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Better known simply as Saladin, his name means 'Righteousness of Faith'


During the 1160s the focus of inter-Arab conflict shifted from Syria to Egypt. The weak Egyptian Fatimid Caliphate invited attack, and soon crusaders and Turks fought for control of the richest land in the Middle East. Ultimately, neither gained control. Egypt’s new Ayyubid dynasty was founded by a Kurd – Saladin.


Fatimid Egypt was nominally ruled by the Shi’ite caliph, both spiritual and secular ruler of his people. But in this almost Byzantine court, rife with administrators and bureaucrats, the real power was vested in the caliph’s most senior minister, the wazir (vizir or vizier). A near continuous struggle among the powerful for this influential position surfaced in an endless stream of intrigues, political back-stabbings (sometimes literally), and coups.


In 1163, Shawar, the recently ousted wazir, begged Nur ed-Din Zengi (see also Prelude to the Third Crusade) in Damascus to help him regain control of Egypt. The Zengid ruler was happy to comply since it gave Nur ed-Din the opportunity to extend Zengid influence. Under the command of his veteran general, Shirkuh, Nur ed-Din’s army marched south to return Shawar to power. Shirkuh was a Kurd, not unusual in Nur ed-Din’s army, which comprised men from every corner of the Great Seljuq Sultanate.


Shawar was reinstated as wazir in May 1164 in Cairo but soon realised that he was now Nur ed-Din’s pawn – the Seljuq army had no intention of leaving Egypt. Shawar now turned to the King of Jerusalem for help. Almaric (1163–73) was more than pleased to be invited to attack Shirkuh and help the Fatimids, for the new king also had his heart set on adding Egypt to his domains. In the summer of 1164 invaded Egypt but was soon forced to withdraw and fly to the aid of the Principality of Antioch, which had come under sustained attack from Nur ed-Din. The Zengid’s plan was to relieve the pressure on Shirkuh, but thanks to crusader incompetence, things went much better. Before Almaric could get to Syria, Nur ed-Din had defeated the armies of Bohemond III of Antioch and Raymond III of Tripoli at Harim (Harenc). With both Christian princes in chains in Damascus, Almaric was forced to make peace with the Seljuqs, at least for the time being.


In 1166, a second Turkish army of occupation commanded by Shirkuh headed south for Egypt. Almaric received a second invitation from Shawar and decided he had sufficient strength to match the Turks in another Egyptian expedition. By taking the shorter coastal route, Almaric arrived in Egypt at the same time as Shirkuh. While Almaric linked up with his Fatimid allies in Cairo, Shirkuh’s army crossed the Nile and camped beneath the pyramids. This time he was accompanied by his nephew, a young Kurdish commander called

Salah ad-Din.


When the Frankish-Fatimid army pursued him, Shirkuh marched south into upper Egypt, before turning to give battle. In the engagement, known as the Day of Al-Babein (1167), Salah ad-Din feigned flight and lured the crusaders into Shirkuh’s ambush. It was a humiliation for the coalition but hardly a defeat. When Shirkuh moved north again towards Alexandria, the crusader and Egyptian armies followed closely. Shirkuh planned to use Alexandria, with its sea access, as a secure base for the conquest of Egypt. However, Almaric’s fleet denied him the Mediterranean, and soon the Turkish army was besieged in the city.


A truce was arranged and both invading armies retired again, leaving Shawar in control in Egypt… but not for long. In the following year, Almaric returned, intending to stay this time. In alarm, Shawar again appealed to Damascus, but he had turned coat once too often. Skirting the Christian positions, Shirkuh landed his army and marched on Cairo. With the support of the caliph, the Zengid general had Shawar put to death and claimed the post of wazir for himself. In this, Shirkuh was to be disappointed. He died shortly after in April 1169 and his nephew Saladin was appointed wazir. The 31-year-old Kurd was the master of Egypt.


As the new wazir to Caliph al-Adid, Saladin looked to his own security in a court renowned for its intrigues. He was also a Sunni Muslim in an essentially Shi’ite realm. Although he brutally crushed a rebellion by the Fatimid palace Sudanese ‘black guards’, his religious tolerance and stable government gradually earned him the trust of the Egyptian populace. He did replace the Shi’ite judiciary with orthodox Muslims, but the Shi’ite population was allowed to practise their beliefs without undue persecution.


Outside the realm, there were still the crusaders. In the same year, a Frankish attack on the port of Damietta, supported from the sea by the Byzantine fleet, was effectively neutralised and the Christian forces withdrew. This campaign brought to an end King Almaric’s dream of carving out a new Christian state in Egypt. In December of 1170 Saladin led an army out of the Sinai and attacked Gaza, massacring the city’s Christian inhabitants.


Before Saladin could lead his army to further successes against the Franks, he had to deal with his Zengid superior in Damascus. Nur ed-Din’s orthodox beliefs led to continual demands that Saladin impose Sunni orthodoxy in Egypt, and destroy all traces of Fatimid shi’a religious beliefs. Saladin, fearing insurrection, was reluctant to do this in a region where the population was predominantly shi’ite. However, he lacked the military or political power to defy Nur ed-Din. Then in 1171 Egyptian shi’ite Caliph al-Adid solved the problem for Saladin by dying.


