The Rush for the Nile

ÝMy uncle ShÐrkÙh turned to me and said, “YÙsuf, pack your things, we’re going.” When I heard this order, I felt as if my heart had been pierced by a dagger, and I answered, “In God’s name, even were I granted the entire kingdom of Egypt, I would not go.” ’

The man who spoke those words was none other than Saladin, recounting the timid beginnings of the adventure that would some day make him one of history’s most prestigious sovereigns. With the admirable sincerity typical of everything he said, Saladin carefully refrained from claiming credit for the Egyptian epic. ÝIn the end I did go with my uncle’, he added. ÝHe conquered Egypt, then died. God then placed in my hands power that I had never expected.’ In fact, although Saladin emerged as the great beneficiary of the Egyptian expedition, it is true that he did not play the major role in it. Nor did NÙr al-DÐn, even though the land of the Nile was conquered in his name.

The real protagonists of this campaign, which lasted from 1163 to 1169, were three extraordinary personalities: ShÁwar, an Egyptian vizier whose demoniacal intrigues plunged the region into blood and iron; Amalric, a Frankish king so obsessed with the idea of conquering Egypt that he invaded the country five times in six years; and ShÐrkÙh, Ýthe lion’, a Kurdish general who proved to be one of the military geniuses of his time.

When ShÁwar seized power in Cairo in December 1162, he assumed a post and responsibility that rewarded its holder with honours and riches. But he was not unaware of the other side of the coin: of the fifteen previous leaders of Egypt, only one had left office alive. All the others had been killed, although the methods varied: they had been hanged, beheaded, stabbed to death, crucified, poisoned, lynched by mobs; one was killed by his adoptive son, another by his own father. In other words, there is no reason to suppose that this dark-skinned emir with the greying temples would allow his freedom of action to be restricted by any hint of scruples. The moment he acceded to power, he quickly massacred his predecessor (along with his entire family), and appropriated their gold, jewels, and palace.

But the wheel of fortune continued to spin. After nine months in power the new vizier was himself overthrown by one of his lieutenants, a man named ÂirghÁm. Having been warned in time, ShÁwar managed to get out of Egypt alive, and he sought refuge in Syria, where he tried to win NÙr al-DÐn’s support for his effort to regain power. Although his guest was intelligent and an effective speaker, at first the son of ZangÐ lent him but half an ear. Very soon, however, events were to force NÙr al-DÐn to change his attitude.

Jerusalem, it seems, was closely watching the upheavals in Cairo. In February 1162 the Franj had acquired a new king, a man of indomitable ambition: the Arabs called him ÝMorri’, from the French ÝAmaury’ (Amalric); he was the second son of Fulk. Visibly influenced by the propaganda of NÙr al-DÐn, this 26-year-old monarch was trying to cultivate the image of a sober, pious man devoted to religious study and concerned about justice. But the resemblance was only apparent. The Frankish king had more audacity than wisdom, and despite his great height and impressive head of hair, he was singularly lacking in majesty. His shoulders were abnormally thin; he was frequently seized by fits of laughter so long and noisy that his own entourage was embarrassed by them; he was also afflicted with a stutter that did not facilitate his contact with others. Amalric was driven by one obsession—the conquest of Egypt—and only his indefatigable pursuit of that dream afforded him a certain stature.

His goal, true enough, seemed tempting. The route to the Nile had been open to the Western knights ever since 1153 when they took Ascalon, the last Fatimid bastion in Palestine. Moreover, since 1160 the successive Egyptian viziers, absorbed in their fights with local rivals, had been paying an annual tribute to the Franj in exchange for their abstaining from any intervention in Egyptian affairs. Just after the fall of ShÁwar, Amalric took advantage of the confusion that prevailed in the land of the Nile to invade, on the simple pretext that the necessary sum, sixty thousand dinars, had not been paid on time. Crossing the Sinai peninsula along its Mediterranean coast, Amalric laid siege to the town of Bilbays, situated on a branch of the Nile that would run dry in centuries to come. The defenders of the city were both dumbfounded and amused when the Franj began erecting siege machinery around the walls, for it was September, and the river was beginning to swell. The authorities had only to breach a few dikes, and the warriors of the Occident soon found themselves surrounded by water. They barely had time to flee back to Palestine. The first invasion was thus over in short order, but at least it had awakened Aleppo and Damascus to Amalric’s intentions.

