Post-classical history



In spite of the defeat of the Second Crusade outside the walls of Damascus, it would be a serious mistake to regard the period down to Saladin’s capture of Jerusalem in 1187 as one of inevitable decline for the Franks—on the contrary, there were times when the Christians seemed poised to take the ascendancy. Saladin’s ultimate success came about through a complicated cocktail of the political and the personal, a spectrum that encompassed good fortune and sheer opportunism, clever strategy and the ability to arouse religious passion.

Within weeks of Louis VII’s departure for home in June 1149 the leading nobles and churchmen of Jerusalem gathered to celebrate the reconsecration of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. With the completion of Fulk’s and Melisende’s plans the building at the spiritual heart of Christendom assumed much of the form that we see today. Pilgrims could process around such holy sites as the tomb of Christ, Calvary (the place of Christ’s Crucifixion), the Chapel of Saint Helena (where the True Cross was found), the Grotto of the Cross (where it was kept), the prison of Christ, and other, lesser shrines, all under one roof. The creation of a single, splendidly decorated building, rather than the slightly dilapidated structures found by the First Crusaders, constituted far more appropriate surroundings for the glorification of God. The rededication ceremony took place on July 15, 1149, a date chosen with particular care because it was the fiftieth anniversary of the crusaders’ capture of Jerusalem in 1099. Thus the new church recalled why that great expedition had taken place and boldly perpetuated the link with continued Christian custody of the Holy Land.1

Soon, however, such convivial feelings evaporated as Baldwin III, encouraged by certain of his advisers—perhaps themselves jealous of the queen’s favorites—sought to end the regency of Queen Melisende and take full control of the kingdom. Baldwin was now over twenty years old and his age certainly permitted such a move, yet Queen Melisende was reluctant to step aside. She had proven a successful and widely admired ruler and since standing up to Fulk in 1134 she had exercised power in a variety of forms for almost seventeen years. Throughout history, the voluntary surrender of authority has proven immensely difficult and it was beyond Melisende. The kingdom’s nobility polarized and two separate courts came into being; each issued its own documents and judgments. The situation escalated and armed confrontations took place before mediators established peace. By 1152 Melisende agreed to allow her son full power and Baldwin started to rule in his own right. It seems, however, that the relationship between the two survived and the queen continued to fulfill important roles within the royal family.2

The most dramatic events in this period took place in northern Syria. Buoyed by the failure of the Second Crusade, Nur ad-Din began to take the jihad to the Franks with a ferocity and zeal as yet unseen. In token of his victory at Inab in June 1149 he dispatched the head and right arm of Raymond of Antioch to the caliph of Baghdad.3 Unlike Zengi, who had used Turkish titles (such as atabeg, or ruler) to emphasize his ties to the Seljuks, Nur ad-Din took Arabic titles that reveal his focus on jihad, the promotion of Sunni orthodoxy, and the establishment of justice. His own name meant “light of the religion” and he was repeatedly described as al-mujahid (fighter in the holy war) and al-adil (the just). It was through Nur ad-Din that the Muslim counter-crusade took its most significant steps forward. He is overshadowed by his successor, Saladin, a man whose contemporary biographers have done much to keep his reputation buoyant to the present day. Aside from his role in modern-day politics, Saladin will (literally) loom large for any visitor to Damascus because his modern equestrian statue stands just outside the medieval citadel, while his well-preserved tomb is just adjacent to the Great Umayyad Mosque. To find Nur ad-Din’s burial place requires a fair amount of detective work in among the mesmerizing warren of streets and alleys in Old Damascus. At one of his madrasas (teaching schools) we can peer through a small, barred window to see a drab cenotaph of unknown (but not medieval) age in a dirty, unlit chamber—hardly the memorial of a hero of the holy war. Of course, it was Saladin who actually removed the Christians from Jerusalem, yet this triumph would have been almost impossible without the immense spiritual, social, and military commitment of Nur ad-Din, who managed the hitherto unprecedented feat of drawing together the religious and noble classes of Muslim Syria.

One manifestation of Nur ad-Din’s style can be seen in the foundation of a new madrasa in Aleppo around 1150. Madrasas were central to his policies because they offered a way to spread his religious and political agenda and also served as a place to train officials. They were closely associated with Islamic traditionalism—and, by definition, they challenged the Shi’a, a group whom he unrelentingly targeted as a destabilizing, heretical force in the Muslim world. Nur ad-Din wanted to unify the Islamic Near East and to eradicate heterodoxy; only then would he be able to deal with the Franks. He also chose to locate the Aleppan madrasa in a former church, thus symbolizing his recent victories over the Christians.4

Nur ad-Din’s next major success was to take power in Damascus. As we saw above, at the time of the Second Crusade there was a rapprochement between the two parties and Nur ad-Din’s marriage to the daughter of Unur, former ruler of the city, sealed this pact. To extend his authority further the emir used a combination of military threats and a strong moral message to remind the citizenry of their obligation to the jihad and to suggest that their own rulers were dangerously sympathetic toward the Christians. Nur ad-Din blockaded the city and convinced the inhabitants to open the gates to him. This was a substantial step forward in his struggle against the Franks: for the first time in the history of the Latin East, the two most important cities of Muslim Syria were under the rule of the same man. As William of Tyre observed: “a formidable adversary arose. . . . This change was decidedly disastrous to the interests of the kingdom.”5

Yet Nur ad-Din’s rise was not without setbacks. A defeat by the Franks near Krak des Chevaliers in 1163 seems to have prompted a personal reappraisal and the emir decided to abandon all luxuries and to dedicate himself to the holy war. In this drive for personal devotion and austerity the emir pursued his own inner jihad as a way to seek God’s favor for the wider holy war. The ideas generated in Nur ad-Din’s circles emphasized martyrdom and the reward of Paradise for those who lost their lives fighting the infidel. They also supported the writing of al-Quds literature, work that stressed the holiness of Jerusalem and its importance as a place of pilgrimage—thus was made clear the need for Muslims to recover the city.6 In connection with this, around 1169, he ordered the construction of an elaborate minbar (pulpit) destined for the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem; a clear statement of his intent to conquer the city for Islam. Ibn Jubayr saw it in 1182 and rhapsodized about its beauty: “The art of ornamental carving had exhausted itself in its endeavours on the pulpit, for never in any city have I seen a pulpit like it or of such wondrous workmanship.”7 More pertinent to Nur ad-Din’s endeavors were the minbar’s multiple inscriptions that proclaimed the victory of Islam over the infidel. A letter from Nur ad-Din to the caliph of Baghdad expressed his aim clearly: “to banish the worshippers of the cross from the Aqsa Mosque . . . to conquer Jerusalem . . . to hold sway over the Syrian coast.”8


Faced by such a formidable opponent the Franks needed a strong leader of their own and, in the form of King Baldwin III, they found an energetic and effective monarch. In 1153 he took the port of Ascalon to give the Franks control over the entire eastern Mediterranean coastline; this, in turn, meant that the Egyptian navy could no longer use Ascalon to harass the merchant and pilgrim fleets that were so vital to the survival of the Frankish states. While this triumph was partially neutralized by Nur ad-Din’s seizure of Damascus it showed that the Franks remained a powerful force. In the remainder of the 1150s Baldwin fought a series of campaigns against Nur ad-Din with honors shared fairly evenly.

