Monday, August 10, 2015


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30 October 1340
Many of the battles fought between Islam and Christianity have been hailed as the decisive encounter between the two religions. Few of them can have been more decisive than the crushing defeat of the wealthy emir of Marinid Morocco, Abu al-Hasan, inflicted by King Alfonso XI of Castile and King Afonso IV of Portugal on a clear October day in 1340 in the far southwest of Spain. The Battle of Salado was blessed by the Papacy as part of a new crusade against the infidel; a relic of the True Cross was held aloft in the battle by a priest dressed in white, seated on a white mule. Abu al-Hasan put round his neck on the morning of the battle a reliquary holding a fragment of the Prophet’s clothing. He was determined to smash Christian power in Spain with a major holy war, or jihad, after decades in which the Muslim hold on southern Spain had been slowly eroded.

Later chronicles speak of an army of 70,000 cavalry and 400,000 to 700,000 foot soldiers massed at the Moroccan port of Ceuta to cross the straits to Algeciras, a port still in Muslim hands. The best estimate today suggests perhaps a total of 60,000. The Christian kings between them could muster 22,000 horse and foot. Contemporary opinion held that in open battle the Moroccans were difficult to defeat, but open battle is exactly what Alfonso XI sought.

The battle at the River Salado was won against many odds, and not just the numbers on the battlefield. For years Alfonso had had to battle his own nobles, who accepted vassalage or rule from Castile with ill grace. He was forced to balance the threat from Morocco with the challenge from the vassal state of Granada, still under an Islamic ruler, Yusuf I; he had to win support from other rulers, notably from Aragon or Portugal, and this was a laborious and frustrating task. When the threat from the Marinid Empire of Morocco became evident in the late 1330s, Alfonso found himself almost entirely isolated. Only fear of a Muslim invasion persuaded Afonso IV of Portugal to reach an alliance with Alfonso, signed on 1 July 1340.

By this time the invasion was already under way. In 1339, one of Abu al-Hasan’s sons, Abu Malik, began raiding Andalusia from his bases in Gibraltar and Algeciras. In a major skirmish in late October with Spanish knights, Abu Malik was killed. Abu al-Hasan was already preparing an expedition, but his son’s death sharpened his desire for a savage revenge against the infidel. A letter claimed to have been found after the battle, allegedly from the Sultan of Babylon (probably an Egyptian title), called on the emir to ‘smash their children against the wall; slit open the wombs of pregnant women; cut off the breasts, arms, noses, and feet of other women… Do not leave until you have destroyed Christendom from sea to sea.’ Though probably a piece of Christian propaganda, it is at least consistent with the fiery threats made by Abu al-Hasan as he prepared his campaign.

Troops began to cross the straits in July and on 4 August 1340, Abu al-Hasan himself arrived at Algeciras. By this time Pope Benedict XII had declared a crusade and sent Alfonso the necessary banner and additional funds. Alfonso’s real difficulty was money, a problem that meant little to the wealthy Marinids. He could bring with him supplies for only a few days of fighting, and in order to pay for what he needed he had to pawn the royal jewels. On 23 September, Abu al-Hasan, now joined by Yusuf I of Granada with 7,000 cavalry, began the siege of Tarifa, the only port overlooking the Straits of Gibraltar still in Christian hands. He hoped Alfonso would rise to the challenge. A few weeks later, on 29 October, the Christian army arrived at La Peña del Ciervo (The Hill of the Deer) about 8 kilometres (5 miles) from Tarifa, intent on battle. There were 1,000 knights with the Portuguese king, while Alfonso XI counted on 8,000 knights and 12,000 foot soldiers, mostly recruited from Asturias and the Basque provinces. The number of their Moroccan enemy was much lower than the hundreds of thousands suggested by Christian accounts, but was certainly greater than the crusaders. Alfonso reduced the size of his army even more by sending 1,000 knights and 4,000 foot soldiers round the Muslim lines to reinforce the 1,000 men in Tarifa. This was to prove an inspired move.

