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Monday, February 22, 2021

The Decline and Fall of the Crusader States in the 13th Century

 In the first half of the 13th century, the crusader states were politically resurgent and  economically prospering. By 1240, the Kingdom of Jerusalem had been restored nearly to the same borders it had before the Battle of Hattin. It was strengthened, furthermore, by having at its back the Latin Kingdom of Cyprus.

 Yet, between 1240 and 1290 the mainland crusader states essentially disintegrated. There were two main factors that contributed to this collapse, one external and one internal. The external factor was the rise of the Mamluks, the internal factor was the failure of the dynasty of Jerusalem.

Let me examine the external factor first: the Mamluks. The Mamluks were not a dynasty, but a cadre of fanatical, orthodox, military leaders willing to sacrifice economic considerations for religious orthodoxy and victory. The Mamluks pursued a ruthless policy of aggression against the crusader states that included routinely breaking truces, breaking the terms of truces, slaughtering of prisoners, and the wanton destruction of economic assets and cultural monuments to render the cities they captured uninhabitable for generations to come. The Mamluks did not pursue wars of conquest in which the hoped to occupy and benefit from the territory they conquered, but conducted wars of annihilation.

(Medieval depiction of Mamluks)

Let me be clear. Many still point to the Battle of La Forbie as the historical turning point in the fortunes of the Second Kingdom of Jerusalem (the Kingdom that emerged after the Third Crusade). This was a two-day battle in which the the military orders and their Ayyubid allies were defeated by their Ayyubid enemies. From that point in time onwards, the crusader states were on the defensive. They shrank and disintegrated until there was nothing left after the fall of Acre in 1291.

Yet La Forbie was only an apparent and not a substantive turning point. First, note, the battle was not a clash between Christians and Muslims, but rather between Ayyubid princes, in which the Franks had the misfortune to back the losing side. Notably, the defeat did not result in the Kingdom of Jerusalem being over-run and destroyed — precisely because the victor was not engaged in jihad.

Thus, decisive as this battle appears in retrospect, it was not the cause of subsequent decline. As long as the Ayyubid princes remained in control of the territories surrounded the crusader states, it was possible to 1) make truces with them, and 2) play them off against one another. The Ayyubids were far too interested in profiting from the trade they had with the crusader states to undertake serious jihad. This is why I say that it was not until the rise of the Mamluks that the crusaders faced opponents set on their destruction and eradication.

Could the crusader states have prevented the rise of the Mamluks? Impossible to answer. King Louis’ crusade seemed to have spurred their rise, but the Ayyubids were becoming increasingly decadent and fragmented, so perhaps the Mamluk reaction would have come eventually any way.

Let’s turn to the internal crisis: the collapse of the dynasty of Jerusalem. From 1100 to 1225, Jerusalem was ruled by kings resident in the kingdom, who viewed the defense of the Holy Land as their raison d’etre. From Godfrey to John of Brienne, these kings had been fighting men devoted to the kingdom they inherited, whether by blood or marriage.

In 1225, that changed. The marriage of the heiress of Jerusalem, Yolanda (sometimes Isabelle II) to the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen, put the crown — and fate — of Jerusalem into the hands of a man who already possessed a vast Empire. As events were to prove, Frederick II never gave more than an tinker’s damn about Jerusalem. He spent less than a year in the kingdom, he ignored its constitution, sought to humiliate and break the local barons, and on his death bed in 1250 tried to alienate it from the legitimate heir. (For details on this see: Sixth Crusade ( II & His Barons ( II and Henry I , ( Siege of Beirut 1231-1232 (

Frederick II’s son Conrad I and his grandson Conrad II were titular “Kings of Jerusalem” but neither ever set foot in the kingdom, had no understanding of its laws, people or problems, and evidently couldn’t have cared less about it.

In 1268, Conradin of Hohenstaufen died without heirs and a succession dispute broke out between King Hugh III of Cyprus and Maria of Antioch. With a mercenary disregard for the well-being of the kingdom, Maria of Antioch sold her claim to Charles d’Anjou, the younger brother of King Louis of France. Charles, like the latter Hohenstaufens, never set foot in the kingdom, he merely sent a ‘baillie,’ who successfully exploited self-interests and personal vanities to undermine the authority of King Hugh. As a result, the latter abandoned the Kingdom of Jerusalem in disgust and returned to Cyprus. By the time Charles d’Anjou died in 1284 enabling Henry II of Cyprus to be recognized and crowned without dispute as King of Jerusalem, the kingdom existed in name only.

