Battle of La Forbie: Egyptians & Turkic Allies Defeat Crusaders & Syrian Allies

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Battle of La Forbie: Egyptians & Turkic Allies Defeat Crusaders & Syrian Allies

"Battle of La Forbie," 13th century manuscript illustration by Matthew Paris
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are from Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: October 17-18, 1244

I recently completed reading the classic series "History of the Crusades" – three volumes, by Steven Runciman. As a result, today's offering is a battle which occurred between the end of the Sixth Crusade and the beginning of the Seventh Crusade. It involved the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, the various Military Orders, and their neighboring Muslim principalities.


The beginning of the Sixth Crusade (1228-1229) found the Christian holdings in the Holy Land still reduced from their zenith in about 1175. The politics and intrigue of the various Crusading states in the Near East are too complicated and bizarre to devote much time to them. Suffice it to say in September of 1228 Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II brought an army to the area, fulfilling a vow he had made several years earlier to go on a crusade. He sought to control Cyprus and the Kingdom of Jerusalem, but only managed to antagonize the nobility of both kingdoms. The Kingdom of Jerusalem at that time was limited to a narrow strip of land encompassing the major coastal cities of Acre, Beirut, Sidon, and Tyre. Frederick spent most of his time in political machinations, and very little time involved in any actual fighting.

Frederick was an unusual man for his time; as a religious skeptic, he practiced none of the era's religions. He was excommunicated by the Pope on several occasions, which did not bother him at all. His court in Sicily featured Muslim and Jewish scholars. He also allowed Muslims to settle in mainland Italy and build mosques, and recruited Muslims soldiers for his armies. [For these acts, Dante's Inferno assigns him to the Sixth Circle of Hell, where heretics are trapped in flaming tombs.] He was also the grandson of Frederick Barbarossa, who drowned while on his way to Palestine to participate in the Third Crusade.

Late in 1228, Frederick opened negotiations with al-Kamil, the Ayyubid sultan of Egypt. Al-Kamil had recently weathered a civil war with his brother al-Muazzam, the governor of Damascus. Finally, on February of 1229 Frederick and al-Kamil signed a treaty that was very advantageous to the Latins. Al-Kamil agreed to return Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth to the Kingdom of Jerusalem, as well as a strip of land connected the Holy City to the coastal territory. Muslims were allowed to remain in Jerusalem, as well as to retain their property. By contrast, the Muslims retained control of the Temple Mount, the Dome of the Rock, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The city wall of the Holy City would not be rebuilt, and a number of fortifications on the border with the Damascus emirate were retained by al-Kamil's forces. Finally, a ten-year truce was declared. [Al-Kamil was still concerned with possible trouble with his family, and wanted to keep those pesky Franks out of his hair.]

A Political Map of the Near East, from 1229 to 1241 (Map courtesy of
A Political Map of the Near East, from 1229 to 1241
[Please pardon the German labels, as I could not find this map in English]
(Map courtesy of

Though the treaty allowed the Christians to reacquire Jerusalem, it was not very popular with either the various Military Orders (the Templars, Teutonic Knights, and the Hospitallers) or the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Gerald of Lausanne. On March 18, 1229 Emperor Frederick entered the Holy City to be crowned as King of Jerusalem. This was a technical error, because Frederick's infant son Conrad was the actual heir to the throne, after the death of Frederick's wife Yolande, the recognized heiress. In fact, the coronation ceremony was celebrated without any ecclesiastical recognition, and Frederick likely crowned himself using his own imperial crown. The next day, a representative of the Latin Patriarch entered the city and declared Jerusalem under an interdict. [An Interdict is an ecclesiastical censure that excludes from certain rites of the Church individuals or groups, who nonetheless do not cease to be members of the Church.] Obviously, this did not bother Frederick one bit.

Frederick soon returned to Europe, leaving the throne of Jerusalem to be ruled in his son's name by regents who were basically proxies for the emperor. He departure sparked an on-going conflict known to history as the "War of the Lombards," pitting pro-imperialists supporters of Frederick (called Lombards) against anti-imperialist local rulers and their nobility. This war finally ended in 1243, with the fall of the city of Tyre to the anti-imperialists.

