's current position, whether it was territorial or purely administrative.

Furthermore, the fact that emirs came and went (squeezing as much revenue as possible from their subjects) undermined loyalty. Tenants farmers and peasants had little reason to identify with the ever changing cast of landlords sent to exploit them. This fact is reflected in the tendency of Saracen forces to dissolve comparatively rapidly. Saladin had consistent difficulty keeping his troops in the field for more than a  month or so. Even after his great victory at Hattin and the plundering of an entire kingdom, his troops faded away when the rains started. 

To compensate for the generally low levels of loyalty and morale among the conscripts, Saracen leaders depended increasingly upon mercenaries. These were predominantly drawn from the nomadic tribes of the Asian steppes, but included Armenians, further adding to the overall diversity of the Saracen force. 

Warfare in the crusader states at the end of the 12th century is an integral part of Dr. Schrader's award-winning biographical novels about Balian d'Ibelin.


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 Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at:

Friday, November 10, 2017

Crusader Art

The scarcity of artwork dating from the crusader period found in the Holy Land today does not reflect — as some commentators suggest — a lack of artistic accomplishment or interest in the arts on the part of the elites in the crusader kingdoms. Rather is it the result of the the ravages of war and time, combined with systematic destruction and theft of crusader art by the Muslim conquerors of the Christian kingdoms. Today I provide a very quick overview of some of the artistic achievements of the crusader era.

A medieval window seat with delicate tracery; crusader castle of St. Hilarion on Cyprus

We know from the written record and from the few fragments of art that survive that the Kings of Jerusalem and other Christian rulers invested huge sums in the construction/re-construction and decoration of churches first and foremost. We also know the luxury in which the elites in the crusader states lived attracted censure as well as awe from Western pilgrims, suggesting that secular buildings were likewise beautifully decorated.

The crusader cloisers at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem
The best surviving evidence of crusader art is in the architecture and above all sculpture from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Church of the Annunciation at Nazareth.  Fragments of crusader sculpture have also been found at Sebaste, Montfort and St. Mary Major in Jerusalem. However, except where Christian motifs or location make the dating of sculpture unassailable, many works of crusader sculpture is hard to identify because it was incorporated into buildings that were subsequently modified and overlaid with work of later centuries. The covered markets of Jerusalem are largely crusader in origin, but have been used continuously and added to and modified by successive generations. 

One of Jerusalem's covered markets; some of which date back to the reign of Queen Melisende
From the few pieces of art that have been identified unequivocally as crusader sculpture, a clear mix of Byzantine and Romanesque influences has been identified, suggesting either Byzantine artists working for Latin patrons, or Frankish craftsmen under Byzantine masters or combinations of the above.

The Church of Nativity in Bethlehem houses magnificent mosaics from the crusader period. Very extensive wall mosaics depict the life of Christ, the Ecumenical Councils and the ancestors of Christ. These mosaics are carried out in the Byzantine style and were probably executed by Byzantine artists, but they were commissioned by the Kings of Jerusalem, probably Baldwin III or Amalric I, who were both married to Byzantine princesses and maintained close ties to the Byzantine Empire. The choice of Greek artists may also have been guided by the fact that the Church of the Nativity was one of the best preserved churches in the Holy Land, having survived destruction at the hands of the Persians and Muslims. The floor tiles date from the reign of Constantine and were allegedly commissioned by St. Helena. They are still in place today.

Mosaics in the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, dating to the reign of Baldwin III
 (apologies for the poor quality of the picture, I took it myself in March 2014)
Wall painting was almost certainly popular in the crusader states as it was in the South of France, whence so many of the early crusaders came, but it is particularly vulnerable to obliteration as it is easily painted over — a method of eliminating unwanted decoration that also inadvertently preserves it for the archaeologist. At least four important frescos from the crusader period have been found in the last half century, including at Crac de Chevaliers.  The style of most wall-painting from the crusader period found to date suggests that Byzantine artists, or craftsmen trained in the Byzantine school, were used for such painting, although the choice of subject was dictated by Western traditions.

Two examples of Byzantine Art; St. George was a particularly popular subject in the Crusader Kingdoms
In contrast, manuscript illustration appears to have been dominated by Western craftsmen. We know from written sources that a Scriptorium was established by the canons of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This workshop is said to have produced a large number of works of very high quality, very little of which has survived. One exception is a psalter made for Queen Melisende of Jerusalem. 

