Post-classical history

Chapter Fifteen


The Last Fatimid Caliph

Between 1149 and 1171, Nur ad-Din captures Egypt, but Saladin rules it

THE HOLY WAR was failing, but the jihad was gathering strength.

With most of Antioch’s territory in his hands, and the Crusaders out of his way, Nur ad-Din rode onwards to the coast and bathed himself in the Mediterranean. It was a symbolic baptism, first carried out by the Assyrian conqueror Sargon centuries before, meant to show that his dominance—now, the dominance of Islam—covered the entire land of Syria, all the way to the sea.1

In fact, he didn’t control all of Syria; the city of Antioch itself was still free of his control, as were both Damascus and Jerusalem. But Nur ad-Din was now, in the eyes of his coreligionists, the flowering of his father’s goal: the head of the jihad, the hope for the future of Islam’s unity, the narrow wedge that would bring the Prophet’s hope to the world. He was Champion of the Faith, his followers boasted: the Pillar of Islam, the Vanquisher of the Rebels.2


15.1 The Conquests of Nur ad-Din

A few Muslims disagreed; Damascus remained aloof until 1154, when Nur ad-Din’s father-in-law was five years dead. Nur ad-Din’s brother-in-law was unable to hold the city against him. Finally annexing Damascus, Nur ad-Din held all of the land across the coast; his domain stretched from Edessa to the south of Syria.*

But the Kingdom of Jerusalem resisted.

The weak child who had succeeded Fulk of Anjou was now twenty-four: Baldwin III of Jerusalem, Matilda’s half brother, clung to his place in the land where he had been born. His French father was long dead, his mother herself a foreigner by blood but a native by birth. He was defending the only world he had ever known; Nur ad-Din was trying to find a better one.

A series of misfortunes kept Nur ad-Din from throwing all of his strength against Jerusalem. The contemporary historian Ibn al-Qalanisi tells us that “continuous earthquakes and shocks” troubled Syria, destroying castles, citadels, and dwellings; Nur ad-Din, now transformed from a warrior to the ruler of a state, was obliged to put most of his energies into rebuilding and providing “solace to those . . . who had escaped with their lives.”3 And then, in 1157, Nur ad-Din suddenly became ill. He was so sick that he divided his kingdom between his brothers and prepared to die.

Baldwin III took advantage of the lull to negotiate an alliance with the Byzantine emperor, Manuel I Comnenus; he sealed the alliance by marrying Manuel’s thirteen-year-old niece. Meanwhile, Nur ad-Din unexpectedly recovered, but remained weak. Uncertain of his future, he suspended hostilities to perform the sacred pilgrimage to Mecca; and, rather than face the combined armies of Jerusalem and Constantinople, he decided to negotiate a truce of his own with Manuel.

But despite his weakness, he outlived Baldwin III. Late in 1162, Baldwin too was struck with sudden illness. William of Tyre is certain that he was poisoned by a court enemy; whatever the cause, he was “seized with a fever and dysentery” and lingered for several months, fading in strength.4He died in February of 1163, childless, and his younger brother Amalric became king of Jerusalem.

Nur ad-Din declined to use the occasion to his advantage. “When it was suggested to Nur ad-Din,” writes William of Tyre, “that while we were occupied with the funeral ceremonies he might invade and lay waste the land of his enemies, he is said to have responded, ‘We should sympathize with their grief and in pity spare them.’ ” Nur ad-Din’s illness had changed him; the ruthlessness that had terrified his own men had faded.

Amalric I, now king of Jerusalem at the age of twenty-seven, immediately took steps to increase his own power. The alliance with Manuel I of Constantinople guaranteed him support to the north. To the east, Nur ad-Din was too strong for attack. The Mediterranean lay on the west. The only direction in which he could expand was south; and so he fixed his eyes on Egypt.

Crusaders had contemplated the conquest of Egypt for years; in fact, Baldwin III himself had made an expedition down to al-Arish, on the eastern edge of the Fatimid domain, and had returned to Jerusalem only when the Fatimids offered to pay him a yearly tribute. Amalric, claiming that the Fatimids had failed to pay up, assembled an attack force that would proceed south both by land and by sea. To bolster his navy, he recruited ten war galleys from the Pisans. In exchange, he gave Pisan merchants an outpost in Jerusalem: land of their own just above the harbor of Tyre.6

In the face of the coming assault, the Fatimids sent north to Nur ad-Din, asking for reinforcements.

This began a merry-go-round of alliances that brought to mind the elastic allegiances that had followed the First Crusade. Nur ad-Din, not anxious to get involved in a long war in North Africa but unwilling to see Egypt go to his enemy, sent troops to support the Fatimid vizier Shawar (the vizier, not the teenaged caliph, held the real power in the Fatimid government). Amalric’s invasion was driven back; and Egypt remained Fatimid.*

But the Fatimid vizier Shawar soon found that he had invited serpents into his garden. The captain of Nur ad-Din’s Turkish troops was a lifelong Kurdish officer named Shirkuh; he had served under Nur ad-Din’s father Zengi as well, and now he saw the chance to better himself. “By his deeds and possibly by his words,” William of Tyre writes, “he showed that he intended, if fortune favored him, to bring . . . that kingdom under his own power.”7

Realizing that Shirkuh’s ambitions were a greater threat than the Crusader armies, Shawar reversed himself and sent an embassy to Amalric I, offering alliance and tribute payments if the Jerusalem armies would return to Egypt and help him fight against the Turks. Amalric, who had just returned to Jerusalem, about-faced with even greater alacrity and headed back down to Egypt; and together, the Muslim Fatimids and the Christians of Jerusalem drove Shirkuh out.

