Post-classical history

Saladin (1138-1193)

Vizier (1169-1171) and sultan of Egypt (1174-1193), the main Muslim opponent of the Franks of Outremer in the fourth quarter of the twelfth century. His original name was Yûsuf ibn Ayyûb; the name Saladin is a European corruption of his honorific Arabic title Salāh al-Dīn (“goodness of the faith”).

Saladin was a Kurd who was born at Tikrit (in mod. Iraq) in 1138. His family originated in Dvin in the Caucasus (near mod. Yerevan, Armenia), but employment opportunities brought members of the family to Iraq. Saladin’s father, Najm al-Dīn Ayyûb, and uncle, Asad al-Dīn Shīrkūh, served as governors of Tikrit on behalf of the Saljûq sultan Muhammad ibn Malik Shāh. However, in 1138 they had to flee from Tikrit following a murder committed by Shīrkūh. They both found employment at the court of ‘Imād al-Dīn Zangī, emir of Mosul. For some years the careers of the two brothers took separate courses, but from 1154 they were both in Damascus in the service of Zangī’s son Nūr al-Dīn, ruler of Muslim Syria. Saladin spent his formative years in Damascus: for a short period he served as chief of police, but he was mostly known as Nūr al-Dīn’s highly skilled polo-playing companion.

Between 1164 and 1169, Nūr al-Dīn found himself obliged to intervene militarily in Egypt in order to counter invasions of the country mounted by the Franks of Jerusalem in alliance with the Byzantines. Saladin accompanied the expeditionary force commanded by Shīrkūh, gaining his first military experience at the battle of Babayn and the defense of Alexandria (1167).

On the death of Shīrkūh (26 March 1169), Saladin became commander of Nūr al-Dīn’s forces in Egypt and was also appointed as vizier, governing in the name of the Fātimid caliph. The period fromthis point up to the death of the caliph al-‘Ādid (September 1171) saw the consolidation of Saladin’s power, the undermining of the Fātimid state, and the growth of tension with Nūr al-Dīn.Saladin bought the loyalty of the officers of the Syrian army in Egypt by rewarding them with rural and urban property. His personal standing was much strengthened with the arrival of his father and older brothers from Damascus. His brother, Tūrān Shāh, fought and destroyed the Fātimid infantry regiments in Cairo, thus curtailing the ability of the Fātimid regime to oppose Saladin. Saladin’s father, Najm al-Dīn Ayyūb, governed provinces of Egypt, and his nephew, Taqī al-Dīn, emulated Saladin by establishing educational and religious institutions that emphasized the new Sunnīcharacter of Egypt. In the struggle against the Fātimid state Saladin was assisted by Sunnī Muslims within the Fātimid administration, who had a deep dislike for the incompetent and religiously abhorrent Shī‘ite regime. Among these, the cooperation of Qādī al-Fādil, head of the Fātimid chancery, proved invaluable.

The death of al-‘Ādid in 1171 brought the tension between Saladin and Nūr al-Dīn into the open: Nūr al-Dīn now realized that Saladin and his Ayyūbid kinsmen had developed a taste for power in Egypt, but found himself unable to enjoy the fruits of the military investment he had made in sending his armies there. This tension, although it did not burst into open conflict, continued until the death of Nūr al-Dīn in 1174.

Following the death of his formal overlord, Saladin set out to conquer Syria from the hands of Nūr al-Dīn’s young heirs. This intra-Muslim war was presented in Qādī al-Fādil’s propaganda as having a different motive: the desire to wage holy war on the Franks. Damascus, Homs, and Hama came under Saladin’s rule in 1174. However, it was only after two battles against Zangid forces, in 1175 and 1176, that Saladin was able to conquer Aleppo in 1183. Mosul remained a Zangid possession, while recognizing Saladin’s sovereignty and contributing forces to his campaigns (1186). Other victories by Saladin included the conquest of the Artûqid towns of Mayyafariqin, Mardin, and the fortress of Amida (mod. Diyarbakir, Turkey) in 1183. Saladin’s expansion at the cost of other Muslim dynasties took place intermittently, interspersed with wars against the Franks of Outremer and clashes with the Assassins, who were regarded as Muslim heretics.

In 1177, Saladin suffered a disastrous defeat at the hands of the Franks in the battle of Mont Gisard in southern Palestine. However, he was able to recover from this and successfully fought the battle of Marj Uyun (1179). Special animosity developed between Saladin and the lord of Transjordan, Reynald of Châtillon, who intercepted pilgrim caravans to Arabia and launched a naval raid in the Red Sea aimed at the holy city of Mecca, which was defeated by Saladin’s forces in Egypt. Saladin’s invasions of the kingdom of Jerusalem in 1182 and 1183 were quite futile; in 1183, for example, the refusal of the Franks to be dragged into an all- out battle led to a stalemate and forced him to withdraw from the kingdom.

