Saladin’s Legacy: Some Thoughts

Above Image: Cover image of Yaacov Lev’s excellent book Saladin in Egypt (Leiden: Brill, 1999).

The Egyptian Sultan Saladin (r. 1171-1193), a Sunni Muslim Kurd, is often celebrated for his chivalrous virtues and deeds during the crusading era. In popular modern film and literature, in both the east and the west, Saladin is depicted as a man of honor and reason, not swept up in the religious passions of his day, and thus a sort of modern role model for enlightened behavior in times of conflict. Yet such heroic popular narratives of medieval military leaders are rarely, if ever, fully accurate and in Saladin’s case there is considerable evidence to demonstrate he was much more of a man of his times than suggested by otherwise romanticized views of his career.

To provide one of the better-known examples of Saladin’s behavior that would support the popular narrative emphasizing Saladin’s generosity and reasonableness, one might consider Beha ed-Din’s account of a woman in the crusaders’ camp during the Third Crusade whose three-month-old baby was kidnapped one night by Muslim thieves and kidnappers, whose job it was to regularly harass Christians in the crusader camps in this way. It was customary for the thieves to then bring all they had taken to the Sultan’s tent to present to him, after which Saladin would then usually return it to the thieves so they could profit from their actions. In this case, the thieves reportedly then sold the child in a slave market. When the Christian mother learned of what happened, she was shocked and weeping, until the “princes of the Franks” reportedly told her that Saladin was compassionate man and that they would permit her to go to him and ask for her child back. She did as they suggested and Saladin ordered that the child be found and returned to him. He then gave the child back to the weeping mother, and then Saladin had mother and child safely returned to the crusaders’ camp.

More significantly, Saladin’s actions in dealing with the defeated population of the city of Jerusalem in 1187 are much better known than his treatment of the Christian woman described above. Indeed, his actions at that time, or at least the popular narrative about them, are probably the most important element in establishing his popular legacy. Saladin’s conquest of the city was made possible by his victory over Christian forces three months earlier at the battle of Hattin, where he nearly wiped out the army of Jerusalem. After that Saladin captured many of the surrounding territories, resulting in a refugee crisis for the city of Jerusalem as thousands of Christians fled there seeking shelter. Saladin began his siege of the city in September, with it not taking long for his army to breach the walls of the city, prompting the leader of the city’s defenses, Balian of Ibelin, to negotiate a surrender in which the inhabitants of the city would be able to leave so long as they paid a ransom. Saladin honored the agreement, and most of the inhabitants of the city would be spared their lives or enslavement. This outcome under Saladin has often been contrasted with the reported slaughter that took place in Jerusalem in 1099, when the participants of the First Crusade captured the city and, per one chronicler, rode in blood up to their horses’ reins on the Temple Mount.

Saladin’s conquest of Jerusalem led to great concern in Europe and resulted in the calling of the Third Crusade. While the crusaders would be successful in restoring some important areas to Christian control, Jerusalem, the crowned jewel of the Holy Land, would remain under Saladin’s control. When Saladin died in 1193, he had consolidated his rule and established the Ayyubid dynasty. When these achievements were combined with his victories over Christian forces in the region, to include the conquest of Jerusalem, Saladin had emerged as a Muslim hero. Indeed, two biographies were written about him, a rarity for Muslim rulers at the time, and many other contemporary, or near contemporary, Muslim writers mentioned his exploits in their histories, making Saladin perhaps the best-known Muslim leader of the crusading era.