NÙr al-DÐn hesitated. He had no wish to be drawn into the treacherous swamps of Cairene intrigues—in particular since, as a fervent Sunni, he was openly contemptuous of the ShiÝi caliphate of the Fatimids. On the other hand, he had no wish to see Egypt, with its great riches, swept into the camp of the Franj, for that would make them the greatest power in the Orient. In view of the prevailing anarchy, however, it was unlikely that Cairo would withstand Amalric’s determination for long. ShÁwar, of course, spared no effort in lecturing his host about the potential benefits of an expedition to the land of the Nile. To placate him, ShÁwar promised that if NÙr al-DÐn helped him to regain his throne, he would pay all the expenses of the expedition, recognize the suzerainty of the master of Aleppo and Damascus, and hand over one third of state receipts every year. Above all, NÙr al-DÐn had to reckon with his confidant ShÐrkÙh, who had been completely won over to the idea of an armed intervention. In fact, he was so enthusiastic about it that the son of ZangÐ finally authorized him to take personal charge of organizing an expeditionary corps.

It would be difficult to imagine two people so closely united and yet so different as NÙr al-DÐn and ShÐrkÙh. With age, the son of ZangÐ had become increasingly majestic, sober, dignified, and reserved, while Saladin’s uncle was a short, obese, one-eyed officer who was constantly flushed by excesses of food and drink. When he lost his temper he would howl like a madman, and from time to time he would lose his head completely, going so far as to kill his opponent. But not everyone was displeased by his unsavoury character. His soldiers adored this commander who lived among them, sharing their mess and their jokes. In the many battles in which he had taken part in Syria, ShÐrkÙh had emerged as a genuine leader of men, gifted with great physical courage. The Egyptian campaign, however, would reveal his remarkable qualities as a strategist, for from the outset the odds were dead against the enterprise. It was relatively easy for the Franj to get to the land of the Nile. The only obstacle impeding their path was the semi-desert expanse of the Sinai peninsula. But if they took along several hundred water-filled goatskins, carried by camels, the knights would have enough water to reach the gates of Bilbays in three days. Things were less easy for ShÐrkÙh. To travel from Syria to Egypt, he had to cross Palestine, and thus expose himself to attacks by the Franj.

The departure for Cairo of the Syrian expeditionary corps in April 1164 therefore required elaborate staging. While NÙr al-DÐn’s army launched a diversionary attack to lure Amalric and his knights to northern Palestine, ShÐrkÙh, accompanied by ShÁwar and about ten thousand cavalry, headed east. They followed the course of the Jordan River on its east bank, passing through what is now Jordan, and then, at the southern tip of the Dead Sea, they turned west, forded the river, and set out at full gallop toward Sinai. There they continued their advance, keeping away from the coastal route so as to avoid detection. On 24 April they seized Bilbays, Egypt’s easternmost port, and by 1 May they were camped at the walls of Cairo. Taken unawares, the vizier ÂirghÁm had no time to organize any resistance. Abandoned by everyone, he was killed trying to escape, and his body was thrown to the dogs in the street. ShÁwar was officially reinvested in his post by the Fatimid caliph al-ÝÀdid, a thirteen-year-old adolescent.

ShÐrkÙh’s blitz was a model of military efficiency. Saladin’s uncle was more than a little proud at having conquered Egypt in so short a time, practically without suffering any losses, and of thus having outwitted Morri. But barely had he reassumed power when ShÁwar did an astonishing volte-face. Breaking his promises to NÙr al-DÐn, he ordered ShÐrkÙh to leave Egypt forthwith. Saladin’s uncle, flabbergasted by such ingratitude and raging with anger, sent word to his former ally that he was determined to stay regardless.

ShÁwar had no real confidence in his own army, and when he saw ShÐrkÙh’s determination, he dispatched an ambassador to Jerusalem to seek Amalric’s aid against the Syrian expeditionary corps. The Frankish king needed no convincing. He had been looking for an excuse to intervene in Egypt, and what better pretext could he ask than a call for help from the ruler of Cairo himself? In July 1164 the Frankish army set out for Sinai for the second time. ShÐrkÙh immediately decided to withdraw from the environs of Cairo, where he had been camped since May, and to dig in at Bilbays. There he repulsed the attacks of his enemies week after week, but his position seemed ultimately hopeless. Far removed from his bases and surrounded by the Franj and their new ally ShÁwar, the Kurdish general could not expect to hold out for long.

