Post-classical history

Chapter Twenty-Two



Between 1171 and 1188, Saladin seizes his master’s lands and retakes Jerusalem

WHILE HIS MASTER Nur ad-Din celebrated the unification of the Muslim states from Edessa to Cairo, Saladin, the deputy governor of Egypt, began to close his own hands around his domain.

Saladin’s biographer ibn Shaddad, determined to paint his subject as the ideal Muslim ruler, gives us inadvertent glimpses of the real man: a devout believer, but also pragmatic, hardheaded, calculating. He studied his faith, but “his studies did not dig too deep” or lead him into unpopular theological controversy. He fasted during Ramadan, but his fasts “fell a little short” when the demands of war called him to be at his strongest. He never made the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that would have taken him away from his restless realm: “He always intended and planned it,” ibn Shaddad explains, “[but] was prevented because of lack of time.” His desire to see Islam triumph was genuine: “In his love for the Jihad on the path of God he shunned his womenfolk, his children, his homeland, his home and all his pleasures, and for this world he was content to dwell in the shade of his tent with the winds blowing through it left and right.”1

But this did not eclipse his personal ambitions, as became very clear to Nur ad-Din in October of 1171. Saladin had invaded Crusader territory and laid siege to the southern castle of Montreal. He was close to forcing its surrender when Nur ad-Din approached from the opposite side. Rather than completing the conquest and handing the castle over, Saladin withdrew and allowed the Christian enemy to stay in place. Ibn al-Athir tells us that he was afraid to clear Nur ad-Din’s path to Egypt: “If Nur ad-Din comes to you here,” one of Saladin’s officers says, “. . . he will exercise his authority over you. . . . [I]f he wishes, he will dismiss you and you will be unable to resist.”

Saladin returned to Egypt and wrote to Nur ad-Din, excusing himself on the grounds that he feared a coup was developing in his absence. Nur ad-Din was not fooled. “His attitude towards him changed,” Ibn al-Athir writes, “and he resolved to enter Egypt and expel him.”2

But before Nur ad-Din could bring Saladin to heel, he was struck with quinsy: a throat abscess, caused by tonsillitis, which precipitated a massive infection and shut his body down. He died in Damascus, refusing treatment. (“A sixty-year-old,” he snapped at his doctor, “is not to be bled.”) He left his kingdom to his eleven-year-old son, al-Salih Ismail.3

Now Saladin took the offensive. He rode north and entered Damascus as al-Salih’s protector and guardian: “Aware that [Nur ad-Din’s] son was a child . . . incapable of taking on the defense of the lands against God’s enemies,” his biographer explains, “he made his preparations to march to Syria, since it is the cornerstone of Muslim territory.”4

For a year or so, Saladin acted as al-Salih’s general and regent. His presence in the boy’s kingdom was not a peaceful one; al-Salih himself appealed to his subjects to eject the usurper. (“This wicked man, who repudiates my father’s goodness to him, has come to take my lands,” he told the men of Aleppo, who obediently rebelled.) But Saladin’s Egyptian troops quelled revolt after revolt. After a victory against the combined armies of Aleppo and Mosul in April of 1175, Saladin decreed that his own name should be substituted for young al-Salih’s in the Friday prayers. No more coins were to be struck in al-Salih’s name. In May, the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad, which Saladin now controlled, prudently declared Saladin to be Sultan of Egypt and Syria; a letter sent to the caliph by Saladin’s secretary Qadi al-Fadil explained that only Saladin was strong enough to protect Nur ad-Din’s accomplishments, and that his “sole purpose” was to keep the Islamic cause unified and strong.5

The next few years saw Saladin doing just that. He married Nur ad-Din’s widow, some ten years his senior, and laid claim to his predecessor’s lands. He fought rebellious Muslim governors and encroaching Crusader armies; when politic, he made treaties with the Crusaders instead. He set up a formal Office of the Navy and channeled a good deal of revenue into building additional ships to bulk up the Egyptian fleet. In 1181, young al-Salih died of “colic,” a convenient name for stomach upset caused by natural or other means, and Saladin’s rule was no longer troubled by questions of legitimacy.6

He was now strong enough to face the Crusader kingdoms head on, provided that they did not all unify against him at the same time. And in 1187 he was given the chance he needed.

