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The Sultan Who Vanquished the Crusaders and Built an Islamic Empire
By John Man
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Saladin remains one of the most iconic figures of his age. As the man who united the Arabs and saved Islam from Christian crusaders in the twelfth century, he is the Islamic world’s preeminent hero. A ruthless defender of his faith and brilliant leader, he also possessed qualities that won admiration from his Christian foes.
But Saladin is far more than a historical hero. Builder, literary patron, and theologian, he is a man for all times, and a symbol of hope for an Arab world once again divided. Centuries after his death, in cities from Damascus to Cairo and beyond, to the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf, Saladin continues to be an immensely potent symbol of religious and military resistance to the West. He is central to Arab memories, sensibilities, and the ideal of a unified Islamic state.
John Man charts Saladin’s rise to power, his struggle to unify the warring factions of his faith, and his battles to retake Jerusalem and expel Christian influence from Arab lands. Saladin explores the life and enduring legacy of this champion of Islam while examining his significance for the world today.
A World in Conflict
BAALBEK, LEBANON, 900 YEARS AGO WAS A WONDERFUL PLACE and a wonderful time for a curious boy. So much life. Such mysteries.
The Temple of Jupiter, with fifty-four columns, each of them 63 feet high, looked like the work of titans, but this Roman glory stood on massive monoliths which are today, as they were then, the world’s greatest hewn stones. Weighing up to 1,000 tonnes each – twenty times the weight of the megaliths of Stonehenge – they hark back to some ancient culture whose people had somehow managed to cut and shift them. Who made them? How did they move them? No one knew then, no one knows now.
Other ruins recalled construction and destruction by Macedonians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs and the earth itself. This is a region of earthquakes, which ruined buildings and buried ruins. But Baalbek was a phoenix, endlessly renewed by its people and by nature. Standing half a mile high, its crisp, clean air smelled of orchards and gardens. It was at the centre of the Islamic world, almost on the frontier between Islam’s two rival Arabic empires, Abbasid and Fatimid, almost equidistant from their two ancient capitals, Baghdad and Cairo. What a mixture of security and apprehension the young Saladin would have breathed – the security of his religion set against the region’s unending wars, power struggles, rebellions and assassinations, all this mayhem made worse in living memory by a new set of invaders, alien in creed and culture.
Saladin – little Yusuf (Joseph) as he was then – was not born in Baalbek. He was brought there by his father, Ayyub (Job) al-Din,11 for reasons we will get to in due course. So it was in Baalbek, during his unrecorded childhood, that Saladin began to learn something of the world into which he had been born.
Islam, despite all its diversity and violence, was united by religion and culture. At its heart was the Quran, which distilled and stimulated a language at a crucial moment in its evolution. Muslim scholars from the Hindu Kush to southern Spain all worshipped the same god, honoured the same prophet, shared Arabic as a lingua franca, and inherited the same astonishingly rich intellectual mantle. All Islam shared the same economic strength, with trade linking north Africa, Europe, Russia, the Middle East, India and China. Since Islam accepted the enslavement of non-Muslims, all benefited from a lucrative trade in slaves, whether African, Turkish, Indian or Slav. Arab coins found their way north as far as Finland, and Muslim merchants wrote cheques honoured by banks in major cities. One trader had a warehouse on the Volga, another near Bukhara in present-day Uzbekistan and a third in Gujarat, India.
Fuelled by staggering wealth, medieval Islam hungered for learning and inspired brilliant scholarship. Paper displaced papyrus, bookshops thrived, libraries graced the homes of the rich. At the end of the ninth century, according to the geographer al-Ya’qubi, one street in Damascus had a hundred bookshops. Since Arabic was the language of divine revelation, the written word was venerated and calligraphy became an art form valued above painting. Medieval Islam, assured of its superiority, was innovative and curious. The Arabs, looking back to the Greeks for the foundations of science and philosophy, translated Greek classics en masse (a strand of scholarship that would eventually feed into Europe’s Renaissance in the fifteenth century). Many other languages and creeds – Persian, Sanskrit and Syriac, Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism – also formed part of this rich amalgam.
