The Fall of Jerusalem to Saladin

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. Terricus, the grand preceptor of the Temple and the senior surviving knight of the order after Hattin, wrote to his brothers in the West in the latter part of July or early August 1187, telling them of the fateful battle.

        They drove us into a very rocky area where they attacked us so vigorously that they captured the Holy Cross and our king, and wiped out all our host. Two hundred and thirty of our brothers were beheaded that day, we believe, the other sixty having been killed on 1 May [at the Springs of Cresson]. It was with great difficulty that the lord count of Tripoli, lord Reynald of Sidon and lord Balian and we ourselves managed to escape from that dreadful battlefield.

Terricus then reported how the slaughter was continuing across the length and breadth of Outremer:

        Intoxicated by the blood of our Christians the whole horde of pagans immediately set out for the city of Acre. They took it by force and then laid waste to the whole land. Only Jerusalem, Ascalon, Tyre and Beirut still remain in our possession for Christendom, but we will not be able to hold them unless help comes quickly from you and from above as virtually all their inhabitants are dead. At the present moment they are actively besieging Tyre, attacking day and night, and their numbers are so great that they are like a swarm of ants covering the whole face of the earth from Tyre to Jerusalem, even as far as Gaza. Find it in yourselves to come with all haste to our aid and that of Eastern Christendom which is, at present, totally lost, so that through God and with the support of your eminent brotherhood we may save the cities that remain. Farewell.1

Acre surrendered 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 Saladin had King Guy plead to its people that his liberty could be bought by their city’s surrender, and on 4 September they gave in. 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 – but this was a serious strategic mistake; Saladin’s capture of the ports would have severed Outremer from the wider Mediterranean and from overseas aid, which would eventually come in the form of the Third Crusade; but caught up in his own jihad propaganda, Saladin turned to Jerusalem.

Refugees were flooding into Jerusalem, but there were few men of fighting age or experience among them, and for every man there were said to be fifty women and children. Heraclius, the patriarch of Jerusalem, wrote to Pope Urban III in September reporting that now only the holy city and Tyre were holding out against the onslaught. Everywhere else the Muslims had captured all the towns, ‘killing almost all their inhabitants’, and now Saladin was expected any day to lay siege to Jerusalem, which was ‘totally lacking in men to defend it’.2

Queen Sibylla did what she could, together with Heraclius and various functionaries of the military orders, 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. As Tyre was under siege, Balian was able to make this journey only with Saladin’s permission, which was granted on condition that he travel unarmed and stay in Jerusalem no more than one night. But the people of Jerusalem clamoured for Balian to stay, and finally he accepted the task of readying the city 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.

After allowing his men to pillage and raid all along the coast, Saladin marched his army to Jerusalem, and on 20 September he was camped outside the city. He is said to have inquired about the location of the Aqsa mosque and asked the shortest route to it, saying that was also the shortest route to heaven. The story makes no sense, however, as the Temple Mount is on the eastern side of the city and Saladin had arranged his men and his siege machines as far away as could be, opposite the western wall, which was defended by a deep ravine and ran between two formidable towers, that of David and Tancred. But the story was part of the jihad propaganda, which focused on the Temple Mount and the Night Journey and was developed by Saladin to justify the Muslim claim to Jerusalem. Likewise the siege of Jerusalem was presented by Muslim chroniclers in epic terms, with both Imad al-Din and Ibn Shaddad making the fantastical claims that the city was filled with more than sixty thousand fighting men, while Ibn al-Athir reported that the Franks had ‘exactly 70,000 cavalry and infantry in Jerusalem’. But another remark by Ibn al-Athir may have been true, that as the Turks approached the walls they saw ‘a terrifying crowd of men and heard an uproar of voices coming from the inhabitants behind the walls that led them to infer the number of people who must be assembled there’,3 probably a brave and orchestrated effort by the people of Jerusalem to make themselves seem defiant and intimidating.

After several days achieving nothing against the western wall Saladin moved his forces to the north, where the land is high and the city most vulnerable. There 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 earlier. By 29 September a great breach was made in the wall, which was tenaciously defended, but it was only a matter of time before the defenders 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 boldly warned that, unless they were given honourable terms, the defenders in their desperation would destroy everything in the city. Balian’s words were reported by Ibn al-Athir:

        Know, O Sultan, that there are very many of us in this city, God alone knows how many. At the moment we are fighting half-heartedly in the hope of saving our lives, hoping to be spared by you as you have spared others; this is because of our horror of death and our love of life. But if we see that death is inevitable, then by God we shall kill our children and our wives, burn our possessions, so as not to leave you with a dinar or a drachma or a single man or woman to enslave. When this is done, we shall pull down the Sanctuary of the Rock and the Masjid al-Aqsa and the other sacred places, slaughtering the Muslim prisoners we hold – 5,000 of them – and killing every horse and animal we possess. Then we shall come out to fight you like men fighting for their lives, when each man, before he falls dead, kills his equals; we shall die with honour, or win a noble victory!

