Saladin: More than just an enemy.

Written by Chris Riley.

The Third Crusade is arguably the most well known one, from Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and Assassins Creed (2007), to the fanciful cult surrounding Richard ‘The Lionheart’, with casual ‘fans’ knowing just the name of the man on the other side of the conflict, Saladin. Born An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, Saladin played a major role is shaping the middle east of the 12th and 13th centuries, not just as the adversary to Richard and his Crusaders.

A portrait of Saladin by Cristofano Dell Altissimo (1560) SOURCE: SuperStock via

Early life

Born around the year 1137 near Bagdad, Saladin was the son of a prominent administrator to the Seljuk leader, Zengi. Zengi had spent the 1130’s and 40’s terrorising the Crusader kingdoms, culminating in the taking of Edessa, sparking the Second crusade of 1145-1147. Zengi died in 1146, leaving the now fairly united Muslim near east to Nur al-Din an even more aggressive and violent Seljuk. Saladin and his father moved to Damascus, the capital city of the Zengid empire where he met Shirkuh, one of Nur al-Din’s trusted generals.

The teenage Saladin would spent the next several decades learning from his new mentor Shirkuh, teaching him the ways of warfare and leadership, forming him into the man that would go on to unit the Muslim peoples of the Levant. By 1169, Nur al-Din had his eyes on Egypt, the rich farmlands of the Nile Delta, would make him beyond wealthy and he tasked Shirkuh and his young protege, Saladin with the taking of the region.

Shirkuh with the help of the dynamic Saladin, made quick work of the fractured Fatimids who had controlled Egypt since the 10th century, adding it to Nur al-Din’s empire. Shirkuh was made Sultan of Egypt before quickly dying, potentially of overindulgence and lavish eating, leaving the Egyptian Sultanate to the 32 year old Saladin.

Egyptian Sultan

As the son of a Sunni Kurd, Saladin was an outsider, surrounded by Shi’a Turks and Seljuks who all thought their suggestion was the right man to take over Egypt but, Saladin proved a wise and somewhat lucky statesmen. Putting family and friends in key positions, alongside trusted men of any and all faiths, forming a protective ring of trusted advisors around him, keeping him safe from outside threats.

Over the next five years, Saladin fully cemented his place in Egypt, forming his own Dynasty, the Ayyubids, which upset his supposed boss, Al-Din. By 1174, Nur al-Din was sick of Saladin’s power and prestige and decided to invade Egypt, capture its upstart Sultan and return it all to the fold. Before his invasion could happen, Nur al-Din suddenly died, leaving Saladin free to expand into Syria as sole master of the Middle East.

Saladin spent the next decade capturing Damascus (1174) where he was made Sultan of Egypt and Syria, and Aleppo in 1183, where he defeated Nur al-Din’s son, cutting off the head of any real resistance to his new rule. To further cement his position, Saladin married the widow of Nur al-Din, Ismat who was not only the wife of the former Sultan of Syria but, the daughter of the former regent of Damascus, a diplomatic masterstroke by Saladin.

A map showing the extent of Saladin’s Ayyubid Empire from around 1182 SOURCE:

The Frankish enemy

Since the First Crusade (1096-1099) the Crusader States had become weaker and weaker, a series of weak and arrogant rulers had turned the once vast Papal enclave into just three city states, Tripoli, Antioch and Jerusalem. By 1177, the king of Jerusalem was the sickly ‘leper king’ Baldwin IV, a teenager riddled with illness and lacked any kind of military pedigree. Saladin saw this as his opportunity to attack, and take the city that had been under Christian hands for almost one hundred years.

Saladin formed a massive army of some 30,000 Egyptians and marched north to Jerusalem, meeting a crusader force of only around 20,000 led by Raynald of Châtillon at Montgisard near Ramla. On 25th November 1177, Saladin was completely beaten back by the numerically inferior Christians as the heavy cavalry charged directly at the Ayyubid centre which soon crumbled under the mass of horse and men. Saladin himself was almost captured but, was able to escape on the back of a racing camel.