18

Saladin’s Jihad

BALDWIN IV was barely thirteen years old when he became king of Jerusalem in 1174; he had been nine when his father, Amalric, entrusted his education and care to William of Tyre, and it was William who discovered the symptoms of the boy’s leprosy. ‘It so happened’, William wrote, ‘that once when he was playing with some other noble boys who were with him, they began pinching one another with their fingernails on the hands and arms, as playful boys will do. The others evinced their pain with yells, but, although his playmates did not spare him, Baldwin bore the pain altogether too patiently, as if he did not feel it.’ At first, William thought this pointed to the boy’s endurance, but then he discovered that about half of Baldwin’s right hand and arm was numb.

        I reported all this to his father. Physicians were consulted and prescribed repeated fomentations, anointings, and even poisonous drugs to improve his condition, but in vain. For, as we later understood more fully as time passed, and as we made more comprehensive observations, this was the beginning of an incurable disease. I cannot keep my eyes dry while speaking of it. For as he began to reach the age of puberty it became apparent that he was suffering from that most terrible disease, leprosy. Each day he grew more ill. The extremities and the face were most affected, so that the hearts of his faithful men were touched by compassion when they looked at him.

But Baldwin was still young and strong, he had a quick and inquiring mind, and he showed signs of having his father’s abilities in the field. The secular and ecclesiastical powers in the kingdom agreed that they wanted Baldwin to succeed to the throne, and so he was ‘anointed and crowned solemnly and in the usual fashion in the Church of the Lord’s Sepulchre on the fifteenth of July, four days after his father’s death’.1

Baldwin proved himself three years later, in November 1177, when the sixteen-year-old king led his outnumbered Frankish force against the army of Saladin advancing out of 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 about twenty-five thousand men. 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. The Frankish force comprised 450 knights, 85 of them Templars, and a few thousand infantry. On 25 November Saladin’s army was crossing a ravine at Montgisard, near Ramla, 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 St George himself, whose church was near by at Lydda, fighting by their side.

But the real damage to the enemy was done by the Templars. An eyewitness to the battle, apparently a pilgrim who returned to London, gave this account to Ralph of Diss, Dean of St Paul’s.

        Odo the Master of the Knighthood of the Temple, like another Judas Maccabaeus, had eighty-four knights of his order with him in his personal company. He took himself into battle with his men, strengthened by the sign of the cross. Spurring all together, as one man, they made a charge, turning neither to the left nor to the right. Recognising the battalion in which Saladin commanded many knights, they manfully approached it, immediately penetrated it, incessantly knocked down, scattered, struck and crushed. Saladin was smitten with admiration, seeing his men dispersed everywhere, everywhere turned in flight, everywhere given to the mouth of the sword. He took thought for his own safety and fled, throwing off his mailshirt for speed, mounted a racing camel and barely escaped with a few of his men.2

In all the Franks lost about eleven hundred men. But they inflicted on Saladin’s forces an overwhelming defeat, killing nine out of ten of his infantry and cavalry, about twenty-three thousand men in all. Saladin only narrowly managed to escape back to Egypt, where to cling to power he spread the lie that the Franks had lost the battle.

The battle of Montgisard was a great victory and a perfect illustration of Frankish fighting ability and the superiority they could achieve through rapid and offensive warfare, thanks especially to the Templars. But although Montgisard saved the kingdom of Jerusalem for the moment, it did not alter the fundamental situation. 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. For all the magnitude of his defeat, however, Saladin still had vast resources of wealth and manpower on which he could draw in Egypt, and that was only the beginning. As his adviser Al-Qadi al-Fadil observed, Saladin would use the wealth of Egypt for the conquest of Syria, the wealth of Syria for the conquest of Mesopotamia, and the wealth of Mesopotamia for the conquest of Outremer.3 As Saladin’s wars against rival Muslims continued apace, his resources became virtually inexhaustible and his forces so overwhelming in number that in the decade after Montgisard the Franks were forced gradually to alter their strategy, at first mounting attacks on the Muslim frontier and building castles that would extend their frontier territory, but soon relying on castles for defensive purposes.