In short, between 1225 and 1284, the Kingdom of Jerusalem effectively had no central authority. It is hardly surprising that in the circumstances internal factions formed, and that rivalries led to bloodshed. Not only did the Genoese and Venetians kill each other in the streets of Acre, but at times the Hospitallers and Templars clashed violently as well — not to mention the long baronial revolt against Frederick II.

Could this have been avoided? Well, obviously, the heiress of Jerusalem should never have been married to a European monarch with so little interest in the kingdom — no matter how good the idea seemed at the time. Once the damage had been done, the only alternative was rebellion, i.e. outright rejection of the “legitimate” king in favor of a local man willing to be an effective king. One can well imagine that Jerusalem would have held its own — even against the Mamluks — under a man like Simon de Montfort (who was proposed as regent by the rebel barons, but rejected by Frederick II) or even under Balian of Beirut, backed by Philip de Montfort.

But that was evidently too radical an idea for the legally-minded barons of Outremer. (For more on the Rule of Law in Outremer at this time see: Educated Elite of the Crusader States (

The tumultuous 13th century are the backdrop for my Rebels of Outremer series, starting with Rebels against Tyranny and The Emperor Strikes Back.

Find out more and buy at: Crusades (


Monday, February 15, 2021

The Crusader States in the Early Thirteenth Century - Prosperous and Flourishing

 Last week I pointed out that the crusader states in the 13th century are usually portrayed as fragile, vulnerable and tottering on collapse. Yet as historian Stephen Donachie has argued persuasively in a variety of fora, this is a gross exaggeration that reduces nearly a century of history to a single snapshot taken at the end of that hundred years. The fifty years following the arrival of the Third Crusade until the catastrophic defeat of the Frankish army at La Forbie in 1244, was actually a period of comparative prosperity, peace, security and even expansion.

I provided a synopsis of the key events and factors shaping the geopolitical situation in the crusader states between 1190 and 1244 last week. Today I want to look at the economic factors which played a decisive role in the sustainability of the Frankish states in the first half of the 13th century.

Remains of a 13th Century Sugar Factory - One of Cyprus' Source of Wealth

The reason the crusader states of the early 13th century were viable, despite the loss of nearly all the inland territory that had sustained the First Kingdom of Jerusalem, can be summed up in one word: Cyprus. Despite the loss of most of Galilee, Samaria, and Palestine, the crusader states on the coast of the mainland were not weak because they could draw on the rich resources in manpower, foodstuffs and finished products of Cyprus.  In terms of prosperity, if not security, Cyprus more than compensated the Frankish settlements in Syria for the territory that remained in Saracen hands.

First and foremost, Cyprus was the bread-basket of the Frankish states. Cereals, particularly wheat and barley, were the principal crops of Cyprus. They were produced in quantities far in excess of domestic consumption, making cereals a major export commodity.

In addition, Cyprus produced and exported cotton, sesame, and olives.  Olives were used in the production of both oil and soap, an important value-added product that brought high margins, particularly when scented with any of the readily available herbs like rosemary or thyme. Sugar production was another important economic activity and contemporary sources claim the best powdered sugar came from Cyprus.  Other coveted agricultural products produced on Cyprus were beeswax, honey, raisins, wine, and almonds. Cyprus was famous for its wine as well, a product that found favor in the royal courts across Western Europe. Last but not least, timber from the abundant and old forests on the island was highly coveted because lumber was needed to build the Italian ships that now dominated the Mediterranean. These products made the Frankish elite on Cyprus very rich indeed.

While unsuitable for long-distance export, the standard of living of the inhabitants of both Cyprus and the crusader states of the Levant was increased by the cultivation and sale of dietary supplements such as oranges, lemons, limes, bananas, pomegranates, mulberries, figs, apples, peaches, walnuts, almonds, and, of course, grapes. Likewise, although game was limited on the mainland due to the density of population, Cyprus still had deer, wild sheep, and boar, as well as hare and rabbit. Domesticated livestock included cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, geese, pigeons.  Horses, donkeys, and camels were all used extensively for transport, and horses were among the exports from Latin Greece.

Nor were all exports agriculture in nature. Silk and silk fabrics, particularly material using spun gold either in the weave or embroidered, were produced in the crusader states. Because the rare porphyria snails which produce purple dye were found only off the coast of Beirut and in the Gulf of Laconia (both under Frankish control in the first half of the 13th century), this dye or fabrics produced using it were another important source of income. Another popular luxury good produced in Outremer was glass. Tyre was famous for particularly clear glass, Beirut for red glass. Soap, particularly scented soap, was another popular product exported to the West. 

