In medieval and modern legend, he was the most chivalrous of all those involved with the crusades. He was mighty and merciful, wise and brave. He was also the man who destroyed the dream of a Christian Jerusalem and started the slow retreat of the Latin kingdoms.

In the west he is known as Saladin.

Salah-ed din Yusef ibn Ayub was born in the year 1138.1 His family was of the Rawadiya clan of Kurds who had migrated to Baghdad and entered the service of the caliphs. They were devout Sunni Moslems and Yusef, that is, Saladin, was a shining example of the ideal warrior for orthodox Islam.

Saladin’s father, Ayub, was governor of the town of Baalbek in Syria. Saladin was born in Tikrit, north of Baghdad, and spent his childhood in Mosul.2 In 1152, at the age of fourteen, he entered the service of Nur ad-Din, the son of Zengi, who had captured Edessa, precipitating the Second Crusade.3

Shi’ite Damascus was often a reluctant ally of the kings of Jerusalem against the incursions of the newly converted Sunni Turks. When, in 1157 Nur ad-Din took Damascus the only major Shi’ite stronghold left was Egypt. The country had been weakened by internal battles for power. The Shi’ite Fatimid dynasty was failing. Around 1162, the vizier to the Fatimid caliphs, Shawar, was unseated in a palace coup. Shawar fled to Syria and convinced Nur ad-Din to support him in an attempt to regain power. Nur ad-Din sent his lieutenant Asad al-Din Shirkuh to lead the army. With him Shirkuh took his nephew Saladin.4

Shawar was restored to his position in 1164 and Shirkuh and Saladin returned to Syria. However, Shawar was “obsessed by the fear of a Turkish invasion.”5Not trusting his Turkish-Sunni allies, he contacted the Frankish king, Almaric, who had already been in negotiations with the Egyptians and asked the king to protect him from Shirkuh if necessary. The king’s representatives to the vizier were Hugh, lord of Caesarea, and Geoffrey Fulcher, a Templar.6

Almaric agreed to join forces with Shawar. The combined armies were able to roust Shirkuh from the town of Balbis, which he had recently taken. But, while Almaric and his men were in Egypt, Nur ad-Din took advantage of the situation and attacked the Latin city of Banyas.7 This was typical of the problems of the Latin kingdoms. There were too many fronts to defend.

In 1167, King Almaric and Vizier Shawar again met Shirkuh in battle. In this battle Saladin distinguished himself, capturing the envoy, Hugh of Caesarea, and many others.8However, after defending the city of Alexandria during a long siege, Saladin and his uncle were forced to retreat once again.

Finally in 1168, Almaric was told that Shawar was sending messages to Nur ad-Din, asking for his help to maintain power in Egypt. It is not at all certain that this was true. According to William of Tyre, the Templars refused to take part in this expedition because they didn’t believe Shawar had broken the treaty. He also suggests that the Templars were annoyed because the invasion was the idea of Gilbert d’Assaily, the master of the Hospital.9William always had mixed feelings about the Templars.

Whatever the reason, Shawar was seriously weakened by the Christian attack. After he had made another truce with Almaric, the king retreated back to Jerusalem, leaving the way open for Shirkuh and Saladin.

Shawar greeted the Turks as rescuers but Shirkuh was highly suspicious of a man who made treaties with idolaters against other Moslems. He felt that this was because the caliphs of Egypt were, in his mind, Shi’ite heretics. Therefore, he decided to oust the vizier.10

Saladin was dispatched to arrest Shawar. The vizier was beheaded and his head sent to Cairo. Shirkuh was made vizier in his place.11 The Fatimid caliphs were kept as puppet kings for the time being.

Saladin’s biographer states that Shirkuh “was a great eater, excessively given to partaking of rich meats. He suffered many bouts of indigestion.” 12 On March 22, 1169, Saladin’s uncle died, perhaps after a particularly rich meal, and Saladin became vizier of Egypt. He never looked back. In 1170 he captured Gaza, a frontier town long held by the Templars.

