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The Life and Legend of the Sultan Saladin
by jonathan phillips
yale, 520 pages, $32.50

In 1187, Pope Urban III received news so startling that he died from hearing it. Across the Mediterranean, in the Crusader-­controlled Kingdom of Jerusalem, a great battle had been fought between Christian knights and the forces of the Muslim leader, Saladin. On a rocky plain formed by an extinct volcano known as the Horns of Hattin, the Muslim armies had won a resounding victory, capturing or killing almost all the Christian forces. The Crusader kingdom, which had endured for eighty-eight years, was virtually defenseless. One by one, the Christian cities surrendered to Saladin, culminating in the surrender of Jerusalem on October 2.

Saladin’s victory shook the Catholic world and ushered in a new age of religious anxiety. Crusade after Crusade would be launched to restore Jerusalem over the ensuing century, and none would succeed in a meaningful way. Remarkably, though, the man responsible for this thunderous blow against Christendom was not vilified in the West. Quite the opposite. Almost immediately, Saladin was lauded in Europe for his generosity, piety, and wisdom—something ­unheard of for any Muslim, let alone the one who had deprived Christians of the Holy City.

The career and shifting reputation of this remarkable man are the subject of a new book by Jonathan Phillips, a distinguished historian of the Crusades. Phillips deserves admiration for plunging into a subject as broad, deep, and turbulent as Saladin. Professional medieval historians such as Phillips (and I) are trained in the culture, history, and languages of Western Europe. Venturing deeply into the medieval Islamic past forces us to rely on the guidance of other scholars who specialize in Middle Eastern culture, history, and languages. The problem is compounded when the time frame for the study spans nearly a thousand years. But Phillips approaches his subject with extraordinary care, deploying his own skills while gathering up the fruits of recent research in the history of the Muslim world. The result is a work greater than the sum of its parts, a detailed analysis of the life and legend of Saladin that also manages to be a page-turner.

There was nothing in Saladin’s background to suggest that he would profoundly change the medieval Middle East—or become a rallying cry for modern agendas. A Kurd born in the city of Tikrit, Al-Nasir Salah al-Din Yusuf spent his younger years on campaigns with his father, Ayyub, and his uncle, Shirkuh. The latter became one of the most important generals for Nur al-Din, the Muslim ruler of Syria. Nur al-Din rose to power by championing jihad against the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem. When the Christians moved against Egypt in 1168, Nur al-Din sent Shirkuh and Saladin to defend it, despite that fact that it was nominally ruled by a Shi’ite caliph in opposition to the Sunni one in Baghdad. Shirkuh not only turned aside the Christians but followed up by murdering the Egyptian vizier and taking the position himself. When Shirkuh died two months later, the position fell unexpectedly to Saladin.

Although Saladin ruled Egypt as the vizier of the Shi’ite caliph in Cairo, like many Egyptians he was Sunni. Once Saladin consolidated his power, he ended the confusion by deposing the Egyptian caliph. Henceforth, Saladin was the sultan of Egypt, nominally under the command of Nur al-Din, though tensions between the two men increased in the following years. In May 1174, Nur al-Din died, leaving behind one young son and a gaggle of family members who vied for control of his kingdom. Saladin joined the fray, claiming to be the true heir of Nur al-Din’s position. He swiftly marched his forces into Damascus to make the case. Two years and many battles later, the matter was finally settled. The caliph in Baghdad named Saladin overlord of Syria and Egypt. For the first time since the Crusaders had come to the region, the Muslims there were unified under one ruler. And that ruler was committed to jihad.

Before the Crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099, it had been regarded by Muslims as a holy city, yet a distant third to Mecca and Medina. It was believed to be the site of Muhammad’s Night Journey into the heavens. But the Christians’ fierce devotion to Jerusalem elevated it in the Muslim consciousness, making it a natural focus for a jihad to remove the Crusaders. Saladin, a deeply religious man, devoted himself completely to the conquest of Jerusalem. Like the Christians, Saladin believed that God showed favor by granting possession of the Holy City. To win that favor, Saladin abolished in his realm all taxes and laws not strictly in accord with Islamic law. He spent freely on religious institutions and built numerous new mosques, libraries, and schools. His generosity toward friends and enemies was so lavish that the sultan seemed often to be on the verge of bankruptcy.

