Saladin – whose real name was was Salah al-Din Yusuf – was a great Muslim leader. Born into a prominent Kurdish family, his father worked for the Turkish governor 'Imad ad-Din Zangi ibn Aq Sonqur in northern Syria. Saladin spent his youth in Ba'lbek and Damascus, where his main interest was the study of religion rather than military training – certainly offering little hint of what he was to become.

Once Saladin reached working age, he got a job with his uncle Asad ad-Din Shirkuh, who was a key military commander under Nur al-Din, the son and heir of Zengi. After Zengi’s death, three military expeditions into Egypt began, all led by Shirkuh, in a bid to stop the country falling to the Latin Christian (Frankish) rulers of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The King of Jerusalem, Amalric I, Shirkuh and Shawar, the leader of the Egyptian Fatimid caliph, began a three-way struggle as they fought for control.

Saladin the Islam Leader

Enter Saladin, aged 31, who took part in the third expedition, approaching Cairo on 2 January 1169. At this point, the Franks retreated, allowing Saladin’s troops to reach Cairo. Saladin ordered Shawar’s assassination on 18 January, at which point Shirkuh was made leader. However, he died without warning on 23 March and Saladin was appointed commander of the Syrian troops in Egypt and leader of the Fāṭimid caliph in 1169. He was now known as the Sultan. Saladin then became the Sole Master of Cairo and the first Ayyubid Sultan of Egypt in 1174, and although he occupied Damascus and other Syrian towns, Egypt continued to be the main base of his operations.

Saladin has been held up as a chivalrous historical figure who fought fairly - when the Crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099 they carried out mass murder, whereas when Saladin re-took it in 1187 following the defeat of the King of Jerusalem at the Battle of Hattin near the Lake of Galilee, he allowed inhabitants to leave the city safely. He called this a ‘just war’ and said that his actions were out of respect for Jerusalem’s status as a holy city. Despite his fierce opposition to the Christian powers, Saladin also had a respectful relationship, if one built on rivalry, with King Richard I of England (Richard the Lionheart). When Richard was wounded in battle against Saladin, the latter offered his personal doctor to Richard.

Saladin managed to unite and lead the Muslim world and the Christians of western Europe were stunned by his success. The pope, Gregory VIII, ordered another crusade immediately to regain the Holy City for the Christians. This was the start of the Third Crusade. It was led by Richard I (Richard the Lionheart), Emperor Frederick Barbarossa of Germany and King Philip II of France. These were possibly the three most important men in western Europe - such was the significance of this crusade. It was to last from 1189 to 1192.

Richard was determined to get to Jerusalem and he was prepared to take on Saladin. Both sides fought at the Battle of Arsur in September 1191. Richard won but he delayed his attack on Jerusalem as he knew that his army needed to rest. Richard marched on Jerusalem in June 1192. However, by now even Richard the Lionheart was suffering. He had a fever and appealed to his enemy Saladin to send him fresh water and fresh fruit. Saladin did just this – sending  fresh fruit and frozen snow to the Crusaders to be used as water.

Why would Saladin do this? There are two reasons. First, Saladin was a strict Muslim. One of the main beliefs of Islam is that Muslims should help those in need. Secondly, Saladin could send his men into Richard's camp with the supplies and spy on what he had in terms of soldiers and equipment. They found that Richard had a small force, which counted him out of taking Jerusalem. Saladin and Richard organised a truce - pilgrims from the west would once again be allowed to visit Jerusalem without being troubled by the Muslims. Neither Richard nor Saladin particularly liked the truce but both sides were worn out and in October 1192, Richard sailed for western Europe, never to return to the Holy Land.

Saladin was keen for Cairo to be a well-protected yet enjoyable city for its inhabitants, with a high level of commercial and cultural freedom – very different to the kind of city its residents had been used to in years gone by. Today, Saladin has been lauded for attempting to defend an entire country’s ideology as well as its territory, and he made best use of Cairo for his purposes – one of which was accumulating the money needed to fight against the crusaders.

One of the things that Saladin is best known for is the creation of the Cairo military fortress, the Citadel, which he built between 1176 and 1177, as well as the college-mosque, the madrassa, where religion and Islamic law was once again taught to residents. Keen to ramp up the city’s defences, Saladin ordered the construction of a wall which enclosed the entire city, stretching from Badr's wall to the north, west to the Nile and the port of al Maks and to the east, under the Mukattam Hills. Little of the wall or his other buildings remain today, although the original perimeter of the Citadel still stands, while the rest has been rebuilt by others.

Saladin sold off the Fatimids’ treasure to pay his Turkish troops and, in doing so, went from strength to strength in his military efforts. Leaving Cairo in 1182, Saladin went to Syria to fight the crusaders and liberated the vast majority of Palestine from the English, French and other armies, and from the control of the Pope, by the time of his death in Damascus in 1193. He was succeeded by his brother, al Adil. 

MLA Citation/Reference

"Saladin". 2014. Web.

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