When the master of Egypt decided to hand Jerusalem over to the Franj, a great storm of indignation swept all the lands of Islam.
SIBÓ IBN AL-JAWZI
Arab chronicler (1186–1256)
Although venerated as a hero after the reconquest of Jerusalem, Saladin was nevertheless subjected to criticism—although amicable on the part of his close collaborators, from his opponents it became increasingly severe.
ÑalÁÎ al-DÐn, writes Ibn al-AthÐr, never evinced real firmness in his decisions. He would lay siege to a city, but if the defenders resisted for some time, he would give up and abandon the siege. Now, a monarch must never act in this way, even if destiny smiles upon him. It is often preferable to fail while remaining firm than to succeed while subsequently squandering the fruits of one’s success. Nothing illustrates the truth of this observation better than the behaviour of ÑalÁÎ al-DÐn at Tyre. It is his fault alone that the Muslims suffered a setback before the walls of that city.
Although he stopped short of any systematic hostility, the Mosul historian, who was still loyal to the ZangÐ dynasty, was always somewhat reserved in his evaluation of Saladin. Ibn al-AthÐr shared the general elation that swept the Arab world after ÍiÔÔÐn and Jerusalem. But that did not prevent him from taking note, without the slightest complacency, of the mistakes made by the hero of these events. In the case of Tyre, the historian’s criticism seems perfectly justified.
Every time he seized a Frankish city or stronghold such as Acre, Ascalon, or Jerusalem, ÑalÁÎ al-DÐn allowed the enemy soldiers and knights to seek refuge in Tyre, a city that had thus become virtually impregnable. The Franj of the littoral sent messages to the others overseas, and the latter promised to come to their rescue. Ought we not to say that in a sense it was ÑalÁÎ al-DÐn himself who organized the defence of Tyre against his own army?
Of course, there is no reproaching the sultan for the magnanimity with which he treated the vanquished. In the eyes of history, his repugnance for needless bloodshed, his strict respect for his commitments, and the touching nobility of his acts of compassion are as valuable as his conquests. Nevertheless, it is incontestable that he made a serious political and military error. He knew that by taking Jerusalem he was issuing a challenge to the West, and that the West would respond. In these conditions, to permit tens of thousands of Franj to entrench themselves in Tyre, the most powerful stronghold of the Levantine coast, was to offer an ideal beach-head for a fresh invasion. This was especially so since in the absence of King Guy, who was still a captive, the knights had found a particularly tenacious leader in the person of the man the Arab chroniclers would call al-Markish, the marquis Conrad of Montferrat, who had recently arrived from Europe.
Although he was not unaware of the danger, Saladin nevertheless underestimated it. In November 1187, a few weeks after the conquest of the holy city, he laid siege to Tyre. But he did so without great determination. This ancient Phoenician city could not have been taken without massive assistance from the Egyptian fleet. Saladin was well aware of this, yet he appeared before its ramparts supported by no more than ten vessels, five of which were burned by the defenders in a daring raid. The other ships then withdrew to Beirut. Once deprived of its fleet, the Muslim army could attack Tyre only across the narrow ridge connecting the city to the mainland. In these conditions a siege could easily drag on for months, especially since the Franj, effectively mobilized by al-Markish, seemed ready to fight to the bitter end. Most of his emirs, exhausted by this endless campaign, advised Saladin to call off the siege. Had he offered them enough gold, the sultan could probably have convinced some of them to remain. But soldiers were expensive in winter, and the state coffers were empty. He himself was weary. He therefore demobilized half his troops; then, lifting the siege, he headed north, where many cities and fortresses could be reconquered without great effort.
For the Muslim army, it was yet another triumphant march: Latakia, ÓarÔÙs, Baghras, Safid, Kawkab—the list of conquests was long. In fact, it is easier to name the towns the Franj retained: Tyre, Tripoli, Antioch and its port, and three isolated fortresses. But the most perceptive of Saladin’s entourage were not deceived. What was the use of piling up conquests if there was no guarantee that a fresh invasion could be effectively discouraged? The sultan himself seemed to view any new trial of strength with equanimity, ÝIf the Franj come from beyond the seas, they will suffer the fate of those who have preceded them here’, he exclaimed when a Sicilian fleet appeared off the coast of Latakia. In July 1188 he even released Guy, after eliciting a solemn promise that he would never again take up arms against the Muslims.
