Yusuf ibn-Ayyub Salah-al-Din (commonly known as Saladin) stands apart as the single most prominent figure in the history of the Middle East. Because of his exploits in the Crusades, Saladin is perceived as the chief “hero” of the Crusades by both his Islamic side and the Christian side. Saladin was able to establish a strong dynasty and lead his army to victory against the Crusaders. This paper will set out to discuss Saladin with emphasis on his military expeditions, and his encounters with the crusaders.
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Saladin was Born in the village of Tirkik, Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) in the year 1137 to a prominent and influential Kurdish family from the area. A few years after his birth, his family immigrated to Aleppo (which is modern day Syria). Saladin grew up in modern day Syria and he was an avid scholar of the Islamic religion. He embarked on religious studies until the age of 18 when he was appointed deputy to his uncle, Asad Ad-Din Shirkuh, who served as a military governor for Nur al Din, the emir of Syria (Grossman 303).
Saladin’s first military expeditions were carried out in the north of Egypt under his uncle Shirkuh’s command. Saladin engaged in a military expedition in support of Shawar, the caliph of Egypt, who had been driven out of Egypt by powerful local lords.
Shawar had asked for help from Nur al Din to regain his position as Fatimid in Egypt. This military campaign was a success and Shawar was able to defeat his rivals and reestablish himself as Fatimid. Following this victory, Saladin and his uncle remained in Egypt to represent the interest of the Syrian Emir.
Shawar was opposed to the presence of Syrian forces in Egypt and this led to his falling out with Saladin’s uncle. As a result, Shirkurh and Saladin engaged in military expeditions against Shawar. Shirkurh commanded four military expeditions into Egypt to fight against the Fatimid and the local lords who were resisting Syria’s over-lordship (Grossman, 303).
These rebellious local rulers were acting with the support of the Crusaders in the Holy Land who also feared Syria’s overlords. With Saladin’s help, Shirkuh carried out military expeditions against these local rulers as well as the caliph of Egypt therefore establishing Egypt as a Syrian stronghold. Shirkuh’s death in 1169 gave Saladin a chance to become the head of Syrian forces in Egypt.
Historians record that Saladin was serious and contemplative by nature. In his early years, he was not enthusiastic about the military expeditions by his uncle but took on active fighting roles during the invasion of Fatimid Cairo. He established himself as a courageous soldier and a brilliant strategist. Saladin was a just ruler and he was often personally involved in the grievances brought forward by his subjects.
Gibb documents that in reaction to the abuses carried out by his governors and officers, Saladin issued decrees prohibiting illegal taxes and other oppressive practices against his subjects (48). Saladin’s justice can further be demonstrated by his decision to spare all the Christian inhabitants of Jerusalem even though his army was far superior to the Christian forces and he could have destroyed them if he wanted to (Byfield 73).
Saladin was a modest person, owing to his religious background. He wore simple clothes and he treated the men of religion with whom he regularly associated himself with as colleagues in spite of the fact that he was the Sultan. However, he commanded great discipline among his subjects and did not condone unruliness.
Byfield states that Saladin has an instinct for iron discipline and when his Sudanese guards were accused of being disloyal to him, he massacred them (74). Rioters in Cairo were hanged and the unruly Bedouin Arabs were engaged in battle under Saladin’s command.
Saladin’s Mission in Syria, Egypt and Palestine
Nicolle observes that Saladin’s prominence began when he took on the role of Nur al Din’s governor in Egypt (15). As the governor of Egypt, Saladin set out to change the official faith of the country from Shi’a to Sunni effectively abolishing the Fatamid caliphate in Egypt. The conversion of Egypt from Sunni to Shiite was very significant since it made it bridged the division that Syria and Egypt had had for centuries because of religions considerations.
Saladin also embarked on an ambitious recruitment effort for a new army that would be loyal to himself and not the Fatimid Caliph who had died in 1171. At the same time, Saladin tried to foster loyalty to himself instead of Nur al Din, the Emir of Syria under whom he served.
