Saladin: The Sultan of Chivalry?

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At the Battle of Hattin on 4 July 1187, Guy of Lusignan, the Frankish King of Jerusalem, surrendered to the sultan Saladin. The combined forces of the Crusader states of the Levant had been decisively defeated by Saladin’s cavalry, marking the return of Muslim hegemony in the region. The ensuing recapture of the holy city of Jerusalem and its defence against the armies of the Third Crusade made Saladin the principal enemy of the entirety of Christian Europe.

Despite his commitment to the destruction of Christianity, Saladin curiously became a respected figurehead for chivalry throughout medieval Europe, with Richard I of England stating that: “Islam has no greater or mightier prince on earth than him”. Beyond this, the sultan became renowned for his generosity, with his courtly virtue being lauded. In this way, Saladin’s legacy occupies a unique middle ground between medieval European ideas of chivalry and the Islamic world.

Saladin was born in 1137 to Kurdish parents near Mosul. At a young age his family moved to Damascus, where his father worked as a soldier for the Zengid emirs, the rulers of Syria. Taking an interest in religion and the military, he worked for his uncle, Asad al-Din Shikurh, the emir of Damascus’ military commander. When the emir sent Shikurh to aid the Fatimid Caliph in a war in Egypt, he decided to bring the 26-year-old Saladin as a personal officer. Although Shikurh’s army swiftly reinstated the Caliph, he decided to establish his own territory in the weakened nation.

Similarly, King Amalric I of Jerusalem noticed this opportunity to seize Egypt for himself, sending a force of crusaders to conquer the nation. Shikurh’s army met the crusaders just west of the Nile at al-Babein, resulting in an Arab victory and the scattering of the Frankish king’s army. Shikurh then consolidated control of the Nile delta, leaving Saladin in control of the city of Alexandria: his uncle was now the de facto ruler of Egypt.

In 1169, following the Battle of Babain, the Egyptian vizier, Shawar, was executed, leading Shirkuh to appoint Saladin as his successor. Crucially, the Fatimid Caliph approved of Saladin, as he had crushed both a slave revolt and a conspiracy for his own murder within a few months of his inauguration as vizier of Egypt. However, Shirkuh died shortly after, and Saladin inherited his uncle’s position as the commander of the Ayyubid forces in Egypt.

Yet, it was not solely through nepotism that Saladin eventually came to be Sultan. Following the defeat of a combined Crusader-Byzantine army in 1169, Saladin launched a counter-offensive into Christian territories in Palestine, eventually joining Syrian forces to assault several desert castles in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Although several castles were taken in this offensive, the Islamic and Christian forces were still locked in the same stalemate as had lasted since the establishment of the Crusader states in 1099. What followed was a period of relative peace for Egypt, allowing Saladin to consolidate his army and gain further independence from the Zengid emirs.

When the emir of Damascus died in 1174, Saladin was invited to the city by its new emir, who feared invasion from his neighbouring rulers. After taking control of the Citadel of Damascus, Saladin swept through Syria, conquering cities with relative ease, to the great alarm of the Zengid rulers. The members of this dynasty feared Saladin’s growing influence in what they viewed as their own dynastic territory, leading them to muster an army that heavily outnumbered Saladin’s force of 20,000 men.

Confrontation was inevitable, as Saladin refused to return to Egypt and lose his newly conquered territory. On 13 April 1175, the Zengid leaders attacked Saladin’s forces, who had taken a tactically superior position at the hills near the Orontes River. Saladin’s cavalry used this advantage to surround the enemy, resulting in the annihilation of the Zengid army. The Zengid leaders now had no option other than to accept a truce, granting Saladin control over swathes of Syria and formally declaring him to be the Sultan of Syria.

Now the Sultan of both Egypt and Syria, Saladin became increasingly concerned about what he viewed as his duty to Islam, the eradication of Christian rule in the Levant. Thus far, his territorial gains had been almost entirely at the expense of other Muslim rulers, something that he recognised as being in stark contrast to jihad, the armed struggle against ‘unbelievers’.