The year before Montgisard the kingdom of Jerusalem lost all chance of continuing its valuable alliance with the Byzantine Empire. Thanks to the First Crusade, the Byzantines had been able to reverse much of the damage done by the disaster at Manzikert in 1071 and had restored their authority over a large part of Asia Minor. But that was undone in 1176, when the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Comnenus led an army east with the intention of capturing Konya (Iconium), the capital of the Seljuk sultanate of Rum. Waylaid in a mountain pass through the Sultan Dagi range near the fortress of Myriokephalon, north-east of Lake Egridir, the Byzantine army suffered a fearful defeat. The emperor himself compared the battle to Manzikert, but that had been fought 800 miles to the east; the disaster at Myriokephalon, only 200 miles from the Aegean, once again left the Byzantines clinging to no more than the coastal districts.

In the revived strength of the Seljuk sultanate of Rum, Saladin and the weakened Byzantine Empire discovered they had a common enemy, and in 1181 they entered into a peace treaty with each other. The Byzantines also adopted a policy of neutrality in the East, and their links with Outremer were dropped. The possibility of continuing the alliance against Egypt that King Amalric had enjoyed with the Byzantines was lost, leaving the Franks more exposed and more isolated than they had ever been before.

Meanwhile a century of fending off Turkish assaults had taken its toll on Byzantine trade and the state of its merchant marine, creating opportunities for Italian merchants and fleets from Pisa, Genoa, Amalfi and Venice to establish sizeable trading colonies in Constantinople. Greek resentment towards the prosperity and dominance of the Latins, who controlled almost the entire economy of the city, had been simmering for some time and came to a head after Manuel’s death in 1180 introduced a period of instability at Constantinople marked by competing claims to the imperial throne. One of these claimants, Andronicus Comnenus, was known to have a hatred for the Latins, and when he entered Constantinople with his army in 1182, the Greek population turned against the foreigners. Many in the Latin community, which numbered about sixty thousand, managed to flee, but many thousands were massacred by the mob.

Greek and Arab and Frankish chroniclers described the slaughter, among them William of Tyre. ‘Regardless of treaties and the many services which our people had rendered to the empire’, William wrote,

        the Greeks seized all those who appeared capable of resistance, set fire to their houses, and speedily reduced the entire quarter to ashes. Women and children, the aged and the sick, all alike perished in the flames. [. . .] Monks and priests were the especial victims of their madness and were put to death under excruciating torture. Among these latter was a venerable man named John, a subdeacon of the holy Roman church, whom the pope had sent to Constantinople on business relating to the church. They seized him and, cutting off his head, fastened it to the tail of a filthy dog as an insult to the church. [. . .] Even those who seemed to show more consideration sold into perpetual slavery among the Turks and other infidels the fugitives who had resorted to them and to whom they had given hope of safety. It is said that more than four thousand Latins of various age, sex, and condition were delivered thus to barbarous nations for a price.4

Apart from the effect this massacre of the Latins had on Western opinion of Byzantium, it also drove the Italian city-states, especially Genoa and Venice, to seek new markets in the East, and from this time they developed a busy trade with Egypt, so that ‘Egypt was at once the most dangerous enemy of the Crusaders and the source of the richest profits to the Christian commercial republics of the Mediterranean’.5

In a self-confident mood following the Christian victory over Saladin at Montgisard, Baldwin decided that the defences of his kingdom should be reinforced and extended along the Syrian frontier, and in October 1178, at the instigation of the Templars, he commenced building the castle of Chastellet. The castle, better known as Jacob’s Ford, was deliberately built within the Muslim frontier area – ‘the Templars of the land of Jerusalem came to the king and told him that they should build a castle in Muslim territory’, wrote the Frankish chronicler Ernoul6 – its purpose to control the only possible crossing of the River Jordan between the Sea of Galilee and its sources in the Golan Heights, at the spot where Jacob of the Old Testament was said to have wrestled with the angel (Genesis 32:24). But the castle was destroyed within ten months of its inception, in a disaster that has been called ‘the beginning of the end’ for the Templars.7