One consequence of Islamic scholarship and self-assurance was its tolerance. This was not a world of inward-looking fundamentalism. True, Jews and Christians were seen as benighted, the Jews for believing that divine revelation had stopped with the Hebrew prophets, the Christians for abandoning monotheism, believing that God was not one but a Trinity. Yet Judaism and Christianity were seen as stepping-stones from barbarism to revelation and Islam. All three were ‘Peoples of the Book’, namely what Christians know as the Old Testament.
The arts flourished. Urbanized literati patronized the ornate and elegant creations of poets. Historians recorded and honoured Islamic achievements. Though Islam discouraged (and later banned) human likenesses in art, there was nothing to inhibit design and architecture. Wonderful domed mosques arose, pre-dating Italian Renaissance domes by centuries. Potters tried to match Chinese porcelain (they failed, but they created lustrous, wonderfully decorated glazes). Stuccoed and frescoed palaces set an ornate style emulated throughout Islam.
Science also blossomed. It was not seen as a threat to Islam. How could it be, seeing as all Creation reflected the glory of Allah? Indeed, the late-tenth-century bibliographer ibn al-Nadim said that Aristotle had appeared to him in a dream and assured him there was no conflict between reason and religion. Thousands of scientific works were translated from Persian, Sanskrit and – most notably – Greek. ‘Arabic’ numerals, derived from Indian ones, provided a far more powerful mathematical tool than any previous system, as Europe later discovered. Though Arab scientists remained convinced that gold could be produced by the transformation of metals, their rigorous search for the ‘philosopher’s stone’ that would cause this to happen created the bridge between alchemy (al-kimiya, ‘transmutation’) and modern chemistry. Muslim travellers wrote reports of China, Europe and much of Africa. European languages, enriched by translations from Arabic into Latin, still contain many other tributes to Arab scientific predominance: zero (from sifr, ‘empty’), algebra (al-jebr, ‘integration’), star-names such as Betelgeuse (from bayt al-jawza, ‘the house of the twins’) and Altair (‘the flyer’), zenith, nadir, azimuth.
Among the great centres, Baghdad was the greatest. With its roots in the wealth of ancient Persia, the city was a magnet for traders, scholars and artists from as far afield as Spain and northern India. By 1000, it had become one of the largest cities in the world, equalling Constantinople – 1,200,000, about the same size as London in 1800 – with wealth to match. One caliph greeted a Byzantine ruler with a pageant of 160,000 cavalrymen and 100 lions. The city’s wharves harboured vessels bringing porcelain from China, silk, musk and ivory from east Africa, spices and pearls from Malaya, Russian slaves, wax and furs.
To the east lay a subdivision of Islam that was not Arabic, but Persian and Turkish. Its centres were the ancient oasis cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, Merv and Gurganj (later Urgench), all worthy if lesser counterparts to Baghdad. Once, for a long century (874–999), this region had been independent. Looking back to their eighth-century Persian ancestor Saman Khudat, the Samanids had thrown out their Arab overlords and built their own brand of Islam, spreading east into Afghanistan, holding off the Arabs to the west and, for a while, the Turks, who ended Samanid rule in 999. All four cities were trade emporia linking east and west, China and Islam, their exports including soap, sulphur, silks, sable, leather ware and ornamental arms. Watermelons packed in snow were couriered westwards from the foothills of the Tien Shan to Baghdad. Paper from Samarkand was in demand all over the Muslim world. Caravans the size of small armies – one numbered 5,000 men and 3,000 horses and camels – ranged back and forth to eastern Europe, trading silks, copper bowls and jewellery for furs, amber and sheep skins. From China came pottery and spices, in exchange for glass and horses, of which China could never get enough.
Bukhara, the old Samanid capital, with a population of 300,000, almost rivalled Baghdad itself. Its scholars and poets, writing in both Arabic and Persian, made it the ‘dome of Islam in the east’, in a common epithet. Its royal library, with 45,000 volumes, had a suite of rooms, each devoted to a different discipline. In the words of an eleventh-century anthologist, al-Tha’alabi, it was the ‘focus of splendour, the shrine of empire, the meeting-place of the most unique intellects of the age’. Perhaps the greatest of the greats was the philosopher-physician ibn Sina, known in Europe by the Spanish version of his name, Avicenna (980–1037), who poured out over 200 books, most famously his medical encyclopedia, Canons of Medicine, which when translated into Latin became Europe’s pre-eminent medical textbook for five centuries.
