Salah ad-Din 1: The City Victorious

Salah ad-Din


  • Hiestand, Rudolf. "The Papacy and the Second Crusade," in The Second Crusade: Scope and Consequences, edited by Jonathan Phillips & Martin Hoch. Manchester University Press, 2001.

  • Lēv, Yaacov. Saladin in Egypt. Brill, 1999.

  • Lyons, Malcolm Cameron & Jackson, D.E.P. Saladin: The Politics of the Holy War. Cambridge University Press, 1982.

  • Maalouf, Amin. The Crusades through Arab Eyes. Saqi, 2012.

  • Man, John. Saladin: The Sultan who Vanquished the Crusaders and Built an Islamic Empire. Hachette Books, 2016.

  • Phillips, Jonathan. The Second Crusade: Extending the Frontiers of Christendom. Yale University Press, 2008.


As with any decent origin story, the man who would be Salah ad-Din was born in the night as his family hurriedly packed to flee into exile, or maybe he was. That is how it’s generally told at least.  

That story goes that Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub was born in Tikrit, northwest of Baghdad, that that was where his father Najm ad-Din Ayyub served as a commander, but that thanks to a moment of violence within the quite violent life of his uncle Shirkuh, he would spend only the briefest possible moment there before being rushed away. 

It’s said that Uncle Shirkuh had gone and killed a man, in an argument or perhaps in revenge, maybe both; it’s said that the dead man had sexually assaulted a woman and this was why Shirkuh had killed him. But unfortunately for Shirkuh and his family, the man he’d slain was connected and cared for, a close friend and confidant of the region’s governor no less and not somebody to be killed in the street lightly. When the news of what had happened made its way to Baghdad, there was always going to be trouble.

That trouble, when it came, was not so bad as it might have been. Salah ad-Din’s family was itself well placed; his grandfather had himself been a good friend of the governor - it was why Ayyub had been made a commander in the first place. So they weren’t strung up or cut down when the killing was reported, or otherwise treated to immediate death. But they were banished. 

They were forced into exile, and on that night in 1137 as they gathered what was theirs and made ready to set out, Salah ad-Din came into the world, the baby who would come to be known as the “Very Illustrious Lord, Sultan of the Armies, Friend of the Community, Glory of the Dynasty, … [and] Victorious King,” who we generally know now just by the name that means “righteousness of the faith.” 

Hello and welcome. My name is Devon, and this is Human Circus: Journeys in the Medieval World, the podcast that follows medieval history’s most interesting travellers and the stories around them. And before we get into today’s main character, I want to quickly point out that you could be listening to this episode ad-free on Patreon and with bonus content on the end. And you could do that at or via my website at I also want to send out my thanks to newest patrons of the show, Michele M, Ian M, David V, and John N. Thank you all very much for helping me make this podcast! 

And now, let’s back to the story. It’s one that will tread over some of the same ground we’ve skimmed over in the past, approaching some of the same events from a different perspective, but I think it will be worth it, and I do think it would be worth listening to the Sons of Maimon episodes before this one if you haven’t already. As promised last episode, this is the story of Salah ad-Din, the Kurdish dynastic founder who I passed over so quickly in episode 2 of this series, the story of how the son of a small outpost commander would rise to unify much of the region and clash with crusaders, assassins, and the Zengids of Syria. 

But first, he and his family were going to need to find a home. They were no longer welcome in Tikrit, or indeed anywhere near Baghdad. They were looking for a place to start anew, and if it had been a faux pas on the part of the uncle that had set them on that road, it was one on that of the father that would dictate the destination.

Najm ad-Din Ayyub hadn’t killed anyone, but he had found ways to anger his governor all the same. He’d harboured and helped a certain Turkish lord who’d lost a battle near Tikrit. He’d taken the lord in, seen him healed, and sent him and his men across the Tigris by boats which he had provided, sent him safely on the way to the security of his base at Aleppo. And all this rather than simply turn this defeated lord over to his own master, his master who was not particularly happy with what he’d done.

So off the family went, their governor twice-angered at their actions, but at least due to what the father had done, they had a soft place to land, because that wounded Turkish lord was Imad ad-Din Zengi, and Zengi, though he’d encountered a recent setback, was on the rise, for within the year, he would be knocking down the walls of Baalbek in what is now Lebanon and then looking for further expansion. 

He’d welcome his benefactors warmly, He’d appoint Ayyub as commander in Baalbek and Shirkuh as an officer in Aleppo where he’d become attached to Zengi’s son Nur ad-Din, the very same Nur ad-Din who would one day be sending Shirkuh south to Fatimid Egypt, and Salah ad-Din with him, but not for a while yet, not for another 25 years or so. 

For now, little Salah ad-Din and his family had a home, a new patron and protector, and a way forward, and we have a context for his childhood, and to talk about that context, I need to talk about the second crusade.