But not all trade was in products produced locally. Immensely important to the prosperity of the crusader states was the transit trade, i.e. trade in goods that originated beyond the borders of the crusader states and was destined for customers likewise beyond Outremer. Beirut, Tyre, and Acre particularly were funnels for goods bound for Constantinople, Italy, Sicily, and Western Europe from as far away as China and India. The lords of Outremer taxed both imports and exports. They charged anchorage and demurrage fees in their harbors. They taxed the goods passing into their cities from landward as well as seaward, ensuring that they profited from the caravans coming from Aleppo, Damascus, and Ascalon as well as the ships from France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire.

The goods passing through were some of the most coveted of the age, ensuring high margins for merchants ― and tax collectors. For example, the famed spices and perfumes of the Orient passed through the ports of the Levant.  So did important pharmaceuticals such as opium. Ivory, incense, and gold were other coveted exports from the lands East of Outremer.  Fur, amber, wool and woolen fabrics, and iron were just some of the products imported from the West and bound for destinations further east. While weapons, to the scandal of Churchmen and Imams alike, passed in both directions.

The combination of expanding borders (i.e. increasing security) and sustained prosperity created an environment in which the inhabitants of the crusader states lived in comparative comfort and, indeed, luxury. Visitors from the West were impressed, not to say astounded or offended, by the lifestyle of the residents. The Lusignan palace in Nicosia inspired admiration and comment for its great throne room, balconies, baths, gardens, menagerie, gold ornaments, tapestries, and clocks. (Hazard, Harry W ed. A History of the Crusades: The Art and Architecture of the Crusader States, p. 175.)  The polychrome marble, mosaics, painted ceilings and indoor fountains at the Ibelin residence in Beirut ignited the wonder of visitors. The hunting dogs, hawks, brightly painted galleys, and livery of the servants and soldiers were other sources of admiration and wonder. In short, wealth and security were the foundation for a cultural flourishing that expressed itself in the construction of magnificent cathedrals, monasteries, palaces and commercial buildings, as well as in the significant writings of the Frankish elite.

Yet it would be wrong to see the society of the crusader states as fundamentally decadent. The military elites of this society might have enjoyed exceptional luxury of lifestyle, but they remained fighting-men with agricultural holdings (now on Cyprus rather than in Syria) as the foundation of their status and wealth.  They were also engaged in a series of armed conflicts during this period. They actively participated in the Fifth Crusade in Egypt.  After a civil war stretching nearly two decades and involving several military campaigns, they effectively drove the Hohenstaufen Emperors out of Outremer. They participated in the crusade led by Champagne and Cornwall ― and pushed their luck too far in the military operations that ended in disaster at La Forbie.

Far from being a precarious period overshadowed by a sense of doom as most writers would have you believe, this was arguably one of the most pleasant periods in the history of the crusader states. It was not until the rise of Mamluks, with their far more brutal and duplicitous tactics, that the crusader states came again under unremitting and ultimately overpowering attack.

Dr. Schrader's new series is set in the first half of the 13th century starting with:

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Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the author of a total of six books set in the Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades. Find out more at:




Monday, February 8, 2021

The Crusader States in the Early Thirteenth Century -- Resurgent and Expanding

 With the wisdom of hindsight, the crusader states in the 13th century are almost universally portrayed as fragile, vulnerable and tottering on collapse. Yet as historian Stephen Donachie has argued persuasively in a variety of fora, this is a gross exaggeration that reduces nearly a century of history to a single snapshot taken at the end of that hundred years. Roughly the first half of that century, from the arrival of the Third Crusade until the defeat of the Frankish army at La Forbie in 1244, was actually a period of comparative prosperity, peace, security and even expansion. What follows is a synopsis of the key events and factors influencing the situation in the crusader states between 1190 and 1244.

Between 1187 and 1190, the forces of Salah ad-Din overran the former Kingdom of Jerusalem, destroying or occupying all the major cities including Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron, Nazareth, and Nablus, as well as the coastal ports of Jaffa, Ascalon, Caesarea, Acre, Sidon, Beirut, and Gibelet. As 1190 closed, the sole city of the former kingdom still in Christian control was Tyre. Although the County of Tripoli and the Principality of Antioch remained independent, both were vulnerable and threatened.

In the course of the Third Crusade, the Franks regained control of the critical port of Acre and then extended that control down the coast as far as Jaffa. While this coastal strip lacked sufficient territory to be self-sufficient in grain and other vital food-stuffs, the Third Crusade had brought the island of Cyprus under Frankish rule. Cyprus was comparative sparsely populated and very fertile, thereby replacing the lost inland territories as the bread-basket of the Frankish states on the mainland. Thus, by the end of the Crusade in 1192, the situation of the crusader states had improved markedly over the situation between 1187 and 1190. Furthermore, the negotiations that ended the crusade secured a three-year truce.

