Aleppo, Mosul, Tikrit, Acre… Until just a few years ago, these names meant little to the average American. Now they are all too familiar, as are the atrocities being committed there in the name of religion. Eight hundred years ago the situation in that region was much the same, except then, Christians were committing acts of cruelty no less numerous or shocking than Muslims. Both did so during the course of Holy Wars that came to be known as “the Crusades.”
Of all the warriors who fought in those wars, none cast a larger shadow than the Sultan, Saladin, who died on this day in 1193 CE. His exploits eclipsed even those of his most famous adversary, Richard I (“the Lionheart”). It was Saladin who annihilated King Guy’s army at the Horns of Hattin in 1187 CE and reclaimed Jerusalem for Islam after it had been ruled by Christian Franks for nearly a century. And when Richard and Philip II of France came to Palestine at the head of a third Crusade, it was Saladin who met them, denied them Jerusalem, and forced them to abandon their quest to free the Holy Land from Muslim dominion. And yet, Saladin became a source of myth and legend more for his image as the “noble enemy” than for his victories on the battlefield. For he, more than the Christian knights who opposed him, exemplified chivalrous ideals in his conduct both as a military leader and civil servant.
After taking Jerusalem for Christendom in 1098 CE, Godfrey of Bouillon had its Muslim defenders massacred by the thousands. When Saladin reclaimed the Holy City for Islam in 1187 CE, he responded not in kind, but spared the lives of its Christian defenders in return for a modest ransom and bondage for those who were unable to pay. Later, he permitted Christians to visit Jerusalem without paying tribute and also granted them free access to the other holy places under his control.
On Wednesday, 4 March 1193 CE Saladin died. The cause of his fatal illness though uncertain had features consistent with tuberculous meningitis. At the time of his death, only one Tyrian gold piece and forty-seven pieces of silver remained of the vast wealth he had amassed during his conquests, so irresistible had been his impulse for giving while he lived. Unfortunately, none of his 17 sons inherited either his generosity or his statesmanship. No sooner was their father gone then they began fighting amongst themselves, and in just a few years had reduced the empire he had created into a fragmented patchwork of powerless states.
In 2005, Ridley Scott released an epic film, The Kingdom of Heaven, loosely based on the life and legacy of Saladin. Near the end of the film there is a poignant scene in which Saladin, having just entered Jerusalem at the head of his victorious army, picks up a cross that had been knocked to the floor during the siege of the Holy City and respectfully places it back on its table. According to journalist Robert Fisk, when he saw the film in a Beirut cinema, that particular scene brought the Muslim audience in attendance to its feet applauding. Their reaction gives hope that after nearly a thousand years of unrelenting religious strife in the Holy Land, a formula for peace may yet be found in the principles of the “noble enemy” that motivated Saladin throughout his life.
Feature Image: Saladin and Guy of Lusignan after the Battle of Hattin in 1186 by Said Tahsine (1904-1985, Syria). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.