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Portrait of Saladin

Saladin: Richard the Lionheart's worthy adversary

Image: Public Domain

On the 4th March 1193, the legendary Saracen leader Saladin died after an unexpected illness shortly after one of his greatest battles against the Christian Crusaders. Described as ‘Son of Satan’ in the West, Saladin’s reputation as a brutal heathen is largely to do with Christian propaganda.

He famously wanted to eliminate Westerners from the Muslim territory in the East and is forever associated with England’s King Richard the Lionheart. Both leaders of opposing religions fought over Jerusalem but discovered mutual respect and admiration for each other throughout their conflicts.

Early years: Warrior apprenticeship

Born in Tikrit, Mesopotamia, in today’s Iraq, Saladin was of Kurdish origin. He grew up around Damascus during the time of the 2nd Crusade by Christian forces. Saladin’s Kurdish background with its prized culture of horsemanship led to him acquiring equestrian skills as he trained in military warfare.

Saladin’s formative years took place during much chaos between the two main religious groups, the Sunnis and Shiites, and where Christian leaders often made alliances with Muslim groups to fight Muslims.

Influential relatives

Shirkuh, Saladin’s uncle, was a military commander for powerful Turkish warlord Nur ad-Din who led a counterattack against the Western interlopers, such as the Franks (Germanic tribes) and European Christian crusaders. Shirkuh became ruler of Egypt in 1169 which gradually paved the way for Saladin to succeed him where, as founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, he took on the powerful position of the first Sultanate of Egypt.

Saladin unified the Muslim world

The Muslim world was divided not just between Sunni and Shi’a religious sects, but also with small regional lordships and where Christians made alliances with Muslim rulers. Christians fought Muslims and Muslims, along with Christians, fought rival Muslims.

After Saladin became Sultan of Egypt, having captured Damascus in 1174, he set his sights on defeating the Muslim dynasty of Oghuz Turkic origin, known as the Zengids, who ruled Upper Mesopotamia. The Battle of Hama in 1175 saw the Zengid army breaking Saladin’s left flank, shortly before the enemy was routed by Saladin’s personal guard.

After his victory, Saladin was proclaimed to be the Sunni orthodox protector and cemented his power thanks to the Caliph of Baghdad who recognised Saladin to be the governor of Yemen, Egypt and Syria.

Unique leadership in Medieval times

Saladin gained a reputation for the civil way he behaved and the fair-minded manner in which he dealt with people. He focused on bringing justice into the fold while displaying generosity in thought and deed. Saladin’s reputation as a defender of Islam against Christian invaders is mainly attributed to his defeat of the 3rd Crusade, led by England’s Richard the Lionheart and two other European kings. Saladin recaptured Jerusalem without resorting to brutal sadism or acts of revenge.

Diplomacy and generosity

Despite legendary tales of Saladin as a great military commander, in reality, he delayed fighting the Christian rulers in 1187 for fear of Muslim prisoners being executed. He was also thrashed early on by the Crusaders.

But one of Saladin’s great strengths throughout his career was that he was a good administrator. He surrounded himself with a strong group of people who were adept at propaganda and carrying his message. Saladin kept his blood family together, unlike many of his contemporaries who engendered distrust amongst their relatives and often fought between themselves for power. One of Saladin’s chief ways of operating was to be generous and reward others for their loyalty, allowing him to trust the relatives he put in power.

Saladin and King Richard the Lionheart: Enemies sharing admiration

It was Saladin who caused King Richard I of England to go on crusade by his destroying of Christian power through the Battle of Hattin in 1187. Although Saladin’s armies never bested Richard in open combat, they were too strong for him in the end, and the English king was forced to abandon his crusade without having taken Jerusalem.

Even while battling with King Richard, Saladin is said to have sent him and his captains chilled wine, pears and grapes from Damascus to ease their hardship in camp. One story, which may lend itself to mythology, describes Saladin sending King Richard a fresh horse during combat when Richard’s horse was killed under him. Saladin is alleged to have also sent for a doctor to attend to the English king’s injuries.

Battles of Jerusalem and Hattin

On 4th July 1187, Saladin brought around 20,000 troops to the Battle of Hattin (near Tiberias in present-day Israel) and faced the Franks that were commanded by Guy of Lusignan, one of the Knights Templars and King of Jerusalem. The Templars had 1,300 knights and 1,500 infantries.

Saladin’s army set the dry grass on fire making it difficult for the Franks to attack, allowing Saladin to capture Jerusalem for Islam in September 1187. Guy of Lusignan and other nobles were captured. Some were ransomed while others were executed, such as the Knights Hospitaller and Knights Templar. Christians living on the Eastern side of the city were allowed to stay although most churches were turned into mosques.

Plots against Saladin

There were several plots to kill Saladin and one of the more bizarre involved a eunuch. The diminutive spy assassin made several attempts to kill Saladin while also trying to sneak secret messages hidden in his shoes. The spy’s covert activities were thwarted when sharp-eyed observers noticed that his shoes were too new and apprehended him. Saladin survived two further attacks, where in one case the assassin managed to nick his neck with a knife.

Saladin in love: Daily romantic letters

Saladin’s marriage to Ismat ad-Din Khatun, the widow of his deceased enemy Nur ad-Din, may have been done for political reasons, but he was known to have been greatly in love with the noblewoman and wrote letters to her every day.

When Ismat became fatally ill her condition was kept secret from Saladin for fear of shortening his life while he was recovering from fever. As well as his much-loved wife Ismat, Saladin had many other female lovers and is believed to have sired around 15 male children.

Final days: The legacy and mythology

In the last six years of his life, Saladin suffered from illness, including infections and boils over his body. Like King Richard, an equally ill man who returned to England after losing Jerusalem, the exhausted Saladin gave up the fight against his arch-enemy.

Despite having been ruler of one of the wealthiest group of countries in the East, Saladin’s immense generosity and inclination for austerity left only 37 coins in the treasury. After his death, the cohesion that existed during his rule broke down, precipitating a resumption of fighting between Saladin’s numerous sons.

Saladin’s reputation survived through the centuries and by the 16th century, he was seen as a great Muslim leader, a freedom fighter and a flawed hero.