You go too far, YÙsuf; you overstep all limits. You are but a servant of NÙr al-DÐn, and now you seek to grasp power for yourself alone? But make no mistake, for we who have raised you out of nothingness shall be able to return you to it!
Some years later, this warning delivered to Saladin by the dignitaries of Aleppo would seem absurd. But in 1174, when the new master of Cairo was just beginning to emerge as the principal figure of the Arab East, his merits were not yet evident for all to see. In NÙr al-DÐn’s entourage, both while he lived and just after his death, no one even spoke the name of YÙsuf any more. Words like Ýthe upstart’, Ýthe ingrate’, Ýthe disloyal’, or, most often, Ýthe insolent’ were used instead.
Saladin himself generally shunned insolence; but his luck was surely insolent. And it was just this that annoyed his adversaries. For this 36-year-old Kurdish officer had never been an ambitious man, and those who knew him from the beginning felt sure that he would have been quite content to be no more than an emir among others had fate not propelled him, willy nilly, to the forefront of the scene.
He had accompanied his uncle to Egypt somewhat reluctantly and his role in the conquest had been minimal. Nevertheless, just because of his self-effacement, he was drawn to the summit of power. He himself had not dared to proclaim the downfall of the Fatimids, but when he was forced to do so, he found himself heir to the richest of Muslim dynasties. And when NÙr al-DÐn resolved to put him in his place, YÙsuf had no need even to resist: his master suddenly died, leaving as his successor an 11-year-old adolescent, al-ÑÁliÎ.
On 11 July 1174, less than two months later, Amalric also died, the victim of dysentery, just when he was preparing yet another invasion of Egypt, this time with the support of a powerful Sicilian fleet. He bequeathed the Kingdom of Jerusalem to his son Baldwin IV, a young man of thirteen afflicted by the most terrible of maledictions: leprosy. Throughout the Orient, there was but a single monarch who could stand in the way of the irresistible rise of Saladin, and that was Manuel, emperor of the RÙm, who indeed dreamed of some day becoming the suzerain of Syria and who intended to invade Egypt in conjunction with the Franj. But then in September 1176, as if to complete the series of gifts fate bestowed upon Saladin, the powerful Byzantine army, which had checked NÙr al-DÐn for nearly fifteen years, was crushed by Kilij Arslan II, the grandson of the first Kilij Arslan, in the battle of Myrioke-phalon. Manuel died soon afterwards, condemning the Christian empire in the East to sink into anarchy.
Can one blame Saladin’s panegyrists for detecting the hand of Providence in this succession of unexpected events? YÙsuf himself never claimed credit for his good fortune. He always took care to thank, after God, Ýmy uncle ShÐrkÙh’ and Ýmy master NÙr al-DÐn’. It is true that the greatness of Saladin lay also in his modesty.
One day when ÑalÁÎ al-DÐn was tired and was trying to rest, one of his mamlÙks came to him and handed him a paper to sign. ÝI am exhausted’, said the sultan, Ýcome back in an hour.’ But the man insisted. He fairly stuck the page in ÑalÁÎ al-DÐn’s face, saying, ÝLet the master sign!’ The sultan replied, ÝBut I have no inkwell here.’ He was seated at the entrance to his tent, and the mamlÙk remarked that there was an inkwell inside. ÝThere is an inkwell, at the back of the tent’, he cried, which meant, in effect, that he was ordering ÑalÁÎ al-DÐn to go and get the inkwell himself, no less. The sultan turned, saw the inkwell, and said, ÝBy God, you’re right.’ He reached back, bracing himself with his left hand, and grasped the inkwell in his right. Then he signed the paper.
This incident, related by BahÁ' al-DÐn, Saladin’s personal secretary and biographer, is a striking illustration of what made him so different from the monarchs of his time, indeed of all times: he was able to remain humble with the humble, even after he hadbecome the most powerful of the powerful. The chroniclers, of course, evoke his courage, his sense of justice, and his zeal for the jihÁd, but through their writings a more touching, more human, image always transpires.
One day, BahÁ' al-DÐn relates, in the midst of our campaign against the Franj, ÑalÁÎ al-DÐn summoned his close companions. In his hand was a letter he had just finished reading, and when he tried to speak, he broke down. Seeing him in this state, we were unable to hold back our own tears, even though we did not know what was the matter. Finally, his voice choked with tears, he said, ÝTaqi al-DÐn, my nephew, is dead.’ Then his warm tears began to flow again, as did ours. When I regained my composure I said to him, ÝLet us not forget the campaign in which we are engaged, and let us ask God to forgive us for having abandoned ourselves to this grief.’ ÑalÁÎ al-DÐn agreed. ÝYes’, he said, Ýmay God forgive me! May God forgive me!’ He repeated these words several times, and then he added, ÝLet no one know what has happened!’ Then he had rose water brought to wash his eyes.
The tears of Saladin flowed on other occasions besides the deaths of those closest to him.
Once, BahÁ' al-DÐn recalls, when I was riding at the sultan’s side against the Franj, an army scout came to us with a sobbing woman beating her breast. ÝShe came from the Franj camp’, the scout explained, Ýand wants to see the master. We brought her here.’ ÑalÁÎ al-DÐn asked his interpreter to question her. She said: ÝYesterday some Muslim thieves entered my tent and stole my little girl. I cried all night, and our commanders told me: the king of the Muslims is merciful; we will let you go to him and you can ask for your daughter back. Thus have I come, and I place all my hopes in you.’ ÑalÁÎ al-DÐn was touched, and tears came to his eyes. He sent someone to the slave market to look for the girl, and less than an hour later a horseman arrived bearing the child on his shoulders. As soon as she saw them, the girl’s mother threw herself to the ground and smeared her face with sand. All those present wept with emotion. She looked heavenward and began to mutter incomprehensible words. Thus was her daughter returned to her, and she was escorted back to the camp of the Franj.