The ivory cover of Queen Melisende's Psalter

A Medieval Manuscript Illustration Depicting the First Crusade
After the fall of Jerusalem, there appears to have been an attempt to re-establish a Scriptorium in the Holy Land, this time in Accre, but the quality of the work is notably inferior to that from the Holy Sepulcher. Furthermore, whereas the illustrations of the Melisdende psalter and other works from the 12th century demonstrate strong Byzantine influence, the works from the Acre scriptorium are French and Italian in style.

The fragments of crusader art that survive are pitiably little, a mere whisper of what must have been a rich and distinct artistic heritage formed by the cross-fertilization of various cultures and artistic traditions at the ancient cross-roads of civilization on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean.

Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at:

Recommended further reading:

Boas, Adrian J., Crusader Archaeology: The Material Culture of the Latin East, Routledge, London & New York, 1999.

The award-winning biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is set in the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the last quarter of the 12th Century.

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Learn more about crusader society at: Balian d'Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Red Sea Raids Revisited

In December of 1182, during a truce between Salah ad-Din and the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem, pirate ships manned by an estimated 3,000 cut-throats suddenly started terrorizing trade and pilgrims in the Red Sea. It soon became clear that, to the astonishment of all, they were manned by “Franks” — that is Latin Christians. As such, they became the first Christian ships — lawful or otherwise — to be seen in the Red Sea in over 500 years. These became known as "The Red Sea Raids" and have long been used as examples of Christian perfidy -- or rather as evidence of the complete degenerate nature of one particular Christian baron: Reynald de Châtillon. Today I take a closer look at these "Red Sea Raids" and argues they were not mere piracy but intelligent strategy.

Because there had been no hostile ships in the Red Sea for five centuries, the Muslim rulers of Egypt and Arabia had no warships in the Red Sea to deal with the pirate threat. As a result, within a very short space of time these ships had completely disrupted the rich and vital trade between Egypt and India. Politically more dangerous: they had also disrupted the pilgrim traffic that converged on Jedda from all over North Africa for the final leg of the haj to Mecca.

The Frankish pirates first seized the town of Aidhab on the Egyptian coast, a major embarkation port for pilgrims from North Africa. Here they sacked the unwalled town, captured large stores intended to provision pilgrims, and sent raiders inland to seize a caravan. The fleet next crossed the Red Sea and sent a raiding party ashore between Medina and Mecca, apparently looking for rich and undefended caravans, before for heading for al-Haura, north of Jedda. During a sojourn in the Red Sea lasting about three months, they succeeded in capturing roughly 20 merchant or pilgrim ships. They plundered their prizes, then burned the slower ones, while converting the faster vessels into auxiliaries for their own raiding activities. The number of unarmed merchants and pilgrims, men, women and children, abused, slaughtered or enslaved in the process went unrecorded but was undoubtedly significant. By early February 1183, however, their luck had run out.

The governor of Egypt, Salah ad-Din’s brother al-Adil, responded to the threat rapidly and vigorously. He ordered a portion of the Egyptian fleet dragged across Sinai and launched in the Red Sea. This Egyptian squadron began operating in mid-January 1183, and roughly two weeks later caught up with and trapped the Frankish pirates in the harbor of the Arabian port of al-Haura, north of Jedda. Unable to break out of the harbor, the Franks abandoned their ships, captives and treasure to flee inland. Five days later they were tracked down and caught in a narrow ravine.  There most of them were slaughtered, but 170 surrendered and were taken prisoner. 

Not unsurprisingly, Salah ad-Din took a very dim view of the activities of these raiders. Although Sharia Law prohibits the execution of prisoners who voluntarily surrender, Salah ad-Din nevertheless ordered the execution of the men involved in the Red Sea raids. Arab sources site the need to eliminate enemies who had gained valuable knowledge of how to navigate in the Red Sea, but the desire to make an example of these men and satisfy public outrage probably also played a role in the Sultan’s decision. In any case, the prisoners were dispersed across Salah ad-Din’s empire for public execution in as many towns and cities as possible in order to “publicize [Saladin's] victory and exemplify his justice,” according to Bernard Hamilton in The Leper King and his Heirs (Cambridge University Press: 2000, p. 183). Two of the prisoners were singled out for a special punishment: they were taken to Mecca, where they were slaughtered like sacrificial animals in front of the thousands of pilgrims come for the haj.