When NÙr al-DÐn saw how the situation in Bilbays was developing, Ibn al-AthÐr wrote several years later, he decided to launch a great offensive against the Franj in an effort to force them to leave Egypt. He wrote to all the Muslim emirs asking them to participate in the jihÁd, and he marched off to attack the powerful fortress of ÍÁrim, near Antioch. All the Franj who had remained in Syria united to confront him—among them were Prince Baldwin, lord of Antioch, and the count of Tripoli. The Franj were crushed in this battle. Ten thousand of them were killed, and all their commanders, among them the prince and the count, were captured.

Once victory was won, NÙr al-DÐn had the cross-embossed banners and blond scalps of some of the Franj killed in the battle brought to him. Then, placing them all in a sack, he entrusted the bundle to one of his most reliable men, telling him: ÝGo immediately to Bilbays, find a way to get inside, and give these trophies to ShÐrkÙh. Tell him that God has granted us victory. Let him exhibit them on the ramparts, and the sight will strike fear among the infidels.’

News of the ÍÁrim victory did indeed change things in the battle for Egypt. The morale of the besieged soared, but more important, the Franj were forced to return to Palestine. The capture of young Baldwin III—Reynald’s successor at the head of the principality of Antioch, whom Amalric had appointed to oversee the affairs of the Kingdom of Jerusalem during his absence—and the massacre of his men forced the king to seek a compromise with ShÐrkÙh. After several exchanges, the two men agreed to leave Egypt simultaneously. At the end of October 1164 Morri returned to Palestine by the coastal route, while the Kurdish general took less than two weeks to get back to Damascus, following the same itinerary as before.

ShÐrkÙh was far from unhappy at having left Bilbays unharmed and with his head held high, but the real winner of the six months of campaigning was undoubtedly ShÁwar. He had used ShÐrkÙh to regain power, and then used Amalric to neutralize the Kurdish general. Then both had departed, leaving him master of all Egypt. ShÁwar would now spend more than two years consolidating his position.

But not without some uneasiness at the turn events had taken. He knew that ShÐrkÙh would never forgive his betrayal. Indeed, news constantly reached him from Syria suggesting that the Kurdish general was harassing NÙr al-DÐn, asking his permission to undertake a fresh Egyptian campaign. The son of ZangÐ, however, was reluctant. He was not dissatisfied with the status quo. The important thing was to keep the Franj away from the Nile. As always, though, it was not easy to disengage from the web. Fearing another lightning expedition by ShÐrkÙh, ShÁwar took the precaution of concluding a treaty of mutual assistance with Amalric. This convinced NÙr al-DÐn to authorize his lieutenant to organize a fresh expeditionary corps, just in case the Franj moved to intervene in Egypt. ShÐrkÙh selected the best elements of the army, among them his nephew YÙsuf. These preparations in turn alarmed the Egyptian vizier, who insisted that Amalric send troops. Thus it was that during the early days of 1167 the race for the Nile began again. The Frankish king and the Kurdish general arrived in the coveted country at about the same time, each by his usual route.

ShÁwar and the Franj assembled their allied forces before Cairo, there to await ShÐrkÙh. But the latter preferred to determine the modalities of the rendezvous himself. Continuing his long march from Aleppo, he skirted the Egyptian capital to the south, sent his troops across the Nile on small boats, and then turned them north again, without even stopping to rest. ShÁwar and Amalric, who expected ShÐrkÙh to arrive from the east, suddenly saw him surge up from the opposite direction. Worse yet, his camp on the west side of Cairo, near the pyramids of Giza, was separated from his enemies by the formidable natural obstacle of the great river. From this solidly entrenched camp, he sent a message to the vizier: The Frankish enemy is at our mercy, he wrote, cut off from their bases. Let us unite our forces and exterminate him. The time is ripe; the opportunity may not arise again. But ShÁwar was not content simply to reject this offer. He had the messenger executed and brought ShÐrkÙh’s letter to Amalric to prove his loyalty.

Despite this gesture, the Franj still distrusted their ally, who, they were sure, would betray them the moment he had no further need of them. They believed that the time had come to take advantage of ShÐrkÙh’s threatening proximity to establish their authority in Egypt once and for all. Amalric asked that an official alliance between Cairo and Jerusalem be signed.

