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BLOG: Acre & the Fox

Yesterday, I enjoyed lunch with fellow Roman fiction author Amanda Cockrell. We chatted about the usual author stuff, which never gets old. How did you approach writing about such a huge biographical figure? Do you know who your work reminded me of? What difficulties do you have in compacting such a well-known time in history into your story?

I left thinking, "Wow. There just isn't enough time in MY history to write all the history I'd like to cover."

There are always periods that lack study for me, and one of those periods is the Crusades and the period shortly thereafter. The Medieval period is an era that for me, begs to be studied more completely. Well, this week, I have a great teacher. Elizabeth R. Anderson is sharing a blog on Acre and the aftermath of the Third Crusade. The Two Daggers series, two of which are already available: The Scribe & The Land of God, take place toward the end of the 13th century. Let's sit back and learn a little about a time of blood, war, and fractious, religious wars.

Thanks for joining us this week, Elizabeth!

Acre and the Fox

By: Elizabeth R. Anderson

When I was a girl, I had a crush on the debonair cartoon fox in Walt Disney’s 1973 film Robin Hood. Not only was he suave and his accent impossibly refined in my 7-year-old opinion, but he was an excellent judge of character. Loathing the evil, pompous Prince John was easy, because foxy Robin Hood also loathed him. Idolizing King Richard I was also a no-brainer. And this is what stayed with me well into adulthood, until 33 years later as I researched my first novel on the end of the Levantine Crusades in 1291. The unsurprising takeaway from my research: Things were more nuanced than Disney animals let on.

Map design by Theodor Jurma. Used with permission by Elizabeth R. Andersen

100 Years of Acre history in 4 paragraphs

In the year 1191, at the outset of what would eventually be termed the Third Crusade, the kings of the West had a problem. The mighty sultan, Salah ad-Din had captured Jerusalem two years earlier (portrayed in the visually lush but historically inaccurate movie The Kingdom of Heaven). The indignant Christian rulers vowed to reclaim whatever parts of the holy land they could and marched to the city of Acre (pronounced “AK-ruh”, also known as Akko or Akka, located in modern-day Israel), besieging it. Well-positioned in the vast Bay of Haifa, Acre possessed thick walls and a shallow harbor on one side that was easy to protect against attacking ships through a series of defenses that involved harbor chains, towers, and seawalls. The city held out for two years.

After years of ineffective struggle, King Richard I and King Phillip II arrived to put a stop to the nonsense. The city was taken, along with over 2000 Muslim captives. Negotiations for the prisoners' release dragged on for months, and when King Richard eventually ran out of patience, he had the unarmed prisoners gruesomely slaughtered. The shocked and horrified Muslim army returned the favor in kind.

Acre, one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, has a history soaked in blood. But it was not on this conflict that I decided to focus. Instead, I turned my attention to Acre, a hundred years after its capture by Richard and Phillip, because violence is generational.

By the year 1291, the rulers of Christian-held Acre and Muslim-controlled Cairo were invested in a fragile peace. The Christians were too busy fighting amongst themselves to pose a threat to the Muslim Mamluk army, who were wearied by their conflicts against the fearsome Mongol hoard. The sultan (Qalāwūn aṣ-Ṣāliḥī) exercised his considerable diplomatic skills to take advantage of Acre’s thriving trade in luxury goods and slave boys, which the Mamluks absorbed into their army as soldiers. But the Muslims in Acre had not forgotten the atrocities committed a hundred years earlier by the kings of the West.

Acre’s Fate is No Secret

A quick Google search will reveal that Acre was destroyed so completely in 1291 that its harbor was rendered useless and almost all of its buildings were pulled down. The wealthiest citizens were able to escape, but those who could not afford passage by boat were slaughtered inside the walls. The diplomatic Qalāwūn had died before the initial siege began, and his son, al-Ashraf Khalil, went on to destroy not only Acre but also Tyre and all other Christian inhabitations in the Levant, thus eliminating a potential risk. But more important for Khalil was the reputation this earned him, as the liberator of the Muslim people. Even Saladin had not accomplished such a feat.

The siege of Acre lasted from April to early June, which is relatively short by siege standards (especially when you consider that the previous siege on the city lasted for years). The Mamluks attacked the walls at several locations, but the weakest point was near the Accursed Tower, a place where the walls took a sharp turn from the east to the south, forming a corner. It was here that the attacking army broke through. They used several well-known methods for penetrating a city wall, including the use of heavy artillery (trebuchets and mangonels) and sapping (the practice of digging underneath a wall and then lighting a fire beneath it). There were some less well-known tactics used too. Instead of simply using shields, the army created walls of hide-covered thatch, which proved effective at repelling the stones from the trebuchets fired by the Christians. Instead of causing damage, the stones simply bounced off of the thatch walls. They also lit their arrows with naft, an incendiary liquid that burned even when doused with water, similar to modern-day napalm.

