So what exactly happened at the Battle of Hattin in 1187 – aside from Orlando Bloom (my least favourite actor) re-enacting it in the movie Kingdom of Heaven? The battle is one of those events that it’s difficult not to call a decisive turning point. In this case, it was the point at which the crusader project in the Middle East started to crumble.
From the end of the 11th century – barely a hundred years before – the crusaders had embarked on taking the places sacred to Christendom away from the control of the muslim caliphate. These same places were of course sacred to muslims as well as they shared Christianity and Judaism’s Abrahamic roots. From the 7th century AD, the muslim wave had swept across the Levant and ended eastern Roman rule from Constantinople. The new rulers were fairly benign until the Seljuk Turks took control of the caliphate – after which, things turned a little nastier for Jews and Christians living in the region. In truth, toleration of the so-called ‘dhimmi’ faiths of Christianity and Judaism went in waves – under some muslim rulers, things were fine and under others, not so good.
Increased repression in the Holy Land and the disintegration of the Christian empire of Constantinople (called Byzantine today but not back then), led to the crusades. Jerusalem fell to the crusaders along with most of the shoreline of the Levant. Rival princes carved out kingdoms like Tripoli, Jerusalem and Edessa. Divisions within the Islamic body politic and skilful diplomacy as well as warfare by the crusaders kept these new kingdoms in existence for a surprisingly long time.
But by the reign of the muslim leader Saladin, there was a new resolve to push the crusaders out once and for all. Saladin had managed through force and guile to unite the Islamic east whereas now, in marked contrast, it was the crusaders who were at each other’s throats. The leper king of Jerusalem Baldwin IV had finally died of his debilitating disorder and been succeeded by Baldwin V – his nephew. Baldwin V was a child and the regency – real decision making – passed to Raymond of Tripoli.
Unfortunately, Baldwin V died very young and this sparked off a succession crisis. The agreed plan had been for Raymond to remain regent until the Pope and Europe’s great monarchs expressed their preference. But Baldwin V’s mother Sybilla had no interest in such formalities and essentially grabbed the crown for herself and her husband Guy. Raymond, in the foulest of moods, slunk off to Nablus. He formed a faction that was extremely hostile to Sybilla who was basically viewed as something of an illegal usurper.
Saladin must have viewed these splits within the crusader camp with glee. What would have also given him an excellent pretext to attack was the activities of medieval headbanger and all round psychopath – Reynald of Chatillon. The so-called ‘men of Jerusalem’ – long established crusader families in the kingdom – had come to something of a modus vivendi with the Arab and muslim world. There was no need to antagonise the neighbours – why not just get along and get wealthy? But Reynald had no intention of getting on with the muslim world. No, he was spoiling for a fight 24/7.
His favourite activity seems to have been attacking caravan trains trekking through the desert laden with goods. The story that he attacked one which included Saladin’s sister is possible erroneous and is a confusion of two stories. the Arab chroniclers do not agree that Reynald took or even killed Saladin’s sister or any other relative.
Attacking caravans was small beer compared to Reynald’s most audacious and lunatic project which was to descend on Mecca with a crusader force and dig up the tomb of the prophet Mohammed. If Saladin was looking for a reason to push the crusaders in to the sea – then Reynald handed him several on a plate. Having been a prisoner of the caliphate for 17 years in Aleppo, Reynald just couldn’t contain his hatred of the saracens and further outrages impelled Saladin to march on Jerusalem.
As Saladin prepared for war, the disunity among the crusaders had appalling results. Turning his back on King Guy in Jerusalem, Raymond of Tripoli made a truce with Saladin. Bohemond of Antioch also renewed an existing truce. As a result, Raymond was honourably obliged to allow Saladin’s troops to move through his territory, which duly happened. Regretablly, this multi-thousand Saracen force met a much smaller Templar army and predictably – wiped it out. Raymond now seems to have decided that he was probably next on Saladin’s hit list and sank his differences with Guy.
These spats between crusader princes look insane to our eyes but in so many ways were an extension of the turbulent feudal politics of mainland Europe – a continent divided up in to a patchwork of rival duchies, counties, kingdoms, principalities, bishoprics, etc, etc. Petty warfare just exported itself from Europe to the crusader kingdoms of outremer.
Saladin lured the crusaders to where he wanted them by attacking and taking Tiberias – holed up in the citadel and fighting to the last was Raymond’s wife. He naturally flew to her aid. This proved to be a disastrous error and it was on the dry and parched hill of Hattin that the crusaders and Templars camped ahead of fighting Saladin. The Saracens were in the valley with their supply routes intact. The crusaders had a dry well and not much to eat and drink. They were also tired from their marching.
Saladin famously lit fires round the hill where the crusaders were camped to make their thirst that much more unbearable. He then fired arrows through the smoke and slew the Christians where they stood. The battle was lost before it was fought. Here is how Kingdom of Heaven portrayed the carnage.