The battle at the so-called Horns of Hattin was hugely important for the Crusades – to put it bluntly, it was a disaster for the Christian side. So, let’s summarise why this slaughter of a crusader army by the Saracens was so momentous:
- It opened up the path for Saladin to retake Jerusalem for Islam and kick out the Christian crusaders
- It decimated the military forces of the Kingdom of Jerusalem
- There was no question of further gains only losses for the crusaders – their high point had been reached and was now behind them
- Support from Christian monarchs in Europe and the Byzantine empire began to founder after Hattin – why back a losing venture?
- Many crusaders began to realise that there were more victories to be had in the “Reconquista” in Spain or the crusades in the Baltics than the slogging match in the Middle East
It’s no exaggeration to say that this was the turning point for the crusader states – where the forward momentum was lost and their future became one of pursuing defensive strategies as opposed to pushing on to Aleppo or Damascus – as had once seemed very viable.
I have seen Hattin with my own eyes and it’s a plain near the Sea of Galilee which I took a boat trip across to get an idea of what it would have been like to approach this battle ground from water as well as land. The crusaders should never have found themselves in this unfavourable terrain but Saladin pushed and prodded them in that direction, taking advantage of the splits he knew had developed among the crusader leaders.
As all of you who have watched the movie Kingdom of Heaven know, Saladin celebrated victory by humiliating King Guy of Jerusalem and Reynald of Chatillon – the latter was a particular object of hatred to Saladin because he had tried to attack Mecca and Medina (the plan was to dig up the grave of the Prophet), plundered a caravan train that included Saladin’s sister and broken every treaty he had signed. Saladin beheaded Reynald himself.
The account of the battle by the Saracen Ibn al-Athir makes grim reading from a crusader point of view:
The Muslim archers sent up clouds of arrows like thick swarms of locusts, killing many of the Frankish horses. The Franks, surrounding themselves with their infantry, tried to fight their way towards Tiberias in the hope of reaching water, but Saladin realised their objective and forestalled them by planting himself and his army in the way. He himself rode up and down the Muslim lines encouraging and restraining his troops when necessary.
The whole army obeyed his command and respected his prohibitions. One of his young Mamluks led a terrifying charge on the Franks and performed prodigious feats of valour until he was overwhelmed by numbers and killed, when all the Muslims charged the enemy lines and almost broke through, slaying many Franks in the process… One of the volunteers set fire to the dry grass that covered the ground; it took fire and the wind carried the heat and smoke down on the enemy.
It’s worth noting that the crusaders were by no means outnumbered – in fact, the armies were possibly the same size. But Saladin had learned from previous defeats and had unified his side. After the battle, Saladin offered the Knights of the Temple and of the Hospital the option to convert or die. Two hundred refused to convert and were beheaded.