In a stroke, Saladin extended the spiritual authority of the Sunni Caliph of Baghdad over Egypt, which he hoped would satisfy Nur ed-Din, but at the same time he continued to allow the Shi’ites to practise their own form of the Islamic faith. The Fatimid caliph’s demise also made Saladin undisputed power in Egypt, which inevitably led to strained relations between himself and his titular lord, Nur ed-Din. Saladin, who had to walk a political tightrope.


Over the next two years, Saladin’s evasions drove Nur ed-Din to brand his former protege an ‘upstart’. A war between Syria and Egypt seemed inevitable and plans were being formulated when fate took a hand. In the spring of 1174, Nur ed-Din died, leaving his realm to al-Salih, his ten-year-old son. Within months, in Jerusalem King Almaric also died, leaving the kingdom to his 13-year-old son Baldwin IV. Young Baldwin was a potentially gifted king, but he suffered from leprosy and the wasting disease made him an ineffective ruler. Saladin’s luck continued to defy the odds.


The Atabeg of Aleppo declared himself regent for al-Salih, but the elite of Damascus realised that only Saladin could successfully unite Syria and protect the region from the crusaders. In October 1174 Saladin entered Damascus in a bloodless seizure of power and proclaimed himself the true successor to Nur ed-Din and regent to al-Salih. Now the leader of a jihad, the low-born Saladin had become the ruler of almost half of the Islamic world, and his territories effectively surrounded the crusaders of Outremer.


He was now the most dangerous opponent the crusaders had ever faced. Immediate action by the crusaders might have overwhelmed Saladin in the short period that it took him to unite the Muslim world, but the Christian princes were – as usual – embroiled in their own petty political games, which played straight into Saladin’s hands.


Saladin and Richard the Lionheart

King Richard followed his victory at Arsuf with a drive on Jerusalem. The army left Jaffa in late October, but Saladin had fortified the mountain passes between Beit Nuba and the Holy City and Richard lacked the men to risk a frontal assault. It is unclear whether the French contingent refused to continue or whether the lords of Outremer refused to attack, but the effect was that by the end of January 1192 Richard and his army were back in Jaffa.


Saladin sent his brother al-Adil to open negotiations with the English king, who was busy planning an alternative campaign against Egypt and supervising the rebuilding of Jaffa and Ascalon (where he had the run-in with haughty Duke Leopold, as Sir Walter describes to Cuthbert in Chapter 16 of  Winning His Spurs). The negotiations with Richard stalled over three issues: Jerusalem; the return of the True Cross; and territory. Saladin refused to give up Jerusalem and would only trade the Cross for a tangible reward. Richard tried to break the impasse by offering Saladin the hand of his sister Joan, creating a joint crusading and Muslim kingdom in Jerusalem. The offer came to nothing and a bizarre opportunity for peace was lost.


In June 1192, Richard tried one last time to capture Jerusalem, but the Duke of Burgundy was planning his own military venture and refused to co-operate. The campaign was abandoned. Richard clearly wanted to return home, but his army was too small to capture Jerusalem without help from Outremer. It was also clear the local crusaders would be unable to hold both Jerusalem and the coastal cities without outside help.


Richard’s decision to abandon Jerusalem was a practical solution to the impasse. The troublesome French contingent occupied Acre while the English held Ascalon, the new southern limit of the Crusader States. As early as April 1192, Richard had called a meeting of all the leading Christian nobles in the Holy Land to discuss future plans, while al-Adil returned to renew peace. King Guy was a spent force and was removed from power, although in consolation he gained Cyprus, which lay in Richard’s gift after his earlier capture of the island from the Comnenus tyrant.


This now left Conrad of Montferrat free to take the crown and he was duly declared the new King of Jerusalem. Unfortunately his path to power had led to discord among the merchants. His alliance with Genoa meant that Pisa was now to be banned from the ports of Outremer. When Conrad was assassinated just before his coronation, his successor, Henry of Champagne, accused the Pisans of the murder. In all probability, Henry hired the assassins himself.


By 5 July 1192, Richard began his northward withdrawal from the Holy Land. As he retreated, Saladin launched an attack on Jaffa and his soldiers successfully stormed the walls; only Jaffa’s citadel held out and the defenders managed to send word of their plight to Richard who was embarking his army on ships at Acre. Richard gathered a small group of troops and began his journey back to the city, arriving on 5th August 1192, on which date began the fantastic events described in Winning His Spurs, which gave Richard his second great military victory in Palestine. Saladin offered no further military challenge to Richard and instead relied on his diplomacy skills.


Following the Battle of Jaffa, Richard became the arbiter of peace in the Holy Land. Both he and Saladin fell ill and exchanged gifts of medicine and fruit. This led to the reopening of peace talks. On 2 September 1192, a three-year truce was signed. Although the crusaders were forced to abandon Ascalon and the Muslims held Jerusalem, their hold over the coastal strip from Tyre to Jaffa was recognised, as was their retention of the hinterland of Tripoli and Antioch.


The peace concluded, Richard sailed for England on 9 October 1192. The Third Crusade was over and, following the death of Saladin of a fever on 4 March 1193 at Damascus, a period of relative peace descended over Outremer.

© 2010–2016 Reckless Books, England

Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub

Western medieval illustrators pictured Saladin in the manner of a European monarch, with a token turban wrapped around his crown.