Sultan Saladin Ayyubid (1137–1193): A Short Biography

Syed Muhammad Khan
25 min readNov 16, 2021
Statue of SultanSaladin in Damascus, Syria (Source: 1)

4th of July 1187; before him, his enemies lay lifeless on the field of Hattin, near the Sea of Galilee, others had been captured, including the elite heavy troops of the Knights Templar and Hospitaller factions (soon to meet a gruesome end), while the rest were scattered like insects in a hurricane. Sultan Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub (1137–1193), a Sunni-revivalist military leader, known in the West as Saladin, had buried the Latin cause in the Holy Land. This triumph, against his supposedly unbeatable foes — the Crusader Kingdoms, secured for him the reconquest of the holy city of Jerusalem later the same year which had originally fallen to the knights of the First Crusade in 1099.

In his moment of victory, Saladin could proudly reflect on his two-decade-long efforts to unite the fragmented Muslim world, which involved him fighting against rival regional Muslim powers in Egypt, North Africa, the Levant, Syria, and Iraq, in addition to the Latin powers in the region. However, to make any sense of the struggle, rise, and ultimate triumph of this desert Sultan, we must travel almost a century prior in history, northwards, to the fields of Anatolia where the seeds of this two-century long bloody war, otherwise known as the Middle East Crusades (1095–1291), were sown.

The Storm Arrives in the Holy Land

The rise of the Seljuk Turks in Asia Minor, bordering the Byzantine holdings in the region, was a serious blow to the status quo in this part of the world where the Greco-Romans had held dominion for centuries. This changed after the Seljuks, under their celebrated leader Sultan Alp Arsalan (r. 1063–1072), defeated them in the battle of Manzikert in 1071. Seeing no respite from the Turks who were flocking in the thousands to these newly conquered lands, the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I, who had inherited the weakened empire in 1088, set himself to restoring the long lost glory of his civilization with fire and steel, and for this he turned westwards, beseeching the Vatican for assistance — putting aside the centuries-old history of enmity and political tension between his realm and the Papacy. He probably wished to get a hold on a small elite European mercenary force that he could bring under his banner to fight the Turkish threat, but the response that was to come was beyond his wildest imaginations.

Pope Urban II addressing the Council of Clermont (Source: 2)

Having received Alexios’ request, in 1095, Pope Urban II, seeking to extend his dominion over the Eastern Orthodox Church based in Constantinople, launched a massive recruitment campaign throughout Europe following his heated sermon at the Council of Clermont in France in which he presented a highly misleading picture of the state of their “Christian brethren,” under the rule of the “infidels.” Once he had stirred up the gathering of nobles, he played his Trump card and called for the “liberation” of Jerusalem, and offered complete “plenary indulgence” (remission from all sins) to everyone who responded to his call. A combination of religious fervor and the prospect of practical gains inspired many, mostly men of noble birth, to “take the cross” and embark on a “pilgrimage” to the Holy Land, setting in motion a two-century episode riddled with slaughter and destruction in the region, known today as the Middle East Crusades.

At this stage in world history, the Islamic world was not only fragmented between the Sunni Abbasid Caliphate based in Baghdad and the Shia Fatimid Caliphate of Egypt, both long past their peak days and mere shadows of their former glory, but also lacked a strong unified regional empire ever since the sudden fractionation of the Seljuk Sultanate. Under such dire circumstances, when it seemed impossible to bring their own house in order, the Muslims were in no state to effectively counter-attack the armies of mostly French Crusaders, known to the Muslims as “Franks.” Though the Franks would continue to dominate in terms of numbers and conviction to the cause, the most popular Crusader to this day, ironically, remains the King of England — Richard I, also known as the Lionheart.

