Saladin and the Templars

The View from the Temple Mount

In the decades following the Second Crusade, visitors to the Temple Mount were impressed with how it was being developed by the Knights Templar. After prayers at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, with its chapels associated with the crucifixion and burial of Jesus and the discovery of the True Cross, pilgrims walked to the Temple Mount, entering through the western gate near the south side of the Dome of the Rock, the Templum Domini, or Temple of the Lord, a church served by canons of the Augustinian order. On the outer court the canons and Templars had built houses and planted gardens.

According to Theoderich, a German pilgrim who wrote about his visit to the Holy Land in 1172, the Temple of the Lord bore an inscription that read ‘The house of the Lord is well built upon a firm rock’, but that as pilgrims were in the habit of chipping away bits of the holy rock, its surface had to be paved with marble and it was cordoned off by a tall and beautifully worked wrought-iron screen which was put up between the encircling columns.

From the Temple of the Lord, continued Theoderich, the pilgrims made their way south to the Templar headquarters at the al-Aqsa mosque, or rather what he called the Palace of Solomon:

which is oblong, and supported by columns within like a church, and at the end is round like a sanctuary and covered by a great round dome. This building, with all its appurtenances, has passed into the hands of the Knights Templar, who dwell in it and in the other buildings connected with it, having many magazines of arms, clothing, and food in it, and are ever on the watch to guard and protect the country. They have below them stables for horses built by King Solomon himself in the days of old, adjoining the palace, a wondrous and intricate building resting on piers and containing an endless complication of arches and vaults, which stable, we declare, according to our reckoning, could take in ten thousand horses with their grooms. No man could send an arrow from one end of their building to the other, either lengthways or crossways, at one shot with a Balearic bow. Above, it abounds with rooms, solar chambers, and buildings suitable for all manner of uses. Those who walk upon the roof of it find an abundance of gardens, courtyards, ante-chambers, vestibules and rain-water cisterns; while down below it contains a wonderful number of baths, storehouses, granaries, and magazines for the storage of wood and other needful provisions.

The southern part of the Temple Mount had therefore become the combined administrative, military and religious headquarters of the Templars, with a vast stable underneath. The Grand Master had his chambers there and was attended by his entourage which included a chaplain, two knights, a clerk, a sergeant, a Muslim scribe to act as an interpreter, as well as servants and a cook. The Seneschal, the Marshal, the Commander of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Draper were also here along with their attendants. In addition there were about three hundred Templar knights and a thousand sergeants in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, as well as the native Syrian light cavalry, called Turcopoles, who were employed by the order, and numerous auxiliaries, including grooms, blacksmiths, armourers and stonemasons, and many of these would have been quartered on the Temple Mount.

The Temple Mount was a busy place. Yet at its heart it was as silent as any monastery, for the Templars followed the canonical hours like any Cistercian or Benedictine monk, rising at four for Matins and retiring to bed after Compline, attending regular services and prayers in between, eating their meals in silence while listening to readings from the Bible, and otherwise caring for their horses.

The so-called Stables of Solomon were in fact a substructure of vaults and arches built by Herod to extend the platform of the Mount, and later reconstruction work was undertaken by the Umayyads and the Templars. The Templars indeed used this as a stables, but Theoderich’s claim that ten thousand horses could be stabled beneath the Mount is an exaggeration; other travellers estimated the capacity at about two thousand horses, and allowing space for squires, grooms and perhaps even pilgrims sleeping there, the number of horses stabled at any one time was more like five hundred.

These warrior monks were a powerful force in the Holy Land, whose defence since the Second Crusade fell increasingly on their shoulders. Contrary to popular belief the Templars were not fanatics forever in search of battle with the infidel. Generally they were pragmatic and conservative in their approach to politics and warfare, if anything more so than the counts and kings of Outremer who were driven by personal and dynastic ambitions in the here and now. In becoming a Knight Templar each man surrendered his will to the order, as in the words of one recruit: ‘I, renouncing secular life and its pomp, relinquishing everything, give myself to the Lord God and to the knighthood of the Temple of Solomon of Jersualem, that, as long as I shall live, in accordance with my strength, I shall serve there a complete pauper for God.’

Self-will was replaced with service to the order and its aims, and the Templars were playing a long game, dedicated to defending the Holy Land for all time. In any case conflict in the Middle Ages tended to be more about sieges of cities and castles than battle in the open field, which was unpredictable and risky even under the most favourable circumstances. And in Outremer patience had its rewards as it was usually only a matter of time before the uneasy Muslim coalitions against the Christians fell apart. And so it was with confidence that the Templars looked out from their headquarters atop the Temple Mount upon Jerusalem and the future that lay beyond.

Tunnels and Chambers Beneath the Dome of the Rock

In his account of the Temple Mount, the twelfth-century pilgrim Theoderich mentioned some strange underground features. After ascending the Mount pilgrims arrived at the lower court of the Templum Domini, the Temple of the Lord, formerly the Dome of the Rock, which was built on the site of Solomon’s Temple. ‘One mounts from the lower court to the upper one by twenty-two steps’, wrote Theoderich, ‘and from the upper court one enters the Temple. In front of these same steps in the lower court there are twenty-five steps or more, leading down into a great pool, from which it is said there is a subterranean connection with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, through which the holy fire which is miraculously lighted in that church on Easter Even is said to be brought underground to the Temple of the Lord.’

