Can a historian believe in fate? Can we sift through the facts and come to the conclusion that something larger was at work? Surely it is frowned upon, for our job is to understand the truth, and relaying it. Every once and a while, however, a person or a situation seems as though it were ordained to happen. This can be seen in the life of Salad ed-Din Yusuf, or, better known as Saladin.
The greatness and goodness of Saladin is uncontested. His military prowess and his unconditional generosity are recounted by both European and Arabic historians. What is not as well-known are the circumstances that led to his elevation as the leader of the Muslim nation during the thick of the Crusades. How could a man with few connections and even fewer ambitions rise to the level of Sultan among the Arabic warriors be held in such high regard by the Frankish knights who wanted to decimate his empire?
My first encounter with Saladin was many years ago when my friend Eric Bogan and I became increasingly interested in the Crusades. We learned of his greatness, and we highly respected him But he was only part of the picture in the puzzling saga of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Saladin and I became much more familiar in college during a course entitled “Christian-Muslim Encounters.” In this course, I had the privilege of reading Amin Maalouf’s The Crusades through Arab Eyes. Just as the title suggests, Maalouf gives a detailed account of all our favorite stories of the Crusades, except without the religious fervor of the Latin Christians. And more importantly, it gives an intimate look at the life of Saladin and how he shaped the Middle East.
Saladin first pops up when he reluctantly follows his uncle to Egypt around 1163. The two came as a relief effort in the name of Nur al-Din, the ruler of Syria, because the King Almaric was obsessed with Egypt, and the French were thirsty for the Nile. The Egyptians did not have the power to stop it. Thus, the beginning of Saladin’s fate was sealed. When the skirmishes were over and the Christians were pushed back into the little pocket of the Middle East, Saladin found himself at the head of the one of the richest countries of the world. His uncle had passed away, and, since the country was rescued in the name of Nur al-Din, the former ruling family seemed inconsequential, though Saladin had grown close to them.
This special relationship with the Caliphate al-Adid was a growing concern for Nur al-Din. Saladin was supposed to be supporting the latter, and the former Caliphate was a Shi’i Muslim, something that Nur al-Din had no patience for. Plus, the two were reportedly close and who knows what was going on all the way over in Egypt! So Nur al-Din demanded that his vassal condemn the Shi’i belief and the formal royal family. But Saladin had a soft heart and could not bear to hurt al-Adin in such a way. Once again, it seems fate stepped in, and the former Caliphate became very ill and passed away, just as Nur al-Din threatened to come to Egypt himself. Saladin, then ruler of Egypt, passed the formal condemnation of the religious sect without hurting anyone. But Nur al-Din had become a little too suspicious. Saladin had been afraid to face his master since he rose to power in Egypt. But before any confrontation could be arranged, Nur al-Din himself passed away, leaving as the ruler of Syria his 13 year old son.
Saladin found himself at a crossroads. He could respect his former master and simply rule under his son and be content with his power in Egypt. But the Frankish knights were growing stronger. They still held Jerusalem, a city as religiously important to Muslims as it was to the Christians. Plus, the young boy who now “ruled” in Damascus would open many doors of suitors who craved power, and could very likely cause a large rift in the Muslim world. Saladin knew that their only chance to defeat the Christian knights was to band together. And he saw it as his responsibility to do just that. Under the pretext of tutoring Nur al-Din’s son, Saladin left Egypt and took Damascus but refused to raise a hand against Al Salih, son of his former master, and left Aleppo alone. Suddenly, Saladin was the ruler of an empire that connected Egypt to Syria. As if to further confirm his role in the world, the King of Jerusalem, Almaric, died right around this time. Saladin could only take it is a sign that this was his moment. The only person who could potentially do any damage to his empire was Emperor Manuel who sat alone and abandoned in Constantinople. Not long after Saladin left Egypt, Manuel himself died, leaving Saladin master of his own fate.
Now Saladin was not simply a charismatic leader. He was a good and a religious person. He seemed to be constantly at odds with himself, wanting to live in peace and yet wanting to gain back the territories taken from the Muslim people. The late Almaric had been obsessed with taking Egypt, only to be thwarted by Saladin and his uncle. Now ruling Jerusalem was King Baldwin IV, a young teenager suffering from leprosy. This weakness did not go unnoticed to Saladin but he did not move. The king’s regent was a man who respected Saladin’s power, Raymond of Tripoli. Raymond’s respect of the Muslim ruler was matched only by Saladin’s benevolence towards the Christians. Neither seemed keen on bloodshed. They agreed on multiple truces and there existed for a brief time a relative peace in the Middle East.