The Crusader States in the Levant, 1135 (Source: 3)

Sweeping over the pathetic remnants of the Muslim power in Asia Minor and the Levant, taking Nicea (1097; surrendered to the Byzantines), Edessa (1098), and Antioch (1098) en route, the European knights found themselves before the walls of the Holy City in 1099, having abandoned a siege of Arqah the previous year. The journey had not been without its perils, and the resolve of the Europeans was nothing less of legendary, but the slaughter and rapine so far had also been just as shocking. However, what was about to follow, was unprecedented. When the Christians breached the walls of Jerusalem, they fell upon the Holy City like a tide of white death, slaughtering and plundering its populace; with blood-stained armors, the Knights knelt before the altar in the Holy Sepulchre — built on the site where Jesus Christ was crucified — in submission to the Lord who had ordered them against indulging in bloodshed and violence.

By the close of the 11th century, the Europeans held dominion over the entire stretch of the Levant, divided, administratively, into the Principality of Antioch, the County of Edessa, the County of Tripoli, and the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Birth of a Legend

Broken by the might of the Latin invaders, the Muslim world had much to lament on, and none could’ve rejoiced over the birth of a Kurdish boy, Yusuf, in c. 1137/1138, the son of Tikrit’s governor, Najm ad-Din Ayyub. The joyous tidings of the arrival of little Yusuf, the future Sultan Saladin, were drowned by worries for the family as well who had to abandon both their prestige and the city itself, the same night, to escape the wrath of their enemies. Ayyub’s brother, Asad ad-Din Shirkuh had been charged with murder — the details elude us — however, much more than Ayyub’s position was at stake. He sought the refuge of a man he owed a favor, a Turkish feudal lord, the “atabeg” of Mosul (in Iraq): Imad ad-Din Zengi (c. 1085–1146).

Zengi was a ruthless and feared ruler and had no problem branding himself just as such (rather proudly). But he showed genuine appreciation to Ayyub and his family for his earlier service. The former governor, through his timely action, had saved the atabeg’s life by offering safe passage through Tikrit during a hasty retreat from his enemies, and now he and his family were to find a new life of their own in the Zengid court. Imad ad-Din, seeking to expand his realm and present a strong front to the Crusaders, extended his control over the Syrian city of Aleppo and then used his feverish forces to strike the Crusaders with the conquest of Edessa in 1144 — on Christmas eve of all times (which was a symbolic blow to the Latin morale), but fate would not let his exploits go much beyond this milestone for he was murdered by a disaffected slave in 1146. However, even after the death of Zengi, his mission and direction remained firm, and the torch was taken up by his younger son Nur ad-Din Zengi, the ruler of Aleppo; Mosul passed onto the hands of Saif ad-Din, Zengi’s elder brother, who distanced himself from the war.

Nur ad-Din Zengi, an artistic depiction (Source: 4)

In stark contrast to his father, Nur ad-Din was a pious leader who led a simple life and proved to be “a just prince, valiant and wise” (quoted from William of Tyre). To Saladin, he was a mentor and lord; initially serving under him, the ambitious young Kurd would rise to rule an empire of his own and eventually fulfill Nur ad-Din’s dream of retaking Jerusalem after his demise.

The War for Egypt (1163–1169)

The loss of Edessa in 1144 was a severe blow to the Crusader cause, the new pope — Eugene III, pushed for another surge of European fighters to bolster the efforts in the Holy Land. This time, the great monarchs of Europe, most prominently, the King of France Louis VII, took the cross. But the Second Crusade (1147–1149) turned out to be a complete disaster, owing mostly to the inexperience of the campaign leaders who were driven solely by their devotion to the Church and the lack of coordination with the Latin knights already present in the Holy Land. The biggest overall result was that Damascus, initially more inclined towards the Crusaders, joined Nur ad Din’s faction after a failed siege on the city from the armies of the Second Crusade.