At first, Saladin had found little success against the forces of Baldwin IV of Jerusalem, with a defeat in the battle of Montgisard in 1177 preventing a cohesive invasion of the kingdom. After a few fruitless skirmishes throughout the ensuing years, Saladin found that his Ayyubid army wouldn’t be able to engage the combined forces of the Franks in their current condition. Therefore, he accepted a truce with King Baldwin in 1180.

Although he did not invade again until 1187, Saladin expanded his empire to encompass the cities of Mosul and Aleppo, mustering support from the Abbasid Caliph for his ultimate intention of jihad. In May 1187, Saladin assembled an army of 40,000 men and 12,000 cavalry on the Golan Heights, and crossed the river Jordan into the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Even though the crusader states had mustered an army half the size of Saladin’s, the sultan still did not intend to fight them in their fortified encampment, where the Franks had an ample supply of water and provisions. Instead, Saladin lured the Frankish army into an open field battle at Hattin by sieging the fortress of Tiberias. The Frankish forces brought insufficient supplies for their march to meet Saladin, forcing them to divert their course from Tiberias to nearby springs. However, Saladin had anticipated this manoeuvre, and he positioned his forces between the Franks and the water.

Thus, the Franks halted their advance and camped for the night, without replenishing their water supplies. Overnight, Saladin’s forces surrounded the Franks, who were “tormented by thirst”: the ensuing battle could not be won by the Christians. In the morning, Count Raymond managed to escape, along with many Christian infantry who deserted the Frankish army. Regardless, most of the Franks surrendered, with King Guy of Jerusalem being captured in a desperate cavalry charge.

With little to no remaining resistance, Saladin captured close to every crusader city, taking Jerusalem in October 1187 after a short siege. The capture of Jerusalem after almost a century of Christian rule shook Europe, with a Third Crusade being declared by the kings of France and England, along with the Holy Roman Emperor. Although Saladin’s initial defence was marred with defeat to King Richard’s army, Saladin ceded some of his territory in the north of the Levant in exchange for more solid control over Jerusalem and the South.

The Christian and Muslim forces alike were soon forced into a stalemate, with Richard being unable to take Jerusalem and Saladin unable to defeat the Christians in battle. Additionally, Richard was becoming increasingly wary of the unrest in England whilst he waged war so far from home, sending envoys in 1192 to negotiate a peace settlement. The two leaders ultimately agreed that Richard would return to England if Saladin recognised Christian control of certain coastal regions, including the cities Tyre and Jaffa.

On 4 March 1193, less than a year after King Richard’s departure, Saladin died. His descendants, the Ayyubid dynasty, would go on to be the Sultans of Egypt for the next 57 years, and Muslim powers would continue to dominate the Levant, withstanding subsequent crusades. It is in part his reputation as a conqueror that gives him such a lasting legacy, with even modern Arab nationalists, such as President Nasser of revolutionary Egypt, using Saladin as a symbol for their ideas of unifying the Arab World.

Yet, it is the idea of chivalry which seems the most bizarre. Saladin once said: “I warn you against shedding blood, indulging in it and making a habit of it, for blood never sleeps”, a seemingly hypocritical statement for a conqueror of his kind. However, there are still many examples of Saladin treating others, especially his enemies, graciously: he repeatedly sent Richard gifts despite the war they waged against each other.

Even among medieval Europeans, Saladin was strangely revered and respected, being viewed as an ideal king and noble soldier: some even believed that he was a Christian in secret. This chivalrous portrayal of the sultan could originate from the mutual respect held by some Christians and Muslims throughout the crusades, who both understood that they each fought for religious duty, albeit for the wrong religion. Saladin’s jihad was not dissimilar to the European kings’ crusades; he even recognised the importance of Jerusalem to Christians, allowing free passage into the city for pilgrims.

Regardless of whether his reputation was warranted, Saladin’s influence over history is undeniable. He brought an end to the Fatimid Caliphate, while replacing the Zengid dynasty’s dominance in Syria with his own. And his defeat of the crusader states shifted the tide of a century-long conflict between Christians and Muslims, initiating a lasting period of Muslim dominance in the Levant.

Baha ad-Din ibn Shaddad (2002). The Rare and Excellent History of Saladin. Translated by Richards, D.S. Ashgate. ISBN 978-0754633815.

Lyons, Malcolm Cameron; Jackson, D. E. P. (1982). Saladin: The Politics of the Holy War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521317398.