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The Crusaders and Gaza

#The Crusaders and Gaza

By Steve Tibble

Almost eight hundred years ago, Gaza would be on the frontlines of another war, this one pitting the Crusaders against Fatimid Egypt.

By the middle of the twelfth century, Ascalon (modern Ashkelon) was the only significant remaining Egyptian military base in the Holy Land.

It is hard to overplay its significance. For the Crusaders, it remained a permanent security problem, threatening the safety of nearby Christian towns and villages. And for the Fatimids, it was one of the few things keeping the aggressive Frankish knights and their men from invading Egypt. Both sides had much at stake.

A map by Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville from 1794, which shows Gaza and Ascalon – Wikimedia Commons

But, over the course of the 1140s, political instability in Egypt and the growing isolation of the garrison at Ascalon became increasingly apparent. The port of Ascalon was famously inadequate to the point of being dangerous for shipping. This, combined with inter-service rivalries and the vagaries of politics within the Fatimid military, meant that the garrison could never fully rely on resupply by sea. But while the land route south remained open, linking the garrison back to depots in Egypt, Ascalon remained a going concern.

Building Gaza – Threat From the South

By 1150, however, the Franks felt confident enough to build a castle and town at Gaza, south of Ascalon, definitively cutting off its overland supply lines. From that time onwards, the base could only be reprovisioned by the Egyptian navy. The weakness of the garrison was obvious.

The Franks were able to carry out extensive building works at Gaza with a large number of non-combatants, even though the Fatimid troops at Ascalon were in their rear and potentially blocking their supply lines back to Christian-held territory. Once again, the intent was overtly threatening. Gaza was specifically (and correctly) described as being built so that ‘repeated attacks against [Ascalon] could be made and aggressive warfare carried on without ceasing’ by its new Frankish garrison.

Egyptian reinforcements were shipped into Ascalon in a desperate attempt to disrupt the construction. Once the main Christian army had left the building site, ‘these forces appeared in large numbers before the stronghold at Gaza and made a furious attack on the place, where the townspeople had fled through fear of the enemy’. After several failed assaults, however, ‘the officers in command saw that their efforts were useless and left for Ascalon’.

Strike While They Are Weak

The castle was given to the Templars, as the order had the aggression and resources to maintain a high level of pressure along the whole southern border with Egypt. The Egyptians were acutely aware that they needed to destroy Gaza before it could be completed.

To do so, they needed help: the Frankish field army had to be fully occupied further north. In March–April 1150 the semi-itinerant Syrian Prince Usama ibn Munqidh was sent by his Fatimid employers to ask for Nur al-Din’s help. For the Shi’ite regime of Egypt to reach out to their Sunni rivals in the north was a rare and unpalatable admission of weakness. Usama was told to offer Nur al-Din large sums of money to create a diversion in Galilee or, if he would not, to use the money to recruit Turkic mercenaries to boost the garrison of Ascalon.

In the event, Nur al-Din chose not to attack the Franks in Galilee, but he did give Usama permission to recruit among those nomadic cavalry rejected for military service with his own army. He also sent a nominal force of 30 horsemen commanded by an emir, so that he could at least say a contingent rode under his name.

Within a few days Usama managed to recruit 860 cavalrymen from Nur al-Din’s discard pool (an interesting commentary on just how many unemployed Turkic mercenaries there were in circulation at any given time and place). He made his way back to Ascalon, to help with its defence and to fight with his brother ’Ali in one of the Egyptian cavalry regiments.

‘Defenceless, Useless Fools’

The day after Usama and his reinforcements arrived in town the Franks, perhaps trying to establish some kind of moral supremacy over the newcomers, sent a force to Ascalon to taunt them. The garrison did not take up the challenge and this encouraged the Franks to make further provocations and set up a loose but intimidating siege. ‘They went back to their territory,’ wrote Usama, ‘mustered more troops and came at us with cavalry, infantry and tents, clearly intending to put Ascalon to siege. So we [i.e. the cavalry] went out against them, the infantry of Ascalon having already set out’.

For reasons which are unclear, but which are suggestive of the widespread institutional racism in the Egyptian army, Usama and the other cavalry commanders (who were Arab or Armenian) tried to persuade the infantry (who were sub-Saharan Africans) to retreat behind the city walls. ‘But they refused to go back,’ wrote Usama, ‘So I left them and continued on towards the Franks, who had just unloaded their tents in order to pitch them’.

The Fatimid cavalry were able to force the Frankish troops to withdraw, abandoning their tents. The infantry, elated and ill-disciplined, chose to pursue. They over-reached themselves, however, and when the Franks wheeled round, ‘the infantry … were routed and threw down their shields. We [the cavalry] then encountered the Franks and drove them back. They then returned to their own territory, which was close to Ascalon’.

