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Volume 47, Number 2March/April 1996

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Sultan of Egypt and Syria

Written by Michael Sterner
Illustrated by Michael Grimsdale

Early in the twelfth century two . Kurdish brothers made their way to Mesopotamia from their hometown near Tiflis, in what is today the Republic of Georgia. The elder, Ayyub, won favor at the sultan's court in Baghdad and was placed in charge of Tikrit, a small town midway between Baghdad and Mosul.

At Tikrit, Ayyub helped the ruler of Mosul, Imad al-Din Zangi, in an abortive coup against the sultan. This cost Ayyub his job, but it proved to be a blessing in disguise, for it was his alliance with Zangi, and Zangi's son Nur al-Din, that was to project Ayyub and his family to power and fame. On the eve of his departure from Tikrit to take up service with Zangi, a son was born to Ayyub. He was named Yusuf, and given the honorific Salah al-Din, or "Righteousness of the Faith"—a name that was to be immortalized in the West as "Saladin."

Saladin was to become one of Islam's greatest heroes, uniter of the divided lands of western Asia, scourge of the Crusaders and liberator of Jerusalem. In the West his image has been distorted by the 19th-century romantic revival, which focused on his battles with the Crusaders, casting him as a "parfait gentil knight" dressed up in Arab robes, full of mighty sword-blows and chivalric gestures. That the Crusaders were impressed by him as a military adversary and for his honor and magnanimity is evident from their chronicles. But Saladin could not have waged his successful campaign against them had he not spent the previous 25 years in a tireless struggle to unify the feudal principalities of western Asia into one host. And he could not have done that without superior political as well as military skills.

Indeed, as Saladin was growing to manhood, conditions in western Asia could not have been much worse. A century previously, an energetic new people, the Seljuk Turks, had descended on the Middle East from central Asia, "with their thousands of nomadic horsemen sporting braided hair," as Amin Maalouf has written. But within 50 years the Seljuks' central authority had begun to disintegrate, leaving a mosaic of independent fiefdoms. These were based in the principal cities of the region, each ruled by a Seljuk emir or, increasingly, by the Turkmen officers who became the guardians, or atabegs , of young emirs.

The Crusaders, at the end of the 11th century, plunged into this enfeebled polity with relative ease. So self-interested were the Turkmen rulers, and so bitter their rivalries, that as the Crusaders advanced down the coast of Syria and Palestine there were virtually no instances when one Muslim ruler came to the assistance of another. In 1099 Jerusalem fell to the Crusaders, and within a few decades the Franks controlled all of the eastern Mediterranean coast.

The Muslim world was slow to respond. One of the first leaders who began to mobilize widespread support for a response to the Crusaders in the name of Islam was Zangi, atabeg of Mosul. An even more remarkable figure was Zangi's son Nur al-Din, ruler of Syria. Devoutly religious, austere in his personal habits, a capable administrator as well as military commander, Nur al-Din was also, in the words of a modern biographer, "a political genius" who created a propaganda apparatus to appeal to public opinion over the heads of rival rulers. It was a lesson that the young Saladin was to absorb well.

Saladin grew up in Baalbek (now in Lebanon) and at Nur al-Din's court in Damascus. Little is known about his early life beyond his taste for religious studies, hunting and playing polo. As an adult he was described as short and dark. He was given some administrative responsibilities as a young man, but his first big opportunity came in 1164, when Nur al-Din decided to send a military expedition to Egypt in response to the appeal of the deposed vizier of the Fatimid caliph in Cairo (See Aramco World, March-April 1993). Egypt's wealth, combined with the political weakness of the decaying Fatimid dynasty, drew both the Syrians and the Frankish Kingdom of Jerusalem like a magnet. Each sought to extend its influence there, or at least prevent the other from achieving a commanding position.

Nur al-Din's three expeditions to Egypt between 1164 and 1168 were commanded by Saladin's uncle Shirkuh, with Saladin going along as one of his lieutenants. They were to be the proving ground for Saladin's growing military and political talents. Most impressive was Saladin's role during the second campaign, when Shirkuh left him in command of Alexandria. There, with only a small Syrian fighting force, and with wavering support from the city's population, he withstood a 75-day siege by a superior Crusader force.

By the end of the third expedition the Franks had withdrawn from Egypt, Fatimid resistance had collapsed and the Syrians had made up their minds to stay. The teenaged caliph, who had been the puppet of his powerful Egyptian viziers, now had little choice but to accept the Syrians as the ruling force in Egypt, with Shirkuh as his new vizier.

Saladin now had the reputation of a young man of promise, but it was at this point that chance intervened, in the form of three advantageous deaths, to greatly widen the stage for his ambitions. First, Shirkuh died, and Saladin was chosen to succeed him as vizier. Once in this position, Saladin moved with characteristic energy and efficiency to build his own power base in Egypt. He suppressed a revolt by Egyptian Nubian infantry regiments, fortified Alexandria, installed his kinsmen in key positions, won public favor by abrogating unpopular taxes and, by prompt deterrent military moves, forced a Sicilian-Byzantine expedition to abandon an intended invasion attempt.

