Post-classical history


Victory and stalemate, 1174–93

We will now turn our attention fully to the career of Saladin. After our initial chronological overview, we will discuss the problems that historians face when seeking to uncover the true face of the sultan. Subsequently we will examine the means through which he established and articulated power in the Muslim Levant. Then we will consider his victory at Hattin and conquest of most of the Frankish states, followed by his struggle to defend these conquests against the forces of the Third Crusade.


Nur al-Din’s only son and successor, al-Salih Isma‘il, was only 11 when his father died, and there immediately ensued a dispute over who was to serve as regent. Power was quickly established at Aleppo by a triumvirate of Nur al-Din’s emirs, the foremost of whom was called Gümüshtigin. They secured the transferral of al-Salih Isma‘il to Aleppo and ruled there in his name. Although he did make an immediate profession of loyalty to his young overlord, Saladin did not intervene directly in the establishment of the regency. He was occupied in Egypt, in particular with defending Alexandria against an attack made by Sicilian forces in July–August 1174. However, in October he responded to appeals for help from the emirs ruling in Damascus and Busra, setting out for Syria with an army. Both Busra and Damascus surrendered to Saladin; the latter’s citadel put up a brief resistance before also capitulating, but otherwise the takeover occurred without difficulty.

Saladin’s takeover of Damascus was in some senses a prelude to what would turn out to be 12 years of periodic conflict between Saladin and his supporters on the one side and Saladin’s opponents, principally the Zangids of Mosul and Aleppo, on the other. Over the next two years Saladin took control of much of southern Syria and also conducted campaigns against his opponents in the north, repeatedly besieging Aleppo and defeating the Zangids twice in battle, at the Horns of Hamah on 13 April 1175 and at Tall al-Sultan on 22 April 1176. A peace agreement was concluded on 29 July 1176, but the death of al-Salih Isma‘il on 4 December 1181 gave Saladin the pretext to intervene again at Aleppo, which he claimed was meant to pass to him after al-Salih’s death, in accordance with caliphal decree. Saladin set out for northern Syria again in May 1182. Over the next year he took control of a number of strongholds and cities in the region, and on 11 June 1183, after a three-week siege, he finally achieved the handover of Aleppo. Three years later, after another long campaign during which he almost died of illness, Saladin secured a treaty with Mosul that included recognition of his authority and a guarantee of military support. In addition to his other diplomatic and military ventures in northern Syria, Saladin had by this time also sent emirs to conquer both Yemen and much of North Africa, so his authority was now recognized from Tawzar in the west to Mosul in the east, and from Akhlat in the north to Aden in the south (Eddé, 2011: 67–89).

It was during this early period that Saladin also came to terms with Rashid al-Din Sinan (d. 1192 or 1193), the ‘Old Man of the Mountain’, the head of the Syrian Assassins. The Assassins attacked Saladin twice, in January 1175 and May 1176, and after the second attack he would sometimes have a wooden tower or palisade built in his camp so that he could sleep more securely. He also attacked Sinan’s fortress of Masyaf in August 1176, but broke off the siege after a week, in mysterious circumstances. Some sources maintain that the Assassins threatened Saladin’s uncle Shihab al-Din, and he persuaded his nephew to abandon the siege. Others suggest that Saladin had to break off the siege to deal with other threats. An Isma‘ili source claims that Saladin was frightened off by Sinan’s supernatural powers (Eddé, 2011: 392–4). Whatever the truth of the matter, it is striking that thereafter Saladin and Sinan left each other alone, although the Assassins continued to strike at other targets.

While Saladin was expanding his authority beyond Egypt, he also concerned himself with the war against the Franks. The Sicilian attack on Alexandria, mentioned above, was but one of several raids that would be made by the Franks on Egypt in the 1170s and 1180s, and Saladin devoted a significant amount of resources to strengthening the fortifications of both Cairo and a number of the ports on the Egyptian coast, including Alexandria, Tinnis and Damietta. He likewise built fortifications to protect the routes linking Egypt and Syria through the Sinai Peninsula. Saladin also went on the offensive; in 1177 he launched a raid into southern Palestine, but despite some initial success his force was surprised and scattered by a Frankish counteroffensive at Mont Gisard, near Ramla, with Saladin himself barely escaping with his life. Later campaigns were more successful. In 1179 Saladin’s troops defeated the Franks in battle twice, in the Jawlan (Golan) in April and again at Marj ‘Uyun in June. In August he destroyed the castle of Bayt al-Ahzan, which was less than a year old, then raided the area around Tiberias, Tyre and Beirut before returning to Damascus (Eddé, 2011: 198–200).