The first mention of an aperture in the rock was made in AD 333 by a traveller known as the Bordeaux Pilgrim, but the first documented reference to the cave beneath the rock was made by Ibn al-Faqih in 903: ‘Under the rock is a cavern in which the people pray. This cavern is capable of containing 62 persons.’ A Persian, Nasir-i Khusraw, who visited the Dome of the Rock in 1047, described the large cavern under the rock ‘where they burn tapers’, which was perhaps the tradition that led Theoderich to make the connection with the miraculous Easter fire at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Ali of Herat, who visited the Temple Mount in 1173 when Jerusalem was under Christian rule, gave this description: ‘Underneath the rock is the Cave of the Souls. They say that Allah will bring together the souls of all True Believers to this spot. You descend to this cave by some fourteen steps. The Cave of the Souls is of the height of a man. Its length extends 11 paces from east to west and 13 paces from north to south.’

Muslims say that the souls of the dead can be heard here as they await the Day of Judgement. And according to both Muslim tradition and the Talmud of the Jews the rock lies at the centre of the world. Beneath it is the abyss where Muslims say the waters of Paradise flow, but the Talmud says the waters of the Flood rage.

In some Jewish traditions it is also regarded as the place where the Ark of the Covenant stood–and where, when Solomon’s Temple was destroyed in 587 BC, the Ark was concealed and remains hidden.

Amalric’s Egyptian Campaigns

The Fatimid garrison at Ascalon had controlled the route into the Nile Delta and to Cairo, the same line of attack taken by the Arabs when they invaded Egypt in 640, after their conquest of Syria and Palestine. When King Baldwin III captured Ascalon with Templar help in 1153 it opened the door to Egypt for the Franks. But the opportunity was only seized after Baldwin died in 1162 and was succeeded by his twenty-five-year-old brother Amalric, who on three occasions, in 1164, 1167 and 1168, entered Egypt to prevent it falling to Nur al-Din.

The Fatimid regime in Cairo had grown weak and unstable, with two viziers vying with one another for control over the enfeebled caliphs. Each of the viziers reached outside Egypt for support, drawing Amalric in Jerusalem and Nur al-Din in Damascus into their quarrel. For the Franks the prize was potentially enormous: by installing a friendly government in Cairo the Kingdom of Jerusalem would not only gain access to the vast resources of Egypt but would also protect its southern flank. But the prize was no less great for Nur al-Din: not only would his acquisition of Egypt give him control over the trade route from Damascus that terminated in Cairo, but he would entirely surround the Christian states.

Each side had grounds for hope. Alaric understood that for the Fatimids, who were both Shia and Arab, their greatest enemy was not his Christian kingdom but Nur al-Din, who was a Sunni and a Seljuk Turk. But though two centuries of Fatimid rule meant that Shia influences were strong in Egypt, Nur al-Din knew that the mass of Egyptians remained Sunni, and he counted on the shared Muslim bond between Cairo and Damascus. For five years this contest was waged between Amalric and Shirkuh, the Kurdish general commanding Nur al-Din’s army. If either rival won Egypt to its side, the gain could be decisive.

Amalric had large contingents of Templars in his army when he twice, in 1164 and 1167, forced Shirkuh to withdraw from Egypt and then withdrew himself. A leading Templar also took part in the mission which negotiated the treaty of alliance between Amalric and Shawar, the Fatimid vizier, prior to the Franks’ military intervention in 1167. But by then the fundamental weakness of the Fatimid regime was obvious to both Nur al-Din and Amalric, and it was only a matter of time before one of them would strike the coup de grâce. Amalric struck first, marching into Egypt in 1168 with the intention of outright annexation–without the support of Templar forces. The Fatimids withdrew within the walls of Cairo and burnt its suburbs to the ground, and they sent for help to Nur al-Din. This time it was Amalric who was forced to withdraw, and Nur al-Din’s Kurdish general Shirkuh entered Cairo, decapitated Shawar and installed himself as vizier. His rule was not long; in March 1169 Shirkuh died and was succeeded as vizier by his nephew Salah al-Din, better known in the West as Saladin.

Templar Relations with the Kingdom of Jerusalem

The capture of Egypt by Nur al-Din’s forces was a strategic calamity for the Franks. Why the Templars refused to participate in Amalric’s 1168 invasion has been a matter of speculation and debate. Again the earliest principal source for these events is William of Tyre, who was commissioned by Amalric to write his history of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and might have been expected to fiercely condemn the Templars. Yet William himself disapproved of the campaign and said that the Templars objected on moral grounds; ‘it seemed against their conscience’ to break the treaty which they had helped negotiate with Shawar in 1167.

What William did not mention, though it was true, was that the Templars were financially connected with the Muslims and with the Italian merchants, who carried on a greater trade with Egypt than with all the Crusader ports combined. William confined his criticism to the suggestion that the Templars may have been jealous of the Hospitallers, who had taken the lead in urging Amalric to undertake the expedition and had already claimed Pelusium on the edge of the Egyptian Delta for themselves. The perpetual rivalry between the two orders was a problem; it was seldom that they could be induced to campaign together, and each followed its own line regardless of the official policy of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

For all the strategic importance of Egypt, there were other strategic considerations that the Templars would reasonably have taken into account. In 1164 when the bulk of Templar forces had been with Amalric on campaign in Egypt, Nur al-Din had taken advantage by striking in the north, inflicting heavy losses against the army of the prince of Antioch, which included the deaths of sixty Templar knights and numerous more sergeants and Turcopoles, precisely in the area where the Templars bore responsibility for manning strategically sited castles that were part of the ultimate defence of Outremer. The experience may have impressed upon the Templars the need to husband their resources and concentrate them where they were most needed.