In addition, late in 1243 the Knights Templar managed to negotiate with the Muslim rulers of lands in Syria to allow the Templars to take over control of the Temple Mount area. In addition, the Templars began rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, which had been destroyed by raiding Syrian troops in 1239. Unfortunately, the peace would be short-lived.

A New Enemy, and Jerusalem Lost…Again!

Between 1218 and 1220, the westward expansion of Genghis Khan's Mongolian army destroyed the Khwarezmian Turk Empire. This central Asian entity encompassed much of modern-day Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The Khwarezmians came very close to shutting down the Mongol march to conquest, but eventually the Central Asian empire was destroyed, and portions of it were absorbed by the rapacious Khan of Khans.

Khwarezmid Empire, 1190-1220 (modern boundaries in orange)
Khwarezmid Empire, 1190-1220 (modern boundaries in orange)

After the dissolution of their empire, many Khwarezmians joined the Mongols auxiliaries. Others hired themselves out as mercenaries to nearby Muslim rulers. Still others wandered westward into northern Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). They raided several areas in Syria between 1231 and 1244, causing massive destruction. Soon, they received the veritable "offer they couldn't refuse."

The Egyptian sultan as-Salih Ayyub invited the Khwarezmians to come to Egypt, where he would give them land, and pay them to become part of his army. Consequently, about 10,000 Khwarezmian horsemen came galloping through Syria into Palestine, bent on destruction and acquiring loot. They swept like a whirlwind through Damascene territory, capturing and burning many villages indiscriminately. Finally, in July of 1244 Khwarezmians entered Galilee, captured the city of Tiberias, looted and burned the town, and continued southward toward Jerusalem.

As reports of their depredations reached the Holy City, most of the population began to flee the city, as the city's walls were still not rebuilt sufficiently to withstand a siege. The Military Orders and the local barons did not have sufficient forces to hold the city, except for the Citadel of David in the northern portion of Jerusalem. On July 15, with little resistance the Khwarezmians broke into the city. Street fighting ensued, with the Christians more often than not overwhelmed and slaughtered. The invaders broke into the many sacred buildings of the city, looted their treasures, and slaughtered monks and nuns indiscriminately. Worst of all, they broke into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, killed the remaining priests, broke into the tombs of the Kings of Jerusalem, scattered their bones, looted the church and set it afire.

Khwarezmian heavy horseman, 1186-1236 (Illustration courtesy of
Khwarezmian heavy horseman, 1186-1236
(Illustration courtesy of

Soon after the initial onslaught, some Muslim troops arrived in the city from an-Nasir of Kerak, the Franks' nearest ally. The new arrivals managed to browbeat the invaders into granting the Christians a truce and safe conduct to leave the city and travel to the coast if they would surrender the citadel. This offer was accepted, and about 6000 Christian men, women, and children left the Jerusalem on August 23. However, a large number of them were lured back toward the city, where they were ambushed and slaughtered by the Khwarezmians, while the others were attacked by Arab bandits. Less than 300 persons reached the eventual safety of the city of Jaffa. As a result, Jerusalem was once more lost to Christianity. [It would be nearly 700 years before another army – in this case a British Army in 1917 – would enter the Holy City.]

Leaving the Holy City in ruins, the Khwarezmian Turks rode westward toward the city of Gaza, where the Egyptian army was gathering to re-conquer Palestine, and to bring the Syrian Muslims under control of the sultan of Egypt. The Christian barons and the Military Orders fled to the city of Acre, which was now the center of the Frankish kingdom, to gather their forces.

Kingdom of Jerusalem Army

On October 4, 1244, the allied Syrio-Christian army left Acre and marched toward Gaza, where the Egyptian army with its Khwarezmian allies had gathered. This army was one of the largest armies gathered in Palestine in over 50 years.