Muslim forces made more raids on the Kingdom of Jerusalem in May–July 1182, but a new dimension was added to the conflict in 1183 through the belligerence of Reynald of Châtillon, lord of Kerak and Transjordan. In that year Reynald launched a naval raid into the Red Sea. His sailors plundered ‘Aydhab and sank a pilgrim ship, attacked the Hijaz coast and captured a number of merchant ships. The precise objective of Reynald’s expedition remains a matter of debate among modern scholars, but rumours circulated among the Muslims that he planned to attack the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and perhaps even to steal the remains of the Prophet Muhammad. The Frankish fleet was quickly opposed by a Muslim one under the admiral Husam al-Din Lu’lu’, who destroyed it and hunted down the survivors. The prisoners were transported to Cairo and Mecca, where they were publicly executed as punishment for their sacrilegious ambitions (Lyons and Jackson, 1984: 186–7; Eddé, 2011: 194–5). Saladin followed this up with two attacks on Kerak in October–December 1183 and August 1184, although its citadel was not taken in either case. After the second siege Saladin raided Frankish territories further north before returning to Damascus. The following year he agreed to a truce proposed by Raymond III of Tripoli (r. 1152–87), who at the time was acting as regent for the underage King Baldwin V of Jerusalem (r. 1185–6). This conveniently enabled him to concentrate his attention on the final conflict with Mosul.

Saladin was already preparing to renew the holy war against the Franks when Reynald of Châtillon gave him an excuse to re-open hostilities. In early 1187 Reynald seized a caravan travelling between Egypt and Syria and then refused Saladin’s demands that he free the prisoners and return the goods that he had taken. Saladin, incensed, swore that he would kill Reynald if he ever got the opportunity and, using the broken truce as justification, mustered his troops. Initial raids were made on a number of points on the frontier with the Franks, then Saladin gathered his forces, which probably numbered about 30,000 men, at Busra. The Franks in turn mustered their army of about 20,000 men at Sepphoris (Saffuriyya) (Eddé, 2011: 206–8). On 2 July, in an effort to lure the Frankish army out, Saladin attacked and took Tiberias, trapping its remaining defenders, including Raymond of Tripoli’s wife, Eschiva, in its citadel. That night the Franks met to decide on a response. What exactly happened in their discussion is unclear, but the following morning Guy of Lusignan, the king of Jerusalem (r. 1186–92), ordered the advance. The Frankish army marched towards Tiberias. Saladin abandoned the siege of the citadel of Tiberias and sent units of horse-archers to harass the Frankish flanks, in the meantime surrounding the Frankish army and cutting its access to sources of water. Thirsty and drained by the heat, the army headed for the village of Hattin, which had plentiful springs of water, but Muslim pressure prevented the Franks from reaching their goal and they were forced to camp for the night.

On the morning of 4 July the Frankish army, harassed by Muslim skirmishers, attempted to march on to Lake Tiberias. In addition to maintaining a constant hail of arrows, the Muslims started brushfires that only exacerbated the heat and thirst that were already taking their toll on the Frankish army. Raymond of Tripoli attempted to break the cordon by leading the vanguard in a charge on the Muslim ranks, but the Muslims opened their ranks and allowed the charge to pass through, shooting at the Frankish knights as they passed. The remnants of the vanguard were allowed to escape and played no further part in the battle. The Franks took refuge on the slopes of the twin-peaked hill known as the Horns of Hattin, where they pitched the king’s red tent. Further attempts to charge the Muslim ranks failed, the Frankish infantry were scattered and eventually the king’s tent fell. The king and many senior members of the nobility, including Reynald of Châtillon and Gerard of Ridefort, the Master of the Knights Templar, were captured, and the relic of the True Cross was taken. The Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller, implacable enemies of the Muslims, were put to the sword, as were the turcopoles, locally recruited, lightly armed horsemen considered traitors and apostates by the Muslims. The remaining Frankish prisoners were enslaved, and the market would subsequently become so flooded with them that their value would collapse.

Saladin, meanwhile, had King Guy and Reynald brought to his tent. Observing that the king was frightened and thirsty, he sought to calm him and gave him iced water to drink. However, when Guy passed this on to Reynald, Saladin hastened to point out that he had not authorized this and was thus not bound by the laws of hospitality, which would have obliged the sultan to spare his old enemy. Later he separated the two, reproached Reynald for his crimes, and when the latter showed neither repentance nor a willingness to convert to Islam, struck him in the shoulder with his sword. Reynald was beheaded and dragged away past the king, who became convinced that he would be next. However, Saladin hastened to reassure him, commenting (in the words of his army judge Baha’ al-Din ibn Shaddad [d. 1234]), ‘It has not been customary for princes to kill princes, but this man transgressed his limits’ (Ibn Shaddad, 2001: 75, but see also Doc. 10).