Those who knew Saladin say little about his physical appearance: he was small and frail, with a short, neat beard. They prefer to speak of his pensive and somewhat melancholy face, which would suddenly light up with a comforting smile that would put anyone talking to him at ease. He was always affable with visitors, insisting that they stay to eat, treating them with full honours, even if they were infidels, and satisfying all their requests. He could not bear to let someone who had come to him depart disappointed, and there were those who did not hesitate to take advantage of this quality. One day, during a truce with the Franj, the ÝBrins’, lord of Antioch, arrived unexpectedly at Saladin’s tent and asked him to return a district that the sultan had taken four years earlier. And he agreed!
Saladin’s generosity sometimes bordered on the irresponsible.
His treasurers, BahÁ' al-DÐn reveals, always kept a certain sum hidden away for emergencies, for they knew that if the master learned of the existence of this reserve, he would spend it immediately. In spite of this precaution, when the sultan died the state treasury contained no more than an ingot of Tyre gold and forty-seven dirhams of silver.
When some of his collaborators chided him for his profligacy, Saladin answered with a nonchalant smile: ÝThere are people for whom money is no more important than sand.’ Indeed, he felt genuine contempt for riches and luxury, and when the fabulous palaces of the Fatimid caliphs fell into his hands, he settled his emirs in them, preferring himself to live in the more modest residence reserved for the viziers.
This was but one of many features that Saladin and NÙr al-DÐn appeared to have in common. In fact, Saladin’s adversaries saw him as no more than a pale reflection of his master. In reality, in his contacts with others, especially his soldiers, he behaved far more warmly than his predecessor had. And although he observed the letter of religious precepts, he lacked the slight streak of bigotry that the son of ZangÐ had manifested on occasion. In general, one may say that Saladin was as demanding of himself as NÙr al-DÐn had been, but more lenient with others, although he was even more merciless than his elder when dealing with those who had insulted Islam, be they Ýheretics’ or certain of the Franj.
Beyond these differences of personality, Saladin was strongly influenced, especially at the beginning, by the imposing stature of NÙr al-DÐn, of whom he strove to be a worthy successor, relentlessly pursuing the same objectives: to unify the Arab world, and to mobilize the Muslims, both morally, with the aid of a powerful propaganda apparatus, and militarily, in order to reconquer the occupied territories, above all Jerusalem.
In the summer of 1174, as the emirs of Damascus who supported young al-ÑÁliÎ were discussing the best way to hold out against Saladin, even considering an alliance with the Franj, the ruler of Cairo sent them a genuinely challenging letter. In it, judiciously concealing his conflict with NÙr al-DÐn, he unhesitatingly presented himself as the continuator of his suzerain’s work and the faithful guardian of his heritage.
If, he wrote, our late king had detected among you a man as worthy of his confidence as me, would he not have entrusted him with the leadership of Egypt, the most important of his provinces? You may be sure that had NÙr al-DÐn not died so soon, he would have designated me to educate his son and to watch over him. Now, I observe, you are behaving as though you alone served my master and his son, and you are attempting to exclude me. But I shall soon arrive. In honour of the memory of my master, I shall perform deeds that will have their effect, and each of you will be punished for his misconduct.
Here it is difficult to recognize the circumspect man of previous years. It is as if the death of his master had unleashed long pent-up aggression. It is true that the circumstances were exceptional, for this message had a precise function: it was the declaration of war with which Saladin would begin the conquest of Muslim Syria. When he sent this message in October 1174, the ruler of Cairo was already on his way to Damascus, leading seven hundred cavalry. That was far too few for a siege of the Syrian metropolis, but YÙsuf had carefully calculated the odds. Frightened by the uncharacteristically violent tone of Saladin’s missive, al-ÑÁliÎ and his collaborators preferred to retreat to Aleppo. Crossing Franj territory with no difficulty via what could now be called the ÝShÐrkÙh trail’, Saladin arrived at Damascus in late October; supporters of his family quickly threw open the gates and welcomed him.
Encouraged by this victory, won without a single sword-stroke, he continued on his way. He left the Damascus garrison under the command of one of his brothers and headed for central Syria, where he seized Homs and Hama. During this lightning campaign, Ibn al-AthÐr tells us, ÑalÁÎ al-DÐn claimed to be acting in the name of the king al-ÑÁliÎ, son of NÙr al-DÐn. He said that his aim was to defend the country against the Franj. Still faithful to the ZangÐ dynasty, the Mosul historian is at least suspicious of Saladin, whom he accuses of duplicity. He was not entirely wrong. YÙsuf, anxious not to act as a usurper, did indeed present himself as the protector of al-ÑÁliÎ. ÝIn any event’, he said, Ýthis adolescent cannot govern alone. He needs a tutor, a regent, and no one is better placed than me to perform that function.’ He sent al-ÑÁliÎ letter after letter assuring him of his loyalty, ordered prayers to be said for him in the mosques of Cairo and Damascus, and coined money in his name.
The young monarch was wholly unmoved by these gestures. In December 1174, when Saladin laid siege to Aleppo Ýto protect King al-ÑÁliÎ from the nefarious influence of his advisers’, the son of NÙr al-DÐn assembled the people of the city and delivered a moving speech: ÝBehold this unjust and ungrateful man who wishes to take my country from me without regard to God or man! I am an orphan, and I rely upon you to defend me, in memory of my father who so loved you.’ Deeply touched, the Aleppans decided to resist Ýthe outlaw’ come what may. YÙsuf, seeking to avoid a direct conflict with al-ÑÁliÎ, lifted the siege. On the other hand, he now decided to proclaim himself Ýking of Egypt and Syria’, and would thus no longer depend on any suzerain. The chroniclers would also call him Ýsultan’, but he himself never adopted this title. Saladin later returned several times to the walls of Aleppo, but he could never bring himself to cross swords with the son of NÙr al-DÐn.