Following this brief episode, both the Zengids and the Crusaders set their eyes on Egypt, a land of immeasurable wealth and strategic value but ripe for the taking; whoever controlled it would ultimately win (this fact would later be confirmed by King Richard himself). Egypt was controlled by the Fatimid Dynasty (909–1171), a rival to the Sunni Abbasid Caliphate; though initially a juggernaut of the west, the house was long past its best years by the mid-12th century, the Nile valley at this stage was like a gorgeous bride, adorned with jewels and gold, and eager to be bedded, but paired, unfortunately, with an impotent husband.

The ruler of the house, Caliph Al Adid, was the last in a series of powerless figureheads puppeteered by the realm’s ministers, most notably the vizier (prime minister). In 1163, a cunning Egyptian politician named Shawar, who had been driven away from his post as the vizier, asked for Nur ad Din’s help for reinstating him in the office. Nur ad-Din saw this as the perfect opportunity to extend his authority over Egypt and dispatched Asad ad-Din Shirkuh with a force of Syrians (probably accompanied by Saladin; claim debated) to coerce the new Egyptian vizier into submission.

Shirkuh’s arrival in Egypt was enough for this, but Shawar, who had earlier on agreed to act as a vassal for the Zengids, felt no compunction in reneging on his word of honor. He double-crossed his allies as soon as he was back in the office and sought the help of the Crusader King of Jerusalem Amalric (1136–1174), who rushed to fight the Zengids, his bitter rivals, forcing Shirkuh’s outnumbered forces to retreat. In 1166, following another failed attempt to reverse the status quo in Egypt, the Zengids concluded a peace treaty with the Crusaders and agreed to leave Egypt under the Fatimids.

However, neither side was fully content with this arrangement.

The tide reversed in 1168, when Amalric, compelled by his troops (a garrison of elite Knights Hospitallers) stationed in Egypt to violate the peace, broke into his ally’s land with fire and steel. Massacring the entire population of Bilbays — a fortress city, the Crusaders moved dangerously close to Shawar’s capital, Cairo. Outdone in his own double game, Shawar was out of options, but here, Al-Adid, in a last-ditch attempt to prevent a Crusader takeover, even if at the expense of bending the knee before his Sunni rivals, beseeched Nur ad Din’s help.

When confronted by Shawar about his decision, the young sovereign famously responded:

“As long as Egypt remains Muslim, I am ready to become the price of the Muslims.” (Saladin by A. R. Azzam, pg. 70)

Gustav Dore’s depiction of a victorious Saladin (Source: 5)

Shirkuh arrived once again in the land in 1169, accompanied by a battle-hardened Saladin (from the previous campaign), and successfully pushed back the crusader advance. He entered Cairo, a victor, much like six years earlier, except this time, he would have none of Shawar’s manipulation. Either acting on his own or as per Shirkuh’s wishes, Saladin had the treacherous vizier executed and sent his head to Al-Adid at the latter’s behest. Following this, Saladin’s uncle Asad ad-Din Shirkuh was appointed as the new vizier, an honor he could not enjoy for more than a few months for he passed away shortly afterward.

Naturally, the heir to his position was Saladin (though he had to be picked from a list of candidates by the Fatimid Caliph), who then took charge of the duties, rising, for the first time in his life, at mere 32 years of age, to the stage of prominence in this war. From here, the ambitious Kurdish general and statesman would eventually progress to become one of the most iconic figures of the Middle East Crusades and a legend to be remembered for centuries after his death.

Consolidation of Power

The Caliph’s advisors had wrongly assumed that the young and inexperienced Saladin would be easily controllable and had thus asked their sovereign to appoint him as Shirkuh’s successor. Ambitious beyond measure, the Kurd* in Egypt was soon to prove them all wrong. Moreover, it was at this point, that he had an epiphany that would reshape the political landscape of the Crusader kingdoms — to take Jerusalem at any cost, no matter how high.

*Saladin was Kurdish only by his genealogy; it would be incorrect to assume that he lived according to any customs but that of the Arabs because he spent his childhood and the rest of his life from thereon in the heartland of the Arab world, surrounded by Arabs and their culture.