In 1193, Saladin died. This set off a succession struggle among his many heirs that lasted fully seven years. While the Ayyubids were fighting among themselves, the Franks had not only a respite from attack, they were able to themselves go on the offensive.  

In 1197, a force of German crusaders came to the Holy Land in advance of a promised crusade by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI. The Emperor died in the West, but the German crusaders took the offensive anyway.  Although in the meantime, Jaffa had been lost again to the Saracens, the Germans undertook a campaign north from Tyre. They captured Sidon, Beirut, Gibelet, and Botron, thereby eliminating the Muslim-controlled enclaves that had separated the Kingdom of Jerusalem from the County of Tripoli. For the next roughly seventy years, the Franks retained control of the coastline of the Levant from Arsur in the south to Tortosa in the north.

In 1204 forces initially raised for a campaign to regain Jerusalem were diverted by Venice and, after a complicated series of events, took control of Constantinople. A Latin “Empire” was established that occupied roughly the same territory as modern Greece minus the western half of northern Greece but straddling the Bosporus and extending to the shoreline on the Asian side of the Aegean. It was flanked by territory still held by Greek Orthodox forces in western Greece and what is now eastern Anatolia. While highly controversial to this day, in the short-term the establishment of the Latin Empire of Constantinople gave the Franks near complete mastery of the Eastern Mediterranean. A surge in new mercantile activity on the part of the Italian city-states followed.

Meanwhile, Christian Armenia was also gaining in strength. The Armenian leaders agreed to a (more nominal than substantive) reconciliation with the Church in Rome, and thereby facilitated closer ties with the crusader states. Inter-marriage with the Princes of Antioch led to dynastic conflict, but Christian-controlled territory extended from Antioch along the southern coast of what is now Turkey all the way roughly Alanya.

With the death in 1218 of Saladin’s brother, who had finally defeated his rivals in 1200 and managed to retain most of his brother’s empire, the Ayyubid Empire again entered a period of internal bickering. Al-Mu’azzan, the Sultan in Damascus, was soon at war with his brother Al-Kamil, who ruled in Egypt. Al-Kamil covertly sought the support of the Holy Roman Emperor, offering to restore Jerusalem (which he did not control) to Christian control, if the Christians would help him defeat his brother.

This may have been a major factor in convincing Emperor Frederick II that he could launch a successful crusade. Although al-Mu’azzan inconveniently died, making Christian aid less vital to al-Kamil, Frederich II still managed to capitalize on the divisions within the Ayyubid camp. In 1229, his troops reoccupied Jaffa and by means of negotiation obtained limited Christian control  of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Toron. These gains were extended by a crusade (not numbered by later historians but very real nevertheless!) led by the Thibald Count of Champagne and Richard Earl of Cornwall between 1239 and 1241. They extended Frankish control inland from Jaffa, regaining Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee along with the upper Jordan valley.

Thus in 50 years, the Frankish territories had expanded from the City of Tyre to a territory roughly equivalent to modern Lebanon and pre-1967 Israel minus everything south of the Dead Sea. As modern Israel and Lebanon demonstrate, this territory is fertile and not inherently unsustainable or indefensible. 

This is the "Outremer" in which my series on the civil war in the Crusader States is set. The series begins with:

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the author of a total of six books set in the Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades. Find out more at:




Monday, February 1, 2021

The Dar al-Islam on the Eve of the Crusades

To understand the dynamics, opportunities and risks that confronted the crusaders when they ventured into the Holy Land in 1099, an appreciation of the Islamic world the crusaders confronted is essential. This world, however, was not stagnant, but rather had evolved through history.  Below is a quick sketch of key events and factors shaping the Dar al-Islam in 450 years prior to the First Crusade.

By the time the first crusaders arrived in the Middle East to re-take Jerusalem and re-establish Christian rule over the territories known in the West as "the Holy Land," Arab domination of the Levant had lasted roughly 450 years. More important, driven by religious fervor, the Arabs had conquered North Africa, most of the Iberian peninsula, the islands of the Mediterranean, and had spread Islam to the Caucuses and Persia as well. (For a timeline of Muslim conquests see: Jerusalem Forgotten?)