Certainly there were strong differences over military strategy between Amalric and the Templars, with William of Tyre describing a dramatic incident that occurred in 1166. Learning that a Templar garrison was under siege beyond the Jordan, Amalric rode out to relieve them with a large force. But when he reached the river he was told that what William describes as an ‘impregnable cave’ had already fallen to Nur al-Din’s general Shirkuh. The Templars may have thought that their garrison was out on a limb too far. But outraged and confounded by the news, Amalric hanged twelve of the Templars who had surrendered to Shirkuh. Add to this the story of the Assassins’ envoy killed by the Templars in 1173, an event, according to William of Tyre, that brought the kingdom to the edge of ‘irrevocable ruin’ as it cost Jerusalem an ally against encircling Sunni power, and there is a pattern of Templar wilfulness in military, political and religious matters. The Hospitallers could be no less independent of secular authority, but their image was softened by the alms and care they lavished on pilgrims, whereas the image of the Templars rested more exclusively on their military prowess, and then there was their involvement in financial activities. The independence of the orders was liable to provoke resentment, and in the case of the Templars it led increasingly to criticism that the order was primarily concerned with protecting and advancing its own interests.

Excellent Soldiers and Humble Monks

An unknown pilgrim visiting Jerusalem sometime after the middle of the twelfth century described the Templars as follows:

The Templars are most excellent soldiers. They wear white mantles with a red cross, and when they go to the wars a standard of two colours called balzaus is borne before them. They go in silence. Their first attack is the most terrible. In going they are the first, in returning the last. They await the orders of their Master. When they think fit to make war and the trumpet has sounded, they sing in chorus the Psalm of David, ‘Not unto us, O Lord’, kneeling on the blood and necks of the enemy, unless they have forced the troops of the enemy to retire altogether, or utterly broken them to pieces. Should any of them for any reason turn his back to the enemy, or come forth alive [from a defeat], or bear arms against the Christians, he is severely punished; the white mantle with the red cross, which is the sign of his knighthood, is taken away with ignominy, he is cast from the society of brethren, and eats his food on the floor without a napkin for the space of one year. If the dogs molest him, he does not dare to drive them away. But at the end of the year, if the Master and brethren think his penance to have been sufficient, they restore him the belt of his former knighthood. These Templars live under a strict religious rule, obeying humbly, having no private property, eating sparingly, dressing meanly, and dwelling in tents.

From Anonymous Pilgrims, translated by A. Stewart, London 1894.

The Rise of Saladin

In 1171 as the Fatimid caliph al-Adid lay dying, prayers rose from the mosques of Cairo, but not for the last of Egypt’s Shia rulers, instead for Nur al-Din’s puppet, the Sunni caliph in Baghdad. Notional Abbasid rule was reimposed on Egypt; in reality al-Adid was the last Arab ruler in the Middle East, and the once imperial Arabs were now governed by Turks and Kurds. Saladin continued in the office of vizier, supposedly ruling Egypt on behalf of Nur al-Din, but in effect ruling Egypt for himself. To consolidate his position, Saladin began constructing the Citadel of Cairo and extended the city walls. When Nur al-Din died in 1174 Saladin declared himself sultan in Egypt and rushed to seize Damascus. The Christians were now reaping the consequences of their failure to take Egypt; for the first time they were surrounded by a united Muslim power. Moreover the able Amalric had died in 1174 and was succeeded by his young son Baldwin IV, who suffered from leprosy.

By the end of 1177 Saladin was ready to strike, and in November he crossed the frontier from Egypt. The Templars summoned all their available knights to defend Gaza, but Saladin bypassed them for Ascalon. Raising what men at arms he could, Baldwin rushed to block him, and together with the True Cross and the commander of his army, Raynald of Chatillon, he managed to get inside the walls of Ascalon before Saladin arrived. But instead of attacking, Saladin left a small force to besiege Ascalon and marched towards an undefended Jersualem with 30,000 men, though the figure is probably exaggerated. Sending a message to the Templars, Baldwin told them to abandon Gaza and join him. When they came near, Baldwin broke out of Ascalon and chased after Saladin, marching north along the coast and then inland. On 25 November Saladin’s army was crossing a ravine at Montgisard near Ramleh close by the Jaffa-Jerusalem road when Baldwin and the Templars fell upon them, taking them by surprise. The king himself was in the vanguard, and Raynald of Chatillon and Balian of Ibelin helped on the victory, and some saw Saint George himself, whose church was nearby at Lydda, fighting by their side.

The Christian force comprised 450 knights, 80 of them Templars, and a few thousand infantry, and they lost about 1100 men. But they inflicted on Saladin’s forces an overwhelming defeat, killing 90 per cent of his army, Saladin himself only narrowly managing to escape back to Egypt where to cling to power he spread the lie that the Christians had lost the battle.