Although Saladin was celebrated for his role in the crusades in the twelfth and thirtieth centuries, soon his fame in the Arab world would diminish concurrently with the lapse of interest in the topic shown by Muslim writers from the late medieval to modern eras. This process began with the threat the Mongols represented to the Muslim world in the thirteenth century, who were far more destructive than the crusaders. When the Mongols were overcome, the Turks then focused on a new era of successful expansion into Christian lands in Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean, achieving numerous victories and expanding their empire. Because of these events, the temporary and geographically limited Latin Christian settlements of the crusading era and the conflicts they provoked became less important in Muslim historical narratives. As historians Edward Peters and Mona Hammad (Seven Myths of the Crusades) have noted:

“By the fourteenth century the Islamic world was placed squarely on course for the successive later triumphs of the Mamluks and then the Safavids in Persia and the Ottoman Empire from the fourteenth century to the end of the seventeenth. The crusaders receded into a vast and now largely Ottoman dominated and defined past.” (Peters and Hammad, Seven Myths of the Crusades)

With the diminished role of the crusading era in Islamic history came the diminished historical role of Saladin as a Muslim hero and military leader. The historical significance of the crusades was minimized as they were sandwiched between two periods of extraordinary Muslim expansion, to include the Arab Conquest of the seventh and eighth centuries and the continuation of steady Muslim expansion during the ninth through eleventh centuries, and the rise of the Turks and their expansion west into Europe in the late medieval and early modern periods.

It was modern westerners, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, who would be the first to rehabilitate Saladin’s reputation as perhaps the most enlightened figure of the crusading movement. Romanticized histories of the crusades that were written during and influenced by the era of the New Imperialism led to depictions of the early crusaders as early imperialists and the forerunners of the modern variety. Some of these histories, later translated into Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, also framed Saladin as a chivalrous sort of leader of the resistance to the crusader imperialists, making him something of a role model for later nineteenth and twentieth century Arab and Turkish leaders resisting European imperialism in their age. Western historians writing during the early/middle twentieth century continued the narrative. Harold Lamb, for example, described Saladin as brilliant and a man of honor, while Rene Grousset praised Saladin for resisting the fanaticism of some of his troops, who wanted to destroy the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which he forbade. Popular literature, such as the highly influential novels of Sir Walter Scott, effectively carried such views to the public during the nineteenth century, where they remain, and continue into the present as seen in modern television and film (e.g. the BBC Terry Jones series Crusades, the 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven, etc…).

While modern western scholarship on the crusades has moved past generally romanticized depictions of crusading, and largely rejected the supposed connection of crusading with modern imperialism, such views continue in popular western narratives and throughout the Muslim world. Modern Muslims have largely embraced this nineteenth-century European inspired view of crusading, and by extension a heroized view of Saladin. As noted above, the arrival of the Europeans as imperialists in various parts of the Muslim world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, also brought their histories and interpretations of the crusades, which were translated into Arabic and other local languages and have influenced popular understandings of the crusades and Saladin until the present. Saladin is often honored for his contributions to Muslim efforts to expel the crusaders. The Hamas Charter issued in 1988, for example, in articles 34 and 35, honors Saladin for his achievements. Prior to the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein sought to portray himself as a new Saladin, who would once again lead the Muslim resistance to the new western crusaders. In 1993, an oversized equestrian bronze statue of Saladin was erected in Damascus, Syria, which was unveiled by then Syrian president Hafez Assad on the 800th anniversary of Saladin’s death. There are many other examples of the deep respect shown for Saladin in the modern Muslim world.


Above Image: The Damascus statue of Saladin, mentioned above. (Source: Wiki commons)

Like any crusade historian, I have long been familiar with the outlines of Saladin’s significance in the crusading era. Although my scholarly focus is the era of the First Crusade, nearly a century removed from the time in which Saladin made his name for events related to the Third Crusade, I have nevertheless become quite familiar with Saladin’s role in the crusades and his legacy. While Saladin’s military role during the crusades is of unquestionably high importance, I never saw his various deeds as too greatly qualifying him as especially enlightened by modern standards. Often Saladin could be just as brutal as the less noble minded military rulers of his era, but those actions are typically not highlighted in modern accounts. He was certainly no worse than many medieval military leaders, Christian or Muslim, and undoubtedly has his moments of compassion, but if we are going to judge him by modern standards, as so many seem to do when celebrating his legacy for compassion, then it is important to note that there also took place incidents of horrifying cruelty under his command.