The Franks of the Kingdom of Jerusalem had made alliances with a number of the Muslim rulers of nearby Syrian territories. Specifically, the emir of the city of Homs, al-Mansur Ibrahim, and the emir of Kerak, an-Nasir Dawud, and made alliances with the Franks against the sultan of Egypt. Both of these men were rivals for the Ayyubid sultanate. Apparently, they thought it would be better to have the Latins on their side rather than fight them. When the Christians appealed to these two Muslim rulers, they both sent contingents of men to oppose the Egyptians.

Crusader Mailed Spearmen, ca. 1200-1250 (Illustration courtesy of
Crusader Mailed Spearmen, ca. 1200-1250
(Illustration courtesy of

The Frankish portion of the army numbered about 1300 cavalry and 6000 infantry. The footmen were almost certainly spearmen and crossbowmen. Contemporary chronicles state that both the Templars and the Hospitallers contributed equal numbers of 300 knights each, with the Teutonic Knights sending about 150 knights. [The lesser known Order of Saint Lazarus also sent some knights, but I have been unable to discover how many.] The barons of the Kingdom of Jerusalem brought 600 heavy cavalry. The Franks also had a number of Turcopoles, who provided mounted archery and scouting.

Syrian Heavy Cavalry charging with lances (Illustration courtesy of
Syrian Heavy Cavalry charging with lances
(Illustration courtesy of

Al-Mansur brought a force of 2000 heavy cavalry and a detachment of infantry, likely spearmen and foot archers. The contingent from Kerak consisted of about 2000 mounted Bedouins, armed mainly with bows and javelins.

Ayyubid Egyptian Army

From all the information I could find, the Egyptian-Khwarezmian army was an all-cavalry force. The Egyptian portion of the force consisted of about 5000 heavy cavalry, mainly the redoubtable mamluks. These men were slave soldiers, mostly from Armenia and Asia Minor, who were trained to fight toe-to-toe with the heavy Frankish knights who usually prevailed in such slugfests. The mamluks fought with lance, saber, and bows, and wore lamellar armor which usually provided sufficient protection. Their loyalty to the Ayyubid sultan was unshakeable, and they were regarded with distinction both as soldiers and as fellow Muslims. [For more information on the mamluks, please go to my previous post regarding them from September of 2010: Battle of Ain Jalut.]

Mamluk horseman, 13th century (Illustration courtesy of
Mamluk horseman, 13th century
(Illustration courtesy of

The Khwarezmian portion of this army probably comprised between 6000 and 8000 horsemen, divided between heavy horsemen and light cavalry archers. After surviving as raiders and sometime-mercenaries over the past 20 years or so, these Central Asian horsemen were considered wild-cards (as are most mercenaries). This amalgamated army was led by an emir named Baibars, who has otherwise been consigned to history's dustbin. [This gentleman should not be confused with Rukn ad-Din Baibars, who eventually became sultan of Egypt several years after this battle.]

Prelude to the Battle

The Syrio-Frankish army left Acre on October 4, marching toward Gaza. It arrived near the village of La Forbie (also known as Harbiya), a few miles northeast of Gaza. It was a farming village, with the cultivation of grapes, wheat, barley, and cotton predominant. The Egyptian army was camped outside the town, awaiting the approach of the Franks and Syrians.

On the morning of October 17, the Syrio-Frankish force made contact with the Egyptian army, apparently fighting a short, sharp meeting engagement on a sandy plain near La Forbie. Both sides withdrew from the fight, which was not fought in earnest. [This fighting is not well-documented by historians.] Frankish scouts located the Egyptian camp, estimating that the Christians and Syrians outnumbered them.

That night, the allies held a council of war to decide their course of action. All of the major Christian barons attended, as did the Patriarch of Jerusalem, the Archbishop of Tyre, the Masters of the Templars and the Hospitallers, and the leaders of the Damascenes and the men from Homs and Kerak. The assembled leaders appointed Walter of Brienne, Count of Jaffa and Ascalon, as the commanding general. During the meeting, Emir al-Mansur of Homs suggested that their army construct a fortified camp and await the attacks of the Khwarezmians. Having fought these raiders several years previously, he felt that the Central Asians would attack without the Egyptians. Additionally, al-Mansur felt the Khwarezmians would not be willing to sustain a long-term siege, and would become bored and leave of their own accord.