The battle of Montgisard had been a great victory and it saved the Kingdom of Jerusalem for the moment, but it did not alter the fundamental situation. Against the vast resources of Egypt on which Saladin could draw, the Franks were short of men and it was dangerous to risk their army on offensive operations. Had Baldwin the forces to pursue the enemy to Cairo or to make a sudden attack on Damascus, he might have destroyed Saladin with a crushing blow. Instead he decided to reinforce his defences along the Syrian frontier, and at the insistence of the Templars he built the castle of Chastellet to control a ford across the upper Jordan where Jacob of the Old Testament was said to have wrestled with the angel (Genesis 32:24). But lacking neither resources nor resolution, Saladin kept up the pressure on the Damascus front, laid siege to Chastellet in June 1179 and again in August 1179, succeeded in mining the castle walls, then executed its 700 defenders and razed it to the ground.

Faced with an extreme drought that was threatening harvests throughout Syria and Outremer, in May 1180 Baldwin and Saladin agreed a two-year truce. For Saladin this was convenient as it allowed him to pursue his siege of Aleppo, which was in the hands of Nur al-Din’s son. For Baldwin it bought time. And for Christian and Muslim traders the truce meant that they could pass freely through each other’s territory. But the treaty was broken the following year by Raynald of Chatillon, a bold and able soldier who was lord of Oultrejourdain, which lay astride Saladin’s line of communication between Cairo and Damascus. From his castle of Kerak he could see the rich Muslim caravans travelling to Medina and Mecca, and falling upon one of these, he made off with all its goods. Saladin complained to Baldwin and demanded compensation, but Raynald refused to make restitution. In 1182 Raynald took matters further when he launched a fleet of ships into the Gulf of Aqaba and down the Red Sea where they raided Egyptian and Arabian ports, including those of Mecca and Medina, until they were driven back by a naval force under the command of Saladin’s brother.

Chivalry and Reality

The concept of chivalry (the word derives from chevalier, the French for knight) arose in Western Europe in the century leading up to the First Crusade. A moral, religious and social code, chivalry emphasised the virtues of courage, service and honour. Combined with piety and faith, it found expression in the Crusades. Godfrey of Bouillon, the leader of the First Crusade, was widely seen as an exemplar of knightly virtues, and the chroniclers celebrated Baldwin, his brother and successor, for the chivalry he showed after capturing the wife of a Muslim prince and upon discovering she was pregnant immediately sending her back to her husband with every mark of respect.

Saladin came to admire the chivalrous code of the Frankish knights, and he acted with courtesy and sometimes clemency in return. There was the famous instance when he laid siege to Raymond of Chatillon’s castle of Kerak. A marriage was being celebrated within, and when Raymond’s wife sent trays of the festive meal to Saladin outside he tactfully inquired in which chamber the bridal couple were lodged so that he would not bombard them on their wedding night. For gestures such as these Saladin became a legend throughout Christendom, a worthy and honourable adversary–a phenomenon some naively explained by supposing that he must have had an English mother. In fact Saladin was following the precepts of Islam’s own version of chivalry called futuwwa, which roughly means nobility.

But in reality chivalrous relations were rarely the rule between the Crusaders and the Muslims. The massacre perpetrated by the Crusaders at the fall of Jerusalem in 1099 was disgraceful but it was hardly an exceptional event. Populations that did not surrender were marked down for death or slavery as Zengi showed when he captured Edessa in 1144 or as the Mamelukes would show when they stormed Acre in 1291 and beheaded every last person in the city. Not that surrender was a guarantee: the Mameluke Sultan Baybars, in spite of his oath, murdered nearly a thousand prisoners after the fall of Saphet in 1266.

Saladin could be ruthless, and in the interests of policy he did not shrink from bloodshed. He was a devout Muslim who abhorred free-thinkers, and though he made many friends among the Christians, he never doubted that their souls were doomed to damnation. His famous magnanimity lay partly in his humanity but was also a matter of calculation. He did not shrink from cruelty when it suited his policy of instilling fear and asserting his dominance over his adversaries. In Cairo he ordered the crucifixion of his Shia opponents, and he was not averse to mutilating and executing his captives, as after the battle of Hattin when he slaughtered his Hospitaller and Templar captives in cold blood. It seems to have been only the threat made by the Frankish defenders of Jerusalem in 1187 that they would destroy all the sacred places, everything atop the Temple Mount, that caused Saladin to prefer a negotiated surrender to his original intention of purifying the city with Christian blood.

Factions in Outremer

Behind the scenes of these events was a growing division within Outremer between those who wanted to pursue an aggressive policy towards Saladin and those who sought accommodation. Among the former was Raynald of Chatillon, while among the latter was Count Raymond III of Tripoli and the slowly dying king. But Saladin had his own policy, which was to annihilate the Christian states, and their internal differences only made it easier for Saladin to destroy them. But for the moment the forces of Outremer were able to make a united stand against Saladin, who in May 1182, at the expiry of the truce, rode out with an invasion army from Cairo. Baldwin, who was now almost blind and had to be carried in a litter, was waiting with his army on the west bank of the Jordan, accompanied by Heraclius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, and the True Cross. Following a fierce battle Saladin was repelled but not defeated, and both sides claimed victory.