With each victory, Saladin tightened the noose further around the Crusader states. In 1180 he made an alliance with the Seljuk Turks in Asia Minor. Three years later, he captured Aleppo, and in 1186 he made an alliance with Mosul. In 1186 the Christian king of Jerusalem died without an obvious heir, plunging the kingdom into chaos. Though Saladin had made a four-year truce with the Christians, it did not take long for a renegade, Reynald of Châtillon, to attack a Muslim caravan, thus giving the sultan the excuse he needed to declare war.

Both sides knew the stakes, and each called up all the forces that it could command. The Christian army was the largest the kingdom had ever assembled, totaling some twenty thousand men, including twelve hundred heavily armored knights. Saladin had about thirty thousand soldiers, almost half of whom were light cavalry. The two armies finally met on the waterless plateau near Hattin on July 3, 1187. The Christians were parched, exhausted, and quickly surrounded. Their defeat was total. Only a handful of knights escaped; the rest were captured or killed. Among the captured were Guy, the new king of Jerusalem, and Gerard of Ridfort, the Master of the Knights Templar. Saladin provided comfortable confinement for most of the Christian nobility, though he beheaded Reynald personally. Hundreds of brothers in the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller were also captured. Realizing that these men were bound by their vows to defend the Holy Land, Saladin ordered all of them executed. Saladin’s secretary, Imad al-Din, recorded:

With him [Saladin] 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 showed black despair.

Thousands of common foot soldiers, who could not be ransomed, were sent to the slave markets. From the Christian perspective, though, Saladin’s greatest item of booty was the large fragment of the True Cross that the kings of Jerusalem carried into battle. Saladin sent it back to Damascus, where it was paraded through the streets upside down.

The loss of the kingdom’s army and Saladin’s reputation for mercy and honor prompted the Christian cities to seek terms almost immediately. Saladin was happy to make deals with most of them. But Jerusalem was another matter. Though today the sultan is commonly depicted as mercifully allowing the inhabitants of the Holy City to depart freely, that is not at all what happened. Phillips provides a sensitive portrayal of Saladin the man, but he does not shy away from his brutality. The conquest of Jerusalem was the centerpiece of Saladin’s career. He wanted it to be a religious moment, as well as high-profile revenge for the Christians’ capture of the city in 1099. According to Imad al-Din, Saladin proclaimed:

I wish to deal with Jerusalem in the same way that the Christians treated it when they took it from the Muslims . . . they inundated it with blood and did not permit a moment’s peace. I will cut the throats of their men and enslave their women.

But when Saladin laid siege to Jerusalem, its garrison commander, Balian of Ibelin, dissuaded him from this plan. Though in the movie Kingdom of Heaven (2005) Ridley Scott portrayed Balian (played by ­Orlando Bloom) as a young man from Europe disenchanted with religion and warfare, Balian was ­actually an older man born in the Holy Land and renowned for his devotion to the Blessed Virgin. Balian knew that Saladin had staked much on his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the restoration of the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount. Balian vowed to destroy these holy sites unless Saladin agreed to a peaceful surrender. Faced with that credible threat, the sultan agreed to terms of surrender. He then rode triumphantly into Jerusalem on October 2, 1187—the anniversary of Muhammad’s Night Journey.

The Muslim capture of the Temple Mount was an especially bitter defeat for the Christians. The Dome of the Rock was surmounted by a cross, and the building had been used as a church. The al-Aqsa Mosque had been turned into the headquarters of the Knights Templar. Saladin’s men seized both buildings and began ritually cleansing them. Some soldiers scrambled to the top of the Dome, broke off the cross, and threw it down, where it clattered on the pavement. It was then dragged through the streets to David’s Gate and smashed to pieces. All other crosses and crucifixes from the city were gathered up, tied into bundles, and hurled from the city walls.

Phillips evocatively describes the situation in Jerusalem in the days after its conquest. According to the surrender agreement, the conquered could ransom themselves at the cost of ten dinars per man, five per woman, and one per child. After payment, one received a receipt allowing departure from the city with whatever goods one could carry. There were approximately sixty thousand Christian men in the city and an unknown number of women and children. Since the ransoms were costly, people were forced to sell their goods to redeem themselves and their families. Merchants from neighboring territories swept into the area to take advantage of the bargains. Balian of Ibelin organized an effort to collect funds from wealthy Christians, the patriarch of Jerusalem, and the military orders that paid out thirty thousand dinars to redeem eighteen thousand poor. Others were allowed to leave without ransom as an act of charity on the part of Saladin or his supporters. Though most of Jerusalem’s Christian inhabitants managed to depart and make their way to Tyre, when all was said and done about sixteen thousand poor had been led to the slave markets of Egypt and Syria.

