Protector of the Faith

by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the February 1983, A.S. XXVII issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

His name was Yusuf ibn Ayyub. Waging a holy war, he became a living legend among his countrymen, feared and admired by his foes. Son of an emir of humble origins, he became the virtual ruler of most of Islam. Surnamed Sala ed-Din, “Protector of the Faith”, he is better know as Saladin, the Latin corruption.

The rise of Saladin began before his birth in 1138. It took nearly a quarter of a century for the Moslems to respond to the capture of Jerusalem by the Crusaders. The first to achieve anything was Imad al-Din Zanghi, atabeg of Mosul, who, in 1128, recaptured Aleppo. His capture of Edessa in 1144 set off the Second Crusade. Two years later, Zanghi was assassinated to be succeeded by his son, Nur ed-Din Mahmud.

Nur ed-Din was a very pious Moslem who believed in a holy war, or jihad, against the Franks in Palestine. The failure of the Second Crusade further encouraged him. His preaching to the populace so aroused them, that his fellow Arab rulers were unable to resist his demands, fearing a popular uprising. In 1154 he took Damascus from a rival atabeg, consolidating his hold on Syria.

But before he could move against the Kingdom of Jerusalem, he had to stop the Franks from taking Egypt. At this time Egypt was still under the Fatimid caliphs, though actual power was in the hands of the vizier. The Fatimid was a schismatic Islamic sect, which was on the edge of collapse, and open prey. Nur ed-Din sent his trusted lieutenant, Shirkuh, to secure Egypt. Between 1163 and 1168, he and King Amalric of Jerusalem, in four different campaigns, vied for Egypt. In 1169 Shirkuh had won out, assassinated the last Egyptian vizier, and assumed control. A two months later Shirkuh died, leaving everything to a nephew he had brought along: Saladin.

Saladin was the son of Najm ed-Din Ayub, a Kurd soldier who attached his fortunes to Zanghi years before. Saladin’s spiritual father, however, was Nur ed-Din, in whose court Saladin learned his passion for the holy war against the Franks. When his uncle died, leaving him Egypt, he was thirty-five, and already had developed a reputation and a following.

Saladin began a quiet campaign to repress the Shiite sect, with ruthless efficiency. With the death of the Fatimid caliph two years later, Saladin formally ended the schism. Saladin’s rapid rise became a cause of anxiety for Nur ed-Din. Late in 1171, an open breach almost occurred between the two men over the direction of the holy war, but it was papered over. Nur ed-Din died on May 15, 1174, leaving Syria to his eleven year old son, Malik as-Salih Ismail.

Internal rivalries quickly broke out as the atabeg of Mosul took Northern Syria, while the atabegs of Damascus and Aleppo argued over the guardianship of as-Salih Ismail. In October Damascus called in Saladin, and in December he marched on Aleppo. Calling upon the Franks to help him, as-Salih Ismail temporarily checked Saladin. The animosity was due in part to the fact that Saladin was a Kurd, while the Zinghis were Turks. That Saladin was Nur ed-Din’s subordinate did not help. A few months later, the combined forces of Mosul and Aleppo attacked, and on April 13 were routed at the Horn of Hamah. A few days later, the Caliph formally invested Saladin with the government of Egypt and Syria.

A few years later, while a number of Franks were dallying in Northern Syria, Saladin attacked in the south. Thinking the area virtually without defenders, he had his army plundering the countryside. King Baldwin IV with less than 400 knights, and a few thousand hastily recruited footmen, hurried to the defense. While greatly outnumbered, they attacked the rear by surprise. The rout was complete, with Saladin barely escaping with his life.

For two more years, Baldwin continued to harass Saladin’s possessions. Then in 1179 he was defeated in a forest near Banyas and again a few months later on the plain of Marj Ayun. He asked for a truce, that Saladin, troubled with internal problems, granted.

From 1179 to 1186, Saladin spent most of his time solidifying the Islamic forces. His main rivals were the atabegs of Mosul, descendants of Zanghi. In a series of military campaigns, and political alliances, Saladin was able to render the Mosul atabegs powerless. Saladin was now ready to turn his full attention to the Franks.

Not that the Franks were ever far from his attention. One Frank in particular. His name was Reynold of Chatillon, holder of the impregnable fortress Kerak of Moab, which sat on the desert’s edge overlooking the caravan routes, which he constantly raided. In 1181 he penetrated Arabia, and attacked a caravan going to Mecca from Damascus, much to Saladin’s displeasure. He attempted to lay siege to Kerak, but Baldwin managed to drive him off.

Two years later, Reynold openly attempted to take Mecca. This time Saladin was furious. He sent his brother, Malik al-Adil, to destroy Reynold’s force. When Reynold managed to escape destruction, Saladin went and laid siege to Kerak. Learning that a royal wedding was taking place inside, he refrained from bombarding the tower the bridal couple was staying in. The siege was lifted when, for the last time, Baldwin came marching to relieve the castle.

In 1186, Reynold defied a truce for the last time, taking a caravan said to contain Saladin’s sister. This was the excuse Saladin needed to begin his final campaign against the Franks vowing revenge on Reynold. Collecting all his armies, he marched on Jerusalem.

Saladin began the war by laying siege on the city of Tiberias. Realizing that this was to be the decisive battle, the Franks stripped all their castles of defenders, and recruited all able bodies. It was one of their largest armies. Hearing of the siege of Tiberias, they marched to Sephoria, twenty miles away. From there, they foolishly marched on to Tiberias, just as Saladin wanted. For they had left the last source of water in the middle of a hot summer.