Without the field army to protect it, the Kingdom of Jerusalem was swiftly conquered by Saladin. One after another, over the course of a year, Frankish castles and cities fell to Saladin’s forces, with the exception of Tyre, which managed to withstand Saladin’s siege. Jerusalem itself was besieged in September 1187, and initially Saladin refused to give its inhabitants terms, intending to reciprocate for the crusaders’ conquest of 1099. On 2 October, however, he was persuaded to accept the city’s capitulation by its commander, Balian of Ibelin, who threatened to kill the Muslim prisoners therein and destroy its holy sites. The inhabitants were allowed to leave upon payment of a ransom, and chroniclers from both sides tell of the generosity with which Saladin excused many prisoners from payment or enslavement. In all, only about 16,000 Franks actually became slaves, out of a population of between 60,000 and 100,000 (Eddé, 2011: 218–20; Doc. 10).

By the beginning of 1189, all that remained of the Kingdom of Jerusalem were a few scattered fortresses, and the County of Tripoli and Principality of Antioch had also seen their territories significantly reduced. Then in August Guy of Lusignan, whom Saladin had freed the previous summer on the condition that he promise not to fight the Muslims, but who had been absolved from his vow by the Christian clergy, arrived with an army and a Pisan fleet at the now Muslim-held Acre and besieged the city. Saladin attempted to remove the besiegers, but he was having difficulty keeping adequate forces in the field after years of campaigning. Saladin’s conquest of Jerusalem had caused dismay in Europe, leading to the departure of new armies on what modern historians call the Third Crusade. Both Philip II Augustus of France (r. 1180–1223) and Richard the Lionheart of England (r. 1189–99) had taken the cross and sailed east with their troops, landing at Acre and swelling Guy’s forces there. As a result of the participation of these new European contingents, the siege became a long, drawn-out affair that concluded with the Muslims being forced to surrender the city to the Franks on 12 July 1191. Philip returned home again almost immediately after, but Richard remained to lead an attempt to take Jerusalem from Saladin.

The capitulation of Acre had been agreed on the condition that Saladin return the relic of the True Cross, pay a ransom of 200,000 dinars and free over 1,500 Christian prisoners, but Saladin delayed, and in August Richard lost patience and killed between 2,600 and 3,000 Muslim prisoners – an act that was greeted with great hostility by the Muslims. Richard then gathered his forces and marched south along the coast, heading for Jaffa. Saladin subjected the Frankish army to constant harassment, hoping to break its coherence, but when he was finally able to provoke a battle at Arsuf on 7 September, his forces were badly defeated and the crusaders were subsequently able to take Jaffa. Saladin, in an effort to prevent the enemy from having a secure base from which to launch an assault on Jerusalem, razed Ascalon and other fortresses on the road between Jaffa and the holy city while simultaneously building up the defences of the latter. In October the crusading force marched on Jerusalem but was forced to turn back due to bad weather and doubts about supporting the attack. Richard instead re-fortified Ascalon before heading north to deal with disputes within the Frankish kingdom. May 1192 saw him back again; Darum, to the south of Ascalon, was taken by Richard’s forces on 23 May, and on 24 June he seized a caravan coming from Egypt. He then launched a second march on Jerusalem but was forced to turn back on 5 July, after having come within sight of the city, again due to concerns about adequately supporting the attack. Saladin almost took Jaffa on 30 July, but had barely secured its surrender when Richard’s forces arrived by sea and drove the Muslim army away.

Throughout Richard’s crusade there were periodic negotiations between him and Saladin, and by the end of the summer of 1192 both men had come to accept that they were at a stalemate. Richard could not adequately support an attack on Jerusalem, but Saladin could not muster enough forces to defeat the Franks completely. From 1 to 3 September a treaty was drawn up and sworn to: a truce was made for three years and eight months; Jerusalem was to remain Muslim, but Christian pilgrims would be allowed to visit; the coast from Jaffa to Tyre would remain in Frankish hands; the defences of Ascalon, Darum and Gaza would be demolished; Nazareth, Sepphoris and Ascalon would be Saladin’s; and the revenues of Ramla and Lydda would be shared (Eddé, 2011: 268–9). After giving his agreement, Richard left for Europe on 9 October 1192. Saladin, meanwhile, visited Jerusalem and Beirut before returning to Damascus. In the following winter his health deteriorated and on 20 February 1193 he fell seriously ill. Despite the efforts of his physicians, he died on the morning of 4 March 1193. Baha’ al-Din describes his grief at his master’s passing:

In God’s name, I had heard from some people that they were desirous of ransoming those dear to them with their own lives, but I only ever heard such an expression as a sort of exaggeration or poetic license until this day, as I knew for myself and for others that, had the purchase of his life been acceptable, we would have paid for it with our own.