Like Nur ad-Din, Saladin was devoutly orthodox and believed it was his duty to rid the Holy Land of infidels. Like the Christians, he also believed it necessary to either convert or silence heretics within his own faith, like the Shi’ites. One of his first tasks in Egypt was “strengthening the Sunni cause and planting in the local population pious learning, law, Sufi practice and [true] religion.”13 This included the crucifixion of the Sufi heretic al Suhrawadi in 1180 because “it was said that he rejected the Holy Law and declared it invalid.”14

When the last Fatimid caliph died in 1171, Saladin replaced him. His dynasty would be known as the Ayyubids, after Saladin’s father, Ayub.

Once established in Egypt, Saladin put his energy into driving out the Franks and in establishing his independence from Nur ad-Din without causing an outright rupture in their relations. He was aided in both these things by the deaths in 1174 of both Nur ad-Din, on May 15, and King Almaric, on July 11.15Nur ad-Din’s heir was a young boy. Almaric’s was the thirteen-year-old Baldwin IV, who had suffered from leprosy since the age of nine. Neither was able to provide the leadership needed, although poor Baldwin tried.

Saladin seems to have felt that he was the spiritual heir of Nur ad-Din. He took over the city of Damascus and married Nur ad-Din’s widow. Now he controlled both Egypt and Damascus. He was able to attack the Latin kingdoms from both the east and the west.16Jerusalem braced for the blow. Instead, to the great relief of the Christians,


Saladin. (Art Resource, NY)

Saladin turned east to finish taking over the lands that Nur ad-Din had left to his young son, including the cities of Mosul and Aleppo.

In 1180, Saladin made an alliance with the Seljuk sultan of Anatolia, Kilij Arslan II, in order to fight against the town of Mosul.17He married one of his daughters to Kilij’s son, who slowly pushed his father out of office and proved a strong supporter of his father-in-law.

While still working to capture Mosul, Saladin was able to take Aleppo, which he gave to his brother, al-Adil, to govern.18

Mosul still held out, so, in 1185, Saladin made a four-year truce with young Baldwin, despite his earlier reservations about those who make treaties with infidels in order to fight other Moslems.

What happened next depends on one’s point of view. But, in one of the unpredictable quirks of history, the fate of Jerusalem may have been decided by the actions of one hotheaded man.

Once upon a time there was a knight named Reynald de Chatillon. He was good looking and adventurous, but poor. So, perhaps seduced by romance tales popular in France, he came to Antioch in the 1150s to seek his fortune. Amazingly, he found it in the person of Constance, princess of Antioch. She had been the little girl married at the age of nine to Raymond of Poitiers. Raymond was dead and Constance was not inclined to marry again for the good of the realm. Instead, she chose Reynald.19

He wasn’t popular with his in-laws. When Reynald was captured by Nur ad-Din in 1160, no one bothered to ransom him.20By the time he was freed in 1176, his wife had died. Since she was the heiress of Antioch, Reynald had no claim on her property. The soldier of fortune was once again without funds.

Captivity seems to have done nothing to diminish his charm. The next year Reynald married Stephanie of Milly, the daughter and heiress of Templar Philip of Nablus. Through her, Reynald gained control of the province of Outrejordan.

According to most of the chronicles, Reynald felt that the truce with Saladin didn’t apply to him. He behaved much like the Moslem raiders had in the first part of the century. He attacked pilgrims on their way to Mecca, burned towns, and, as the last straw, in 1187 he pillaged a Moslem caravan going from Cairo to Baghdad. “He seized it treacherously, maltreated and tortured its members. . . . They reminded him of the truce, but he replied, ‘Tell your Mohammad to release you.’ ”21

Reynald was handsome, charming, adventurous, and stupid.

This either gave Saladin the excuse he’d been looking for or tried his patience for the last time. It was probably a little of both.

By 1187 Baldwin IV had died. His replacement was his sister, Sybilla, and her husband, Guy of Lusignan. Guy was another adventurer and not universally popular. He and his supporter, Templar Grand Master Gerard of Ridefort, had problems with Count Raymond of Tripoli that were serious enough for Raymond to make his own truce with Saladin.22 But, when Reynald absolutely refused to return the booty he had taken from the caravan, even though King Guy insisted, everyone knew that Saladin had the perfect reason to attack.

