Post-classical history


A Muslim dynasty of Kurdish origin. Its name derives from Saladin’s father, Ayyûb, although it was the successes of Sal- adin himself that established it. After Saladin’s death in 1193, theAyyûbids ruled Egypt until 1250 and Syria for another decade. They also had cadet branches in Mesopotamia and Yemen. Like the Bûyids and Saljûqs of Persia before them, they governed as a loose-knit and often discordant confederacy.

The Establishment of Ayyubid Power

Ayyûb and his brother Shīrkūh both hailed from Dvin in Armenia; they fought for the Turkish warlords Zangī and his son Nûr al-Dīn, Saladin’s two great predecessors in the fight against the Franks. Saladin accompanied Shīrkūh on three expeditions to Egypt in the 1160s. After Shīrkūh’s death in 1169, Saladin assumed power in Egypt in the name of Nûr al-Dīn and overthrew the Shī‘ite Fātimidregime there. Although a rift developed between the two men, it never developed into open warfare because of the death of Nûr al- Dīn in 1174. That same year Saladin dispatched his brother Trnān Shāh to conquer Yemen.

During much of Saladin’s first decade as an independent ruler (c. 1174-1184), he was occupied with subjugating his Muslim opponents and creating a secure power base in Egypt and Syria for himself and his family. Then from 1185 onward he turned his full attention to the Franks. In 1187 he achieved his famous victory against the army of the kingdom of Jerusalem at the battle of Hattin and reconquered the city of Jerusalem for Islam. The Third Crusade (1189-1192), launched in response to this loss, ended in truce and stalemate. Saladin died a year later; despite his prestigious successes, he had failed to rid the Levant of the Franks, who regrouped at their new capital of Acre and still controlled crucial Mediterranean ports. Saladin’s brother, the austere Sayf al-Dīn al-‘Adil (known to the Franks as Saphadin), had acted as his principal, indeed indispensable, helper in governing his empire, both administratively and militarily. His involvement in drawing up the peace treaty with Richard the Lionheart in 1192 was especially valuable.

The Ayyubids after Saladin

Saladin did not envisage a centralized state as his legacy. Instead, he bequeathed the three main provinces of his empire (Cairo, Damascus, and Aleppo) to his sons, hoping that this arrangement would ensure lasting Ayyûbid power. But his desired father-son succession did not take root, nor did primogeniture prevail among Saladin’s successors. Within the clan, might was right. After Saladin’s death, al- ‘Adil’s role as senior family member asserted itself; indeed, Saladin’s sons were no match for al-‘Adil’s long experience and diplomatic skills. By 1200 he had reorganized Saladin’s inheritance plans in favor of his own sons, deposed Saladin’s son al-‘Aziz ‘Uthmān in Cairo, and secured the overall position of sultan for himself. Only in Aleppo did Saladin’s direct descendants continue to rule: Saladin’s son al-Žāhir, after submitting to al-‘Ādil, was allowed to keep his territory, which remained in his family until the Mongol invasion of 1260. In this complicated power struggle after Saladin’s death, a key role was played by the regiments of mamluks (slave soldiers) recruited by Saladin (the Sālahiyya)and his uncle Shirkūh (the Asadiyya). Al-‘Ādil was greatly assisted by the Sālahiyya. Saladin’s expansionist aims were continued under al-‘Ādil, who masterminded the Ayyūbid acquisition of more Zangid and Artuqid territories. He secured his northeastern frontier in 1209-1210, established truces with the Franks that lasted for most of his reign, and traded with the Italian maritime states.