(Ibn Shaddad, 2001: 244)


Sources for the life of Saladin are plentiful and wide-ranging in origin, for he is a prominent figure in both contemporary and later works by not only Muslim authors, but also eastern Christian and Frankish writers. Yet despite this, he remains an enigmatic figure, presented in various guises depending on the viewpoints and agendas of the writers in question. We have already seen hints that Ibn al-Athir’s partiality for the Zangid dynasty made him critical of Saladin (see Chapter 4 and Doc. 9); the vehemence of his attitude is often exaggerated by historians in disregard of the occasions when he expresses respect and admiration for the sultan. However, we must likewise be suspicious of authors who do not express critical attitudes. We are fortunate to have information about Saladin from three individuals who knew him intimately. Al-Qadi al-Fadil (d. 1200) was a close friend and advisor of Saladin’s, as well as the chief administrator of Egypt, and has left us hundreds of letters and documents that tell us much about both Saladin’s policies and his personality. Al-Fadil was also the man who in 1175 employed a scribe and administrator known as ‘Imad al-Din al-Isfahani (d. 1201), who soon became Saladin’s personal secretary and has left us both poetic and prose works, including two that tell us about Saladin’s campaigns [Doc. 10]. Finally, Baha’ al-Din ibn Shaddad, mentioned above, was a well-known Mosuli jurist and qadi who entered Saladin’s service in 1188 as judge of the army and soon became a close companion and confidant of the sultan; he is best known for his biography of Saladin, which includes an account of his master’s virtues [Doc. 11]. This feature in Baha’ al-Din’s work typifies the issues that modern scholars face when working with these sources: all three men were close friends of Saladin, as well as being deeply involved in his efforts both to have his authority recognized in the Levant and to promote the jihad against the Franks, and thus we cannot regard their accounts as being objective and unbiased, yet at the same time their first-hand experience of the sultan and his activities make them of immense value for the historical details that they supply (Eddé, 2011: 4–9). In this way, the works of all four of the authors mentioned here are emblematic of the wider dilemma that historians face when studying the past in general; on the one hand, sources contemporary with their subjects are incredibly important as repositories of information, but on the other hand there is always the challenge of disengaging this information from the agendas of the people who recorded it. In the case of Saladin, a controversial figure, such agendas are emphasized and only hide the real face of the sultan all the more.


Like Nur al-Din, Saladin employed a number of techniques in order to have his authority acknowledged in Egypt and Bilad al-Sham. As Hillenbrand has noted, Saladin adopted the same methods used by Nur al-Din to promote his image as an epitome of piety and consequently the natural leader in the holy war against the Franks, including the foundation and restoration of religious institutions, patronage of poets and religious scholars, and numerous calls for the Muslims to unify with him so that he might re-take Jerusalem for Islam (Hillenbrand, 1999 a: 175). However, what is striking is the magnitude of Saladin’s efforts in this regard. His prolific correspondence included regular letters to the ‘Abbasid caliph in Baghdad, expressing his loyalty and his dedication to thejihad, and seeking caliphal recognition of his right to rule the territories that he won from other Muslim rulers. By the same token, in the Levant he sought to win over both the politico-military and religious elites with his attestations of piety and devotion to the war against the Franks (Eddé, 2011: passim). Like Nur al-Din, he also sought to engender loyalty among his followers by becoming personally involved in the actions that he asked of them, leading armies himself, and even ‘mucking in’ with his men, carrying stones himself to help build up the defences of Jerusalem in 1192 (Lyons and Jackson, 1984: 347). He also sought to promote a reputation for accessibility and just rule similar to that of Nur al-Din by making himself available to commoners who might wish to appeal to his justice on a regular basis [Doc. 11].

Saladin also sought to capitalize on associations with Nur al-Din in other ways. On 6 September 1176 he married ‘Ismat al-Din, who was both Nur al-Din’s widow and a daughter of Mu’in al-Din Unur, though not the mother of al-Salih Isma’il. In this way he drew on a practice traditional among rulers to cement his position at Damascus and further lay claim to the heritage of Nur al-Din; the significance of this move is indicated by the fact that in 1182 the Zangid ruler of Mosul and Aleppo married al-Salih Isma’il’s mother to strengthen his own claim to Nur al-Din’s legacy (Eddé, 2011: 76–7). Even after the conquest of Jerusalem in 1187 Saladin continued to emphasize his links to his predecessor by placing the latter’s minbar in the Aqsa Mosque in the holy city (seeChapter 4). Carole Hillenbrand has described the careers of Nur al-Din and Saladin as a ‘continuum’, forming the real turning point in the development of the Muslim counter-crusade (Hillenbrand, 1999 a: 195). It certainly appears from his multi-faceted propaganda campaign that Saladin wished them to be seen this way.

