By David Hourani
Southern Palestine, 1177
Sweat and dust caked the young man’s hair and cropped beard as he rode the road north from Ascalon.
Youssef ibn Bakhus was the son of the Muqaddam of Ehden, the Maronite lord of the town. His father was a vassal of the Count of Tripoli, and as such, was a rear-vassal to the king of Jerusalem.
When the crusaders came to the Levant, they were surprised to find thriving Christian settlements in the mountains of Lebanon. The Maronites saw the benefit in having much needed allies in their fellow Christians from Europe, and homage was a small price to pay for security. The Crusaders recognized the asset having indigenous guides and translators would be.
Youssef and his men were trained with the bow, lance, and sword from a young age. Unlike the Franks, they fought in light armor, composed of quilted silk and hardened leather, with interlinked mail across the chest and torso. The horses they rode were slightly smaller, but were faster and had more stamina than the large European destriers their counterparts rode.
He had known the king since they were children. When offered the chance to join the king’s household two years prior, he had taken it, bringing with him thirty men from Ehden and the surrounding villages, but leaving his younger brother behind. The transition had been difficult initially. He had been looked upon with some suspicion by several of the nobles at court upon his arrival; however, over time he had earned their grudging respect, and the friendship of several.
As he rode, his mind wandered to what had led to this point.
Baldwin, the King of Jerusalem, suffered from leprosy and, as such, could not produce any heirs and the most likely candidate to inherit the kingdom would be a child of his sister Sybilla, who was recently widowed and pregnant.
Philip of Alsace, the Count of Flanders, and one of the most powerful nobles in Europe had come to the Levant on Crusade. On his arrival, he had demanded that Sybilla marry one of his vassals. Baldwin had not outright refused this as he could not afford to anger such a powerful lord. Instead, he simply did not answer and sought to form an alliance with the Greek Empire in Constantinople with the goal of striking at Egypt, hoping to threaten the base of the power and wealth of Salah al-Din, the Sultan of Syria and Egypt. When Salah al-Din learned of this, he began strengthening the defenses of Egypt and calling his levies.
Philip of Alsace had other plans. He did not want to share the wealth or crown of Egypt with the Greeks. He decided instead to move to attack northern Syria with several knights of the kingdom and the lords of Tripoli and Antioch.
With the Kingdom of Jerusalem weakened with many of its warriors in the north, Salah al-Din decided to invade from Egypt with the thirty thousand man army he had gathered for its defense. Baldwin had less than six thousand men with which to defend his kingdom.
The Frankish army had moved south to meet the Muslim threat, but as its numbers became known, they realized that a pitched battle would be futile and retreated inside the defenses of Ascalon, remaining there as Salah al-Din had moved north raiding Ramla and the surrounding villages.
Youssef now rode with three men, and they had seen no sign of Salah al-Din’s forces other than the occasional charred field or house. One of his men pointed in the distance at two riders approaching swiftly. He recognized two of his men he had sent forward with strict instructions to find Salah al-Din’s rear screen line and then return.
“Lord, we came within sight of the rear-guard and baggage train.
“Were you seen,” Youssef questioned quickly.
“No, lord. There is no screen line.”
Quickly realizing the importance of this information he turned his steed back toward Ascalon. En route, he came upon more of his scouts with similar information, as well as others with information that the road south to Gaza was clear of the Muslim army as well.
* * * * *
When he arrived in the great hall in the Citadel of Ascalon, he found King Baldwin in quiet discussion with Joscelin of Edessa, his uncle, and Reynald de Chatillon, the lord of Transjordan and the newly appointed regent of the realm.
The lord of Transjordan looked more like a common soldier than one of the most powerful vassals of the kingdom, more comfortable in a camp than a great hall. A tall man with auburn colored hair and beard, and skin turned dark tan by years in the sun of Outremer, he had a scar ran down the under his right eye, giving him an almost sinister appearance. The younger son of a Burgundian nobleman, he had come to the Holy Land twenty years prior seeking his fortune during the Second Crusade. He found it, becoming Prince of Antioch through marriage to the then heir, Constance of Antioch. He ruled the Principality for the next eight years and developed a reputation as a man of prowess, ruthlessness and brutality on the battlefield. Captured by Nur ad-Din in 1161, he was held in captivity for fifteen years during which his wife had died. His stepson, Bohemond had become Prince of Antioch during his imprisonment, and so upon his release, he was again landless. He traveled south to the Kingdom of Jerusalem and offered his services to the young king. King Baldwin consented to and arranged to his marriage of one of the great heiresses of the kingdom, Stephany of Milly, who was heir of the Transjordan. Reynald had returned the king’s favor with undivided loyalty.
Youssef made his obeisance before the king, but the king quickly motioned him to his feet, recognizing the urgency in his expression and step.
“Speak, Lord Youssef.”