The Ayyûbid Territories in 1187

The Ayyûbid Territories in 1187

In 1218, shortly after the arrival of the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221), al-‘Ādil died, allegedly of shock. He was succeeded by his son al-Kāmil, whose brothers, al-Mu‘azzam and al-Ashraf, supported him in this crisis, but after Dami- etta was recovered, this short-lived family solidarity gave way to disunity and conflict. The main contenders in the long and convoluted power struggle that followed were al-Kāmil and his brother al-Mu‘azzam at Damascus. By 1229 al- Kāmil, with the help of al-Ashraf in Mesopotamia, emerged as principal ruler of the Ayyūbids. Already in 1226, al-Kāmil, an astute politician, had begun negotiations with Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, to bolster himself against al-Mu‘azzam and to deflect the imminent crusade. However, by the time Frederick arrived in Acre in 1228, al- Mu‘azzam had already died. Secret negotiations between al- Kāmil and Frederick resulted in the Treaty of Jaffa (1229); in it al-Kāmil ceded Jerusalem to Frederick, who was permitted to fortify the city, but al-Kāmil kept a Muslim enclave, including the Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. This piece of realpolitik caused widespread disapproval on both sides, and even al-Kāmil’s own preachers protested outside his tent. The Muslim chronicler Sibt Ibn al-Jawzi recorded that when al-Kāmil gave Jerusalem to Frederick “all hell broke loose in the lands of Islam” [Sibt Ibn al-Jawzi, Mir’āt al-Zamānfī Tarīkh al-Ayān, 2 vols. (Hyderabad: Dayrat al- Ma‘ārif al-Uthmāniiyaht, 1951-1952), 2: 653]. However, some modern scholars have interpreted the Treaty of Jaffa more positively, viewing al-‘Ādil and Frederick as farsighted in their attempts to obtain a more lasting peace and to main tain the holy sites of both Islam and Christianity under the protection of their own adherents.

The death of al-Kāmil in 1238 ushered in another turbulent period. His dispossessed eldest son, al-Sālih Ayyūb, who had been sent to rule Upper Mesopotamia, disputed the succession in Egypt. He deposed his brother al-‘Ādil II and took power in Cairo in 1240. While he was in Hisn Kayfa, al-Sālih Ayyūb had allied himself with a group of Qipchaq Turks: they were known as the Khwārazmiansbecause they had fought in central Asia for the ill-fated ruler of Khwārazm, Jalāl al-Din, against the Mongols in 1220s. After his death (1231), the Khwārazmians joined the service of al-Sālih Ayyūb as mercenaries. In 1244, under their infamous leader Berke Khān, they sacked Jerusalem, to general condemnation. They then joined Ayyūb’s army near Gaza and fought that same year against three Ayyūbid princes, as well as Frankish forces. The battle of La Forbie (Harbiyya) was a clear victory for al-Sālih Ayyūb and his Khwārazmian allies. Ayyūb took Jerusalem (August 1244) and then Damascus (1245). The Ayyūbid prince of Homs destroyed the Khwārazmians in 1246.

Al-Sālih Ayyūb fell ill at the time of the crusade to the East of Louis IX, king of France (1248-1254). The crusaders occupied the city of Damietta in 1249; later that year al-Sālih Ayyūb died while encamped at Mansura on the delta. In 1250 the crusaders were defeated by the sultan’s own slave troops (the Bahriyya mamluks). Then in a coup d’état they murdered Tūrān Shāh, the son and heir of al-Sālih, and terminated Ayyūbid rule, raising one of their own number to the rank of sultan and thus inaugurating the Mamlūk sultanate.

Religious Policies

In their religiopolitical discourse, the Ayyūbids called themselves mujahids, that is, fighters of the jihād (holy war). However, they were criticized, even in their own time, for their lukewarm prosecution of jihād. As the chronicler Ibn al- Athir (d. 1233) remarked: “Amongst the rulers of Islam we do not see one who wishes to wage jihād” [Ibn al-Athir, Al- Kāmil fi’l tarīkh, ed. C. J. Tornberg, 12 vols. (Uppsala: Hef- fler, 1851-1876), 12: 7]. But the circumstances in which the Ayyūbids found themselves had changed from Saladin’s last years. Jerusalem, which had been a unique focus for jihād for Nūr al-Din and Saladin, had been reconquered. The resources to finance more military enterprises were limited, and Ayyūbid engagement with the Franks would, it was feared, engender more crusades from Europe. Even Saladin had preferred to exercise diplomatic means with the Franks until the period immediately preceding the battle of Hattin.

