The Accursed Tower

The Fall of Acre and the End of the Crusades


By Roger Crowley

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From a New York Times-bestselling author, a stirring account of the siege of Acre in 1291, when the last Christian stronghold fell to the Muslim army

The 1291 siege of Acre was the Alamo of the Christian Crusades — the final bloody battle for the Holy Land. After a desperate six weeks, the beleaguered citadel surrendered to the Mamluks, bringing an end to Christendom's two-hundred year adventure in the Middle East.

In The Accursed Tower, Roger Crowley delivers a lively narrative of the lead-up to the siege and a vivid, blow-by-blow account of the climactic battle. Drawing on extant Arabic sources as well as untranslated Latin documents, he argues that Acre is notable for technical advances in military planning and siege warfare, and extraordinary for its individual heroism and savage slaughter. A gripping depiction of the crusader era told through its dramatic last moments, The Accursed Tower offers an essential new view on a crucial turning point in world history.

Longlisted for the Historical Writers Association Nonfiction Crown


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The Crusader States in the Thirteenth Century.

The Siege of Acre, 1291.


1095 Pope Urban II preaches crusade in France.
1096–1099 The First Crusade.
1099 The crusaders besiege and sack Jerusalem.
1104 King Baldwin captures Acre.
1147–1149 The Second Crusade.
1171 Saladin becomes ruler of Egypt. Start of the Ayyubid dynasty.
1171–1185 Saladin consolidates Ayyubid rule over Palestine and Syria.
1187 Saladin defeats a crusader army at Hattin, takes Acre, and regains Jerusalem.
1189–1192 The Third Crusade, led by Philip Augustus of France, Frederick I (Holy Roman Emperor), and Richard I of England.
1189–1191 The crusader siege of Acre.
1192 Treaty between Richard and Saladin, and departure of Richard.
1202–1204 The Fourth Crusade sets out from Venice but deviates to capture Christian Constantinople.
1217–1219 The Fifth Crusade attacks Egypt but is defeated in the Nile Delta.
1228 Frederick II regains Jerusalem by treaty.
1239–1241 Small crusading ventures by Theobald of Champagne and Richard of Cornwall.
1244 The Khwarazmians sack Jerusalem. The city is finally lost.
1245 Pope Innocent IV sends an embassy to the Mongols.
1247 Louis IX plans a crusade.
1248–1254 The Seventh Crusade.
1248 Louis invades Egypt, his army is defeated in the Nile Delta, and Louis is captured.
1248–1250 The end of the Ayyubid dynasty. The slave Mamluks gain control of Egypt.
1250s Baybars emerges as leader of the Bahriyyah Mamluks.
1258 The Mongols sack Baghdad.
1259 Qutuz gains control of Egypt.
1260 The Mongols under Hülegü sack Aleppo and take Damascus. The Mongol army is defeated at Ayn Jalut. Qutuz is assassinated, and Baybars becomes sultan of the Mamluks.
1260–1264 Baybars tightens his grip on power and reforms the army.
1265–1271 Baybars embarks on systematic destruction of crusader castles. Acre is repeatedly raided.
1268 Baybars takes Antioch.
1270 The Eighth Crusade. King Louis IX attacks Tunis and dies there.
1271 Edward of England’s crusade to Acre. Baybars captures Krak des Chevaliers.
1277 Baybars dies. Qalawun gains the Mamluk sultanate.
1289 Qalawun takes Tripoli.
1290 The massacre of Muslims at Acre provides the excuse for Qalawun’s attack. The Mamluk army is mobilized. Qalawun dies, and Khalil becomes sultan.
1291 Khalil attacks and destroys Acre. All remaining crusader outposts in Outremer fall.
1293 Khalil is assassinated by a group of Mamluk emirs.