Jacob’s Ford stood high above the Jordan in the form of a vast rectangle constructed of 20,000 enormous blocks of stone each of which was 7 feet long, its walls over 20 feet thick. This was only the first phase; the plan was to enclose the inner structure within an outer rectangle, creating a concentric castle which would have been larger than anything in Europe and the largest in the East. Saladin was alarmed at so powerful a castle at this critical spot and offered 100,000 dinars for its demolition, but Baldwin refused. And so in August 1179, before the outer defences could be built, Saladin attacked. His soldiers forced their way up the slope, digging steps with their axes, and his sappers mined the walls. With a Frankish relief force gathering at Tiberias the sappers worked unceasingly day and night, until finally at dawn on the sixth day they brought down a section of the wall, the Muslim accounts recording with amazement that the Templar commander threw himself into the smoke and flames. The garrison asked for surrender terms, but Saladin refused; eight hundred of the defenders were killed, their bodies stripped of their armour, and their corpses thrown into a cistern. Not all these victims were killed in battle, however; Saladin personally interviewed many of the captives and executed a number in cold blood, including all archers, as they had inflicted the greatest losses on the besiegers, and all Muslims who had converted to Christianity, this in accordance with Islamic law. The castle was destroyed, and its surviving seven hundred defenders, eighty of them knights, were taken captive to Damascus, along with a thousand suits of armour belonging to knights and sergeants and a hundred thousand weapons.

For the first time Muslim sappers had shown their effectiveness against a major Frankish fortification, albeit one still under construction and incomplete; until now the Franks had always enjoyed a technological edge, but this Muslim advance in the arts of siege warfare was an ominous sign of things to come.

The story of the castle and its siege has been revealed by recent excavations conducted by Professor Ronnie Ellenblum of The Hebrew University in Jerusalem.8 ‘We are literally uncovering the beginning of the end for the Knights Templar’, Ellenblum has said.

        Until the battle of Jacob’s Ford in 1179, the Muslim leader Saladin saw nothing but defeat in all his efforts to push the crusaders out of the Holy Land. The battle of Jacob’s Ford turned the tide. Saladin’s forces not only succeeded in levelling a major castle, killing the whole garrison and carting off its wealth; they crushed an army that had been considered almost invincible.9

Saladin’s victory at Jacob’s Ford undermined Frankish self-confidence. All of Galilee and Trans-Jordan became a frontier area within range of Muslim attacks, while the Franks increasingly avoided frontal military encounters with the enemy. From the mobile and offensive strategy of the battle of Montgisard the Franks more and more retreated into a siege mentality.

Faced with an extreme drought that was threatening harvests throughout Syria and Outremer, in May 1180 Baldwin and Saladin agreed a two-year truce. But the truce did not apply to the county of Tripoli, which Saladin invaded that summer, ravaging the bountiful agricultural land known to the Franks as La Bocquée – those rolling waves of wheat and maize, figs and prickly pears, vines and sunflowers that fill the Homs Gap, for all the world like Provence or Languedoc, and surveyed by the great Hospitaller fortress of Krak des Chevaliers and the Templars’ Chastel Blanc. Saladin moved through the fields, wrote William of Tyre, ‘and especially through the cultivated places and, with nobody to oppose him, wandering freely everywhere, set fire to the harvest, some of which was already gathered in for threshing, some of which was already collected in the fields in sheaves, and some of which was still standing, stole cattle as booty, and depopulated the entire region’. But the knights did not venture from their castles, not daring ‘rashly to commit themselves to attacks’.10 For Saladin the prime value of the truce with the kingdom of Jerusalem was that 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 serving Mecca and Medina, until they were driven back by a naval force under the command of Saladin’s brother al-Adil. Although some Franks surrendered to al-Adil on condition that their lives were spared, Saladin insisted, over the objections of his brother, that they be executed. The cold-blooded killing of prisoners increasingly became a policy of Saladin’s, and the act was carried out by men of religion who travelled in his train. These beheadings, as the killings usually were, had the calculated purpose of publicising his jihad against the Franks, even as his primary war was against his fellow Muslims; also blood sacrifice accorded with jihad ideology, ‘which maintained that the lands were made impure by the presence of the Franks and that the aim of the Holy War was to reconquer and purify these lands’.11