Main entrance to the citadel of Aleppo. (Corel)

Main entrance to the citadel of Aleppo. (Corel)

Despite their pious stance toward Jerusalem, the Ayyûbids were prepared, when necessary, as the Treaty of Jaffa showed, to use it as a pawn on the Levantine chessboard. Several Ayyûbid rulers sponsored religious monuments in the Holy City, but the dynasty never chose it as a capital, preferring Cairo or Damascus. During the Fifth Crusade in 1219, the Ayyûbid prince al-Mu‘azzam (d. 1226), who had beautified the Holy City only a few years earlier, dismantled its fortifications lest it should fall into Frankish hands again. This action, justified as sorrowful necessity by al-Mu‘azzam, provoked widespread condemnation among the local Muslim population, many of whom fled the city. Worse was to come in 1229 when al-Kāmil actually ceded Jerusalem to Emperor Frederick II. The Holy City remained a bargaining counter, being controlled again by the Ayyûbids in 1239 and then handed back to the Franks five years later before its sack by the Khwārazmians and its return to Muslim control.

In other respects, the Ayyûbids, as Kurdish outsiders and usurpers, were keen to prove their good Sunnī Muslim credentials, building religious monuments in all their domains and insisting on grandiose jihād pretensions in their correspondence, coins, and monumental inscriptions. They founded no less than sixty-three religious colleges (Arab. madrasas) in Damascus alone. They welcomed Muslim mystics (Sufis), for whom they founded cloisters (Arab. khan- qahs). Saladin had acquired great prestige by abolishing the 200-year-old rival Isma‘īlī Shī‘ite caliphate of Cairo. But the relationship of his successors with the ‘Abbāsid caliphate was complex. On the one hand, like earlier military dynasties such as the Saljûq Turks, the Ayyûbids sought public legitimization from the ‘Abbāsid caliph in Baghdad. Caliphal ambassadors mediated in inter-Ayyûbid disputes. In his efforts to renew the ‘Abbāsid caliphate, the caliph al-Nāsir (d. 1225) created around himself a network of spiritual alliances with Muslim rulers, including the Ayyûbids. Yet, such symbolic links did not remove mutual suspicion. Both sides feared each other’s expansionist aims. Saladin complained of the caliph’s lack of zeal in jihād against the Franks. Nor did Saladin’s descendants offer help to the caliph against a possible attack from the Mongols in 1221-1222.

Government and Institutions

Ayyûbid government was an amalgam of Saljûq and Fātimid practices. Saladin inherited bureaucratic traditions brought from the east to Syria by Saljûq rulers and commanders. His family had worked for such Turkish leaders and assimilated their military and administrative traditions. In Egypt continuity also existed between Fātimid and Ayyûbid practice, especially in taxation. The Ayyûbidsexpanded the existing system of iqtā (allotments of land given to high-ranking army officers in exchange for military and administrative duties) to the benefit of their kinsmen and commanders. Armed with the revenues of Egypt, Saladin built up a strong army, which included his own contingents (Arab. ‘askars) as well as iqtā Tholders, Turcoman troops sent by his vassals, and auxiliary forces. The Ayyûbid armies were composed of Kurds and Turks, with the latter predominating. The recruitment of slave soldiers (Arab. mamlûks), always a feature of Ayyûbid military policy, intensified under al-Sālih Ayyûb. He focused his power on Egypt and centralized his administration on Cairo, thus foreshadowing the preeminence of that city for the Ayyûbids’ successors, the Mamlûk dynasty. Apart from Saladin’s brief attempt to build a navy, the Ayyûbids were not interested in fighting the Franks at sea. The Ayyûbids did not construct castles in the Frankish manner, preferring instead to build or strengthen city fortifications. Thus they improved the city walls in Cairo, as well as building the citadel, and they did likewise in Damascus, Aleppo, Hims, Aleppo, Harran, Amid, and elsewhere.

The Ayyûbids preferred détente rather than jihād with the Franks. During the Ayyûbid period, the remaining Frankish states became fully integrated as local Levantine polities. The Ayyûbidsallied with them and sometimes fought alongside them against fellow Muslims. Trade, which had prospered from the 1180s onward in their lands, was important for the Ayyûbids, and they granted trading privileges to Venetian and Pisan merchants in 1207-1208. The fragmented nature of Ayyûbid power led to a proliferation of small courts based on individual cities, such as Cairo, Damascus, and Hama, where the Ayyûbid princes patronized the arts. Some, such as al-Amjad Bahrām Shāh and Abu’l Fidā‘, were themselves men of letters. Al-Kāmil also composed poetry and enjoyed intellectual discussions, asking scholars searching questions on a range of subjects. He and his father, al-‘Ādil, involved themselves in the precise details of administration. Yet the generous architectural patronage that transformed the faces of a few cities had severe side effects. Other centers were starved of resources, as their minimal heritage of Ayyûbid buildings suggests.