So, in theory, all were united under Allah, the Prophet, and his divinely inspired words, the Quran. All owed allegiance to God’s earthly representative, the caliph, a sort of Muslim equivalent of the Pope.
In practice, Islam had been divided against itself almost from the start. The main division was the split between Sunni and Shi’ite. One doctrinal source was the sunnah, the deeds and sayings of both the Prophet and his successors, whereas those who belonged to the Shi’a (party) of Ali, claimed that authority derived from Muhammad’s descendants through his son-in-law Ali. Sunnis, for whom the Quran is the intermediary between God and mankind, established their caliphate first in Damascus then in Baghdad. Shi’ites proclaimed their ‘leader in prayer’, the imam, as their intermediary with God (though one Shia branch also set up its own rival caliph in Cairo, a development which demands a more detailed look a few paragraphs further on). Shi’ites claimed that from Ali’s descendants a divinely appointed imam would emerge as Mahdi, ‘the guided one’. Since there was no obvious Mahdi, Shi’ites came to believe that he was being hidden by God. The notion of the ‘hidden imam’ became a central tenet of Shi’ism, one that inspired numerous pretenders and a very strange sub-sect, as we shall see shortly.
By 1000, the Islamic world, created as one imperial river by the Arabs, had divided into a delta of five major streams and an uncounted number of minor ones. The Sunni–Shia split remained as the prime division, ever more confused by dynasties and sects and sub-sects and rebellions and tribal feuds and family squabbles that formed and re-formed frontiers from India to the Pyrenees. A time-lapse map of the region would seethe like colonies of cells under a microscope, breeding, growing, absorbing, vanishing. Unnumbered thousands died fighting for some orthodoxy or heresy, for this or that dynasty, for their own beloved and soon-to-be forgotten caliph or sultan or emir.
When Saladin was young, the Shia–Sunni split had a political dimension, focused on Cairo and Baghdad, each with its own caliph, each certain of its own rectitude, each determined to destroy the other. Egypt was ruled by Shi’ites claiming descent from the Prophet’s daughter Fatima and her husband, Ali; Baghdad by Sunnis who looked back to the Prophet’s uncle, Abbas. Fatimid and Abbasid: the two empires met in what is today northern Lebanon, with both running up against the southern borders of Christendom’s eastern section, Byzantium. The cities where Saladin grew up under Abbasid rule were near the point where the three rival Muslim empires had once converged.
By the time of Saladin’s birth in around 1137–8 (uncertain because of the inexact relationship between the western and Muslim calendars; see note on p.xiii) the days of Abbasid glory were over, undermined by luxury, broken up by petty chiefdoms, torn apart by Crusaders (on which more later), shattered by the Turks drifting slowly westwards towards the land now named after them. As they migrated, the Seljuk Turks, named after their tenth-century sultan, converted to Sunni Islam and paid lip-service to the impotent caliph in Baghdad. But they followed their own agenda and were unreliable allies.
So all Arabs, Shi’ite and Sunni alike, recalled a golden age, singing of what was once achieved in the name of Islam, dreaming of a future when unity and prosperity would return.
One element in this unstable mixture is worth explaining at length because of the subject’s fame, sheer oddity and malign influence, especially on Saladin himself, who was almost murdered twice by them.
