This Day in Jewish History, 1191

Richard the Lionheart Defeats Saladin at Arsuf

The seaside skirmish was just one of the battles Saladin and the Crusaders fought, but it would be the one where the Muslim leader became shaken to the core.

Ezra Levi

On this day, September 7, 1191, an army led by England’s King Richard the Lionheart conquered the seaside town of Arsuf from the forces of Saladin.

The Crusaders had established themselves in Tyre (today in Lebanon) and in June 1191, now led by the newly arrived English king Richard, they took the city of Acre as well. Their plan was to continue south and conquer the port of Jaffa, regaining control over the Holy Land coast – whence they could launch an attack to regain Jerusalem.

Their southward march on Arsuf, with infantry and wagons, began in August 1191, in the burning heat of summer. Richard, according to war historians, was well aware of the danger of heat prostration in the Levant and had his troops march in the cooler morning hours, and rest and drink frequently. A fleet meanwhile sailed by the Crusader soldiers, providing support.

Tight discipline and a strict marching order kept the Crusader army cohesive during the march, despite harassment by Saladin’s soldiers, as attested by the Muslim observer Baha al-Din ibn Shaddad: “They controlled themselves severely.” Ibn Shaddad also added that the Crusader arrows appeared to be more effective than the Muslim version.

In other words, as it swept onto the Muslim forces from the north, the European army led by Richard – a brilliant commander with a command of tactics, according to some military historians – was not going to be vanquished by needling: It would take a major assault. Saladin intended to achieve that by ambushing the forces through the all-too-rare wood at Arsuf. (The wood is long gone.)

However, as the day of September 7 dawned, the presence of the Muslim forces in the meager Middle Eastern wood was discerned. The Muslim forces held back until the crusader army was on the move, heading toward Arsuf – and then they attacked, with Saladin personally in command of troops taken from the entire region, from Mesopotamia to Egypt.

The Muslim soldiers hoped to unnerve the Europeans in the local style, with a tremendous din, including cymbals and screaming. But the noise and actual fighting, however harrying, proved unequal to the Crusader column, which continued marching on toward Arsuf in the summer heat – and it was only there that the Crusaders counterattacked. As Baha al-Din wrote: “The rout was complete.”

The last clash

The Muslims did regroup and almost won, but ultimately lost the day to the Crusaders.

After taking Arsuf, the Christian forces indeed began their march toward Jaffa itself.

The Battle of Jaffa would be the last of the Third Crusade (1189–1192), which was the great attempt by Europe’s Christian leaders to regain the Holy Land from Saladin. And while the Christians did manage to regain much of the coast from Saladin’s troops, they failed to reconquer Jerusalem, which had been their real goal.

It seems, however, that the loss at Arsuf, while not fatal for Saladin, undermined his confidence, leading him to the negotiating table again. These final collisions between Christian and Muslim forces are also noteworthy mainly for leading to a truce – the Treaty of Jaffa – under which Saladin (1137/1138-March 1193) ushered in religious tolerance, allowing not only Jews but Christians to visit Jerusalem, which the sultan had conquered from the Christians four years before. Saladin also acknowledged that the Crusaders had gained control of the coast.

When Crusader forces had conquered Jerusalem in 1099, they had butchered the local population. It would be almost 100 years later, in 1187, that the Muslim world would reconquer Jerusalem from the Christians after a siege, and would allow Jews to visit the city again. It would only be in 1243 that Jerusalem would be taken back by Christian forces – for one year. Then it fell to the Khwarezmian Turks.

Arsuf today is a town just north of Herzliya, on the edge on a crumbling seaside cliff overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. It features the beautiful remains of a Crusader castle inside the Arsuf national park.