Al-ÑÁliÎ’s advisers decided to resort to the services of the Assassins in an effort to remove this permanent threat. They made contact with RashÐd al-DÐn SinÁn, who promised to get rid of YÙsuf for them. The Ýold man of the mountain’ could have asked nothing better than to settle accounts with the grave-digger of the Fatimid dynasty. The first assault came at the beginning of 1175: some Assassins penetrated Saladin’s camp as far as his tent, where an emir recognized them and barred their way. He was seriously wounded, but the alarm had been sounded. Guards came running, and after a murderous fight, the BÁÔinis were massacred. This only postponed matters. On 22 May 1176, when Saladin was again campaigning in the region of Aleppo, an Assassin burst into his tent and dealt him a dagger-stroke in the head. Fortunately, the sultan had been on his guard since the previous attack, and had taken the precaution of wearing a head-dress of mail under his fez. The would-be killer then went for his victim’s neck. But again his blade was checked. Saladin was wearing a long tunic of thick material whose high collar was reinforced with mail. One of the army emirs then arrived, seized the dagger with one hand and with the other struck the BÁÔini, who collapsed. But before Saladin had had time to rise, a second killer leapt upon him, then a third. The guards, however, had meanwhile arrived, and the assailants were massacred. YÙsuf emerged from his tent haggard and reeling, amazed that he had escaped injury.
As soon as he had regained his wits, he decided to mount an attack on the lair of the Assassins in central Syria, where RashÐd al-DÐn SinÁn controlled ten or so fortresses. Saladin laid siege to the most formidable of them, MaÒyÁf, perched on the summit of a cliff. Exactly what happened in the land of the Assassins that August of 1176 will probably always remain a mystery. One version, that of Ibn al-AthÐr, has it that SinÁn sent a letter to a maternal uncle of Saladin’s, swearing to have all the members of the ruling family killed. Such a threat from the Assassins sect could not be taken lightly, especially after the two attempts to assassinate the sultan. The siege of MaÒyÁf was then lifted, according to this account.
A second version of events has come down to us from the Assassins themselves. It is recounted in one of the few surviving writings of the sect, a narrative signed by one of their adherents, a certain AbÙ FirÁs, whose story runs as follows. SinÁn was away from MaÒyÁf when the fortress was besieged. He and two companions posted themselves on a neighbouring hill, from which SinÁn observed the development of operations. Saladin then ordered his men to go and capture SinÁn. A large detachment surrounded him, but when the soldiers tried to approach, their arms and legs were paralysed by a mysterious force. The Ýold man of the mountain’ then asked them to inform the sultan that he wanted to meet him personally and in private; the terrified soldiers ran to tell their master what had just happened. Saladin, suspecting that something was amiss, had lime and ashes spread around his tent to detect any footprints, and at nightfall he posted guards with torches to protect him. Suddenly, in the middle of the night, he awoke with a start, and barely glimpsed an unknown figure gliding out of his tent, a figure he believed to be SinÁn himself. On the bed the mysterious visitor had left a poisoned cake and a piece of paper on which someone had written: You are in our power. Saladin is then said to have cried out, and his guards came running. They swore they had seen nothing. The next day, Saladin hurriedly lifted the siege and returned to Damascus.
This account is undoubtedly highly embellished, but it is a fact that Saladin reversed his policy toward the Assassins very suddenly. Despite his aversion for heretics of all varieties, he never again tried to threaten the territory of the BÁÔinis. On the contrary, he now sought to conciliate them, thus depriving his enemies, Muslim and Franj alike, of a precious auxiliary. The sultan had decided to make sure that he held all the trumps in the battle for control of Syria. It is true that for all practical purposes victory was his from the time of his conquest of Damascus. But the conflict nevertheless dragged on interminably. The many campaigns that had to be waged—against the Frankish states, against Aleppo, against Mosul, which was also ruled by a descendant of ZangÐ, and against various other princes of JazÐra and Asia Minor—were exhausting. Apart from all that, Saladin had to return to Cairo regularly to discourage intriguers and conspirators.
The situation began to be resolved only towards the end of 1181, when al-ÑÁliÎ suddenly died, possibly poisoned, at the age of eighteen. Ibn al-AthÐr gives an emotional account of his last moments.
When his condition worsened, the physicians advised him to take a bit of wine. He told them: ÝI will not do so without advice from an ÝÁlim.’ One of the leading doctors of law was then brought to his bedside and explained that religion authorized the use of wine as a medicine. Al-ÑÁliÎ asked: ÝAnd do you really think that if God has decided to end my life he will change his mind if he sees me drinking wine?’ The man of religion had to answer, No. ÝThen’, the dying man concluded, ÝI do not want to meet my creator with a forbidden drink in my stomach.’
Eighteen months later, on 18 June 1183, Saladin solemnly entered Aleppo. Egypt and Syria were now one, not merely in name, as during the reign of NÙr al-DÐn, but in fact, under the uncontested authority of the Ayyubid sovereign. Curiously, the emergence of this powerful Arab state whose pressure mounted daily did not induce the Franj to exhibit greater solidarity among themselves. On the contrary. As the king of Jerusalem, hideously deformed by leprosy, sank into impotence, two rival clans embarked on a power struggle. The first, which favoured coming to some arrangement with Saladin, was led by Raymond, the count of Tripoli. The spokesman for the second, extremist faction was Reynald of Châtillon, the former prince of Antioch.
Very dark, with a hawk-nose, fluent in Arabic, and an attentive reader of Islamic texts, Raymond could have passed for a Syrian emir but for his large stature, which betrayed his Western origins.
Among the Franj at that time, Ibn al-AthÐr tells us, there was no wiser or more courageous man than the lord of Tripoli, Raymond Ibn Raymond al-SanjÐlÐ, a descendant of Saint-Gilles. But he was very ambitious, and desired to become king. He acted as regent for some time, but was soon deposed. So resentful was he that he wrote to ÑalÁÎ al-DÐn, aligned himself with him, and asked for his help in becoming king of the Franj. ÑalÁÎ al-DÐn was delighted at the request, and quickly freed a number of knights of Tripoli who had been imprisoned among the Muslims.
Saladin paid close attention to this discord. When Raymond’s ÝOriental’ current seemed in the ascendancy in Jerusalem, he struck a conciliatory note. In 1184 Baldwin IV’s leprosy was in its final stages. His arms and legs had grown flaccid, his eyes dim. But he lacked neither courage nor common sense, and he had confidence in the count of Tripoli, who was striving to establish friendly relations with Saladin. The Andalusian traveller Ibn Jubayr, who visited Damascus that year, was surprised to find that in spite of the war, caravans travelled freely between Cairo and Damascus, passing through Franj territory. ÝThe Christians’, he noted, Ýmake the Muslims pay a tax, which is applied without abuses. The Christian merchants in turn pay duty on their merchandise when they pass through the territory of the Muslims. There is complete understanding between the two sides, and equity is respected. The men of war pursue their war, but the people remain at peace.’
