The Accursed Tower by Roger Crowley

The Crusades is a well known and studied period of world history. Typically, the focus of the Crusades, or the Frankish Wars as they are referred to by some Muslim historians, emphasizes the genesis of these wars. We often focus on the first through third crusades. Yet, one point sorely missing from existing works on the Crusades is the latter period of these wars. More specifically, the dusk of Christian presence in the Holy Land.

Roger Crowley, who has become one of my favorite historians, focuses on this period in The Accursed Tower, highlighting the Siege of Acre and how it ended the Crusader presence in the Middle East and any hope of restoring Jerusalem to Christendom.

The Returning Tide of Islam

The First Crusade was auspicious for Christendom. Though the odds were not in their favor, they were successful and took Jerusalem in 1099. This would mark the beginning of the two-century adventure of Crusader kingdoms in the Middle East. While the Latins did initially have some success, most of these years were spent fighting off Islamic attacks and slowly ceding land the various empires of the Middle East over time.

At the time of the Siege of Acre in 1291, the Christians faced off against the Mamluks. The Mamluks, who had roots in being enslaved soldiers, primarily of Turkish origin, built a powerful empire after seizing power from the Ayyubid Caliphate. The Mamluks were powerful warriors. The Crusader kingdoms were protected mainly by large castles that dotted the Holy Land and beyond. While these impressive fortifications were solidly built, the garrisons that defended them were no match for the daunting size and ability of the Mamluk field army.

So, what was the justification for the Mamluk’s attacks on the Christians? Well, some would attribute this to jihad, which certainly played a role. But as Crowley points out, the Mamluk’s were facing enemies on two fronts: the Christians, but also the Mongols in the East who were an absolutely terrifying military force. Crowley states that, “The prospect of fresh incursions from the west never died, nor did the fear of a pincer movement—that the Islamic world could be caught in an alliance between Christians and Mongols.”

Another reason the Mamluks succeeded is that they were united and motivated in their cause:

“Two hundred years earlier, similar emotions had launched Christian Europe into the Holy Land while Islam was fragmented and disunited. Now it was the pope’s pleas for a major crusade that were falling on deaf ears while the Muslim call to holy war proved incendiary.”

The Siege of Acre

Like Roger Crowley’s other books, the acme of The Accursed Tower culminates in the “final battle”, which in this historial episode is the Siege of Acre. This battle is vividly described and allows the reader to visualize what took place centuries ago:

“The noise of the advance, a shock tactic of Mamluk Islamic armies to strike dread into the heart of defenders and to drive fear from those of its own men, was colossal—a mighty wall of sound: three hundred camel-mounted kettle drummers battering out a savage tattoo; the clashing of cymbals; the blare of trumpets; and the screaming and shouting of thousands of men.”

He later continues describing the commencement of the siege:

“At the same time, they rained rocks down on the men attempting to dismantle the base of the walls, “so that they were crushed beneath their shields like toads.” In this havoc—in which mingled shouts in the names of Christ and Muhammad in French, Arabic, Italian, German, Turkish, English, Catalan, Greek—the defenders tore great holes in the advancing mass.”

The Impact of Acre’s Fall

The fall of Acre brought down the hopes of many in Europe. Even more practically though, many feared that the advancement of Islam was unstoppable. One contemporary feared that: “If the Saracens continue to do as they did in two years to Tripoli and Acre, in several years there will be no Christians left in the whole world.”

The calls for Crusades continued for almost two centuries, but they either fell on deaf ears or logistically it wasn’t feasible. The monarchs of Europe paid lip service to these desires, but in reality they were more concerned with their own kingdoms, wars and other pet projects, and wouldn’t sacrifice blood and treasure for some far-flung adventure. Manuel I, king of Portgual around the year 1500, who oversaw Portugul’s development as an empire, was a religious man who dreamed of another crusade. Portugal had incredible success in dominating trade in the Indian Ocean through might (check out Conquerors by Roger Crowley for more on this topic), so such an adventure wasn’t out of the question. Manuel I, “envisaged a raid on Medina, kidnapping the body of Muhammad and holding it to ransom in exchange for Jerusalem.” This plot never came to fruition, cementing pemanent Islamic dominance of the Middle East, as the dream of a Christian Holy Land dissipated.

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The Accursed Tower by Roger Crowley