Saladin (1137 or 1138–1193; Salah al Din Yusuf Ibn Ayyub; صلاه الدين يوسف ابن ايوب; Salah al Din means "The Righteousness of the Faith) founded the ethnically Kurdish Ayyubid dynasty of Egypt and Syria. He was also renowned in both the Christian and Muslim worlds for his leadership and military prowess tempered by his chivalry and merciful nature during the Crusades.
Rise to power
Salah al-Din was born into a Kurdish family at Tikrit on the river Tigris and was sent to Damascus to finish his education. There he lived for ten years at the court of Nur ad-Din, and distinguished himself by his interest in Sunni hadith. After an initial military education under the command of his uncle, the Seljuk statesman and soldier Shirkuh, who was representing Nur ad-Din on campaigns against a faction of the Fatimid caliphate of Egypt in the 1160s, Saladin eventually succeeded the defeated faction and his uncle as vizier in 1169, and inherited a difficult role defending Egypt against the incursions of the Latin Kings of Jerusalem, especially Amalric I. His position was tenuous at first, as no one expected him to last long in Egypt, where there had been many changes of government in previous years, due to a long line of child caliphs fought over by competing viziers. As the leader of a foreign army from Syria, he also had no control over the Shi'ite Egyptian army, which was led in the name of the now otherwise powerless caliph. When the caliph died, in September 1171, Saladin had the imams pronounce the name of the Abassid caliph in Baghdad at Friday prayers, and the weight of authority simply deposed the old line. Now Saladin ruled Egypt, but officially as the representative of Nur ad-Din, who himself conventionally recognized the Abassid caliph.
Thus ran the fictions of power. In reality, with the aid of his brothers who were given control of large estates in Lower Egypt, land-holdings whose local bounds and pattern, inherited from the Byzantines, had survived largely unchanged since late Antiquity (Bowman 1986), Saladin turned Egypt into a fiefdom of his own family, against the wishes of Nur ad-Din, who had sent Shirkuh and Saladin to Egypt in the first place. With Nur ad-Din's death (1174), he assumed the title of sultan in Egypt, where he was treated as a usurper by many Seljuks, who refused to serve under a Kurdish "sultan." Nevertheless, Saladin proved to be the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty and restored Sunnism in Egypt. He extended his territory westwards in the maghreb, and when his uncle, sent up the Nile to pacify some resistance of the former Fatimid supporters, continued on down the Red Sea to conquer Yemen, Nur Ad-Din in Damascus was beginning to sense that he had unwillingly unleashed a dangerous new power, when he died in 1174.
Fighting the Crusaders
A German engraving envisioned Saladin as an "Easterner," thus wearing the furs of a Polish noble
garb. Apparently the European artist has been told that a turban
is "like" a beehive.
On two occasions, in 1171 and 1173, Saladin retreated from an invasion of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. These had been launched by Nur ad-Din, and Saladin hoped that the Crusader kingdom would remain intact, as a buffer state between Egypt and Syria, until Saladin could gain control of Syria as well. Nur ad-Din and Saladin were headed towards open war on these counts, when Nur ad-Din died in 1174. His heir was a mere boy, in the hands of court eunuchs (he died in 1181). Saladin marched on Damascus, and was welcomed into the city. He reinforced his legitimacy there in the time-honored way, by marrying Nur ad-Din's widow. Aleppo and Mosul, on the other hand, the two other largest cities that Nur ad-Din had ruled, were never taken, but Saladin managed to impose his influence and authority on them in 1176 and 1186 respectively. While he was occupied in besieging Aleppo, on May 22, 1176 the "Assassins" attempted to murder him.
While Saladin was consolidating his power in Syria, he generally left the Crusader kingdom— the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem— alone, although he was usually victorious whenever he did meet the Crusaders in battle. One exception was the Battle of Montgisard in 1177, although he soon recovered and defeated the Crusaders at the Ford of Jacob's Daughters in 1179. However, the Crusaders repeatedly provoked him. Raynald of Chatillon, in particular, harassed Muslim trading and pilgrimage routes with a fleet on the Red Sea, a water route that it was essential for Saladin to keep open. Worse, and what made him a legendary monster in the Muslim world, Raynald threatened to attack the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Then Raynald looted a caravan of pilgrims on hajj in 1185. In July of 1187, Saladin invaded the Kingdom of Jerusalem and annihilated the Crusader army at the Battle of Hattin, a major disaster for the Crusaders and a turning point in the history of the Crusades. Saladin captured and executed Raynald; he also captured the King, Guy of Lusignan. He then recaptured Jerusalem on October 2, 1187, after 88 years of Crusader rule. Soon he had taken back every Crusader city except Tyre.
Hattin and the fall of Jerusalem prompted the Third Crusade, financed in England by a special "Saladin tithe". This Crusade took back Acre, and Saladin was defeated by King Richard I of England at the Battle of Arsuf in 1191. Saladin's relationship with Richard was one of chivalrous mutual respect as well as military rivalry; both were celebrated in the courtly romances that developed in northern Europe. When Richard was wounded, Saladin even offered the services of his personal physician, a signal favor for Muslim medical practice was the best in the Western world. At Arsuf, when Richard lost his horse, Saladin sent him two replacements. There were even plans to marry Richard's sister to Saladin's brother. The two came to an agreement over Jerusalem in the treaty of Ramla 1192, whereby it would remain in Muslim hands but would be open to Christian pilgrimages; the treaty reduced the Latin Kingdom to a strip along the coast from Tyre to Joffa.
Not long after Richard's departure, Saladin died in 1193 at Damascus. When they opened Saladin's treasury they found there was not enough money to pay for his funeral; he had given his money away to those in need. His tomb is now a major tourist attraction.
Despite his fierce opposition to the Christian powers, Saladin achieved a great reputation in Europe as a chivalrous knight, so much so that there existed by the 14th century an epic poem about his exploits, and Dante included him among the virtuous pagan souls in Limbo. The noble Saladin appears in a sympathetic light in Sir Walter Scott's The Talisman (1825).
The name Salah ad Din means "Righteousness of the Faith", and through the ages Saladin has been an inspiration for Muslims in many respects. A governorate centered around Tikrit in modern Iraq, Salah ad Din, is named after Saladin.
Few structures associated with Saladin survive within modern cities. Saladin first fortified the Citadel of Cairo (1176 - 1183), which had been a domed pleasure pavilion with a fine view in more peaceful times. In Syria even the smallest cities centered on a defensible citadel, and Saladin introduced this essential feature to Egypt.
Among the forts he built was Qalaat Al-Gindi, a mountaintop fortress and caravanserai in the Sinai. The fortress overlooks a large wadi which was the convergence of several caravan routes that linked Egypt and the Middle East. Inside the structure are a number of large vaulted rooms hewn out of rock, including the remains of shops and a water cistern. A notable archaeological site, it was investigated in 1909 by a French team under Jules Barthoux . 
- Alan K. Bowman, Egypt After the Pharaohs: 1986
Last updated: 05-10-2005 13:01:42