Personal Profile

Born: c. 1137-38, Tikrit, Upper Mesopotamia, Abbasid Caliphate (modern-day Iraq)

Birth name: Al-Nasir Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub (westernised to Salah al-Din, or Saladin)

Died: 4 March 1193 (aged 55-56), Damascus, Syria, Ayyubid Sultanate

Reign: 1174 – 4 March 1193 as Sultan of Egypt and Syria

Spouse: Ismat ad-Din Khatun

Children: Al-Afdal ibn Salah ad-Din, Al-Aziz Uthman, Al-Zahir Ghazi

Dynasty: Ayyubid (founder)

Religion: Sunni Islam

Early Life

Saladin (I will refer to him by the westernised version of his name for consistency throughout here) was born in c. 1137 in the modern-day Iraqi city of Tikrit. His father was a Kurdish soldier and politician. Unfortunately, nothing conclusive is known about his mother. His father, Ayyub (whom the Ayyubid dynasty was named after) was also a skilled military leader – as was his uncle, Skirkuh. Both Ayyub and Shirkuh served under the Islamic leader Imad al-Din Zangi, a skilled military commander who had more than one skirmish against European crusaders.

As is usually the case with medieval rulers who rose to prominence, very little is known about their early lives. And this is exactly the case with Saladin. We do know that he grew up in Damascus, Syria, and that he received a good education. Contemporaries of Saladin commented that he was more interested in religious studies than joining the military. Another factor which may have sparked his interest in both religion and the military was that during the First Crusade, Jerusalem was taken by the Christians. On top of his knowledge of Islam, Saladin was also reportedly knowledgeable about histories of the Arab people, and had a natural talent for languages: he spoke Arabic, Kurdish, Turkish and Persian.

Saladin’s military career began under the direction of his uncle Shirkuh when he was in his early twenties. Saladin and Shirkuh were sent on campaign to Egypt under the instruction of Nur al-Din, Zengi’s son. The first battle which Saladin took part in was also on this expedition. The city of Bilbeis was besieged by a force of crusader armies from the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and they engaged Shirkuh’s army in battle at the Battle of al-Babein on 18 March 1167.

Imad al-Din Zengi, namesake of the Zengid Dynasty

Both King Amalric I of Jerusalem (r. 1163-74) and Shirkuh’s forces wanted to take control of the Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt for their own benefits. Saladin played a major role in the battle, leading the right-wing of the Zengid army. One of the crusader leaders, Hugh of Caesarea, was captured by Saladin’s forces in the ensuing battle. The battle ended in a Zengid victory, and (with poetic licence and a certain level of over-exaggeration), Saladin was credited by the Kurdish historian Ibn al-Althir as winning one of the “most remarkable victories in recorded history”.

Following the battle, Saladin and Shirkuh moved their forces onto Alexandria, where they were welcomed and rewarded for their efforts at al-Babein. It was at this point that Shirkuh split his army: he and the majority of his force withdrew from Alexandria, while he left Saladin and a smaller force were left with the task of guarding the city.

Saladin as a military leader

Map of the Fatimid Caliphate from c.940 – c.1100.

In 1169, Shirkuh died, and Saladin was chosen to succeed him in command of Nur al-Din’s forces in Egypt. In addition, Saladin was also appointed as Vizier of Egypt. Imad ad-Din, a Persian historian, claimed that Saladin was chosen as Vizier because of his role in the Egyptian expedition. In 1171, the last Fatimad Calpih died, and as a result, Saladin was appointed Governor of Egypt. During his tenure as Governor, he set about reducing the influence of Shia Islam, instead wishing to establish the Sultanate of Egypt as a Sunni state. And he succeeded – with the support of Nur al-Din, Saladin strengthened Egypt as a Sunni Islam powerbase.

Inter-Muslim Rivalry

As with modern Islam (and religion as a whole) today, it was not plain sailing converting a whole territory from one branch of Islam to another.[1] By 1174, Nur al-Din had died and was succeeded by his eleven-year-old son, al-Salih. This left Saladin in a difficult position: should he move his army against the Crusaders from Egypt, or wait until he was invited by al-Salih in Syria to come to his aid and launch a war from there?