This last generous gesture was to cost him dear. In August 1189 the Frankish king broke his word and laid siege to the port of Acre. Guy’s forces were modest at first, but ships were soon arriving daily, pouring successive waves of Western fighters onto the beach.
After the fall of Jerusalem, Ibn al-AthÐr reports, the Franj dressed in black, and they journeyed beyond the seas to seek aid and succour in all their lands, especially Rome the Great. To incite people to vengeance, they carried with them a painting of the Messiah, peace be upon him, bloodied by an Arab who was striking him. They would say: ÝLook, here is the Messiah and here is MuÎammad, the Prophet of the Muslims, beating him to death!’ The Franj were moved and gathered together, women included; those who could not come along would pay the expenses of those who went to fight in their place. One of the enemy prisoners told me that he was an only son and that his mother had sold her house to buy his equipment for him. The religious and psychological motivation of the Franj was so strong that they were prepared to surmount all difficulties to achieve their ends.
From the first days of September, Guy’s troops began to receive wave after wave of reinforcements. Thus began the battle of Acre, one of the longest and most gruelling of all the Frankish wars. Acre is built on a peninsula shaped like a protruding nose: to the south is the port, to the west the sea; to the north and east two solid city walls form a right angle. The city was doubly encircled. Around the ramparts, firmly held by the Muslim garrison, the Franj formed an ever thicker semicircle, but they had to deal with Saladin’s army at their rear. At first, Saladin tried to trap the enemy in a pincer movement, hoping to decimate them. But he soon realized that this would be impossible, for although the Muslim army won several successive victories, the Franj immediately compensated for their losses. Every sunrise saw fresh batches of fighters arrive, from Tyre or from beyond the seas.
In October 1189, as the battle of Acre raged, Saladin received a message from Aleppo informing him that the Ýking of the AlmÁn’, the emperor Frederick Barbarossa, was approaching Constantinople, en route to Syria, with two hundred, perhaps two hundred and sixty, thousand men. The sultan was deeply worried, or so we are told by the faithful BahÁ' al-DÐn, who was with Saladin at the time. In view of the extreme gravity of the situation, he felt it necessary to call all Muslims to jihÁd and to inform the caliph of the development of the situation. He therefore sent me to visit the rulers of Sinjar, JazÐra, Mosul, and Irbil, to implore them to come with their soldiers to participate in the jihÁd. I was then to go to Baghdad to urge the prince of the faithful to react. This I did. In an effort to rouse the caliph from his lethargy, Saladin sent him a letter saying that the pope who resides in Rome has ordered the Frankish peoples to march on Jerusalem. At the same time, Saladin sent messages to leaders in the Maghreb and in Muslim Spain inviting them to come to the aid of their brothers, since the Franj of the West have acted in concert with those of the East. Throughout the Arab world, the enthusiasm originally aroused by the reconquest was giving way to fear. It was being whispered that the vengeance of the Franj would be terrible, that there would be a new bloodbath, that the holy city would be lost once more, that Syria and Egypt would both fall into the hands of the invaders. Once again, however, luck, or providence, intervened on Saladin’s behalf.
After crossing Asia Minor in triumph, in the spring of 1190 the German emperor arrived at Konya, the capital of the successors of Kilij Arslan. Frederick soon forced the gates open and then sent emissaries to Antioch to announce his imminent arrival. The Armenians of southern Anatolia were alarmed at the news. Their clergy dispatched a messenger to Saladin begging him to protect them against this new Frankish invasion. In the event, no intervention by the sultan would be necessary. On 10 June, a stifling dog-day afternoon, Frederick Barbarossa went for a swim in a little stream at the foot of the Taurus Mountains. Somehow, probably as the result of a heart attack, he drowned—in a place, Ibn al-AthÐr explains, where the water was barely hip-deep. His army dispersed, and thus did God spare the Muslims the maleficence of the Germans, who constitute a particularly numerous and tenacious species of Franj.