Early in 1186 Saladin fell gravely ill in Harran, not far from Edessa. Unable to sit up and barely conscious, he was not expected to live, and his devoted secretary Imad al-Din took his last will and testament. Since 1171, when he became sultan of Egypt, Saladin had spent no more than thirteen months fighting against the Franks; instead he directed his jihad almost entirely against his fellow Muslims, heterodox in many cases but most of them far from being heretics, whatever Saladin’s propagandists had to say. Historians have since asked how would Saladin have been remembered, had he died at Harran. Would he have gone down in history merely as ‘a moderately successful soldier, an administrator with a cavalry officer’s view of economics and a dynast who used Islam for his own purposes’?12 Would he be remembered for anything more than ‘a record of unscrupulous schemes and campaigns aimed at personal and family aggrandisement’?13

Three years earlier, in 1183, after he had finally captured Aleppo, Saladin wrote to the caliph in Baghdad defending his years of warfare against his fellow Muslims. He had come to Syria, he said, to fight the unbelievers, to eradicate the heresy of the Assassins and to turn Muslims away from the path of wrongdoing. Matters might have gone more quickly, he said, had Aleppo fallen into line, had Mosul recognised his suzerainty, had Syria not been wracked by a drought. But once he would have Mosul in northern Iraq, this would lead to his conquest of Georgia in the Caucasus, of the Almohades in Morocco and Spain, of Constantinople and Jerusalem, ‘until the word of God is supreme and the Abbasid caliphate has wiped the world clean, turning the churches into mosques’.14Saladin’s imperial and dynastic ambitions are written all over this letter to the caliph, for, as it happens, the Almohades could not be attacked without first conquering all North Africa; Georgia and Constantinople could not be attacked without overthrowing the Seljuk sultanate of Rum; and eventually, last and least, having extended his authority over the entire Muslim world, Saladin could deal with Outremer. According to Imad al-Din, who never uttered a sceptical word about his master, Saladin’s illness was ‘sent by God to turn away sins [. . .] and to wake him from the sleep of forgetfulness’15 – and so towards his religious duty to destroy Outremer by jihad.

But Saladin was always a cautious general who relied on overwhelming force, and he hesitated to fight the Franks as long as his forces were dispersed. An event that helped alter Saladin’s outlook was the treaty he signed later in 1186, which finally gave him effective control over Mosul. Freeing him from more years of struggle east of the Euphrates, it allowed him at last to turn his full attention to Outremer. Also he was encouraged by the realisation that the Franks were moving towards a strategy of passive defence, that rather than risk battle in the field they preferred sheltering in their castles. The Turks had meanwhile learned how to build and transport large siege machines, both artillery such as catapults, and movable towers, reducing the Franks’ traditional superiority in military architecture and siege warfare. The tables were turned; Saladin was prepared to fight a more mobile and offensive warfare, and he no longer hesitated to take the battle deep into Frankish territory.

The Franks were far from united on strategy; there 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 were 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. The danger became obvious in 1183, when Saladin captured Aleppo and with it gained full control of Syria. His one distraction for the moment was Mosul, but sooner or later he would turn against the Christians.

With Outremer encircled, the Templar and Hospitaller Grand Masters set sail in 1184 together with Heraclius, the patriarch of Jerusalem, 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 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 and the granddaughter of the formidable Melisende, 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 was rumoured to also have been the lover of Sibylla’s mother, Agnes – 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.