Naturally, in his dealings with both other Muslim rulers and the Franks Saladin employed the traditional two-pronged approach of force and negotiations. Attacks on the Franks were easy to justify as part of his efforts in the military jihad against them, but he has been criticized by both contemporary and modern scholars, including members of his own retinue, for his wars against other Muslims. Saladin justified his actions by arguing that the imperative of unification to fight the holy war against the Franks should be recognized and obeyed by all Muslim rulers, and that those who did not do so were more concerned with secular ambitions than the good of Islam, and hence had to be compelled (Eddé, 2011: 93–4). Saladin’s negotiations with Muslims were naturally acceptable, but diplomatic dealings with the Franks likewise required justification, particularly given that he himself was fiercely critical of the Zangids for negotiating with them. Saladin and his propagandists were always careful to present his own dealings with them as being both within the Qur’an’s regulations and only undertaken when absolutely necessary; thus they sought to preserve his image as a pious mujahid, reluctantly driven to treat with the enemy when there was no way to avoid it (Eddé, 2011: 271–3). In fact, Saladin undertook diplomatic relations with both the Franks and the Byzantines whenever it suited his needs, thus following the precedents of many earlier Muslim rulers, including Nur al-Din.

In both his diplomatic activities and his conduct of war, Saladin successfully cultivated a reputation for generosity and clemency, even though occasionally he ordered acts of shocking brutality. Nevertheless, both Muslim and non-Muslim sources commented on these qualities, albeit in both positive and negative ways. His panegyrists naturally drew on Islamic tradition in representing this conduct as entirely fitting an ideal Muslim ruler, but both they and other authors also sometimes questioned the actual value of such qualities. ‘Imad al-Din al-Isfahani, for example, expresses regret that Saladin’s generosity at Jerusalem resulted in the loss of substantial wealth for his treasury, while Ibn al-Athir states that Saladin’s habit of freeing Frankish prisoners taken in battle contributed directly to his failure to take Tyre in 1187, since the Franks freed by Saladin went there and swelled its garrison (al-Isfahani, 1965: 135; Ibn al-Athir, 2007: 337). Nonetheless, this reputation generally served Saladin well in negotiations with both Muslim rivals and Frankish opponents, easing the handover of fortresses and cities and helping to establish his reputation as a pious Muslim, and his financial generosity doubtless assisted him in expanding his supporter base.

Al-Jazira: Arabic: ‘the Peninsula’. The region roughly covering modern south-eastern Turkey, north-eastern Syria and north-western Iraq. It is mostly bracketed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Saladin’s open-handedness is often seen as indicative of a wider lack of economic sense, an impression that is not helped by comments such as that made by Baha’ al-Din, who states that Saladin’s treasurers used to hide money from him to prevent him from spending it [Doc. 11]. Al-Qadi al-Fadil repeatedly expressed concerns about the extent of Saladin’s spending and its impact on the economy, famously commenting that Saladin had ‘spent the money of Egypt to conquer Syria, the money of Syria to conquer al-Jazira [the region covering modern south-eastern Turkey, north-eastern Syria and north-western Iraq], and the money of all of them to conquer the coast’ (Eddé, 2011: 427). However, both Eddé and Lev have questioned the idea that Saladin was financially irresponsible. It is clear that as soon as he took power in Egypt he undertook a number of measures intended to improve the economic health of his state, including re-organizing the collection of taxes and the distribution of iqta‘s, reforming the coinage and endowing the incomes of properties to finance his construction projects (so-called waqf endowments) (Eddé, 2011: 418–26; Lev, 2007: passim). He also devoted attention to commerce, seeking to maintain the vibrant trade between Egypt and the Italian cities (which also helped to secure supplies of war materials such as wood and iron), safeguarding as far as possible the land trade between Syria, Egypt and the Red Sea, and attempting to ensure the smooth running of markets. However, wars are expensive, spending constantly outstripped income, and so finances remained an ever-present challenge (Eddé, 2011: 426–8 and 447–61).

Ayyubids: Term used to refer to the family of Ayyub ibn Shadhi (d. 1173), the father of Saladin (r. 1169–93). After Saladin’s death, other Ayyubids took over his territories, ruling them until the mid-thirteenth century.