Though he was only a child at the time, Salah ad-Din’s story is right at the heart of that of the second crusade. Of course, it not easy to boil something like that crusade down to a single cause, but when writers do reduce things to that extent, what they focus on is the taking of Edessa, a crusader city in the southeast of what is now Turkey, near the Syrian border, and the capital of the first crusader state. And where that’s interesting for us is that it was our family’s patron, Imad ad-Din Zengi who had taken Edessa in 1144. He’d tricked its Count Joscelin into believing he was away campaigning elsewhere; he’d gotten word that Joscelin had left to go pillaging along the Euphrates, and then he’d besieged the city, its Syrian bishop describing his “troops … as numerous as the stars in the skies,” while within the city, substantial though its walls were, there were only “shoemakers, weavers, silk merchants, tailors, and priests” to oppose them. That motley collection of defenders resisted, but eventually sappers brought down their wall and forced the surrender of those within the citadel, though only after many, perhaps thousands, were crushed in the tight spaces before its barred gates.

For his success, Zengi was hailed as a hero. There was talk of a reconquest of the coast and of Jerusalem, and the caliph heaped honourifics on this new saviour. In full, he was:

“The emir, the general, the great, the just, the aid of God, the triumphant, the unique, the pillar of religion, the cornerstone of Islam, ornament of Islam, protector of God’s creatures, associate of the dynasty, auxiliary of doctrine, grandeur of the nation, honour of kings, supporter of sultans, victor over the infidels, rebels, and atheists, commander of the Muslim armies, the victorious king, the king of princes, the sun of the deserving, emir of the two Iraqs and of Syria, conqueror of Iran, Bahlawan, Jihan Alp Inassaj Kotlogh Toglogh Toghrulbeg atabeg Abu Sa’id Zengi Ibn Aq Sunqur, protector of the prince of the faithful.”

As the man who recorded this, rather wryly noted, the early caliphs had been satisfied with “prince of the faithful” alone. But that aside, there was clearly some excitement over Zengi and his victory at Edessa. And safe to say that there was an equal and opposite reaction from the other crusader cities, alarmed to the extreme that they might soon be attacked, that the rest of the County of Edessa and then the Principality of Antioch would surely be next on Zengi’s agenda, and then Tripoli, and finally the Kingdom of Jerusalem itself to follow. What these people didn’t know, what they couldn’t know, was that Zengi, at his moment of victory, had less than 2 years to live. 

There are different versions of his death, but by most accounts it came in September of 1146 as he besieged a resistant emir who had refused to acknowledge his authority. Clearly, though some sources paint him as a unifying figure, not everyone was so keen to be unified under him. In some tellings, he was murdered by a group of his courtiers. In others, he woke in the night to find one of his eunuchs sneaking a drink of wine from his goblet and shouted angrily that he was definitely going to punish him in the morning before making the classic mistake of then rolling over and going back to sleep. The eunuch in question was not one to wait around to be punished and instead repeatedly knifed Zengi where he lay before fleeing into the gleeful arms of the besieged emir. 

As Ibn al-Qalanisi would write in verse:

“The morning found him sprawled upon his bed, lying where his eunuch had slaughtered him,

And yet he slumbered amidst a proud army, ringed by his braves with swords.

He perished, neither riches now power of use to him,

His treasures now the prey of others, by his sons and adversaries dismembered.

At his death did his enemies ride forth, grasping the swords they dared not brandish while he lived.”

Zengi, patron and protector of Salah ad-Din’s family and much-feared conqueror of Edessa, was dead, no longer a threat to the crusaders or anyone else. But by the time of his death, their response to his victory at Edessa was just picking up steam. In Outremer, the collective term for the Crusader states meaning “Across the Sea,” the rulers had reacted in alarm to the loss, and that reaction was shared in Latin Christian Europe where it was going to produce an uncharacteristically timely response. 

At first glance, matters did not seem so timely for the pope. Eugenius III was not happily ensconced in papal comforts. He’d been elevated from his position of Cistercian abbot to the papacy on the same day his predecessor had died from wounds sustained in street fighting over control of the city, and he, taking a job few had wanted, didn’t find the place any friendlier. He’d clash with the Commune of Rome and eventually leave for the safety of France, but against the backdrop of these unpleasant distractions, in the winter of 1145 he’d issue a bull calling on French King Louis VII and his nobles to take on a crusade, and figures such as the renowned Bernard of Clairvaux would go forth and preach it with wild success among royalty and commoners alike.

