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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On the Great Adversary

Damietta in 1911 [adapted from Sladen, Douglas, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

In the spring of 1971, shortly after completing basic training I spent a couple of weeks doing guard duty in a fort on the Bar Lev Line - the string of defensive fortresses along the length of the Suez Canal, then the border between Egypt and the Israeli-held Sinai Desert. I arrived with a group of other new recruits in the pitch darkness of the desert night. The expression "the dark of Egypt" is a term of Biblical origins that denotes a darkness so thick that it can be felt as a physical thing. It became a reality for us as we bounded across the sand dunes of northern Sinai in the back of a truck with loudly flapping canvas sides. We arrived at Atifa (later renamed Budapest) close to midnight. This was the northernmost of the border forts. It spanned the width of a narrow finger of sand to the north of which (as I saw in the morning) was the broad expanse of the blue Mediterranean. To the south was El-Mallahah, a saltwater marsh, and behind us was the endless desert. To the west, across the minefields and stretches of barbed wire, rose an Egyptian guard tower, and further off were vague shimmering forms of buildings in Port Fouad and Port Said at the entrance to the canal. Egypt was the feared enemy that two and a half years later would consummate its threat, and I would later see a film of the fortress that I had briefly resided in under one of two heavy attacks, although Budapest remained the only fort of the Bar Lev Line that did not fall to the Egyptian army in 1973. Both the near destruction of the State of Israel in the early days of the war, and the security that the Jewish state subsequently achieved with the peace accords of 1979 that has endured in spite of the perpetual turmoil of the region, illustrate just how preeminent the position of Egypt is in today's Middle East. This pre-eminence, however, is not at all new.

Sixty kilometres further west, and about thirteen kilometres from the mouth of the eastern-most branch of the Nile Delta on the bank of which it lies, is the port town of Damietta. Of the three medieval ports on the delta, along with Tinnis and Rosetta, Damietta (Dimyāṭ) was the most important. In commercial activity it ranked close to Cairo and Alexandria, as can be clearly seen in documents of the Cairo Genizah. Damietta was also a place of great significance in crusader history.

For the crusaders, Egypt was the great adversary. Three Egyptian-based dynasties had led the fight against the crusades and the Christian enclaves in the Levant - the Fatimids, the Ayyubids and finally the Mamluks. It is hardly surprising that Egypt should become the focus of Frankish efforts to defend itself and to expand. If Egypt could be removed from the equation, the Latin states would be secure. Damietta was regarded as the key to conquest of Egypt. It controlled the entrance to one of the main branches of the Nile, and consequently, the entire river and Egypt itself. The first wave of Frankish invasions took place between 1163 to 1169 and the desire to conquer Egypt became something of an obsession for King Amaury. In 1169 his army, supported by the Byzantine fleet, employed siege towers and attempted to blockade Damietta by land and sea, but failed in both respects. With Muslim reinforcements continually arriving and serious supply problems in the Crusader/Byzantine camp, the assault failed and the Christians withdrew. In the thirteenth century, during preparations for the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221), Damietta was once again the focus of an attack, the aim now being to conquer Egypt and then recapture Jerusalem which had fallen to Saladin in 1187. The port was besieged and occupied by Frisian crusaders in November 1219, but when in July 1221 the crusaders marched south to take Cairo their luck changed. There were constant skirmishes as they marched towards the capital. Then they were held up by the flooding of the Nile, and the German contingents abandoned the march, returning to Damietta. Supplies ran out and an attack led by Sultan Al-Kamil forced the main army under the papal legate, Pelagius of Albano to retreat. They fled back to Damietta and then withdrew from Egypt.

In 1249 Damietta once again became the target, this time of the Seventh Crusade (1248-1254) led by King Louis IX. The French fleet took Damietta on 6 June as the Egyptians withdrew further up the Nile, but when the Nile flooded the king was bogged down with his troops and only in November was he able to march against Cairo. Once again things did not go well for the crusaders. Part of the army was defeated at the Battle of Al Mansurah, and Baybars, the future Mamluk sultan but then commander of the Ayyubid army, defeated the main crusader force. In the following March, as he attempted to return to Damietta, Louis himself was taken captive at the Battle of Fariskur, and his army was wiped out. Damietta was surrendered yet again, and in order to put an end to it serving as a perpetual target of crusader aggression, Baybars destroyed it, replacing it with fortifications at the mouth of the Nile.

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