WHEN THE FRENCH churchman Jacques de Vitry landed at Acre in November 1216 to take up his position as bishop, he was appalled. He had come to rejuvenate the spiritual fervor of its Christian people in advance of a new crusade, but instead of the pious city of Western clerical imagination—gateway to the land where Jesus had walked and died—he found it “like a monster or a beast, having nine heads, each fighting the other.”1 There were deviant Christian sects of every persuasion: Arabic-speaking Jacobites (Occidental Syrians) who circumcised their children “in the manner of the Jews” and crossed themselves with a single finger; the Eastern Syriacs he considered “to be traitors and very corrupt,” some of whom when bribed “revealed the secrets of Christianity to the Saracens” and had married priests, “who dressed their hair in the manner of the lay people.” Meanwhile, the Italian merchant communities—Genoese, Pisans, and Venetians—simply ignored his attempts to excommunicate them; rarely, if ever, listened to the word of God; and “even refused to come to my sermon.” Then there were the Nestorians, the Georgians, and the Armenians, and the Pullani (Syrian-born orientalized Europeans), who were “utterly devoted to the pleasures of the flesh.” Doubtless the unfamiliar appearance of the Eastern Christians, often heavily bearded and robed like Muslims, was additionally disconcerting. Their daughters were veiled, and when he attempted to correct their doctrinal errors, he had to resort to an Arabic interpreter. Vitry was experiencing all the disorientation of arriving in the Middle East—yet in a city whose churches, houses, towers, and palaces looked puzzlingly European.

It was not just divergent Christian practices that sent Vitry reeling with culture shock. It was the place itself: “When I entered this horrible city and had found it full of countless disgraceful acts and evil deeds, I was very confused in my mind.” He conjured a dreadful den of vice, full of “foreigners who had fled from their own lands as outlaws because of various appalling crimes,” where black magic was practiced and murder rife, where husbands strangled their wives and wives poisoned their husbands, where “not only laymen but even churchmen and some members of the regular clergy rented out their lodgings to public prostitutes through the whole city. Who would be able to list all the crimes of this second Babylon?” This was his anguished cry.

Vitry might well have exaggerated Acre’s reputation for sin, but it certainly confounded his expectations. This sense of bewilderment among newly arrived Christians with crusading expectations was a repeated theme—and one that would have tragic consequences in Acre’s final crisis seventy years later.

AFTER THE FALL of Jerusalem to Saladin and Richard the Lionheart’s failure to retake it, the crusader states had shrunk to three small footholds, pushed to the edge of the Mediterranean Sea: the isolated principality of Antioch to the north, the County of Tripoli, and the so-called Second Kingdom of Jerusalem—a long, narrow coastal strip that stretched some 180 miles, from Ascalon and Jaffa in the south to Beirut in the north. It was Acre that now became effectively the capital and political center of this displaced Holy Kingdom, and on it was conferred all secular and religious administration. Acre was home to the royal court and castle of the kings of Jerusalem and later the seat of the kingdom’s patriarch—the pope’s appointed representative. The powerful crusading orders of the Templars and the Hospitallers also transferred their headquarters to Acre, where they constructed impressive and formidable palaces and strongholds. Immensely wealthy, the military orders now comprised the most effective defense of the Latin East. During the early thirteenth century, the orders redoubled their castle building and development as forward positions for ensuring the safety of roads and protection of the remnant territories. In Acre, they were joined by a number of other, smaller orders—such as the knights of the Order of St. Lazarus, originally founded to provide care for lepers, and newly formed imitations, some of which had sprung out of the Third Crusade, including the Germanic Teutonic Knights and the English-inspired order of St. Thomas of Canterbury. At the same time, many of the religious orders, driven out by Saladin or fearful of insecurity, relocated their churches, monasteries, and nunneries within Acre.