The victory gave Jerusalem control over a spit of land reaching down to the point of the Red Sea. But Shirkuh, returning to Nur ad-Din’s side, did not give up hope. “After his return from Egypt he continued to talk about the project of invading it,” says the Chronicle of Ibn al-Athir. “He was extremely eager to do this.” In late 1166, nearly three years after leaving Egypt, Shirkuh returned, with Nur ad-Din’s reluctant blessing, a full complement of Turkish troops, and his nephew Saladin to serve as his second-in-command.8

Amalric and Shawar met Shirkuh in the Nile valley in March of 1167 and were defeated. Shirkuh took Alexandria and put Saladin in control of it; the Franks and Fatimids besieged the city, but Saladin held it. Finally, a joint embassy of Crusaders and Muslims proposed a cease-fire. They handed over a fair amount of cash, and in exchange, the Turkish invasion halted at Alexandria—for a time.

Amalric went back to Jerusalem, where he once again juggled his alliances. His experiences in Egypt had made it clear that he would never take Egypt without substantial help; and so he proposed to Manuel I that the armies of Jerusalem and Byzantium join together, march on Egypt, and drive out both Fatimids and Turks.*

The joint invasion, like Amalric’s first two, was a disaster; and yet more fault lines appeared in the Muslim and Christian coalitions. The Byzantine-Crusader forces captured the eastern Egyptian city of Tanis in late 1168, but massive Turkish reinforcements arrived from Nur ad-Din, and the Fatimid leadership was divided. Part of the army supported Shawar in his fight against the Christians while others joined with the Christians to fight against the Turks.9 The combined Christian army was forced to retreat.

Now Shawar had two problems to deal with: the inevitable return of the Christian army, and all the Turks who were occupying Egypt. He was popular with no one. His initial alliance with Jerusalem had angered many of the Egyptians, particularly those in Cairo, and his resistance to Shirkuh—now camped just outside of Fustat, on the outskirts of Cairo—had turned him into Nur ad-Din’s enemy. He contemplated inviting Shirkuh and his officers to a banquet, arresting them, and then recruiting their troops for himself, but his son threatened to tell Shirkuh of the plan unless he abandoned it: “That we should be killed as Muslims when the land is held by Islam,” he said, according to Ibn al-Athir, “is better than that we should be killed after the Franks have taken it; for it would only take their hearing that Shirkuh had been arrested to see the Franks’ return.”10

So Shawar held his peace. On January 18, 1169, he rode to Shirkuh’s camp to discuss the future. On the way, he was met by Saladin and a small party of soldiers, who detoured him to the grave of the great ninth-century lawmaker Imam al-Shafi’i and murdered him.11

This left Shirkuh in control of Egypt. He paid nominal homage to the Fatimid caliph Al-Adid, now barely twenty and completely powerless in affairs of state, but for all practical purposes Shirkuh had added Egypt to Nur ad-Din’s empire.

Two months later, Shirkuh died after overeating fat meat at a banquet; his move from soldier to ruler had happened at the very last moment of his life. His nephew Saladin took his place as administrator of Egypt.

Seven months later, the Crusader-Byzantine army returned to lay siege to the port city of Damietta, 120 miles north of Cairo.

The siege was the last pathetic move in a doomed campaign. The Byzantine ships dispatched to support the Crusader land force were underprovisioned, already running low when they arrived, and the Jerusalem army refused to share any of its food. Meanwhile, Saladin had no difficulty resupplying Damietta by sea with money, weapons, and stores. He spent, says Ibn al-Athir, “untold sums of money” on Damietta, knowing that if the city fell, the Christians would have a foothold that he might never undo. Rain soaked the Crusader tents for weeks on end; the Byzantine generals quarreled with the Jerusalem commanders over strategy; a score of the anchored Byzantine vessels were destroyed when the Egyptians sent a fireship into their midst. “The feeling was almost unanimous,” writes William of Tyre, “that our toil was being wasted.” After fifty days, the Christians gave up and went home, blaming one another for the loss.12 Once again, crusade had failed.

By 1171, Nur ad-Din felt secure enough in his grasp of Egypt to order that the young caliph’s name be dropped from public prayers; this was equivalent to announcing the overthrow of the Fatimid dynasty. Saladin, whose job it was to enforce this decree, feared public protest. He stalled, argued, and waited. Just as Nur ad-Din was growing angry with him, the caliph fell ill (by all accounts, of natural causes). As he sickened, Saladin sent out letters ordering the change.

No one in the young caliph’s family told him of his de facto deposition. “ They said, ‘If he recovers, then he will get to know,’ ” writes Ibn al-Athir, “‘but if he is to die, it is not right to distress him with this turn of events before he does.’ He died on the day of ‘Ashura [September 13, 1171], still unaware.”13

The Fatimid caliphate, which had ruled in North Africa since 909, was done; and although Nur ad-Din now claimed Egypt, Saladin was its true ruler. In the next years, the common cause that was supposed to unite them would prove even more fragile than the unity of faith between the Crusader kingdoms and Constantinople.


*In 1159, the Byzantine emperor Manuel I took control of the remmants of Antioch.

*This is a deliberate simplification of a much more complicated set of circumstances that also involved an internal struggle between Shawar and a rival for the viziership, Dirgham. The end result was the same: the Crusaders retreated, and Shawar found himself dealing with Shirkuh’s ambitions instead of Dirgham’s.

*Manuel may have proposed the expedition first, but William of Tyre believed that Amalric originated the idea; it is impossible to know for sure.

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