The other pillar on which Saladin based his power was his family. Saladin himself had succeeded his uncle Shirkuh in Egypt, and under his rule the Ayyubid state effectively formed a family confederation with himself at its head. In the early years, his most prominent supporters were his brothers al-Mu‘azzam Turan-Shah (d. 1180) and al-‘Adil Muhammad (d. 1218) and his nephew Taqi al-Din ‘Umar (d. 1191), all of whom were given key responsibilities in Saladin’s state. Other family members were also appointed to supporting positions, and later his sons al-Afdal ‘Ali (d. 1225), al-‘Aziz ‘Uthman (d. 1198) and al-Zahir Ghazi (d. 1216) were given important governorships in the state, even though they had not yet reached adulthood. Naturally not all Saladin’s subordinates were family members, but they formed a core upon whom he relied for backing. For the most part this arrangement proved effective, provided that Saladin’s family co-operated. However, the system did not always work; for example, Saladin was furious when it became apparent that Taqi al-Din had left the siege of Acre on 2 March 1191 to pursue territorial ambitions around Lake Van rather than simply to visit his holdings in the north, though the sultan’s fury swiftly turned to grief when he learned of his nephew’s death on 10 October of the same year (Eddé, 2011: 127–8).


One of the ongoing unanswered questions in crusade studies is what happened at the council of war held by the Franks on the night of 2 July 1187, a full understanding of which would explain why King Guy of Lusignan marched his army out to its defeat at the Horns of Hattin. Like the western sources, the Muslim ones provide differing opinions on the discussion that took place. Baha’ al-Din states merely that when they heard of the Muslim conquest of Tiberias, the Franks ‘could not bear not to give in to their impulsive zeal, but set out at once’ (Ibn Shaddad, 2001: 73). Both ‘Imad al-Din and Ibn al-Athir give prominence to Raymond of Tripoli in their accounts, but in contrasting ways. ‘Imad al-Din presents Raymond of Tripoli as having been traumatized by the news that the outer city of Tiberias had been taken, urging the king to act and saying that if the city fell completely, then the rest of the Frankish lands would follow (al-Isfahani, 1965: 76). Ibn al-Athir, on the other hand, presents Raymond as having exhorted the Franks to withhold from responding to Tiberias’ plight, on the grounds that it would be difficult for Saladin to keep his army in the field; however, he also presents Raymond as having been opposed by Reynald of Châtillon, who accused him of siding with the Muslims (Ibn al-Athir, 2007: 321). Naturally, the Muslim authors did not witness the council of war, and so their accounts must be based on hearsay and speculation, but both ‘Imad al-Din’s and Ibn al-Athir’s versions reflect currents found in the Frankish sources (Lyons and Jackson, 1984: 258). Whatever the truth of the matter, as indicated above Saladin destroyed the Frankish field army at Hattin and went on to conquer a huge swath of Frankish territory.

In terms of propaganda impact, the conquest of Jerusalem was, undoubtedly, Saladin’s crowning achievement, acting as justification for the military action that he undertook against other Muslims and confirming his claims that his ultimate ambition was the re-conquest of the holy city. Great celebrations ensued among nobility and common folk alike as a result of the conquest. Poets and preachers praised Saladin in joyful panegyrics and pious rhetoric; indeed, the opportunity to be the first to preach and extol the sultan in the Aqsa Mosque after the re-conquest was hotly contested. Saladin himself was careful to make the most of his victory, not only sending out letters to the caliph and other Muslim rulers announcing his success, but also waiting to make his triumphal procession into Jerusalem on the anniversary of the Prophet’s mi‘raj and thus invoking the memory of sacred history to enhance his own image of piety (Hillenbrand, 1999 a: 188–91). He also devoted significant resources to restoring the Muslim institutions of the city. ‘Imad al-Din, in his chronicle al-Fath al-Qussi fi’l-Fath al-Qudsi (Qussian Eloquence on the Conquest of Jerusalem), which covers Saladin’s campaigns from 1187 to 1193, provides an account of Saladin’s efforts in this regard entitled ‘A Description of the Good Works that the Sultan Initiated in Jerusalem, and the Evil Works that he Eradicated’. In it he notes that his master restored the Aqsa Mosque, including uncovering the mihrab (which, he claims, the Templars had turned into a granary or a latrine) and removing other buildings, including a church, that the Templars had added to the structure. As indicated above, Saladin also installed Nur al-Din’s minbar in the mosque, thus helping to tie himself into his predecessor’s legacy. In his work ‘Imad al-Din goes on to note that Saladin also purified the Dome of the Rock, which the Franks had turned into a church, removing its Christian accoutrements and uncovering the sacred rock itself, with its imprint of the Prophet Muhammad’s foot. The sultan also had a number of other Christian buildings converted into Islamic ones such as Sufi convents and madrasas. However, not all Christian buildings suffered this fate; a number of churches were spared including, most notably, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (kanisat al-qiyama[Church of the Resurrection] in Arabic, though for centuries Muslim writers had nicknamed it kanisat al-qumama, a change of one letter [in Arabic] that renamed it ‘the Church of Garbage’). Some of Saladin’s advisors did suggest that he demolish the church to remove its attraction for Christian pilgrims and crusaders, but others pointed out that the holy site itself, rather than the church building, was the attraction, and that the caliph ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab (r. 634–44), who had first conquered Jerusalem in 638, had left it unharmed for the Christians (al-Isfahani, 1965: 137–46). As Eddé notes, ‘Imad al-Din refrains from also mentioning that the Muslims could impose heavy fees on Christian pilgrims who visited the site (Eddé, 2011: 224). It is worth noting that the Christian presence in Jerusalem was not completely eradicated; thousands of eastern Christians, and even some Frankish ones, were allowed to remain once they had paid their ransoms (Eddé, 2011: 219 and 224). However, Saladin put in great efforts to restore a distinctively and perceptibly Islamic character to the holy city, in the process emphasizing his own dedication to the faith.