Far from being in any hurry to put an end to this coexistence, Saladin indicated that he was prepared to go even further on the road to peace. In March 1185 the leprous king of Jerusalem died at the age of twenty-four, bequeathing the throne to his nephew Baldwin V, a six-year-old child. The regency went to the count of Tripoli, who, aware that he needed time to consolidate his power, quickly dispatched emissaries to Damascus to seek a truce. Although Saladin felt sure that he was now in a position to open the decisive battle with the Occidentals, he nevertheless demonstrated that he was not seeking a confrontation at any price. He agreed to a four-year truce.
But a year later, when the child-king died in August 1186, a struggle broke out for the post of regent. The mother of the young monarch, Ibn al-AthÐr explains, had fallen in love with a man named Guy, a Franj recently arrived from the West. She married him, and when the child died, she gave the throne to her husband, summoning the patriarch, the priests, the monks, the Hospitallers, the Templars, and the barons and informing them that she had transferred power to Guy, to whom she then had them swear allegiance. Raymond refused; he preferred to reach an agreement with ÑalÁÎ al-DÐn. The Guy in question was King Guy of Lusignan, a handsome, dim-witted man completely devoid of political or military competence and always inclined to agree with the last person to whom he had spoken. In reality, he was no more than a puppet in the hands of the Ýhawks’, the leader of whom was old ÝBrins Arnat’, Reynald of Châtillon.
Following his Cypriot adventure and his exactions in northern Syria, Reynald had spent fifteen years in the prisons of Aleppo before being released in 1175 by the son of NÙr al-DÐn. His captivity had only aggravated his defects. More fanatical, greedy, and bloodthirsty than ever, Arnat aroused more hatred between the Arabs and Franj than had been caused by decades of war and massacres. After his release he had failed to retake Antioch, where his stepson Bohemond III now held the throne. He therefore settled in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, where he quickly married a young widow who presented him as a dowry with various territories lying east of the Jordan River, in particular the powerful fortresses of Karak and Shawbak. Having formed an alliance with the Templars and with many newly arrived knights, he enjoyed mounting influence at the court in Jerusalem, which only Raymond succeeded in counterbalancing for a time. Reynald sought to impose the same policy as that pursued by the first Frankish invaders: to fight relentlessly against the Arabs, to pillage and massacre without restraint, to conquer new territories. He regarded any conciliation, any compromise, as treason. He felt bound by no truce or agreement. In any event, he explained cynically, what was the value of an oath sworn to infidels?
In 1180 an agreement between Damascus and Jerusalem had guaranteed the free circulation of goods and persons in the region. A few months later, a caravan of rich Arab merchants crossing the Syrian desert on its way to Mecca was attacked by Reynald, who confiscated all the merchandise. Saladin complained to Baldwin IV, who dared not punish his vassal. In the autumn of 1182 a more serious incident occurred: Arnat decided to raid Mecca itself. The expedition set out from Eilat, which was then a small Arab fishing village on the Gulf of Aqaba. Some Red Sea pirates guided the Franj along the coast; they attacked YanbÙÎ, the port servicing Medina, and then RabÐgh, not far from Mecca. Along the way Reynald sank a boat carrying Muslim pilgrims to Jidda.Everyone was taken by surprise, Ibn al-AthÐr explains, for the people of these regions had never seen a Franj before, whether merchant or warrior. Drunk with success, the attackers took their time filling their ships with booty. Reynald then returned to his own territory, while his men spent many months plying the Red Sea. Saladin’s brother al-ÝÀdil, who was governing Egypt in his brother’s absence, armed a fleet and sent it out against the pillagers, who were crushed. Some of them were taken to Mecca, where they were publicly beheaded, an exemplary punishment, the Mosul historian concludes, for those who had sought to violate the holy places. News of Reynald’s insane escapade spread throughout the Muslim world, where Arnat would henceforth symbolize everything most hideous about the Frankish enemy.
Saladin had responded by staging a few raids against Reynald’s territory, but in spite of his anger, the sultan remained magnanimous. In November 1183, for example, he had set up catapults around the citadel of Karak and was bombarding it with huge chunks of rock, when the defenders sent word that a princely marriage was being celebrated inside. Although the bride was Reynald’s step-daughter, Saladin asked the besieged in which pavilion the newlyweds would reside and then ordered his men to spare that sector.
Such gestures, alas, counted for nothing with Arnat. For a while he had been neutralized by the wise Raymond, but with the accession of King Guy in 1186, he was again able to lay down the law. A few weeks later, ignoring the truce that was to have remained in effect for another two and a half years, the prince swooped, like a bird of prey, on a large caravan of Arab pilgrims and merchants who were peacefully making their way to Mecca. He massacred all the armed men and led the rest of the troop into captivity in Karak. When some of them dared to remind Reynald of the truce, he told them defiantly: ÝLet your MuÎammad come and deliver you!’ When these words were reported to Saladin several weeks later, he swore that he would kill Arnat with his own hands.
For the time being, however, the sultan sought to temporize. He sent emissaries to Reynald asking that the captives be released and their property restored, in accordance with the terms of the truce. When the prince refused to receive them, the emissaries went to Jerusalem, where they were greeted by Guy. He professed to be shocked at the behaviour of his vassal but dared not risk a conflict with him. The ambassadors insisted: would the hostages of Prince Arnat continue to rot in the dungeons of Karak, in violation of all the agreements and oaths? The inept Guy washed his hands of the matter.
The truce was broken. Although Saladin was prepared to have honoured it for its full duration, he was not apprehensive at the resumption of hostilities. He dispatched messengers to the emirs of Egypt, Syria, JazÐra, and elsewhere announcing that the Franj had treacherously flouted their commitments, and he called upon his allies and vassals to unite all the forces at their command to take part in the jihÁd against the occupier. Thousands of cavalry and foot-soldiers converged on Damascus from all the lands of Islam. The city was inundated by a sea of waving banners, small camel-skin tents in which soldiers took shelter from the sun and rain, and vast royal pavilions of richly coloured fabric adorned with calligraphic verses from the Koran or poems.