Alongside these military victories, Arab elites adopted and spread a new Islamic culture. This culture awakened a surge of creativity and produced great works of art, literature, mathematics, astronomy and medicine. In urban centers such as Baghdad, Cairo and Damascus there were centers of learning and education, as well as great hospitals, including teaching hospitals where medical practitioners were trained. Great mosques, palaces, fortresses and markets were built. Indeed, the 9th and 10th centuries are often viewed as a "golden age" of Islamic culture.

In the 11th and 12th centuries, however, a number of factors began to undermine and shatter that Arab dominance and with it the confidence that had fostered the flourishing of intellectual and artistic achievements. Indeed, the diversity of peoples now united in the Dar al-Islam make the crusader term "Saracen" (which literally just means "easterner") a justifiable description of their foes. Historians noted that the crusaders, in spite of their various origins, were more homogeneous than their opponents, who were deeply divided racially, linguistically, and culturally. In addition to the Arabs, there were now Turks, Persians, Berbers, and Kurds living in the "abode of Islam" (the literal translation of Dar al-Islam).

Arguably even more disruptive to Islamic society of the twelfth century was the dangerous strength of two Shia states in the heart of the Middle East. The largest and most successful was the Fatimid Caliphate, established in Cairo in 969, which had rapidly spread its influence across North Africa and the Levant. The Turks, recent converts to Islam, pushed the Fatimids back into Africa -- but at the price of seizing political control of the Caliphate of Baghdad. Thereafter and for the next two hundred years, the Caliphs of Baghdad were virtual prisoners of their protectors.

Meanwhile, a smaller and more fanatical Shia sect established itself in the mountains of what is now Lebanon: the Assassins. Sunni Muslim leaders felt actively threatened by both of these Shia states, and wars against the Shia generally commanded more popular support than wars against the Christians, the former being heretics, the later simply misguided.

Yet, this was not the only threat or conflict of the period. Historian Nabih Amin Faris summarizes the situation like this:

The twelfth century witnessed struggles between Moslems and Franks, between Sunnites and Shiites, between Sunnite caliph and Sunnite sultan, between Sunnite princes in the various urban centers and those in the outlying districts, between ambitious dynasts and predatory viziers, and between the mass of the population, mostly Arabs, and the foreign elements, mostly Turks. Each of these struggles was sufficient to disrupt the normal course of life and to ravage the general good of society. Together, they wrought havoc throughout the empire, rendered communications unsafe, increased lawlessness and gave rise to various forms of brigandage. [1]

Indeed, Faris notes further that, when in AD 1111 the sultan of Baghdad at last answered the pleas for assistance from the Moslem states facing Frankish incursions, "his troops, in the words of a Moslem chronicler, 'spread havoc and destruction throughout the land, far exceeding anything which the Franks were wont to do.'"

The constant conflicts shattered the economy and disrupted trade. Trade with the Far East stagnated and declined at the same time that the Mediterranean came increasingly under Christian domination. Not surprisingly, declining security and prosperity had an impact on intellectual and artistic development. It was a period of preservation, copying and compiling rather than creative innovation. Particularly damaging to intellectual pursuits was the fact that the rise of strong Shia states made Sunnis alarmed about “heresy.” Just as the fear of “heresy” in Christianity led to the introduction of the Inquisition, the fear of heresy in Islam likewise led to a more rigid orthodoxy among the majority Sunnis. The space for theological discourse and discussion narrowed significantly. Furthermore, because the Muslim states were theocracies, they conflated heresy and treason.

The trends toward greater orthodoxy and intellectual stagnation which affected the elites, arguably had an even more profound impact on the most vulnerable segments of society. According to Faris (p. 16), "...Arab women had lost the greater part of their freedom and dignity. ....[and] the system of total segregation of the sexes and stringent seclusion of women had become general" even before the 12th century, but it was in the 12th century that non-Muslim communities became subjected to increased discrimination.

Non-Muslims were expelled from government employment, including employment in hospitals, and forced to wear distinctive clothing. It is important to remember that non-Muslims may still have represented a majority of the population or at a minimum a very large minority in those parts of the Middle East that had been part of the Byzantine Empire before the Muslim invasions of the 7th century. 

Added to all these man-made difficulties, the 12th century also saw repeated epidemics of small-pox, plague and malaria, as well as earthquakes and famines. 

Visitors from Muslim Spain reported that the Muslim subjects of the crusader kings were on the whole better off than their brothers in the Muslim states around them. Food for thought.

[1] Faris, Nabih Amin. "Arab Culture in the Twelfth Century" in Zacour, Norman P. and Harry W. Hazard. A History of the Crusades Volume Five: The Impact of the Crusades on the Near East. University of Wisconsin Press, 1985, 4.

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the author of six books set in the Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades:



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