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Volume 21, Number 3May/June 1970

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Story of a Hero

Into the Holy Land he rode, to lead the Arabs in their Crusade.

Written by Elias Antar
Illustrated by Penny Williams-Yaqub

In the year 1095, Alexius Comnenus, Emperor of Byzantium, sent a series of frantic messages to Pope Urban II in Rome. Couched in the elaborate style of the time and dwelling at length on Comnenus' troubles, the messages could have been summarized in one word: "Help." Asia's fierce Seljuk Turks had conquered the vast Anatolian reaches of the Emperor's domain and were almost at the gates of Constantinople. Without help, Comnenus told the Pope, Byzantium's undermanned army could not hold out and Constantinople, the bastion of Christendom in the East, would surely fall to the Turks.

Urban went Comnenus one better. At the Council of Clermont in France in November, 1095, in what historian Philip Hitti has called "probably the most effective speech in history," he not only rallied troops to save Constantinople but set in motion a series of "holy wars" to free the Holy Land and Jerusalem from 400 years of Muslim rule. They were wars that would later be called Crusades and which would call forth onto the stage of medieval history some of that period's most remarkable figures, One of them, a hero to both Islam and Christianity, was Al-Malik al-Nasir al-Sultan Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, better known as Saladin.

By the time Saladin made his appearance, Urban's exhortations had succeeded beyond his most extravagant hopes. The crusaders had saved Constantinople, conquered the Holy Land, and had ruled what they called the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem for 70 years. The crusaders being a tiny minority in a sea of hostile Muslims, their rule was not an easy one. On the other hand, with Islamic power fragmented among the Seljuk-dominated caliph of Baghdad, the rival Fatimids of Cairo and a semi-independent warlord in Syria called Nur al-Din, crusader rule also seemed permanent.

Saladin, son of a high-ranking Kurdish officer in Nur al-Din's army, was an Arab by culture, language and inclination. Born in Tikrit, Iraq, in 1138, he was called Yusuf ibn Ayyub (Yusuf son of Ayyub) but later assumed the additional name of Salah al-Din (Rectifier of the Faith). From these beginnings, he became one of the few Muslims of the times famous enough to win a westernized version of their names. The crusaders, and later all of Europe, shortened Salah al-Din to Saladin—the name under which he was later romanticized in the West in countless poems and legends.

Late in the year 1168, Saladin took part in an expedition commanded by his uncle and sent to Egypt by Nur al-Din to head off a Frankish take-over. Nur's soldiers eluded the Franks and entered Cairo as liberators. Saladin's uncle died two months later and in March, 1169, Saladin, at 31, was appointed Sultan of Egypt. Arab chroniclers relate that at this time Saladin gave up wine and other pleasures and made a vow to deliver the Holy Land from the Franks.

Two years later, the last Fatimid caliph died (Aramco World, September-October, 1969) and Saladin founded his own dynasty, the Ayyubids. Using Egypt as a power base, he also began the long task of unifying Islam in order to fulfill his vow.

There followed an 18-year period during which Saladin put his Egyptian base in order, his two chief rivals—King Amalric of Jerusalem and his erstwhile suzerain, Nur al-Din—died, and Saladin unified the country between the Nile and the Tigris under his rule. This was a period of sporadic clashes with the forces of the Leper King, Baldwin IV of Jerusalem and his successor, King Guy of Lusignan, of truces almost invariably broken by the Franks and restored, thanks to Saladin's legendary tolerance. But open warfare was carefully avoided. Then, in 1186, the treacherous Reginald of Chatillon, bandit-knight and master of the Castle of Kerak in Jordan, who had previously made it known that he intended to conquer Mecca itself, attacked a large caravan traveling through the desert beneath his mountain eyrie. For Saladin this was the last straw. He proclaimed a holy war against the crusaders and vowed to kill Reginald with his own hand.

On July 4, 1187, a vast force under Saladin's banner defeated the Frankish army in the battle of the Horns of Hattin—in which Saladin struck down the captured Reginald as promised. Then on October 2, almost 90 years after the first crusaders took the Holy City, came the supreme moment of Saladin's career—the capture of Jerusalem.

This momentous event, however, sent ripples of indignation across Europe and brought on the Third Crusade, led by Richard the Lion Hearted and King Philip II of France. Five years later, after a period of battles, sieges, counter-sieges and diplomatic negotiations, Saladin and Richard signed a peace treaty under which the Muslims kept Jerusalem and the interior and the crusaders were permitted to retain, for a short while longer, their tenuous hold on the coastal towns. Saladin, having fulfilled his oath, withdrew to Damascus where, at the age of 55, he died, already a hero and soon to be a legend.

The legend, of course, was embellished after his death with such myths, half-truths, superstitious beliefs and romance, that the real Saladin nearly vanished. Fortunately, Arab historians who were his contemporaries and the Latin chroniclers who lived in the Holy Land preserved a more realistic picture.