Vitry had not only arrived in the fictitious replacement of the holy city of Jerusalem; he had stepped groggily ashore, disoriented and horrified, into a highly dynamic, colorful, ethnically diverse and bustling Mediterranean port with all the varied activities and attractions that this implied. Acre was an emporium for the exchange of goods over a vast area and the most cosmopolitan city in the medieval world. The city was a multilingual hubbub of peoples, cultures, and languages, each with its own quarters and religious institutions. Among its eighty-one churches, there was one dedicated to St. Bridget of Kildare, in Ireland; another to St. Martin of the Bretons; yet another to St. James of the Iberian Peninsula. At the forefront were the merchant communities of the Italian maritime republics—Genoa, Venice, and Pisa—fiercely competing for Mediterranean markets, as well as traders from Marseille and Catalonia. Many of these merchant groups had been granted their own judicial and commercial independence from royal authority. There was a small community of Jews, Copts from Egypt, and visiting Muslim merchants from Damascus, Antioch, and Alexandria who came regularly to do business. The main language of communication was Old French, but German, Catalan, Provençale, Italian, and English could all be heard in the streets, mingling with the languages of the Levant. Traveling merchants from Constantinople, Antioch, and Egypt came regularly to do business, and in spring and autumn, with the arrival of merchant ships from the west, the harbor was crammed with vessels, and the population of the city could be further increased by the arrival of up to 10,000 pilgrims intent on traveling to see the holy sites. Touts and tour guides and lodging houses benefited from these throngs of visitors. When the instability of the Palestinian hinterland made further progress to Jerusalem impossible, Acre, despite having no connection with the life of Jesus, became a pilgrimage site in its own right. Under the guidance of local clerics, Acre had a circuit of forty churches to visit, each with its own relics and holy souvenirs, and permission granted by the papacy to bestow remission of sins.

Swelled by refugees from throughout Palestine and with the city’s attractiveness to European merchants and pilgrims, Acre at the start of the thirteenth century was booming. As an important harbor of the Latin Levant, it not only traded with the western Mediterranean but was an axis of commercial exchange for all the eastern Mediterranean, from the Black Sea and Constantinople to Alexandria and Egypt, which involved accommodation with the Islamic world and paid little attention to the barriers of faith. To the outright displeasure of the papacy, Acre employed the monetary system of its Muslim neighbors. It minted gold and silver imitations of Fatamid and Ayyubid coins, with inscriptions in Arabic, and when, in 1250, the pope banned the use of Islamic inscriptions and style of date, the city’s mint simply replaced the words on its coinage with Christian ones—but still in Arabic and with added crosses. The interdependence of Christian and Muslim merchants ensured that neither had a strong interest in disturbing a status quo.

In the thirteenth century, Acre came to rival and even overtake the great port city of Alexandria in the volume and variety of goods that passed through its port. The Earl of Cornwall, who came here in the early 1240s, estimated that the city brought in £50,000 a year, a sum equal to the royal income of a monarch in Western Europe. Textiles, either as raw materials or as finished cloth (such as silk, linen, and cotton), passed from the Islamic world into Europe, along with glassware, sugar, and precious stones. Back came European wool, which Latin merchants took to Muslim Damascus to trade, along with iron work, food (spices, salt, fish), war horses, and various other supplies to support the crusading effort. Pottery entered Acre from as far away as China and from across the European world as ballast in the hold of ships, and daily through the city gates came camels and donkeys laden with produce to support a large population: wine from Nazareth; dates from the Jordan valley; wheat, fruit, and vegetables grown locally by Eastern Christians and Muslims. It was an industrial center too. The Templars and the Hospitallers manufactured glass and refined sugar at their own mills and furnaces outside the city. Among the crowded covered markets, there were also workshops specializing in glass, metal, ceramics, and pilgrim souvenirs, alongside tanneries and soap makers.

IF SUCCESSIVE POPES were scandalized by Acre’s Islamic-style coinage, they were more deeply troubled by another highly profitable trade: many of the war materials sold to the Ayyubid sultans in Cairo—wood and iron for shipbuilding, weapons and war machines, and naptha for incendiary devices—passed through the hands of Italian merchants via Acre. Even more significant to the Holy See was the trade in human beings. Turkic military slaves from the steppes north of the Black Sea came via Constantinople on Byzantine or Italian ships, and Acre was a stopover and a slave market. Repeated papal bans were regularly flouted. In 1246, Pope Innocent IV was blaming all three Italian trading communities in the city for transporting slaves from Constantinople, who were then shipped on to Egypt to swell the sultan’s armies. The acceleration of this trade from the 1260s was to have unintended consequences for the rump crusader states. Acre was destined to be besieged by armies recruited through its own port.