No account of the raids spares a word of sympathy for the pirates. They preyed upon unarmed pilgrims and merchants evidently only for their own enrichment. Arab accounts stress the terror struck in the hearts of pilgrims accustomed to safe travel, and the psychological impact of these raids must have been similar to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2000. An entire region, long viewed as a safe — indeed invulnerable — Muslim homeland, was suddenly the scene of appalling and “unprecedented” acts of terror. Furthermore, this sudden sense of insecurity was compounded by the fact that the raid between Medina and Mecca led many Muslims to believe that the objective of the attack had been not so much plunder as the destruction of the tomb of the Prophet Mohammad. Thus, in addition to the very real threat to innocent people came the added threat to a sacred site of incalculable religious significance.

The unsavory character of these raids has led most historians and commentators to condemn them in the harshest terms. They are described as acts of perfidy and piracy, and usually depicted as the brainchild of the notoriously avaricious, unscrupulous and brutal Reynald de Châtillon, the lord of the crusader barony of Oultrejourdain.  Châtillon was infamous for attacking and sacking the Christian island of Cyprus, for torturing the Patriarch of Antioch to extract treasure from him, and later for breaking truces to attack caravans.  He would eventually meet his just end at Salah ad-Din’s own hand following the Battle of Hattin, when the Sultan personally executed him.

While there is little doubt that Châtillon was the mastermind behind these raids, Hamilton points out that the launch of five warships manned by three thousand men was beyond the resources of Châtillon alone. The ships could not have been built in Châtillon’s desert lordship, crouching as it did along the Dead Sea. Instead, the ships had almost certainly been constructed in a port with a shipbuilding industry and tradition such as Sidon.  They have to have been disassembled and transported on the backs of camels to the Gulf of Aqaba. Here they could only have been reassembled into seaworthy craft by highly trained shipwrights, who again could not have come from Oultrejourdain. And they would have needed pilots familiar with the Red Sea, almost certainly men from the Sultan’s own territories. In short, Châtillon may have been the instigator of the raids or the man immediately responsible for them (although he was personally involved in a land siege of Aqaba and did not personally participate in the raids), but almost certainly he was not acting alone.

If he was not acting alone, then these raids were not just another act of banditry and lawless aggression on the part of a “rogue” baron. Rather, they served another purpose for a wider constituency, and that purpose cannot have been plunder alone. After all, only the pirates themselves enjoyed the fruits of their "labor" — both the three months of plunder, rape and pillage, and slaughter or execution when their luck ran out. Since the pirates themselves were even less in a position to finance and organize the operation, someone else had to be behind it — behind Châtillon. So who might that have been and what was their real purpose?

Hamilton argues that the raids served a clear strategic purpose: namely discrediting Salah ad-Din as the “defender of Islam.” Furthermore, he notes, the timing of these raids underlines this purpose. The Red Sea Raids occurred during one of Salah ad-Din’s campaigns against the Sunni Muslim city of Mosul.  In short, while Salah ad-Din was killing his fellow Muslims in a war whose sole purpose was the expansion of his personal empire, innocent Muslim pilgrims and merchants were left unprotected at the mercy of murderous Frankish (Christian) marauders.  

The instigators of the Red Sea raids may even have hoped that the raids would force Salah ad-Din to break-off his operations against Mosul and return to Egypt to deal with the raiders himself. This would have helped Mosul retain its independence and delayed (if not prevented) Salah ad-Din from further expanding his empire, wealth and power. In short, the most obvious immediate beneficiary of these raids was the ruler of Mosul. Given Châtillon’s mercenary bent and his willingness to attack even fellow Christians on Cyprus, it is not entirely inconceivable that he might have been willing to take gold from Muslim paymasters. Furthermore, a Mosul connection would help explain where the pilots for the ships came from. 

However, northern Syria is not famous for its shipwrights and sailors, and this fact suggests another architect for the raids, namely the King of Jerusalem. King Baldwin IV may have hoped the raids would both preserve the independence of Mosul and discredit Salah ad-din in the Muslim world. He almost certainly hoped the raids would undermine the Sultan's authority in Egypt, which was most directly affected by the “terrorists” in their “backyard.” These seem to be perfectly legitimate policy objectives for an embattled kingdom, particularly since the king found (in the shape of Reynald de Châtillon) a man with no reputation to lose and no scruples about carrying out the attacks. The Christian king’s conscience about attacks on unarmed pilgrims and traders was undoubtedly eased by the knowledge that nothing Châtillon’s pirates did was truly unprecedented; Muslim pirates had preyed upon Christian merchantmen and pilgrims in the Mediterranean for centuries.