In light of the disastrous Second Crusade and the rising threat of Nur ad-Din, the king set aside previous tensions with Byzantium and elected to establish a closer relationship with the Greeks: they were, after all, the leading Christian power in the eastern Mediterranean. He proposed a marriage with a Byzantine princess and, after an embassy to Constantinople bore Baldwin’s handwritten assurance that he would abide by the envoys’ negotiations, the thirteen-year-old Princess Theodora was dispatched to Jerusalem with a dowry and a bridal suite of huge value. This consisted of gold and gems, garments and pearls, tapestries, silks, and precious vessels—a real demonstration of Byzantine wealth. They were married in September 1158 and, by way of reciprocation, when Emperor Manuel Comnenus became a widower, he married Princess Maria of Antioch on December 25, 1161.9

While Baldwin proved a competent ruler of Jerusalem, the caliber of Prince Raymond of Antioch’s successor was far inferior. His widow, Princess Constance (daughter of Melisende’s sister Alice), was unwilling to accept any of the candidates on offer.10 She was only nineteen years old and had already produced four children: in part she may—understandably—have been reluctant to marry again. She had been betrothed to Raymond at the age of eight and presumably, on this second occasion, she wanted more of a say in the matter. Thus she turned down a trio of eminent nobles, two of whom were powerful figures from the West. Yet in political and military terms the need for her to take a husband was urgent. Baldwin III did not want the principality to follow Edessa into Muslim hands and he could not keep traveling up to Syria to protect Antioch and thereby leave Jerusalem vulnerable. He consulted his mother and Melisende was dispatched north to sort out her recalcitrant niece. At a family crisis meeting the queen was joined by another of her sisters, Hodierna of Tripoli, and together they tried to impress upon Constance the gravity of the situation. Still the princess resisted and she did not marry until, a year later, she felt a personal attraction to Reynald of Châtillon, a young French knight who may have come out with the Second Crusade.11 Her decision brought to prominence one of the most notorious and influential figures of the entire crusading movement. After the Battle of Hattin in 1187 Reynald was executed by Saladin himself, yet to merit such a distinction was merely the climax of a career that displayed quite special brutality. While Reynald’s violence toward Muslims is well documented, his behavior toward his own coreligionists was, at times, equally appalling. A few years after his wedding the prince fell out with Aimery, the aged patriarch of Antioch, a man whom Reynald suspected of trying to undermine his marriage plans and who continued to make plain his dislike of the prince. Aimery began to voice his opinions too loudly for Reynald’s taste and he was seized. The prince personally conducted him to a tower on the citadel of Antioch and there, on a hot summer’s day, high above the city, he had the old man tied to a chair and his bare head smeared with honey. Flies, bees, and mosquitoes swarmed around Aimery for hours and yet no one dared to help him or protect him from the blazing sun or the tormenting insects until Reynald signaled an end to the grotesque torture.12

In November 1161, as the prince and his troops rode home after a successful raid into Muslim lands, they were cornered and seized, and Reynald was sent in chains to Aleppo. He spent the next sixteen years as a prisoner; during this time he is said to have learned Arabic but, as his actions later showed, he nursed a deep and festering hatred of his captors. By the time he was freed, however, Baldwin III would no longer rule Jerusalem. He died of consumption in February 1163, only thirty-three years old, and because he had no children the succession passed to his brother, Amalric.

William of Tyre, our main source for events in the Latin East, was personally acquainted with Amalric and acted as his chancellor and as tutor for his son; as he also stated, the Historia—an account of the Frankish East from the First Crusade to the author’s own day—was written, in part, at the king’s suggestion.13 All of this means that he was supremely well placed to give a character portrait of his patron. William described him as quite tall and good-looking with receding blond hair and a full beard, although he noted that the king was troubled by his weight and had breasts “like those of a woman hanging down to his waist.”14 Amalric’s personality was described in some detail: he was confident and assertive with a fine knowledge of customary law; he enjoyed reading and talking to people from distant lands, he was also pious and trusting of others. He was, however, said to be taciturn (in contrast to his affable brother, Baldwin III), relentless in his demands on Church revenues, and a womanizer.

His reign (1163–74) was dominated by the struggle for Egypt. Both Amalric and Nur ad-Din recognized the vulnerability of the Fatimid regime and each sought to join with, or to remove, this ailing dynasty and thereby secure the unparalleled riches of the Nile for themselves. William of Tyre described the incredible wealth and fertility of Egypt. He wrote of “the marvellous abundance of all good things there and of each individual commodity; the inestimable treasures belonging to the prince himself; the imposts and taxes from the cities both on the coast and farther inland; and the vast amounts of annual revenue. . . . The people, devoted to luxurious living and ignorant of the science of war, had become enervated through a period of long-continued peace.”15

In the case of Nur ad-Din there was a further dimension to the conflict because he would take on his principal Muslim enemies, the Shi’a, and their Cairo-based caliphate. On five occasions between 1163 and 1169, Amalric invaded Egypt. These campaigns were characterized by a bewildering series of alliances and counter-alliances, first between the Egyptians and the Franks against the Syrian Muslims, and then between the Egyptians and the Syrians in opposition to the Franks. Amalric achieved some notable successes: in 1167 his troops entered Alexandria and for two or three days flags bearing the Christian cross fluttered above this mighty Muslim city, a situation that seems so incongruous it is hard to bring to mind. The threat of an Egyptian-Syrian relief force caused the king to withdraw, however. Amalric knew the conquest of Egypt would be a huge challenge and he sought help from western Europe and Byzantium. Along with several other leading figures in the Frankish hierarchy he sent a series of appeals to the pope and King Louis VII of France. These emotive and keenly pitched messages transmitted hope and the expectation that Louis, as ruler of the homeland of crusading, would act; one letter stated: “Great sadness! How disgraceful it will be to all the peoples and to you if this land, land in which your relatives spilt so much blood, so finely situated and having acquired so much fame, may be violated by evil people and allowed to be destroyed.”16 The pope preached a couple of new crusades and while several important nobles visited the East, and the Pisans—keen to get a priority standing in the prime market of Alexandria—sent fleets in 1167 and 1168, there was not the large-scale expedition the king so desperately needed. An invasion of Egypt in late 1168 proved a disaster. Amalric’s retreat in January 1169 left the stage free for Nur ad-Din’s lieutenant, Shirkuh, to murder the ruler of Egypt and to seize power in the country for himself.


When Shirkuh began to govern Egypt he took on the same titles and offices as used by the Fatimid regime; an absurd pretense given that the latter were Shi’ite and the invaders Sunni. From a pragmatic perspective, however, this was an undeniably wise policy given the relatively small size of his forces and the danger of overturning such a fundamental aspect of Egyptian life so quickly. When Shirkuh died in March 1169—of a heart attack brought on by his immense girth—he was succeeded by his nephew, Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, known to the Franks and to posterity as Saladin.

He was of Kurdish stock, born in Takrit in 1138.17 His father, Ayyub (hence the name of Saladin’s dynasty, the Ayyubids), and his uncle, Shirkuh, were successful warriors, and at the age of fourteen the latter secured him a place in the service of Nur ad-Din in Aleppo. He received a good education and within a few years he had become the shihna (a sort of police chief) of Damascus, a role that provided him with an appreciation of politics and administration that would serve him well. He became close to Nur ad-Din, in part through a shared love of polo, a game both were said to excel at. Saladin’s secretary, Imad ad-Din, later wrote that Nur ad-Din “was passionately fond of polo and would often go out in the dark and, as the day began to break, play by the light of candles, and Saladin would ride out to play with him every morning.”18 Like his father and uncle, Saladin was a short man, whose most noted features were piercing dark eyes and a neat beard. Notwithstanding his military background and evident equestrian skills, Saladin was said to have been reluctant to join the Egyptian campaigns, although by 1167 he was fully involved in events at the siege of Alexandria.

After Shirkuh’s death Saladin assumed the position of vizier, the de facto ruler of the land, and it is at this point he is said to have experienced a profound change in character and attitude. While some of this could be explained as idealized rhetoric, it seems true that a newfound focus and drive emerged. Ibn Abi Tayy, a near contemporary, wrote: “He repented of wine-drinking and turned away from idle pleasures, he was vigilant in government and dismissed all negligence, donned the garment of religion and observed the rule of the Holy Law, the clear guide. He girt up his loins for serious endeavour and dedication. He poured out on people from his generosity and the abundance of his liberality floods of his goodness, far removed from human experience. To him came envoys and visitors and he was sought out with jewels of orations and gems of poetry.”19 Thus the foundations for a good Muslim ruler were present—strict religious observance, justice, charity, and, of course, the need for a cultured and sophisticated court.