The German danger was thus miraculously removed, but it had paralysed Saladin for several months, preventing him from joining the decisive battle against the troops besieging Acre. The situation at the Palestinian port was now at an impasse. Although the sultan had received sufficient reinforcements to hold his position against any counter-attack, the Franj could no longer be dislodged. Gradually, a modus vivendi was established. Between skirmishes, knights and emirs would invite one another to banquets and would chat together quite calmly, sometimes even playing games, as BahÁ' al-DÐn relates.
One day, the men of the two camps, tired of fighting, decided to organize a battle between children. Two boys came out of the city to match themselves against two young infidels. In the heat of the struggle, one of the Muslim boys leapt upon his rival, threw him to the ground, and seized him by the throat. When they saw that he was threatening to kill him, the Franj approached and said: ÝStop! He has become your prisoner, forsooth, and we shall buy him back from you.’ The boy took two dinars and let the other go.
Despite the carnival atmosphere, the belligerents were hardly living in enviable conditions. There were many dead and wounded, epidemics were raging, and it was not easy to get supplies in winter. It was the position of the Acre garrison that was of greatest concern to Saladin. As more and more vessels arrived from the West, the sea blockade grew ever tighter. On two occasions, an Egyptian fleet comprising several dozen ships had managed to cut a path to the port, but their losses had been heavy, and the sultan soon had to resort to trickery to resupply the besieged soldiers. In June 1190 he armed an enormous ship in Beirut, filling it with grain, cheese, onions, and sheep.
A group of Muslims boarded the ship, BahÁ' al-DÐn explains. They were dressed like Franj; they had also shaved their beards, sewn crosses to the mast, and positioned pigs prominently on the deck. Then they approached the city, slipping alongside the enemy vessels. When they were stopped the Franj said, ÝYou seem to be heading for Acre.’ Our soldiers, feigning astonishment, asked, ÝHaven’t you taken the city?’ The Franj, who thought they were dealing with their own congeners, replied, ÝNo, we have not yet taken it.’ ÝWell then’, our soldiers replied, Ýwe will moor near the camp, but there is another ship behind us. You had better alert them so that they do not sail into the city.’ The Beirutis had indeed noticed that there was a Frankish ship behind them. The enemy sailors headed towards it immediately, while our brothers unfurled all sails for a rush to the port of Acre, where they were greeted with cries of joy, for hunger was stalking the city.
But such stratagems could not be repeated too often. If Saladin’s army could not loosen the vice, Acre would eventually capitulate. As the months dragged on, the chances of a Muslim victory, of a new ÍiÔÔÐn, seemed increasingly remote. The influx of Occidental fighters, far from waning, was still on the rise. In April 1191 the king of France, Philip Augustus, disembarked with his troops in the environs of Acre; he was followed, at the beginning of June, by Richard the Lionheart.
This king of England (Malik al-Inkitar), BahÁ' al-DÐn tells us, was courageous, energetic, and daríng in combat. Although of lower rank than the king of France, he was richer and more renowned as a warrior. On his way east he had seized Cyprus, and when he appeared before Acre, accompanied by twenty-five galleys loaded with men and equipment for war, the Franj let out cries of joy and lit great fires to celebrate his arrival. As for the Muslims, their hearts were filled with fear and apprehension.