In the end, Saladin made the decision to launch a campaign to take control of the lands that he saw rightfully as his (or Islam’s). He wanted to take back control of the four Crusader states, which had been established by Crusaders during the First Crusade (1096-99).[2] Saladin moved up from Egypt to Syria with a force of 700 horsemen, and took Damascus. He also managed to capture Aleppo and Mosul from other Muslim rulers, thus expanding his – and Sunni Islam’s – influence across the Middle East. He also managed to capture Yemen, which gave him control of the entire Red Sea.

From a diplomatic point of view, Saladin decided to marry Ismat al-Din Khatun, the widow of Nur al-Din Zengi, in 1176. This helped him to gain legitimacy through association between two dynasties: the Zengids and the Ayyubids.

[1] See the Reformation in sixteenth century Europe for another classic example of this.

[2] The four Crusader states were the County of Edessa (1098-1150), the Principality of Antioch (1098-1287), the County of Tripoli (1098-1289), and the Kingdom of Jerusalem (1099-1291).

Wars against the Crusaders

Egyptian conquests in Saladin’s time, 1163 – c.1174

In 1182, al-Adil (Saladin’s brother) wrote to Saladin from Egypt stating that the Crusader forces has struck at the “heart of Islam”. al-Adil was referencing Raynald de Châtillon’s crusader ships he had released in the Gulf of Aqaba to raid towns and villages on the coast of the Red Sea. Not only was this of very little significance or gain for the Crusaders, it was a shock to the Muslims – as word spread that Raynald wanted to attack the Muslim holy city of Mecca.

Rumour also spread that the Crusaders were going to attack Medina (the second-holiest city in Islam) and remove the Prophet Muhammad’s body. At this time, Saladin was still in the process of taking Mosul in Iraq. In response, he promised that if he was given Mosul and given leave to establish a military base there, it would lead to the Muslim capture of Jerusalem, Constantinople, Georgia, the lands of the Almohads in the Maghreb, “until the world of Allah is supreme and the Abbasid caliphate has wiped the world clean, turning the churches into mosques.”

Over the course of the next five years, Saladin fought various skirmishes against the Franks (western Crusader forces), ranging geographically from Jordan to the Red Sea, but little was achieved on either side – these were largely skirmishes where either the Christians or Muslims simply harassed their counterparts, rather than full scale battles.

However, by 1187, Saladin prepared to launch a full-scale attack, and this resulted in one of the most significant battles of the Crusades: the Battle of Hattin, on 4 July 1187.

The Battle of Hattin

A map of events leading up to the Battle of Hattin, 4 July 1187.

This was a tactical masterclass from Saladin, and showed his military prowess and knowledge on how to win on his own terrain.

Saladin had recruited his troops (estimates of 20,000 to 40,000 from across his realm, with a contingent being shipped over from Alexandria in Egypt, and another arriving from Damascus. Meanwhile, the crusader army (which numbered about 20,000) featured the combined forces of Guy of Lusignan, King Consort of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and Raymond III of Tripoli.

The forces met near Lake Tiberias (modern-day Israel), which was a key factor in the battle. Saladin instructed his troops to form in an arc around Lake Tiberias, which cut off the water supply for the Crusaders. On the night before the battle, the Muslim forces chanted prayers and beat drums, keeping the Crusaders awake. They also lit fires around the crusader camp, making their throats even drier in the searing heat of summer.

On the morning of 4th July 1187, the crusaders were blinded by the smoke from the Muslim fires, which gave the Muslims the perfect excuse to rain down arrows upon them. The Crusaders were thoroughly demoralised and disorientated, and broke formation, breaking for the Springs of Hattin. However, due to a combination of dehydration and injuries, the vast majority of the Crusader army were picked off by Muslim soldiers and killed.

This battle was a disaster for the Crusaders, but a huge victory for Saladin, and gave him the right platform to do what he had wanted to do for years: capture Jerusalem.

The Capture of Jerusalem

A 19th century depiction of the Christians of Jerusalem before Saladin.

Following the victory at Hattin, Saladin marched his forces down to Jerusalem. But due to its status as a – or the – Holy City, Saladin wanted to take the city without any bloodshed. He offered generous terms to the residents of the city, but they refused to stand down, stating that they would rather die fighting for their city than see it in Muslim hands.