He began to use this position to destabilize the standing of al-Adid, the Fatimid imam or spiritual leader.20 Saladin provoked a fight with the imam’s black infantry regiment, the force that underpinned his authority, and he duly defeated them and executed the survivors. He fought off a combined Frankish-Byzantine invasion at the coastal city of Damietta in the autumn of 1169 and then secured the pacification of upper Egypt to assure his authority in the south. In accordance with a familiar practice in the Muslim world he then buttressed his position by the appointment of family members to senior posts in the government. His father became the treasurer of Cairo and his brother Saphadin was made ruler of the Yemen. He founded Sunni law colleges, dismissed Shi’a judges and, after he had secured the allegiance of the administrative classes (many of whom were Sunni anyway), he felt strong enough to omit the name of al-Adid from Friday prayers, thereby removing one of the great symbols of power in the Islamic world (the other being the minting of coins) from the imam. Within days al-Adid was dead—possibly killed by one of Saladin’s brothers—and Sunni Islam had swept aside its bitter rival. Such progress aside, looming over this burgeoning family enclave was the specter of Saladin’s relationship with Nur ad-Din.

The extension of Sunni Islam was a source of delight to Nur ad-Din; yet his ability to control Saladin had become a cause of deep concern. As the man responsible for the young man’s advancement he understandably felt that his protégé owed him some degree of loyalty; the Ayyubid family’s growing entrenchment in a land of such immense riches and the clan’s acquisition of so many key political positions were a threat to his authority. In September 1171 Nur ad-Din summoned Saladin to join him at the siege of the Frankish castle of Kerak in Transjordan.21 Saladin did not appear, blaming tensions in Cairo for his absence; his commander was not remotely impressed and made his displeasure clear—he even threatened military action. The Ayyubid clan debated how to react if Nur ad-Din were to invade Egypt. Saladin’s father spoke out, saying that they should obey Nur ad-Din, but later, in private, told his son that this had been a facade and that he should simply avoid open dissent with the Syrian.22 The Ayyubids were clearly playing a long game here and realized that as yet they could not afford open war with their former patron. Saladin’s behavior during this period poses a major challenge to his image as a selfless holy warrior. Some contemporaries were explicit about the fact that he knowingly defied his overlord and that his wish to rule over the Yemen, for example, was motivated by the need for a safe refuge should Nur ad-Din defeat him. It seems that Saladin had exploited the collapse of the Fatimid dynasty to establish his family’s position in the wealthiest land of the Near East. He had acted quickly and decisively to make the most of the situation but in doing so he acquired a taste for independence. For Nur ad-Din’s part the ongoing danger of Frankish invasions and his own plans to attack Antioch and Jerusalem were obvious reasons why he was reluctant to provoke a civil war. Yet there seems little doubt that he had lost control over Saladin whose approach looked increasingly out of step with the jihad against the Christians.

Notwithstanding these disturbing tremors across the Islamic Near East, the Syrian Muslims’ acquisition of Egypt caused consternation in the Frankish lands. William of Tyre wrote that “the wise men of the kingdom began to realise that the subjugation of Egypt by the Turks had been a serious injury to us and our situation had become materially worse.”23 Amalric dispatched Archbishop Frederick of Tyre, the most senior figure yet to be used as a diplomat, in an attempt to convince his coreligionists in the West of the need to act. The king wrote that the Christian territories were being ground away and broken up by the forces of Islam. He argued that the possibility of being blockaded by land and sea would prevent the safe passage of pilgrims—an effort to show how the spiritual well-being of all the faithful would be affected. Personal meetings with the pope, King Louis VII of France, and King Henry II of England raised Frederick’s hopes, but he had arrived at an inopportune time. The two monarchs blamed each other for the threat of invasion, and gathering tension over the Thomas Becket affair added a further complication. By the autumn of 1170, however, Frederick may have convinced Henry—who was also the nephew of King Amalric—to set out on a crusade the following spring. Unfortunately for the Holy Land, and for a certain archbishop, the murder in Canterbury Cathedral put paid to such plans. In the end, Frederick of Tyre was unable to secure anything more than tearful expressions of regret and promises of money—but not the crusade Amalric required.24

Probably Amalric’s most ambitious diplomatic efforts involved the Byzantine Empire. William of Tyre related that in early 1171 the king and his courtiers discussed how best to secure help: most recommended another appeal to the West—hardly an innovative line of thought. The king agreed to this, but then gathered his inner circle about him and made a further suggestion. Against a flurry of protest he decided to journey to Constantinople and to pay homage to Emperor Manuel Comnenus in person. In doing so he hoped to convince the Greeks to help defend the Holy Land. For the crowned ruler of Christ’s city to make such a voyage and to submit to the authority of another monarch was a clear indication of the danger from the Muslim world. Amalric’s actions suggested deep skepticism that the West would ever respond to his embassies and a perception that his marriage ties with the Greeks, plus their shared task of custodians of the holy places against the advance of Islam, would be reasons enough to prompt a reaction.

In March the king reached Constantinople where he was welcomed in the magnificent style that was the trademark of the Byzantine court. William of Tyre described games, races at the hippodrome, banquets, and celebrations, but he chose not to state explicitly what Amalric and Manuel discussed. Instead he used the rather elliptical statement that the king and the emperor made a treaty agreeable to them both, perhaps wary of how his western European readers would respond to Amalric’s submission.25 John Kinnamos, a contemporary Byzantine official, had no need of such circumspection and he wrote: “[Amalric] came to Byzantium to petition the emperor . . . obtaining what he sought he agreed to many things including his subjection to the emperor on those terms.”26 By way of demonstrating his concern for the Holy Land, Manuel also sponsored a series of construction projects to enhance important religious sites, most notably the fine Byzantine mosaics (complete with Greek inscriptions) that still adorn the nave of the Church of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem.27

In late July 1174 a Sicilian fleet of almost two hundred vessels, with one thousand knights and five hundred Turcopoles (lightly armed cavalry), landed on the beaches of Alexandria and started to invest the city. The Sicilian forces were extremely well equipped and constructed siege towers, battering rams, and catapults that hurled specially shipped black volcanic rocks from Mount Etna. The attack seemed particularly well timed because on May 15 Nur ad-Din had died. Religious differences apart, even William of Tyre paid tribute to him as “a just prince, valiant and wise and, according to the traditions of his race, a religious man.”28 He was an inspirational leader and had provided real impetus to the cause of the jihad. Imad ad-Din wrote his funeral eulogy, which included this statement:

Religion is in darkness because of the absence of his light [a pun on Nur
ad-Din’s name which meant the “Light of Religion”]

The age is in grief because of the loss of its commander.
Let Islam mourn the defender of its people
And Syria mourn the protector of its kingdom and its borders.29

Although Nur ad-Din and Saladin were at loggerheads, the demise of the senior ruler of the Muslim Near East must have provoked considerable uncertainty. In Alexandria, fierce resistance curtailed the Sicilians’ initial momentum but, confusingly for the crusaders, there was no sign of support from the kingdom of Jerusalem. In fact, by this time the Christians too had lost their leader. On July 11 Amalric succumbed to an attack of dysentery: Greek, Syrian, and Frankish doctors had labored in vain for several days to save him, but at thirty-eight years old he was laid to rest alongside his brother in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.


The near-simultaneous loss of Nur ad-Din and Amalric obviously had a profound impact upon both Christian and Muslim lands. Saladin provided the Islamic world with an ambitious and experienced figure poised to extend his power and take the holy war to his enemy. On the Frankish side, however, Amalric was succeeded by his thirteen-year-old son, Baldwin IV, and, to exacerbate the inevitable uncertainties of a minority king, the youth was rumored to have leprosy, the most feared medical condition of the medieval age.30

Baldwin would rule for almost eleven years, although at the time of his coronation it is unlikely that the outward symptoms of the illness were visible. William of Tyre described how, when still a boy, Baldwin was playing with his friends and while the other boys cried out in pain during their fights the prince “endured it all patiently, as if he felt nothing. . . . At first I supposed it proceeded from his endurance, but I discovered that he did not feel pinching or even biting in the least. I began to feel uneasy. . . . Repeated fomentations, oil rubs and even poisonous remedies were employed without result. . . . For, as we recognised in the process of time, these were the premonitory symptoms of a most serious and incurable disease which became plainly apparent.”31 Once the king reached puberty the leprosy took a firmer hold and plunged him deeper and deeper into disability, often associated with fevers; the illness would then plateau and he could reassume some level of authority.

