Today in Middle Eastern history: the Battle of al-Mansurah begins (1250)

We’ve already met King Louis IX of France (d. 1270) and his failed Eighth Crusade against Tunis. Rather than wax on again about his importance to the later Crusading movement, and his, shall we say, shortcomings as a Crusader, I’ll just paste what I wrote previously:

King Louis IX of France (d. 1270, which is a bit of a spoiler), who would later become St. Louis, would probably go somewhere on a list of the 10 greatest Crusaders of all time, particularly if you limit the list to military figures and to the canonical numbered Crusades (so we’re not including the Albigensian Crusade in France, the Baltic Crusades, or the Reconquista in the Iberian Peninsula). He’d be right up there alongside men like Godfrey of Bouillon, the first Christian “King” of Jerusalem, and Richard the Lionheart. The thing is, though, that those guys would make the list because they were pretty good at Crusading (Richard for sure, and Godfrey since his Crusade actually succeeded), while Louis IX…well, he’d be on the list more for his enthusiasm than anything else, and for the fact that he had an excellent biographer.

Louis was very enthusiastic about Crusading (he was canonized for his enthusiasm), as Richard had been (though Louis saw it as a religious obligation where Richard saw it as a chivalric/military one), but he has the ignoble distinction of being a two-time Crusades loser. Admittedly, he “lost” the Eighth Crusade by dying in the middle of it, but he died of dysentery brought on by his unfortunate decision to try to campaign in North Africa in the middle of summer, so I think that still counts.

I’m sorry to reuse this portrait of Louis IX (as St. Louis), but El Greco rules so I feel like I must (Wikimedia)

The Battle of al-Mansurah took place during Louis’ first failed Crusade, the 1248-1254 (but really more like 1248-1250) Seventh Crusade. This Crusade was the second one (after the 1213-1221 Fifth Crusade) in which the expedition’s leadership both understood and acted according to the reality of the situation in the Holy Land, which was this: no Christian army could take and hold Jerusalem without first invading Egypt. Jerusalem had been either an outright Ayyubid possession or, at least, completely vulnerable to the Ayyubids since 1187, and the Ayyubids could only be defeated on their own home turf, in Egypt. Richard the Lionheart recognized this fact during the Third Crusade, but his army simply refused to pursue any goal other than the capture of Jerusalem. In fairness, the Fourth Crusade had initially planned to invade Egypt, but then they decided to, uh, sack Constantinople instead. Close enough!

Louis’ immediate motivation, apart from an apparently sincere desire to go on Crusade, was the 1244 sacking of Jerusalem, which had been nominally but unsustainably returned to Christian control in a deal struck with the Ayyubids by Emperor Frederick II during the Sixth Crusade in 1229, by an army of Khwarazmian fighters. Khwarazm is a historical territory around the Aral Sea, including parts of modern Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan, so this army had come a long way and wasn’t supposed to be there for conquest (although the Ayyubids later had to drive them out of Syria by force). They’d been invited by the weakening Ayyubids into their territory for the express purpose of striking at the Crusaders. They sacked the city and tore down its walls, leaving it completely defenseless to both Christians and Muslims.

Depending on your point of view, by 1248 the Ayyubids were either primed for a military strike or the time to attack them had come and gone. The dynasty was clearly at its nadir, with its rulers having had most of their authority usurped by their mamluk slave soldiers, but on the other hand the rise of those mamluks created a very strong bureaucratic and military core that could hold their kingdom together despite such weakness at the very top. Indeed, that core was so strong that it eventually did away with the Ayyubid dynasty altogether and began to rule in its own right, as the Mamluk Sultanate. This usurpation was a process that began not long after Mansurah, in fact, but took another decade to fully play out.

Map - Crusades, Later
The later Crusades, with the Battle of Mansurah marked

The Fifth Crusade had identified the city of Damietta, a port located at the mouth of the Damietta branch of the Nile River, as the place to establish their foothold in Egypt, and they took it after a long (~18 month) siege, but their army was thoroughly defeated during its march on Cairo thanks in part to some timely/untimely Nile flooding. Louis attempted to duplicate that plan, hopefully with better results. Damietta fell to his army relatively easily in June 1249–its garrison and residents actually abandoned the city at the first sign of Louis’ army. The army was now forced to wait in Damietta, however, because the annual Nile flood made further campaigning impossible for a few months.

Having taken Damietta much more easily than they’d imagined, the Crusade leaders took the opportunity to engage in the one pastime that defined the entire Crusading movement: bickering among themselves. Louis was in overall command, but he’d made his three brothers his top lieutenants, which may have been a mistake. The argument was over whether to dangle Damietta to the Ayyubids in a trade for Jerusalem or to use it as a base to go after the Ayyubids at Cairo. Robert of Artois, one of Louis’ brothers, convinced Louis that the march on Cairo was the way to go. In truth, he was probably right. Jerusalem simply could not be held by the Crusaders for any length of time so long as a Muslim power controlled Egypt. It just wasn’t possible. On the other hand, conquering Egypt was a much taller order than trading one Egyptian city for Jerusalem.

Louis and his army set out for Cairo in late November, after getting reinforcements and receiving word that the Ayyubid Sultan, al-Salih, had just died in the city of Mansurah, located near the head of the Damietta Nile branch, where he’d positioned his army. Command of the Ayyubid army fell to an emir named Fakhr al-Din Yusuf, who’d distinguished himself as the leader of the defenders who fled Damietta when Louis arrived there. The Crusaders neared Fakhr al-Din’s position but immediately had a problem on their hands: they were on the wrong side of the Nile. For more than three months, the Crusaders stalled out trying to find a way to get across the river that wouldn’t leave them completely vulnerable to Fakhr al-Din’s very large army (the two forces were pretty evenly matched), until an Egyptian looking for some Crusader cash informed them of an easier crossing that was far enough upriver so as to be protected from Fakhr al-Din’s forces.

The decision was made to send a detachment, about 15,000 men, under Robert of Artois south to the easier ford, in a march that began on the night of February 7. His men would establish a camp on the other side of the river, then Louis would follow with the rest of the army. It seemed like a sound plan, and it might have worked, had Robert not crossed the river and then, without waiting, started marching north toward the Ayyubid position. Initially Robert’s gambit was a huge success. His men fell on the Ayyubid camp outside Mansurah and took them completely by surprise. Fakhr al-Din was killed in the fighting. But then Robert decided to keep going and take Mansurah itself, and that turned out to be more than his force could handle. They stormed into the city, where the majority of the Ayyubid army was waiting for them, now commanded by the mamluk officer Baybars, whom we’ve already encountered in another context. Almost the entire Crusader advance army was slaughtered, including Robert.

Louis and the rest of the army crossed the river to find nobody waiting for them. But they didn’t have to wait very long for a welcome, as the Ayyubid army came marching out of Mansurah to meet them on February 11. A hard-fought battle left the Crusaders in control of their beachhead on that side of the river, but in a position where they could be contained and continually harassed by the Ayyubids. Louis’ last hope was that the late-February arrival on the scene of al-Salih’s son and successor, Turanshah, who was pretty much hated by the mamluk soldiers, would create chaos that he could then exploit. It didn’t, though Louis’ instincts weren’t wrong; the mamluks wound up assassinating Turanshah in May, with Baybars himself probably dealing the killing blow. But for now, the Crusaders were running out of supplies, so they were forced to cross back over the Nile to their old camp in late March. Louis tried to bluff Turanshah into trading Jerusalem for Damietta, but he got nowhere. On April 5, they began the march back to Damietta. They never made it, but we’ll get to that in April.

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