Monday,20 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1244, (30 April - 6 May 2015)
Monday,20 August, 2018
Issue 1244, (30 April - 6 May 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Remembering Mansoura

French king Louis IX’s attempt to conquer Egypt centuries before Napoleon Bonaparte is remembered at an exhibition in Paris, writes David Tresilian

Al-Ahram Weekly

While many people will be familiar with the French attempt to conquer Egypt in 1798 under the leadership of the talented young general Napoleon Bonaparte, fewer may be familiar with another French attempt to conquer the country more than five centuries earlier.

However, 2014 was the 800th anniversary of the birth of the French king Louis IX, sometimes called St Louis, whose ultimately unsuccessful attempt to conquer Egypt was made as part of the Seventh Crusade in 1249 CE. This attempt and much else about the king is being commemorated in France as part of celebrations marking the anniversary of his birth, including through a large-scale exhibition about him at the Conciergerie on the Ile de la Cité in Paris.

A force of mostly French crusaders had already made an attempt on Egypt in the Fifth Crusade in 1218, during which they had briefly succeeded in taking the port city of Damietta. Thirty years later, Louis’s forces were again initially successful in capturing Damietta, but they were later defeated by the Egyptians at the Battle of Mansoura in the Nile Delta.

Louis himself, ransomed by his Egyptian captors, survived the campaign and in later years was venerated in France for his piety and contributions to the French nation. However, the invasion attempt evidently left a bitter taste in French mouths since they did not try to conquer Egypt again until many hundreds of years later.

For the Egyptians the battle was also something to be commemorated. Modern Mansoura, a thriving city of 500,000 people in the Dakhaliyya governorate in the east of the Nile Delta, was named after the battle, its name meaning “victory.” A museum in the city, apparently built around the building where Louis IX was held following his capture, also contains materials relating to the battle and the French invasion.

While the Paris exhibition does not say so, the invasion was at least as important for the Egyptians as it was for the French, and there are parallels between this first campaign and the second French invasion five centuries later. Each of these invasions, coming as an initial shock, acted as a catalyst for transformation and periods of startling national renaissance.

Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt at the end of the 18th century saw the defeat of the Ottoman-controlled Mameluke regime, for example, leading to that regime’s replacement by the vice-royalty of Mohamed Ali a decade later and, indirectly, the wholesale modernisation of Egypt.

Similarly the Seventh Crusade defeated the Ayyubid sultanate and led to the take-over of the country by the Mamelukes, the sultan’s Turkic slave soldiers. This entailed outstanding Egyptian military victories, first against the French at Mansoura and then against the invading Mongols at Ayn Jalut in Syria, and the establishment of a new and long-lasting Mameluke regime.

DAMIETTA TO MANSOURA: Louis was famous for much more than the part he played in the European Crusades, though crusading seems to have become an obsession in the second part of his life and he died some years after the failed Egyptian expedition in an attempt to conquer Tunis.

But before this spirit overtook him he played an important role in reforming France and renovating the French monarchy. He is well-known, for example, for his closeness to ordinary people, hearing grievances in the open air under an oak tree, a gesture commemorated in the exhibition. He is also remembered for his contributions to the French capital, one of which, the Sainte Chapelle, an important expression of mediaeval European religious architecture, still stands next to the Conciergerie in Paris. The Ile St Louis in Paris is named after Louis IX, as are other places in the world from St Louis in Senegal to St Louis, Missouri.

Yet, it was perhaps for his crusading more than anything else that Louis was eventually canonised, becoming the only French monarch to have been granted the honour. The exhibition recognises this part of Louis’s career since it opens with idealised 19th-century images of Louis, dressed in armour, wading ashore to attack the Egyptians at Damietta. It also contains materials it is claimed Louis took with him to the Holy Land and various religious relics.

Louis IX was born in 1214 and ascended the French throne in 1226 when he was not yet 13. His decision to put himself at the head of the Seventh Crusade in the 1240s came against a background of reversals for the Crusaders. Jerusalem, held by the Europeans since 1229 despite its earlier recapture by Saladin, had reverted to Muslim control in 1244 when Egyptian armies had also taken back Damascus. Louis and his advisors seem to have thought that the best way for them to regain control of the Levant would be to repeat the strategy of the Fifth Crusade by leading an attack on Egypt. It was thought that this would force the Egyptian sultan to concede control of Jerusalem and other cities.