However, following a short siege from 20 September to 2 October, Jerusalem capitulated to Saladin’s forces, and he walked in as the latest in a long line of Conquerors of Jerusalem. Saladin gave the residents forty days to pay their ransom to him, or, for those who could not afford it, could leave on peaceful terms. Saladin also allowed the Jews of Jerusalem to resettle there, if they wished to do so. So, after 88 years, Jerusalem was back in Muslim hands. But Saladin did not want to stop there. There was one Crusader city that he had not yet captured: Tyre.

The Third Crusade

Medieval depiction of the Siege of Acre, c. 1191

Strategically, it would have made much more sense for Saladin to capture Tyre first, before Jerusalem, given its coastal location and accessibility to ports in the Mediterranean. However, Saladin chose to take Jerusalem first due to its importance as a Holy City in Islam. Nevertheless, this was still on Saladin’s mind.

Upon hearing of the capture of Jerusalem, Pope Gregory VIII called for another crusade, marking the beginning of the Third Crusade, which was to last from 1189-92. To promote the extent of Saladin’s influence over the Third Crusade, it was financed by a tax known as the ‘Saladin tithe’.

This Crusade was also known as the “King’s Crusade” due to the three important kings from Europe who took the cross: Richard I ‘the Lionheart’ of England (r. 1189-99), Philip II ‘Augustus’ of France (r. 1190-1223) and Frederick I ‘Barbarossa’, the Holy Roman Emperor (r. 1155-90), further highlighting the importance the Third Crusade held in the eyes of the Christian kings of Europe.

The Siege of Acre was one of the first pivotal battles of the Third Crusade. Richard I supported Guy of Lusignan in the siege of the city, which lasted from 28 August 1189 to 12 July 1191 and eventually fell to the Crusaders.

Saladin and Richard I’s forces met once again at the Battle of Arsuf on 7 September 1191, where Saladin’s forces suffered an enormous defeat, while the Crusaders went on to retake Jaffa, another key city. It was during this period that Saladin and Richard begun corresponding with each other through letters and notes, with Richard proposing that his sister, Joan of England, should marry Saladin’s brother, and that Jerusalem could be their wedding gift. Saladin rejected this when one of the terms was that his brother should convert to Christianity.

In January 1192, Richard’s army occupied Beit Nuba, just twelve miles from Jerusalem, but they did not attack the Holy City. In July, Saladin attempted to besiege Jaffa, but Richard engaged his forces in the Battle of Jaffa (8 August 1192) outside the city walls, which proved to be a decisive victory for the Crusaders, and also the final battle of the Third Crusade.

It was at this point that Richard I and Saladin formally signed the Treaty of Jaffa on Wednesday 2 September 1192, thus formally ending the Third Crusade. The terms of the three-year truce stated that Saladin could keep Jerusalem, but Christian pilgrims would be safe enough to walk unarmed into Jerusalem and visit the Holy City. In addition, Saladin recognised that Crusaders would control the Palestinian coast from Tyre to Jaffa.

Saladin’s Death & Legacy

Map of the Ayyubid Sultanate at the time of Saladin’s death in 1193.

Following the Treaty of Jaffa in September 1192, Saladin travelled back to Damascus, where he died just six months later from a fever, on 4 March 1193. It was reported that at the time of his death, he did not even have enough money to pay for his own funeral – he reportedly had one piece of gold and forty pieces of silver. This was partly due to funding for the Crusades, but also because he had given away much of his wealth to his poorer subjects – something which is not often highlighted (particularly from a western perspective) when discussing Saladin.

Although Saladin died relatively young (aged 55-56), his was a life full of military expansion, and it had clearly taken its toll on him. Barely a year went by from the time he was in his early twenties to the time of his death where there was not some sort of military conflict that Saladin either fought in, organised, or commanded. Following his death, although the Muslim states that he had drawn together from Syria to Egypt would eventually disseminate, the Ayyubid Dynasty which he founded would continue to rule – in one form or another – until 1341.

For more of my other work, please check out my author profile at The Collector here.

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