Two knights who knew Arabic—not unusual among the Franj of the Middle East—repaired to the residence of the young caliph al-ÝÀÃid. In an obvious effort to make an impression, ShÁwar led them to a superb, richly decorated palace, which they walked through quickly, ringed by a phalanx of armed guards. Then the cortège crossed a vaulted hallway that seemed interminable, impervious to the light of day, and finally came to the threshold of an enormous sculptured gate leading first to a vestibule and then to another gate. After passing through many ornamented chambers, ShÁwar and his guests emerged into a courtyard paved with marble and ringed by gilded colonnades, in the centre of which stood a fountain boasting gold and silver pipes. All around were brightly coloured birds from the four corners of Africa. Here the escort guards introduced them to eunuchs who lived on intimate terms with the caliph. One again they passed through a succession of salons, then a garden stocked with tame deer, lion, bear, and panthers. Then, finally, they reached the palace of al-ÝÀÃid.

Barely had they entered an enormous room, whose back wall was a silk curtain encrusted with gold, rubies, and emeralds, when ShÁwar bowed three times and laid his sword on the floor. Only then did the curtain rise, and the caliph approached, his body draped in silk and his face veiled. The vizier went to him, sat at his feet, and explained the proposed alliance with the Franj. After listening in silence, al-ÝÀÃid, who was then only sixteen, endorsed ShÁwar’s policy. ShÁwar was about to rise when the two Franj asked the prince of the faithful to swear that he would remain loyal to the alliance. The dignitaries surrounding al-ÝÀÃid were visibly scandalized by this demand. The caliph himself seemed shocked, and the vizier hastily intervened. The accord with Jerusalem, he explained to his sovereign, was a matter of life and death for Egypt. He implored the caliph to consider the request of the Franj not as a manifestation of disrespect but only as symptomatic of their ignorance of Oriental customs.

Smiling against his better judgement, al-ÝÀÃid extended his silk-gloved hand and swore to respect the alliance. But one of the Frankish emissaries interrupted. ÝAn oath’, he said, Ýmust be taken bare-handed, for the glove could be a sign of future betrayal.’ The hall was scandalized a second time. The dignitaries whispered among themselves that the caliph had been insulted, and there was talk of punishing the insolent Franj. But after a fresh intervention by ShÁwar, the caliph, preserving his calm, removed his glove, extended his bare hand, and repeated word for word the oath dictated to him by Morri’s representatives.

As soon as this singular interview had been concluded, the Egyptians and Franj met to elaborate a plan to cross the Nile and decimate ShÐrkÙh’s army, which was then heading south. An enemy detachment, commanded by Amalric, was hard on his heels. Saladin’s uncle wanted to create the impression that he was on the run. He was well aware that his major handicap was that he was cut off from his bases, and he therefore sought to put the pursuing army in the same position. When he was more than a week’s march from Cairo, he ordered his troops to halt and, in an impassioned harangue, told them that the hour of victory was at hand.

The confrontation actually came on 18 March 1167, near the town of al-Babayn, on the west bank of the Nile. The two armies, exhausted by their interminable race, threw themselves desperately into the fray, eager to get it over with once and for all. ShÐrkÙh had assigned command of the centre to Saladin, ordering him to retreat as soon as the enemy changed. Amalric and his knights rushed toward him banners unfurled, and when Saladin pretended to flee, they pursued him ardently without realizing that the right and left flanks of the Syrian army had already moved in to cut off any possible retreat. Losses among the Frankish knights were heavy, but Amalric managed to escape. He returned to Cairo, where the bulk of his troops remained, firmly resolved to seek vengeance at the earliest opportunity. He and ShÁwar were already collaborating on preparations to lead a powerful army back south to Upper Egypt when some barely credible news arrived: ShÐrkÙh had seized Alexandria, Egypt’s largest city, situated in the far north of the country, on the Mediterranean coast.

What had happened was that immediately after his victory at al-Babayn, the unpredictable Kurdish general, without waiting even a single day and before his enemies had time to recover their wits, had crossed the entire length of Egypt at dizzying speed, from south to north, and had entered Alexandria in triumph. The population of the great Mediterranean port, hostile to the alliance with the Franj, greeted the Syrians as liberators.

ShÁwar and Amalric, forced to keep pace with the hellish rhythm at which ShÐrkÙh was waging this war, decided to lay siege to Alexandria. Food was so scarce in the city that within a month the populace, faced with the threat of famine, began to regret having welcomed the Syrian expeditionary corps. When a Frankish fleet arrived and moored alongside the port, the situation seemed hopeless. Nevertheless, ShÐrkÙh refused to admit defeat. He turned over command of the troops in the city to Saladin, and then, assembling a few hundred of his best cavalry, organized a daring nocturnal sortie. He passed through the enemy lines at full speed and drove his troops, riding day and night, . . . back to Upper Egypt!