This was the group known as the Assassins, whose story is rooted deep in Shi’ite Islam. They claimed that Ismail, the disinherited son of the Sixth Imam, represented the true line of authority from Muhammad. Ismail’s followers claimed that he had been succeeded by ‘hidden imams’. When the Turks swept into the Islamic world from the Asian heartland around the year 1000, they turned on Shi’ites, including the Ismailis, who responded by forming a network of underground cells, with extraordinary consequences. In the second half of the eleventh century, a man named Hassan i-Sabbah, newly converted to Ismailism, decided to wage his own war for Ismailism and its ‘hidden imam’ in the heart of Turkish territory. He spotted the perfect base: a formidable castle, Alamut, 6,000 feet up in the Elburz mountains south of the Caspian. Here he set about asserting his own peculiar version of Ismailism, based on the premise that Nizar, the heir to the Fatimid state murdered in 1097, would produce the Mahdi who would magically reappear to save Islam from impurity and its Turkish invaders. The fact that Nizar had no designated heir was a problem quickly solved. The line was merely declared ‘hidden’ and one of them would reappear in due course. Meanwhile, Hassan named himself Nizar’s deputy and champion. Technically, his followers were Nizaris, an offshoot of the Ismailis, an offshoot of the Shi’ites – a sect of a sect of a sect. This ‘New Preaching’ (as Hassan called it) appealed strongly to the poor and dispossessed, who were happy to devote themselves to a cause in absolute and unthinking obedience. Hassan sent them out in ones and twos and threes to kill with knife or sword whatever Arab, Turk, sultan, emir, priest, vizier or general seemed to him to deserve death, whether Sunni or Shia. These were, of course, the original Assassins.
It is a puzzling term. The European word in various spellings derives from the Arabic hashish, Indian hemp, Cannabis sativa. Some people referred to the Nizaris as hashishiyya (or a Persian equivalent) – hashish-users – and that was the term picked up by the Crusaders in the twelfth century when they heard of them in Syria. So everyone assumed that’s what they were, hashish being their secret drug of choice to relax them before going off to stab some high official and perhaps meet their own death. By the early nineteenth century, it was a conventional wisdom and is still widely believed today. But it was not so. Hashish was well known, not a Nizari secret; and no Nizari source mentions it. More likely, the term was an insult applied to this despised and feared group.
Other hilltop castles fell to Hassan, giving him an impregnable power-base from which to launch his malign campaign against anyone whom he judged to stand in his way. He never again left Alamut, where for thirty-five years he instructed, inspired and organized his followers, who, like today’s suicide bombers, embraced death as martyrdom, knowing they would be rewarded by an after-life in Paradise. Rulers everywhere lived in fear. They wore armour under their robes, remained locked indoors, ordered special protection, dared not condemn, but kept a panic-stricken silence. Terror spawned counter-terror, with other echoes of modernity – random accusations, round-ups, imprisonments and deaths in custody. Nothing worked. Alamut remained impregnable, while the Assassins’ ideology became ever more eccentric, eventually proclaiming them free of all laws but their own. Naturally, mainstream Muslims looked on all this with horror, and condemned the Assassins as heretics.
There was more, however, to the Assassins than duplicity, violence and heresy. They were, after all, asserting what they believed was a truth about God’s will. Truth can always do with extra help, in the form of reason and science. Surprisingly, Ismaili imams were lovers of objective as well as esoteric knowledge. They built a famous library. Scholars were welcomed, one being the famous astronomer and theologian Nasir al-Din Tusi, who lived in Alamut for many years.
Alamut was not their only base. They had metastasized, like some sort of cancer. Soon after Hassan captured Alamut, his agents began to spread the word in Syria. From 1103, the Persian-based Assassins had an Arabic branch, an enclave centred on a castle almost as formidable as Alamut – Masyaf, in Syria, 45 kilometres from the Mediterranean. From here, they sent agents to kill Turks, Crusaders (with whom on occasion they also collaborated) and any Muslim leader, Sunni or Shia, who offended them. Their most redoubtable leader, Rashid al-Din Sinan, became known to Crusaders as ‘the Old Man of the Mountain’, after the massif in which he was based. To Sunni and Shia alike, Sinan was as vile as Hassan. In the words of the Spanish traveller and poet ibn Jubayr, he led ‘a sect which swerved from Islam and vested divinity in a man. The prophet was a devil in disguise named Sinan, who deceived them with falsehoods and chimeras embellished for them to act upon. He bewitched them with these black arts, so that they took him as a god and worshipped him.’ Later, the term was applied vaguely to any Assassin leader.
In 1256, a century after Saladin’s death, the Assassins were destroyed by Islam’s next and greatest scourge, the Mongols. In 1273 the Syrian Assassins were cowed by the sultan of Egypt, Baybars, and that was the end of the real Assassins (though the Nizaris endured, flourishing today under their imam, the Aga Khan).