Abu al-Hasan drew back from the siege and arrayed his forces along the hills surrounding the port. On the morning of 30 October both sides received blessing from their clergy before moving out to face each other. On the Christian left was Afonso of Portugal, reinforced by 3,000 of Alfonso’s men; on the Portuguese flank were the foot soldiers with lances and crossbows; on the right the bulk of Alfonso’s remaining knights. The Islamic armies were drawn up with Yusuf’s Granadans on the right, the emir’s son Abu ‘Umar on the left, in front of Tarifa, and the centre commanded by Abu al-Hasan himself. Exactly what happened in the battle is not entirely clear. The Christian right began to cross a small bridge over the River Salado where they forced back the Muslim defenders. Then the bulk of Alfonso’s force smashed into the army of Abu ‘Umar, driving it uphill towards the Muslim camp. At some point the 6,000 men in Tarifa stormed out and hit the enemy in the rear, causing a panic which left the emir’s baggage train unprotected.

While the Castilians swarmed up to the camp in pursuit of booty, Alfonso found himself temporarily supported by only a small body of troops. Abu al-Hasan tried to wheel his army around to attack the king, but soon found himself surrounded as the Castilians charged back down the hill and the force from Tarifa hit his flank. Instead of fighting for the faith, he fled with his troops, putting his honour, as one account put it, ‘under his feet’. When he arrived at Ceuta. he told his followers that he had won a great victory, but the sorry remnant of his army that returned could scarcely be concealed.

The victorious Christians pursued the enemy for 8 kilometres (5 miles), slaughtering those they overtook, leaving a field littered with bodies, though how many is uncertain. Muslim women and children, including Abu al-Hasan’s wife, Fatima, were murdered when the camp was overrun and all its occupants killed. Only twelve ships were needed to take the survivors back to Morocco, which suggests either a large-scale massacre or that the Moroccan forces were much smaller than most medieval accounts claimed. Either way the defeat was decisive. Africa never again mounted a major invasion of Spain and Castile extended its domination over the peninsula. Algeciras fell to Alfonso four years later, leaving only Gibraltar as a Muslim outpost. Yusuf was lucky to escape, and Granada survived for a further 150 years. The colossal booty in gold and treasure captured at Salado helped to solve, at least temporarily, Alfonso’s financial embarrassments. So great was the wealth that it temporarily forced down the value of gold and silver on the Paris exchange.

Krak (also Crac) des Chevaliers

Krak (also Crac) des Chevaliers (mod. Qal‘at al-Hişn or Hişn al-Akrãd, Syria) was a castle on a mountain spur on the eastern frontier of the county of Tripoli, overlooking the fertile plains around the Muslim city of Homs (mod. Ḥims, Syriaț).

In 1144 Count Raymond II of Tripoli gave the site and most of the surrounding land to the Order of the Hospital. In the second half of the twelfth century, the Hospitallers built an enclosure castle on the spur. The curtain wall was strengthened by square mural towers, and there were halls for communal living along the inside of the enceinte and a simple early gothic chapel. This castle was strong enough to dissuade Saladin from attacking it in 1180 and again in 1188.

After being damaged by an earthquake in 1202, the castle was substantially rebuilt. An outer line of walls was constructed and the inner enceinte enclosed by new walls and a great sloping glacis. These new walls were defended by large round towers, all constructed in the fine limestone ashlar that is one of the glories of the castle.

The first half of the thirteenth century were the glory days of Krak. The garrison probably numbered about 2,000, of whom only a small number (perhaps 50) were Hospitaller knight brethren. From the safety of the castle, they led raids to extort tribute from the surrounding Muslim areas.

The offensive function of the castle at Crac is perhaps more unexpected. The golden age came in the first half of the thirteenth century, a period when most of the other Crusader enclaves in the Levant were struggling to survive but when Crac had a garrison of 2,000 and lorded it over the surrounding areas. Most of the evidence for this comes from Muslim sources which, naturally, tend to dwell on their own successes and pass over the less encouraging aspects. Reading between the lines, however, it seems clear that the Knights at Crac extracted tribute on a fairly regular basis from the Muslims of Horns and Hama and the neighbouring districts and that this went on as long as the various members of the Ayyubid family who had divided Saladin's domains up amongst themselves were in covert or open rivalry. As early as 1203 raids were being launched on Hama and Montferrand, now under Muslim control. In 1207-8 the Franks of Tripoli and Crac were attacking Horns. In 1230 the Amir of Hama refused to pay his tribute and a combined force of 500 knights and 2,700 footsoldiers, both Hospitallers from Crac and Templars, set out to take it by force. On this occasion they were rebuffed but in 1233 they assembled a punitive expedition including, in addition to their own forces, the Master of the Templars, Walter of Brienne, with a hundred knights from Cyprus, eighty knights from the Kingdom of Jerusalem led by Pierre d'Avalon, John of Ibelin, lord of Beirut (the great lawyer and senior member of the local aristocracy) and Henry, brother of Bohemond V of Antioch, with thirty knights from the principality. It was as great a show of force as the Crusaders of the Levant could manage at this time, testimony to the prestige of the Knights of Crac and the central role of the castle in the Crusader east. They ravaged the lands of Hama unchallenged and after this the prince of Hama agreed to pay his tribute. The Isma'ilis (Assassins) of the Syrian mountains were paying tribute at the time of Joinville's visit in 1250-1, and as late as 1270 they were still complaining to Baybars about the tribute they had to pay to the Franks.