Rising to the status of the de facto ruler of Egypt in 1169, Saladin began a systematic hunt of all domestic threats and palace conspirators. All sources of friction were conveniently moved aside with such striking regularity that it would’ve been too big of a coincidence if it were one — this was an orchestrated series of events. He replaced potential rivals and dissenters with members of his own family upon whom he had no trouble laying his trust.

Next, bowing before the insistence of his father, who had come to Egypt shortly after Saladin’s rise, and Nur ad-Din’s order, Saladin finally buried the façade of Fatimid rule in Egypt in 1171. However, Al Adid, who had fallen ill and was breathing his last, never came to know of these turn of events and Saladin wished to spare him the burden of knowing so in his last moments. The young sovereign had traded his family’s rule for a Muslim Egypt, instead of being controlled by the Crusaders, and his desperate (and selfless) decision would prove to be instrumental in bringing about the ultimate triumph of the Muslim cause, overshadowing his failures as a sovereign.

Saladin put the wealth of Egypt to great use in strengthening his dominion and creating a formidable army personally loyal to only him. The string of conquests that made him a prominent influencer in the region soon followed. His forces took Eilat — at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba in December 1170 which cleared the Hajj (pilgrimage) route in the Red Sea region for the Muslims and earned him much acclaim in the Islamic world. He then swept over the strip of North Africa till Barka, followed by Sudan, Hejaz, and parts of Yemen. Just three years after Al Adid’s death, Saladin held authority over an empire that rivaled in strength and influence the one of Nur ad-Din, his lord and benefactor, who had set it all in motion.

Cavaliers from Saladin's army (Source: 6)

This meteoric rise of the protégé did not register too well in Zengi’s court, and despite several reassurances from Saladin’s side about his unwavering loyalty, Nur ad-Din remained unconvinced. He suspected the motives of his subordinate and this friction soon created fissures between the two, and although Saladin never fell short in his lip service to Nur ad-Din, he did avoid meeting him in person on two occasions amid military campaigns against the Crusaders (with good excuses though). Originally, Nur ad-Din had intended to use Egypt’s wealth to empower himself against the Crusaders, but his “mamluk” (as Saladin referred to himself in one of his letters) was consuming it almost entirely by himself. These fissures were deepening with time and could’ve pushed matters to a civil war, but the Muslim world was spared this bloodbath with the sudden death of Nur ad-Din in 1174.

Nur ad Din’s sole heir, his eleven-year-old boy As-Salih failed to prevent the fracture of his father’s dominions with each player vying for a small slice of power. However, unlike Saladin’s strong position in Egypt, the situation in Syria was tumultuous, and the opportunity was ripe for the Crusaders to push their borders into the tattered kingdom. This compelled Saladin to accept a formal invitation from the governor of Damascus to march over his former sovereign’s realm. After almost eight years (1174–1186) of on and off military campaigning punctuated with political settlements and appeasements, Saladin managed to unite the core of the Islamic world, mostly at the expense of the Zengids (or their remnants) in Syria and Iraq, under his domain.

During these military campaigns against his fellow Muslims, he set prisoners of war free on multiple occasions and ordered his men to patch up the injured before sending them off with generous gifts. These men then went back home praising the Sultan’s magnanimity, cementing his reputation as a just and generous leader looking to unify the Muslim world. At several instances, he showed immeasurable magnanimity to his rivals as well, for instance, when Nur ad-Din’s daughter, a youthful child, approached him in his tent (while campaigning) and demanded the strategic city of Aizaz, which was conquered only with great duress and after Saladin risked his own life in the conquest, the Sultan did not hesitate for a moment to grant the wish of his benefactor’s daughter, and even showered her with gifts before sending her back.

And all of this had been worth it.