The problem was exacerbated by a night on the hill of Hattin. By morning they were surrounded. The wind was blowing into the Frank’s camp, so Saladin had the grass set on fire, sending smoke into the Frankish ranks. The fighting was furious. But thirst and heat took its toll. The infantry surrendered. Among the captives was Reynold of Chatillon, whom Saladin personally executed that evening. The next day he had all the Templers and the Hospitalers, about 300 men in all executed.

So devastating was the defeat that Saladin was able to capture a number of cities without resistance. But resistance slowly reappeared. Citizen soldiers in Ascalon held out for a few days, and in Jerusalem it took two weeks before bowing to the inevitable.

The fall of Jerusalem occurred in marked contrast to the events of 1099, when the Crusaders took it. Instead of a massive massacre, most of the Christian population walked away free. But not without a price. An earlier offer of generous surrender terms, made before the siege, had been rejected out of hand. So when asked for terms of surrender, Saladin demanded unconditional surrender. When faced with the threat of the total destruction of Jerusalem, a la Masada, Saladin relented and merely demanded a ransom for each person. A lump sum was to be paid for the poor, which was with difficulty raised as the Templers, Hospitalers, and the Patriarch of Jerusalem were very reluctant to help pay. Saladin’s generosity, as well as that of his brother, freed many more.

Saladin’s magnanimity was partially a desire to show that his faith was superior to the Christians. But there was also the desire to disarm the still existing Frankish states of Antioch and Tripoli. The key to these remaining lands was the city of Tyre. But just as the city was about to fall, a fleet under Conrad de Monteferrat arrived with supplies and reinforcements. Conrad rallied the defenders, forcing Saladin to call off the siege.

The fall of Jerusalem sparked Europe. The papacy imposed a special tax to pay for the new Crusades: the Saladin tithe. The first to act was Frederick Barbarossa, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. But his army dispersed, however, when he died from drowning or a heart attack in a small river in Asia Minor.

At odds, the Kings of France and England were reluctant to go, fearing the other would act against his kingdom in their absence. But public pressure finally forced them to act. Henry II died before preparations were completed, and the task was taken up by his son, Richard.

The setting of the start of the Third Crusade had been determined by Guy de Lusignan, King of Jerusalem. When he was freed by Saladin, he went to Tyre, but was refused entrance. By August of 1189, he acquired the support of a few hundred knights, and went and laid siege to Acre. At first the act seemed so ludicrous that Saladin did not take it seriously. By the time he did, the Franks were too well entrenched to be dislodged.

The siege of Acre lasted nearly two years, settled only by the exhaustion of the garrison. The magnitude of the hardship suffered during the siege by both sides has been compared to the battle of Verdun in W.W.I. Philip, King of France, having been sick most of the time he spent at Acre, left at the conclusion of the siege. A prisoner exchange, with a ransom and the return of the True Cross, captured at Hattin, was scotched when Richard, tired of waiting for Saladin, killed all three thousand prisoners. Saladin declined to kill his prisoners in reprisal, but let it be known that he would take no further prisoners.

Richard marched south, taking the coastal cities. Richard’s massacre had weakened the will to resist. Saladin attacked Richard at Arsuf. Richard proved the better general, and scattered Saladin’s army. Saladin retreated to Jerusalem, using a scorch earth policy, destroying the fortresses at Jaffa and Ascalon.

Despite the victory, the Crusaders were becoming discouraged, and negotiations were opened. These collapsed, and in November, Richard marched towards Jerusalem. But winter rains bogged it down and on the advice of the local Franks and the Military orders, Richard retreated back to Ascalon.

So negotiations were resumed. At one point it was proposed that Richard’s sister Joanna marry Saladin’s brother Malik al-Adil, and that they jointly rule Jerusalem. This time the negotiations bogged down over the point of Ascalon, as Saladin was not willing to allow it to stay in Crusader hands. Again Richard marched on Jerusalem, only to retreat. It would be the closest they came to Jerusalem. What they did not know was that Saladin’s army was just as miserable and tied of war. Had they attacked, Jerusalem would have been only half heartily defended.

In July, Saladin took Jaffa. With almost reckless abandon, Richard, with a small force sailed into the harbor and took it back. Saladin brought his army to bear, but again, Richard’s generalship and courage defeated him. Tired of the Crusades, and hearing of the activities of his brother, John, back in England, Richard reopened negotiations which produced a truce of three years.

Saladin did not last long afterward, and on March 3, 1193, died of an illness. His empire was temporarily divided among his sons, but his brother put it back together under his control. Upon the death of Saladin’s brother in 1218, the empire permanently broke up, and the dynasty that Saladin founded was dead by 1260.

Thus was the life of Saladin. To Islam, he was its premier champion, its unifier, and the restorer of Jerusalem. To the West, he was an honored enemy, an example of chivalry at its best. He was one of those rare people incorruptible by power or wealth, his personal fortune at his death was only a few coins.



Durant, Will, and Ariel Durant. The Story of Civilization: The Age of Faith, A History of Medieval Civilization. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1950.

Gibb, Sir Hamilton A. R. The Life of Saladin. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973.

LaMonte, John L. The World of the Middle Ages. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts Inc. , 1949.

Oldenbourg, Zoe. The Crusades. New York: Pantheon Books, 1966.

Williams, Jay. Knights of the Crusades. New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1962.


Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.

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