Day: August 10, 2017
CHRISTIAN knights and Mameluke warriors were fighting on the walls. Now the wreck of a 13th century ship reveals the desperate bid to save the Holy Land.
The port of the city of Acre was a vital lifeline for Crusader knights and settlers alike. Through it streamed European pilgrims, horses, fighting men and manufacturing goods, all vital to sustain Christianity’s tenuous hold in what would later become Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Israel.
In return, ships carried precious cargoes of sugar, spice and exotic textiles.
But, in 1291, it all came crashing down.
The Egyptian Mameluke Sultan Al-Ashraf Khalil — leading an army of 100,000 men and horses — rolled back the Christian defences, weakened by almost two centuries of fighting to maintain control over the Holy Land.
European interest was failing — despite efforts by Pope Gregory X to summon reinforcements. And the militant orders — international organisations of warrior-monks — established to defend the Holy Land had become engrossed by their own wealth and the games of thrones back home.
What support did arrive for those few on the front line was invariably too little, too late.
Eventually, the European knights fell back to their final fortress — the city of Acre.
Here, besieged, they were totally reliant on support from the sea.
According to the news service Haaretz, a Crusader-era shipwreck recently found in the bay of Acre has been dated to the time of the desperate last stand by a handful of knights and mercenaries on the walls of the city.
Acre is now part of northern Israel.
The wreck had been severely damaged by dredging. But parts of the timber hull, including its keel, survived.
Excavation work began last year.
The wood has been carbon-dated between 1062-1250, which neatly brackets the Crusader era.
But archaeologists led by Doctor Ehud Galili and Professor Michal Artzy of Haifa University have uncovered traces of its cargo — and a stash of 30 gold florins.
These narrow its date down to that of the final siege of the nearby city.
Fragments of ceramics, including jugs and bowls, reveal the ship was carrying imports from Cyprus and Italy. There are also rusted remains of a few metallic objects, including anchors.
It is possible the wreck may have belonged to King Henry II of Cyprus who had reportedly sent a force of 40 ships filled with reinforcements. Just one month later, King Henry’s forces would retreat by sea as the city fell.
Historic records of the disaster tell the tale of fleeing nobles attempting to bribe boat and ship owners for safe passage out of the Middle East. But few managed to make their way on-board.
A handful of Templar, Teutonic and Hospitaller warrior-monks fought stoically to buy time for the civilian population, but were eventually forced back to their strongholds after the city’s walls collapsed.
But, by May 18, the Grand Masters of the Hospitallers and Teutonic Knights had fled. The Grand Master of the Templars had been killed. Only a few equipped and trained knights remained alive.
Defeat, they knew, was inevitable.
The last stand was fought in a Templar tower at the very edge of the sea. Accounts tell of the city’s inhabitants throwing themselves into the harbour in a desperate bid to reach the departing ships.
The Templar knights were only overcome when Mameluke engineers undermined their fortress’ walls. Among the rubble were 100 of the Sultan’s best men who had been inside, fighting the Crusaders hand-to-hand.
Western Christianity would never again establish a firm foothold in the Middle East. After repeated attempts to mobilise yet another crusade, the Templars were accused of witchcraft and homosexuality in an effort by French King Philip IV to seize their wealth. The order was eventually disbanded, and its key officers burnt at the stake.
The Hospitallers retreated to Rhodes, where they established a navy in anticipation of a fresh crusade. The Teutonic Knights shifted the focus of their holy war to the Baltics.
The entire city of Acre was levelled, and left abandoned until rebuilt nearly three hundred years later.