As the nobility gathered to elect Amalric’s successor, Baldwin’s health was already a cause for worry, but the diagnosis was by no means certain—if he proved healthy this would be a terrible slight to the youth. The best compromise was to choose Baldwin and then find his sister Queen Sibylla of Jerusalem a husband who could be a suitable regent or king if necessary. Baldwin was duly crowned on July 15, 1174—the seventy-fifth anniversary of the capture of Jerusalem by the First Crusaders: in theory, an auspicious day. Health aside, the new king was described as a skilled rider, as having a quick mind and a love of stories.

The first man to act as regent during Baldwin’s minority was the arrogant and autocratic Miles of Plancy; such traits were entirely inappropriate to the unsettled atmosphere of the time and he was murdered on the streets of Acre.32 His replacement, Count Raymond III of Tripoli, emerged as one of the most influential and ambitious men of the land, as well as a potential candidate for the throne of Jerusalem on account of his status as the king’s cousin. Because our main source, William of Tyre, was a partisan of the count we have a closely observed impression of the man: “He was a thin man . . . not very tall with dark skin, straight medium-coloured hair and piercing eyes. . . . He had an orderly mind, was cautious, but acted with vigour. He was more than averagely abstemious in his eating and drinking habits and although he was liberal to strangers he was not so affable to his own men.”33 The contemporary Muslim writer Ibn Jubayr saw him as a man of “authority and position . . . he is qualified to be king . . . he is described as being shrewd and crafty.”34 Raymond came to head one of the two rival factions who vied for control over the kingdom.35 The other was led by Baldwin’s mother, Agnes. She was a more controversial figure, in part because her gender opened her to some harsh, if stereotypical, criticism. William of Tyre hated her for denying him the premier ecclesiastical job in the land, that of patriarch of Jerusalem. To him, therefore, she was “relentless in her acquisitiveness and truly hateful to God.”36 Other writers cast aspersions on her morality. In reality, as Baldwin’s mother, Agnes was in a position of considerable influence and her guiding hand was vital in his maintenance of power and resisting the ambitions of Count Raymond.

It is likely that within a year or so of his coronation the king’s leprosy became certain and thus it became imperative to find a husband for Sibylla. William Longsword, marquis of Montferrat (in northern Italy, near Turin) appeared an ideal candidate. He was related to the ruling houses of France and Germany and could be expected to represent the interests of Jerusalem at the highest levels. He came to the Levant in November 1176; within weeks Sibylla was pregnant, but in May 1177 William fell ill and died two months later to reopen the issue of regency.37

In the meantime Saladin had started his bid to rule the Muslim Near East. He marched to Damascus where he took control of the city and married his former commander’s widow—a reasonably common course of action in the Islamic world and a move designed to associate a newcomer with the former regime. Twice Saladin’s opponents employed the Assassins to try to murder the sultan although both attempts failed. With Saladin portraying himself as the champion of Sunni orthodoxy, the Assassins were a prime target for suppression. The Shi’ite sect soon found a way to resist: if the Sunni rulers of Aleppo were prepared to tolerate the Assassins’ presence around their nearby base at Masyaf, then it was worth trying to kill their common enemy. In the first attack, Assassins infiltrated the sultan’s camp only to be recognized as outsiders. In the ensuing scuffle one of Saladin’s emirs and several of his soldiers were killed, but the sultan remained unharmed. In May 1176, Assassins again used disguise to penetrate his camp and this time they managed to stab him, but armor under his clothes prevented serious injury. Thereafter Saladin was forced to take highly elaborate precautions against future attempts on his life, including sleeping in a tent on stilts.38

Not everything worked in Saladin’s favor, however. In the summer of 1177 the arrival of a large crusading expedition under Count Philip of Flanders (following in the footsteps of the four expeditions made by his father, Count Thierry), resulted in a campaign in northern Syria. When Saladin saw the bulk of the Christian army heading away from Jerusalem he moved his own forces up from Cairo to the southern borders of the kingdom near Gaza. Baldwin IV had, unsurprisingly, been left behind, but it now fell to him “already half dead” as one writer commented, to draw upon his courage and to ride against the Muslims.39 Saladin was far too confident in his numerical superiority and failed to anticipate any active resistance from the Christians. He neglected to post sentries and when his men forded a stream near Montgisard the Frankish knights charged and destroyed the central section of the Muslim army. One of Saladin’s family was killed and the sultan himself only narrowly avoided being slain.40 While the Franks incurred losses themselves—perhaps as many as a thousand men died, and 750 were said to have been treated at the Hospital of Saint John in Jerusalem—in terms of morale this provided a massive boost.41 News of the triumph reached the West and was widely circulated. Paradoxically, of course, this meant that it became even harder to convince Europeans to help the Holy Land—how could the settlers be so desperate for support if they had just won such a great victory?

As her brother performed heroics on the battlefield, Princess Sibylla’s period of mourning had come to an end. She had given birth to a baby boy, named Baldwin, but now it was necessary to find her a new husband and potential regent. The settlers turned to their ancestral homeland of France. In a letter to King Louis VII, the leper admitted his terrible infirmities and asked that a powerful French noble be sent to the Levant in order to take charge of the holy kingdom because “to be deprived of one’s limbs is of little help in carrying out the work of government . . . no one can heal me. It is not fitting that a hand so weak as mine should hold power when fear of Arab aggression daily presses upon the holy city and my sickness increases the enemy’s daring.”42 Baldwin tried to lead as best he could and his level of determination was astonishing: by now he could not climb onto a horse unaided and his limbs showed severe deformities.

Romance at the royal household soon brought forward another candidate to marry Sibylla. Guy of Lusignan, a young French knight, caught Sibylla’s eye and she set her heart on marrying him. Guy and Sibylla became lovers, yet the princess needed the approval of her brother, who insisted that it was his prerogative to choose the husband of the royal heiress. When the king discovered the affair he was furious and wanted to have Guy stoned to death, but the master of the Knights Templar and other nobles calmed him. In any case, the blossoming relationship could serve a political purpose as well. By coincidence, Raymond of Tripoli was marching toward the kingdom of Jerusalem, a move that seemed to presage a possible coup. His ally, Baldwin of Ibelin, had long admired the princess and was keen to marry her. When the king learned of Raymond’s approach he moved quickly to retain control over the situation and authorized the marriage between Guy and Sibylla. The wedding took place during Holy Week 1180, a breach of strict canon law and a sign that there was no wish to delay.43 Any threat to topple the king required Sibylla to be free to marry and now this possibility had been frustrated. A clear division in the Latin East was apparent with the powerful Ibelin clan lined up with Count Raymond in opposition to Baldwin, Agnes, Guy, and Patriarch Heraclius of Jerusalem.

The patriarch was a controversial character and much maligned by William of Tyre, largely because he envied Heraclius for securing the premier ecclesiastical position in the land. The latter seems to have been a rather worldly character, blessed with good looks and some considerable charm with women.44 He was known to have a mistress, Pasque, the wife of a draper whom he rewarded so richly that the man consented to the affair. After the cuckold died, Heraclius set up Pasque in a fine house and provided her with beautiful clothes and precious jewelry. As she passed by, people would exclaim “There goes the patriarch ess!” On one particularly excruciating occasion a messenger burst into a meeting of the High Court shouting, “Sir, patriarch, I bring you good news!” Heraclius assumed that this was something for the benefit of the kingdom and asked him to announce it: “The Lady Pasque has given birth to a daughter!” Not, perhaps, the forum in which a patriarch of Christ’s city would have wished such tidings to be broadcast.