While this mobilization proceeded, the Franj remained mired in their internecine quarrels. King Guy thought it a propitious moment to dispose of his rival Raymond, whom he accused of complicity with the Muslims. The army of Jerusalem prepared for an attack on Tiberias, a small city of Galilee belonging to the wife of the count of Tripoli. Alerted, the count went to see Saladin and proposed an alliance. Saladin accepted immediately and sent a detachment of troops to reinforce the Tiberias garrison. The Jerusalem army withdrew.
On 30 April 1187, as successive waves of Arab, Turkish, and Kurdish fighters continued to converge on Damascus, Saladin sent a messenger to Tiberias asking Raymond, in accordance with the agreement, to allow his scouts to make a reconnaissance tour of the coast of Lake Galilee. The count was embarrassed, but could not refuse. His only demands were that the Muslim soldiers be out of his territory by nightfall and that they promise not to attack his subjects or their property. To avoid any incidents, he warned all the surrounding localities that the Muslim troops would be passing through, and he asked the inhabitants to stay at home.
At dawn the next day, Friday the first of May, seven thousand cavalry under the command of one of Saladin’s lieutenants passed before the walls of Tiberius. That same night, as they retraced their steps on their return passage, they respected the count’s demands to the letter: they attacked neither village nor château, looted neither gold nor cattle, yet their passage was not without incident. By chance, the grand masters of the Templars and the Hospitallers happened to have been in one of the area’s fortresses the evening before, when Raymond’s messenger arrived to announce that a Muslim detachment would be passing through. The monk-soldiers pricked up their ears. They had no pact with the Saracens. Hastily gathering a few hundred knights and foot-soldiers, they decided to assault the Muslim cavalry near the village of SaffurÐya, north of Nazareth. But the Franj were decimated in a matter of minutes. Only the grand master of the Templars managed to escape.
Frightened by this defeat, Ibn al-AthÐr relates, the Franj sent their patriarch, priests, and monks, together with a large number of knights, to Raymond. They remonstrated bitterly with him about his alliance with ÑalÁÎ al-DÐn, saying: ÝYou must surely have converted to Islam, otherwise you could never tolerate what has just happened. You would not have allowed Muslims to cross your territory, to massacre Templars and Hospitallers, to carry off prisoners, without doing anything to stop it!’ The count’s own soldiers, those of Tripoli and Tiberias, also chided him, and the patriarch threatened to excommunicate him and to annul his marriage. Raymond was unnerved by this pressure. He begged their pardon and repented. They forgave him, there was a reconciliation, and they asked him to place his troops at the disposal of the king and to join the battle against the Muslims. The count left with them. The Franj reassembled their troops, cavalry and foot-soldiers, near Acre, and then they marched, shuffling along, toward the village of SaffurÐya.
In the Muslim camp, the debacle of these universally feared and detested military-religious orders gave a foretaste of victory. Emirs and soldiers alike would henceforth hasten to cross swords with the Franj. In June Saladin assembled all his troops midway between Damascus and Tiberias: twelve thousand cavalry paraded before him, not to mention the foot-soldiers and auxiliary volunteers. From the saddle of his charger, the sultan shouted the order of the day, soon re-echoed by thousands of excited voices: ÝVictory over God’s enemy!’
Saladin calmly analysed the situation for his general staff: ÝThe opportunity now before us may well never arise again. In my view, the Muslim army must confront all the infidels in an organized battle. we must throw ourselves resolutely into the jihÁd before ourtroops disperse.’ The sultan wanted to prevent his vassals and allies returning home with their troops before the final victory was won, for the fighting season ended in the autumn. The Franj, however, were extremely cautious warriors. Would they not seek to avoid the battle once they saw how numerous and well-organized the Muslim forces were?
Saladin decided to lay a trap for them, praying to God that they would step into it. He headed for Tiberias, occupied the city in a single day, ordered many fires to be set, and laid siege to the citadel, which was occupied by the countess, wife of Raymond, and a handful of defenders. The Muslim army was quite capable of crushing all resistance, but the sultan restrained his men. The pressure had to be stepped up little by little. He pretended to prepare for the final assault while awaiting the enemy’s reaction.
When the Franj learned that ÑalÁÎ al-DÐn had occupied and set fire to Tiberias, Ibn al-AthÐr relates, they met in council. Some proposed marching against the Muslims to fight them and prevent them from seizing the citadel. But Raymond intervened: ÝTiberias belongs to me’, he said, Ýand it is my own wife who is besieged. But I would be ready to allow the citadel to be taken and to let my wife be captured if I could be sure that Saladin’s offensive would stop there; for, in God’s name I have seen many a Muslim army in the past, but none as numerous or as powerful as the one Saladin commands today. Let us therefore avoid a confrontation with him. We can always retake Tiberias later, and ransom our prisoners.’ But Prince Arnat, lord of Karak, said to him, ÝYou are trying to frighten us with this talk of the strength of the Muslim forces simply because you like them and prefer their friendship. Otherwise you would not proffer such words. If you tell me that they are numerous, I answer: the fire is not daunted by the quantity of wood to burn.’ The count then said: ÝI am one of you. I will do as you wish, fight at your side, but you will see what will happen.’
Once again, the most extremist arguments had triumphed among the Franj.
Everything was ready for the battle. The army of Saladin was deployed in a fertile plain covered with fruit trees. Behind it was the fresh water of Lake Tiberias, fed by the Jordan River, while further on, toward the north-east, the majestic outline of the Golan Heights could be seen. Near the Muslim camp was a hill with two peaks, called Ýthe horns of ÍiÔÔÐn’, after the village perched on its slopes.