“Salah al-Din has split his forces. His vanguard has burned Ramla and is marching on Lydda, while a portion of his army has been sent to burn the hill villages,” he paused for breath, before continuing. “He has left no screen of scouts between Ascalon and the army. The road to Gaza remains clear as well.”
All three men were quick to understand the implications of the report. The other lords in the hall turned their attention as Baldwin quickly stood to his feet, waving aside the assistance from his servants.
“Send a messenger to Gaza, instruct the Grand Master to meet us on the coastal road south of Ibelin. Call the men to arms, call out the city levies as well,” the king ordered.
“Sire, even with only part of his army, Salah al-Din will still have more than twice our numbers,” Joscelin of Edessa reminded him, “victory is in no ways assured.”
Although always one for action, the lord of Transjordan looked unsure as well, as did several of the other lords; however, the king had no doubts.
The king’s face, scarred from his leprosy, was resolute as he stared coldly at his uncle.
“I would rather face try the dubious chance of battle with the enemy than suffer my people be exposed to rape, fire and massacre, while I remain safe behind tall walls. The kingdom is my charge and I will safeguard it.”
Before the king’s uncle could argue further, Reynald de Chatillon shouted, “To arms!”
With that, the discussion was ended and the hall sprang to life. Youssef quickly gathered the rest of his men who had not been scouting with him. He saw the stepsons of the count of Tripoli, Hugh de St Omer and his brother William gathering their household knights. The summoners were riding through the streets calling the feudal levies that had gathered to arms.
Youssef was surprised by how quickly Reynald had been able to organize their forces. They numbered around five thousand men in total, with six hundred mounted knights. They left late in the afternoon and headed north along the coastal road toward Ibelin and Jaffa.
Youssef had to bridle his impatience, the speed of their march limited by their footsoldiers. Despite having their left flank covered by the sea, they were still incredibly vulnerable on the march.
It was not long before an alarmed scout road up reporting mounted men approaching the rear of the column. Most likely it was the Templars from Gaza, but Reynald dispatched Hugh de St. Omer and Balian d’Ibelin with their household knights to the rear just to be safe. Because time was of the essence, the march would not be halted.
It was not long before a messenger arrived at the head of the column reporting the arrival of the Templars, shortly followed by Odo, Hugh and Balian at the head of their knights.
The Grand Master had brought eighty knights. He joined Baldwin and Reynald at the head of the column. As they neared Azotus, a rider approached where Youssef and Hugh de St Omer were riding with their men in the column. As the rider drew closer, Youssef was surprised to see it was the lord of Transjordan.
“Lord Youssef, I want you to take your men and scout ahead east of Ibelin.”
“Yes, my lord,” he responded, spurring his Arab courser toward where his men rode in the column, he called them from the formation.
They quickly rode out along the coast before turning inland to pass east of Ibelin. They were all armed in a similar fashion to Youssef. A hardened leather vest interweaved with quilted silk and steel plates guarded their torsos. They all had quivers strapped across their backs. When they had rode out from the column, they had all strung their bows which were now secured to their saddles. They were all armed with either a sword or axe as well.
After an hour they could see Ibelin to the northwest. All around them they could see the devastation that Salah al-Din’s army had wreaked. The burned fields in the countryside surrounding Ibelin, with smoke rising in the distance from the village of Ramla itself. Night was beginning to fall and the distant campfires could be seen to the east.
They had yet to come across any significant Saracen force. It seemed as if the majority of Salah al-Din’s cavalry was north, raiding near Lydda and Arsuf.
* * * * *
When they reached the head of the Frankish column it was already dark. Youssef reported to Baldwin and Reynald what he had seen. He had left scouts out in the field and continued to get frequent reports as their host continued on through the night, driven by the will of their ailing king. Baldwin had acquiesced to riding in a litter, but only after much insistence by his seneschal and regent.
Their night was free of attack and by morning, their scouts reported they were within five miles of Salah al-Din’s camp. They had been heading inland for several hours, using the low lying hills to screen their movements as much as possible. The Bishop of Bethlehem had accompanied them with the True Cross. His face dripping with sweat even though the autumn air was cool and the sun was far less unforgiving.
One of Youssef’s men rode in out of breath about midmorning.
“Lord Youssef! Salah al-Din’s baggage train has become mired in the mud. His rear-guard has not been able to keep contact with the main column!”
Without bothering to respond, Youssef spurred his mount to the head of the cavalry column motioning his man to follow him. Once to the king and Reynald, he motioned for his man to repeat his report. The effect was what Youssef had anticipated.
“Heavy cavalry to the center, have the infantry in the vanguard form the left wing, my lord seneschal, the command is yours,” the lord of Transjordan ordered, “my lords Baudouin and Balian,” he said, addressing the brothers Ibelin, “The command of the right wing is yours. Once the center charges, attempt to cut off their retreat south.”