The worst dream of the Crusader kingdoms, at this point, had morphed into a vivid reality — they were, for the first time, surrounded on three sides by a single, hostile, and militarily competent empire — Saladin’s realm: the Ayyubid Sultanate (1170–1260). Following a costly defeat at the hands of the Latin army in 1177 (Battle of Montgisard), Saladin was cautiously waiting for an opportune moment to strike, all the while mustering up a strong enough force to crush the Crusader might. This whole time, there were minor victories to grant motivation boosts to the Sultan, but his grandest moment was to come a decade after his earlier defeat at Montgisard; one unruly French knight was to bring doom and destruction to the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the ultimate victory to the Muslim world.

The Battle of Hattin

Reynald of Chatillon (c. 1125–1187), a French knight and Crusader lord, had a troubled history with the Muslim world with his incessant raids and attacks; he had been, in the past, captured for the same and forced to spend years in a Turkish prison. When these raids and small-time attacks failed to quench his thirst, he decided to attack the heart of Islam (Mecca and Medina). However, his attempt at attacking the holy sanctuary of Ka’aba and the tomb of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad (PBUH — peace be upon him), in 1182, was foiled midway by the Ayyubid navy in the Red Sea. Though he escaped being captured, his accomplices were put to death.

Five years later, however, the political landscape of the Crusader kingdom had shifted drastically. No longer unified under a strong leader, the Crusaders were instead led by King Guy of Lusignan (r. 1186–1194) whose handsome looks had won the heart of the Kingdom’s Queen, Sibylla, and the marriage secured for him the prestigious title even though he was far from being equal to challenge at hand. His charm, however, failed to wow his subjects the same way as it had captivated the adoration of Sibylla; he lacked the warrior spirit of his predecessors and failed to exercise much control over the kingdom. In such troubling times, the Crusaders sought peace with the Ayyubids, but Reynald would have none of it, peace or no peace, he raided a huge Muslim trade caravan in 1187, looted, killed, and took prisoners — the fuse for the Ayyubid war machine had been set alight and would push the Crusader cause to the precipice of extinction in the Holy Land.

Ayyubid and Crusader cavalrymen engaged in warfare at Hattin, 1187 (Source: 7)

The Sultan sent envoys galloping to each corner of his kingdom, announcing Saladin’s decision to meet the Latin knights in the field of battle; the Arab world had to make ready for their own holy war against the Christian Knights. The Kingdom of Jerusalem, realizing that there was no chance of reconciliation, also began mustering up able-bodied men from all corners of their realm to match the Muslims in the oncoming clash, and thus produced their largest-ever field army, though still outnumbered by Saladin’s forces.

The availability of water was to be a crucial point in this coming desert conflict, and this, Saladin knew only too well. On July 2nd, 1187, he tried to lure the Crusaders out of their safe campsite at La Saphorie (with ample freshwater) by laying siege to the fortress of Tiberias. The Crusaders fell for the trap, despite voices within the war council advising caution, and the whole army, some 20,000 men marched for miles under the scorching July sun (3rd July 1187) without adequate supplies and despite logistical difficulties, to meet Saladin in battle. All this time, Ayyubid horse archers continued to harass the force, killing a couple of troops and then retreating swiftly and unscathed.

The psychological torment and harassment continued even in the night when the Crusaders had camped for rest, but none was to be found; the Muslim forces had surrounded their position and continued to spread unease in the Crusader cause with their chants, drumbeats, and praying; a part of the camp was also set alight. Exhausted both mentally and physically, wasted by thirst, and baked in their metallic shells (armors) under the unforgiving desert sun, the Crusaders finally found a source of ample freshwater: the Sea of Galilee (also known as Lake Tiberias). This would surely have been a reassuring sight had not a force of battle-hungry c. 40,000 Ayyubid soldiers, led by Saladin himself, stood before the lake.

