Our Lady of Damietta

November 5: Our Lady of Damietta, Egypt (1220)

The shrine of Our Lady of Damietta is in Egypt. This church was consecrated in honor of the Blessed Virgin, in the year 1220, by Pelagius, apostolic legate, to counteract lack of faith in her and to atone for some blasphemies hurled against her. The image is miraculous.

The city of Damietta, situated at the mouth of one of the branches of the Nile, was taken by the Muslims through treachery in the eighth century. They then successfully defended the fortified city against the Greeks, who repeatedly tried to recover it. They also survived the assaults of King Amaury I of Jerusalem.

Damietta was finally taken by the knight Jean de Brienne in the year 1219, after a difficult siege lasting over a year. The mosque was made into a church in honor of the Blessed Virgin by the King of Jerusalem and the Legate. It was here that Saint Francis of Assisi stopped before going to speak with the Sultan in an effort to convert him. Unfortunately, the Christians did not hold Damietta very long, as in the year 1221 the Crusaders were defeated and forced to give up Damietta.

Our Lady of Damietta

In the year 1249 King Saint Louis IX of France went on crusade to the Holy Land, determined to take Damietta and keep it. The Crusaders at that time believed that Egypt was the key to maintaining control of the region, but a storm rose up before they could make land. When the King finally reached the coastline near Damietta, he had only a third of his companions with him, for the rest of the ships had been scattered in all directions.

The Sultan’s army was waiting on the beach, the gold in their armor glistening in the morning light. Their numbers were so great, and their eagerness to dispute the landing so apparent, that some of the French knights wondered if it were prudent to proceed.

King Louis had the Oriflamme unfurled, and then gallantly attacked. The courage of the knights more than made up for their lack of numbers, and soon the enemy were repulsed. In a short time the French royal standard could be seen atop the highest tower of Damietta. The mosque of El-Fatah was consecrated into a church and a bishop, Gilles, was installed. The fact that King Louis intended the conquest to be permanent is demonstrated by the endowment he had drawn up for the cathedral church of Damietta.

In the year 1259, King Louis decided to take his forces to Cairo. His supply lines were cut, and his men began to succumb to various diseases, so it was decided to retreat to Damietta. The king remained with the rear guard, and although he fought well, he was overwhelmed and captured. As part of the ransom for himself and his men, Saint Louis was forced to give up Damietta and a large amount of gold.

The Arabs attempted to make Saint Louis swear an oath that he would keep his word about the treaty to which he had agreed. If he should break his oath he was required to accept that it meant he esteemed himself as a reprobate who denied God and Our Lady, that he separated himself from the communion of the saints, renounced God’s law, and spat and trampled on the Cross, the sign of man’s redemption.

Saint Louis refused to take such an oath, and no threat of mistreatment, torture or threats of death could make him accept the blasphemous oath. “I would rather die a true Christian than live beneath the Almighty’s wrath,” he calmly answered their threats.

Still, the ransom was eventually paid, and Saint Louis with his queen and about 6,000 of his men, left Egypt and embarked for Acre. When word later came to the Sultan that Saint Louis was planning on returning, he had Damietta razed to the ground with its castle, leaving only the mosque of El-Fatah. 

*from The Woman in Orbit and other sources

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