Going from factional rivalry to treason, Count Raymond of Tripoli entered into a secret treaty with Saladin. It applied not only 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 although the timing was embarrassing, 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 La 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, when 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 seven thousand 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 one hundred and thirty 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 chronicle of Ernoul, who was a member of Balian’s entourage. But neither Balian nor Ernoul was 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 partly 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.

Shamed by this tragedy, which was largely 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 about 18,000 strong, including 1,200 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 a number of volunteer jihad fighters who were ascetics and Sufis, for his invasion force of about 42,000 men, including 12,000 cavalry,16 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 Frankish army settled in a good defensive position, well watered and with plenty of pasturage for the horses, 15 miles to the west at Sephoria (present-day Tzippori). 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. 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.17

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.

Leaving the gardens of Sephoria behind on 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 5 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!’18 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. In yet another version the king

        gave orders for the master and the knights of the Temple to begin hostilities; some of the soldiers were drawn up in battle order for the fight and the battle standards were entrusted to the count of Tripoli and the other leaders of the army. Attacking like strong lions, the knights of the Temple killed part of the enemy and caused the rest to retreat, but our other troops failed to obey the king’s orders. They did not advance to provide back-up and, as a result, the knights of the Temple were hemmed in and slaughtered.19

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.’20 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 for 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.

Saladin’s secretary Imad al-Din then surveyed the battlefield which he described in pornographic detail.

        The dead were scattered over the mountains and the valleys, lying immobile on their sides. Hattin shrugged off their carcasses, and the perfume of victory was thick with the stench of them. I passed by them and saw the limbs of the fallen cast naked on the field of battle, scattered in pieces over the site of the encounter, lacerated and disjointed, with heads cracked open, throats split, spines broken, necks shattered, feet in pieces, noses mutilated, extremities torn off, members dismembered, parts shredded, eyes gouged out, stomachs disembowelled, hair coloured with blood, the praecordium slashed, fingers sliced off, the thorax shattered, the ribs broken, the joints dislocated, the chests smashed, throats slit, bodies cut in half, arms pulverised, lips shrivelled, foreheads pierced, forelocks dyed scarlet, breasts covered with blood, ribs pierced, elbows disjointed, bones broken, tunics torn off, faces lifeless, wounds gaping, skin flayed, fragments chopped off, hair lopped, backs skinless, bodies dismembered, teeth knocked out, blood spilt, life’s last breath exhaled, necks lolling, joints slackened, pupils liquefied, heads hanging, livers crushed, ribs staved in, heads shattered, breasts flayed, spirits flown, their very ghosts crushed; like stones among stones, a lesson to the wise.

But this grisly scene in Muslim eyes was a purification.

        This field of battle had become a sea of blood; the dust was stained red, rivers of blood ran freely, and the face of the true Faith was revealed free from those shadowly abominations. O sweet rivers of victory over such evil! O burning, punishing blows on those carcasses! O sweet heart’s comforter against that confusion! O welcome prayers at the joyful news of such an event!

Singled out for special mention were ‘the faces of the infernal Templars ground in the dust, skulls trampled underfoot, the bodies they were blessed with hewn to pieces and scattered’.21

Saladin reserved the final act of purification for the Templars and Hospitallers who had survived the battle. Although Gerard of Ridefort, the Templars’ Grand Master, was among the prisoners taken to Damascus together with the king, 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 that 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’.22 Two days after his victory, wrote 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.

With Saladin’s troops lined up on either side, the knights awaited their death one by one. The slash of the blade was not always cleanly done. But there was praise from Imad al-Din for the Muslim holy man he saw ‘who laughed scornfully’ as he slaughtered one victim after another.

        How many promises he fulfilled, how much praise he won, the eternal rewards he secured with the blood he had shed, the pious works added to his account with a neck severed by him! How many blades did he stain with blood for a victory he longed for, how many lances did he brandish against the lion he captured, how many ills did he cure by the ills he brought upon a Templar. [. . .] I saw how he killed unbelief to give life to Islam, and destroyed polytheism to build monotheism, and drove decisions through to their conclusion to satisfy the community of the faithful, and cut down enemies in the defence of friends!23

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