In 1096, just forty years before Saladin’s birth, there had come into this united, disunited world a new, alien element: the Crusaders.
Saladin would not have known, for no Muslim could have known, of the original seed or why it had fallen on such rich soil. It had been tossed by the Pope in 1095. Urban II was supposedly head of a super-state, Christendom, which in theory included most of Europe and also Rome’s so-called eastern empire in Constantinople, made into Rome’s successor by its founder Constantine. But Urban had severe problems. Firstly, he had just received a plea for help from Constantinople: the Seljuk Turks were advancing into the world of Islam and had, seventeen years before, taken the revered city of Nicaea, in Anatolia, present-day eastern Turkey, famous as a Christian centre for almost 800 years, since the great council of 325 that formalized what Christians were supposed to believe by stating the tenets in the Nicene Creed. Nicaea, the one-time symbol of Christian unity, was a mere 70 kilometres from Constantinople, so the barbarians who had swarmed through the city’s sturdy Roman walls were already inside the outer bulwarks of Christendom. Secondly, Christendom was not united at all, but divided between Rome and Constantinople, who were at loggerheads over a point of doctrine that sounds bizarre to non-Christians: since God was a Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – did the Spirit proceed ‘from the Father’ (as the Orthodox east said) or ‘from the Father and the Son’ (as Rome claimed)? The so-called Filioque (‘and the Son’) Clause had been part of the western Creed since 1020. Bizarre perhaps, but so fundamental that Pope and Patriarch could never make up (and never have). Thirdly, the Pope’s own backyard, western Europe, was in disarray, France in particular. Pope rivalled emperor, baron fought baron, ordinary people suffered. Urban’s solution was that of many leaders seeking to unite unruly subjects: a foreign war and a cause that sounded noble.
His chance came at a gathering of French leaders in Clermont, south-west France, in November 1095. ‘Let those who have been accustomed unjustly to wage private warfare against the faithful now go against the infidels,’ he told a crowd of 300 bishops, knights and assorted lay people;22 ‘let those who have been fighting against their brothers and relatives now fight in a proper way against the barbarians.’
His words fell on fertile soil. The once-backward region of Europe, which had fallen into barbarism after the end of the Roman Empire 700 years before, was beginning a slow revival. Charlemagne had kick-started the political process in 800 by making himself ruler of an incipient European state, the Holy Roman Empire. But there was also a revolution of another sort brewing. With metal-bladed ox-ploughs and crop rotation, farmers produced better harvests. With more food, couples had more and healthier children. Mercifully, there were no major plagues. The population grew, and spread into the badlands of eastern Europe. The Vikings, who had once nibbled at Europe’s flanks, had settled. So had the Hungarians, the last of the barbarian invaders. In the south-west, the tide of Islam that had flowed over Spain and into France had been dammed and turned back. By the time of Urban’s appeal, the people of Europe faced a future that was rosier, or at least less dismal, than their past. They could afford foreign adventure.
They loved the idea. Urban’s speech was, in the words of one historian, ‘probably the most effective speech in all history’.33 The crowd roared its approval and scattered to spread the message, summarized in a catchphrase, ‘Deus vult!’ (‘God wills it!’). Their focus was Jerusalem, where Christ had preached and (they believed) worked miracles and been crucified and risen from the dead. Somewhere in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre lay a piece of the True Cross, which would surely have miraculous powers. The city had been in Turkish hands for 450 years. The time had come to take it back.
And they did, with extreme violence, because, in the words of the historian John Roberts, there would be opportunities for looting unavailable in Europe; ‘they could spoil the pagans with clear consciences’. By the spring of 1097, hundreds of knights leading a rabble of some 30,000 met in Constantinople. They were mainly French, or Franks as they were known – Franj as the Muslims called them – though there was little sense of nationhood to unite Normans, Provençals, Angevins and Flemings. Despite a scattering of Italians and Hungarians, ‘Franks’ became a catch-all term for the Crusaders. The only war aims were vague: take the Holy Land, convert the heathen, seize Jerusalem. And then? No one said. A few leaders were high-minded, some saw a chance to grab territory, many were romantics and adventurers, and most no more than rough peasants happy to escape a harsh life or ruffians eager for loot. All, though, could claim to be high-minded, displaying the Cross as the symbol of Christianity. This was what came to be called the First Crusade, the first of eight campaigns to the Holy Land over the next two centuries. Most failed, some were disastrous, but this first one did indeed achieve its aims, so is sometimes called a success, if extreme and unprovoked aggression can ever be classified as such.