Whatever Balian’s actual words, the essence of his threat went straight to the heart of Saladin’s jihad propaganda; with considerable courage for a man who by remaining in Jerusalem and leading its defence had broken his word to Saladin, Balian was now telling the sultan to his face that, unless he swore to spare the lives of the city’s population, they would reduce the Muslim holy sites – the supposed object of his jihad – to ashes. Sparing Christian lives ran against Saladin’s previous determination to purify Jerusalem with Christian blood, and he felt he had to excuse himself to the caliph in Baghdad, to whom he afterwards wrote that to do otherwise meant losing Muslim lives to achieve a victory that had already been won. In the event Saladin gave in to Balian’s demand. He allowed that the Franks could leave Jerusalem if they paid a ransom of 10 dinars for each man, 5 for each female, and 1 for each boy up to seven years old; those unable to pay within forty days would be taken as slaves. As for the Eastern Christians of Jerusalem, he decreed that they could remain within the city provided first they paid the ransom and then the jizya too, thereby submitting to their former humiliating status as dhimmis.

On 2 October 1187, the twenty-seventh day of Rajab according to the Islamic calendar, Muslims gathered to watch Saladin’s ceremonial entry to Jerusalem and to join in the festivities amid the misery of its Christian population. Saladin’s face ‘shone with joy [. . .] his city radiated light’, wrote his secretary Imad al-Din. ‘Great joy reigned for the brilliant victory won, and words of prayer and invocation to God were on every tongue.’4 The chronicler and jurist Ibn Shaddad exulted in this felicitous timing: ‘What a wonderful coincidence! God allowed the Muslims to take the city as a celebration of the anniversary of their Holy Prophet’s Night Journey.’5 But there was no coincidence about it; Saladin had waited to this date to enter Jerusalem; the story of the Night Journey had long been evolving to justify Muslim control of the holy city.

Ironically it was the Fatimids, heretics in the eyes of Nur al-Din and Saladin and against whom they had fought a jihad, who rebuilt the mosque at the southern end of the Temple Mount and added the mosaic inscription from the Koranic verse 17:1 about the Night Journey which Muslims have come to interpret as Mohammed travelling to Jerusalem and ascending from there for a glimpse of Paradise: ‘Glory be to Him, who carried His servant by night from the Holy Mosque to the Further Mosque the precincts of which We have blessed that We might show him some of Our signs.’6From that moment the mosque became known as the Furthest, al-Aqsa; and a century later the poet Ibn al-Qaysarani used the image of the Aqsa mosque to promote the jihad of Nur al-Din:

        May it, the city of Jerusalem, be purified by the shedding of blood

        The decision of Nur al-Din is as strong as ever and the iron of his lance is directed at the Aqsa.7

As the historian Carole Hillenbrand has written, ‘Jerusalem became the focus of a cleverly orchestrated ideological campaign which played on its loss to the Crusaders. The yearning for Jerusalem could be exploited to the full by Muslim propagandists, who dwelt on the pain and humiliation of seeing Jerusalem become a Christian city with mosques and Muslim shrines being turned into churches or secular buildings.’8 This Muslim appropriation of Jerusalem through the story of the Night Journey was ‘exploited to the full by Saladin’s entourage and by the religious classes who gave him their wholehearted support’.9 Saladin’s capture of the city in 1187 and his rituals of purification were meant to set the seal on the Islamic sanctity of Jerusalem.

On entering the city Saladin observed that ‘the unbelievers had turned Jerusalem into a garden of paradise, filling the churches and the houses of the Templars and Hospitallers with marble’.10 Nevertheless he wasted no time in ordering the removal of all traces of what he called ‘the filth of the hellish Franks’.11 Christian structures on the Temple Mount, including the monastery of the Augustinian canons, were dismantled. The cross erected atop the Templum Domini – that is, 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. Also on the Temple Mount, which the Muslims called the Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary, the Templars’ headquarters at the Templum Solomonis was cleansed of Christian contamination to make it suitable for Muslim prayers. This contamination was described by Imad al-Din in the most grotesque terms. ‘The Aqsa mosque’, he said, ‘especially its mihrab, was full of pigs and obscene language, replete with the excrement they had dropped in the building, inhabited by those who have professed unbelief, have erred and strayed, acted unjustly and perpetrated offences, overflowing with impurities.’12 Imad al-Din’s description bore no relation to the actual conditions at the Templum Solomonis; rather, it expressed the jihadist horror of any trespass in what Muslims claimed as their sacred space. Finally the Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock were cleansed with rosewater and incense in preparation for Friday prayers.