The battle commenced on the morning of 4th July 1187 with the Crusaders partly blinded by the bitter smoke from the burning grass set alight by their foes. In a matter of hours, the Latin knights began to whither before the hit-and-run attacks from Muslim horse archers. The Crusader army, after a continued assault and failing to land a charge at their foes, was now falling apart, the last remnants of the force made one last desperate stand around the red tent of their king which housed the real cross, a holy relic that was believed to assure victory against all odds. But it was only a matter of time for the Muslims to deliver the final fatal blow, and when the red tent fell, the Sultan who had been waiting for his grandest moment for a decade now, fell to the ground in prostration to God.

Kings Do Not Kill Kings

King Guy and Reynald had both been captured alive and were brought to Saladin’s tent as prisoners of war. Seeing that Guy was thirsty, Saladin offered him a cup of iced rose water, which (in Arabic tradition) meant that he would spare his life, but Guy did not know this. The fallen king drank from the cup and then passed it on to Reynald — there are multiple versions of what happened next — one narrates that Saladin angrily said that the cup wasn’t for him and he wouldn’t save his life by drinking from it.

Latin soldiers surrendering before Sultan Saladin (Source: 8)

Following this, Saladin decapitated Reynald with a swift stroke of his scimitar, fulfilling an earlier promise he made to himself of killing the transgressor if he got to lay his hands on him. A shocked Guy trembled to the core, chills running down his spine, presuming that he would be next, but Saladin turned to him and said:

“Real kings do not kill each other… He was no king, and he overstepped his limits (and therefore did I treat him as such).” (Davenport, pg. 57)

But the same mercy was not extended to the elite Crusader fighters, the Knight Hospitallers and Templars, some 200 of whom were all executed (although their grandmaster was spared) — rather gruesomely. The exact reason for this is not certain, but most probably the Sultan thought that these orders were too dangerous to be left alive lest they pick up their swords again and face his men in battle; the matter remains highly controversial to this day.

Conquest of al Quds — Jerusalem

One after the other, all Crusader strongholds fell to the Sultan, except for the coastal city of Tyre, which was not sieged at the moment despite possessing great strategic value since Jerusalem was Saladin’s prime target — the mind said Tyre, but the heart said Jerusalem. To secure a bloodless surrender, the Sultan initially offered very generous terms to its people, but when negotiations stalled without any fruit, Saladin decided to seize the city just as when the Crusaders had first conquered it in 1099.

Though initially a drag, the siege became much more fruitful when Saladin shifted his forces to the same spot from where the Crusade knights had assaulted the city some 88 years earlier. After tireless bombardment, when the walls were breached, the defender of the city — Balian of Ibelin (c. 1143–1193) came out to negotiate.

The knight had been allowed entry into the city before the siege only as a favor from Saladin who wished to let him leave with his wife and children (who were inside the city). Even when Balian failed to fulfill his commitment of leaving at the earliest convenience, Saladin readily granted his family safe passage after entertaining them as personal guests.

When given an audience with the Sultan, Balian presented his words, a mix of pleas and threats, in a well-calculated manner to secure the Sultan’s favor:

“O Sultan,” he said, “know that we soldiers in this city are in the midst of God knows how many people, who are slackening the fight in the hope of thy grace, believing that thou wilt grant it them as thou hast granted it to the other cities — for they abhor death and desire life. But for ourselves, when we see that death must needs be, by God we will slaughter our sons and our women, we will burn our wealth and our possessions, and leave you neither sequin nor stiver to loot, nor a man or a woman to enslave; and when we have finished that, we will demolish the Rock and the Mosque el-Aksa (al-Aqsa), and the other holy places, we will slay the Moslem slaves who are in our hands — there are 5,000 such, — and slaughter every beast and mount we have; and then we will sally out in a body to you and will fight you for our lives: not a man of us will fall before he has slain his likes; thus shall we die gloriously or conquer like gentlemen.” (Stanley Lane Poole, pg. 228–229)

Balian of Ibelin addressing Saladin outside Jerusalem (Source: 9)

Weighing his options carefully, Saladin allowed all those who wished to leave the city, to do so, but this time in return for a tax, symbolizing surrender. Though the price of freedom was quite reasonable, even for the standards of the time, many couldn’t afford it. Saladin did free people on his own accord, however, in the end, some 15,000 people were chained in slavery, but the city was spared a bloodbath like that by the close of the First Crusade.