A linchpin of Ayyûbid rule was the maintenance of a united Syro-Egyptian polity. The two key Ayyûbid principalities were Cairo and Damascus; the other Ayyûbid states never enjoyed as much power and prestige. When Damascus and Cairo were united under one ruler, equilibrium and stability prevailed. Each time an overarching leader appeared (and some rulers of the dynasty were clearly exceptional—not only Saladin but also al-‘Ādil, al-Kāmil, and al- Sālih Ayyûb), this was the hard-won result of personal charisma and diplomacy as well as a show of military strength. The ensuing tenuous unity would dissipate at that ruler’s death.

Traditionally, the Ayyûbids have been cast as opportunistic, wily, and self-serving politicians. This image emerges, for example, from an emphasis on their attitude to Jerusalem. Saladin had been the exception in his focus on jihād aimed at the reconquest of Jerusalem. For his successors, Jerusalem was dispensable. Egypt was their most valuable possession, and they were ready to sacrifice the Holy Land to safeguard Egypt. Moreover, Ayyûbid history was much less concerned with the loss or gain of Jerusalem than with the survival of individual princelings and fiefdoms in an atmosphere of mutual rivalry and in the face of grave external threats. Indeed, at that time, the Islamic world was assailed simultaneously by the Mongol invasions and by continuing crusader attacks. The Arab chronicler Ibn al- Athir (d. 1233), reflecting with unusual emotion on the Mongol threat, called the Muslim year 617 (1219-1220 a.d.) the most dangerous that Islam had ever experienced. Externally, then, the Ayyûbidshad to contend with grave dangers, familiar and unfamiliar. The enemy came from east and west; the double impact was hard to repel. Between 1240 and 1245, the Mongol threat came ever closer. After the Mongol invasion of Anatolia (the battle of Kose Dagh, 1243), Muslim anxiety in northern Syria grew. Although the Ayyûbids were spared the full onslaught of the Mongols, they had to suffer the demographic fallout from the Mongol invasions of central Asia and Iran. The Khwārazmians, driven out by the Mongols, became a loose cannon in Ayyûbid territories, terrifying and undisciplined; they could be recruited into the Ayyûbid armies when required, but they were out of control when they sacked Jerusalem in 1244. Their savage strength contributed to the victory at the key battle of La Forbie.

What threat did the Ayyûbids pose for the Franks after Saladin’s death? Clearly the Ayyûbids were beset with a multiplicity of enemies both inside and outside their realms, and this situation helped the Franks to stay on in the Levant and slowly to marshal their resources again. Indeed, in the early decades of the thirteenth century, the Franks gradually recovered, and despite their reduced lands they still held the ports and were a force to be reckoned with. Moreover, the Ayyûbids had to deal with a steady stream of crusades and campaigns coming from the West after the loss of Jerusalem; these were aimed at the heart of their power, Cairo. In the event, they did not press home their obvious advantages and were not sufficiently strong, united, or motivated to rid the Muslim world of the Franks. The Franks, for their part, enjoyed a brief intermezzo in the Ayyûbid period, positioned as it was between the intense campaigns conducted by Sal- adin in his last years and the blistering attacks of the Mamlûks of Egypt that awaited them after 1250. However, the Ayyûbid victory at La Forbie was a devastating blow to Frankish manpower, and was as serious a military defeat as Hattin. On this occasion the Franks had unwisely abandoned their strategy of avoiding pitched battles, and thus their steady recovery after the Third Crusade had been jeopardized. La Forbie destroyed the campaign army of the Frankish kingdom.

It is also important to view the Ayyûbids within a wider medieval Islamic context. They had to contend with other neighboring states: the Saljûqs of Rûm, now in full efflorescence; the Turkish dynasties of Mesopotamia, including the Artûqids and the Zangids; and the Christian kingdoms of the Caucasus. Given all these external dangers, the fragmented nature of Ayyûbid rule, and periodic episodes of extreme internal insecurity, it is perhaps surprising that the Ayyûbids managed to exercise stable government for as long as they did.

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