The loss of Jerusalem prompted the Third Crusade—the largest mobilization in Europe since the days of the Roman Empire. Phillips provides an excellent description of the grueling two-year-long siege of Acre, which ultimately was recaptured by the Christians in 1191. Although the Third Crusade, led by King ­Richard the ­Lionheart of England, is one of the most famous episodes of the Middle Ages, there is no scholarly book on the subject. Until one is written, ­Phillips’s portrayal of Richard’s campaigns against Saladin helps fill the void. ­Saladin was a gifted general, but he was not in the same league as Richard. After a crushing defeat near Arsuf, Saladin concluded that it was unwise to meet the king of England in pitched battles. Throughout the Crusade, the two sides pursued serious negotiations. Indeed, though Richard and Saladin never met, they acquired a healthy respect for each other. After nearly two years of campaigning, Richard managed to recapture all the Christian territories along the Mediterranean coast—roughly corresponding to modern Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. But he was unable to take Jerusalem. After concluding a truce that allowed Christian pilgrims to visit the Holy City, in October 1192 Richard at last left for home. Saladin died the ­following year.

In the second part of the book, ­Phillips chronicles how Saladin’s posthumous fame grew in the West. In large part, it was the effect of a booming market in chivalric romances. After King Richard’s death in 1199, he became a popular figure in this genre of literature, so it was natural that his worthy foe should appear as well. Saladin’s mercy toward the conquered Christians at Hattin and Jerusalem echoed Western concepts of chivalry. Of course, Saladin was a Muslim, but under the quill of writers like the Minstrel of Rheims, that could be finessed. Many stories told of Saladin journeying to Europe in disguise and learning of Christianity. On his deathbed, finally convinced of the truth, it was said that he had baptized himself.

By the fourteenth century, ­Saladin’s image in Europe was so positive that Christian boys were named after him. In the Inferno, Dante placed Saladin in the first circle of hell, a comfortable castle for good pagans unable to enter heaven. Giovanni Boccaccio likewise invoked Saladin approvingly in the Decameron.

The Crusades did not fare well during the Enlightenment, when authors like Voltaire and Edward Gibbon condemned them as blood-soaked campaigns led by power-mad popes and fought by the wicked and the deceived. Yet Saladin’s reputation acquired none of that tarnish. ­Voltaire wrote admiringly of him and even recounted folklore, such as a single combat with Richard and the sultan’s auto-baptism, as historical fact. But the most important writer for defining the modern image of Saladin was Sir Walter Scott. In his massively popular novel The Talisman (1825) he portrayed Saladin as generous, merciful, and extraordinarily wise. King Richard, Scott wrote, “showed all the cruelty and violence of an Eastern sultan. Saladin, on the other hand, displayed the deep policy and prudence of a European sovereign.” This judgment was further illustrated in his novel, Ivanhoe, which enjoyed an even wider readership.

Surprisingly, Saladin’s popularity in nineteenth-century Europe far exceeded his reputation in the Middle East. Thanks to the work of ­historians such as Emmanuel Sivan, Bernard Lewis, and Carole Hillenbrand, it has been known for several decades that ­Saladin and the Crusades were not widely remembered in the pre-modern Muslim world. The rise of the Mamluks in Egypt and the Ottoman Empire in Asia Minor had eclipsed Saladin’s short-lived dynasty in Muslim memory. The medieval sultan was dramatically restored to prominence in 1898 when Kaiser Wilhelm II—a Walter Scott fan—journeyed to Damascus, visited the tomb of Saladin, and placed upon it a giant bronze wreath.

Drawing on the work of scholars such as Diana Abouali, Phillips contends that Saladin was not as thoroughly forgotten in the Middle East as historians commonly believe. He cites several Muslim authors who refer to Saladin in their histories, including Ibn Khaldun, Al-Suyuti, Mujir al-Din, Al-Maqrizi, and Ibn Kathir. Muslim pilgrimage guides also referred to Saladin when describing various monuments or buildings he had produced. Phillips, however, is careful not to overstate his case: “­Saladin’s ongoing presence in the historical record of the Levant is not some huge metaphorical mountain range that historians have missed, but it is, I would contend, a small, but important hill.” It is a fair point, though it is also worth remembering that no one claimed that Saladin was completely forgotten in the Middle East before Wilhelm’s visit. He was by no means the romantic hero he had become in the West, but histories of Egypt or Syria could hardly fail to mention him.