In the wake of Saladin’s victory at Hattin, Imad ad-Din, Saladin’s companion and secretary, wrote of how Saladin sought out all captured Templars and Hospitallers. He wanted to be sure they were executed rather than ransomed for solid military reasons, as they could represent a significant threat later if they were to go free. As members of the military orders the Templars and Hospitallers were the best trained and motivated of the Christian forces. So Saladin’s decision was a reasonable one that many medieval military rulers would make. The problem is in the way he chose to have them killed, as the sources suggest Saladin reveled in their humiliation. Saladin first offered the 200 captured knights the opportunity to convert to Islam. They all refused. So he proceeded with the executions, which Imad-ad-Din describes as follows:

“He [Saladin] ordered that they should be beheaded, choosing to have them dead rather than in prison. With him was a whole band of scholars and Sufis and a certain number of devout men and ascetics; each begged to be allowed to kill one of them, and drew his sword and rolled back his sleeve. Saladin, his face joyful, was sitting on his dais; the unbelievers [Christian knights] showed black despair, the troops were drawn up in their ranks, the amirs stood in double file. There were some who slashed and cut cleanly, and were thanked for it; some who refused and failed to act, and were excused; some who made fools of themselves, and others took their places. I saw there the man who laughed scornfully and slaughtered, who spoke and acted; how many promises he fulfilled, how much praise he won…” (Gabrieli, 138)

Saladin also receives considerable credit for allowing the inhabitants of Jerusalem to leave the city during his conquest in 1187, rather than be slaughtered as had supposedly been the case in 1099 when the crusaders took Jerusalem. But the tough negotiations of Balian of Ibelin, leader of the Christian forces during Saladin’s siege of Jerusalem, have more to do with this outcome than any magnanimity on Saladin’s part. When Saladin’s forces breached one of Jerusalem’s walls, Balian went to Saladin’s camp to negotiate the next day. He told Saladin, in what some have framed as a last desperate gamble, that if the Christian inhabitants were not allowed to leave with their lives, then they would wage total war to the death, starting by killing their own families so that they would not become slaves, slaughtering all their animals so that the Muslims would not have access to them, and slaughtering 5,000 Muslim prisoners under their control. They would also destroy all Muslim holy places in the city to include the Dome of the Rock and Aqsa Mosque before marching out in the thousands to die gloriously on the battlefield. If Balian was bluffing, it worked, as Saladin agreed to allow Christians to leave the city if they could pay a ransom for each person. This way he could protect Islamic holy sites, Muslim lives, and heavily profit from the venture, versus the dreadful alternative Balian proposed to him.

But controversy immediately emerged even because of this agreement. While the vast majority of the Christian population of Jerusalem were able to pay the ransom and leave, not all could, and thousands of Christians were left behind to be claimed as slaves by the Muslim conquerors. The Christian women and girls were then, according to Imad ad-Din, subjected to mass rape by Saladin’s soldiers.

“Women and children together came to 8,000 and were quickly divided up among us, bringing a smile to Muslim faces at their lamentations. How many well-guarded women were profaned, how many queens were ruled, and nubile girls married and noble women given away, and miserly women forced to yield themselves, and women who had been kept hidden stripped of their modesty and serious women made ridiculous, and women kept in private now set in public, and free women occupied, and precious ones used for hard work, and pretty things put to the test, and virgins dishonoured and proud women deflowered, and lovely women’s red lips kissed, and dark women prostrated, and untamed ones tamed and happy ones made to weep. How many noblemen took them as concubines, how many ardent men blazed for one of them, and celibates were satisfied by them, and thirsty men sated by them and turbulent men able to give vent to their passion….”