The king’s leprosy was now acute and the possibility of abdication must have been raised. The High Court urged him to become reconciled to Count Raymond and the two men duly met. Some sense of Frankish unity—however temporary or shallow it turned out to be—was welcome, especially because one of their most important supporters, the Byzantine Empire, had become hostile. Manuel Comnenus, whose military might had done much to deter Muslim aggression, died in September 1180; William of Tyre described him as “a great-souled man of incomparable energy.”45 Within a couple of years, a backlash against Manuel’s pro-western policies produced a fiercely anti-Frankish stance in Constantinople.46


By mid-1182 the truce had expired and Saladin stepped up the jihad with an incursion toward Beirut. Stern resistance from the defenders and the prospect of a Frankish relief fleet prompted the sultan to withdraw, thus marking a second setback in succession; evidently the Christians were still highly formidable opponents. In fact, the Franks soon took to the offensive themselves. Prince Reynald of Antioch, now a member of the nobility of Jerusalem through his marriage to the widowed heiress of Transjordan, planned a raid of breathtaking audacity. Reynald ordered the construction, in kit form, of five galleys which were transported by camel from Kerak down to the Gulf of Aqaba, reassembled, and then launched. Saladin suspected that the vessels would be used against the castle of Eilat and the routes across the Sinai Peninsula that linked his Egyptian and Syrian lands. While he was correct in the former belief, the latter was wrong—Reynald’s plan was far more daring: he directed his men down the Red Sea where no Christian ship had been seen for centuries and where, in consequence, there was no Muslim navy or coastal defenses.47 The Christian fleet was free to prey upon commercial and pilgrim traffic between Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula and could menace the holiest cities of Islam, Mecca and Medina, the birthplace and the burial place of the Prophet himself. As Ibn Jubayr, a contemporary Muslim, wrote, “it shocks the ears for its impiousness and profanity.”48 Such a move sharply compromised Saladin’s position as the defender of Islam. The fact that he was occupied fighting his fellow Muslims in northern Syria rather than protecting the haj pilgrimage route added to his embarrassment.

The Christians raided a town on the Egyptian coast, then crossed over the Red Sea and landed north of Jedda where they continued to cause havoc. Some locals feared this signified the approach of the Day of Judgment. Reynald was described as “the Elephant,” a reference to the name of an Abyssinian king who had led a Christian invasion of Mecca in 570.49 It was believed that he wanted to remove the Prophet’s body from his tomb in Medina and the locals sent urgent messages to Cairo. After a few weeks, al-Adil, Saladin’s brother (popularly known as Saphadin), managed to get ships of his own transported overland and they chased the Franks down to the Red Sea port of al-Hawa. The Christians were eventually cornered, forced to abandon ship and flee inland; unbowed, they headed toward Medina. Only a day from the holy city they were trapped in a waterless ravine and were either killed or surrendered. The 170 captives were sent throughout Saladin’s lands to be publicly executed—a clear contravention of Islamic law that directs the sparing of those who surrender voluntarily. So great was Saladin’s fury and embarrassment that he showed no mercy at all. Two of the men were dispatched to Mina, the place where animals are sacrificed in the course of the haj, and there they had their throats cut like sacrificial beasts.50 Prince Reynald, as the instigator of the plan, was the object of Saladin’s greatest anger, however, and the sultan vowed to kill the author of such an affront to Islam.

By 1183 Baldwin’s health had started to decline further: he was blind, his hands and feet were severely damaged, and he had to be moved around in a litter. When the king was afflicted by a particularly bad fever he formally designated Guy as regent and asked all the nobles to swear homage to him, although he made his brother-in-law promise not to try to take the crown during his own lifetime. The Franks also faced financial problems: the pressure exerted by Saladin had taken a toll on the kingdom’s finances and in 1183 a variety of taxes were levied on all its inhabitants, regardless of race, tongue, creed, or sex, while the gold coinage issued by the crown was also much debased.51 The resources raised by such measures could be used to hire mercenaries, a contingency that became essential in the summer of 1183 when Saladin—emboldened by finally securing control over Aleppo—invaded. In the face of this crisis Guy summoned the entire military strength of the kingdom as well as enlisting any Italian merchants and western pilgrims who happened to be in the Levant. They marched to the Springs of Sapphoria in central Galilee and then proceeded to shadow the Muslim armies for two weeks before Saladin withdrew. Was this a success, in that the Christians lost no territory and hardly any men? Or was it a humiliation that the largest Frankish army yet assembled barely struck a blow in anger? William of Tyre commented that some nobles had been unwilling to offer Guy good advice because they feared that if he scored a great victory it would be impossible to unseat him. Guy was a victim of his own inexperience and the vicious political rivalry of the time. The ethos of such a militaristic society also counted against passivity, regardless of how effective a strategy it can be judged with hindsight. Criticism of Guy’s leadership reached a crescendo, and when Baldwin recovered his health he summoned the High Court of Jerusalem and dismissed his brother-in-law from the regency. By way of sealing his disapproval of Guy’s performance the king asked Raymond of Tripoli to lead the army and conduct public business when he was unfit to do so. To help define the succession he also had his five-year-old nephew crowned as his coruler, Baldwin V.52

In 1183 and 1184 Saladin returned to the offensive with two attempts on the huge castle of Kerak in Transjordan. The first of these sieges took place just after the marriage of Sibylla’s younger sister, Princess Isabella (aged twelve), and Humphrey of Toron. In one of the strange instances of chivalric courtesy that—confusingly—lie alongside the rhetoric of holy war, the wedding party sent food down to the besiegers. In return, the couple were accorded the privilege of having the bridal suite exempted from bombardment for one night. More significantly, on both campaigns, the castle resisted Saladin’s attacks.53


Baldwin continued his effort to prevent Guy from taking power, although he worried that as Baldwin V’s stepfather he would exercise the regency again. A contemporary source explained that Guy had “neither the knowledge or ability to govern the kingdom.”54King Baldwin turned to Raymond to fulfill this role, although the High Court insisted that the royal castles should be held by the Military Orders, a sign that some feared the count had his own designs on the crown. Raymond in turn insisted that someone other than he should be appointed the personal guardian of Baldwin V in case the child’s unexpected death could be blamed on him. Finally, and most intriguingly, it was agreed that if Baldwin V died, the succession—which would rest between Sibylla and Isabella—was to be determined by the joint decision of the pope and the rulers of France, England, and Germany. This, in theory at least, marked a startling surrender of authority by the nobles of Jerusalem and was a mark of how divided and seemingly bereft of self-regulation they perceived themselves to be. It reinforced their overt reliance on powerful western rulers for support as well as gesturing toward Christendom’s shared responsibility for the defense of the Holy Land.

This emotive issue had been raised by successive embassies to the West during the 1170s and early 1180s. Discouragingly, in 1181, Pope Alexander III had issued a crusade appeal that said: “the king [Baldwin IV] is not such a man as can rule that land, since he . . . is so severely afflicted by the just judgement of God, as we believe you are aware, that he is scarcely able to bear the continual torments of his body”—a crushing verdict on the settlers’ position.55 In 1184–85 the Franks dispatched the most senior ambassadors they had ever sent to Europe. Clearly the king could not make the journey himself but Patriarch Heraclius of Jerusalem and the masters of the Templars and Hospitallers formed a genuinely prestigious trio.56 The envoys struggled over the Alps and moved northward to Paris where they offered King Philip II the keys of the walled city of Jerusalem and the Tower of David. This was an attempt to induce him to emulate the Emperor Charlemagne, the role model for all medieval monarchs, who accepted these symbols in the year 800 and took the city under his protection. In the perilous circumstances of 1185 Philip was well aware of the huge responsibilities this would entail and, given the fragility of his own power in France, he politely declined.

The envoys then crossed the English Channel to seek out King Henry II, who, as a man who had made previous promises to crusade and, as the closest living relative of Baldwin IV on the male side of his family, was the most logical target for the embassy. In late January 1185 they met him at Reading Abbey where Heraclius gave an impassioned sermon about the terrible danger in which Christ’s land found itself. He also offered Henry the keys to Jerusalem and the Tower of David, and while the king was said to have shown the objects great devotion he too avoided accepting them. Instead he called an assembly of the churchmen and nobles of England, as well as King William of Scotland, to the Hospitaller headquarters at Clerkenwell in March. Again Heraclius implored his audience to act but it seems that the nobles were unwilling to allow their monarch to leave his kingdom. While the patriarch could make a strong moral case for Henry to journey to the Levant, in reality the situation there was so complex and troubled that it was hardly an attractive proposition. The usual expressions of regret and promises of financial support followed and Heraclius convinced a few English nobles to commit themselves to a crusade, but the large-scale expedition he so desperately desired did not materialize. As an aside, in the weeks between the Reading and Clerkenwell assemblies, the patriarch also consecrated the Temple Church in London, familiar to a wider audience from its place in The Da Vinci Code. This circular chapel, designed as a copy of the Holy Sepulchre itself, was a clear signal of the Templars’ vocation and their wealth in being able to finance such a fine building.57