Vitry may have exaggerated the iniquity of Acre, but the city did serve as something of a penal colony: courts in Europe sometimes commuted criminal sentences by transporting the guilty for settlement in the Holy Land. And he was accurate about the disputatious, nine-headed nature of the place. Under the very nominal authority of the largely absent king of Jerusalem—a title that was to lead to endless factionalizing and internecine warfare throughout the thirteenth century—Acre consisted of a jostle of different, and largely independent, interest groups contesting access to the port and property rights. Communities within the city had their own historic privileges; a considerable measure of autonomy; and often their own legal systems, hindering any effective administration of justice. The rival military orders, answerable only to the pope, comprised the wealthiest and most militarily effective sector of the community—the Templars and Hospitallers, each occupying large areas of old Acre with their spacious palaces and walled complexes, were the most visually dominant presence in the city.

The layout of the city reflected the close proximity of the many different factions and religious communities to one another. Acre’s plan consisted of a tightly packed urban center, in which the merchant groups occupied their own densely inhabited quarters. These came to resemble tiny fortified Italian towns, barricaded against their neighbors, protected by gates and watch towers, and containing warehouses, shops, and residences. Networks of narrow, winding streets (probably derived from a more ancient Arab layout) led to small market squares, the nuclei of each community with its own church, and religious houses and institutions. Activity was most dense around the port, where goods were unloaded. Direct access to it was a source of fierce competition.

Acre may have been a den of vice. It was also extraordinarily filthy. Visitors and pilgrims were struck by the sheer unhealthiness of the place. The Greek pilgrim John Phokas, coming in 1177, complained that “the air is being corrupted by the enormous influx of strangers, various diseases arise and lead to frequent deaths among them, the consequence of which is evil smells and corruption of the air.”2 The Arab traveler Ibn Jubayr, who came from the vastly more civilized world of Moorish Spain and had little good to say about Christians, thought the place a pig sty: “The roads and streets are choked by the press of men.… It stinks and is filthy, being full of refuse and excrement.”3 The Hospitallers, within their magnificent compound, possessed an extremely efficient latrine and sewerage system, the effluent of which, along with much of the rest of the city’s ordure, including refuse from the fish market and slaughter house, was channeled into the enclosed harbor, nicknamed “Lordemer”—the filthy sea. The Venetians were compelled to block off the main window of their church of St. Demetrius, which faced the port, to prevent filth blowing onto the altar.

A medieval map of Acre, redrawn with modern lettering, showing the layout of the city, the double row of walls, the suburb of Montmusard on the left, and the harbor. The building in the sea is the so-called Tower of Flies, which guarded access to the inner harbor. The map marks key churches and buildings, the Templars’ castle (Templum) by the sea, the Hospitallers’ compound (Hospitale) and the areas occupied by the Venetians, Genoese, and Pisans. It gives a sense of the warren-like nature of the city. Curiously, it still places the Accursed Tower (Turris Maledicta) at the right angle of the outer wall, though by this time its actual position was at the same point on the inner wall. (The Maps of Acre, an Historical Cartography, Acre, 1973)

Out toward the city walls, there were gardens and more open ground, though these spaces shrank during the thirteenth century. In the fertile plains beyond, vineyards, orchards, and cultivated fields provided not only food for the town but also relief from its clenched and often tense environment. As the population grew, a second residential suburb, known as Montmusard, developed to the north of the old town and later became an organic part of the city.