The following June, however, Saladin finally captured Aleppo–and with it he gained full control of Syria. Not for two centuries had there been such a powerful Muslim ruler, his territories stretching from North Africa to the Tigris. Now Saladin was ready to unleash his jihad against the Christians. With Outremer encircled, the Templar and Hospitaller Grand Masters set sail in 1184 together with Heraclius to seek help from the West. The kings of France and England and the Holy Roman Emperor received them with honour and discussed plans for a great crusade, but they gave pressing domestic reasons for not going to the East themselves, and instead they paid barely sufficient money to cover the cost of a few hundred knights for a year. While in London early in 1185 Heraclius consecrated the new Temple Church, the one that stands there to this day. But the Templar Grand Master did not get that far; he had fallen ill en route, and died at Verona.

At about the same time as Heraclius was consecrating the new Templar church in London, Gerard of Ridefort was elected the new Grand Master by the Templars in Jerusalem, his elevation coinciding with the culmination of the factional disputes within the kingdom. Baldwin IV died in March 1185 and was buried in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and his successor the child-king Baldwin V died in 1186, not yet nine years old. Raymond III of Tripoli, leader of the party seeking accommodation with Saladin, had been the boy’s regent according to his father’s will, which also stated that if the child died before the age of ten Raymond was to remain as regent until a new king was chosen through the arbitration of the Pope, the Holy Roman Emperor and the kings of France and England.

Instead the boy’s mother, Sibylla, who was the sister of the leper king, claimed the throne for herself and her husband Guy of Lusignan. Backed by the party that supported an aggressive policy towards Saladin–among them Raynald of Chatillon, the lord of Oultrejourdain; Gerard of Ridefort, the Grand Master of the Templars; and Heraclius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, who had also been the lover of Sibylla’s mother–Sibylla and Guy were quickly crowned at Jerusalem. All the barons of Outremer accepted what in effect was a coup d’état; all except Raymond of Tripoli, who felt he had been cheated of the kingship, and his close ally Balian of Ibelin.

The Springs of Cresson

Going from factional rivalry to treason, Count Raymond of Tripoli entered into a secret treaty with Saladin. Not only did it apply to Tripoli itself but also to his wife’s principality of Galilee, even though it was part of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, which might soon be at war with the Muslims. Saladin also promised his support for Raymond’s aim to overthrow Sibylla and Guy of Lusignan and make himself king. In April 1187 Guy responded by summoning his loyal barons and marching north to Galilee to reduce it to submission before the expected Muslim attack began. But Balian of Ibelin, fearing the consequences of civil war, persuaded Guy to let him lead a delegation to Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee and try to negotiate a reconciliation between Raymond and the king. The delegation would include the Grand Masters of the Hospitallers and the Templars, and Balian would meet them at the Templar castle of La Fève on 1 May.

Meanwhile Saladin had asked Raymond’s permission to send a reconnaissance party of Mameluke slave troops through Galilee on that day, and though the timing was embarrasing Raymond was obliged to agree under the terms of the secret treaty, stipulating only that the Muslims should traverse his territory within the day and be gone by dark, and do no harm to any town or village. Raymond broadcast the news that the Muslim party would be passing through and urged his people to stay indoors. But Balian had heard nothing of this when he arrived at Le Fève in the middle of the morning on 1 May expecting to join the Grand Masters there. Instead he found the castle empty, and after waiting in the silence for an hour or two, he set out again towards Tiberias, thinking the others had gone ahead, when suddenly a bleeding Templar knight galloped by shouting out news of a great disaster.

Raymond of Tripoli’s message about the Muslim party had reached La Fève in the evening of the previous day, 30 April, where Gerard of Ridefort heard the news. At once he summoned the Templars from the surrounding neighbourhood and by nightfall ninety had joined him there. In the morning they rode north through Nazareth where forty secular knights joined the hunt for the enemy’s scouting party. But as they passed over the hill behind Nazareth what they saw was a large expedition of perhaps 7000 elite Mameluke horsemen watering their mounts at the Springs of Cresson in the valley below. Both the Templar marshal and the Hospitaller Grand Master advised retreat, but Gerard of Ridefort, the Templar Grand Master, insisted on attack. Charging furiously down the hillside, the 130 knights rode into the mass of the Muslim cavalry and were slaughtered almost to a man, only three Templars, Gerard among them, escaping with their lives.

That at any rate was the account given by an anonymous chronicler who obtained much of his information from the lost chronicle of Ernoul, who was a member of Balian’s entourage. But neither Balian nor Ernoul were at the battle, and any account issuing from Balian’s camp was likely to paint their factional opponent Gerard of Ridefort in the worst possible light. Another chronicle, the Itinerarium Regis Ricardi, apparently based on the lost journal of an English knight writing in about 1191, contradicts the story that Gerard rushed recklessly at the enemy; instead, and much more plausibly, it reports that the Templars were caught unaware and were the victims of a Muslim attack. Even so, Saladin’s expedition kept to his agreement with Raymond of Tripoli, for his horsemen rode home long before nightfall, and they had not harmed a town or village in Galilee. But fixed to the lances of the Mameluke vanguard were the heads of the Templar knights.

