The Circassian Mamluk Siege of Tripoli, 1289

This article concerns an illustration from what remains of the ‘Cocharelli Codex'. It is dated to the 1330s and believed to have been created in Genoa. It is said to represent the siege of the Crusader state of Tripoli (present day Lebanon) by the Circassian Mamluk rulers of Egypt which took place over five weeks between March and April in 1289.

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The siege of Tripoli by the Mamluks in 1289

(Link to high resolution version: HERE)

"This manuscript belonged to the wealthy merchant Genoese family of the Cocharelli, and the text (a treatise on the virtues and vices) was written by one of its members for the education of his sons. Many details included in the examples used to explain each vice concern historical events dealing with Genoa and the Latin East (Acre and Cyprus). At the beginning of his work, the anonymous author tells us that he took many of the anecdotes contained in his treatise from the memoirs of his grandfather Pellegrino Cocharelli. The presence of Pellegrino in Acre, Cyprus and Genoa is witnessed by a series of notarial deeds drawn up between the end of the thirteenth century and the beginning of the fourteenth century, and this evidence allows to hypothesize that he personally witnessed some of the historical events described in the treatise." Source

Cocharelli, Treatise on the Vices and Virtues (fragment)

Contents: This item comprises 15 parchment leaves from the ‘Cocharelli Codex’, of which only 27 leaves and fragments in three different collections survive. The original codex included two richly-illuminated texts, the first on the vices and virtues and the second on historical events during the time of Frederic II of Sicily (r. 1295-1337). The prologue to the treatise on vices and virtues explains that the texts were compiled by a member of the Cocharelli family of Genoa based on tales recounted by his grandfather, Pellegrino Cocharelli (fl. 1269-1307)." Source

According to Wikipedia, the illustration shows the “countess dowager Sibylla of Armenia and Barthélémy Mansel, Bishop of Tortosa (granted the apostolic seat in 1278) sitting in state in the centre of the fortified city, and Qala’un’s [seventh Bahri Mamluk sultan 1279 -1290] assault in 1289, with his army depicted massacring the inhabitants fleeing to boats in the harbour and to the nearby island of St Thomas.

What is interesting to note is that “Qalawun started the siege of Tripoli in March 1289, arriving with a sizable army and large catapults.” The full text of the Wikipedia entry is quite heavy going and highly detailed, in fact suspiciously so, but in a nutshell:

“The Mamluk Sultan Al-Mansur Sayf al-Din Qala’un took major Frankish strongholds in 1285 and 1287, and when internal rivalries weakened Tripoli’s defenses, he saw his chance. In response, Tripoli’s Commune and nobles gave supreme authority to Lucia, the countess of Tripoli. In the spring of 1289, he [Qala’un] led his army north, deploying a huge force about Tripoli’s walls. The Venetians fled the city first, fearing that the Genoese might take all the ships. The siege lasted for five weeks, and thus begun 227 years of Mamluk rule. The population of the city was massacred, although many managed to escape by ship. Lucia managed to flee to Cyprus.” Source

OK, so every picture tells a story and to my mind the one I’m looking at in the picture doesn’t match up with the official story.

I won’t get into a technical debate about what constitutes a siege, but I always imagined that, as a long-term strategy, it would need to involve a naval blockade of the port rather than just a land based assault.

There are five or six different emblems on the flags and shields:

  • The ships and boats show the Cross of St.George, which was supposedly a Genoese flag at that time, although the commander’s ship should also be flying one which includes a dragon. The bottom left ship shows something more complicated.
  • The cavalry coming in from the left show what looks maybe like a lion, a dragon or some kind of animal, in white on a black background. This same symbol is present in both the entrance to the city and on a flag above it.
  • Inside the city to the left of the woman, her knights are showing a six pointed sunburst in white on a black background .
  • Inside the city to the right of the clergyman, his knights are showing a diagonal gold stripe on top of white zig-zags and a red background.
  • There are various other emblems on the boats which look like they have been deliberately defaced, although I’m sure the official reason would be wear and tear.
  • From the aspect of the oars, some of the boats appear to be leaving rather than arriving.

The elephant in the room: where are the catapults? Surely they would have played a major part in this siege and yet there are no catapults and no structural damage whatsoever. This scene is supposed to represent the whole five weeks of the siege.

With regard to the action taking place. Most of the actual killing is being carried out by what looks to be civilians, rather than the cavalry. The exceptions to this are the two horsemen in the centre, right by the shoreline. However, maybe they are killing the murderous civilians.

The scene inside the city doesn’t seem to tally with the official narrative. The handover of power from Barthélémy Mansel, Bishop of Tortosa, to Sibylla of Armenia took place before the siege began and yet, this scene of ‘concordia’ is taking place amidst the carnage. They are definitely not “sitting in state” – why would they when one replaced the other? The scene almost looks like an expression of gratitude in a “thanks for the help” way.

In the bottom right hand corner there is a church displaying a cross and people being butchered outside. The butcher is not a member of the attacking cavalry - he has no helmet or horse.

Throughout the Napoleonic era (i.e. much later than the Crusades) there was a special ‘Mamluk’ corps in the French army. In the beginning the officers were Frenchmen, the privates were Greeks, Egyptians, Georgians and Turks. Later the officers included Arabs. Later still their privates were Frenchmen... if you see what I mean.

Portuguese - denotes the first generation child of a European and an Amerindian. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Mameluco was also used to refer to organised bands of slave-hunters, also known as bandeirantes, who roamed the interior of South America from the Atlantic Ocean to the foothills of the Andes, and from Paraguay to the Orinoco river, invading Guarani-occupied areas in search of slaves. So the exact opposite of ‘slave’ in a way. Source

Spanish – derived from the classical Arabic ‘mamlūk’ - slave. Also refers to the elite military guard of the Egyptian Sultans. A colloquial expression for someone daft or silly. In Argentina, Cuba and Uruguay it can mean ‘overalls’ as an item of clothing. Source

I wonder what was really happening here? The text of the Cocharelli Codex is still unpublished. Thanks to the firmly established drama and fiction that has obviously been constructed around the event, I suppose we will never know. However, it’s a good example of how history gets stolen.

Felix Noille


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