Meanwhile, the blockade of Alexandria was being steadily tightened. Famine was now compounded by epidemic, and by daily catapult attacks. The command was a weighty responsibility for the 29-year-old Saladin. But the diversion organized by his uncle worked. ShÐrkÙh was not unaware that Morri was anxious to wind up this campaign and get back to his kingdom, which was under constant harassment by NÙr al-DÐn. By opening a second front in the south instead of allowing himself to be bottled up in Alexandria, the Kurdish general threatened to prolong the conflict indefinitely. He even fomented an uprising against ShÁwar in Upper Egypt, convincing many armed peasants to join him. Once he had enough troops, he moved towards Cairo and sent Amalric a cleverly worded message. We are both wasting time here, he said in substance. If the king would think things through patiently, he would understand that driving me out of this country would be in no one’s interest but ShÁwar’s. Amalric was convinced, and agreement was soon reached: the siege of Alexandria was lifted, and Saladin left the city to the salutes of a guard of honour. In August 1167 the two armies both left Egypt, just as they had three years earlier, returning to their respective countries. NÙr al-DÐn, satisfied at having retrieved the best of his army, was now fed up with these futile Egyptian adventures.

And yet, as if decreed by fate, the race for the Nile broke out yet again the following year. When he had left Cairo, Amalric felt it prudent to leave a detachment of knights behind—just to make sure that his alliance with the Fatimids was properly observed. One of their major duties was to oversee the city gates and to protect the Frankish functionaries assigned to collect the annual tribute of one hundred thousand dinars that ShÁwar had promised to pay the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Inevitably, the heavy tax burden, combined with the prolonged presence of this foreign force, aroused resentment among the citizenry.

Public opinion steadily mounted against the occupiers. It was suggested sotto voce, even within the caliph’s own entourage, that an alliance with NÙr al-DÐn would be a lesser evil. Behind ShÁwar’s back, messages began to flow to and fro between Cairo and Aleppo. The son of ZangÐ, in no hurry to intervene, simply observed the reactions of the king of Jerusalem.

The Frankish knights and functionaries stationed in the Egyptian capital, well aware of the growing hostility, were frightened. They sent messages to Amalric begging him to come to their aid. At first the monarch hesitated. The wise choice would have been to withdraw his garrison from Cairo and be content with a neutral and inoffensive Egypt as his neighbour. But he was temperamentally inclined to the leap in the dark. In October 1168, encouraged by the arrival in the Middle East of a large number of Occidental knights eager to Ýcrush the Saracen’, he decided to throw his army against Egypt for the fourth time.

This new campaign began with a slaughter as horrible as it was gratuitous. The Occidentals seized Bilbays and, without the slightest provocation, massacred the inhabitants: men, women, and children, Muslims and Christians of the Coptic church. As Ibn al-AthÐr said quite correctly, if the Franj had acted differently in Bilbays, they could have taken Cairo with the greatest of ease, for the city’s notables were prepared to surrender it. But when they heard of the massacres perpetrated in Bilbays, people decided to resist regardless. As the invaders approached, ShÁwar ordered that the old city of Cairo be put to the torch. Twenty thousand jugs of naphtha were poured onto market stalls, houses, palaces, and mosques. The inhabitants were evacuated to the new city, founded by the Fatimids in the tenth century, which comprised mainly palaces, administrative offices, and barracks, as well as the religious university of al-Azhar. The fire raged for fifty-four days.

In the meantime, the vizier tried to keep open the lines of communication to Amalric, in an effort to convince him to abandon this foolhardy enterprise. ShÁwar hoped to be able to achieve this without any fresh intervention by ShÐrkÙh. But his faction in Cairo was losing strength. In particular, the caliph al-ÝÀÃid had taken the initiative of dispatching a letter to NÙr al-DÐn asking him to rush to Egypt’s aid. In an effort to move the son of ZangÐ, the Fatimid sovereign enclosed some locks of hair with his missive.These, he explained, are locks of hair from my wives. They beseech you to come and rescue them from the outrages of the Franj.

