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.

Battle between Baldwin IV and Saladin's Egyptians By Charles-Philippe Larivière SOURCE: Public domain

Raynald of Châtillon would be a continued thorn in the side of Saladin alongside Baldwin IV, who had a fortress built within a stones throw of Damascus at Jacob’s Ford. The fortress was built in the early months of 1178, with the success of Montgisard furthering the arrogance of both Baldwin and Raynald who refused a massive payment from Saladin to not build the castle, a castle that Saladin was unable to attack as he was trying to deal with rebellions in the Seljuk north.

One of the many things that Saladin succeed at was uniting the Muslim sects against their common enemy, the Christians, and by august of 1178, he was able to turn his attention once again the the forces of Baldwin at Jacob’s Ford. A large castle with thick walls had been constructed but, after just 5 days of siege, the fortress fell to Saladin. Over 700 of the defenders were slaughtered by the Ayyubid attackers but Saladin made sure that the vast majority were able to live, freeing most of the civilians.


Consolidating power

As mentioned before, Saladin was very adept at uniting his peoples together, disregarding religious differences focusing on external foes such as the attacking Crusaders. After the taking of Jacob’s Ford, the King of Jerusalem had agreed to several truces, all broken by Raynald of Châtillon who continued to attack Muslim held settlements, looting and killing his way into Saladin’s bad books.

By 1186, Baldwin had died, leaving the kingdom to his eight year old nephew also called Baldwin who then died less than a year later, leaving Jerusalem to a French noble named Guy of Lusignan an indecisive and cautious man who didn’t like the idea of war with the Ayyubids. This gave Saladin one more opportunity to further consolidate his power, taking Mosul (modern day Iraq) from a fellow Muslim rival.


The Battle of Hattin

With the crusader states now surrounded by Saladin’s vast empire, it was only a matter of time before he retried taking Jerusalem again. By the summer of 1187, the Sultan’s son, Al-Alfdal had gathered a large force and with his father, attacked and captured the city of Tiberias on the shore of the sea of Galilee, forcing King Guy to mobilise against his Muslim enemy.

The Frankish forces set out towards Tiberias, being harassed by bands of Saladin’s famous horse archers, arriving near the town of Hattin on 3rd July 1187. The next day, the two forces met but unlike at Montgisard, Saladin would take the day. Using his cavalry to attack the rear and the flanks of the Christian forces, Saladin was able to virtually wipe out the entirety of the Attacking army, capturing King Guy and his old nemesis Raynald of Châtillon in the process.

Twentieth-century depiction of a victorious Saladin with Guy de Lusignan after battle of Hattin in 1187 by Said Tahsine SOURCE:

The Frankish army had been poorly provisioned on their way to Hattin, with many men suffering hunger and thirst before even reaching the battle. Knowing this, Saladin offered his captive Guy of Lusignan a glass of ice cold water, guy quickly grabbed the glass and drank his fill before giving the rest to Raynald of Châtillon. Saladin, stood up and stated that the water was not for him and was only for the king, taking his sword out and personally decapitating Raynald of Châtillon, leaving a horrified Guy concerned for his own life. Every the magnanimous man, Saladin stated that he didn’t wish to kill the king and let him go free but without his right hand man.


Saladin’s Legacy and the Third Crusade

After the Battle of Hattin, Saladin was free to move on to the greatest prize of all, taking the city of Jerusalem in September of 1187. The capture of the city was the catalyst for the Third Crusade but this is where the wars between the east and west could have ended. After taking the city, Saladin agreed with the defenders that the Western Christians be allowed to pay a small fee for their freedom, allowed to travel to the city to worship and, all Eastern Orthodox Christians were allowed to remain in the city. This act of humility and fairness would never be shown by a Christian army or that of any earlier of later Muslim forces, during the Crusades.

The coming Crusade would see the forces of Saladin go against that of Richard I, Philip II of France and of Frederic I Barbarossa of Germany, with Richard and Saladin becoming the two leaders of their respective sides. The two have a strange historical relationship, with them shown in many different depictions as friends or at least having massive respect for each other. Whilst this isn’t totally correct, the reason the west respect the acts and deeds of An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub so much, is because of the way Richard would describe him once back from the crusade.

His military genius and treatment of Christian prisoners has Saladin as one of the finest knights of his generation, the true embodiment of chivalry.

Saladin would fight the Christians right through the Crusade but would not live to see the 13th century. Saladin died on 4th March 1193 and his family quickly set about grabbing parts of the once great empire. Before long, the Ayyubid lands were divided up and would never again reach the same heights, completely disappearing by the 1260’s.


Written by Chris Riley.

I hope you enjoyed this and would love to hear what you think, please leave me a comment and follow me on Instagram @chrisriley_ for more medieval history!

Thanks for Reading.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the InFocus History website or its editors.

27 views0 comments