A decisive defeat of the armies of Outremer by the forces of Saladin on 4 July 1187, leading to the collapse of the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem and the loss of the city of Jerusalem to the Muslims.
From the 1170s on, Saladin, the most powerful Muslim ruler in the Near East, launched a series of attacks against the kingdom of Jerusalem. In 1185, however, a truce was concluded. When Reynald of Châtillon, lord of Transjordan, attacked a Muslim caravan traversing his territory in late 1186 or early 1187, Saladin demanded restitution. Reynald refused to comply, and Saladin raided Transjordan in May 1187. He also proclaimed the jihād (holy war) and assembled 30,000 troops, including 12,000 mounted men, from his empire in Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia. In the same month Guy of Lusignan, king of Jerusalem, called all ablebodied men of the kingdom to arms. They were reinforced by men drawn from the fortresses, mercenaries, and pilgrims, as well as by contingents from the principality of Antioch, the county of Tripoli, and the military orders. In June some 1,200 knights, 4,000 light cavalry, and 11,000-14,000 infantry assembled at the springs of Saforie, some 25 kilometers (151/2 mi.) west of Tiberias (mod. Teverya, Israel).
On 27 June 1187 Saladin crossed the Jordan south of Lake Tiberias. The situation was reminiscent of events in 1183. At that time Saladin’s invading forces had to withdraw (although after extensive raiding) because the Frankish army, then led by Guy of Lusignan as regent for King Baldwin IV, refused to be drawn from its advantageous position at La Fève to join battle. The operational concept of 1183 acknowledged the strategic disparity between the Frankish and Muslim sides: the Franks could not afford to lose a pitched battle for fear that their cities and fortresses— stripped of manpower to bolster the field army—would become easy prey for the victors if the battle was lost. Although Guy’s tactics in 1183 were operationally sound and eventually successful, his course of action was severely criticized in the kingdom, and as a consequence he lost the office of regent. Saladin, by contrast, could afford to lose substantial forces in battle, as he could easily replace them from his vast dominions. He sought to draw the Franks from their position at Saforie by laying siege to Tiberias on 2 July 1187. The city fell quickly, but the citadel held out. The besieged Franks sent an appeal for help to the Frankish army.
The decision to leave the base at Saforie was debated at a council of war held on the evening of 2 July. A number of factors contributed to this decision. Among the Franks, two principal strategies to counter the Muslim numerical superiority were in evidence in the 1180s: One school, represented by Count Raymond III of Tripoli among others, favored avoiding a decisive encounter with the Muslims for fear of the possibly disastrous outcome. Another group, among them Reynald of Châtillon and Gerard of Ridefort, master of the Templars, advocated striking a decisive blow before the balance of power shifted even more in favor of the Muslims. More immediately, the loss of Tiberias threatened to give Saladin a permanent base in Galilee and close to the heart of the kingdom of Jerusalem. The Franks may also have underestimated the strength of the invaders. And last but not least, Guy’s personal negative experience of 1183 may have influenced the decision to confront Saladin’s forces in 1187.
On the morning of 3 July, the Frankish army left Saforie in order to relieve Tiberias. The Franks’ main problem was access to water, which could only be found at the springs of Saforie, Turan, and Hattin along the way, whereas the Muslim forces could easily be supplied from Lake Tiberias. Once the Franks had passed Turan, the army was encircled by the Muslims, slowed down, and continually harassed. Fighting on the march, the Franks reached Maskanah where they spent the night. The Muslim forces, led by Saladin in person, converged on the encircled Franks.
On the morning of 4 July, the Franks progressed about 2 kilometers (11/4 mi.) along the road toward Tiberias. The rearguard came under heavy attack by the main body of the Muslim forces. The Frankish advance came to a halt near the Horns of Hattin, a small elevated plateau, as a result of the continuing harassment by the Muslim light cavalry and bowmen, the lack of water, and the smoke from the fires that had been lit by the Muslims. Raymond of Tripoli and the vanguard had become separated from the main body of the Frankish forces. He and his mounted men broke through the Muslim lines to the northeast and escaped to Saphet.
The Franks’ only hope was a breakthrough along the road toward Lake Tiberias. Their forces, however, had become disordered. Against the express orders of King Guy, the Frankish infantry retreated to the relative safety of the Horns of Hattin. But there was no water on the Horns, and the infantry could not be moved to resume the march. The mounted Franks had to retreat to the heights as well, as they could not hold their position without infantry support. From the Horns the mounted knights launched two charges at the Muslim center, but both were repulsed. The Muslims fought their way onto the Horns against fierce resistance and captured the relic of the Holy Cross and the king’s tent. When King Guy himself was captured, the battle was over. The surviving Franks surrendered. The infantry were enslaved or killed, while the secular knights were held for ransom. The knights of the military orders, however, were purchased by Saladin from their captors and decapitated. The only secular knight to share their fate, at Saladin’s personal behest, was Reynald of Châtillon.
The Horns of Hattin. (Courtesy Alfred Andrea)
After the crushing defeat of the Franks, the kingdom of Jerusalem collapsed for lack of defenders. Most of the fortified places in the kingdom surrendered to Saladin or were captured soon after the battle; Jerusalem surrendered on 2 October 1187. The loss of Jerusalem brought about the Third Crusade (1189-1192), which resulted in the recapture of Acre (mod. ‘Akko, Israel) in 1191 and the reconstitution of the kingdom of Jerusalem (although with greatly reduced territory and without the city of Jerusalem) under King Guy, who had meanwhile been released from captivity. But the Franks were never able to recover fully from the defeat at Hattin, nor to regain a territorial basis that would have enabled them to perpetuate their hold on the East.