‘O Damietta’: war memory and crusade in thirteenth-century Egypt ‘O Damietta’: war memory and crusade in thirteenth-century Egypt
According to medieval writers, the Nile River spread across Egypt like a hydra, its seven tributaries portioning the landscape into uneven sandy sections. At the mouth of the river lay the city of Damietta, an ancient and strategic port which opened to the Mediterranean Sea, providing trade access to the merchants of Europe while also standing as the ﬁrst obstacle against incursions from those who wished to travel upstream to Cairo. By the thirteenth century, Damietta was thought to be ‘the head and key of all Egypt’.1 As a worrying Muslim confederacy encircled the decaying states of Outremer after 1187, crusading attention was increasingly directed at Egypt as the lynchpin of Muslim power in the East. Twice Damietta was besieged and occupied during this time. During the Fifth Crusade (1213-21), Damietta was triumphantly occupied for less than two years, from November 1219 until August 1221. Once the crusaders attempted to move south in 1221, they were mired in the ﬂooding of the Nile, unable to advance or to retreat successfully, and a surrender was negotiated between Jean de Brienne (king of Jerusalem) and the Egyptian sultan, al-Kamil. Damietta was returned to Egyptian hands. The Seventh Crusade (1248-50) fared no better. Although the armies led by King Louis IX again captured Damietta, once a part of the contingent moved to al-Mansurah in 1249 they were decimated, the king was taken prisoner and the city had to be forsaken. Only a year later, in 1250, Damietta was destroyed by the Mamluks, who ‘demolished all the ramparts, razing them to the ground, and in order to prevent the Christians from ever making
*Email: [email protected] 1 James Powell, Anatomy of a Crusade 1213-1221 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986), 138.