On 3 July the Frankish army, about twelve thousand strong, began to move. In normal times, it did not take long to travel from SaffurÐya to Tiberias: it was four hours’ march at most, but in summer this stretch of Palestinian land was arid. There were no sources of water and no wells, and the river-beds were dry. Nevertheless, as they left SaffurÐya in the early morning, the Franj were confident that by afternoon they would be able to slake their thirst at the lakeside. Saladin, however, had laid his trap carefully. Throughout the day his cavalry harassed the enemy, attacking from behind, from in front, and then on both flanks, pouring clouds of arrows down upon them relentlessly. Some losses were inflicted on the Occidentals in this way, but more important, they were forced to slow their advance.
Shortly before nightfall, the Franj reached a promontory from which they could overlook the entire area. Just below them lay the small village of ÍiÔÔÐn, a few earth-coloured houses, while the waters of Lake Tiberias glimmered at the bottom of the valley. Between the Franj and the lake, in the verdant plain stretching along the river bank, was the army of Saladin. If they were to drink, they would need the sultan’s permission.
Saladin smiled. He knew that the Franj were exhausted, dying of thirst, that they had neither the strength nor the time to cut themselves a passage to the lake before dark, and that they would therefore have to spend the night without a drop to drink. Would they really be able to fight in these conditions? That night, Saladin divided his time between prayers and meetings with his general staff. At the same time, he ordered several of his emirs to slip behind the enemy in order to cut off any possible retreat, while making sure that all his men were in position and understood their orders.
The next day, 4 July 1187, at first light of dawn, the Franj, now surrounded and crazy with thirst, desperately tried to move down the hill to reach the lake. Their foot-soldiers, more sorely tested than the knights by the previous day’s exhausting march, rushedahead blindly, bearing their battleaxes and maces like a burden. Wave upon wave of them were crushed as they encountered a solid wall of swords and lances. The survivors were pressed back up the hill in disarray, where they intermingled with the knights, now certain of their own defeat. No line of defence could be held. Yet they continued to fight with the courage born of despair. At the head of a handful of close collaborators, Raymond tried to cut a pathway through the Muslim lines. Saladin’s lieutenants recognized him and allowed him to escape. He rode all the way back to Tripoli.
After the count’s departure, the Franj were on the point of capitulating, Ibn al-AthÐr writes. The Muslims had set fire to the dry grass, and the wind was blowing the smoke into the eyes of the knights. Assailed by thirst, flames, and smoke, by the summer heat and the fires of combat, the Franj were unable to go on. But they believed that they could avoid death only by confronting it. They launched attacks so violent that the Muslims were about to give way. Nevertheless, with each assault the Franj suffered heavy losses and their numbers diminished. The Muslims gained possession of the True Cross. For the Franj, this was the heaviest of losses, for it was on this cross, they claim, that the Messiah, peace be upon him, was crucified.
According to Islam, Christ was crucified only in appearance, for God loved the son of Mary too much to allow such an odious torture to be inflicted upon him.
In spite of this loss, the last of the Franj survivors, nearly a hundred and fifty of their best knights, continued to fight bravely, digging in on the high ground above the village of ÍiÔÔÐn, where they pitched their tents and organized resistance. But the Muslims pressed them from all sides, and finally only the king’s tent remained standing. What happened next was recounted by the son of Saladin himself, al-Malik al-AfÃal, who was seventeen at the time.
I was at my father’s side during the battle of ÍiÔÔÐn, the first I had ever seen. When the king of the Franj found himself on the hill, he and his men launched a fierce attack that drove our own troops back to the place where my father was standing. I looked at him. He was saddened; he frowned and pulled nervously at his beard. Then he advanced, shouting ÝSatan must not win!’ The Muslims again assaulted the hill. When I saw the Franj retreat under the pressure of our troops, I screamed with joy, ÝWe have won!’ But the Franj attacked again with all their might, and once again our troops found themselves grouped around my father. Now he urged them into the attack once more, and they forced the enemy to retreat up the hill. Again I screamed, ÝWe have beaten them!’ But my father turned to me and said, ÝSilence! We will have crushed them only when that tent on the hill has fallen!’ Before he had time to finish his sentence, the king’s tent collapsed. The sultan then dismounted, bowed down and thanked God, weeping for joy.
In the midst of the cries of joy Saladin rose, mounted his charger, and headed for his tent. The leading prisoners were brought before him, notably King Guy and Prince Arnat. The writer ÝImÁd al-DÐn al-AsfahÁni, one of the sultan’s advisers, was present at the scene.
ÑalÁÎ al-DÐn, he wrote, invited the king to sit beside him, and when Arnat entered in his turn, he seated him next to his king and reminded him of his misdeeds: ÝHow many times have you sworn an oath and then violated it? How many times have you signed agreements that you have never respected?’ Arnat answered through an interpreter: ÝKings have always acted thus. I did nothing more.’ During this time, Guy was gasping with thirst, his head dangling as though he were drunk, his face betraying great fright. ÑalÁÎ al-DÐn spoke reassuring words to him, had cold water brought, and offered it to him. The king drank, then handed what remained to Arnat, who slaked his thirst in turn. The sultan then said to Guy: ÝYou did not ask my permission before giving him water. I am therefore not obliged to grant him mercy.’
Indeed, according to Arab tradition, a prisoner who is offered food or drink must be spared, an engagement Saladin could not have respected in the case of a man he had sworn to kill with his own hands. ÝImÁd al-DÐn continues:
After pronouncing these words, the sultan smiled, mounted his horse, and rode off, leaving his captives in terror. He supervised the return of the troops, then came back to his tent. He ordered Arnat brought there, advanced towards him, sword in hand, and struck him between the neck and shoulder-blade. When Arnat fell, he cut off his head and dragged the body by its feet to the king, who began to tremble. Seeing him thus upset, the sultan said to him in a reassuring tone: ÝThis man was killed only because of his maleficence and his perfidy.’
Although the king and most of the pri³oners were spared, the Templars and Hospitallers suffered the same fate as Reynald of Châtillon.
Even before that memorable day had ended, Saladin assembled his chief emirs and congratulated them on their victory, which, he said, had restored the honour so long scorned by the invaders. The Franj, he believed, no longer had an army, and it was necessary to seize upon this opportunity without delay to recover all the lands unjustly occupied. The next day, a Sunday, he therefore attacked the Tiberias citadel, where the wife of Raymond, knowing that further resistance would have been futile, surrendered. Saladin, of course, allowed the defenders to leave unmolested, with all their property.
