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The Crusades to Egypt

This map is part of a series of 12 animated maps showing the history of Crusades.

In the early 13th century, the crusade to the Holy Places remained a major concern of the papacy and the Western powers, but the objective changed. Egypt, rather than the Syrian coastline, was seen as the key to the Middle East.

Rich and fertile, Egypt was less fortified than Syria and the Western powers thought that seizing a few strongholds on the Nile would be enough to ensure the conquest of Cairo.

The Fifth Crusade, launched in the spring of 1213, brought together several thousand fighters, mainly from Austria and Hungary. After a few unsuccessful manoeuvres in Palestine in 1217, the crusaders, reinforced by nobles from the Crusader states, headed for Egypt.

On 29 May 1218, the Crusader army laid siege to Damietta, the gateway to the Nile delta. The city managed to resist and was not captured until 12 November 1219.

Jean de Brienne, King of Jerusalem, wanted to exchange Damietta for Jerusalem through negotiations with the Sultan. But Pelagius, the papal legate, decided to pursue the armed campaign. Two years later, his attempt to take Cairo ended in crushing failure. The defeated crusaders were forced to give up Damietta and retreat.

In 1228, Emperor Frederick II led the Sixth Crusade. As the titular king of Jerusalem, Frederick soon alienated the Crusader state nobility and elected to negotiate with Al-Kamil, the Ayyubid Sultan. The Treaty of Jaffa concluded by the two men gave Jerusalem back to the Latins.

But the city of Jerusalem, which was no longer protected by walls, was recaptured by the Muslims in 1244.

The French king, Louis IX – the future Saint Louis – took command of the Seventh Crusade. The plan was to attack Egypt again and then exchange an Egyptian city for Jerusalem.

The French army left Aigues-Mortes, a port built for the departure to the Crusade, in August 1248. It overwintered in Cyprus before landing at Damietta in June 1249. The city, abandoned by its inhabitants, was immediately occupied. The Sultan proposed to exchange Damietta for Jerusalem, Ascalon and Tiberias. Under the influence of his younger brother Robert of Artois, Louis IX refused and decided to march on Cairo.

But the crusaders were defeated at the battle of Mansurah. Harassed by the Muslim troops and weakened by epidemics spreading through his army, Louis IX was forced to surrender on 6 April 1250. He then had to pay a very heavy ransom and surrender Damietta to obtain the release of prisoners taken by the Mamluks, who had just supplanted the Ayyubids in Cairo.

To make up for his failure, the King of France decided to improve the defences of the Holy Land. For four years, he remained in Acre and undertook an ambitious programme to fortify the kingdom’s strongholds, including Acre, Caesarea, Sidon and Jaffa. The king also entered into negotiations with the various powers in the Middle East: the Ayyubids of Damascus, the Mamluks of Cairo and even the Mongols, whose advance in the east threatened the Muslim world.

In 1254, Louis IX returned to France: his crusade had not achieved any territorial reconquest, but he left the Latin states consolidated and strengthened, which won him immense popularity thereafter.