The Horns of Hattin

Shamed by this tragedy, which was much his doing, Raymond of Tripoli broke his treaty with Saladin and rode to Jerusalem where he made his peace with the king. The peril was far too great for Guy of Lusignan to do anything but welcome Raymond’s renewed loyalty to the kingdom, for at that moment Saladin was gathering a great army just over the frontier. Guy called every able-bodied man to arms at Acre, emptying the cities and castles of fighting men; at 12,000 strong, including 1200 mounted knights, the army was all that Outremer had to give. Against this Saladin had drawn on the Turkish and Kurdish occupiers of Egypt, Iraq and Syria, along with their Mameluke slave troops, and some Arabs too, for his invasion force of 18,000 men, and on 1 July 1187 he crossed the Jordan at Senabra where it issues from the southern end of the freshwater lake known as the Sea of Galilee.

On the following day, as Saladin was laying siege to Tiberias, the Crusader army settled in a good defensive position, well watered and with plenty of pasturage for the horses, fifteen miles to the west at Sephoria. The Templars and the Hospitallers were there, also Raymond, the count of Tripoli, and Raynald of Chatillon, Balian of Ibelin and many other lords with all their men, together with the bishop of Acre, who carried the True Cross, and the plan they had all agreed with the king was to wait, confident that Saladin could not hold his large army together in the parched countryside for very long during the heat of summer. But that evening a message arrived from Raymond’s wife Eschiva, the countess of Tripoli, telling how she was at Tiberias holding out against Saladin’s attack. King Guy held a council in his tent where many of the knights were moved by her desperate situation and wanted the army to march to her rescue. But Raymond rose and spoke, saying it would be foolhardy to abandon their present strong position and make a hazardous march through barren country in the fierce July heat.

‘Tiberias is my city and my wife is there’, spoke Raymond, according to the chronicle De Expugnatione Terrae Sanctae per Saladinum:

‘None of you is so fiercely attached, save to Christianity, as I am to the city. None of you is so desirous as I am to succour or aid Tiberias. We and the king, however, should not move away from water, food and other necessities to lead such a multitude of men to death from solitude, hunger, thirst and scorching heat. You are well aware that since the heat is searing and the number of people is large, they could not survive half a day without an abundance of water. Furthermore, they could not reach the enemy without suffering a great shortage of water, accompanied by the destruction of men and of beasts. Stay, therefore, at this midway point, close to food and water, for certainly the Saracens have risen to such heights of pride that when they have taken the city, they will not turn aside to left or right, but will head straight through the vast solitude to us and challenge us to battle. Then our men, refreshed and filled with bread and water, will cheerfully set out from camp for the fray. We and our horses will be fresh; we will be aided and protected by the Lord’s cross. Thus we will fight mightily against an unbelieving people who will be wearied by thirst and who will have no place to refresh themselves. Thus you see that if, in truth, the grace of Jesus Christ remains with us, the enemies of Christ’s cross, before they can get to the sea or return to the river, will be taken captive or else killed by sword, by lance, or by thirst.’

By the time the council broke up at midnight it had resolved to remain at Sephoria. But Raymond’s earlier treaty with Saladin had created an atmosphere of bitterness and mistrust among some, and his motives were now suspect. Later that same night the Grand Master of the Templars, Gerard of Ridefort, came to the king’s tent and said that Raymond was a traitor and that to abandon Tiberias, which lay so close by, would be a stain on Guy’s honour, as it would be on the Templars’ own if they left unavenged the deaths of so many of their brothers at the Springs of Cresson. At this the king overturned the council’s decision and announced that the army would march at dawn.

There were two ways to Tiberias: the one Saladin had taken via Senabra along the shores of the Galilee lake, the other across the parched hill country to the north. Leaving the gardens of Sephoria behind in the morning of 3 July, the Christian army marched across the barren hills towards the climbing sun. The day was hot and airless, and the men and horses suffered terribly for there was no water along the road. Guy was at the centre of the column and the Templars brought up the rear. As Raymond of Tripoli held Galilee in fief from the king it was his prerogative to lead the way. This led some to find treachery in the choice of route, for the choice was his. There may have been treachery from some quarter, for Saladin quickly discovered the line of the Franks’ advance, warned, it was said, by several secular knights, and sent skirmishers to harass and weary the vanguard and rearguard with flights of arrows, while he himself marched his army the five miles from Tiberias to Hattin, a well-watered village amid broad pastures situated where the road across the hills descended towards the lake. By the afternoon the Christian army had reached the plateau above Hattin, and here Raymond said they should camp; there was water there, he thought, but the spring turned out to be dry. According to one version it was the Templars who said they could go no further and the king who made the decision to set up camp, causing Raymond to cry out, ‘Alas, Lord God, the battle is over! We have been betrayed unto death. The Kingdom is finished!’ Between the Franks and the village from where the ground fell away towards the lake rose a hill with two summits. It was called the Horns of Hattin.

There on the waterless plateau the Christian army spent the night, their misery made worse by the smoke and flames from the dry scrub on the hillside that the Muslims had set alight. Under cover of darkness, Saladin’s forces crept closer; any Franks who slipped away in search of water were killed; and by dawn the Christian army was surrounded on all sides. Soon after daybreak on 4 July 1187 Saladin attacked. Against him charged the Christian infantry desperate to break through his lines to reach water, but they were killed or driven back; so goes the account in one chronicle, but in another they simply ran away and refused to fight. By all accounts the knights put up a terrific fight and repeatedly checked Saladin’s cavalry attacks, but their real enemy was thirst and as their strength failed them their numbers were diminished.