Crac was also visited by many passing Crusaders who, we may presume, left donations. In 1218 King Andrew II of Hungary came there and was received with royal honours by the castellan, Raymond of Pignans. The king was extremely impressed by the work of the Knights in what he called the 'key of the Christian lands [terre clavem christiane]' and endowed them with income from his own properties in Hungary, 60 marks per annum for the Master and 40 for the brothers. A less affluent but equally chivalrous visitor was Geoffroy de Joinville, a baron from one of the leading families of Champagne, who had been given the right to quarter his arms with those of England by Richard Coeur de Lion on account of his knightly prowess. He joined the Fourth Crusade, many of whose members went on to sack Constantinople in 1204, but he broke away from the mob and came to Syria to fulfil his crusading vows. He died at Crac in 1203 or 1204 and was buried in the chapel, and his shield, along presumably with many others, was hung on its frescoed walls. We know about this because his nephew Jean, the biographer of St Louis, went to Crac in the early 1250s in the course of St Louis' stay in the Levant, and took the shield back to France. There it hung in the collegiate church at Joinville until stolen by some German mercenaries in 1544. Geoffroy's bones probably still lie beneath the paving of the austere and dignified chapel with its simple apse and plain vaulted roof to the present day.

Crac is an exceptional castle. It owed its glories to the wealth the Knights acquired from their own rich lands, from extracting tribute from the neighbouring Muslims and from the generosity of visiting Crusaders.

The main hall (palatio) was used to feed 4,000 men daily in the siege of 1220. Naturally, since the castle was occupied by a Military Order, there was a fine chapel of almost octagonal plan, whose vaulted roof was supported by a slender central column. In both the strength of its defences and the extent of its living quarters, Chastel Pelerin was among the most impressive of thirteenth-century Crusader works.

Outside the castle proper a small town was founded with a church and baths and enclosed by an unimpressive wall. In 1220 the castle, defended by no less than 4,000 combatants, faced a major assault by al-Malik al-Mu'azzam who brought with him seven siege engines: his artillery could not even reach the great towers of the inner enceinte, one engine was destroyed by the artillery of the defenders and the attack was a fiasco. He withdrew after a month and the hastily constructed castle had proved its worth.

The good times came to an end after 1250. In 1252 a horde of Turkmans, estimated by the treasurer of the Hospital at Acre as 10,000 in number, ravaged the fertile lands around the castle and after this there are signs that the financial position was deteriorating. In 1254 St Louis finally left the Levant where he had spent so much money strengthening fortifications, and in 1255 Pope Alexander IV replied favourably to a request for exemption from tithes because of the expenses incurred by the Hospitallers in maintaining the castle and a permanent garrison of sixty Knights in the heart of enemy country. In 1268 the Master Hugh Revel complained that the lands on which 10,000 people had lived were now deserted and that no revenues whatever were collected from Hospitallers properties in the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

After 1260 the growing power of the Mamlūks meant that tribute gathering became much more difficult.

As long as it could be supplied by sea and was adequately garrisoned it was virtually impregnable: even the mighty Baybars, conqueror of Crac des Chevaliers, left it alone when he sacked the town in 1265. It was never taken by assault and it was not until after the fall of Acre in 1291 that the much reduced garrison was finally forced to abandon it. Apart from some slighting of the defences immediately after the Muslim occupation, the castle seems to have remained largely intact until Ibrahim Pasha used it as a quarry to rebuild the walls of Acre in 1838, since when the fabric has deteriorated rapidly.

Bibliography Deschamps, Paul, Le Crac des Chevaliers (Paris: Geuthner, 1934). Fedden, Robin, and John Thomson, Crusader Castles (London: Murray, 1957). Kennedy, Hugh, Crusader Castles (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994). King, D. J. Cathcart, “The Taking of Crac des Chevaliers in 1271,” Antiquity 23 (1949), 83–92.