However, following the initial French success at Damietta in the summer of 1249 when the city fell into European hands, the Seventh Crusade proved no more successful than the Fifth in taking over Egypt. Earlier, the problem had been one of strategy, with the Europeans not being clear about their intentions: was the aim of the invasion to put pressure on Egypt’s Ayyubid sultan, or was it to conquer Egypt?

If the former, the crusaders should have stayed in Damietta, using the city as a bargaining chip in negotiations over Jerusalem. They should not have marched on Cairo, as they in fact attempted, leading to their inevitable defeat by Egyptian forces. If the latter was their intention, it could never have been accomplished with the forces available and in the light of the usual problems of leadership.

Similar problems plagued the Seventh Crusade, with initial success disguising a lack of strategy and leadership. Once again the decision was made to advance on Cairo, and in November 1249 French forces struck out from Damietta across the Delta towards the capital, halting at Mansoura a month or so later when they encountered the Egyptian forces sent out to stop them. A war of attrition ensued, with skirmishes taking place between the two armies but major confrontations avoided. Eventually the balance turned against the crusaders, and, effectively under siege at Mansoura, their supply lines broken and suffering from diseases such as scurvy and dysentery, they were forced to retreat in disarray.

According to the Oxford historian Christopher Tyerman writing in God’s War, a recent history of the Crusades, much of the blame must be placed at Louis’s door. “The logic of remaining for so long in such an exposed position [as Mansoura] remains obscure unless Louis recognised his strategy had failed yet still hoped for the implosion of Egyptian unity or a miracle,” he comments.

Whatever the case may have been – Tyerman suggests a “fatalistic mood” tantamount to paralysis on Louis’s part – the Crusader army, “hampered by enemy forces, illness, hunger, fatigue, difficult terrain and collapsing morale, [and] shadowed by a rag-bag navy increasingly vulnerable to enemy shipping on the Nile, effectively disintegrated.”

Following his surrender in April 1250, Louis was taken prisoner and negotiations begun for the surrender of Damietta and the payment of a heavy ransom. The new Ayyubid sultan, Turanshah, agreed a price of 800,000 bezants, a Byzantine gold coin, for the safe conduct of the Crusader forces and the handover of Damietta. However, a revolt against the sultan by the Mamelukes before the deal could be put into effect then led to the effective end of the Ayyubid sultanate.

In Tyerman’s words, “after a botched initial assassination attempt, Turan Shah, in full view of the terrified Christian prisoners, was hacked to pieces by the Bahriyya [Mamelukes], among whom stood an ambitious young officer, Baibars al-Bunduqdari,” a slave soldier from Central Asia who eventually became the Mameluke sultan Al-Zahir Baybars, reigning from 1260.

EGYPT’S FIRST FEMALE RULER: The death of the previous Ayyubid sultan, Al-Salih Ayyub, in 1249 had led to disarray in Egyptian ranks, with the new sultan, Turanshah, then moving against the Mamelukes in a bid to consolidate his rule. The latter then rose up against him, killing him as he negotiated with the defeated Crusaders outside Damietta.

The Mamelukes installed the previous sultan’s widow, Shagarat al-Durr, as the new sultan(a), making her probably the first woman in the Muslim world to have held high political office and perhaps in recognition of the role she had played in upholding morale after the death of the former sultan. However, following protests from Damascus and Baghdad at the idea of a woman becoming sultan, Shagarat al-Durr married Izz al-Din Aybak, a Mameluke military commander, who took the title instead.

But her new husband did not put an end to Shagarat al-Durr’s de facto rule, and she continued to sign royal decrees, styling herself malikat al-muslimeen, or the queen of the Muslims. When Aybak tried to take another wife in 1257 in an attempt to challenge Shagarat al-Durr’s position, she had him murdered by his servants. Things ended equally badly for her, however, when she was beaten to death with clogs by the servants of the new sultan, Al-Mansour Ali, and his mother. She was interred in a tomb near the Citadel in Cairo that can still be visited today and enjoyed an afterlife as an almost legendary character, notably in popular epics.