NÙr al-DÐn’s reaction to this anxious message has been preserved thanks to particularly valuable testimony from Saladin himself, who is quoted by Ibn al-AthÐr:

When the appeals from al-ÝÀÃid arrived, NÙr al-DÐn summoned me and told me what was happening. Then he said: ÝGo and see your uncle ShÐrkÙh in Homs and urge him to come at once, for there must be no delay.’ I left Aleppo, and a mile from the city I encountered my uncle, who was already on his way. NÙr al-DÐn ordered him to prepare to leave for Egypt.

The Kurdish general then asked his nephew to accompany him, but Saladin demurred.

I answered that I was not prepared to forget the sufferings endured in Alexandria. My uncle then said to NÙr al-DÐn: ÝIt is absolutely necessary that YÙsuf go with me.’ And NÙr al-DÐn thus repeated his orders. I tried to explain the state of financial embarrassment in which I found myself. He ordered that money be given to me and I had to go, like a man being led off to his death.

This time there was no confrontation between ShÐrkÙh and Amalric. Impressed by the determination of the Cairenes, who were prepared to destroy their city rather than surrender it to him, and fearing that he could be attacked from behind by the Syrian army, the Frankish king withdrew to Palestine on 2 January 1169. Six days later the Kurdish general arrived in Cairo, to be hailed as a saviour by the population and the Fatimid dignitaries alike. ShÁwar himself even seemed elated. But no one was taken in. Although he had fought against the Franj during past weeks, he was still considered their friend, and he had to pay for it. On 18 January he was lured into an ambush, sequestered in a tent, and then killed by Saladin himself, with the written approval of the caliph. That same day, ShÐrkÙh replaced him as vizier. But when he donned his brocade silk and went to his predecessor’s residence to move in, he found the place empty—there was not even a cushion to sit on. Everything had been stolen as soon as the death of ShÁwar was announced.

It had taken the Kurdish general three campaigns to become the real ruler of Egypt. But he was not to savour his pleasure for long. On 23 March, just two months after his triumph, he was taken ill after an excessively sumptuous meal. He was seized by an atrocious sensation of suffocation and died within a few minutes. His death marked the end of an era, but also the beginning of another, one whose repercussions would be infinitely greater.

Upon the death of ShÐrkÙh, Ibn al-AthÐr reports, the advisers of the caliph al-ÝÀÃid suggested that he name YÙsuf the new vizier, because he was the youngest, and seemingly the most inexperienced and weakest, of the emirs of the army.

Saladin was indeed summoned to the sovereign’s palace, where he was given the title al-malik al-nÁÒir, Ýthe victorious king’, as well as the distinctive accoutrements of the vizier: a white turban stitched in gold, a robe with a scarlet-lined tunic, a jewel-encrusted sword, a chestnut mare with a saddle and bridle adorned with engraved gold and encrusted pearls, and many other precious objects. Leaving the palace accompanied by a great cortège, he headed for his official residence.

YÙsuf managed to establish his authority within a few weeks. He discharged the Fatimid functionaries whose loyalty seemed doubtful, replacing them with his own close collaborators; a revolt among the Egyptian troops was severely crushed. Finally, in October 1169, he repelled an absurd Frankish invasion, again led by Amalric, who had arrived in Egypt for the fifth and last time in the hope of capturing the port of Damietta, in the Nile delta. Manuel Comnenus, uneasy that one of NÙr al-DÐn’s lieutenants now stood at the head of the Fatimid state, had accorded the Franj the support of the Byzantine fleet. But in vain. The RÙm did not have enough supplies, and their allies declined to furnish any additional assistance. Within several weeks, Saladin was able to open talks with them and persuade them to bring the ill-conceived venture to an end.

By the end of 1169 YÙsuf was the unchallenged master of Egypt. In Jerusalem, Morri set his hopes on forging an alliance with ShÐrkÙh’s nephew against the main enemy of the Franj, NÙr al-DÐn. The king’s optimism may appear misguided, but it was not wholly without foundation. Saladin soon began to distance himself from his master. He continually assured NÙr al-DÐn of his loyalty and submission, of course, but real authority over Egypt could not be exercised from Damascus or Aleppo.

Relations between the two men finally became dramatically tense. Despite his solid power-base in Cairo, YÙsuf never dared to confront his elder directly. Whenever the son of ZangÐ invited him to a face-to-face meeting, YÙsuf would find some pretext to avoid it, not for fear of falling into a trap, but because he was afraid that he would weaken if he found himself in the presence of his master.