The changes took place as they still moved forward. In the center a force of almost a thousand cavalry was the main thrust of the attack. The heavy Frankish knights in their full body mail, carrying heavy lances, and on their large steeds. Youssef and his men rode with the king.
They could see dust and smoke rising in the distance as they neared Ibelin and Tell Jazaar, or Montgisard, as the Franks called it. After rounding a turn, the Muslim baggage train came into view, mired in the mud of a wadi. The Frankish forces urged their horses to a high speed, leaving their foot soldiers behind. Salah al-Din’s rear guard realized too late their peril as they scrambled to form battle lines.
“Deus le volt!”
The battle cry of the kingdom rang out down the line of mailed warriors. The heavy cavalry charge crashed over the Muslim rear guard like waves against sand, killing hundreds in an instant. Horses on both sides broke their necks in the crash. Knights thrown from their mounts were quickly trampled; however, the majority of the Frankish cavalry continued on, as the Frankish infantry followed into the broken lines, killing what remained of the shocked Muslim troops.
Following the few fleeing survivors of the rear guard, they soon came into sight of part of Salah al-Din’s main body. Like the rear guard, however, the alarm was too late. As the Franks moved their horses to a hard gallop, Youssef glanced towards their center at the king who had insisted on riding into battle. Flanked by Reynald de Chatillon and his household knights, his illness seemed a thing of the past.
Looking back up, Youssef saw the yellow and green standard of Salah al Din, marking the Sultan’s presence in the field. The Frankish knights yelled their battle cry once more and pushed deep into the hastily assembled Muslim lines.
Youssef impaled a rider with his lance and unsheathed his sword. He pushed his horse towards another opponent, making quick work of him. He was in the vanguard, with the King, Reynald de Chatillon, Hugh de St Omer, and several other knights. Before he realized it, they had pushed to the center of the Muslim host, facing the elite Mamluk bodyguard of Salah al-Din.
The Mamluks were Eastern European, Slavic, and Turkish, soldiers, who had been taken from their families as young boys and sold as slaves into Muslim houses. Raised from a very young age in the art of war, they were the backbone of the Muslim army.
The fighting had slowed as the fleeing Muslims beginning to rally; however, the Franks knew that if the Sultan was to fall, the battle would be won. With this thought they threw themselves at Salah al-Din’s Mamluks.
Youssef found himself fighting a giant of a man, armed with a long curved sword called a shamshir and a shield. He pushed his mount towards the man and at the last moment threw himself at the giant. Both ended up on the ground, but only a moment before they were back on their feet. Youssef gave the man no time to regain his bearings and immediately charged, parrying a strike with his sword, before bringing his fist into contact with the man’s throat. The shock was enough for Youssef to drive home the killing strike.
The king’s men pushed forward, giving no quarter. Youssef parried a spear thrust, closing with the wielder and killing him a fluid motion. The ground became slippery with blood as the killing continued, but Youssef could feel the wave of battle pushing them forward.
Thirty paces away, Youssef saw one of Hugh de St Omer’s household knights lunge at the Sultan, whose horse reared, taking the blow in the neck. As the knight was killed instantly by one of the Mamluks, Salah al-Din deftly rolled off the falling horse.
Another adversary occupied Youssef for another moment, before he was quickly killed by the now surging Frankish forces.
Cheering caught his attention, and he looked in time to see Salah al-Din fleeing on camelback, only a handful of his bodyguards behind him. His colors, left behind, lay in the dirt surrounded by the Sultan’s dead Mamluks.
Reynald was urging on them on, and Youssef knew he was right. A commander as skilled as Salah al-Din could still rally his troops if given time. Remounted, they pushed on, but found no formed battle lines, only fleeing soldiers, leaving behind weapons, armor, and other spoils of war. Those that surrendered were taken prisoner, others were quickly dispatched. As they came to a halt, Reynald sent out lieutenants to continue the rout of the Muslim army, pushing them back towards Egypt.
Their losses had been heavy.They would find later they had suffered almost two thousand casualties, with over a thousand dead. The eight hundred wounded Franks were evacuated to the Hospital of St. John in Jerusalem.
Despite this, their mood was euphoric, for their losses were nothing compared to the decimation they had dealt to Salah al-Din. The rout continued for the next ten days, as more of the Muslim soldiers were taken prisoner and killed. Salah al-Din evaded capture, eventually making it back to Egypt; however, only ten percent of his army had survived.
* * * * *
A great feast was held in Jerusalem, celebrating the victory and the king that had lead them. Youssef watched the revelries with pride in his king, whose determination and courage had done so much to bring them the victory; however, he could not help but feel a melancholy at the same time. It would only be a matter of time before the combination of the king’s failing health and the might of Salah al-Din’s empire would place them in jeopardy once again. He looked out on the laughing, smiling faces, wondering which would be missing in a year. He forced himself out of his mood. Worries for another time. Today, they would drink.
Dr. David Hourani is a medical doctor and student of Middle Eastern and Crusader history.