Saladin (1138-1193), a Kurdish ruler of Egypt and Syria, is known in the West for his opposition to the forces of the Third Crusade and for his capture of Jerusalem.

From about 1130 Zengi, the Turkish atabeg (regent) of Mosul and his son, Nur-ad-Din (Nureddin), who succeeded him in 1146, undertook a holy war to unify Syria. Saladin Arabic, Salah-ad-Din Yusuf ibn Aiyub) served with his uncle, Shirkuh, under Nur-ad-Din and was strongly impressed with the need to complete the unity of Islam under orthodox rule.

After several expeditions into Egypt, where the Fatimid dynasty remained the most important of the successor kingdoms established after the fall of the Abbasid empire, Saladin assumed full military power on the death of Shirkuh in 1168. He was successful in repulsing the combined French-Byzantine invasion of Amalric, King of Jerusalem, a victory which opened the way for him to move his armies up into the Transjordan area. The Fatimid caliphate was crushed by 1171, and on the death of Nur-ad-Din 3 years later, Saladin began the conquest of the Frankish lands and of the old Zengid empire. He shortly occupied Damascus and married the widow of Nur-ad-Din. He thus faced increased hostility from two sides: from the Zengid rulers at Mosul, who were in no way enthusiastic about his conception of the jihad, or holy war, and from the Latin forces under Baldwin IV, the Leper King. The complexities of operating on two fronts at the same time were reduced somewhat by diplomatic negotiations with Baldwin and Raymond of Tripoli as well as with the Byzantine emperor and certain of the Italian maritime cities. In the former case the result was essentially negative. A series of provisional treaties served to forestall an attack on the vulnerable western side, for Baldwin proved to be quite capable of containing Saladin, although he was unable to do him any damage. But in the latter case not only were assurances of nonintervention given, but material aid was obtained.

By the end of 1185 Saladin had imposed his authority in northern Syria and Mesopotamia, and he was ready to turn his full attention to the crusading kingdom. After the unfortunate betrayal of a peace treaty by a Western knight, the jihad was declared in the beginning of 1187. Drawing troops from Syria as well as from Egypt, Saladin brought his combined forces to face the Latin army at Hattin near Tiberias in July. The star-crossed monarchy in Jerusalem, born of the antagonisms among the leaders of the First Crusade, was never able to operate from a position of strength, and once again personal jealousies were responsible for the overwhelming defeat by the Moslem forces. Saladin set a trap for the crusaders; they marched into it and were annihilated. By any measure Hattin was a disaster for the West, and in rapid sequence most of the other important towns, Acre, Sidon, Jaffa, Caesarea, Ascalon, fell into Moslem hands. Finally, Jerusalem was occupied on October 2. Further campaigning reduced the extent of Frankish power in Syria to Tyre, Antioch, and Tripoli.

The kings of western Europe responded to the fall of Jerusalem by taking the cross and then by gathering their knights together in the expeditions known to history as the Third Crusade. Their chief victory was the successful siege and relief of Acre, which capitulated in July 1191. King Richard I of England defeated Saladin at Arsuf and then concluded an armistice in the fall of 1192 without having been able to retake Jerusalem. Nevertheless, Richard's presence in the East clearly prevented Saladin from capitalizing fully on his victory at Hattin. After 12 days of illness, Saladin died on March 4, 1193.

Saladin is described in the pages of his biographer, Baha ad-Din, as one who was entirely committed to the justice of the jihad against the unbelievers. Of medium height and gentle manners, courageous, even ruthless, but generous and humane, he was respected by his followers and by his adversaries for the steadfast manner in which he kept his promises. Strong in his faith, he was orthodox to the point of intolerance, as in the summary murder of as-Suhrawardi, a heretical preacher of Aleppo. It should be remembered that it was Saladin who carried on the work of Nur-ad-Din and completed the unity of Islam, although his success did not long survive him.


Further Reading on Saladin

The fundamental full-length treatment of Saladin is S. Lane-Poole, Saladin and the Fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem (1898; rev. ed. by H. W. C. Davis, 1926). Other works on him are Charles J. Rosebault, Saladin, Prince of Chivalry (1930), and G. E. T. Slaughter, Saladin, 1138-1193 (1955). An important chapter on his early career by Sir H. A. R. Gibb is in Kenneth M. Setton, A History of the Crusades, vol. 1 (1969).