There were scenes of mass enthusiasm such as at Bernard’s speech at Vezelay of which much has since been made, one where he stood with the king and the queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine who had not yet divorced Henry, and he urged the crowd on to “appease the anger of heaven, but no longer implore its goodness with by vain complaints,” to “clothe [themselves] in sackcloth, but also cover [themselves] with [their] impenetrable bucklers.” As fabric ran short to make crosses for those who answered his call, he’s said to have torn his own robes for the purpose, a demonstration of zeal that was then copied by those around him. Elsewhere, darker expressions of that same enthusiasm would lead to the killing of many Jews, as had happened in the build up to the First Crusade.

The crusading army that formed up under the leadership of Louis, Eleanor, and King Conrad III of Germany was immense. Estimates as to its size vary wildly, topping out at an absurd 400,000, and this despite energy being drawn off towards the retaking of Lisbon and a campaign against the Slavs. But whatever new heights the army may have reached in securing the participation of French and German nobility and whatever numbers accompanied them, it would not be enough.

This episode isn’t meant to be the history of the Second Crusade, so suffice to say that efforts were hindered by infighting, distrust, disorganization, poor decision making, a lack of Byzantine support, the difficulty of maneuvering unwieldy and fragmented forces across unfamiliar territory, and the highly effective opposition and ambushes of the Seljuks. A lot of things really. Many Germans would killed before even reaching Constantinople when they unwisely made camp between two riverbeds that promptly flooded. Conrad would later be wounded and driven back to Constantinople; Louis would at one point narrowly escape death or capture in the dress of a common soldier. And somehow the whole thing would manage to come together not before the walls of Edessa, but at Damascus.

The assault on Damascus, though not the original destination, did not come entirely as a surprise to city’s rulers. There were delays and warnings enough for defenders and defences to be prepared and fortifications fixed, for auxiliaries to arrive from the towns and villages, Arabs, Kurds, and Turks, and for springs and water holes that the attackers might rely on to be stopped up. There was time for the city’s ruler to reach out for aid to Nur ad-Din and his general, Salah ad-Din’s uncle, Shirkuh.  

The siege would collapse after only three days, and the failure would only spread further distrust, making further cooperation between the leaders and with the local crusader states impossible. Conrad would attempt to take Ascalon, but with no assistance he would fail. Louis would remain in and around Jerusalem for the better part of another year, but he would gain little from it. The Second Crusade had essentially died before the walls of Damascus. And Salah ad-Din would have seen it all happen. He was too young to have taken a part in it, only 11 years old, but not too young to have experienced personal loss there, for his older brother was one of those who had died in fighting off the attack.

Salah ad-Din is said to have loved Damascus more than anywhere else, the city he grew up in, and to which he was always going to return. But the image of his early life there can only be picked out in the vaguest of outlines. So we know what brought him there and what events he would have witnessed, have a sense of how the crusades had touched his life, but we lack anything like a rich picture of his childhood. Born on the night of his family’s banishment, he had the dramatic beginnings, but there was nothing else in the early record to suggest what he was soon to become. For that, we’ll need to look elsewhere.

So after this break we’ll move the Salah ad-Din story forward around 15 years, to a period with a little more information, to a territory we are already a little familiar with. We’ll go to Egypt in the 1160s and early 70s. Once perhaps without Salah ad-Din himself, once more without much success, and then one last time that would stick.

Remember from that second Maimonides episode that it had been Nur ad-Din, Zengi’s son, who had dispatched Shirkuh and his army to Egypt, that a man named Shawar had requested their assistance in toppling his rival, Dirgham, that Shawar had wanted to be reinstalled as Fatimid vizier in Cairo, and that Nur ad-Din had been swayed by an interest bringing Egypt into his sphere of influence and in a slice of the revenues it produced. Still, the decision might not have been an easy one. Making that move required an army strong enough to navigate the crusader states on the way, to not be put off by their garrisons that controlled the most direct routes, to be able to overcome their armies in Egypt itself, for Nur ad-Din was not alone in having his eye on Egypt, and to face down whatever opposition Dirgham was able to muster. It was not to the sort of thing to be thrown together thoughtlessly. 

The army he would eventually send was, with these factors in mind, a strong one. Against Shawar’s wishes, it was not under the would be vizier’s direct command but rather that of the trusted Shirkuh, and with it went Salah ad-Din, or at least in one contemporary source he did. According to at least one other, he did not. 

The initial move into Egypt did not bring Shirkuh everything he wanted. We saw a few episodes ago how once Shawar was installed as vizier, he then maneuvered between Shirkuh on the one side and King Amalric of Jerusalem on the other, making deals, often making payments, in order to maintain his position. We saw him eventually push Shirkuh, the man who had so recently helped him, back out of Egypt with the aid of Amalric and his men. 