Saladin joined the vast congregation that gathered for Friday prayers on 9 October at the Aqsa mosque, where Ibn Zaki, the qadi of Aleppo, gave the sermon in which he compared Saladin’s victory to the caliph Umar’s conquest of the city in 638 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 dwelling-place of your father Abraham; the spot from which your blessed Prophet Mohammed mounted to Heaven; the qibla towards which you turned to pray at the commencement of Islam; the abode of the prophets; the place visited by the saints; the cemetery of the apostles [. . .] it is the country where mankind will be assembled for judgement; the ground where the resurrection will take place.13

Ibn Zaki, who had been hand-picked by Saladin for this sermon, was full of praise for the ‘cleansing of His Holy House [Bayt al-Maqdis, i.e., Jerusalem] from the filth of polytheism and its pollutions’, and he called on the faithful to ‘purify the rest of the land from this filth which hath angered God and His Apostle’.14

By the time Ibn Zaki had delivered his sermon on the Temple Mount the Muslims had gone round Jerusalem and had torn down churches both within and without its walls or stripped them of their decorations, including their wood and iron, their doors and their marble flooring, and converted them to mosques and madrasas. But the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was spared. Some emirs wanted it destroyed in order to put an end to Christian pilgrimages, fearing that ‘kings bearing crosses, groups from across the sea, throngs of different kinds of infidels’ would make their way to Jerusalem, their aim to ‘liberate the Tomb and restore the Kumamah’, repeating the old jibe of the Holy Sepulchre being the Church of the Kumamah – that is, the Dunghill.15 But others argued that what Christians came to worship was ‘the place of the Cross and the grave, not the buildings which can be seen. They would not stop coming even if the earth [on which it stands] were scattered to the sky.’16

In fact, as Saladin understood, the economy of Jerusalem depended on the pilgrimage trade, and therefore he decided that both the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Hospital of St John should stand and pay their way. Ten Hospitaller brothers were permitted to continue at the Hospital, caring for the sick, and while the Latin clergy were expelled from the city, a number of Orthodox priests were permitted to stay at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. But this did not stop Saladin dismantling the aedicule over the tomb of Christ; the Muslims ‘threw down the marble framework that enclosed the Sepulchre of Our Lord and took the carved columns that stood in front of it and sent them to Muhammed at Mecca as a sign of victory’.17 He also removed the cross from the dome of the church, broke the bells in the tower and blocked up several entrances while the aedicule was kept under lock and key by Muslims. Entrance to the church was generally forbidden to pilgrims until 1192, at which point four Latin clergy, two priests and two deacons, were also permitted to return. But between 1187 and 1192 an exception was made for pilgrims willing to pay an entrance fee of 10 bezants, a sum equal to a man’s ransom at the fall of the city, a small fortune aimed at gouging the maximum price from the Christian faithful.18

The departure of the Franks from Jerusalem was completed by 10 November. The city gates were shut, and nobody could leave without getting a receipt from a clerk for payment of the ransom and showing it to the guards. Saladin allowed Queen Sibylla to go free without payment, and he permitted the patriarch Heraclius to remove the treasures from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. But those who tried to raise their ransom money by selling their possessions discovered that the glut of items on the market meant that what had once sold for 10 dinars now fetched only one. Imad al-Din estimated that there had been more than a hundred thousand men, women and children in the city, and he reported that people were paying bribes to the gatekeepers to go free, others were lowered from the city walls, and some were smuggled out in panniers slung over the backs of beasts of burden, while a number left disguised as Muslim soldiers. Despite Balian contributing 30,000 dinars for the poor, Imad al-Din reported fifteen thousand people who were unable to pay the ransom and were taken away as slaves.

‘There were about 7,000 men’, wrote Imad al-Din,

        who had to accustom themselves to an unaccustomed humiliation, and whom slavery split up and dispersed as their buyers scattered through the hills and valleys. Women and children together came to 8,000 and were quickly divided up among us, bringing a smile to Muslim faces at their lamentations. How many well-guarded women were profaned, how many queens were ruled, and nubile girls married, and noble women given away, and miserly women forced to yield themselves, and women who had been kept hidden stripped of their modesty, and serious women made ridiculous, and women kept in private now set in public, and free women occupied, and precious ones used for hard work, and pretty things put to the test, and virgins dishonoured and proud women deflowered, and lovely women’s red lips kissed, and dark women prostrated, and untamed ones tamed, and happy ones made to weep! How many noblemen took them as concubines, how many ardent men blazed for one of them, and celibates were satisfied by them, and thirsty men sated by them, and turbulent men able to give vent to their passion. How many lovely women were the exclusive property of one man, how many great ladies were sold at low prices, and close ones set at a distance, and lofty ones abased, and savage ones captured, and those accustomed to thrones dragged down! 19

Two great lines of Christian refugees were led out from Jerusalem: one bound for slavery, the other for freedom. The ransomed refugees were assembled in three groups, Balian and the patriarch Heraclius taking charge of one group, another being placed in the custody of the Hospitallers, and the third under the protection 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.

Saladin did not wait for the ransom period to expire; on 30 October he left the city for the coast, camping outside Acre on 4 November on his way north to attack Tyre, ‘the only arrow left in the quiver of the infidels’.20

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