The year before, the king of Jerusalem—nine-year-old Baldwin V—had died. There was no clear successor to his crown; his mother, Sibylla, and his guardian, Raymond, ruler of Tripoli, both laid claim to Jerusalem. Leading Sibylla’s cause was a familiar old troublemaker: Raynald of Chatillon, once Prince of Antioch, newly out of his Aleppo dungeon cell, sixteen years older but still reckless, dishonest, and power hungry. He masterminded a plan to shut Raymond out of Jerusalem while Sibylla (and her deeply unpopular husband Guy) were crowned king and queen of the city.7

Raymond, incensed, went straight to Saladin and offered friendship in return for troops, intending to use Saladin’s men to break back into Jerusalem and claim its crown. Meanwhile, Raynald of Chatillon, who was incapable of getting along with anyone for long, fell out with Sibylla and Guy and stormed out of Jerusalem. In early 1187, he and his men attacked a large and wealthy caravan that was traveling from Syria to Egypt under Saladin’s protection. Raynald himself took “every last man” prisoner and stole the baggage. Saladin threatened to attack, if the men were not released and the goods restored. Queen Sibylla and King Guy, seeing the writing on the wall, ordered Raynald to make restitution; Raynald refused. (In response, Saladin vowed to kill Raynald “if he ever had him in his power.”) The Crusader alliance was fractured; Saladin’s time had come.8

“He wrote to all his lands,” Ibn al-Athir tells us, “summoning men to the Jihad. He wrote to Mosul, the Mesopotamian regions, Irbil and other places in the east, and to Egypt and all of Syria.” As this massive force gathered, Raymond and Raynald, realizing that catastrophe was unfolding over them, both hurried to Jerusalem with their armies.

The Crusader coalition, some twenty thousand men, gathered at Sephoria, a well-watered and provisioned city in the north of the Kingdom of Jerusalem; from there, they could block Saladin’s path to Jerusalem itself. But rather than facing them directly, Saladin—in command of nearly thirty thousand troops—moved sideways and sacked the city of Tiberias, trapping Raymond’s wife in the citadel with the surviving defenders. “His purpose in besieging Tiberias had only been that the Franks should leave their position,” writes Ibn al-Athir; between Sephoria and Tiberias, the land was bare, shelterless, and dry.9

After some argument, the Crusaders decided to cross the desert and relieve Tiberias. The early July sun roasted the Crusader army as it plodded along. The only cistern they came to was guarded by Saladin’s men. By the time they met Saladin, on the plain beneath the extinct volcano peaks known as the Horns of Hattin, soldiers and horses alike were nearly incapacitated by heat and thirst. The Battle of Hattin, fought on the morning of July 4, was a rout. Within six hours, says the French account of the battle, the Crusaders were slaughtered; Raymond escaped, but Raynald of Chatillon, King Guy, and the commanding officers of both the Templar and the Hospitaller orders were taken prisoner.10

Saladin, ordering King Guy and Raynald of Chatillon brought into his own tent, offered the king (“near dead from thirst,” Ibn al-Athir says) a cold drink. Having drunk, Guy turned to Reynald and offered him the rest. The code of Muslim hospitality dictated that no host could kill a man who had drunk his water or eaten his food; Saladin at once said, “Not with my permission did this accursed man drink water and so gain my safe-conduct.” He rose, and beheaded Raynald with his own scimitar.11

After this, Saladin ordered the captured Templars and Hospitallers executed; their single-minded defense of the holy sites was too dangerous. But King Guy and the other officers who had surrendered were well fed and made comfortable in their imprisonment.

Saladin and his army marched on to Acre, arriving at the city’s walls a week later. Acre had almost no defenders left; they had all gone out to join the coalition at Sephoria. The city’s inhabitants, who had heard of Saladin’s mercy towards his captives, offered to surrender in return for safe-conduct. Saladin agreed; he then entered the city through the open gate and celebrated Friday prayers in the old Acre mosque, which had been transformed into a church and now was restored to its original purpose.

After this, most of the Holy Land was his. Ascalon surrendered, on the same terms, on September 4; the city of Jerusalem, on October 2, after Saladin had again guaranteed the safety of its Christian inhabitants, even allowing those who left the city to take their money and belongings with them. “On top of the Dome of the Rock was a great gilded cross,” writes Ibn al-Althir. “When the Muslims entered the city on the Friday, several men climbed to the top of the dome to displace the cross. When they did so and it fell, everyone in the city and outside, both Muslims and Franks, cried out as one. The Muslims shouted ‘God is great!‘ in joy while the Franks cried out in distress and pain.”12


22.1 The Conquests of Saladin

BACK IN WESTERN FRANCIA, the battling kings of France and England had arranged a parley for January of 1188 at Gisors, where a huge elm tree marked the border between Henry’s lands in Normandy and Philip’s royal domain.


22.2 Gisors

They had barely arrived when the Archbishop of Tyre asked for an audience. Tyre still held out against Saladin; the elderly archbishop had left the city in a galley with black-painted sails to bring the news to the west. Now he begged both kings to abandon their own hostilities and to take the cross in a third crusade. Pope Gregory VIII had already authorized the Crusade, issuing a call for a seven-year truce all throughout Europe so that kings and armies could pour their energies into recovering Jerusalem.13

Both Henry and Philip accepted the challenge. Hostilities were put on hold, and preparations began for the journey east. The seventy-year-old Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, announced his intentions to join as well. All of Europe seemed to be turning east.

“The news reached Saladin,” writes William of Tyre, “that the emperor of Germany, the king of France, and the king of England and all the high barons overseas had taken the cross to come against him. He was not at all pleased.”14


If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!