Siege of Damietta, 25 October-19 December 1169

The siege of Damietta (25 October-19 December 1169) was the main event in a failed Crusader and Byzantine attempt to conquer Egypt and undo the Syrian occupation of that country.

Over the previous few years Nur ad-Din, ruler of Syria, had sent three armies into Egypt, sometimes in alliance with the Egyptians and sometimes opposed to them. The crusaders of the Kingdom of Jerusalem had also been involved, but eventually the third campaign ended with Syrian forces in command in Egypt. The death of his uncle soon after his triumph gave Saladin his chance, and he was soon appointed vizier and commander in chief of the Egyptian armies.

Amalric, king of Jerusalem, realised that a union between Egypt and Syria would be a disaster for the Crusader kingdoms, and attempted to find allies for an attack on Egypt. No Western European powers were interested, but the Byzantine Emperor Manuel Comnenus had already been planning a similar expedition. He now provided a fleet and army, under the command of a general called Andronicus. This fleet reached Acre in September 1169, where it joined with Amalric and the Crusaders.

Although the Byzantines had been preparing for this expedition for nearly a year they didn't have much food with them. Their soldiers thus had to disembark at Acre and march south towards Egypt. The combined army entered Egypt on 25 October, when it was ferried across the most easterly branch of the Nile. The army reached Damietta in late October.

Saladin had been expecting the attack, but not its destination. When the Crusaders and Byzantines attacked Damietta he was at Bilbais, further to the south and a recent target of Crusader attack. For a few days Damietta was probably vulnerable to an assault, but the allied commanders decided to wait.

Although Damietta wasn't strongly garrisoned when the allies arrived, its defenders had managed to get an iron chain across the city's branch of the Nile. This prevented the Byzantine fleet from blockading the city from the river and also allowed Saladin to flood reinforcements and supplies in. Nur ad-Din also probably sent aid.  

The allies were now forced to begin a regular siege. They built catapults, siege towers (including one seven stories tall) and ballistae.

Having been reinforced the defenders were able to go onto the offensive. They launched a fire ship down the river and into the Byzantine fleet, where it destroyed six ships. The defenders also sallied from the besieged city to attack the siege lines, and burnt some of the siege engines. 

The defenders were also helped by the weather - heavy rain making life difficult in the siege camps, and by the poor organisation of the attacking forces, where food began to run out. Eventually Andronicus proposed that the combined forces attempt an assault on the city but Amalric was already in negotiations with Saladin. In mid-December the siege was lifted. The attackers burnt their catapults and withdrew to Ascalon. The combined armies arrived on 21 December 1169, but the fleet ran into a storm and suffered heavy losses.

The failure of this combined attack on Damietta ended the main external threat to Saladin's position in Egypt. He still had to convince Nur ad-Din of his loyalty, but it would be five years before Saladin faced another major threat in Egypt. This time a plan for a multi-pronged combination of attacks and revolts unravelled badly, and the brief siege of Alexandria of 1174 was something of a farce.

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Crusades Subject Index - Books on the Middle Ages

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (27 August 2013), Siege of Damietta, 25 October-19 December 1169 ,

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