Today in Middle Eastern history: the Battle of Arsuf (1191)

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As we’ve noted elsewhere, the Third Crusade is harder to assess than most of the other Crusades. The First Crusade was a pretty clear success. The Second Crusade was an unmitigated failure. The Fourth Crusade was completely absurd. And so forth. But the outcome of the Third Crusade is mixed. On the one hand, the objective was to retake Jerusalem and they clearly failed on that score. On the other hand, had Richard the Lionheart and company not shown up when they did, there’s a reasonable chance that the Crusader states would have been wiped out by Saladin. The Third Crusade didn’t recapture Jerusalem but it did preserve the Crusader states, so it can’t be considered a total loss.

The Third Crusade’s legacy in the West mostly has to do with its main personalities. Richard lagged behind only Godfrey of Bouillon, the first Crusader ruler of Jerusalem, and maybe (Saint) Louis IX of France in terms of Crusading fame in medieval Europe. Nowadays, thanks partly to Robin Hood, he’s easily surpassed both. On the other side, Saladin is easily the most famous Muslim Crusades figure to Western audiences, and maybe the most famous Muslim historical figure overall. Their rivalry has spawned numerous works of fiction over the centuries. Yet despite how bound together their legacies are, the two men never actually met one another in person.

They almost did. Richard offered to parlay with Saladin soon after his arrival in the Holy Land. But Saladin demurred, arguing that it was indecorous for two kings to continue warring against one another after they’d met, and so he and Richard needed to have their war first and then talk. It also didn’t help that Richard fell seriously ill not long after he got off the boat. And Richard’s abrupt departure for home in 1192 (under duress due to the illness and to political crises back in Europe) meant that they never had a chance to chat. But they did meet in battle three times, and Richard came away victorious on each occasion. Arsuf was the second of these.

This sculpture in the Old City of Jerusalem seems to depict a purely fictional meeting between Richard and Saladin (Djampa via Wikimedia Commons)

Richard’s first order of business was to secure the city of Acre, which the Crusaders were already besieging when he got to the Holy Land in early June 1191. Saladin had led a relief army to Acre and was by that point besieging the besiegers. The arrival of Richard’s English army and Philip II’s French army turned the tide and the city fell in mid-July. Richard then attempted to negotiate a ransom out of Saladin for the Muslim soldiers the Crusaders had captured. When Saladin missed his first payment, Richard ordered the very public execution of some 2700 of those prisoners in what’s known as the Massacre at Ayyadieh. Part of Saladin’s army then attacked the Crusaders and was defeated, and so Saladin had to withdraw.

It’s around this time that Philip—who was sick, tired of being overshadowed by Richard, and realized that with Richard gone he could feast upon English-controlled territories in France—took most of his army and went home. Richard marched his remaining forces south, still intending at this point to attack Jerusalem. Because he was a competent leader, Richard did not do what his vassal, Guy of Lusignon, had done prior to the disastrous Battle of Hattin in 1187—he moved methodically, always stayed close to fresh water sources, and kept part of his army ready to fight at any time in case they were ambushed. He also kept his army to the coast, which both protected one of its flanks and ensured that he could be continually resupplied by his fleet. Muslim skirmishers tried but were unable to disrupt the march.

The early Crusades; note Arsuf (1191) marked toward the bottom right

Finally Saladin decided to stop harassing the Crusaders and force them to fight a pitched battle. He chose Arsuf, which was a point at which the Crusaders would have to march a bit inland through a wooded area that could help cover the Muslim army’s approach. Saladin hoped to use the terrain to isolate Richard’s rearguard and concentrate his attack there before moving against the rest of the Crusaders. Richard’s mostly infantry force numbered somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 men while Saladin’s mostly cavalry army was probably in the neighborhood of 25,000 to 30,000. Saladin’s army attacked on the morning of September 7, 1191.

Richard’s victory at Arsuf came mostly from his ability to hold his army together. He wanted to let the Muslims punch themselves out before ordering a counterattack. Aware that Saladin might try to concentrate on either the vanguard or rearguard of his marching force, he’d put some of his most experienced soldiers at the front and rear of the column. This paid off when Saladin’s efforts to isolate and break off those parts of the army failed. Repeated hit and run attacks by Saladin’s light cavalry, which were intended to cause the wings of Richard’s army to either rout or recklessly chase after their attackers, simply had no effect. The Crusader army remained cohesive, in a defensive position, continuing to move south as one unit.

At least it did until later in the day, when the Knights Hospitaller in Richard’s vanguard decided they’d had enough and charged into the Muslim army. They were followed by the remaining French Crusaders. While this attack was premature from Richard’s perspective, he realized that the horse was out of the barn, so to speak, and quickly ordered the rest of his army to attack as well. Saladin’s army routed and Richard led his knights in pursuit. As his final trick of the day, he then managed to corral most of his cavalry so as to keep it from falling prey to the feigned retreat tactic used by Saladin’s Turkic mounted archers.

Saladin lost thousands of men at Arsuf while Richard lost only hundreds. Shortly after the battle the Crusaders took the city of Jaffa, which Saladin abandoned. Richard failed to convince his army to target Egypt instead of Jerusalem, which he feared they couldn’t take and was certain they couldn’t hold. They began marching on Jerusalem, at which point Saladin moved in behind them and besieged the now mostly undefended Jaffa. Along the way to Jerusalem, Richard is said to have told his soldiers that while he would fight with them to capture the holy city, he wouldn’t lead that fight and take responsibility for their deaths. Consequently the Third Crusade fizzled out, though not before Richard defeated Saladin one more time at Jaffa and negotiated a three year peace treaty. Between that treaty and the heavy damage he’d inflicted on Saladin’s army at Arsuf and elsewhere, Richard enabled the Crusader states to survive an onslaught that had threatened to annihilate them.