While the re-conquest of Jerusalem was Saladin’s greatest achievement, his failure to defeat the forces of the Third Crusade was probably his greatest frustration. Having come within sight of destroying the Kingdom of Jerusalem completely, the sultan found himself neither able to prevent the Frankish re-conquest of Acre nor able to score a decisive victory against the armies of Richard the Lionheart. Saladin’s principal difficulty was holding sufficient manpower in the field. In 1189 he had been forced to allow his troops to disperse after years of campaigning, and thus he only had a reduced force available when Guy of Lusignan besieged Acre. Thereafter Saladin sent repeated appeals for aid to the rulers of the various cities that theoretically owed him support, as well as other Muslim rulers, but his calls, lacking the lofty goal of the conquest of Jerusalem and being made to men who were weary from years of conflict, received only patchy responses; he was never again able to command a great muster like that which had preceded the Battle of Hattin. From the caliph of Baghdad, in particular, he received what can only be understood as a diplomatic insult: two loads of naft (naphtha, Greek fire), five naphtha artificers, some spear-shafts and a note authorizing him to borrow a paltry 20,000 dinarsfrom the merchants on the caliph’s behalf. Relations between Saladin and the ‘Abbasid caliph al-Nasir (r. 1180–1225) had been tense for years, and it is likely that the caliph was concerned about where Saladin might direct his attention if he defeated the Franks. The last part of the caliph’s gift highlights the fact that by now financial shortages were also impeding Saladin’s ability to field sufficient forces to neutralize the Frankish threat. Saladin himself remarked that he was spending more than 20,000 dinars a day to support the war effort (Lyons and Jackson, 1984: 310–11), and as we have already seen, his income was not sufficient to cover such requirements.

Meanwhile the Franks had been reinforced by large contingents from overseas, fired with enthusiasm for the crusade and zealous to ride to the rescue of the holy city from the infidel. In addition, the Franks were led by Richard the Lionheart, an expert general who was Saladin’s equal on the battlefield. Perhaps this is best exemplified by the Franks’ march south along the coast in 1191. Richard arranged his forces with the knights in a central column, supplied and protected by half the infantry, the baggage train and a fleet on the seaward side, and the other half of the infantry, including archers, protecting the column on the landward side (Riley-Smith, 1991: 64). The whole army maintained a disciplined formation and was hence able to avoid being broken up by the usual Muslim harassing tactics. At Arsuf Saladin was finally able to provoke a break in the Franks’ formation, when two Hospitaller knights charged the Muslim lines, leading the remaining Hospitallers and the French contingent to follow them. Richard quickly ordered the remaining knights to charge and turned the army’s broken formation into a victorious one (Phillips, 2002: 146).

Yet despite his difficulties, Saladin was able to fight Richard to a stalemate. Since he could not beat the Frankish army in a pitched battle, Saladin adopted a number of tactics to impede its advance on Jerusalem. As noted above, he destroyed fortresses on the route between Jaffa and the holy city that might be used as bases from which to attack it. He also destroyed the cisterns around Jerusalem, so that it would be difficult to ensure that there was enough water available for the crusading army. Finally, he mounted harassing attacks on the Franks’ supply lines. Thus Saladin prevented the Franks from making an attack on Jerusalem by ensuring that they could not support it adequately (Lyons and Jackson, 1984: 352–4). Faced with this frustrating situation, and concerned about the state of his kingdom in Europe, Richard was forced to recognize the impasse and eventually a mutually acceptable treaty was negotiated.

As indicated above, the agreement made in September 1192 between Richard and Saladin represented the culmination of periodic discussions over the years that the former had been in the Levant. Saladin and Richard seem to have regarded each other with great respect, though they never met; Baha’ al-Din notes that Richard repeatedly asked for a meeting, but Saladin always refused; the sultan explained his refusal by saying, ‘Kings do not meet unless an agreement has been reached. It is not good for them to fight after meeting and eating together’ (Ibn Shaddad, 2001: 153). Instead, Saladin’s chief negotiator was his brother, al-‘Adil Muhammad, with whom Richard seems to have enjoyed a close friendship, with interesting results; see what follows.