Coat of Arms of Walter of Brienne
Coat of Arms of Walter of Brienne

Unfortunately, Walter of Brienne did not take kindly to this wise counsel. Believing that their army outnumbered the Egyptians and their Asiatic allies, Walter did not want to be robbed of a glorious victory over the Muslims. As a result, the Syrians and Christians agreed to give battle the next day.

Battle of La Forbie

The next morning both armies arose early and began forming their battle lines. The Franks and Syrians arranged themselves in their tradition three divisions, or "battles." The Christian troops – including the Military Orders – lined up on the right flank, with the spearmen and crossbowmen in the front. The Damascene troops and the men from Homs comprised the center, and the Bedouins of Kerak took their place on the left flank. The Egyptians initially lined up opposite the Damascene center, while the Khwarezmians faced the Christian right and the Bedouin left.

However, things changed quickly. Possibly without orders, the Central Asian horsemen en masse charged the Damascene center. After initial contact, the Khwarezmians began surrounding the Syrian horsemen, smelling blood like wolves after a wounded animal. Seeing they were almost completely boxed in, al-Mansur ordered his Syrians to retreat, cutting their way out after hard fighting. One historian claims al-Mansur returned to Damascus with less than 300 survivors. At this point, seeing the Syrians surrounded and being cut to pieces, the Bedouins fled the field virtually without striking a blow.

Meanwhile, the Franks launched their own attack on the Egyptians. Despite the massive shock of the blows of the Christian knights, the Egyptian mamluks held their ground, pinning the Christians in place. By this point, perhaps two hours had passed since the initial charge of the Khwarezmians. Consequently, with both the Syrian Muslims and the Bedouins retreating, the Franks were isolated. The Central Asian cavalrymen then fell on the left flank and rear of the Latin soldiers, which were defended by the now-disordered Christian infantry. The battle lasted another five hours, with the Christians either dying or being captured by the Muslims. Most of the members of the Military Orders fought to the last (more on that below). By late afternoon, the battle of La Forbie had ended.


According to contemporary accounts, over 5000 Franks and 2500 Syrians died in the battle. The three Military Orders sustained catastrophic casualties: only 33 Templars, 27 Hospitallers, and 3 Teutonic Knights survived, fleeing to the fortified city of Ascalon. About 800 Franks were taken prisoner, including the Master of the Hospital and possibly the Master of the Temple, Armand de Périgord. The Egyptian casualties are not recorded.

Footnote #1: After the defeat of the Franks at La Forbie, the Kingdom of Jerusalem was never again able to muster a military force so large to resist the Muslim forces arrayed against it. The final decline of the Crusader kingdoms of the Near East can be directly traced to this defeat.

Footnote #2: Most notable of all the prisoners was Walter of Brienne, the Count of Jaffa and Ascalon. Shortly after the battle, Walter was taken by the Khwarezmians to Jaffa. Its fortifications were too strong to be breached by the Central Asian horsemen. Therefore, they threatened to hang Count Walter unless the defenders surrendered. As he was further tortured as the invaders awaited a response, Walter shouted to his soldiers not to capitulate. Eventually, the Khwarezmians tired of their sport, left Jaffa, and handed their prisoner over to the Egyptians. According to one historian, Walter of Brienne was imprisoned by the Egyptians and died some time afterwards, killed by an Egyptian emir over a game of chess.

Footnote #3: The marriage of convenience between the Egyptians and the Khwarezmians was short-lived. Some of the Central Asians remained in Egypt as mamluks, while others left and migrated toward Syria. In 1246 the Khwarezmians blockaded Damascus, and were shortly afterward defeated by al-Mansur and his troops.

Footnote #4: A very fine fictional account of the battle of La Forbie can be found in a short story written in 1932 by Robert E. Howard – creator of Conan the Barbarian – entitled "The Sowers of the Thunder." It can be found online at .

Robert E. Howard (1900-1936); Photograph taken in 1934
Robert E. Howard (1900-1936)
Photograph taken in 1934

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.