This perfectly describes the legendary lack of coordination between the Fatimid infantry and cavalry arms (as well as between the army and the navy), emphasised all the more by Usama’s contemptuous description of the Nubian infantry as ‘defenceless, useless fools’.

Usama had arrived back at Ascalon too late to join in the first attack on Gaza, soon after King Baldwin III had left the town but before the building works had been completed. He left to go back to Egypt before the next major assault on the town was launched, in late 1151 or early 1152. This attack was no more successful than the first. The Muslim forces were repulsed by the Templar garrison. Usama’s brother ’Ali (who had been with him on the recruiting mission to Syria in 1150) was one of the fatalities on the Egyptian side. His death was a heavy blow even for the usually irrepressible and boastful Usama.

Crusaders besieging a city. British Library MS Yates Thompson 12, fol.75

The Raid on Bethgibelin

Before he went back to Egypt, however, Usama participated in some of the raids and counter-raids that were taking place between Ascalon and the castles which surrounded it. None of this activity was significant enough to be mentioned in any of the chronicles, but it gives a good sense of the low-level skirmishing that characterised life in the area over the previous decades, as the ring of Frankish fortifications increasingly limited the operational abilities of the Egyptian garrison.

One such incident was a raid against Bethgibelin. Usama wrote that he and his cavalry unit:

went out from Ascalon to make a foray on [Bethgibelin] and raid it. So we went and attacked them. I noticed, as we set off to leave the town, that there were some large heaps of grain there. So I stopped with my comrades and started a fire and set the threshing floors alight. We then went from one place to another in this fashion, while the army itself had gone ahead of me.

The main body of the Fatimid cavalry had merely set out on a tip-and-run raid: they got into the undefended settlement around Bethgibelin, barely paused to cause any significant damage, and then headed back towards Ascalon. Once the Christian troops had been alerted and mustered, however, they intercepted the retreating Muslim cavalry and cut them up badly. It was only the caution of the Franks, who suspected an ambush, that prevented a massacre.

Too Little, Too Late

If the Egyptian military had reacted with uncharacteristic energy to the building of a castle at Gaza, this was largely because of the enormity of the problems it caused for Ascalon. From then on, the entire city, garrison and civilians, would need to be reprovisioned by sea, piling still more pressure on the weakening Fatimid navy. Even more disturbingly, it was obvious to both sides that the new crusader base at Gaza was well-positioned for launching attacks on Egypt itself.

Strategic intent was shifting. Where the other castles around Ascalon were aimed at enforcing an increasingly active, but ultimately still defensive, blockade, Gaza had been built as an altogether more ambitious project. It was no coincidence that it had been given into the care of the Templars, the most aggressive of the Frankish troops. As William of Tyre wrote, with deliberate echoes of the former glories of Rome, the castle at Gaza was not just about inconveniencing Ascalon, but rather it created a ‘fortified boundary in the south’, between the Kingdom of Jerusalem and Fatimid Egypt.

A reflection of these discussions, and of the level of concern which the building of Gaza caused in Muslim circles, can be seen in a message which Nur al-Din sent to Damascus on 25 April 1150 demanding that they ‘lend the aid of a thousand horsemen . . . who shall be despatched with a commander whose courage may be relied upon, in order to deliver the port of Ascalon and [Gaza]’. Nur al-Din was being colossally hypocritical (as we have seen, even large cash payments could not induce him to part with more than 30 of his own men), and the Damascenes refused. But the significance of the castle at Gaza was lost on no one.

The Fatimids rushed to improve the defences of Ascalon. A marble slab has recently been discovered with the coat of arms of an English knight called Sir Hugh Wake carved upon it.

Photo by Nick Thompson / Flickr

This had been placed on the tower in the northern walls of Ascalon during the rebuilding of the fortifications by the crusade of Richard of Cornwall in 1241. Underneath the crusader carving, however, is a fainter Fatimid inscription, commemorating the building of a new tower in the walls in 1150: the Templar presence in Gaza clearly caused the Egyptian army to rush to put in place a range of countermeasures.

But their efforts were far too little in the face of the deteriorating military situation. Ascalon fell to the Franks in 1153. Gaza was the new frontline – and the race to control Egypt was about to start.

Dr Steve Tibble is a graduate of Jesus College, Cambridge and London University. He is a leading authority on warfare and violence in the crusading era.

His recent book The Crusader Strategy (Yale 2020) was received to critical acclaim and short-listed for the Duke of Wellington’s Military History Award. It is our current featured book.

Steve is the author of  Templars: The Knights Who Made Britain (Yale, 2023) and The Crusader Armies, Yale 2018. He is a contributor to ‘The Cambridge History of the Crusades’ and ‘The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades’, both forthcoming in 2024. You can learn more about Steve on his personal website, or follow him on X/Twitter or Instagram.

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