But while Shagarat al-Durr, of Turkic slave origin, failed in her attempts at kingmaker and did not manage to secure the sultanate for Khalil, the son she had had with Al-Salih Ayyub, the killing of Turanshah and replacement of the Ayyubid dynasty by the new Mameluke sultanate took place with her connivance if not on her instructions. Her marriage to Al-Salih Ayyub and motherhood of Khalil (who died) was the source of her legitimacy as sultan, as is seen in another of her titles, walidat al-malik al-mansour (Khalil), the mother of the sultan. In the confusion following the death of Al-Salih Ayyub in the middle of the French invasion, Shagarat al-Durr acted swiftly not only to secure her own interests but also to promote those of the sultan’s former slave soldiers.

Shagarat al-Durr perhaps helped usher in centuries of Mameluke rule and the end of the Ayyubid sultanate, but of all her actions her effective promotion of Baybars turned out to be the most important. While the Seventh Crusade was vital to the Europeans, eager to help the Crusader states in the Levant and put pressure on the Egyptian sultanate, in wider historical terms it pales in comparison to events elsewhere in the Middle East. According to Tyerman, “the impact of Louis’s expedition on the wider conflicts of the Near East was marginal,” since the real threat to Arab civilisation in the region came not from the Europeans, who were ultimately unable to hold the bridgeheads they had established in the Levant, but from the invading Mongols.

The latter destroyed Baghdad in 1258 shortly after Louis invaded Egypt, evicting the Abbasid caliphate, and they then moved down through Syria spreading riot and despair in their wake. It was only the defeat of the Mongols by Egyptian forces led by Baybars in 1260 that finally ended this threat. Perhaps Shagarat al-Durr, a former slave, later sultan, and beaten to death with clogs, made her greatest contribution by helping to establish the Mameluke Dynasty that under Baybars, a former slave from what today is Kazakhstan, became the most powerful force in the Middle East and saved the region from the Mongols.

Baybars, like Shagarat al-Durr, also became a semi-legendary figure, his military victories commemorated in popular epics like the Sirat al-Zahir Baybars (Epic of Baybars). Having defeated the French and the Mongols, Baybars turned his attention to the Crusader states in the Levant. In 1265, he conquered Caesarea and Arsuf, followed by Jaffa and Antioch a few years later. His successor, Al-Ashraf Khalil, then took Acre in 1291, followed by Sidon, Beirut, Haifa and the fortifications of the Knights Templars.

LOUIS IX TO ROBESPIERRE: as many visitors to the Conciergerie exhibition will know, the building is perhaps most famous for another queen who met a sticky end, not beaten to death with clogs this time, but executed for crimes against the French Revolution.

Marie-Antoinette, the Austrian-born wife of the French king Louis XVI, himself executed during the Revolution, spent the final months of her life in the Conciergerie in 1793 as she awaited the guillotine.  Perhaps most visitors to the building today come because of this gruesome history, and perhaps it was this that was most responsible for the guided tours and headphone-toting Australian tourists present on the day of the Weekly’s visit.

The French authorities have installed an exhibition in the Conciergerie that recalls the horrors that once went on there. The revolutionary tribunals set up in 1793 during the period of the Terror to try those accused of crimes against the Revolution sentenced thousands of people to death during the height of their operations, many of them held in the filthy cells, more like animal pens, of the Conciergerie.

Important prisoners, such as the former queen, had single cells and were provided with basic furniture, books and writing materials. Most prisoners, however, not having the influence or money to secure such special treatment, were hustled through the tribunals, which dispensed with regular legal procedures – there was no defence against the revolutionary prosecutor and no appeal against the tribunals’ findings. Those who had the misfortune to find themselves accused of crimes against the Revolution could sometimes expect to be executed within hours of being remanded.

All this is remembered in the Conciergerie today, and visitors to the Louis IX exhibition can make their way out towards the reconstructed cells of the revolutionary period. Extracts from a popular publication listing the names of those sentenced to death by the revolutionary tribunals line the walls of one of the tiny rooms, this book presumably having been published to instil terror into anyone foolish enough to question the Revolution. It reminded readers that no one could be considered safe from the guillotine’s blade and pour encourager les autres.

The names of early enthusiasts for the Revolution, among them Georges Danton and Camille Desmoulins, both appear on the walls as having been found guilty and executed on the orders of the revolutionary tribunals. Another name that also appears is that of Maximilien Robespierre, the “incorruptible,” who did not escape the guillotine’s blade either.

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