The campaign of 1187 was marked by Saladin’s vast numerical superiority and tactical mistakes committed by the Franks. On 27 June, Saladin rounded the southern tip of Lake Tiberias and on 30 June took up a position to the northwest at Kfar Sabt. This well-watered place controlled one of the roads from Saforie, where the Franks had concentrated, to Tiberias (mod. Teverya, Israel). On 2 July Saladin left most of his army at Kfar Sabt and attacked Tiberias with his personal guard. The town was quickly taken, but Eschiva of Galilee, the wife of Raymond III of Tripoli, held out in the strongly fortified citadel. On 3 July the Franks left Saforie in an attempt to relieve Tiberias. Saladin’s army seized the springs of Tur‘ān as they left, cutting the Franks off from water supplies; the nearest springs were at the Horns of Hat- tin, but these had also been seized by Saladin’s troops. Sal- adin made effective use of his numerical superiority, attacking the rear of the Frankish army, held by the Templars, from the high ground of Tur‘ān. At this point King Guy of Jerusalem decided to establish a camp, and the Franks endured a night of thirst on the arid plateau (3-4 July). In the ensuing battle, Raymond of Tripoli and some of his troops were able to escape the Muslim encirclement, but the Frankish army, although it fought gallantly, finally collapsed, with the majority of the Franks killed or taken prisoner. Sal- adin spared King Guy, but executed Reynald of Châtillon along with the Templar and Hospitaller captives. Vast numbers of prisoners were sent to Damascus. Saladin took full advantage of this victory and went on to capture the city of Jerusalem (20 October 1187) and numerous other territories held by the Franks in Palestine and Syria in intense campaigns in 1187-1189, which occasionally continued into the winter months as well. Only Tyre (mod. Soûr, Lebanon) and Tripoli (mod. Trâblous, Lebanon) remained in Christian hands, but this was enough for the Franks, aided by crusader forces, to begin their attempt at reconquest.

Painting of Saladin (1138-1193) by Cristofano (di Papi) dell’Altissimo (1552-1605). (The Art Archive/Galleria degli Uffizi Florence/Dagli Orti)

Painting of Saladin (1138-1193) by Cristofano (di Papi) dell’Altissimo (1552-1605). (The Art Archive/Galleria degli Uffizi Florence/Dagli Orti)

During the Third Crusade (1189-1192), one of Saladin’s major problems, the lack of adequate naval power, came to the fore. Saladin built a fleet, but it was much smaller than the European fleets operating in the eastern Mediterranean and performed poorly in combat, notably at Tyre in 1187. This naval shortcoming contributed greatly to Saladin’s failure in the battle for Acre (mod. ‘Akko, Israel) from September 1189 to July 1191. Although the Third Crusade failed to re-conquer Jerusalem, Saladin suffered further military setbacks, losing the port of Jaffa (mod. Tel Aviv-Yafo, Israel) and being defeated at the battle of Arsuf (7 September 1191). Fearing for the safety of Egypt, he decided to dismantle the fortifications of Ascalon (mod. Tel Ashqelon, Israel). The truce of 2 September 1192, known as the Treaty of Jaffa, confirmed what the Franks held and gave the two sides a much needed respite, but events had taken a heavy toll on Saladin’s health: he died on 3 March 1193, after an illness lasting only a few days.

Saladin’s great achievements in fighting the holy war had already become a myth during his lifetime, obliterating almost every feature of his personality and deeds that did not tally with the myth. Only rarely, if at all, is the nonmythical Saladin discernible from what is recorded about him. The myth of Saladin was created and propagated by a group of three historian-admirers; Qādī al-Fādil, ‘Imād al-Dīn al- Isfahānī, and Bahā’ al-Dīn ibn Shaddād, who also served him in various capacities and accompanied him on campaigns. Saladin’s critics were few, and even they could not deny his real achievements. We are basically left with Saladin’s depiction by his historian-admirers, and these accounts must be examined on their own merits.

Saladin is portrayed as a religious person who scrupulously performed the rites of Islam, and there is nothing unbelievable in this description. Medieval people, both humble and high-born, were deeply religious, and for many the strict observance of religious rites was a way of life. Far more problematic is the description of Saladin’s religious beliefs and inclinations, since these are presented as conforming to the Sunnī orthodoxy of his time. We can certainly ask ourselves whether Saladin was indeed much concerned with theological problems such as God’s attributes, or whether the views attributed to him by his historian-admirers were the reflections of their own inner religious world rather than his.

No less questionable are the descriptions crediting him with great interest in religious learning and the sessions of transmission of Prophetic traditions. It is true that Saladin and his extended family were linguistically and culturally fully Arabicized with Saladin being fluent in both Kurdish and Arabic. The religious education of his many sons was important to him, and he tried to provide them with the best available. Attendance at sessions of the transmission of traditions, however, was not only a personal religious act. It had public implications and was politically useful in forging ties with the religious class, which was a group that rendered intermediary services between the ruling military elite (mostly Kurdish and Turkish) of Egypt and Syria and the subject populations.

Participation in public sessions was only one minor aspect of Saladin’s manifold relations with the religious class. The establishment of law colleges supported by vast pious endowments was a far more significant aspect of these relations. In this respect Saladin’s religious policy lacked originality, since it was the continuation of a pattern that had evolved in the eleventh and twelfth centuries in the Iranian world and the Near East. The main problem is, however, the depiction of Saladin as an unselfish warrior of the holy war. This image was propagated long before there were any real achievements and was used to justify wars against Muslims. By the time of him, the manipulation of the holy war for political purposes was common, and the fact that it was used in Saladin’s propaganda should not necessarily automatically discredit him. Judging from the tenacity with which he fought the Third Crusade, Saladin’s commitment to the ideology of the holy war was deep and real. Given the prevailing mood of those times, this is hardly surprising.

It must be admitted that the real qualities of Saladin’s character, or to put it differently, the charisma that won him the admiration of his contemporaries, Muslims and foes alike, elude us. His financial and material generosity toward members of the ruling elite is widely reported and must have been a very basic trait of his character. He is also characterized as humanely generous and attentive to the plight of captured and suffering enemies. This characterization prevailed in spite of the well-known executions of prisoners-of-war carried out on his orders and his quite callous attitude toward his own men in captivity. His failure to ransom the captured garrison of Acre, eventually executed by the crusaders, subsequently affected his relations with his emirs. Leaving aside issues of personality, in his military and administrative policies Saladin rather unimaginatively adhered to the accepted norms of his day, but it must be said these served him well.

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