The result was the disastrous battle of the Horns of Hattin on July 4, 1187.23

Among the men captured at Hattin were King Guy, Master Gerard of Ridefort, a large number of Templars and Hospitallers, and Reynald de Chatillon. The worst loss to the Christians, though, was the True Cross, carried into battle in a gold reliquary.

Saladin had the important prisoners brought to his tent. He offered King Guy a cup of water. When the king had finished drinking, he handed the cup to Reynald. Saladin was furious. “This godless man did not have my permission to drink!” he roared. “And I will not save his life in that way.”24With that he took his sword and beheaded Reynald of Chatillon himself.25

It must have been very satisfying, if damaging to the carpets.

King Guy and Gerard of Ridefort were ransomed but the rest of the Templars and Hospitallers were also beheaded. “He had these particular men killed because they were the fiercest of all the Frankish warriors, and in this way he rid the Muslim people of them.”26

After this, Saladin was able to roll across the country practically unhindered. He took Acre on July 10, Ascalon on September 4. Although Queen Sybilla defended the city of Jerusalem as best she could, there were no more fighting men left. Saladin captured it on October 2, 1187. He allowed the people of the town to pay their own ransoms. The patriarch of Jerusalem asked the Hospitallers for thirty thousand bezants to cover the ransoms of seven thousand poor people. That was delivered, but some people were still unredeemed. The Templars, Hospitallers, and the burgesses of Jerusalem were asked to donate more and they did, “but they didn’t give as much as they should have.”27

Even the Christian chroniclers remarked on the generosity of Saladin and that of his family in their treatment of the people of Jerusalem. Saif al-Din, Saladin’s brother, asked for the freedom of one thousand more people and, on his own, Saladin freed thousands more.28However there were many who could not pay and they were sold as slaves.29 One Moslem chronicler relates the fate of the women of the city with delight. “How many well-guarded women were profaned, . . . and miserly women forced to yield themselves, and women who had been kept hidden stripped of their modesty, and serious women made ridiculous, . . . and virgins dishonoured and proud women deflowered . . . and untamed ones tamed and happy ones made to weep!”30

On all sides, it seems chivalry only goes so far.

Then Saladin set out to purify the city. “The Templars had built their living quarters against al-Aqsa, with storerooms and latrines and other necessary offices, taking up the area of al-Aqsa. This was all restored to its former state.”31

When Europe learned of the fall of Jerusalem the pope, Urban IV, is said to have died from the shock. Henry II of England and Philip II of France were convinced to call a truce in their constant battles and establish a tax, known as the Saladin tithe, to finance armies to retake the city.32

Eventually Frederick Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor, Philip Augustus, king of France, and Richard the Lionheart, king of England, came to retake the Holy Land. In the chronicles of the Europeans, Saladin is a dangerous but magnanimous ruler. In the chronicles of the Moslems, Richard is a dangerous but cultivated ruler. Perhaps both sides felt that their respective heroes deserved a worthy opponent. Each seems to have been more respected by their enemies than their own side.

I have often heard and read that, when Richard was ill, Saladin was so gracious as to send his own doctor to the king. However, in going through the firsthand accounts from both sides, I haven’t found any reference to it. What I did find was a comment from Ba’ha al-Din that Richard asked Saladin for fruit and ice, as he craved them. The sultan “was supplying him with [these,] while intending to gain intelligence by the to-and-froing of the messengers.”33

Saladin was in his early fifties at the time of the crusade and his beard had turned white. Richard was in his early thirties and Philip some ten years younger. The sultan must have felt that he was going to war against schoolboys. Richard seems to have surprised him with his military and diplomatic skill. Reading through the chronicles, especially the interminable negotiating through envoys, interspersed with skirmishes, I get the impression that this was a contest between equals. Both men fought in the name of a religion that each believed in. They had the same rules and much the same battle tactics.

Whether they were gentlemen or barbarians is entirely a matter of opinion.