The following Tuesday the victorious army marched on the port of Acre, which capitulated without resistance. The city had acquired considerable economic importance during these past years, for trade with the West was channelled through it. The sultan tried to convince the many Italian merchants to remain, promising that they would enjoy all the necessary protection. But they preferred to depart for the neighbouring port of Tyre. Although he regretted their decision, the sultan did not try to stop them. He even allowed them to take away all their riches and offered them an escort to protect them from brigands.
Saladin saw no point in his roaming the countryside at the head of such a powerful army, so he ordered his emirs to reduce the various strongholds of the Franj in Palestine. The Frankish settlements of Galilee and Samaria surrendered one after the other, sometimes in a few hours, sometimes over several days. The inhabitants of Nablus, Haifa, and Nazareth headed for Tyre or Jerusalem. The only serious engagement occurred in Jaffa, where an army from Egypt, commanded by Saladin’s brother al-ÝÀdil, met with fierce resistance. When he finally managed to take the city, al-ÝÀdil reduced the entire population to slavery. Ibn al-AthÐr says that he himself bought a young Frankish woman from Jaffa at a slave market in Aleppo.
She had a one-year-old child. One day, as she was carrying the child in her arms, she fell and scratched her face. She burst into tears. I tried to console her, telling her that the wound was not serious and that there was no reason to shed bitter tears over such a trifle. She answered, ÝThat is not why I am crying; it is because of the misfortune that has befallen us. I had six brothers, and all were killed. I don’t know what has become of my husband and sisters.’ Of all the Franj of the littoral, the Arab historian explains, only the people of Jaffa suffered such a fate.
Indeed, everywhere else the reconquest was nearly bloodless. After his short stay in Acre, Saladin headed north. He passed Tyre, deciding not to waste time at its powerful walls, and set out in a triumphant march along the coast. On 29 July, after seventy-seven years of occupation, Saida capitulated without a fight, followed a few days later by Beirut and Jubayl. The Muslim troops were now quite close to the county of Tripoli, but Saladin, feeling that he no longer had anything to fear from that quarter, turned south, and again paused before Tyre, wondering whether or not he should lay siege to it.
After some hesitation, BahÁ' al-DÐn tells us, the sultan decided not to do so. His troops were widely scattered, and exhausted by this over-long campaign. And Tyre was too well defended, for all the Franj of the coast were now gathered there. He therefore preferred to attack Ascalon, which was easier to take.
Saladin would later come to regret this decision bitterly. For the moment, however, his triumphal march continued. On 4 September Ascalon capitulated, followed by Gaza, which was held by the Templars. At the same time, Saladin dispatched several of his army’s emirs to the environs of Jerusalem, where they seized a number of positions, including Bethlehem. The sultan now had but one desire: to crown his victorious campaign, and his career, with the reconquest of the holy city.
Would he be able to duplicate the feat of the caliph ÝUmar, and enter this venerated city without destruction or bloodshed? He sent a message to the inhabitants of Jerusalem inviting them to hold talks on the future of the city. A delegation of notables came to meet him in Ascalon. The victor’s proposal was reasonable: the city would be handed over to him without combat; those inhabitants who desired to leave could do so, taking their property with them; the Christian places of worship would be respected; in the future, those who wished to visit the city as pilgrims would not be molested. But to the sultan’s great surprise, the Franj responded as arrogantly as they had during the time of their ascendancy. Deliver Jerusalem, the town where Jesus had died? Out of the question! The city was theirs and they would defend it come what may.
Swearing that he would now take Jerusalem only by the sword, Saladin ordered his troops, dispersed in the four corners of Syria, to assemble around the holy city. All the emirs came at the run. What Muslim would not wish to be able to say to his creator on Judgement Day: I fought for Jerusalem. Or better still: I died a martyr for Jerusalem. An astrologer had once predicted that Saladin would lose an eye if he entered the holy city, to which Saladin had replied: ÝTo take it I am ready to lose both eyes!’
Inside the besieged city, the defence was under the command of Balian of Ibelin, the ruler of Ramlah, a lord, according to Ibn al-AthÐr, who held a rank among the Franj more or less equal to that of king. He had managed to escape from ÍiÔÔÐn shortly before the defeat of his troops, and had taken refuge in Tyre. During the summer he had asked Saladin for permission to go and fetch his wife from Jerusalem, promising that he would not bear arms and that he would spend only a single night in the holy city. Once there, however, they begged him to stay, for no one else had sufficient authority to direct the resistance. Balian, who was a man of honour, felt that he could not agree to defend Jerusalem and its people without betraying his agreement with the sultan. He therefore turned to Saladin himself to ask what he should do. The magnanimous sultan released him from his commitment. If duty required that he remain in the holy city and bear arms, so be it! And since Balian was now too busy organizing the defence of Jerusalem to look after his wife, the sultan supplied an escort to lead her back to Tyre!
Saladin would never refuse a request from a man of honour, even the fiercest of his enemies. In this particular case, however, the risk was minimal. Despite his bravery, Balian could not seriously resist the Muslim army. Though the ramparts were solid and the Frankish population deeply attached to their capital, the defenders were limited to a handful of knights and a few hundred townsmen with no military experience. Moreover, the Orthodox and Jacobite Oriental Christians of Jerusalem were favourable to Saladin—especially the clergy, for they had been treated with unrelenting disdain by the Latin prelates. One of the sultan’s chief advisers was an Orthodox priest by the name of YÙsuf Batit. It was he who took charge of contacts with the Franj, as well as with the Oriental Christian communities. Shortly before the siege began, the Orthodox clerics promised Batit that they would throw open the gates of the city if the Occidentals held out too long.
As it happened, the resistance of the Franj was courageous but short-lived, and conducted with few illusions. The encirclement of Jerusalem began on 20 September. Six days later Saladin, who had established his camp on the Mount of Olives, asked his troops to intensify their pressure in preparation for the final assault. On 29 September sappers managed to open a breach in the northern part of the wall, very close to the place where the Occidentals had achieved their own breach back in 1099. When he saw that there was no longer any point in continuing the fight, Balian asked for safe conduct and presented himself before the sultan.