The 33-year-old red-headed giant who wore the English crown was the prototype of the belligerent and flighty knight whose noble ideals did little to conceal his baffling brutality and complete lack of scruples. While no Occidental was impervious to his charm and undeniable charisma, Richard himself was in turn fascinated by Saladin, whom he sought to meet immediately upon his arrival. Dispatching a messenger to al-ÝÀdil, he asked him to arrange an interview with his brother. The sultan answered without a moment’s hesitation: ÝKings meet together only after the conclusion of an accord, for it is unthinkable for them to wage war once they know one another and have broken bread together.’ He nevertheless authorized his brother to meet Richard, provided each would be accompanied by his own soldiers. Contacts continued, but without much result. In fact, BahÁ' al-DÐn explains, the intention of the Franj in sending messengers to us was primarily to probe our strong and weak points. Our aim in receiving them was exactly the same. Although Richard was sincere in his desire to meet the conqueror of Jerusalem, he had decidedly not come to the Middle East to negotiate with him.
While these exchanges continued, the English king was actively preparing for the final assault on Acre. The city was now completely cut off from the outside world, and racked by famine as well. Only a few elite swimmers could still reach it, at the risk of their lives. BahÁ' al-DÐn relates the adventure of one of these commandos.
It was one of the most curious and exemplary episodes of this long battle. There was a Muslim swimmer by the name of ÝIsÁ who used to dive under enemy ships at night and come up on the other side, where the besieged soldiers awaited him. He usually carried money and messages for the garrison, these being attached to his belt. One night, when he had dived down carrying three sacks containing a thousand dinars and several letters, he was caught and killed. We found out very quickly that some misfortune had befallen him, for ÝIsÁ regularly informed us of his safe arrival by releasing a pigeon in our direction. That night we received no signal. A few days later, some inhabitants of Acre happened to be walking along the water’s edge and saw a body washed up on the shore. As they approached it, they recognized ÝIsÁ the swimmer; the gold and the wax with which the letters were sealed were still attached to his belt. Who has ever heard of a man fulfilling his mission in death as faithfully as though he were alive?
The heroism of some of the Arab fighters was not enough. The position of the Acre garrison was fast becoming critical. By the beginning of the summer of 1191 the appeals of the besieged had become cries of despair: ÝWe are at the end of our tether, and no longer have any choice but to capitulate. If nothing has been done for us by tomorrow, we will request that our lives be spared and we will hand over the city.’ Saladin gave way to depression. Having lost any illusion that the besieged city could be saved, he wept bitter tears. His closest collaborators feared for his health, and the doctors prescribed potions to soothe him. He asked heralds to move through the camp announcing that a massive attack would be launched to lift the siege of Acre. But his emirs refused to obey his orders. ÝWhy endanger the Muslim army uselessly?’ they retorted. There were now so many Franj, and they were so solidly entrenched, that any offensive would have been suicidal.
On 11 July 1191, after a siege lasting two years, cross-embossed banners suddenly appeared on the ramparts of Acre.
The Franj let out an immense cry of joy, while in our camp everyone was stunned. The soldiers wept and lamented. As for the sultan, he was like a mother who has just lost her child. I went to see him to do my best to console him. I told him that now we had to think of the future of Jerusalem and the coastal cities, and to do something about the fate of the Muslims captured in Acre.
Overcoming his grief, Saladin sent a messenger to Richard to discuss conditions for the release of the prisoners. But the Englishman was pressed for time. Determined to take advantage of his success to launch a sweeping offensive, he had no intention of bothering about captives, any more than had the sultan four years earlier, when the Frankish cities were falling into his hands one after another. The only difference was that when Saladin wanted to avoid being burdened with prisoners, he released them, whereas Richard preferred to have them killed. Two thousand and seven hundred soldiers of the Acre garrison were assembled before the city walls, along with nearly three hundred women and children of their families. Roped together so that they formed one enormous mass of flesh, they were delivered to the Frankish fighters, who fell upon them viciously with their sabres, with lances, and even with stones, until all the wails had been stilled.