By the time Heraclius returned to the Levant, however, Baldwin IV had finally—mercifully—passed away: he was buried alongside his ancestors at the foot of Mount Calvary in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. While one might judge that he held on to power for too long, and that the combination of his unpredictable health and his desire to exercise authority caused serious inconsistencies in the government of the land, it is undeniable that his bravery in confronting a horrific illness induced respect even among his enemies. Imad ad-Din wrote that “in spite of his infirmities they [the Franks] were loyal to him, they gave him every encouragement . . . being satisfied to have him as their ruler . . . they were concerned to keep him in office but paid no attention to his leprosy . . . he was obeyed by them . . . and saw that there was peace amongst them.”58

Both Saladin and Raymond of Tripoli wanted a truce and in the spring of 1185 settled upon a two-year arrangement. The sultan used this period to his advantage and in March 1186 he finally persuaded the ruler of Mosul to acknowledge him as overlord and to give him military help if required. His empire now consisted of Egypt, Syria, and the Jazira (northern Iraq today, including Mosul)—a vast series of lands, tenaciously assembled and maintained in a loose confederation by Saladin’s military strength, his persuasive diplomacy, and his repeated calls to jihad and reminders of the duty of good Muslims to evict the Christians from Jerusalem.

In the summer of 1186 Baldwin V died: he had been a sickly child for much of his life and his passing was hardly unexpected. Predictably there were rumors that Raymond now planned to take the throne for himself and he seemed to confirm such suspicions when he tried to gather together the majority of nobles at Nablus. It seems, however, that he had underestimated the level of support for Sibylla, and when a significant number of senior figures, including Prince Reynald and Patriarch Heraclius, assembled for Baldwin’s funeral it was this latter group that seized the initiative by backing Sibylla (rather than her younger sister, Isabella, or Count Raymond) as the next monarch. The main stumbling block was Guy, already cast aside by the leper king for his perceived lack of leadership ability. It seems that Sibylla was required to divorce Guy before she could become queen. With the connivance of Heraclius, she agreed to this, on the condition that she alone could select her new husband. Sibylla announced her divorce from Guy and then turned to the assembled nobles and said:

I, Sibylla, choose as king and husband, my husband: Guy of Lusignan who was my husband. I know him to be a man of prowess and honour, well able, with God’s aid, to rule his people. I know too that while he is alive I can have no other husband for, as the Scripture says, “Those whom God has joined together, let no man put asunder.”59

Her dumbstruck audience could only watch in silence as the queen placed the royal crown on Guy’s head. Her actions were within the letter of the agreement and this brilliant and breathtakingly audacious move carried the day. Queen Melisende would have delighted in her granddaughter’s political acumen and brazen determination to preserve power. This was also a very open show of her love and loyalty toward Guy. Roger of Wendover, an early-thirteenth-century English writer, was impressed: “A most praiseworthy woman, to be commended both for her modesty and for her courage. She so arranged matters that the kingdom obtained a ruler while she retained a husband.”60 But tensions between Guy’s men and the locals continued to emphasize his status as an outsider, and compromised his ability to draw the disparate factions together. After the coronation his Poitevin associates infuriated the people of Jerusalem by singing: “Despite the pulains, we shall have a Poitevin king”: pulain was a term to describe the second-and third-generation Frankish settlers in the Levant.61

Raymond and the Ibelins were furious at being outfoxed, and the count’s ambition drove him toward the Muslim camp. He struck a deal that allowed Saladin’s army to move through his Galilean lands if, in the future, the sultan would make him king. It almost beggars belief to register that one of the most powerful Frankish nobles was an ally of the leader of the jihad just under a year before the fall of Jerusalem. Quite how Raymond expected this arrangement to tally with Saladin’s principles of holy war was unclear. As the Aleppan writer Ibn al-Athir noted: “Thus their [the Franks’] unity was disrupted and their cohesion broken. This was one of the most important factors that brought about the conquest of their territories and the liberation of Jerusalem.”62

In the winter of 1186 Prince Reynald attacked a caravan crossing his territory in Transjordan, an act contrary to the ongoing truce.63 When he refused to compensate the Muslims, Saladin had an excuse to fight—not, by this stage, that he was going to do anything else. The pressure he had generated through the creation of his fragile coalition meant that nothing other than all-out holy war would satisfy his allies: if he failed to attack, then his confederation would undoubtedly disintegrate. His forces gathered at Damascus and once the truce had formally expired on April 5, 1187, the sultan began to launch a series of exploratory raids. Thanks to the foolhardy sense of honor of Gerard of Ridefort, master of the Templars, the Franks soon suffered a major defeat. With a force of only 140 knights and against the advice of his colleagues whom he accused of cowardice, he rashly decided to engage a Muslim army of seven thousand. Only three Templars—including, ironically, Gerard—escaped, while other casualties included the master of the Hospitallers, Roger of Moulins. The Battle of Cresson is often overlooked because of the events at Hattin two months later, but the loss of over one hundred of the Christians’ finest troops, as well as one of their senior commanders, was a significant blow to morale and resources.64 Saladin’s aggression finally pushed Raymond of Tripoli into some form of homage—however superficial—to King Guy, and he duly expelled the Muslims from his lands. Ibn al-Athir noted that after the Battle of Cresson the count’s vassals had threatened to withdraw their allegiance to him if he failed to act.65


By the summer of 1187 both sides had gathered their men for battle.66 The Franks drew together almost the entire military strength of the kingdom of Jerusalem: the Military Orders put forward about six hundred knights while only skeleton garrisons remained in the towns and castles. The total Christian force probably numbered around sixteen thousand; Saladin held a worthwhile advantage with at least twenty thousand troops, of which perhaps twelve thousand were mounted. Once across the River Jordan the sultan presented the Franks with the same dilemma as four years previously—should they fight, taking an even greater risk given the lack of almost any other troops beyond the army in the field? Or should they repeat the strategy of 1183—shadow the Muslims and wait for their forces to break up? Count Raymond appeared to have more to lose than most because on July 2 Saladin’s army besieged his wife in the citadel of Tiberias. This carefully calculated test of chivalric resolve was designed to trigger Guy’s responsibilities to rescue the wife of his vassal, although at first the ruse seemed unlikely to succeed. The Franks, assembled at their customary muster point at the Springs of Sapphoria, held firm because to reach Tiberias required a twenty-mile march across an arid plateau in the height of the summer. Ibn al-Athir believed Raymond—ignoring the captivity of his wife—advocated inactivity; he claimed the count argued “If [Saladin] takes Tiberias he will not be able to stay there and when he has left it and gone away we will retake it; for if he chooses to stay there he will be unable to keep his army together, for they will not put up for long with being kept away from their homes and families.”67 A council of war on July 2 confirmed this strategy and the camp went to sleep believing that they were to remain at Sapphoria. Late at night, however, Gerard of Ridefort sought a private audience with the king.

In the flickering candlelight of the royal tent, the master of the Templars, who had shown his rampant antipathy toward Islam at the Battle of Cresson three months previously, repeatedly urged the king to fight. He reminded Guy of what had happened the previous time he took a passive approach and that Raymond of Tripoli, the very man who now advocated caution, had been the beneficiary. While the king had been accused of cowardice in 1183 he could now rebut such claims in the most emphatic fashion possible. This discussion was not simply about strategy, however; underlying Gerard’s persuasive suggestions was a deep personal animosity toward Raymond. Back in the 1170s, when Gerard was a lay knight, the count had promised him a good marriage to the heiress of the castle of Botrun. Yet Raymond reneged on the agreement and gave her to a Pisan merchant in return for her weight in gold. Gerard was hugely insulted to be displaced by an Italian trader and stormed off to Jerusalem where he joined the Templars. Now, a decade later, at this time of crisis, he had a chance to face down his hated rival: “Sire [Guy], do not trust the advice of the count for he is a traitor, and you well know that he has no love for you and wants you to be put to shame and to lose the kingdom . . . let us move off immediately and go and defeat Saladin.”68

Guy vacillated: should he hold to the advice of his council and risk his reputation again, or should he change his mind and act boldly at the risk of losing the Holy Land? In the end it seems the psychological scars of his earlier humiliation were too deep to ignore and, in a dramatic volte-face, on the morning of July 3 the king commanded the heralds to sound the order to march. The nobles were both horrified and amazed; they asked on whose advice such a decision had been taken. Guy sharply rebuffed them and simply told them to obey him and get ready to move.