Nur ad-Din, in his life, had built a pulpit to be placed inside the Al Aqsa mosque, when he would conquer the city, and we know that this never happened. But following the reconquest of the city, Saladin had the mosque cleaned up and prepared for congregational prayer for the first time in several decades, and he also had that pulpit placed in the mosque, symbolizing that he had fulfilled the mission of his benefactor.

The Tide of the Third Crusade

It is said that upon hearing the news of the re-conquest of Jerusalem, Pope Urban III died of shock, and his successor, Gregory VIII called for a renewed effort on part of the European kings and nobles to bring the holy city back under the cross. The monarchs of England and France, though natural enemies, joined hands for this mission and began funding a new crusade to reconquer Jerusalem and to reinvigorate the Crusader cause in the holy land, for this, they even began extracting a special “Saladin tithe” from their citizens.

Frederick Barbarossa (r. 1155–1190), the legendary king of the German Empire was the first to embark on his campaign (via land) to recapture Jerusalem and entered the Holy Land in 1189 but died in a drowning accident while crossing the Saleph river, and most of his army dispersed after the death of their king. Saladin, ignorant to this fact, sent a large detachment to halt the advance of the Germans, while he was himself busy trying to lift the Crusader siege of the city of Acre — started in 1189 (which had been captured by the Ayyubids after their victory at Hattin).

A scene from the siege of Acre, 1189 (Source: 10)

The kings of England and France, Richard I (r. 1189–1199) and Philip II Augustus (r. 1180–1223) reached the Holy Land by Sea — Richard wanted to spare his men the perils of a land journey. When this mighty juggernaut reached the Holy Land in 1191, the siege of Acre had already dragged on for two years, and all three parties: the defenders of Acre, the Crusaders, and Saladin’s soldiers were tired. The arrival of fresh troops and provisions from Europe was too much for the Muslim garrison inside Acre, who then surrendered. Richard, who had fallen ill during the siege and found much relief at the sight of a gift of plums (which were used to alleviate the symptoms of fever) from Saladin’s camp, then claimed the title of Lionheart for his heroic triumph and took charge of the campaign while his companion, Philip II, seeing his work done in the Holy Land, set sail back for France.

Following this glorious episode, however, Richard proceeded with butchering the Muslim garrison of the city, some 2,700 men, when he suspected that Saladin was stalling the payment of ransom (he may have been genuinely late; debated), in response, the desert Sultan reciprocated with the blood of the Crusader captives in his camp. Following his victory at Acre, Richard managed an orderly and organized march southwards, along the Levantine coast, and faced the onslaught of the Ayyubid forces near Arsuf but managed to repel the attack with severe losses. The city of Jaffa also fell to his control in 1191, following which Jerusalem could be attacked.

Unable to hinder his advance in the field, Saladin decided to delay his next move via negotiations; on the other side of the camp, Richard was informed of the threat to his throne back in England where a palace conspiracy had been set in motion in his absence. After some delay, Richard resumed his march, and Saladin, uncertain of his next target, Jerusalem or Ascalon, decided to level down the latter brick by brick so that Richard would only get a pile of rubble and thus be unable to establish a base of operations at the gateway of Egypt. He then employed his dreaded scorched earth tactics to prevent Richard’s army from using resources of the Holy Land and prepared for Richards’s assault on Jerusalem.