The first serious crisis came during the summer of 1171, when NÙr al-DÐn demanded that the young vizier abolish the Fatimid caliphate. As a Sunni Muslim, the master of Syria could not allow one of his dependencies to remain under the spiritual authority of a Ýheretical’ dynasty. He sent several messages to this effect to Saladin, who was nevertheless reluctant to act. He was afraid of offending the sentiments of the population, which was mainly ShiÝi, and of alienating the Fatimid dignitaries. Moreover, he was not unaware that he owed the legitimacy of his rule to his investiture by the caliph al-ÝÀÃid. He feared that by dethroning the caliph he would lose whatever formal sanction he had for his power in Egypt, in which case he would be reduced to the status of a mere representative of NÙr al-DÐn. In any case, he considered the son of ZangÐ’s insistence on the matter as an attempt to tighten his own political grip on Egypt, rather than an act of religious zeal. At the beginning of August, the master of Syria’s demands that the ShiÝi caliphate be abolished became an imperious order.

His back to the wall, Saladin prepared himself to deal with possible hostile reactions from the population, and even drafted a public proclamation announcing the removal of the caliph. But he still hesitated to publish it. Although he was only twenty, al-ÝÀÃid was seriously ill, and Saladin, who was bound to him by close ties of friendship, could not bring himself to betray his confidence. Then without warning, on Friday 10 September 1171, a citizen of Mosul visiting Cairo entered a mosque, climbed the pulpit ahead of the preacher, and said the prayer in the name of the ÝAbbasid caliph. Curiously, there was no reaction, either at the time or in the following days. Was this man an agent sent by NÙr al-DÐn to embarrass Saladin? Possibly. In any event, after this incident, the vizier could no longer postpone his decision, whatever his reluctance. The order was given that from the following Friday, there was to be no further mention of the Fatimids in the prayers. Al-ÝÀÃid was then on his death-bed, half conscious, and YÙsuf forbade anyone to tell him the new. ÝIf he recovers’, Saladin said, Ýthen there will be plenty of time for him to find out. If not, let him die untormented.’ As it happened, al-ÝÀÃid expired a short time later, never having learned of the unhappy fate of his dynasty.

As might well be expected, the fall of the ShiÝi caliphate after two centuries of often glorious rule was a source of great grief to the Assassins sect, which ever since the days of Íasan Ibn al-ÑabbÁÎ had hoped that the Fatimids would shake off their lethargy and usher in a new golden age of ShiÝism. The adherents of the sect were so devastated when they saw this dream vanish for ever that their commander in Syria, RashÐd al-DÐn SinÁn, known as Ýthe old man of the mountain’, sent a message to Amalric announcing that he and all his supporters were prepared to convert to Christianity. At the time the Assassins held several fortresses and villages in central Syria, where they lived relatively peaceful lives, seemingly having renounced the spectacular operations of bygone years. Although RashÐd al-DÐn still commanded well-trained groups of killers and devoted preachers, many of the sect’s members had become law-abiding peasants, often even compelled to pay a regular tribute to the Order of the Templars.

By promising to convert, the Ýold man’ hoped, among other things, that his flock would be exempted from the tribute, which only non-Christians had to pay. The Templars, who did not take their financial interests lightly, observed these contacts between Amalric and the Assassins with some disquiet. When it seemed that an agreement was at hand, they decided to block it. One day in 1173, as several envoys of RashÐd al-DÐn were returning from an audience with the king, the Templars laid an ambush and massacred them. There would be no further talk of conversion by the Assassins.

Quite apart from this episode, the abolition of the Fatimid caliphate had another consequence as important as it was unexpected: it invested Saladin with a political dimension he had hitherto lacked. Obviously, NÙr al-DÐn had not foreseen any such result. The elimination of the caliph, instead of reducing YÙsuf to the rank of a mere representative of the master of Syria, made him the effective sovereign of Egypt and the legitimate custodian of the fabulous treasures amassed by the defunct dynasty. Relations between the two men would now grow steadily more embittered.

Soon after these events, Saladin led a daring expedition against the Frankish fortress of Shawbak, east of Jerusalem. As the garrison was about to capitulate, Saladin learned that NÙr al-DÐn had just arrived with his own troops to participate in the operation. Without a moment’s delay, Saladin ordered his men to break camp and to return to Cairo at a forced march. The pretext, explained in a letter to the son of ZangÐ, was that turmoil had supposedly broken out in Egypt, forcing a precipitate departure.