When the crusaders retook Acre in 1191, the city was enclosed by a single wall, with the Accursed Tower collapsed and the sections adjacent to it severely damaged. Richard the Lionheart carried out repairs, but in 1202, substantial stretches were again flattened, this time by an earthquake. There must have then been concerted reconstruction because within a decade the walls had been rebuilt and extended to enclose Montmusard. The wall was now an impressive line of defense—more than a mile in length, locking the whole city in from shore to shore. The Accursed Tower itself was buttressed by substantial outer works. Wilbrand van Oldenburg, who came on a fact-finding mission in 1211 in preparation for the launch of a new crusade, was impressed by the city and its defenses:

This is a good rich strong city, sited on the seashore, such that, while in its layout it is a quadrangle, two of its sides forming an angle are girded and defended by the sea. The remaining two sides are enclosed by a good ditch, wide, deep and walled from the very bottom, and by a double wall, fortified with towers in a fine arrangement in such a way that the first wall, its towers not exceeding the height of the parent wall itself, is overlooked and guarded by the second, interior wall, whose towers are tall and very strong.… This city has a good and stable harbour, guarded by a fine tower, in which the god of the flies, whom we call Baalzebub but they called Akaron, was worshipped among the deviant heathens; from which the city itself is named Accon or Accaron.4

From out of Acre’s gates, roads led to the remnant crusader kingdom—the coastal route to Upper Galilee and to the Templars’ castle at Safad, and to Tyre and the castle of the Teutonic Knights at Montfort.

THE WARREN-LIKE NETWORK of walled compounds reflected the lack of social cohesion and the disunified political rule. Fragmentation of political power paralyzed decision-making. The endless contests for the title of king of Jerusalem, splitting both military orders and Italian merchant communities into rival factions, ensured that for sixty years there would be no resident king present in Acre’s royal citadel. In 1250, the populace temporarily declared the city an independent commune from the rest of the kingdom. Its one potential unifier was the patriarch of Jerusalem, whose Church of the Holy Cross was effectively Acre’s cathedral and rallying place.

The discord within the kingdom of Jerusalem and the weakness of the remaining crusader enclaves in the first half of the thirteenth century raised the possibility that any further determined strike by Islam could be terminal. It never happened. Saladin, a Kurd and an outsider, briefly created a shared sense of religious purpose within the Islamic world and a consolidated Sunni empire that stretched from Egypt and the shores of North Africa through Palestine and Syria to northern Iraq and the banks of the Tigris. Under Saladin, who issued gold coins with the legend “Sultan of Islam and the Muslims,” the spirit of jihad burned brightly: it was Muslim holy men who were offered the chance to behead the captured crusaders at Hattin in 1187—a task they performed with horrifying ineptitude. But this commitment to religious war, by which Saladin had managed to unite his feuding family, fell away at his death. The Islamic Middle East splintered into a quarrelsome group of Ayyubid principalities, with Egypt the only unified state but no will to expel the Franks. Individual rulers each negotiated their own treaties with the intruders from the West, sometimes even forming alliances with them against rival princelings. Appeasement and the fear of fresh crusading ventures replaced aggression. Jerusalem, whose image as a holy city had unified Islam, became strategically unimportant. Remarkably, in 1229 it was simply handed back to the Christians by treaty and without a blow struck—an unthinkable betrayal of Islamic pride. Although regained by Muslims in 1244, Jerusalem remained a potential bargaining chip. The last of the Ayyubid rulers of Egypt, al-Malik al-Salih, would give his son Turanshah worldly advice: “If they [the Franks] demand the coast and Jerusalem from you, give them these places without delay on condition that they have no foothold in Egypt.”5 The Ayyubids had seen off the Fifth Crusade to Egypt in 1221 and were determined to make almost any concession to avoid a reprise.

Among the pious, this craven realpolitik led to fierce condemnation. The historian Ibn al-Athir deplored the fact that “amongst the rulers of Islam we see not one who desires to wage jihad or aid… religion. Each one devotes himself to his pastimes and amusements and wronging his flock. This is more dreadful to me than the enemy.”6 The crusader states became just another player in the pattern of alliances and feuds. The kingdom of Jerusalem even sided with Damascus in the Ayyubid civil wars and suffered a crushing defeat for its pains at the battle of La Forbie in 1244, in which the Hospitaller and Templar detachments were almost wiped out.