Eventually Saladin accepted a division of the country and allowed Christian pilgrims to come again to Jerusalem. He returned to Damascus to resume the governing of his far-flung territory. In late February 1193, he fell ill and, despite all the efforts of his doctors, died on March 3, at the age of fifty-five.34He left many children and grand-children, but his dynasty would only last three generations. Without his guiding influence, brothers and cousins would fight each other until they were overcome by the Mamluks, the equivalent of the palace guard of Egypt.

Saladin was such a grand figure that he was respected as well as feared in the West. Unlike the Templars, he was the subject of romance literature. By the fifteenth century, there were several stories about him, including how he had made a journey to France as a young man and had an affair with the queen of France.35

It seemed impossible to some that such a magnificent man could be totally from another culture. The author of the thirteenth-century romance “The Daughter of the Count of Pontieu” decided that he must have had some European ancestry. In the story, the heroine is kidnapped by a Saracen king who treats her well and by whom she has children. However, she longs to return to Christian lands and finally escapes. One of the children she leaves behind becomes the grandmother of the “chivalrous Saladin.”36Of course there is no truth to the story. But it does show how the legend of the “chivalrous Saladin” penetrated even in the lands of his enemies.

The legend survives to this day.


Stanley Lane-Poole, Saladin and the Fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1898) p. 6.


Baha’ al-Din Ibn Shaddad, The Rare and Excellent History of Saladin, tr. D. S. Richards (Ashgate, Aldershot, 2002) p. 17.


Hans Eberhard Mayer, The Crusades (Oxford University Press, 1988; 2nd ed.) p. 121.


Ba’ha al-Din, p. 17.


Ibid., p. 18.


Malcolm Barber, The New Knighthood (Cambridge University Press, 1994) p. 96.


William of Tyre, Chronicon, ed. R. B. C. Huygens (Turnholt, 1986)19, 5-11, pp. 872-79. Banyas had been an Assassin town but they had turned it over to the Franks rather than let the Sunni have it.


William of Tyre, 19, 25, p. 899.


Ibid., 20, 5, p. 918.


Ba’ha al-Din, p. 44.


Ibid. They were always sending heads to Baghdad or Cairo. Don’t you wonder what they did with them all?


Ibid., p. 45.




Ibid., p. 20.


William of Tyre, 20, 31, pp. 956-57.


Mayer, p. 124.


Ibid., p. 125.


Ba’ha al-Din, p. 63.


This story is in most histories of the crusades, as well as William of Tyre. One of the best summaries of his life is in René Grousset, Histoire des Croisades et du Royaume Franc de Jérusalem (Paris, 1935) p. 699ff. For more on Constance, see chapter 10,Melisande, Queen of Jerusalem .


Mayer, p. 115.


Ba’ha al-Din, p. 37.


Barber, p. 113.


Please see the reference to the Third Crusade elsewhere in this book.


Imad ad Din, in Arab Historians of the Crusades, tr. Francesco Gabrieli (Dorset, 1969) p. 124.


Ibid. Ba’ha al-Din, p. 75, says that Saladin only cut off his arm and others finished him off. It turned out the same for Reynald.


Ibid., p. 124. Other chroniclers agree that the members of the military orders were killed, but only this one gives a reason.


Chronique d’Ernoul et de Bernard le Trésorier, ed. m. L. De Mas Latrie (Paris, 1871) p. 226, “et li Temples et le Hospitaus i donna; mais n’i donnerent mie tant come il deussent.”


Ernoul, p. 228. This was written long after the event. It may or may not be true, but it does show that the West saw Saladin as a chivalrous man.


Ibn al-Athir in Gabrieli, p. 163.




Ibid., p. 144.


Mayer, pp. 139-40.


Ba’ha al-Din, p. 228.


Ibid., p. 244.


Suzanne Duparc-Quioc, Le Cycle de La Croisade (Paris, 1955) pp. 170-205.


La Fille du Comte de Pontieu (Paris: Société des Anciens Textes Français, 1923) p. 50, “ensi com verités tesmoingne, de cele fu nee le mere au courtois Salehadin.”

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