But NÙr al-DÐn was not deceived. Accusing Saladin of disloyalty and treason, he swore that he would personally travel to the land of the Nile to take matters in hand. The uneasy young vizier assembled his closest collaborators, among them his father AyyÙb, and asked them what attitude they thought he should take if NÙr al-DÐn carried out his threat. When some of the emirs declared that they were ready to take up arms against the son of ZangÐ, and Saladin himself seemed to share their view, AyyÙb intervened, trembling with rage. Speaking to YÙsuf as though he were a mere factotum, he said: ÝI am your father, and if there is anyone here who loves you and wishes you well, it is I. But know this: if NÙr al-DÐn came, nothing could ever prevent me from bowing before him and kissing the ground at his feet. If he ordered me to lop off your head with my sabre, I would do it. For this land is his. You shall write this to him: I have learned that you wanted to lead an expedition to Egypt, but there is no need for you to do so. This country belongs to you, and you need only send me a charger or camel and I will come to you a humble and submissive man.’

When the meeting was over, AyyÙb gave his young son another lecture, this time in private: ÝIn God’s name, if NÙr al-DÐn tried to take so much as an inch of your territory, I would fight to the death against him. But why allow yourself to appear overtly ambitious? Time is on your side. Let Providence act.’ Convinced, YÙsuf sent the message his father had suggested to Syria, and NÙr al-DÐn, now reassured, called off his punitive expedition at the last minute. But Saladin had learned something from this emergency, and shortly afterwards he sent one of his brothers, TÙrÁn-ShÁh, to Yemen, his mission being to conquer this mountainous land in south-west Arabia to prepare a refuge for the AyyÙb family just in case the son of ZangÐ again considered taking control of Egypt. And Yemen was in fact occupied without much difficulty, Ýin the name of King NÙr al-DÐn’.

In July 1173, less than two years after the missed rendezvous of Shawbak, a similar incident occurred. Saladin was leading an expedition east of the Jordan, and NÙr al-DÐn assembled his troops and set out to meet him. But once again the vizier was terrified at having to face his master directly, and hurriedly headed back to Egypt, claiming that his father was dying. In fact, AyyÙb had just fallen into a coma after an accident in which he had been thrown from his horse. But NÙr al-DÐn was unwilling to accept this new excuse. And when AyyÙb died in August, he realized that there was no longer anyone in Cairo in whom he had complete confidence. He therefore decided that the time had come to take personal charge of Egyptian affairs.

NÙr al-DÐn began preparations to invade Egypt and wrench it away from ÑalÁÎ al-DÐn YÙsuf, for he had noted that the latter was shirking the fight against the Franj, for fear of having to unite with him. Our chronicler here, Ibn al-AthÐr, who was fourteen when these events occurred, takes a clear position in support of the son of ZangÐ. YÙsuf preferred to see the Franj on his borders rather than be the direct neighbour of NÙr al-DÐn. The latter therefore wrote to Mosul and elsewhere asking that he be sent troops. But as he was preparing to march to Egypt with his soldiers, God whispered to him the command that cannot be shunned. The ruler of Syria fell gravely ill, afflicted, it seems, by a very painful angina. His doctors prescribed bleeding, but he refused: ÝOne does not bleed a man sixty years old’, he said. Other treatments were tried, but nothing worked. On 15 May 1174 it was announced in Damascus that NÙr al-DÐn MaÎmÙd, the saint-king, the mujÁhid who had united Muslim Syria and enabled the Arab world to prepare for the decisive struggle against the occupier, had died. That night, all the mosques were filled with people who had gathered to recite verses of the Koran in his memory. In time, Saladin would come to be seen as NÙr al-DÐn’s continuator rather than his rival, despite their conflict during these latter years.

For the moment, however, resentment was the dominant emotion among the relatives and close associates of the deceased, and they feared that YÙsuf would take advantage of the general confusion to attack Syria. In an effort to gain time, they did not notify Cairo of the news. But Saladin, who had friends everywhere, sent a finely worded message to Damascus by carrier-pigeon: News has come to us from the accursed enemy regarding the master NÙr al-DÐn. If, God forbid, it should be true, we must above all ensure that no division takes hold in our hearts and that no minds are gripped by unreason, for only the enemy would profit.

In spite of these conciliatory words, fierce hostility would be aroused by the rise of Saladin.

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