The city where the Crusaders’ dream died

A detail from The Siege of Acre, by Dominique Papety (d 1849)

The Accursed Tower
by Roger Crowley,
Yale, 256pp, £20/$28

The press release that accompanied this attractive hardback asked whether this book might be the last word on the Crusades. Bearing in mind that Acre was the final major Crusader stronghold in the Holy Land to fall and that Roger Crowley has covered the subject with his customary professionalism and thoroughness, this may be a reasonable question.

The “accursed tower” of the title was positioned at one of the most vulnerable points in Acre’s fortifications – at a right angle (or eastern apex) of a triangle whose base was the sea. It was protected by the King’s Tower and a barbican. The original tower had been demolished in 1191 by Richard “the Lionheart” when he was besieging the Muslim garrison under Saladin and a replacement had since been constructed to make it even stronger than before. A visitor to Acre in 1211 mused upon the tower’s name as either reflecting a curse by Jesus Christ as he wandered in the area, or deriving from its being so strongly built and defended; the latter explanation obviously being more likely.

As the author explains, the arrival, outside the walls of Acre in 1291, of the most powerful Muslim army ever assembled during the Crusades was the result of a process that began under Sultan Rukn al-Din Baybars. The commencing of the crusade of Louis IX in June 1249 had initially seemed promising as valorous French knights threw themselves at the infidel. Soon, however, it began to go wrong. Having seized Damietta, the Crusaders were defeated at Mansurah where they got their first taste of the fighting prowess of Turkish Mamluks. These same Mamluks then went on to inflict a defeat on the Mongols at Ayn Jalut in September 1260, in the process unifying a previously fragmented Islam.

Crowley has a talent for making a long and complex story seem effortless and approachable. Although the account is based upon a host of scrupulously researched first-hand sources, this historical information is skilfully blended into the narrative.

The book encompasses a broad landscape of material, from the rivalry between Hospitallers, Templars and Teutonic Knights, to the status of Acre as a thriving port with a cosmopolitan population, through to the intense politics of Cairo.

The author combines broad insights with vivid detail. He demonstrates the unwitting symmetry whereby early Christian crusading fervour at a time when Islam was relatively disunited, was later matched by Islamic fervour as the spirit of jihad was kindled under the dynamic leadership of Baybars and his successors.

Crowley’s command of Arabic sources allows him to illustrate the practical applications of Baybars’ jihadic spirit – the gathering of wood for trebuchets and mangonels in the bitter cold of winter, and the laborious transportation of the giant siege engines over rugged mountain passes to the vulnerable Crusader fortresses. One by one they all fell, including the supposedly impregnable mountain citadel of Krak des Chevaliers.
Sultan Qalawun, who ruled Egypt from 1279 to 1290, died before he could lead the attack on Acre. His younger son Khalil led the Muslim army and planted his red tent a few hundred yards in front of the Accursed Tower. The people of Acre were then subjected to a relentless bombardment.

The book describes in fascinating detail the different types of trebuchets, some capable of flinging limestone balls weighing up to 400lbs with astonishing accuracy. Volleys of sharp arrows darkened the sky. Greek fire (made from crude oil and resin) spread terror and miners dug tunnels to light fires under the wall masonry.
The fall of the Accursed Tower meant that the besieging Muslim forces were able to enter the city, upon which chaos reigned. While some like Nicholas de Hanapes displayed continued resistance in the name of the faith, and Matthieu de Clermont threw himself into the fray and suffered martyrdom, others fled. All roads in Acre led to the sea, but the spring weather was foul, making the waves rough and rescue by boat difficult and dangerous. Mothers who survived the Muslim cavalry in the streets waded into the sea with their babies to almost certain death. Dunkirk met the Titanic as overburdened boats capsized.

Crusades would continue, whether in Spain or in the Balkans, but no European monarchs had either the will or the resources to venture back to the Holy Land.

Just over 700 years after the fall of the “accursed tower” in 1291, two towers fell in New York, in September 2001, after which President W Bush made a perhaps unfortunate reference to the Crusades when announcing the ensuing global War on Terror.

This is an excellent all-encompassing account of the fall of the last Crusader stronghold in the Holy Land; but the last word on the Crusades, or religiously inspired war in general, has yet to be written.