And he goes on…

While there is undoubtedly some poetic license being employed by Imad ad-Din here, there is nothing to suggest it is entirely so, as historically this would not have been out of keeping with the treatment of captured enemy women. Indeed, in reading about recent treatment of Yazidi women by the soldiers of the so-called Islamic State, I was reminded of Imad ad-Din’s words here. Since the time of the Prophet Muhammad, who himself owned slaves including at least one that bore his child, the rape of slaves taken as war booty has been considered acceptable for Muslim men. Saladin would not have been acting out of turn in allowing his troops to behave this way as this sort of behavior was relatively normal for medieval combatants on all sides- Christian or Muslim (although not necessarily in the case- specifically- of the crusaders, who were vowed to chastity). But while such behavior was considered acceptable in warfare at the time, it is not today, making the modern effort to frame Saladin as exceptionally compassionate or enlightened a bit more problematic.

I might also note that the supposed slaughter of the inhabitants of Jerusalem by the crusaders in 1099, which is often contrasted with Saladin’s actions in 1187, where he allowed for ransoms, is contested by modern historians. Modern crusade historians have, mostly, rejected the scale of the claims of the massacre, arguing the claims of the sources are not physically possible. Moreover, a more recent source by al-Arabi puts the number of those slain at Jerusalem in 1099 at only 3,000 (See Benjamin Kedar’s essay in Crusades Vol. 3), which would represent only a small percentage of such a large city’s total inhabitants, and would not, in terms of brutality, be out of line with the realities of siege warfare as conducted by both Christian and Muslim forces at the time.

All of these things, the good and the bad, happened under Saladin’s watch. But only recently had I begun to consider Saladin’s career and rise to power prior to the era of the Third Crusade and in doing so became aware of his controversial involvement in the so-called “Battle of the Blacks.” During a conversation about Saladin with a friend and fellow historian, John D. Hosler, he mentioned the Battle of the Blacks as a potential stain on Saladin’s otherwise popular legacy, so I hit the books on the topic.

Scholar Yaacov Lev has referred to the Battle of the Blacks as the “single most important event in Saladin’s rise to power in Egypt.” The battle took place in 1167, shortly after Saladin had come to power as vizier. Fearing betrayal by an influential black eunuch that was a leader of black forces in Egypt, Saladin had the man executed and replaced him in his position with a white eunuch. An estimated 50,000 black Egyptian troops rose in rebellion, and according to one Arab chronicler they were motivated by “racial solidarity.” Indeed, historian Bernard Lewis has noted that racial elements were emphasized in Arab sources that later celebrated Saladin’s brutal victory over the black forces. One reason given for Saladin’s victory was due to a tactical move in which he sent a detachment to attack the homes and families of the black soldiers, with orders to burn down their homes, with their possessions and children in them. When black forces heard of this they attempted to return to their homes to protect their families, but they were cut off by Saladin’s troops who killed many of them. After the battle, white Fatamid soldiers were incorporated into Saladin’s army, but black units were disbanded, and would not appear as soldiers in Egyptian armies for centuries to follow (although they would be employed in menial non-combatant positions). This victory allowed Saladin to establish himself in Egypt, which would serve as a base for the eventual extension of his power into Syria and the broader Levant.

The enlightened or chivalrous image of Saladin was an appealing one in the medieval west and has grown to even greater heights in both the modern west and the modern Islamic world. Yet as historian Anne-Marie Eddé has noted, the term “myth” would be a better way to frame such modern understandings of Saladin’s legacy. The notion that Saladin was exceptionally honorable, merciful, and generous as he carved out his impressive reign in military conflict after military conflict is an invention of the medieval chanson de geste, which seeks to frame Saladin as a worthy opponent of the crusader king Richard the Lionheart. This romanticized western version of Saladin then begins to emerge in the Muslim world in the late 19th century and has a variety of political uses in an age of western imperialism in the east. Yet the reality is that Saladin was very much a man of his time, a medieval military ruler that could be quite brutal to his enemies, even if he did have, like many other medieval rulers, moments of grace.