The greatest military hero of the Arab world, Saladin was a Kurd, born in Tikrit, Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq). He came from a prominent family; his father and uncle were advisers and soldiers of Nur ad-Din, who led the armies of the Moslem caliphate of Baghdad.
Saladin, whose name in Arabic means “the bounty of religion,” interrupted his theological studies to join his uncle, Shirkuh, on a campaign against Egypt. That country was ruled by the Fatmid caliphate, which orthodox Moslems such as Saladin considered heretical.Saladin led a heroic defense of the city of Alexandria, Egypt, against a joint force of Egyptians and Christian crusaders in 1167.
His uncle died in 1169, and Saladin was immediately named commander of the Syrian troops in Egypt. He finished the work his uncle had begun by ending the Fatmid caliphate and establishing himself as the Moslem leader of Egypt. Grateful for his work in eliminating the Fatmid heresy, the Abbasid caliph in Damascus approved his new posi¬ tion.
Nur ad-Din died in 1174, and Saladin stretched himself and his resources in order to take over Syria. By 1176, he was sultan of both Egypt and Syria and was able to contem¬ plate an attack on the Christian-held land that lay between his two domains: Palestine, which the Christians had conquered during the First Crusade (1095—1099).
Saladin called for a jihad (holy war) against the Christians in 1187. He gathered an army of 12,000 cavalry, attended by as many retain¬ ers and foot soldiers. Maneuvering with skill, Saladin lured his Christian foes out of the safety of the city of Jerusalem and onto an arid stretch of land by the Sea of Galilee.
The Battle of the Horns of Hattin (two large hills by the water) was fought on July 4, 1187. Saladin won a complete victory. He treated King Guy of Jerusalem with dignity but had all the Christian Knights Templar executed. Saladin pressed home his advantage and entered Jerusalem in triumph.
Acting with unusual benevolence, Saladin allowed the Christian population to ransom itself with payments of gold. His triumph was incomplete, however, because three Christian cities on the shore of the Mediterranean — Antioch, Tripoli and Tyre — held out against him. Christian Europe rallied to oppose the new Arab takeover of the Holy Land, and in 1191, King Richard of England (see no. 29) and King Philip Augustus of France arrived at Acre to fight Saladin.
Saladin could not overcome the battle skills of “Richard the Lion-Hearted.” The English king was unable to capture Jerusalem, though. Therefore, the two kings agreed to a three- year truce (signed September 2, 1192) that left Jerusalem in Arab hands but guaranteed Christian pilgrims the right to visit the city.
Worn out from his battles and campaigns, Saladin went to Damascus for a rest. He died there of a fever. His greatest accomplishment was his unification of the Arab world in the face of the Crusader threat.