But this never came to be; the youthful warrior king had realized that the city was too well defended to be taken by assault, and even if by some miracle he were to conquer the city, he’d simply be trapped inside by the Ayyubid reinforcements that could arrive at any moment. When he withdrew from Jerusalem, twice, it created much resentment amongst his troops who saw the city to be the ultimate price. Following Richard’s retreat, Saladin attacked Jaffa in 1192 and took the city save for the central citadel, but the Ayyubid attempts to push the Crusaders were foiled yet again by Richard who successfully managed to repel the attack. The two monarchs were caught in a fierce deadlock, and since he could no longer ignore the threat to his throne back at home, Richard was forced to sue for peace and return to England with dignity.

A treaty (the treaty of Jaffa aka the treaty of Ramla, September 1192) was signed between the Ayyubids and Richard, which guaranteed safe passage to the Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land and that the Ayyubids recognized Richard’s territories from Tyre to Jaffa, although Ascalon was returned to the Sultan. With Saladin’s Jerusalem not even assaulted once or laid under siege, King Richard was forced to abandon his adventure in the East for his worries at home were far direr, in the end, even his repeated triumphs failed to bring him his ultimate price, and Saladin’s patience in his defeats brought him ultimate victory when the English sails disappeared into the horizon, as seen from the Levantine coast.

Death of Saladin

Saladin was weakened by declining health back when fighting against the renewed tide of Christendom’s fighters in the Third Crusade, but his condition worsened when the fighting came to an end, and he finally succumbed to his illness shortly after Richard departed from the Holy Land, on 4th of March, 1193. In an atmosphere of city-wide mourning in Damascus, he was laid to rest in his favorite gardens where he had spent the last of his days. His arch-rival, Richard too never returned to the Holy Land for he died fighting against his former ally, King Philip in 1199.

The sarcophagus of Sultan Saladin in Damascus, Syria (Source: 11)

Upon the Sultan’s death, his close friends discovered that there wasn’t enough money in his coffers to even pay for his funeral; they had to borrow coffin sheets to cover the great Sultan. He had spent his entire wealth on charity for the poor and holy war against the Crusaders. Although the Third Crusade did manage to save the Crusader’s cause in the Holy Land for another century, Saladin had seen to it that they would never regain their original strength after the Battle of Hattin.

Saladin’s accomplishments in the field of battle and the political arena are only half of what makes him as admired as he is to this day. His kindness knew not any distinction between friend and foe. Once, he had been approached by a hysterical woman from the Crusader camp (during the siege of Acre), who sobbed before the Sultan, saying that her little boy had been kidnapped and that she had no one else to turn to for help. Hearing the woman wailing in the agony of separation from her child, the Sultan ordered his men to find the child, remained restless until the boy had been recovered, and then bought his freedom with his own money.

Even his strictest critics fail to completely discredit his persona when judged by the standards of his time. Though he acted ruthlessly when need be, this was not uncommon in the era, but his sense of chivalry was indeed rare. He has been long seen as an inspirational hero, romanticized endlessly, even in the western circles where works like Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Talisman portray him as a magnanimous and chivalrous Muslim warrior. Even stripped of this legendary status, Saladin stands prominent among both his contemporaries and rulers throughout world history, making him one of the most influential persons to ever live.

Bibliography (Works Referenced)

  1. Azzam, A. R. Saladin. Pearson, 2009.
  2. Davenport, J. (Ph.D.). Saladin. Chelsea House Publications, 2003.
  3. Ed-Dîn, B. The Life of Saladin. Adamant Media Corporation, 2002.
  4. Poole, S. L. Saladin and the Fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Islamic Book Trust, 2007.
  5. Lamb, H. The Crusades, Vol. 2: The Flame of Islam. Garden City, 2019.
  6. Nicolle, D. Saladin. Osprey Publishing, 2011.

--

--

Syed Muhammad Khan

Muhammad is an SEO writing expert on UPWORK; here he showcases his work in lifestyle, science, and history niches, plus he republishes some of his old writings.