Saladin was intractable. Had he not offered the inhabitants the best possible terms on which to capitulate well before the battle? Now was not the time for negotiations, for he had sworn to take the city by the sword, just as the Franj had done. He could be released from his oath only if Jerusalem threw open its gates and surrendered to him completely and unconditionally.
Balian insisted on obtaining a promise from Saladin to spare his life, Ibn al-AthÐr reports, but ÑalÁÎ al-DÐn would promise nothing. Balian tried to soften his heart, but in vain. He then addressed him in these terms: ÝO sultan, be aware that this city holds a mass of people so great that God alone knows their number. They now hesitate to continue the fight, because they hope that you will spare their lives as you have spared so many others, because they love life and hate death. But if we see that death is inevitable, then, by God, we will kill our own women and children and burn all that we possess. We will not leave you a single dinar of booty, not a single dirham, not a single man or woman to lead into captivity. Then we shall destroy the sacred rock, al-AqÒÁ mosque, and many other sites; we will kill the five thousand Muslim prisoners we now hold, and will exterminate the mounts and all the beasts. In the end, we will come outside the city, and we will fight against you as one fights for one’s life. Not one of us will die without having killed several of you!’
Although he was not impressed by the threats, Saladin was moved by the man’s fervour. In order not to appear to soften too easily, he turned to his advisers and asked them if he could not be released from his pledge to take the city by the sword—simply in order to avoid the destruction of the holy places of Islam. Their response was affirmative, but since they were aware of their master’s incorrigible generosity, they insisted that he obtain financial compensation from the Franj before he allowed them to leave, for the long campaign had emptied the state treasury. The infidels, the advisers explained, were virtual prisoners. To purchase their freedom, each should pay a ransom: ten dinars for each man, five for a woman, and one for a child. Balian accepted the principle, but he pleaded for the poor, who, he said, would be unable to pay such a sum. Could not seven thousand of them be released in exchange for thirty thousand dinars? Once again, the request was granted, despite furious protests from the treasurers. Satisfied, Balian ordered his men to lay down their arms.
So it was that on Friday 2 October 1187, or 27 Rajab 583 by the Muslim calendar, the very day on which Muslims celebrate the Prophet’s nocturnal journey to Jerusalem, Saladin solemnly entered the holy city. His emirs and soldiers had strict orders: no Christian, whether Frankish or Oriental, was to be touched. And indeed, there was neither massacre nor plunder. Some fanatics demanded that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre be destroyed in retaliation for the excesses committed by the Franj, but Saladin silenced them. On the contrary, he strengthened the guard at the Christian places of worship and announced that the Franj themselves would be allowed to come on pilgrimage whenever they liked. The Frankish cross attached to the Dome of the Rock mosque was removed, of course. And al-AqÒÁ mosque, which had been turned into a church, became a Muslim place of worship again, after its walls had been sprinkled with rose water.
Most of the Franj remained in the city as Saladin, surrounded by a mass of companions, went from sanctuary to sanctuary weeping, praying, and prostrating himself. The rich made sure to sell their houses, businesses, or furniture before going into exile, the buyers generally being Orthodox or Jacobite Christians who planned to stay on. Other property was later sold to Jewish families settled in the holy city by Saladin.
As for Balian, he sought to raise the money needed to buy back the freedom of the poorest citizens. In itself, the ransom was not excessive, although for a prince it regularly ran to several tens of thousands of dinars, sometimes even a hundred thousand or more. But for ordinary people, something like twenty dinars per family represented a year or two’s income. Thousands of unfortunates had gathered at the gates of the city to beg for coins. Al-ÝÀdil, who was as sensitive as his brother, asked Saladin’s permission to free a thousand poor prisoners without payment of any ransom. When he heard this, the Frankish patriarch asked the same for seven hundred others, and Balian for another five hundred. They were all freed. Then, on his own initiative, the sultan announced that all old people would be allowed to leave without paying anything and that imprisoned men with young children would also be released. When it came to Frankish widows and orphans, he not only exempted them from any payment, but also offered them gifts before allowing them to leave.
Saladin’s treasurers despaired. If the least fortunate were to be set free for nothing, they argued, at least the ransom for the rich should be raised. The anger of these worthy servants of the state knew no bounds when the patriarch of Jerusalem drove out of the city accompanied by numerous chariots filled with gold, carpets, and all sorts of the most precious goods. ÝImÁd al-DÐn al-AsfahÁni was scandalized:
I said to the sultan: ÝThis patriarch is carrying off riches worth at least two hundred thousand dinars. We gave them permission to take their personal property with them, but not the treasures of the churches and convents. You must not let them do it!’ But ÑalÁÎ al-DÐn answered: ÝWe must apply the letter of the accords we have signed, so that no one will be able to accuse the believers of having violated their treaties. On the contrary, Christians everywhere will remember the kindness we have bestowed upon them.’
The patriarch paid his ten dinars just like everyone else, and was even provided with an escort to make sure that he reached Tyre without incident.
Saladin had conquered Jerusalem not to amass gold, and still less to seek vengeance. His prime objective, as he himself explained, was to do his duty before his God and his faith. His victory was to have liberated the holy city from the yoke of the invaders—without a bloodbath, destruction, or hatred. His reward was to be able to bow down and pray in places where no Muslim would have been able to pray had it not been for him. On Friday 9 October, a week after the victory, an official ceremony was organized in al-AqÒÁ mosque. Many religious leaders competed for the honour of delivering the sermon on this memorable occasion. In the end, it was the qÁÃÐ of Damascus MuÎÐ al-DÐn Ibn al-Zaki, the successor of AbÙ ÑaÝad al-Íarawi, who was designated by the sultan to mount the pulpit, garbed in a superb black robe. Although his voice was clear and powerful, a slight tremor betrayed his emotion as he spoke: ÝGlory to God who has bestowed this victory upon Islam and who has returned this city to the fold after a century of perdition! Honour to this army, which He has chosen to complete the reconquest! And may salvation be upon you, ÑalÁÎ al-DÐn YÙsuf, son of AyyÙb, you who have restored the spurned dignity of this nation!’