Under normal circumstances, the twenty miles from Sapphoria to Tiberias was a day’s hard march; the problem was that by breaking camp the Franks abandoned their only sure supply of water and then offered themselves up as a very slow-moving target to the Muslim forces—in other words they surrendered the strategic initiative. The vanguard was Count Raymond, in the center was King Guy, and in the rear, the Knights Templar. The Christians advanced eastward and reached the springs of Turan about seven miles away. This seemed a good place to pause, but they pressed onward, a move that Saladin himself believed was fatal. In a letter written immediately after the battle he suggested that “the Devil seduced [Guy] into doing the opposite of what he had in mind and made to seem good to him what was not his real wish and intention. So he left the water and set out towards Tiberias . . . through pride and arrogance.”69 In fact, the springs at Turan were simply insufficient to sustain the Christian army and they had no choice but to keep going.

In contrast, to the south, Saladin was comfortably provisioned at the village of Kafr Sabt and now he utilized his superior numbers to divide his troops and sent some to seize Turan and prevent a Frankish retreat. At this point he had effectively surrounded the Christians: “they were as closely beset as in a noose, while still marching on as though being driven to a death that they could see before them, convinced of their doom and aware the following day they would be visiting their graves,” the contemporary writer Beha ad-Din grimly observed.70 The sultan dispatched some of his cavalry to crash into the Templars, a tactic that slowed up the entire march. Time and again Muslim mounted archers poured arrow fire into the Christian lines, yet the Franks dared not break ranks and charge for fear of losing any sense of order at all. It was no longer possible to reach Tiberias that day and Guy decided to camp overnight on the plateau. A few nearby cisterns offered a little water but the evening brought no real respite after the exertions of the march and the harrowing Muslim arrow fire. Imad ad-Din offered this excited description of the situation, first recapping the events of the day: “The day was hot, the [Frankish] people were on fire [with the heat], the midday sun shone with an incessant strength. The troops had drunk the contents of their water bottles and had nothing more. Night separated the two sides and cavalry barred both the roads. Islam passed the night face to face with unbelief, monotheism at war with Trinitarianism, the way of righteousness looking down on error, faith opposing polytheism. Meanwhile several circles of hell prepared themselves and several ranks of heaven congratulated themselves; Malik [the guardian of hell] waited and Ridwan [the guardian of heaven] rejoiced.”71

Saladin’s troops continued to enjoy plentiful supplies as camels carried barrels of water up from Lake Tiberias. They were boosted further by the delivery of four hundred loads of extra arrows intended to kill the remaining Frankish horses and to prevent the Christians from using their famed charge. Morale in Saladin’s camp soared—“they could smell victory in the air and . . . they became more aggressive and daring.” Dawn broke at around 4:30 on the morning of July 4 and, as the first fingers of light crept over the hills of eastern Galilee, the exhausted Christian soldiers stirred themselves for another day of torment.72 Guy’s doomed army soon set out, yet the Muslims did little to bother them, preferring to wait for the full heat of the day to sap their opponents’ strength even further. With the wind blowing toward the Christians Saladin commanded his men to set fire to the dry brush that lay close to the Frankish forces, thus parching their throats even more. Yet another level of distress was generated by the constant drumming and sounding of horns and bugles, a fearsome noise designed to add a sense of hopelessness and disorientation among their opponents.

Slowly the Franks trudged forward but now the Muslim horsemen grew ever closer. Saladin himself rode up and down his lines, encouraging and restraining his men as appropriate. His archers “sent up clouds of arrows like a swarm of locusts” and killed many of the Frankish horses, while the lightly armored Christian foot soldiers suffered heavy losses as they dragged their tired and dehydrated bodies eastward.73 Controversially, Count Raymond led his own men (around two hundred knights) in a charge toward the enemy lines only for the Muslims to open ranks and let him pass through to gallop down the hill away from the main plateau. Some felt this was further evidence of his friendship with Saladin; a more practical interpretation suggests that it made little sense to resist a group of men trying to flee—furthermore, given the lie of the land, they would hardly turn around and try to fight uphill back through the Muslim army. For those Christians that remained, Raymond’s escape was a further blow.

The Frankish advance had almost ground to a halt. The foot soldiers’ morale was all but broken and they decided to stop and make camp on a hill now known as the Horns of Hattin. This is the crater of an ancient volcano and it still stands proud and isolated on the bare and largely uninhabited plateau. Today, the discordant clank of distant sheep’s bells is the only sound to break the silence on this tough, barren landscape. With nothing else to disturb the scene one can pause and imagine the desperate struggle played out below. To the east lie the glittering waters of Lake Tiberias—a tantalizing sight for the desperate Christian soldiers; the “Horns” are formed by the northern and southern sides of the crater, while the western edge of the rim is broken to leave a natural ramp down to the plateau. Back in 1187, the surviving foot soldiers struggled up to the crater where they must have found some shelter from the relentless Muslim bombardment—yet they probably realized as well that there was no chance of escape. Guy knew the knights needed to stay with the archers to have any protection for themselves and, with the king’s red tent at their center, the Christians prepared to play their last cards.

Given their desperate position the Franks had few options open to them—perhaps their best hope was to strike a single decisive blow. The remaining knights gathered together and twice hurled themselves down the slope toward the compact group of Muslim horsemen who guarded Saladin. The plan was to kill the sultan in the belief that if he died then the remainder of his forces would simply crumble away. It was a bold idea that came perilously close to success: certainly the troops around Saladin suffered heavy losses; the sultan himself was said to have been pale with worry and anxiously tugging at his beard. On both occasions, however, the Muslims rallied and forced the Christians back up the hill. After the second of these counterattacks most of the knights were reduced to fighting on foot while their exertions had only increased their thirst. Down the hill, Saladin’s son watched his men surge into the crater. He turned to his father and shouted, “We have beaten them!” Ibn al-Athir reported Saladin’s curt response: “‘Be quiet! We have not beaten them until that tent falls.’ As he spoke Guy’s tent crumpled. The sultan dismounted, prostrated himself in thanks to God Almighty and wept for joy.”74 The Christian cause was broken; Guy himself was taken soon after, as was the True Cross, a huge gold and jeweled object that contained the wood upon which it was believed that Christ was crucified. The spiritual importance of this as the talisman of the Christian army was something clearly understood by the Muslims: “In their [the Franks’] eyes, its capture was more important than the loss of the king; it was the worst thing that happened to them on the field of battle because that cross was irreplaceable . . . its veneration was their prescribed duty . . . they fainted at its appearance . . . they gave their blood for it. So when the Great Cross was taken, great was the calamity that befell them and their vigour disappeared.”75

In the aftermath of the battle Saladin could at last extract vengeance on Prince Reynald.76 The sultan ordered King Guy and the prince to be brought before him. Exhausted and thirsty the two disheveled warriors knelt at his feet. Saladin gave Guy a cup of cool, refreshing iced julep water—this was a sign of safe conduct and the king gratefully took it and drank. When the king moved to pass the cup to Reynald, Saladin rebuked him and said that he had not offered a drink to the prince. He then gave Reynald the choice of converting to Islam or facing death: apostasy was never an option and the prince declined the proposal, thereby sealing his own fate. The sultan had not forgotten the insult of Reynald’s attack on Medina, nor his raid on the pilgrim caravan, and he struck out with a terrible blow from his scimitar. Some claimed that Reynald died from this, other sources suggest that it severed an arm and Saladin’s bodyguards rushed forward to hack the mortally wounded man to death. In any event, this marked the end of one of the foremost Frankish nobles, a man of mercurial temperament, great military skill, but also unremitting brutality. To some in the West he was viewed as a true martyr and a text titled the Passio Reginaldi (The Passion of Reynald) was written to lament his death and to urge revenge for his loss.77