Two years after Shirkuh's death, the Fatimid caliph also died, just short of his 21st birthday. Saladin seized the opportunity to announce the end of the Fatimid dynasty and the restoration of the spiritual authority of the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad.

By any measure, the 33-year-old Saladin, now outright ruler of Egypt, was as powerful as his nominal suzerain, the atabeg Nur al-Din in Damascus. Over the next three years, the correspondence between them shows clearly that Nur al-Din was uncomfortably aware of this. But before a showdown could occur Nur al-Din himself died in 1174, leaving his 11-year-old son, al-Salih, as heir, and leaving also a power vacuum into which Saladin was bound to move.

But Saladin was conscious of the proprieties, and waited for a suitable pretext. This came several months later, in the form of dissension among the Damascene emirs contending for influence over the young ruler. In October that year Saladin made a rapid march north, with only a small fighting force but with lots of money, hoping to win his objective with gold instead of blood. The strategy worked and, with al-Salih away in Aleppo, Damascus opened its gates to Saladin.

Saladin had hoped that he would now be accepted as the ruler's guardian, but in Aleppo the young atabeg made an impassioned plea to his assembled emirs to stand by him and resist the usurper. To the Zangid loyalists, Saladin was not only an ungrateful upstart, but an ungrateful Kurdish upstart who threatened the monopoly of power that the Turks enjoyed. Saladin marched north, but though he took Horns and Hama, he was checked at Aleppo. Its massive citadel was too strong to assault by force, and the obdurate Zangids proved impervious to Saladin's attempts at diplomacy.

Saladin now faced a difficult dilemma. He wanted to be accepted as the leader of Muslim forces against the Franks and to be anointed in this role by the caliph. But he knew that, so long as the Muslims were divided, he could not fight an effective campaign against the Franks; furthermore, his flank would be continually threatened by the Zangids. He also knew that it would take time to reduce the Zangids, and that if he concentrated on that goal without fighting the Franks he would be vulnerable to the charge that he was using Islam to cloak his own ambitions.

Over the next decade Saladin dealt with these difficulties with both energy and patience. Using his abundant revenues and manpower from Egypt, he placed an army in the field each year to keep the pressure on both the Franks and his Muslim rivals. Against Zangid forces from Aleppo and Mosul he won notable battlefield victories—but farsight-edly did not press his advantage against his fleeing adversaries. Against the Franks his results were more variable, but on the whole he harassed them effectively and kept them bottled up in their fortresses. During this period Saladin also survived two attempts on his life—one of them a very close call—by the Assassins, who had probably been hired by the Zangids.

Finally, in 1181, al-Salih too died, and Saladin moved rapidly to exploit the moment. In a masterful campaign combining military power, diplomacy, largesse, and siegecraft, Saladin cut communications between Aleppo and Mosul and either captured or won over the towns surrounding Aleppo. Aleppo itself negotiated a surrender in 1183, and in 1186 he struck a truce with the Mosulis by which Mosul accepted Saladin's authority and promised to send troops to serve under his command against the Franks.

Saladin was now ready to confront the Crusaders. Assembling a large army in the spring of 1187, he moved into Palestine in the hopes of bringing the Franks to battle. The Muslims had learned that, man-for-man, their lightly armed Turkoman cavalry was no match for the chain-mailed knights: It was "like attacking a block of iron," in the words of one contemporary Muslim chronicler. Muslim battlefield tactics therefore sought to use the advantages of mobility—giving way before the heavy Frankish charges, then returning to harass the knights as they regrouped, hoping to draw them out of their tight formations. The Muslims usually outnumbered the Franks, but even so they generally needed some further advantage, such as surprise or favorable terrain, to prevail.

Now, in an effort to draw the main Frankish force into the field, Saladin laid siege to the Crusader fortress at Tiberius. The tactic worked. Under the banner of Guy de Lusignan, king of Jerusalem, a Frankish force of some 30,000 knights and infantry set out to relieve the siege. Saladin caught them on the march, on a boiling hot day in July, with inadequate water supplies, at a place called Hattin. The Franks were surrounded, and to add to the distress of the thirst-crazed knights the Muslims set fire to brush, so that the smoke blew down c>n them. Except for a handful of knights who broke out and escaped, the victory was complete.

After the battle Saladin had his two most important prisoners—the king and Reynaud de Chatillon, lord of Kerak— brought to his tent. He treated the king kindly but, after he refused an offer to convert to Islam, executed the duplicitous Reynaud, who had twice violated truces. King Guy no doubt feared he was next, but Saladin calmed him, saying, "It is not the custom of kings to kill each other, but that man exceeded all bounds."

Numerous other Frankish prisoners were either held for ransom or sold into slavery. The 200 captured knights of the military orders—Templars and Hospitallers—were even less fortunate. These were the shock troops of the Crusades; the Muslims feared them for their fighting ability, disliked them for their fanaticism and knew that no one would ransom them. Those who refused conversion to Islam—and most did—were also executed.

