Saladin and Balian negotiate in

"The Kingdom of Heaven."

Balian d'Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem

Saladin as portrayed in "The Kingdom of Heaven"

Salah ad-Din, or Saladin has he is more commonly known in Western literature, has long been viewed as the epitome of Saracen “chivalry.” Indeed, in the last century it became common to suggest that, while the crusaders were treacherous barbarians, Saladin stood out as a paragon of virtue and honor, a shining light of decency and chivalry in an otherwise brutal age.  This is the view of Saladin that dictated the highly sympathetic portrayal in Ridley Scott's film “The Kingdom of Heaven.”

This positive view of Saladin in Western literature is largely attributable to a biography of Saladin published by Stanley Lane-Poole in 1898. This was arguably the first scholarly biography of the 12th century Kurdish leader in the English language, and Lane-Poole made a major contribution to Western scholarship by drawing upon Arab sources for his work.  Unfortunately, he did so uncritically, adopting without scruple or embarrassment the purely adulatory descriptions of Saladin penned by the Sultan’s court biographers. The result is a work in which Saladin is described as a man “whose chivalry and generosity excited the admiration of the Crusaders.” More disturbing to the historian, Lane-Poole is so completely under the spell of his Arab sources that he claims: “...civilization, magnanimity, toleration, real chivalry, and gentle culture were all on the side of the Saracens.”

While the latter statement alone discredits Lane-Poole as a serious historian of the crusades, the damage had been done and other historians docilely followed his lead. The British Orientalist, H.A.R. Gibb, claims that Saladin inspired his followers “not so much by the example of his personal courage and resolution — which were undeniable — as by his unselfishness, his humility and generosity….He was no simpleton, but for that an utterly simple and transparently honest man…Guileless himself, he never expected and seldom understood guile in others.”

Yet, as Andrew Ehrenkreutz points out in his biography of Saladin published in 1972: “The political, social and economic climate prevailing in the Near East in the second half of the twelfth century was not conducive to seeking power through the exercise of tolerance, magnanimity, chivalry or any altruistic behavior.”  Ehrenkreutz goes on to catalogue in his meticulously documented and detailed biography the number of times Saladin used deceit, hypocrisy, propaganda, bribery, extortion, murder and, ultimately aggressive war to establish an empire in the Near East.  He notes that he spent much more time and more resources fighting (and killing) fellow Muslims than he did fighting Christians, and that Saladin was responsible for the loss of many more Sunni Muslim lives than Christian ones. Ehrenkreutz concludes that: “Most of Saladin’s significant historical accomplishments should be attributed to his military and governmental experience, to his ruthless persecution of political opponents and dissenters, to his vindictive belligerence and calculated opportunism, and to his readiness to compromise religious ideals to political expediency.”

The real Saladin probably lies somewhere between these two extreme portrayals of his character, but what Ehrenkreutz makes abundantly clear is that even in those well-documented cases of Saladin’s apparent magnanimity, we need to look closer at his the motives.  One case in point is the return of the fortress of Azaz to the ruler of Aleppo.  In June 1176, during one of Saladin’s several attacks on the legitimate successor regime of Nur al-Din in Aleppo, his army captured the fortress of Azaz. The rest of the campaign against Sunni Aleppo, however, proved less successful, and Saladin was forced to sue for terms. Eventually a treaty was negotiated. Then according to Lane-Poole: “When the treaty was concluded, there came to Saladin a young girl, the little sister of es-Salih [i.e., the man whose place Saladin had usurped and driven from Damascus].  He received her with honour and asked her: “What is thy wish?” “The castle of Azaz,” she said. So he restored the castle to its old owners, loaded the princess with presents, and escorted her back to the gate of Aleppo at the head of his staff.” Now quite aside from the improbability of a Muslim maiden ever setting foot outside the haram of her home (in this case her brother’s home), had she spoken to a man not her relative (Saladin) she would have dishonored her brother (the Sultan of Aleppo) and so most probably would have been stoned to death.  In short, Lane-Poole’s entire story can only be fiction on the same par as an opera and utterly lacks understanding of Islamic culture in the 12th century. Furthermore, as Ehrenkreutz points out, the return of Azaz was quite simply one of the terms of the negotiated treaty. No “princess” had to plea for its return at all. Saladin surrendered it diplomatically because it was virtually impossible to hold militarily after the rest of his campaign collapsed.