Whether the Kingdom of Jerusalem ultimately profited or lost as a result of the raids is more debatable. Hamilton argues that Salah ad-Din lost credibility, while most historians argue that the raids only “hardened” Muslim attitudes towards the crusaders, and united Islam against the crusader states. (See, for example, W.B. Bartlett in Downfall of the Crusader Kingdom or Andrew Jotischky in Crusading and the Crusader States.) It is, however, hard to see how much more “hardened” Islam could be than it was already under Salah ad-Din. He had, after all, already declared his intention to push the crusaders into the sea and obliterate their states.

Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at:

The Red Sea Raids and the political and military environment that led up to them is described in award-winning:

A divided kingdom, a united enemy, and the struggle for Jerusalem. 

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Review: "The Leper King and his Heirs" by Bernard Hamilton

At the start of each month bring a review of a book relevant to the crusades.  Today I recommend an important work by renowned crusades historian Professor Bernard Hamilton.

Baldwin IV as depicted in "The Kingdom of Heaven" 

Bernard Hamilton's The Leper King and his Heirs: Baldwin IV and the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem is an excellent, detailed and well-documented account of the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem in the late 12th century. It focuses on the quarter century of Baldwin IV's life span, 1161 to 1186. This was a particularly critical period in the history of the crusader kingdom, and Hamilton's book provides details too often skipped over or even blurred together in accounts that try to cover the whole two hundred years of crusader history. Furthermore, Hamilton provides an excellent summary of his sources up front and impresses with his familiarity with not only Latin and Arab, but Greek, Jewish and Armenian sources.

Particularly impressive is Hamilton's treatment of Reynald de Chatillon. Chatillon is usually depicted as a rogue adventurer, more robber than baron, and often blamed for the war with Saladin. Hamilton, in contrast, effectively defends many of Chatillon's most controversial actions. While not denying his violent and ambitious character, Hamilton convincingly argues that Chatillon followed sound strategic principles when launching his raids into Sinai, putting Christian warships in the Red Sea, and even when breaking the truce with Saladin to attack a heavily armed caravan.

Reynald de Chatillon as depicted in the film "The Kingdom of Heaven"

Hamilton's treatment of Raymond of Tripoli is less convincing. He tries to paint Tripoli as a treasonous threat to the throne, and even suggests that Sibylla's marriage to Guy de Lusignan was arranged by King Baldwin in an attempt to prevent a coup by Tripoli. The evidence is very weak for this and contradicted by other accounts, notably the Chronicles of Ernoul, that other historians have followed. Furthermore, Baldwin soon withdrew his favor from Lusignan, while Sibylla remained remarkably loyal to her ineffective husband -- two historical facts that give credence to the more common intepretation of a love-affair between Lusignan and Sibylla forcing the king's hand. But even here, where Hamilton's arguments are weak, he presents them cogently and names his sources, leaving the reader in a good position to judge for himself which interpretation of history he finds more compelling. 

Where this book falls short of the mark is in the essential biographical function of making the subject come to life. For all his meticulous reporting on what happend during "the Leper King's" reign, Hamilton singularly fails to get inside the leprous skin of his subject and help us understand him. We are given no inkling of what he was thinking and feeling, why he behaved in certain ways, how he succeeded in winning the undoubted loyalty of his subjects despite his illness or what motivated him at critical junctions. We are not even told until the epilogue that he was chaste but not particularly devout. 

Baldwin IV - another image from "The Kingdom of Heaven" -- that brought him more to life than this biography.

Baldwin IV of Jerusalem deserves a better biography precisely because despite his severe handicap he successfully held his kingdom together in a very difficult period, and despite his severe physical handicap he repeatedly defeated Saladin on the battlefield. He also pursued a highly sophisticated foreign policy, which showed profound understanding of the geopolitical position of his kingdom. I would like to read a book that explores the character and psyche of such a man; Hamilton's history unfortunately does not.

Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at: 
King Baldwin is a major character in the first two books of the award-winning Jerusalem Trilogy:


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