After the young Baldwin died of his afflictions, Raymond took over as ruler of Jerusalem. Again, he and Saladin tried to exist peacefully. Until, of course, the dreaded Reynald of Chatillon. These two men represent the different attitudes of the transposed Latin Christians. Raymond, and those who had come along on the first few Crusades, acknowledged the difficulties of living as an outsider surrounded by Muslims. They had come to appreciate the Muslim culture, how advanced it was in medicine and science, and were content with the land and strongholds that they had collected over the years. Reynald, however, represented the newer generation of Crusaders who had a hankerin’ for glory and land, and who thought that Muslims, no matter how scientifically advanced they were, were still infidels and should be eliminated. Again, Saladin kept an eye upon these two factions.
Reynald of Chatillon was a loose cannon. Hell-bent on razing the Muslim empire to the ground, he ignored the truces delicately put in place by Raymond and Saladin. His first offense was attacking a caravan of merchants. Saladin excused this and didn’t retaliate. Reynald was chastised, but not by Raymond. The Latin Christians grew increasingly suspicious of Raymond’s friendship with Saladin and chose instead as the king, Guy of Lusignan, an indecisive and easily persuaded man. It was not long before Reynald did the unthinkable: he attacked the holy city of Mecca. This was the last straw for Saladin. He had tried to live peacefully and had allowed the Christians under his rule pretty much alone. In fact, the most that he and Raymond, during their brief flirt with peace, had abused the opposing religions was to lay upon the believers a tax. But he could not let this go unanswered. They had broken too many promises. He began to tear through the countryside where he would earn the description, “magnanimous.”
His assault on the Christian kingdom is like nothing the world had seen, nor has seen in full since. At every site that fell under his rule, his character as a good and loving human flew much more visibly than his devotion to Islam. He allowed the Christians to walk away, unharmed, with their families and possessions intact. He did not allow the pillaging often associated with the medieval armies of that time. If the Christians did not wish to leave, like many of the Jacobites or Orthodox Christians from the east, which preferred Saladin to their Latin overseers, the mighty Sultan ordered that they be left alone. Even the Jews were safe under the protection of Saladin. He only shed blood when it was necessary. If the knights of a stronghold wouldn’t surrender straightaway, he would lay siege to the stronghold and he would fight his enemy. His prisoners were clothed and fed, much to the annoyance of his treasurers. It was never his goal to stamp out the Christian religion altogether. He wanted to regain what had been there’s before the westerners first showed up all the way back in 1099. He was even content to let them keep certain cities for themselves, a decision that would eventually come back to haunt him.
During these campaigns, Saladin and his old pal Raymond of Tripoli had struck up another agreement. In accordance of their truce, Saladin asked permission to pass through Raymond’s land in order to attack another site. Embarrassed but willing, Raymond said that Saladin could pass through as long as he left his people alone. He warned the citizens living within his boundaries to stay inside and that a Muslim army would be passing by. The Templars and Hospitallers caught wind of this agreement and rode hard to put a stop to it. They engaged Saladin’s force on Raymond’s land and were immediately crushed. But the bond between Raymond and Saladin was broken.
What followed was one of the most ingenious military moves the Crusades had seen. He tip-toed on over to Tiberias where the wife of the ashamed Raymond was living. Saladin set fire to the city but delayed on attacking the citadel where the woman was safely trapped. When the Frankish knights heard, they immediately gathered an army to finally crush Saladin. But they don’t call him Slippery Saladin for nothing! He set the trap cleverly. It was July in the desert and the Franks had many miles to travel. Saladin waited for them, perched on the edge of Lake Tiberias. He first had some of his riders go out and pester the Christian armies with arrows, just to slow them down. It worked! The next day, he sat fire to the orchards that stood before the army. This worked, too! Exhausted and literally dying of thirst, the Christians came to the village of Hittan. From there, they could see Lake Tiberias and all its shimmering glory. Between them, however, was a well-rested and juiced up army. BLAMMO! Reynald of Chatillon was beheaded, along with the majority of the Templars. Guy and many others were let go on their word that they would never take up arms against the Muslims again (they must have had their fingers crossed).
After this crushing defeat, there was no real army to keep Saladin at bay. He had his eyes on the crown jewel: Jerusalem. Its defender, the noble Balian, had been spared from an earlier encounter with Saladin. He had given the sultan his word that he wouldn’t fight him anymore. And unlike most of the Christian knights, he intended to keep his word. But he couldn’t just give up Jerusalem. He met with Saladin and explained his predicament. Saladin understood and released him from his commitment. However, the siege of Jerusalem did not come to blows. In the end, both sides settled on a payment. A huge sum was paid for the ransom of the peoples of Jerusalem. And those who couldn’t afford to pay? Well, Saladin let them go anyway. That was just his style! The poor, the old, the widows and children, all were free to go without any sort of payment, again, to the chagrin of the treasurers. And on October 2, 1187, Saladin walked victorious through the gates of the Holy City.
But all of those prisoners he let go gathered in a little place called Tyre. And this would be the undoing of Saladin and his Muslim empire.