In some senses the major issues at stake in the negotiations are effectively summed up by an exchange of letters that took place between Richard and Saladin in October 1191, and which is recorded by Baha’ al-Din [Doc. 12]. The principal point of contention was Jerusalem, along with the acceptable extent of Frankish territories and the relic of the True Cross. Supplementary concerns were the fate of prisoners, defensive structures and sources of income. Perhaps the most imaginative, if unrealistic, solution mooted at the time was Richard’s proposal that al-‘Adil marry his sister Joan, with the couple then ruling in Jerusalem, where Frankish clergy would be permitted to live but Frankish troops would not. Both al-‘Adil and Saladin accepted the proposal, though the latter thought it was not likely to work out, and he was proved correct when the lady refused marriage to a non-Christian, a position in which she was supported by members of the Frankish nobility. Al-‘Adil refused Richard’s attempts to persuade him to convert, and after further discussions the idea fell through. As indicated above, the eventual solution focused on Jerusalem, the extent of Frankish territory, fortresses and income; prisoner concerns were not addressed in the final agreement, nor was the fate of the True Cross, which was sent after Saladin’s death to the caliph of Baghdad and in the process passed out of the historical record (Eddé, 2011: 212 and 263–9).


To an even greater degree than with Nur al-Din, scholarly discussions of Saladin have often focused on the extent to which he was motivated by genuine piety, and how far his actions were actually driven by political aims. Opinions have ranged from one extreme to the other, with some arguing that Saladin was a true devotee of his faith and the military jihad, while others have insisted that he was an ambitious politician who cynically made use of religious propaganda to support his secular goals. There is certainly plenty of evidence to support both positions, but ultimately we can never know the absolute truth of the matter, and Eddé argues that the over-concentration of historians on this aspect of Saladin’s career has until recently been an unwelcome and prevalent distraction from a full consideration of the period (Eddé, 2011: 615–19).

In the meantime, it is useful to consider the impact of Saladin’s reign on the Muslim Levant, which attests to the greatness of his achievement, regardless of his motivations. Building on the military and propaganda foundations laid by Nur al-Din, Saladin unified an immense swath of territory under his banner, and then directed its resources and manpower to conquer the greater part of the Frankish states, including bringing the holy city of Jerusalem back under Muslim rule. Then, despite the difficulties that he faced in holding an effective fighting force in the field, he was able to blunt the Third Crusade sufficiently for the Franks to remain largely confined to a narrow strip on the Levantine coast, unable to re-take Jerusalem. By the time of Saladin’s death the Muslim states of the Levant had become a unified confederation, mostly ruled by Saladin’s family, that had proved to be an effective basis for opposition to the Franks. However, that unity would not continue under Saladin’s successors.


Numerous books have been published on Saladin, the most comprehensive of which is Anne-Marie Eddé’s recent detailed study, Saladin (2011). Another important work is Malcolm Cameron Lyons and David E.P. Jackson’s Saladin: The Politics of the Holy War(1984), while Carole Hillenbrand’s The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives (1999 a) provides a discussion of Saladin’s jihad that includes a helpful comparison of Saladin and Nur al-Din. For a sense of the widely differing interpretations of Saladin’s motives that exist, it is worth comparing H.A.R. Gibb’s The Life of Saladin (1973) with Andrew S. Ehrenkreutz’s Saladin (1972). Ehrenkreutz’s work includes a number of useful discussions of Saladin’s economic policies, and these are also the subject of Yaacov Lev’s important article, ‘Saladin’s Economic Policies and the Economy of Ayyubid Egypt’ (2007). On the Battle of Hattin see in the first instance Benjamin Z. Kedar’s article, ‘The Battle of Hattin Revisited’ (1992) and R.C. Smail, Crusading Warfare, 1097–1193(1995). On Saladin and the Third Crusade in particular, readers of German will also appreciate Hannes Möhring’s Saladin und der Dritte Kreuzzug: Aiyubidische Strategie und Diplomatie im Vergleich vornehmlich der Arabischen mit den Lateinischen Quellen(1980). On the establishment of the Ayyubid state, and the role played by Saladin’s family in particular, see R. Stephen Humphreys, From Saladin to the Mongols: The Ayyubids of Damascus, 1193–1260 (1977). On religious life, including preaching of the jihad, see Daniella Talmon-Heller, ‘Islamic Preaching in Syria during the Counter-Crusade (Twelfth–Thirteenth Centuries)’ (2007 b) and, again, Islamic Piety in Medieval Syria (2007 a).

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