Another example is the apparent generosity of Saladin in providing Balian d’Ibelin with a safe-conduct to cross Saracen-held territory to enter Jerusalem and remove his wife and family after the Battle of Hattin but before the fall of Jerusalem. Not only was this an apparently magnanimous gesture to a Christian lord and a foe, it was topped by Saladin sending some of his own personal body-guard to escort the Lady of Ibelin to safety after her husband broke his word, and — ceding to immense pressure from the Christian population in Jerusalem — agreed to take command of the defense of the Holy City. But the “chivalrous” character of these gestures is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the Lady of Ibelin was also a Byzantine princess and a relation of the ruling Greek Emperor Isaac II Angelus, with whom Saladin had just concluded a treaty of alliance. It was still a generous gesture as Maria Comnena, Lady of Ibelin, was not a close relative of Isaac II, but Saladin’s decision was certainly salted with self-interest.

Likewise, the many instances in which Saladin treated former Sunni foes with leniency, often awarding them new lands and titles within his growing empire, demonstrates not so much his “gentleness” and “chivalry” as his cynical opportunism. If fighting men, particularly the commanders of contingents of troops that offered effective armed opposition to Saladin, could be bought with the promises of riches and titles, then why fight? After all, the alternative (killing or enslaving his opponents on capture) would only have increased the tenacity and fervor of his opponents, and Saladin had a hard enough time subduing them as it was. His mild treatment of defectors is not so much a mark of “gentleness” and “chivalry” as of opportunism that was particularly effective against the fragmented and jealous feudal lords in northern Syria.

Against these documented cases of apparent “gentleness” and “chivalry” are a number of equally well documented incidents of ruthlessness, brutality, duplicity and vindictiveness that are incompatible with the Lane-Poole/Gibbs image of Saladin. To name only a few, Saladin played a key role in eliminating the Egyptian vizier Shawar, even if the actual murder may have been carried out by someone else on the orders of the Fatimid caliph. (Shawar’s head and latter that of his son were delivered to Saladin’s uncle in a silver container; no doubt it was the use of silver for transmitting the heads of murdered men that made Lane-Poole conclude that “civilization” was always on the side of the Muslims.) 

Then, having won the confidence and trust of the Fatimid Caliph, who appointed Saladin his vizier, Saladin worked systematically to undermine his regime and carried out a bloody coup d’etat against the Fatimid elite as soon as the Sultan conveniently died. While it might be argued that this was justified by repeated Fatimid conspiracies against Saladin or by Sunni orthodoxy’s hostility to Shiism, the same cannot be said of the slaughter of the unarmed women and children of the Sudanese guard that the “gentle and chivalrous” Saladin ordered burned alive in their homes. And if that weren’t enough, Saladin ended the rebellion of their men by agreeing to spare their lives if they left Cairo — only to break his word and slaughter them after they had laid down their arms.

Saladin next distinguished himself by waging war against the heir of his feudal overlord Nur al-Din, the eleven-year-old al-Salih. First, however, he sent a letter swearing humble and abject submission to al-Salih, ordered the young sultan’s name invoked in the mosques of Egypt and minting coins in his name, evidently with the intent of luring him into a sense of security.  While vowing his allegiance to al-Salih, Saladin also wrote to the under-aged Sultan’s regency council with the absurd claim that: “if death had not prevented him, [Nur al-Din] would have bequeathed to none other but me the guardianship and upbringing of his son.” (Ehrenkreutz, p. 123). In fact, Nur al-Din allegedly said on his deathbed that “Nothing makes me so sad except the thought of what will befall my family at the hands of Yusef, the son of Ayyub [i.e. Saladin].” 