Trade also fostered détente. The crusader states were economically useful to the Islamic world; Acre and Tyre particularly profited hugely from these interchanges during the first half of the thirteenth century, for which they were as roundly criticized by the papacy as were their Islamic trading partners by pious Muslims. However, at no time did the disunity of Islam enable the Franks to regain the substantial territory lost to Saladin. Periods of truce were interspersed with small-scale crusading ventures from Europe. The Fifth Crusade had ended in failure in the Nile Delta. It was followed by a string of other piecemeal initiatives that failed to shift the balance of power. The Holy Roman emperor Frederick II, under excommunication by the pope, came to the Levant in 1228. Despite negotiating the short-term recovery of Jerusalem, he stirred up deep opposition in the kingdom. When he sailed away from Acre the following year, the townspeople pelted him with offal. Theobald, count of Champagne, led an inconsequential crusade in 1239–1240, Richard of Cornwall another shortly after.

The functional inadequacies of both the Ayyubids and the Crusader States ensured a status quo. Without a more unified Islamic response, the Franks were impossible to dislodge; without unity among Christian factions, the goal of retaking Jerusalem remained a dream. In the West, attention to Outremer was also slowly waning. Europe was witnessing a consolidation of empires and nation-states. The papacy’s long-running feud with Frederick II and his successors over the rule of Sicily was diverting energy and funds from the Latin East. It had become possible for the faithful to fulfill their crusading vows elsewhere—in Sicily, or Moorish Spain, or the forests of Prussia, or even by purchasing remission for their sins. The Templar poet Ricaut Bonomel complained:

For he [the pope] pardons for money people who have taken our cross

And if anyone wishes to swap the Holy Land

For the war in Italy

Our legate lets them do so

For he sells God and Indulgences for cash.7

WITHIN THE HEART of Asia, however, the tectonic plates of power were starting to shift. At the beginning of the thirteenth century, the Mongols embarked on their sweep west, and before their advance, other nomadic people were being displaced. Soon the repercussions were felt in the Islamic world. The Mongols destroyed the existing Persian dynasty and pushed its Turkic tribal rulers, the Khwarazmians, into Palestine. (It was this warlike people, of similar central Asian origin, who sacked Jerusalem in 1244.)


  • "Crowley's enviable mastery of atmosphere and narrative are on full display in The Accursed Tower, transporting the reader to a Holy Land bursting with exotic and alien sights, smells, and sounds. His recounting of the siege and fall of Acre combines hair-raising action, ferocious savagery, and fascinating characters in an utterly compelling story. For my money, this is narrative history at its best: a living, breathing world full of real people struggling, living, and dying in an epic clash."—Patrick Wyman, PhDand host of Tides of History
  • "Roger Crowley has once again found a subject worthy of his immense talent. In The Accursed Tower, he brings the climactic stages of the Crusades roaringly to life, as Popes, Kings, and Sultans-in-the-making lead holy warriors into battle alongside Mongols, Mamluks and Templars, fighting for supremacy in the holy land. Here are some of the last great battles of the pre-gunpowder era, marked by thumping cavalry charges and sword thrusts, ingenious siege engines and trebuchets, chain mail and lances, and the terrors of Greek fire. Crowley's gripping account of the fall of Acre is irresistible. It is the kind of book one does not want to end."—Sean McMeekin,author of The Russian Revolution
  • A bracing work by a masterly historian whose great knowledge portrays the "dramatic symbolic significance" of this landmark event.—Kirkus Reviews

On Sale
Nov 5, 2019
Page Count
272 pages
Basic Books

Roger Crowley

About the Author

Roger Crowley was born in 1951 into a naval family and educated at Cambridge University. The author of numerous bestselling books, including 1453 and Empires of the Sea, Crowley lives near Stroud, UK.

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