It seems that Saladin was a slender man of medium height with a dark complexion, dark hair, eyes and beard, and a rather melancholy expression. He had tremendous endurance and simple tastes in food. He liked fresh fruit and sherbet, drank barley-water when he was suffering, and enjoyed boiled rice. When not in the field he liked nothing better than an evening surrounded by scholars, friends and poets, discussing theology and law or listening to readings of the Koran, which if well rendered could move him to tears. He kept a small book in his pocket in which he wrote down quotations from his favorite authors, and he would often read aloud from it to illustrate a point in his conversation. Saladin liked chess, but his favorite pastime was polo—largely because it involved horses. Horses were his weakness and he offered them frequently as special gifts. He could reel off the pedigree of an Arabian mare without a moment's hesitation.

Although Saladin had all the wealth of Egypt and Syria at his disposal, the trappings of power had no attraction for him. When he became supreme ruler of Egypt after the death of the Fatimid caliph, for instance, he preferred a small simple house to the caliph's fabulous palace (4,000 rooms, a 120,000-volume library and sackfuls of jewels). Knowing that others liked ostentation, however, he gave away most of the contents of the palace.

Unlike the colorfully-dressed crusaders, Saladin usually wore a simple wool or linen cloak. As a youth, as a concession to the treachery that lurked behind every Egyptian curtain, he wore a coat of mail under his robes. His personal retinue—loyal men who were willing to die for him, and often did—followed his example. In his later years he wore a padded coat while on horseback to keep off the chill.

In contrast to the deference shown to other autocrats, there was no need to fawn in Saladin's presence. Ignoring protocol, he commanded loyalty by his personal bearing and example, his gentle character and his magnanimity. During audiences for example, the jostling petitioners often trod on the very cushion where the Sultan sat smiling.

More important, perhaps, was his relationship with his officers and principal emirs. During one long tour of inspection, his friend Baha al-Din, who later wrote a history of Saladin, was riding in front of the Sultan and inadvertently splashed mud all over him, ruining his clothes. "But he only laughed and refused to let me go behind," the historian related. Discussion was free and unrestrained by any need for flattery. At one officers' meeting the Sultan asked for a drink but nobody paid any attention. He had to repeat his request several times, a secretary recounted, before he was served. For his followers to have felt so free in his presence, Saladin must have inspired a trust which was unthinking.

Little is known about Saladin's wife, except that he married her in Egypt and that she stood by him through thick and thin and gave him 16 sons. There is no record that Saladin ever took on the four wives allowed by Islam. It is evident that his campaigns were a personal sacrifice, since he had to leave his wife and children for long spells, and it was well known that nothing pleased him more than sitting in the cool gardens of his palace in Damascus, playing with his younger children. His eldest son, al-Afdal, became one of his principal lieutenants, but there is more than one hint in the chronicles that his favorite was his third eldest, al-Zahir.

If Saladin was an unusual sovereign, he was a more unusual—even unique—general. In addition to his talents as commander, strategist and planner, Saladin was chivalrous to a fault, a trait that made him famous in the West.

Although he could be inflexible and even cruel when the occasion demanded, he genuinely disliked bloodshed. In fact, the only stain on his record was the execution of about 300 knights of the two main military orders, the Templars and the Hospitalers, at Tiberias a few months before he captured Jerusalem. And even that act when considered in the context of those unsettled times, was no awful crime. When the crusaders first occupied Jerusalem in 1099 they killed thousands, including women and children. When Saladin recaptured the city, there was no killing and no desecration of holy places, and Christian pilgrims were allowed free access to their places of worship.

The Sultan, far from becoming drunk with power, seemed to feel that his new responsibilities demanded more and more restraint. At the famous siege of Acre several years later the most colorful of Saladin's adversaries, Richard the Lion Hearted, violated an agreement and slaughtered the city's entire 3,000-man garrison. Saladin apparently forgave Richard this villainy: during a later skirmish in front of Jaffa, Richard's horse was killed under him and Saladin sent him a steed to replace it, with the message: "It is not right that so brave a warrior should have to fight on foot."

Saladin always preferred negotiation and diplomacy to fighting. War to him was a necessary means of reaching certain objectives—a last resort when arbitration had failed. Over-lenience to his enemies and a somewhat naive faith in their oaths were considered faults, and he repeatedly found himself in difficulties because of his efforts to wage a humane war. Although he was pictured in the West as the death knell of Christendom and its worst enemy, he appeared to have a two-level approach to the Christians. He never wavered in his zeal to drive the Franks out of the Holy Land and restore the banner of Islam over Jerusalem. But when dealing with individual Christians he showed respect and even admiration for their beliefs, as can be seen in his decision not to tear down the Church of the Holy Sepulchre but, on the contrary, to allow priests to hold prayers there and receive pilgrims from across the sea.