The captured Templars and Hospitallers fared little better. As the bitterest enemies of Islam and as a religious order who would never convert or pay ransoms, they were doomed. Herded together for a mass execution, their death was especially grisly because Saladin summoned his Sufi holy men to perform the task. These individuals were unaccustomed to wielding blades and so the wretched event became even more prolonged than necessary. Piles of bones were said to have remained visible for years afterward. The other prisoners—nobles, knights, and foot soldiers alike—were shackled together, thirty to a single rope. For the wealthy there was the prospect of ransom, for the others it was the slave auctions of the Middle East, although with such a glut on the market the sellers complained bitterly about low prices. Saladin, meanwhile, sent out messages to proclaim his success and he memorialized his achievement by ordering the construction of a Dome of Victory on the site of the battle.78


The kingdom of Jerusalem now paid heavily for committing so many of its resources to the field at Hattin: the land lay almost defenseless. Saladin’s armies swept through the Christian territories and within weeks the majority of settlements had fallen to his men. Only Tyre, Kerak, Tripoli, Antioch, and a few northern castles held out. Jerusalem itself, the ultimate prize, awaited the sultan. “Islam wooed Jerusalem . . . making heard above the cry of grief from the [Dome of the] Rock . . . the reply . . . to bring the exiled faith back to her own country and dwelling place and to drive away from the al-Aqsa those whom God drove away with his curse. Saladin marched forward to take up the reins of Jerusalem that now hung loose, to silence the Christian clappers and allow the muezzin to be heard again . . . to purify Jerusalem of the pollution of those races, of the filth of the dregs of humanity.”79

The few remaining Frankish knights gathered for the final defense of the holy city. Given the enormous disparities between the two armies the Christians knew full well that the situation was hopeless, but out of duty and desperation they had to make a stand. Patriarch Heraclius, Balian of Ibelin (Baldwin’s brother), and Queen Sibylla led the resistance in a city crowded with refugees from across the Latin East. The leadership ordered the walls to be strengthened and catapults were constructed to help in the fight.

The siege began in late September and for five days the Muslims circled the city looking for a weak spot. They fixed on the northernmost section—ironically at exactly the same point the First Crusaders had broken in eighty-eight years earlier. Fierce exchanges of arrow and artillery fire followed and both sides suffered heavy losses as the Franks made a series of sallies. So extreme was the situation inside Jerusalem that Heraclius actually preached a crusade and formally offered the remission of all sins to those who helped to resist the attack. Strictly speaking, only the pope or his authorized agents could launch a crusade, but in these circumstances the patriarch felt little need to follow protocol.80 Frankish women cut off their children’s hair and priests and nuns processed barefoot around the shrines of Jerusalem to try to convince God to save them, but to no avail.

Soon the Muslims seized the outer defenses and a special shield wall enabled archers to set up a continuous rain of arrow fire; meanwhile, a group of sappers began to mine the walls. At this point the defenders realized that all was lost and they started to parley. A delegation was sent to ask Saladin for terms, but interestingly—and in complete contrast to the sultan’s general reputation for mercy—he reacted angrily and shouted: “I will treat you only as you treated the inhabitants when you conquered it in [1099], by killing, enslaving and requiting evil with evil.”81 Balian requested a personal audience with Saladin but he met with the same uncompromising response. Perhaps expecting this, he set out an alternative proposal to the sultan: if the Christians were not granted their lives, then he swore that they would kill their wives and children, destroy all their property, slaughter the five thousand Muslim prisoners in their hands, and then dismantle the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque stone by stone. They would then sally out and fight with nothing at all to lose to kill as many Muslims as possible. In other words, Saladin would have to pay such a high price to avenge the atrocities of the First Crusade that his own achievement would be irrevocably stained, and the holy places of Islam destroyed.

The leading emirs advised the sultan to offer terms—everyone to be ransomed within forty days or to be treated as a slave. Men would be freed for ten dinars, women for five, and children for two. Balian offered 30,000 dinars on behalf of all the poor and this was accepted. A treaty was sealed and the keys to the city were carried out—at last, Saladin had achieved his great ambition.82 On October 2, 1187, the emir made his formal entry into Jerusalem—by a wonderful coincidence this was also the anniversary of the Prophet’s Night Journey from Jerusalem into heaven—a cause for even greater celebration. As the city surrendered to his army and the banners of Islam flew proudly over the battlements, Saladin could reflect on the thirteen hard years that he had spent entreating his fellow Muslims to follow the jihad and reclaim Jerusalem for their faith. Once his troops entered the city a small group quickly headed for the Dome of the Rock, on top of which stood a large golden cross. They scrambled to the top of the dome and toppled the cross to the ground, shouting: “God is great!” Truly this moment symbolized the triumph of Islam.83 To emphasize his victory Saladin had the cross, which was made of copper coated with gold, sent to the caliph of Baghdad, who, in turn, demonstrated his contempt for Christianity by burying it beneath the threshold of the Bab al-Nuri Mosque in Baghdad in order that his people could tread upon it as a sign of disrespect.84

The sultan’s holy men purified the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque (the former headquarters of the Templars) with rose water and a week after the conquest they held Friday prayers. A Damascene preacher, Ibn al-Zaki, won a competition (each competitor had sent in a manuscript of their sermon) to have the honor of giving the first sermon in the al-Aqsa Mosque. He had foreseen the reconquest of Jerusalem ten years before and, dressed in a fine black robe given to him by the sultan, he delivered a powerful piece of oratory. Ibn al-Zaki reminded his audience of the centrality of Jerusalem to Islam as the dwelling place of Abraham, the location for the Prophet’s ascent to heaven, the first direction of prayer for Muslims, and as the place where mankind will assemble on the Day of Judgment. He compared Saladin’s victory to that of the Prophet himself at the Battle of Badr (624) and mentioned the presence of angels, seen in 1187 and reported in 624 as well. He reminded his listeners that the victory was God’s doing, not their own, and he encouraged them to stay firm in their jihad. Saladin himself—described as “the champion and protector of God’s holy land”—thoroughly approved of the call for Muslims to stay united for the sake of Jerusalem.85

The sultan commanded that Nur ad-Din’s great pulpit be brought from Aleppo and installed in its proper place. The workmanship of this object was praised by everyone who saw it, and it stood in situ until 1969 when an arsonist destroyed it.86 Patriarch Heraclius was allowed to leave Jerusalem as a free man; moreover, he was permitted to take many of the riches of his church with him. Some of Saladin’s advisers suggested that the sultan should have kept these treasures but he took only the statutory ten dinars. Queen Sibylla was treated courteously and permitted to travel with her retinue to see King Guy in prison at Nablus. Ibn al-Athir recorded that sixty thousand men were present in Jerusalem and that most gave the ransom or were covered under Balian’s payment. In the end, the sixteen thousand Frankish men, women, and children who could not offer anything were made captive. The local Christians were, however, allowed to stay and keep their houses as long as they paid the customary tribute levied on non-Muslims.

Notwithstanding his earlier determination to kill the defenders of Jerusalem, once he had taken the city Saladin exhibited the courtesy for which he is famed. This particular anecdote is from a Christian source, so there is no danger it was fabricated by one of the sultan’s own literary admirers.87 A group of women and daughters of men killed or captured at Hattin came to the sultan and begged him to tell them which of their menfolk were still alive and in captivity. Saladin ordered an inquiry and, once he had discovered who had survived, he ordered the husbands or fathers of the womenfolk in his presence to be released. To those who were not so fortunate he gave gifts and riches according to their station and “they praised God and man for the kindness and honour Saladin had shown them.”88

As a backdrop to the sultan’s victory lay one certainty: the Christian world would respond with a new crusade. A chance event gave that campaign a vital starting point: only one port of real consequence had escaped Saladin’s conquests—Tyre. In August 1187 Conrad of Montferrat, a younger brother of William Longsword, Queen Sibylla’s first husband, landed there with a few companions. Conrad was ignorant of the fall of Jerusalem and Saladin’s rapid conquests, yet his arrival gave the knights in Tyre a glimmer of hope and they prevented the Muslims from taking the last remaining maritime outlet in the kingdom. Some have criticized Saladin for his decision to seize Jerusalem before he had secured the strategically crucial coastline. In reality, however, the presence of the marquis at Tyre was purely coincidental and even then he might well have been defeated. In the event, thanks to Conrad, the Christians preserved the most tenuous handhold imaginable and—crucially—a bridgehead for the next crusade.

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