The Templars and the Hospitallers gathered round the king and the True Cross where they were surrounded by the confusion and press of battle, the Expugnatione describing how the Christians were ‘jumbled together and mingled with the Turks’. It goes on to tell how the king, seeing that all was lost, cried out that those who could escape should do so before it was too late. At this Raymond of Tripoli and Balian of Ibelin with their men charged the enemy line, hoping to break through. ‘The speed of their horses in this confined space trampled down the Christians and made a kind of bridge, giving the riders a level path. In this manner they got out of that narrow place by fleeing over their own men, over the Turks, and over the cross.’ As they bore down on Saladin’s line, it opened and let them pass through, then closed again; they were the last to get away. Soon the battle was over. The True Cross fell to Muslim hands. King Guy and those around him gave way to exhaustion and were taken.

Saladin’s tent was set up on the battlefield, and here the king and his surviving barons were brought before their conqueror. Seating the king next to him, Saladin handed Guy a cup of water to slake his thirst. It also was a sign, for it was the custom that to give food or drink to a captive meant that his life was spared. But when Guy passed the water to Raynald of Chatillon, Saladin told the king, ‘You gave the man the drink, not I.’ Then he turned angrily on Raynald, reminding him of his brigandage and his raids down the Red Sea coast to the ports of Medina and Mecca, and accused him of blasphemy. When Saladin offered Raynald the choice between conversion to Islam and death, Raynald replied that it was Saladin who should convert to Christianity to avoid the eternal damnation that awaited unbelievers–at which Saladin struck off his head. The others were taken to captivity at Damascus where those who were worth a handsome ransom were treated well, the remainder sold into slavery.

Saladin was not so clement towards the miltary orders. Though Gerard of Ridefort, the Templars’ Grand Master, was among the prisoners taken to Damascus, the other monastic knights faced a different fate. Frankish nobles were ‘irresponsible, thoughtless, petty and covetous’, thought al-Hawari who wrote a military treatise for Saladin, qualities which allowed them to be manipulated to suit Saladin’s purposes; but the Templars and Hospitallers were dangerous because ‘they have great fervour in religion, paying no attention to the things of this world’. Two days after his victory, wrote his secretary Imad al-Din, who was an eyewitness to the event, Saladin ‘sought out the Templars and Hospitallers who had been captured and said: “I shall purify the land of these two impure races.” He assigned fifty dinar to every man who had taken one of them prisoner, and immediately the army brought forward at least a hundred of them. He ordered that they should be beheaded, choosing to have them dead rather than in prison. With him was a whole band of scholars and Sufis and a certain number of devout men and ascetics; each begged to be allowed to kill one of them, and drew his sword and rolled back his sleeve. Saladin, his face joyful, was sitting on his dais; the unbelievers showed black despair.’

The Battle of the Chronicles

What really happened at the battles of the Springs of Cresson and of Hattin, and what happened at Saladin’s siege of Jerusalem? There are several sources; some are eyewitness accounts, some are worked up after the events they describe; all of them are biased, and they are often flatly contradictory. Reading them, it is possible to portray the Templars as rash and irresponsible or as defiant heroes; to see Raymond of Tripoli as a wise advisor or a traitor to the king; and to imagine Balian of Ibelin not as the bold defender of Jerusalem but as a collaborator with Saladin. Clearly there were two factions as Outremer was confronted by the crisis of Saladin’s onslaught, and that fact alone was a serious weakness.

One of the most important documents is the so-called Chronicle of Ernoul. In fact the entire chronicle is lost but a number of similar manuscripts seem to derive from a single original account by Ernoul, who was a squire to Balian of Ibelin. Some see Ernoul as an apologist for Balian, for people would wonder how he escaped unscathed from the battle of Hattin. Ernoul blames Raymond for having chosen the camping ground where the well turned out to be dry. But he also defends Raymond, as well as Balian, from breaking through the Muslim lines and escaping from the battlefield at Hattin, saying they were acting under the command of the king. Ernoul directs his strongest criticism at Gerard of Ridefort, the Grand Master of the Templars, for his recklessness at the Springs of Cresson and for urging the army forward across the hot and waterless landscape towards the Horns of Hattin. This description of events puts in the most favourable light that faction in Outremer who opposed the crowning of Guy of Lusignan as king.

In contrast, the anonymous De Expugnatione Terrae Sanctae per Saladinum shows admiration for the military orders while describing the flight from the battlefield at Hattin by Balian, Raymond and others in a none too flattering light. Nevertheless it is sympathetic to Raymond and presents him as a wise counsellor on the eve of battle, and it is very likely that its author was an Englishman who was one of Raymond’s men. The Expugnatione also gives an eyewitness account of the siege of Jerusalem in which it manages to suggest the suspicion that Balian had been sent to the city by Saladin himself, his task to convince its inhabitants to arrive at a negotiated surrender.

Another work, the Itinerarium Regis Ricardi, was quite possibly based on a lost journal kept by an English Templar and rejects any criticism of the orders. Far from being rash, the actions of the Templar Grand Master Gerard of Ridefort showed him to be a man consistent in his refusal to compromise with the Muslims, but he was undermined by Raymond of Tripoli whom the Itinerarium blames for the disaster at Hattin, saying that he lured the army on because he had a secret deal with Saladin. This accusation of treachery against Raymond clears the king and the faction gathered round him of the blame for subsequently losing Jerusalem. On the Muslim side, an account by Saladin’s secretary Imad al-Din is authoritative; he was an eyewitness at the heart of events, but he knew little about the inner workings of the Franks.