After this expeditious resolution of the problem, Richard led his troops out of Acre. He headed south along the coast, his fleet following closely behind, while Saladin took a parallel route further inland. There were many clashes between the two armies, but none was decisive. The sultan now realized that he could not prevent the invaders from regaining control of the Palestinian coast, much less destroy their army. His ambition was simply to contain them, to bar their route to Jerusalem whatever the cost, for the loss of that city would be a terrible blow to Islam. It was the darkest moment of his career. Profoundly shaken, he nevertheless strove to sustain the morale of his troops and collaborators. To the latter, he acknowledged that he had suffered a serious setback—but, he explained, he and his people were there to stay, whereas the Frankish kings were only indulging in an expedition that would have to end sooner or later. Had not the king of France left Palestine in August, after spending a hundred days in the Orient? Had not the king of England often repeated that he yearned to return to his far-off kingdom?
Richard had moreover made many diplomatic overtures. In September 1191, just after his troops had scored a number of successes, in particular in the ArsÙf coastal plain north of Jaffa, he prevailed upon al-ÝÀdil to come to a rapid agreement.
Men of ours and of yours have died, he told him in a message, the country is in ruins, and events have entirely escaped anyone’s control. Do you not believe that it is enough? As far as we are concerned, there are only three subjects of discord: Jerusalem, the True Cross, and territory.
As for Jerusalem, it is our place of worship, and we will never agree to renounce it, even if we have to fight to the last man. As territory, all we want is that the land west of the Jordan be ceded to us. As for the Cross, for you it is merely a piece of wood, whereas for us its value is inestimable. Let the sultan give it to us, and let us put an end to this exhausting struggle.
Al-ÝÀdil immediately carried the message to his brother, who consulted his chief collaborators before dictating his response:
The city is as holy to us as it is to you; it is even more important for us, because it was there that our Prophet made his miraculous nocturnal journey, and it is there that our community will be reunited on judgement day. It is therefore out of the question for us to abandon it. The Muslims would never accept it. As for territory, this land has always been ours, and your occupation is only transitory. You were able to settle in it because of the weakness of the Muslims who then peopled it, but so long as there is war, we will not allow you to enjoy your possessions. As for the Cross, it is a great trump in our hands, and we will surrender it only in return for some important concession on behalf of Islam.
The apparent firmness of these two messages was deceptive. Although each side was presenting maximal demands, the path of compromise was not entirely barred. A mere three days after this exchange, Richard sent Saladin’s brother a most curious proposition.
Al-ÝÀdil sent for me, BahÁ' al-DÐn relates, to inform me of the results of his latest contacts. According to the agreement being proposed, al-ÝÀdil would marry the sister of the king of England. She had been married to the ruler of Sicily, who had died. The Englishman therefore brought his sister East with him, and he proposed that al-ÝÀdil marry her. The couple would reside in Jerusalem. The king would consign the lands under his control, from Acre to Ascalon, to his sister, who would become queen of the coast, of the sÁÎil. The sultan would cede his coastal possessions to his brother, who would become king of the sÁÎil. The Cross would be entrusted to them jointly, and prisoners would be released on both sides. Once peace was thus concluded, the king of England would return to his country beyond the seas.
Al-ÝÀdil was visibly tempted. He recommended that BahÁ'; do his utmost to convince Saladin. The chronicler promised to try.
Thus did I present myself before the sultan, and repeated to him what I had heard. He immediately told me that he saw no obstacle, but he did not believe that the king of England himself would ever accept such an arrangement. It was, he thought, only a joke, or a trick. Three times I asked him to confirm his approval, and he did so. I then returned to al-ÝÀdil to inform him of the sultan’s agreement. He hurriedly sent a message to the enemy camp conveying his response. But the accursed Englishman then told him that his sister had returned home in a terrible rage when she was told about his proposal: she had sworn that she would never give herself to a Muslim!
As Saladin had guessed, Richard had been indulging in a bit of trickery. He had hoped that the sultan would reject his plan out of hand, and that this would greatly displease al-ÝÀdil. By accepting, Saladin instead compelled the Frankish monarch to reveal his double game. Indeed, for several months Richard had been trying to establish special relations with al-ÝÀdil, calling him Ýmy brother’, pandering to his ambition in an effort to use him against Saladin. It was a clever tactic. The sultan, for his part, employed similar methods. Parallel to the negotiations with Richard, he engaged in talks with al-Markish Conrad, the ruler of Tyre, whose relations with the English king were somewhat strained, since Conrad suspected Richard of seeking to deprive him of his possessions. He even went so far as to offer Saladin an alliance against the Ýoverseas Franj’. Without taking this offer literally, the sultan used it to intensify his diplomatic pressure on Richard, who became so exasperated with the policy of the marquis that he had him assassinated several months later!