By the turn of the twentieth century, European colonial powers had brought their idealized versions of the sultan and the Crusades to the Middle East just as forcefully as had the Kaiser. But the stories they told of the valiant warrior and his victories over the Europeans fed nascent Arab nationalist movements that would seek to eject the Westerners. In the wake of World War I, the victorious powers dismembered the old Ottoman Empire, setting up colonial governments to oversee the new states they had created. In August 1920, General Henri Gouraud of France entered Damascus. Like all Europeans in that age, he was steeped in the colonial images of the Crusades. According to some (perhaps inaccurate) reports, he kicked Saladin’s tomb, proclaiming, “Saladin, we have returned.” These words, which so closely associated the colonial powers with their Crusader ancestors, have been favorites of Arab nationalists, Turkish nationalists, and Islamists ever since. Indeed, they appear in the charter of Hamas (1984).

Gamal Abdel Nasser, the president of Egypt from 1954 to 1970, frequently cast himself as a new Saladin who would unite the Arabs. In 1958, Egypt and Syria formed the short-lived United Arab Republic. To celebrate, Nasser traveled to Damascus to visit Saladin’s tomb. There, he made much of Gouraud’s famous phrase, proclaiming that in the Middle Ages two centuries of Crusader occupation had failed to destroy Arab unity, as it would fail today. He used the Crusades as a template for modern Middle Eastern history, noting how the rulers of Egypt and Syria, Saladin and Nur al-Din, had worked together against the Crusader kingdom just as the two modern states would oppose Israel, a new Crusader kingdom. During the Middle Ages, Egypt had been the bulwark against the Crusaders, foiling the plans of the Fifth Crusade and the Crusade of St. Louis—just as Nasser had succeeded in wresting control of the Suez Canal from their modern descendants. Egyptian movies, books, and even postage stamps celebrated the victories of Saladin nearly eight centuries earlier.

In the aftermath of the Six Day War in 1967, this rhetoric ran aground. The loss of Gaza, Sinai, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, and the old city of Jerusalem led Nasser to drop the Saladin talk. Nevertheless, the Arab convention of referring to Westerners as “Crusaders” continues to this day.

Since then, Saladin’s image—an image largely manufactured in Europe—has remained a touchstone for various Muslim leaders. Hafiz al-Asad of Syria, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, and Yasser ­Arafat of the PLO all regularly invoked the medieval sultan. Iraqi President ­Saddam ­Hussein claimed, like Nasser, to be a new Saladin. On television, on billboards, and in public art Saddam equated his presidency with the illustrious career of the medieval sultan. He made much of the fact that he, like Saladin, had been born in Tikrit. Inconveniently, Saladin had been a Kurd—a member of a people ­Saddam sought to eradicate. No matter. ­Saddam simply insisted that ­Saladin was an Arab and went about his business.

In one of the most fascinating portions of this book, Phillips cites an interview with John Nixon, the senior CIA analyst who debriefed Saddam after his capture. Nixon confirmed for Phillips that the Iraqi president “felt a strong kinship” with Saladin. Nevertheless, when Saddam was asked to describe Saladin’s life, he included ahistorical episodes that could not have come from any modern history. Phillips ingeniously shows that Saddam’s understanding of the sultan was drawn almost completely from a 1963 Arab movie, Saladin the Victorious, which was itself based on Walter Scott’s novels. “The situation whereby an imprisoned ex-president of Iraq faithfully relays a scene that emanated from the mind of a Scottish Anglican nobleman almost 200 years previously is quite surreal.” It is also further evidence that the fictitious Saladin, crafted across centuries of the European imagination, has taken on a life of its own in the culture and mythology of the modern Middle East.

Phillips’s study of Saladin is a real achievement—an entertaining and thought-provoking study that explores not only the life of the medieval sultan, but his afterlife in ­modern myth and propaganda. Like the ­Crusaders that he fought, ­Saladin’s memory has been refashioned to serve modern agendas he could never have recognized. Medieval men fought for their own desires and principles, not ours.

Thomas F. Madden is professor of history and director of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Saint Louis University.