When Nur al Din died in 1174, he was succeeded by his ten-year-old son. In the months following the Emir’s death, Saladin marched from Egypt with his loyal army, took over Syria, and proclaimed himself Sultan of the vast territory (Byfield 74). Saladin ventured into Palestine in 1177 following the breakdown of the truce with the Crusaders. He hoped to recover some of the territory that the Crusaders had taken and establish a Muslim stronghold in Palestine.
War against the Crusaders
Saladin’s first engagement with the crusaders was in 1170 when he tried to capture the southernmost fort of Jerusalem. This early efforts were unsuccessful and the Crusading knights were able to rebuff Saladin’s forces. A truce was signed and this fragile peace deal was able to last for a decade.
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The fragile truce lasted until 1180 when the Frankish Prince Reynald of Chatillon attacked Holy Muslim cities of Mecca and Medina. In retaliation to these attacks by Prince Reynald, Saladin vowed to vanquish the Christian forces and execute Reynald for his action against the Muslims. Saladin’s victory over Frankish forces at Hattin is regarded as one of the most spectacular in military history. He was able to defeat the Frankish knights in the battlefield and force them to abandon their quest to free the Holy Land from the Muslims.
Having destroyed the Christian army, Saladin continued to seize the remaining Christian strongholds. In a few months, Saladin was able to launch an attack against Jerusalem. His attempts at breaching the walls of the City of Jerusalem using siege engines was thwarted by Christian defenders who protected the city. However, the Christian force was weak and they therefore bargained for a peaceful surrender with Saladin. Following this surrender, Saladin was able to seize Jerusalem on October 2, 1187.
The Third Crusade was prompted by the great defeat of the second Crusade by Saladin in 1187. On hearing the news of how Saladin had decimated the Christian army, Richard I (popularly referred to as Richard the Lion Hearted) declared that he was staging a Third Crusade to recover Jerusalem. In the first clash between Saladin and Richard the Lion-Hearted, Saladin’s Army was defeated. A serious of battles continued with Richard pressing Saladin’s forces until they withdrew to Damascus.
The Ayyubid Dynasty
Saladin founded the Ayyubid dynasty and established Egypt as its power base. This dynasty was able to survive though to the 13th century. As the governor of Egypt, Saladin was able to establish an Ayyubid army that was solely loyal to him. With this Egyptian Ayyubid army, Saladin set out to expand his empire first in Egypt, and then next to Syria where the Emir had died. This expansion missions were successful and Saladin was able to establish himself as the ruler of vast territory in the Middle East.
The Death of Saladin
Saladin died in 1193 after a period of brief illness. By his death, he had succeeded in creating a vast and strong Dynasty that would last for over a century. Historians record that because of his irresistible impulse for giving; he did not even have enough money left to pay for his funeral when he died since his vast wealth had been given to his poor subjects.
Saladin was buried by his subjects in a magnificent tomb in Damascus with an inscription reading, “Oh mighty God, let his soul be acceptable to thee” (Grossman 304). Following Saladin’s death, his brother al Adil took over the leadership of the Dynasty.
This paper set out to provide an informative discussion on Yusuf Ibn Ayyub, who was one of the most fascinating personalities in the history of the Middle Ages. The paper has highlighted Saladin’s early life and his early military expeditions. It has highlighted that through warfare and diplomacy, Saladin was able to bring Egypt into harmony with the Syrian government. However, this great figure will always be remembered for his military conquest against the Frankish Knights and the seizing the Holy City of Jerusalem.
Byfield, Ted. A Glorious Disaster: A.D. 1100 to 1300: The Crusades: Blood, Valor, Iniquity, Reason, Faith. New York: Christian History Project, 2008. Print.
Gibb, Hamilton. The Life of Saladin. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973. Print.
Grossman, Mark. World Military Leaders: A Biographical Dictionary. Boston: Infobase Publishing, 2007. Print.
Nicolle, David. Saladin and the Saracens: Armies of the Middle East 1000-1300. London: Reed International Books, 1986. Print.