His manoeuvre having failed, the king of England asked al-ÝÀdil to organize a meeting with Saladin. But the latter’s response was the same as it had been a few months earlier:
Kings meet only after the conclusion of an accord. In any event, I do not understand your language, and you are ignorant of mine, and we therefore need a translator in whom we both have confidence. Let this man, then, act as a messenger between us. When we arrive at an understanding, we will meet, and friendship will prevail between us.
The negotiations dragged on for another year. Entrenched in Jerusalem, Saladin let the time pass. His peace proposals were simple: each side would keep what it had; the Franj, if they wished, could come unarmed to make their pilgrimages to the holy city, which, however, would remain in Muslim hands. Richard, who yearned to return home, twice tried to force a decision by marching in the direction of Jerusalem, but without attacking it. For months he tried to work off his excess energy by constructing a formidable fortress in Ascalon, which he dreamed of turning into a jumping-off point for a future expedition to Egypt. When the work was done, Saladin demanded that it be dismantled, stone by stone, before the conclusion of peace.
By August 1192 Richard had reached the end of his tether. Seriously ill, abandoned by many knights who rebuked him for not having tried to retake Jerusalem, accused of the murder of Conrad, and urged by his friends to return to England without delay, he could postpone his departure no longer. He virtually begged Saladin to leave him Ascalon, but the response was negative. He then sent another message, repeating his request and explaining that if an acceptable peace agreement had not been arrived at within six days, he would be compelled to spend the winter here. This veiled ultimatum amused Saladin, who, inviting Richard’s messenger to be seated, addressed him in these terms: ÝYou will tell the king that as far as Ascalon is concerned, I shall not give way. As for his plan to spend the winter in this country, I think that it is inevitable, for he knows full well that the land that he has seized will be taken from him the moment he departs. Does he really want to spend the winter here, two months distant from his family and his country, while he is still young and strong enough to enjoy the pleasures of life? For my part, I could spend the winter, the summer, and then another winter and another summer here, for I am in my own land, among my children and relatives, who care for me, and I have one army for the summer and another for the winter. I am an old man, who no longer indulges in the pleasures of existence. So I shall wait, until God grants one of us victory.’
Apparently impressed by this argument, Richard let it be known during succeeding days that he was prepared to give up Ascalon. At the beginning of September 1192 a five-year peace was signed. The Franj retained the coastal zone from Tyre to Jaffa but recognized Saladin’s authority over the rest of the country, including Jerusalem. The Western warriors, who had been granted safe conduct by the sultan, rushed to the holy city to pray at the tomb of Christ. Saladin courteously received the most important of them, even inviting them to share his meals and reassuring them of his firm desire to uphold freedom of worship. But Richard refused to go. He would not enter as a guest a city that he had sworn to storm as a conqueror. A month after the conclusion of peace, he left the East without ever having seen either the holy sepulchre or Saladin.
The sultan had finally emerged victorious in his arduous confrontation with the West. True, the Franj had recovered control of some cities, thus winning a reprieve that was to last nearly a hundred years. But never again would they constitute a force capable of dictating terms to the Arab world. From now on, they would control not genuine states, but mere settlements.
In spite of this success, Saladin felt bruised, even somewhat diminished. He bore scant resemblance to the charismatic hero of ÍiÔÔÐn. His authority over his emirs had been weakened, and his detractors were increasingly virulent. Physically, he was not well. His health had never been excellent, and for years he had had to consult the court physicians regularly, in Damascus as in Cairo. In the Egyptian capital, he was particularly attached to the services of a prestigious Jewish-Arab ÔabÐb originally from Spain, MÙsa Ibn MaymÙn, better known as Maimonides. During these most difficult years of the struggle against the Franj, Saladin had suffered frequent attacks of malaria, which confined him to his bed for days on end. In 1192, however, it was not the ravages of any particular illness that concerned his doctors, but a general weakness, a sort of premature old age evident to anyone who had close dealings with the sultan. Saladin was only in his fifty-fifth year, but he himself seemed to realize that he was nearing the end of his life.