Saladin was especially chivalrous towards women and children. Once he was besieging a castle near Aleppo and after protracted and costly efforts, managed to capture it. Then, a little girl, the sister of Aleppo's ruler, came to his camp and Saladin received her with gifts and kindness. As all little girls will, she asked for one thing more: the castle which he had just captured. Without a moment's pause, Saladin gave her the fortress which had cost him a siege of 38 days.

During one of his periodic attacks on the Castle of Kerak, Saladin learned there was a wedding party underway inside. He politely inquired in which wing it was being held, and then directed his catapults elsewhere. (The bride sent out cakes and other samples from the wedding feast.) After the capture of Jerusalem, the widow of his treacherous enemy, Reginald of Chatillon, asked Saladin to release her imprisoned son. He agreed, providing she ordered the garrison of Kerak to surrender the castle, which had so far remained out of his grasp. To show his good faith, Saladin released the prisoner and returned him to his mother—in advance. The widow failed to persuade the garrison to surrender, and sent her son back to Saladin. When the garrison of Kerak was finally starved into surrendering, Saladin returned the son to his mother, and to top it all rewarded the garrison for its bravery in fighting without its commander: he bought back their wives and children from the Bedouin of the area who had taken them in exchange for food.

French romances of the 14th century try to make out Saladin as being in love with the Lady Sibylla, wife of the Prince of Antioch, Bohemond III. In fact, there is no evidence that Saladin ever actually met the lady, but there was at least indirect contact, Some chroniclers say she acted as Saladin's spy in the crusader camp, providing him, with valuable information about internal rivalries and disputes among the Frankish kings and barons. Her motives remain obscure. She was a native daughter of the land and her reputation was said to have been less than spotless; there is a suggestion that Bohemond was forced into marrying her after divorcing his first wife, Perhaps she had more sympathy for the Muslims than for her husband's people. Imad al-Din, an historian of the times and the Sultan's chancellor, reports that Saladin rewarded her information with beautiful presents.

The use of such a highly-placed female spy indicates Saladin's good generalship, but there is further proof of this quality. Although he was supreme commander of the Muslim armies, which at times counted up to 70,000 men, he was often overruled in the councils of war by his officers and had to bow to their will. Such free discussion gave scope for initiative, and Saladin was always open to suggestions. A humble coppersmith from Damascus once came forward and claimed he had discovered a chemical compound which could destroy the supposedly fireproof Frankish siege-towers near the walls of Acre. Saladin allowed the young man to try out his discovery, and sure enough, to the surprise of the Franks, the discovery—a preparation of naphtha--brought the towers down.

Besides providing a focal point for Islam at a time when it was threatened from without and within, Saladin helped his people in more fundamental ways. He encouraged the establishment of institutes of higher learning in Cairo, Damascus and Jerusalem. He also set up courts of law. Unlike other potentates, before and since, Saladin did not set himself above the law. A merchant once filed a lawsuit against the Sultan, claiming Saladin had seized the property of a former slave of his on the pretext that the slave actually belonged to him. The merchant produced documents in support of his claim, and demanded that Saladin give back the property. If AI-Malik al-Nasir al-Sultan Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub were not the man he was, the merchant would have disappeared from the face of the earth for such seeming impudence. But Saladin hired a lawyer and himself appeared in court, where he sat beside the merchant and testified that the slave had always belonged to him until he had been freed, and that therefore the property had passed on to his heirs. Then the lawyer took over and produced witnesses who proved the merchant's documents were forgeries, and the merchant lost the case.

Saladin, as usual, took pity on the defeated. He gave the merchant a robe and enough money to cover the expenses of the trial and his journey home—just to show there were no hard feelings.

After peace with the Franks was achieved Saladin gave up plans for a pilgrimage to Mecca to turn his attention to affairs of state which had been neglected during the wars. This champion of Islam never had the supreme satisfaction of performing the hajj to Mecca, which countless thousands of his subjects had been able to enjoy, thanks to his protection.

When all the accounts of the Sultan's life and times are weighed, it seems that in his own sphere of activity, Saladin was a man of real greatness, with nothing Low or vain or petty about him. All his life he had impressed others by his example and even his enemies the crusaders (who often praised him) could console themselves that they had been vanquished by no ordinary adversary.

Saladin's epitaph might well have been his parting words to aI-Zahir shortly before his death. "I commend thee to Almighty God," he said, placing his hand on his son's head. "He is the source of all good. Do the Will of God, which is the Way of Peace. Beware of bloodshed; de not trust in that, for spilled blood never sleeps. Strive to gain the hearts of thy subjects and watch over all of their interests, for thou art appointed by God and by me to look after their welfare. I have become as great as I am because I have won the hearts of men by gentleness and kindness. Never nourish iii feeling toward any man, for Death spares none. Be prudent in thyself. God will pardon the penitent, for He is gracious."

Elias Antar is a veteran correspondent for the Associated Press in the Middle East.

This article appeared on pages 26-31 of the May/June 1970 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1970 images.