There aren’t too many historical figures who are held in as high regard as Saladin in the Islamic world. The military leader who set up the Ayubbid dynasty in the Middle East is most fondly remembered for recovering Jerusalem from the Crusader Christians. This single act, more so than any other, is the reason his name is linked to not only prestige but also piety – he has become the champion of Islam. In addition, Saladin’s greatness is enhanced by the fact that his enemies in Christendom respected not only his martial qualities but also his character.
Saladin was born in 1138 near Tikrit (same town as Saddam Hussein)* into a Sunni military family who served the Zengid Dynasty of Syria. It is important to remember that Saladin was not Arab, rather he was Kurdish; yet Arab nationalists in the 20th century appropriated his legacy to bolster their ideology. His significance as a symbol of Arab nationalism can be seen by the presence of the ‘Eagle of Saladin’ on many Arab flags.
Prior to becoming a ruler, his uncle Shirkoh was vital in helping Saladin rise through the ranks of the military. The history books first pick up his career when Nur-al-Din, the Zengid leader who repelled the Second Crusade, sent him and uncle Shirkoh to Egypt to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Crusaders. Egypt was at this time controlled by the severely declining Shi’a Fatimid Caliphate. Once the last Fatimid caliph died in 1171, Saladin, already the Vizier at this point, became the strongest figure in Egypt. He decided to recognise the Abassid Caliph, thereby ending the only Shi’a Caliphate in history. This helps explain why today if there is any group which doesn’t share in the celebration of his legacy, it would be Shi’a Muslims. Once in control of Egypt, his overlord Nur-al-din requested troops and money but was frustrated by Saladin’s consistent stalling. It is likely that an inevitable clash between the two leaders was only avoided by the death of Nur-al-Din in 1174.
The next decade or so, Saladin spent his energy on conquering Syria and northern Mesopotamia. Once the region was centralised under his authority, he sought to undermine the Crusader states in a bid to achieve his ultimate goal: Jerusalem. In 1187 Saladin routed the Crusader forces at the Battle of Hattin, thus paving the way for the capture of Jerusalem. The city which was holy to three religions was finally under Muslim rule after 88 years.
Saladin’s recapture of Jerusalem forced Christian leaders around Europe to call for a Third Crusade (1189-1192). Arguably the most prominent of all the crusades, the Third Crusade involved Europe’s most illustrious kings; Richard the Lionheart of England, Philip Augustus of France and Frederick Barbarossa of the Holy Roman Empire. This is an important point because the scale and legacy of the Crusader effort helps to explain the magnitude of Saladin’s fame – not only as an effective military leader but as a chivalrous opponent. This is especially true in Europe where intellectuals as such as the poet Dante viewed him as a “virtuous pagan” similar to Julius Caesar (doesn’t seem like a compliment but trust me it is). Militarily, the Crusaders won every major encounter – their armies imperiously marched down the Levantine coast, followed closely by their ships for supplies and reinforcement. Yet their desire to recapture Jerusalem was stifled and formally accepted in the Treaty of Ramla in 1192 whereby Saladin would keep control of the Holy City whilst allowing entry to Christian pilgrims – which effectively made the contest a draw.
Saladin’s greatest quality did not necessarily lie in an angel-like character who was devoid of any wrong-doings. In this sense, we often conflate romanticisations of events or figures with the evidence at hand. From all the sources, it would seem Saladin’s greatest achievement was the centralisation of authority in the region. His forces consisted of feudal levies (a type of medieval conscription) who fought seasonally. Rather than being shocked at the fact that the great Saladin was defeated in battle, it is more pertinent that even in the absence of a regular standing army, Saladin was still able to force a draw against the finest kings Europe had to offer. After his death in 1193, the unity he fought so hard and long for also died with him. In the year 1227, Jerusalem was handed back to the Crusaders.
* Saddam Hussein, ruler of Iraq (1979-2003), drew comparisons between himself and Saladin to enhance his own image as a champion of the Arabs.
Did you know?
Saladin’s birth name was Yussuf.
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