Saladin spent his last days peacefully among his relatives in his favourite city, Damascus. BahÁ' al-DÐn never left his side, and affectionately jotted down each one of his acts. On Thursday 18 February 1193 BahÁ' al-DÐn joined the sultan in the garden of his palace in the citadel.
The sultan was seated in the shade, surrounded by the youngest of his children. He asked who was waiting for him inside. ÝFrankish messengers’, he was told, Ýas well as a group of emirs and notables.’ He had the Franj summoned. When they came before him, he was dandling one of his small sons on his knees, the emir AbÙ Bakr, of whom he was especially fond. When the child looked upon the Franj, with their cleanshaven faces, their cropped hair, and their curious clothing, he was frightened and began to cry. The sultan apologized to the Franj and halted the interview without listening to what they wanted to tell him. Then he said to me: ÝHave you eaten at all today?’ It was his way of inviting someone to a meal. He added: ÝHave them bring us something to eat!’ We were served rice with labneh and other similar light dishes, and he ate. This reassured me, for I had thought that he had lost his appetite completely. For some time he had felt bloated, and could not bring himself to eat. He moved only with great effort, and was always begging people’s pardon.
That Thursday Saladin even felt well enough to go on horseback to greet a caravan of pilgrims returning from Mecca. But two days later he could no longer stand. Gradually, he sank into a state of lethargy. Moments of consciousness were becoming increasingly rare. News of his illness had spread throughout the city, and the Damascenes feared that their city would soon drift into anarchy.
Cloth was withdrawn from the souks for fear of pillage. And every night, when I left the sultan’s bedside to return home, people would gather along my way trying to guess, from my expression, whether the inevitable had yet come to pass.
On the night of 2 March 1193 the sickroom was invaded by women from the palace unable to hold back their tears. Saladin’s condition was so serious that his eldest son al-AfÃal asked BahÁ' al-DÐn and another of the sultan’s close collaborators, the qÁÃÐ al-FÁÃil, to spend the night in the citadel. That might be imprudent’, the qÁÃÐ suggested, Ýfor if the people of the city do not see us leave, they will think the worst, and there could be pillaging.’ A shaykh who lived within the citadel was therefore summoned to watch over the patient.
He read verses of the Koran, and spoke of God and the Beyond, while the sultan lay unconscious. When I returned the following morning, he was already dead. May God have mercy on him! I was told that when the shaykh read the verse that says,There is no God but God, on him alone do I rely, the sultan smiled. His face lit up, and then he gave up his soul.
The moment news of his death became known, many Damascenes headed for the citadel, but guards prevented them from entering. Only great emirs and the principal ÝulamÁ' were permitted to present their condolences to al-AfÃal, the late sultan’s eldest son, who was seated in one of the salons of the palace. The poets and orators were told to keep silent. Saladin’s youngest children went out into the street and mingled with the sobbing crowd.
These unbearable scenes, BahÁ' al-DÐn recounts, continued until after the midday prayer. They then set about bathing the body and wrapping it in the shroud; all the products used for this purpose had to be borrowed, for the sultan possessed nothing of his own. Although I was invited to the bathing ceremony, performed by the theologian al-DawlÁhi, I could not bring myself to attend. After the midday prayer, the body was brought out in a coffin wrapped in a cloth. At the appearance of the funeral cortège, cries of lamentation erupted from the crowd. Then group after group came to recite prayers over the remains. The sultan was carried to the gardens of the palace, where he had been cared for during his illness, and was buried in the western pavilion. He was laid to rest at the time of the afternoon prayer. May God sanctify his soul and illuminate his tomb!