There followed the recapture of the new Turkish capital, Nicaea, today the little town of Iznik. The siege involved an aspect of warfare that would soon have significance for Saladin. The Crusader army was simply not strong enough to overwhelm Nicaea’s immense walls or batter down its gates. The Byzantine emperor, Alexios Komnenos, knew this, because he had seen the army and knew the walls: 5 kilometres around, 10 metres high, 100 towers. It would of course be wonderful if the town could be retaken for Christianity, pushing back the Turkish and Islamic frontier. But how to do this, without throwing soldiers uselessly against the city’s walls? What the Crusaders needed was heavy artillery. The emperor happened to be a great military leader, aged forty-three, at the height of his powers, eager to recapture borderlands in present-day Turkey lost to the Seljuk Turks. War is often the necessity that mothers invention, and in this case Alexios was the father. He knew as much as anyone about heavy artillery in the form of trebuchets, the machines that could sling rocks astonishing distances. He had commissioned several of these devices for his army. They were of various types, all referred to as ‘city-takers’, and they will take centre stage in due course. Alexios was a designer as well as a commander. He created machines that broke new ground, literally and figuratively. His daughter Anna wrote of his new city-takers and their effect in the siege of Nicaea: ‘most of them were not old-fashioned according to the conventional designs for such machines, but followed ideas he had devised himself and which amazed everyone.’ Possibly these devices were the prototypes of the so-called counterweight trebuchets, whose specifications dwarfed earlier machines: 10-tonne counterweights, lever-arms 15 metres long, projectiles weighing over 100 kilograms, ranges of 200 metres. They cracked Nicaea open like a hammer on a nut, though Alexios took care to seize control of the town before the Crusaders had a chance to loot it. Alexios’s machines, which had so ‘amazed everyone’, changed warfare from then on. The improved versions would have dramatic effects when, eighty years later, Saladin got the power to command them.
On the Crusaders went: a pitched battle, a five-month advance across Turkey, an eight-month siege of Antioch (where by happy chance a mystic named Peter Bartholomew, guided by St Andrew, found a chunk of iron which he declared to be the Holy Lance that had pierced the side of Christ), and more sieges, including the taking of Ma’arat, 80 kilometres south-east of Antioch, in today’s Syria. It was winter, the end of 1098, with food in short supply, so, according to a chronicler, the French ‘boiled pagan adults in cooking pots; they impaled children on spits and devoured them grilled.’ An exaggeration? If the source had been Arabic, perhaps; but this was a Frank, Ralph of Caen, speaking.44
"One could not wish for a better storyteller than John Man."--Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of Jerusalem
"A tale about the life of a man and the passions that drove him"--Roanoke Times
"A worthy biography of an important Muslim hero"--Foreword Reviews
"Superb and eminently readable"--Chicago Tribune's Printers Row
- "[A] masterful biography...The book tells a clear, vivid story of seemingly endless conflict, showing the strengths and weaknesses of both Christians and Muslims. The characters are fascinating...Man's style and pacing are just right for the general reader. This account provides valuable perspective for the twenty-first century tensions between Islam and the West."—Internet Review of Books, 9/29/16
"An excellent overview on this complex man and his time."
- "A very interesting and informative biography that provides insights relevant to issues surrounding the Middle East today."—Toy Soldier & Model Figure
- "The author of this book is an entertaining storyteller with an ear for a good turn of phrase."—The Historian
- "Man presents a complete biographical account of Saladin's life, while also building his narrative around the Crusades...Saladin can also be characterized as a contribution to the popular history of the Crusades...This volume...succeeds in presenting a vivid picture of medieval life in the Middle East that will appeal to a popular audience."—H-Net
- On Sale
- Nov 28, 2017
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Da Capo Press