Claiming a position he had been neither formally nor informally granted by Nur ad-Din, Saladin set out to gain control of Syria by force, using the resources he had accumulated by his seizure of power in Egypt.  The young Sultan’s legal guardians fled to Aleppo and Saladin gained control of Damascus without bloodshed, but the Turkish commanders and lords around the young Sultan flatly refused to acknowledge Saladin’s bogus claims to be the “true” guardian of the young Sultan. So Saladin marched his army against Aleppo. In northern Syria, Saladin met with real resistance and was ultimately repelled — with a little help from the Christians, who attacked his lines of communication, and the assassins, who made an attempt on Saladin’s life. Saladin returned to Damascus, where he gave up his pretense of serving the interests of al-Salih, and demanded patents for his position as Sultan of Damascus from the Abbasid caliph of Baghdad. He also issued coins in his own name. He then spent the better part of the next ten years fighting bitter campaigns against the family of Nur al-Din and their supporters based in Aleppo and Mosul and all across northern Syria.

Throughout this bloody, exhausting and bitter struggle for complete supremacy in Syria, Saladin used the excuse of needing to unite Islam for jihad against the crusader states. Ehrenkreuz notes: “…the overly long and bloody conflict in the Muslim camp had been caused, not by Saladin’s ambition to build a united front against the Crusaders, but by his opponents’ realistic refusal to recognize his claims for other than they were: an adventurous and unscrupulous policy of personal and territorial aggrandizement.”

Which is not to say that Saladin did not fight the Christians too. In fact, Saladin undertook a number of campaigns against the Christians including the invasion of 1177 that ended Saladin’s complete humiliation at Montgisard, the invasion of 1179 that ended in the routing of the Templars and the capture of nearly 300 Christian knights and nobles on the Litani. The siege of Beirut in the same year, the campaign that ended in the draw at Le Forbelet in 1182, the equally indecisive campaign of 1183, and the sieges of Kerak in 1183 and 1184. This may sound like an impressive track record, but given Saladin’s overwhelming strategic advantages, and the fact that the Kingdom of Jerusalem was led by a youth slowing dying of leprosy, his lack of success suggests either strategic and tactical incompetence or anemic motivation.

Not that Saladin didn’t demonstrate his hatred of the Franks.  When in August of 1178, less than a year after Saladin’s scalding defeat at Montgisard, Christian prisoners fell into Saladin’s hands he had them summarily executed, one by one, by members of his retinue. Aside from it being against Sharia law to kill men who had surrendered, it was hardly a demonstration of “chivalry.” Nor was it an isolated incident. When the Christians involved in the Red Sea raids were finally run-to-earth and captured, Saladin again ordered their execution. According to Bernard Hamilton in his excellent work The Leper King and His Heirs, the Christian prisoners were “taken to Mecca where, during the great annual pilgrimage, they were…slaughtered ‘like animals for sacrifice.’” Clearly these men were mercenaries and they had killed Muslim pilgrims and captured Arab shipping so perhaps they were not worthy of mercy, but the same cannot be said of the “unlucky common Christian soldier whom the sultan had slain when he noticed a minor facial scratch his son al-Afdal [by then in his late teens] sustained in the battle of Arsuf.” (Ehrenkreutz, p. 228.)

Last but not least, no discussion of Saladin would be complete without reference to the brutal execution of the Templars and Hospitallers taken captive at the Battle of Hattin. On July 6, these knights and sergeants, bound and helpless, were beheaded in public. Bartlett describes the scene in Downfall of the Crusader Kingdom as follows: “Saladin gave the task…to a group of religious Sufis, holy men largely untrained in the arts of war. Some of them took six or seven attempts to sever the heads of their victims…However justified the death of these men might have been in military terms, the cruelty and indignity of their death did Saladin no credit whatsoever. It was an act of violence, almost barbarism, which Saladin’s apologists have all too frequently glossed over.” (Bartlett, p. 204-205.) It is important to remember that this massacre preceded — and may indeed have helped instigate — the slaughter of the Muslim garrison of Acre by Richard the Lionheart four years later.

The Chivalrous Saracen: A Closer Look at Salah ad-Din