on this day in medieval history

When the Crusaders Lost Jerusalem


Jerusalem has been a site of strife and struggle since Moses stood on the banks of the Jordan River and peered into the land “flowing with milk and honey.” Current strife in the area of the world known to many as The Holy Land is both unique to the 21st century and also as old as the Old Testament. There have been recurring spasms of violence throughout the Levant for thousands of years. However, one significant chapter was closed on this day in 1291 CE. 

On This Day in History — May 18, 1291 — The Kingdom of Jerusalem Falls Permanently

From about 1066 until about 1300, the Holy Land was rocked by recurring “crusades.” The Crusades were militant pilgrimages of Christians (particularly Roman Catholics) from Europe to current-day Palestine. The Crusades were unique in that they were considered penitent missions, which means that sinful crusaders would be absolved of their sins and admitted into heaven if they partook in the Crusades. 

Essentially, the Roman Catholic Church would announce a crusade in conjunction with one or more Roman Catholic countries. A king, or an alliance of kings, would raise an army of crusaders. They would then march from Europe to Palestine and attempt to capture Jerusalem and other parts of the Holy Land. They often terrorized Jewish and Muslim communities along the way, for no apparent reason. 

Throughout the Dark Ages (in Europe) and the Medieval period, Jerusalem was largely in control of Arab states (because they’re closer). The Crusaders managed to establish intermittent “Crusader States” throughout the Middle East. One of these was the Kingdom of Jerusalem. As the name suggests, the Kingdom of Jerusalem briefly controlled the city of Jerusalem, establishing Christian control of the ancient city. However, the Kingdom of Jerusalem kept its capital at Acre. 

Painting: "Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders", 15th July 1099, Émile Signol, oil on canvas (1847)

The Fall of Acre

The city of Acre is currently known as Akko in Hebrew and Akka in Arabic. It is located in the northern part of modern-day Israel, on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.  It was a very important waystation on the road from Europe to Jerusalem and served as a good spot for a Crusader capital. 

In 1291, Acre was the capital of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. However, the Crusaders had not controlled Jerusalem for 100 years. In 1192, Saladin beat the Crusaders in battle and negotiated the Treaty of Ramla. The treaty granted control of Jerusalem (Al-Quds in Arabic) to Saladin. The Crusaders were allowed to retain a tiny kingdom based in Acre, and Christian missionaries were granted access to Jerusalem. 

So, why is 1291 significant? In 1291, a Muslim man was caught having an affair with a wealthy Christian woman. The Crusaders were worried the tension would lead to war. So, they hired Italian mercenaries. The mercenaries were goonish and undisciplined. They ended up killing some Muslims living in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. That caused the closest Muslim sultan to dissolve their peace agreement. He then laid siege to Acre. 

The siege lasted from April 6th until the Muslim troops overran the walls of Acre on May 18th. They sacked the city. 

The End of Crusaders in the Levant

The sack of Acre constituted the end of Crusader kingdoms in modern-day Palestine. After May 18, 1291, European Christian Crusaders never again made it as far as Jerusalem. For the next 650ish years, Jerusalem remained under the control of Muslim rulers. It was ruled by various tribes, then the Ottoman Empire. After World War I, it was administered by the British, then the Kingdom of Jordan, and on and on. 

Jerusalem is the holiest city for the three major Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) as well as several other smaller Abrahamic religions. Wars have been waged over it for over a thousand years. Some of those wars are religious in nature, some are territorial, some are ethnic, and most are a combination of all of those factors. 
However, on this day in 1291, Christian kingdoms were expelled from the Levant. Christians have existed in Palestine for nearly 2,000 years and hopefully, they’ll continue to do so in perpetuity. But, no Christian has ruled the Holy Land for 730 years because of the battle that took place on this day.