The rasp of steel against stone whispered through the night air as soldiers sharpened their swords for battle. By the waning flicker of a banked fire a Crusader polished his armor to a high sheen. Elsewhere a huddle of knights whirled and thrust in a frieze of cavalry charges. A calm breeze ruffled the beards of a nearby group of warriors, laughing softly in the stillness.
The Crusaders besieging the Palestinian city of Acre in 1191 were supremely confident of victory, even though they knew that a Muslim army had come up behind them. They were heartened by the pennons of France and England flying above the two royal tents that dominated their camp on the Plain of Acre. Moreover, an army of Germans had marched in to join them. There were now 20,000 Crusaders eagerly awaiting the command to attack either the city or the enemy.
The charge was delayed long enough for one of the most fascinating dramas of history to be played out. It began with a party of European knights passing through the Muslim field fortifications under a flag of truce. They were shown to the summit of a hill on which stood the tent of the revered Islamic leader—a sumptuous pavilion gaily ornamented in Arabic style and bedecked with the Banner of the Crescent. They walked between files of silent, curious courtiers until they stood in the presence of the man they had come to see.
Saladin was both a poetic myth and a stern reality to the Crusaders. The one Islamic leader at whose hands they had suffered decisive defeats, he was also the chivalrous hero around whom they had spun countless legends, anecdotes and songs. They knew him as a foeman worthy of their steel—and their stories.
The envoys from the Crusader camp were, therefore, much beguiled by the figure before them. Saladin's appearance seemed at first almost anticlimactic. He was a slim, dark man of 53, far below average height by European standards. His pointed black beard was cut in the style preferred by the nobles of Islam. Dressed in the spare field uniform of a Muslim general, he fingered the jeweled hilt of a gleaming scimitar at his belt.
But the strong level gaze of his brown eyes, the authoritative tone that underlay his words however courteous, revealed that here was one accustomed to command. Bidding his visitors welcome, he came directly to the point.
"I am informed," said Saladin, "that you come from King Richard of England, he who is called by you the Lion-Hearted. Well, what has Richard the Lion-Hearted to say to me?"
"Sire," replied the Crusader spokesman, "King Richard would parley with the Lord of Islam."
"Does the Lion-Hearted tremble so at our power that he would surrender before the battle?"
"Not so, my liege. King Richard bids me say that he fears no one, not even the valiant Saladin. He is willing to confer with you on equal terms. If you refuse, he will cross swords with you; and the terms will not be equal, for he will beat you back to the gates of Jerusalem."
Saladin smiled. With a significant gesture he pulled his scimitar halfway out of its scabbard, then thrust it back with a sharp click.
"There is nothing more to say," he responded. "Return to Richard the Lion-Hearted and tell him that I will not consent to meet him unless one of us be brought captive before the other."
Such was the answer that the envoys carried back to the Crusader camp. Richard was disappointed, for he longed to take the measure of his illustrious opponent at a personal meeting. Historians ever since have been as chagrined as he, deprived as they were of the chance to portray a spectacular summit conference at Acre in the heroic days of the Third Crusade.
Historical novelists, enjoying wider latitude, have refused to be bound by unimaginative fact. Repeatedly they have shown Richard and Saladin confronting one another. The classical text is Sir Walter Scott's The Talisman, and a favorite scene of this novel is that in which Saladin, unable to resist the temptation to view his flamboyant rival in the flesh, visits the Crusader camp disguised as an Arabic physician come to treat Richard for the fever.
Just who was this man of Islam that he should prove so irresistibly attractive to the European imagination through the centuries?
Saladin was not born to greatness. He achieved it. Descended from a family of Kurdistan and a native of Damascus, he entered the service of the Caliph as a soldier in Egypt. There he quickly grasped the basic problem of the time: the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, founded a century earlier by the European knights of the First Crusade, could not be opposed successfully except by a strong centralized Islamic power. The extraordinary energy of the invaders had to be matched by their adversaries—the energy that sent thousands of soldiers marching thousands of miles from Europe, down through the Balkans to Constantinople, across the Bosphorus into Asia Minor, on to Palestine and victory over the native powers of the Middle East.
Jerusalem was the object of the Crusades, and by Saladin's time the Crusaders had performed the remarkable feat of holding the Holy City for a hundred years as the capital of their Latin Kingdom. They would have held it longer except for Saladin. His appearance changed the whole character of this titanic 200-year struggle.
