Today in history witnessed an epic battle between Christians and Muslims. The ferocity and valor displayed in Arsuf’s battle makes most of the otherwise “awesome” battle scenes emanating from Hollywood look like child’s play.
Context: At the end of August 1191, Richard the Lion, at the head of a large force of crusaders, marched from Acre to Jaffa. Along with the fierce Syrian sun, the Christians were beset by a relentless barrage of arrows from the hordes of Saladin, who a few years earlier had nearly annihilated the Crusaders in the Horns of Hattin.
Despite casualties from arrows, heatstroke, snakebites, hunger and disease, the Christian warriors remained undaunted and carried on. Saladin’s own biographer, Baha’ al-Din, expressed dismay:
I saw several individuals among the Franks with ten arrows fixed to their backs, pressing on in this way without a care… Think of the endurance of these people, who endure grueling tasks without any pay or material gain.
Finally, on September 6, as the crusaders emerged from a dense forest, there on the vast plains of Arsuf, they saw “all the forces” of Islam gathered before them, “from Damascus and Persia, from the Mediterranean Sea to the east”. ”, writes a chronicler. There was no warlike Muslim people “whom Saladin had not summoned to help him crush the Christian people”, for he “hoped to wipe the Christians completely off the face of the earth”.
The battle began on the morning of September 7, 1191. A wild outburst erupted from the Muslim camp. Drums, horns and cymbals clattered and boomed, with reverberating cries of “Allahu Akbar” and other “awful cries.” As the Crusaders knelt in prayer and entered battle formation, “the earth around resounded with the echo of their [Muslims’] harsh shouts and roaring noises.” Suddenly, in the midst of this “terrifying racket,” thousands of Turks “rushed upon our village” with horses “driven like lightning.” The dust storm caused by this stampede “went fill the sky like a dark cloud”. Behind the galloping Turks “ran a devilish race, very black”.
In this way the Muslims “fell upon our army from all sides… There was not a space of two miles around, not even a fist, that was not covered with the hostile Turkish race. .. As they continued their persistent assaults they inflicted very heavy losses on our people.”
Unlike the more well-rested and well-supplied Muslims, the already exhausted Crusaders fought as hard as they could. Horseless knights were seen “walking on foot” and “returning blow for blow whenever means and strength permitted,” even as the Turks galloped and continued to rain darts upon them.
For a long time Richard ordered his men not to break rank but to remain in a defensive posture. Only when the entire Muslim army had gotten close enough and their horses tired would he give the signal for a counter-offensive.
Inevitably, however, “two knights who could not wait” more “went out of line”, whereby “everything was confused”. They charged and began killing their enemies. “The rest of the Christians heard these two cry out with loud voices for the help of St. George as they charged bravely against the Turks,” and immediately followed their example: “charging as one against the relentlessly attacking enemy “.
Seeing this, Richard signaled for the general assault and advanced to where the fighting was fiercest. He broke through his own men and crashed with thunderous violence upon the enemy. “Stunned by the force of the blows which he and his force dealt them,” the Muslims “fell back to right and left.” Many were slaughtered on the spot, while “a great number were but headless corpses trampled upon by friend and foe alike.” Driven into a frenzy of battle, and in the words of the chronicler:
King Richard pursued the Turks with singular ferocity, fell upon them, and scattered them over the ground. None escaped when his sword came into contact with them; wherever he went, his brandished sword opened a wide path on all sides. Continuing his advance with untiring sword-strokes, he cut that indescribable run as if reaping with a scythe, so that the corpses of Turks he had slain covered the ground everywhere for the space of half a mile. The rest were frightened at the sight of the dying man, and gave him a wider place…. Constantly killing and hammering with their swords, the Christians wore down the terrified Turks, but for a long time the battle was in the balance. Each smote each other, each struggled to overcome; one retreated covered with blood, the other fell dead. How many banners and multiform flags, pennons and countless banners you would have seen fall to the ground!
In the end the Christians prevailed, and “the defeat of the enemy was so complete that for two miles there was nothing to be seen but people fleeing, though they had been so persistent before, puffed up with pride and very fierce”. Arab sources confirm the magnitude of this defeat.
Saladin’s tall and invincible stature collapsed overnight. He, however, tried to blame his men. As Richard’s crusaders continued to advance, taking Jaffa and consolidating their hold on the coast, Saladin berated his downtrodden captains:
The Christians travel through the land of Syria as they please without encountering any opposition or resistance. Where are now the great braggadocios and brilliant exploits of my soldiers?… How have the people of today degenerated from our noble forefathers who won so many brilliant and justly memorable victories against the Christians, victories which are told to us every day and the memory will last forever. !
One of Saladin’s emirs dared to give an answer: “Holy Sultan, saving the grace of your majesty, you have blamed us unjustly, because we attacked the Franks with all our efforts. [to no avail]”. He went on to bemoan Western armor, which is “not like ours” but rather “incalculable, impenetrable.”
But that wasn’t all:
[T]here is something particularly surprising about one of them. He threw our people into disorder and destroyed them. We have never seen his like nor known anyone like him. He was always in charge of others; in every commitment he was before anything else… He is the one who mutilates our people. No one can oppose him, and when he seizes no one, no one can rescue him from his hands. They say it in their language Melech [King] Richard.
It took all of Saladin’s powers of self-control not to pull out his beard and howl in rage.
Note: This article was taken from Raymond Ibrahim’s recent book, “Defenders of the West: The Christian heroes who opposed Islam”, which includes a chapter on Richard. All quotes come from it.