Saladin Takes Jerusalem

The towns and cities and castles had been emptied to defend the Holy Land against the Muslim invasion. Now, after the battle of Hattin, Outremer stood almost entirely defenceless against Saladin. Acre surrendered without a fight on 10 July, Sidon followed suit on the 29th, and Beirut capitulated on 6 August. Jaffa refused to yield; in July it was taken by storm and its entire population were killed or sent to the slave markets and harems of Aleppo. Ascalon offered some brief resistance but surrendered on 4 September. A few days later Saladin brought Gerard of Ridefort to the walls of Gaza and made him tell the Templars inside to surrender, which obedient to their Grand Master they promptly did. In the south only Tyre resisted capture; in the north there was Tripoli, Tortosa and Antioch, and they could be dealt with later. Saladin’s immediate aim was to take Jerusalem.

Refugees were flooding into Jerusalem, but there were few fighters among the men, and for every man there were said to be fifty women and children. The patriarch Heraclius together with officials of the military orders tried to prepare the city’s defence, but Jerusalem lacked a leader until Balian of Ibelin appeared. After Hattin his wife and children had sought safety within its walls, and Balian had come to Jerusalem to bring them to the coast at Tyre. But the people of the city clamoured for him to stay, and finally Balian accepted the task of readying Jerusalem against Saladin’s attack. His most immediate need was to raise morale; there were only two knights left in the city, so Balian knighted every boy over sixteen of noble birth and also thirty burgesses. To fund the defence he took over the royal treasury and even stripped the silver from the dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. He sent parties out into the areas all around to collect all the food before the Muslims arrived, and he gave arms to every able-bodied man.

On 20 September Saladin was camped outside the city. He inquired about the location of al-Aqsa mosque and asked the shortest route to it, saying that was also the shortest route to heaven. Then he set his sappers to work undermining that section of the northern battlements where Godfrey of Bouillon had forced his way into Jerusalem eighty-eight years before. By 29 September a great breach was made in the wall which was tenaciously defended, but it was only a matter of time before they would be overwhelmed by Saladin’s hordes. Balian with the support of the Patriarch decided to seek terms, and on 30 September he went to Saladin’s tent.

Saladin was uncompromising. He had been told by his holy men, he said, that Jerusalem could only be cleansed with Christian blood, and so he had vowed to take Jerusalem by the sword; only unconditional surrender would make him stay his hand. But Balian warned that unless they were given honourable terms the defenders in their desperation would destroy everything in the city: ‘We shall slay our sons and our daughters, we shall burn the city and overthrow the Temple and all the sanctuaries which are also your sanctuaries.’ Saladin consented that Jerusalem’s 20,000 Christians could leave the city if they paid him ten dinars for each man, five for each female, and one for each boy up to seven years old. But the poorest would be unable to ransom themselves, and so Balian produced 30,000 dinars from public funds to pay for the release of the poorest 7000 people.

Looking Back at the Temple Mount

On 2 October 1187, the twenty-seventh day of Rajab according to the Islamic calendar, and the anniversary of the Prophet Mohammed’s Night Journey, the Muslims reoccupied Jerusalem. The Temple Mount was surrendered to Saladin and the Templars were removed from their headquarters at the al-Aqsa mosque. The cross erected by the Crusaders on the Dome of the Rock was thrown down before the army of Saladin and in the presence of the Frankish population. A great cry went up when it fell, of anguish from the Christians, and of ‘Allah is Great’ from the Muslims, who dragged it round the streets of the city for two days, beating it with clubs.

The initial euphoria of the victory was followed by a busy week during which the many structures built by the Templars on the Temple Mount and the modifications they made within the al-Aqsa mosque were demolished. Saladin himself oversaw these works, ensuring that the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock were restored to their earlier Islamic character. Finally both buildings were sprinkled with rose-water to cleanse them of Christian pollution. Saladin joined the vast congregation that gathered for Friday prayers on 9 October at the al-Aqsa mosque where the cadi of Aleppo gave the sermon in which he compared Saladin’s victory to Umar’s conquest of the city and other Muslim triumphs going back to Mohammed’s battles at Badr against the Meccans and at Khaybar which led to the expulsion of the Jews from the Arabian peninsula. ‘Jerusalem’, he continued to the Muslims, ‘is the residence of your father Abraham, the place of ascension of your prophet, the burial ground of the messengers and the place of the descent of revelations. It is in the land where men will be resurrected and it is in the Holy Land to which Allah has referred in the Koran.’

Two great lines of Christian refugees were led out from Jerusalem, one bound for slavery, the other freedom. The ransomed refugees were then assembled in three groups. Balian and the Patriarch Heraclius took charge of one group, another was placed in the custody of the Hospitallers, and the third in that of the Templars. After one last look back at Jerusalem and the brow of the Temple Mount, the refugees were led to the coast where they were distributed between Antioch, Tyre and Tripoli.

The Kingdom of Jerusalem had suffered a comprehensive defeat from which no feudal monarchy could have emerged with its powers unimpaired. But the military orders, because of their military functions and their external financing, became yet more important and independent than before. This was particularly true of the Templars, whose single-minded policy and purpose was to preserve, to defend and now to regain Jerusalem and the Holy Land.

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