His first task was to bring order into the Islamic world. From his base in Egypt he launched a drive into Syria. Putting down local factions and petty potentates, he extended his rule over the entire area outside the Crusader domain. The Fatimid Caliphate of Cairo was showing signs of weakness. Only one man could replace it—the statesman and conqueror who had already demonstrated his capacity for leadership. In 1175 Saladin became Sultan of Egypt and Syria. Soon he would be ranked in Arabic lore with Omar the Great and Harun al-Rashid.
Saladin's personality has come down to us in the testimony of both Arabs and Crusaders. He was a ruler who allowed himself to be sued by his subjects. Vast wealth could have been his for the talcing, yet he left a single gold piece as his legacy when he died. His piety caused him to endanger his health by fasting. So proverbial was his honesty that a popular ballad of medieval Fiance puts this line into the mouth of a Crusader: "We trust Saladin because he never lies."
The secretary who traveled with him recorded numerous instances of his kindness. Once the secretary was abashed and wanted to fall behind when his mule splashed the Sultan with mud, but Saladin laughed and told him to stay where he was. The leader of the Islamic armies was compassionate to a degree rare for his time: he would not tolerate cruelty among those at his court, and, among other things, put an end to the beating of servants.
It is easy to see how the legend of Saladin grew among the Crusaders with whom he exchanged blows on the battlefield. If he was chivalrous, he was at the same time nearly invincible.
Having solidified his own power, he turned it effectively against the Latin Kingdom of the European invaders. During his annus mirahilis of 1187 he defeated the Crusaders at Tiberias, maneuvered them into the disaster of Hattin, occupied Acre, and entered Jerusalem as a magnanimous conqueror who declared that the rights of all religions would be respected.
Hattin was Saladin's military masterpiece. When the King of Jerusalem, Guy of Lusignan, dared to attempt a foolhardy march across the desert at the head of 15,000 Crusaders, Saladin astutely let him go unopposed. It was July. The hot sun stifled the knights in their heavy armor and slowed their ponderous war horses to a walk. They ran out of water, and men and animals staggered along tormented by thirst.
The Muslims, 18,000 strong, shadowed them until they camped at Hattin. There Saladin ordered the scrub vegetation around the camp to be set afire. Waiting for the critical moment, he launched his troops against foes who were not only weary and parched but choking with smoke. The Muslim cavalry broke through the ranks of the weakened knights, rolled up their line and overwhelmed them.
The Crusaders never recovered from this defeat. Saladin's master strategy at Hattin brought about a turning point in the Crusades.
Still, coastal strongpoints like Antioch and Tripoli remained, and from them an urgent appeal went back to Europe. The result was the Third Crusade. On June 8, 1191, the Crusaders besieging Acre were overjoyed to see 25 galleys sailing into the harbor, bringing with them several thousand reinforcements —and Richard the Lion-Hearted.
Richard was the perfect foil for Saladin. A blond, blue-eyed giant who could split a block of oak with one blow of his sword, his chief joy was galloping into battle. Less than two months after his arrival he stormed Acre, which had held out for two years. He pressed on into the southern desert, bearded Saladin in his den, and fought forward doggedly day by day, always at the head of his men. He defeated Saladin in the big battle of Arsuf. He took Jaffa. He vowed to take Jerusalem.
But the harsh terrain and the marshaled host of Islam with its greater numbers foiled him. Jerusalem still lay beyond his grasp when he abandoned crusading, called home to England by the machinations of his younger brother (who subsequently inherited the throne as notorious King John).
During his brief stay in the Middle East, however, Richard the Lion-Hearted engraved his name as indelibly into Arabic folklore as did Saladin into that of the West. The King of England also gave the Crusades a reprieve. Acre became the new capital of the Crusader Kingdom. Strongly entrenched on a rugged headland jutting out into the Mediterranean, protected by the sea on the west and south and by massive fortifications on the east and north, manned by knights who could easily be supplied by ships from Venice and Genoa, Acre stood impregnable for another century.
Nevertheless, the fate of the Crusades had been sealed by Saladin, who, dying in 1193, bequeathed to his successors the unified stabilized political power that ultimately prevailed. Almost precisely a century after he liquidated the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Crusader Kingdom of Acre fell (1291). Later crusading efforts achieved little. The titanic struggle was over.
Its great themes echo still, including the theme of what might have been had the two superb leaders kept the appointment that the one craved and the other denied him. The most dramatic meeting of historical personalities that never took place was that which would have brought face-to-face, amid the glitter and the glory of the Third Crusade, Richard the Lion-Hearted and Saladin.