Hattin was the most devastating blow the Crusaders had ever suffered in the Holy Land. Now, one by one, the Frankish garrisons surrendered—Nazareth, Nablus, Acre, Haifa, Jaffa—knowing no help would come once the Muslims invested their forts. Finally, in October 1187, Saladin's army appeared before the walls of Jerusalem. The defenders' position was hopeless, and after negotiations the city surrendered on terms that allowed the Christian population to leave in peace in return for a per-head ransom. Saladin's treatment of the city's Christians was in marked contrast to the indiscriminate slaughter of Muslims that had occurred when the Crusaders first took the city 88 years previously.

This was the high point of Saladin's career, but it was also the moment when he made his worst strategic error. He had earlier laid siege to Tyre, knowing its importance, but had abandoned the siege when he found his troops tired of battle and eager to go home. Under the redoubtable Conrad de Montferrat, however, Tyre became the rallying point for the Third Crusade. By the spring of 1189, reinforcements were already beginning to arrive, and later that summer the Crusaders felt strong enough to move south to lay siege in their turn to the Muslim garrison in Acre. Saladin moved up forces to relieve the siege, but with fresh troops arriving daily from Europe, the Crusaders proved too strong.

They were further reinforced by the arrival, in the spring of 1191, of large contingents under King Philip of France and King Richard of England. Richard the Lionheart's formidable reputation had preceded him: "The foremost man of his time for courage and guile," the contemporary Muslim historian Ibn al-Athir called him.

Richard's reputation as a fighter and his outstanding generalship indeed made a difference. Under his energetic leadership the siege of Acre was intensified, and in July, after holding out for 18 months, the Muslim garrison capitulated. Later that summer a Crusader force under Richard, moving south along the coast, defeated Saladin's army at Arsouf. The loss of Acre and the reverse at Arsouf were serious blows to Saladin's prestige, but they were not strategic defeats, and Richard knew it. With the coastline at their backs the Franks could thwart the Muslim tactic of encirclement and could benefit from their command of the sea, but as soon as they tried to move inland toward Jerusalem, it would be a different story. Richard was also receiving increasingly urgent messages about what was happening to his throne in England, and opened negotiations with Saladin. He proved an artful and creative negotiator, but the two sides were too far apart to reach agreement in 1191.

Saladin suffered another blow as the campaigning season opened in 1192: Richard, with expert timing, captured a large caravan from Egypt that was bringing the Muslims badly needed supplies, money and pack animals. Richard reconnoitered Jerusalem, but found the defenses too strong and embarked instead on an expedition against Beirut. Saladin sought to exploit his absence by laying siege to Jaffa, but the Franks' spirited resistance, Richard's timely return, and unmistakable signs of fatigue and lack of discipline among Saladin's troops foiled the effort.

Both leaders now recognized they were at an impasse. Saladin could not deal the Franks a decisive blow as long as they stayed on the coast, and Richard did not have the manpower, the money or the unity within his command to reconquer the hinterland. Eager to return to Europe, Richard dropped his earlier demands for Jerusalem and on September 1 gave his hand to the Muslim negotiators on a truce. It left the Franks in control of the coast from Tyre to Jaffa, but recognized Muslim control everywhere inland. Among its provisions, the agreement gave the Franks the right to visit Christian shrines in Jerusalem, a promise which Saladin scrupulously honored.

Saladin then had but six months to live. Undermined by constant campaigning, his health deteriorated, and he died in Damascus on March 4,1193. He was buried in the Umayyad Mosque, where his tomb can be seen to this day.

Saladin ended the possibility of Latin hegemony in Palestine, a momentous achievement in historical terms. But he did not have time to institutionalize his unification of Muslim west Asia, and none of his sons or surviving kinsmen had the leadership abilities he had demonstrated. Within a few decades, the Muslim lands slipped back into division, dynastic quarreling and political weakness. Even Saladin's own house in Egypt lasted barely 50 years before being overthrown by Mamluk mercenaries.

Yet Saladin remains an exceptionally attractive figure, one who has captured the imagination of generations of Muslims ever since. He was, above all, successful in unifying the Muslims so that they could more effectively face external challenges. He achieved this, moreover, at least as much by political skill and personal charisma as by force of arms. Saladin's undeniable military and organizational abilities would not have been sufficient for the task had they not been married to excellent judgment, energetic application, resilience in the face of setbacks, and generosity of spirit. He respected the Crusaders as warriors, and because they were fighting for an ideal, but he never wavered in his conviction that his life work was to expel these foreigners from "the House of Islam."

Above all, Saladin had personal qualities that drew men to him throughout his life. His career presents an astonishing record—particularly for the times—of defeated adversaries who later became his loyal friends and allies. His friend and biographer Ibn Shaddad wrote, "I have heard people say that they would like to ransom those dear to them with their own lives, but this has usually been a figure of speech, except on the day of his death. For I know that had our sacrifice been accepted, I and others would have given our lives for him."

Michael Sterner served as us ambassador to the United Arab Emirates in the 1970's and then as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs. He was educated at Harvard.

Illustrator Michael Grimsdale has been a regular contributer toAramco World for more than 15 years.

This article appeared on pages 16-23 of the March/April 1996 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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