An excellent new BBC series The Crusades takes a fresh look at Saladin and his fight with Richard the Lionheart in the second episode. Jihadi warrior and unifier of Islam – is the description of Saladin from the programme presenter Dr Thomas Asbridge. It’s hard not to agree. It is an incredible story of how a Kurdish soldier – Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb – unified Egypt and the Middle East as sultan. His reputation has remained strong over the centuries and he is revered by many Arabs today as a vanquisher of the crusaders – a reputation he established at the slaughter of Templars and Christian warriors at the Horns of Hattin.
But Saladin has also been cast as a man of mercy – and this is with particular reference to his refusal to slaughter the population of Jerusalem when he won it back in 1187. The chronicler Bahā’ ad-Dīn who traveled with Saladin on his campaigns makes it clear that Saladin did not have mercy in mind when he took back the holy city. He was going to avenge the mass killing that had been perpetrated when the crusaders had taken Jerusalem a hundred years before and he was going to burnish his credentials as a jihadi warrior in no uncertain terms. There would be no mercy and the streets would run with blood. Anybody who doubted Saladin’s intent only had to look at how he’d put down a mutiny by a Sudanese garrison in Cairo. They had been burnt alive with their wives and children in their barracks, Dr Asbridge recounts.
The Christians knew full well what was in store for them from Saladin. The legends that followed were stuff and nonsense. When Jerusalem had originally been taken, Islam had been badly divided and Asbridge says many Muslims didn’t really understand what exactly had landed on their soil. Many apparently thought the crusaders were Byzantine mercenaries come to take the city for Constantinople. It was this confusion and division on the Saracen side that allowed the crusader states of outremer to develop and consolidate. And Asbridge makes the point that their position was surprisingly strong – the eastern Mediterranean was Christian Europe’s back yard and they could ship in troops by sea whenever they wanted.
But Saladin was the unifier and he slowly encircled Jerusalem. After the defeat of Hattin, he closed in for the kill. So why didn’t he massacre the city’s population – as they clearly expected he would. Well, the Franks of Jerusalem engaged in some pretty gritty diplomacy. If you come to kill us, they said, we’ll slaughter thousands of Muslim prisoners in our jails and demolish all the Muslim holy places including the Dome of the Rock. This proved too much for Saladin, it seems, and he backed down. Many Christians were sold in to slavery but many were also ransomed and able to slip out.
However, this was not something that pleased Saladin – who Asbridge says worried that his image would actually be damaged by this act of supposed mercy. There have been many views of Saladin created down the centuries but the primary one in modern times has been of some kind of medieval Arab nationalist. I’ve flagged up this movie before made during the Nasser period in Egypt but it’s worth bringing to your attention again.
Here we have Saladin depicted in ‘Kingdom of Heaven’
Saladin animated in a cartoon series!
- “Third Crusade” 820th Anniversary Series: Richard the Lionheart Withdraws a Second Time Before Besieging Jerusalem (thetemplarknight.com)
- Robert Fisk: Syria’s ancient treasures pulverised (independent.co.uk)