By Dominique Papety - Collections de Versailles, Public Domain,

Enter our hero, or I should say, our heroes. Henri of Maron, a spoiled young man who has hardened himself against the cruelty he saw as a child, Sidika bat Tamrat, a well-educated Jewish girl with a sharp tongue, Emre, a slave soldier in the Mamluk army, and Yusuf Ibn Shihab, a Cairene and an amir in the sultan’s court. Their four stories start out separate and slowly weave together into a thread in the tale of the Siege of Acre in 1291, as they each realize that survival alone is impossible.

Henri of Maron, in particular, is based on a real person - an unnamed viscount mentioned in a firsthand account of the battle. It was this passing reference to a man whose action changed the course of the siege that intrigued me and focused the story for the first two books. We watch as Henri grows from a spoiled and unpleasant youth into a deep-thinking and compassionate young man. We see Emre as he tries to find a way through his immense personal loss. Yusuf watches as his companions reveal their true nature that goes against his deeply held beliefs, and Sidika has a problem with being too highly educated for her own safety.

Many people have asked me if these books are about God. The answer is no and also a bit of yes. I did not intend to write a book about religion, but it is impossible to separate religion and religiously motivated violence with this time and place in history. These books are graphic. They describe the real struggles that people have when they realize their religious framework is also a method of control that can be exercised by unscrupulous men. These characters do not necessarily lose their faith (that would have been a death sentence in the 13th-century), but they evaluate it and wrestle with it.

The path that led me to write these books was convoluted. It certainly would have been easier to focus on a time and place with a more robust written record of what happened. I relied heavily on the work of Arab contemporary historians, such as the Prince of Hama, and the Templar of Tyre, whose eyewitness description of the brutality of the battle are heart-breakingly graphic. Violence and betrayal carries through generations and students and writers of history have a duty to ensure that the whole story is told. The experience of writing these novels has taught me to always question the narrative of ‘right versus wrong’. It is not as straightforward as debonair foxes versus power-hungry lions, no matter what the cartoons say.

***A list of Elizabeth R. Andersen’s research sources for The Scribe is available on Goodreads. Book 2, The Land of God, released in August 2021.***

All About Elizabeth

Elizabeth R. Andersen's debut novel, The Scribe, launched in July of 2021. Although she spent many years of her life as a journalist, independent fashion designer, and overworked tech employee, there have always been two consistent loves in her life: writing and history. She finally decided to do something about this and put them both together.

Elizabeth lives in the Seattle area with her long-suffering husband and young son. On the weekends she usually hikes in the stunning Cascade mountains to hide from people and dream up new plotlines and characters. Elizabeth is a member of the Historical Novel Society and the Alliance of Independent Authors.

The Stories

The Scribe (Book 1)

All Henri of Maron wanted was to stay with his family on his country estate, surrounded by lemon groves and safety. But in 13th century Palestine, when noble-born boys are raised to fight for the Holy Land, young Henri will be sent to live and train among men who hate him for what he is: a French nobleman of an Arab mother. Robbed of his humanity and steeped in cruelty, his encounters with a slave soldier, a former pickpocket, and a kindly scribe will force Henri to confront his own beliefs and behaviors. Will Henri maintain the status quo in order to fit into a society that doesn’t want him, or will fate intervene first? The first book in The Two Daggers series, The Scribe takes readers on a sweeping adventure through the years and months that lead up to the infamous Siege of Acre in 1291 CE and delves into the psyches of three young people caught up in the wave of history.

The Land of God (Book 2)

Pain. His sister’s screams. And a beautiful face in the jeering crowd. When Henri of Maron woke, he had only a few memories of his brutal flogging, but he knew the world had changed. He had changed. Now, as he grapples with the fallout from his disastrous decisions, war with the Mamluk army looms closer. To convince the city leaders to take the threat seriously, Henri and the grand master of the Templars must rely on unlikely allies and bold risks to avoid a siege. Meanwhile, Sidika is trying to find a way to put her life back together. When she is forced to flee her home, her chance encounters with a handsome amir and a strangely familiar old woman will have consequences for her future. The Land of God weaves real historical figures with rich, complex characters and an edge-of-seat plot. Readers who enjoyed the Brethren series by Robyn Young and The Physician by Noah Gordon will appreciate this immersive tale set in the Middle East in the Middle Ages.

Connect With Elizabeth

Buy the Books!

The Scribe, Book 1

The Land of God, Book 2

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