While, there’s some question as to Salah ad-Din’s initial involvement in all of this, later on in the Egypt project - and this plays out over a period of about 5 years - we do actually have him more definitely participating. We start to see him come to life as a character, to take advantage of a sequence of events that was going to allow him to raise himself from relative obscurity to a position of ultimate power and one of fame enough to carry down all the way down to us. We see him having been made a shihna, or police chief, in Damascus in 1165, and then made aide-de-camp by Shirkuh, who chose Salah ad-Din over his own sons. There must have been something about him to inspire such trust, such that when Shirkuh returned to Egypt “with vast armies,” this time his nephew was certainly with him.

This Syrian army marched south, again into Egypt, avoided attempts by Amalric to intercept it, and settled into position at Giza, opposite Fustat on the west bank of the Nile, where matters settled into a bit of a standoff, each side turning their attention elsewhere. Amalric, who had caught up quickly, made use of the opportunity to squeeze a little more money out of Shawar, while Shirkuh wrote to Alexandria, seeking the city’s assistance in his conflict and pointing out that it was not he who had invited the crusaders in. And just to connect this back to the last few episodes, remember that as Shirkuh and Salah ad-Din were encamped on one side of the river, Moses ben Maimon lived his life on the other.

The first battle of the conflict took place at a sight of Shirkuh’s choosing. When his enemies had built boat-bridges across the Nile to reach him, he had evaded their grasp. He’d led them on a chase 300 km up the river before stopping on March 19th, 1167, at a place where his forces held two hills, and here we finally have Salah ad-Din in the battle, but where exactly? Was he positioned between the hills with the army’s baggage, inviting an attack on the centre that could then be outflanked? Some sources have it so. But others put him up on one of those hilltops.

As for the battle itself, it was no more conclusive. Shirkuh can be praised for bringing about the fight he wanted and as he wanted it, but with his outnumbered force it seems to have still been no crushing victory for his side. What he’d won was his continued place in the game and, most immediately, the opportunity to disengage without being routed.

Shirkuh marched north to Alexandria, his diplomatic efforts granting him opened gates, men, and resources. But there he was also fixed in position, no longer easily able to dance around the ring with a city weighing him down, and his enemies took advantage of this, arranging land and river blockades in an attempt to starve him out. Shirkuh, in an interesting move, slipped away, using a desert route and his trademark elusiveness to dodge the blockades, and leaving behind him Salah ad-Din, now very definitely entrusted with real responsibility and not left with an easy task.     

By all accounts, Salah ad-Din was holding Alexandria together while outside the walls an orchard became wood which became war machines and a tower of great height that could look down over the city. He was cut off from supplies and may have had little faith in his Alexandrian allies, and he was right to be wary for all the while Shawar was arranging for messages to be carried in to the people of the city. The Egyptian vizier wanted the Alexandrians’ on his side; he wanted their vote, so he made the timeless promise of tax breaks. By three months in, food was short, pressures were building, and though Salah ad-Din was acquitting himself well, this was not a moment for epic end-sequence heroics on his part or anyone else’s. 

Shirkuh returned, having been over 800 km away carrying on a siege of his own, and he arranged a deal: prisoners to be exchanged, the siege lifted, safe passage for the Syrians inside the city and amnesty for the Alexandrians - though Shawar would later trample that last area of the agreement. 

What it all amounted to was that the siege ended. The citizens within came out to, quote, “enjoy conversation” with the attackers, and Amalric’s men entered and took in the sites of the city. Salah ad-Din himself was hosted in the king’s camp under a protective guard and then allowed to move out with the other Syrians before Shawar moved in. The siege engines were set alight, and Shirkuh made to leave Egypt for a second time. Two times now he’d brought armies south, and two times he’d been turned back. On the 5th of September, 1167, he and Salah ad-Din reached Damascus, and it was not at all certain that they’d be back south any time soon.

“I suffered such hardships at Alexandria as I shall never forget,” Salah ad-Din is to have said, expressing no desire to return to Egypt. That winter, he was awarded land in and around Aleppo, and seems to have been very content with his lot as it was. As for Shirkuh, he may very well have wanted another chance, but Nur ad-Din doesn’t seem to have liked the idea. “You have exerted yourself twice,” he said, “but have not achieved what you sought.” It was not an enthusiastic endorsement of another expedition, and it was accompanied by a new job assignment, this one closer to home in Homs, a demotion of sorts. It looked like things were settled, people settled, the Egypt question settled. 

But we already know it wasn’t. We know Shirkuh and Salah ad-Din would be headed back. So what happened?

There are reports that envoys had reached Amalric from the Byzantine Emperor suggesting that Egypt was plump, weak, and there to be taken before someone else went and took it. There are reports that word had reached him that Shawar had again reached out to Nur ad-Din or that Shawar’s son al-Kamil and Salah ad-Din were arranging to marry each other’s sisters to cement an alliance. There is mention that the Master of the Knights Hospitaller, badly in need of the spoils of a successful campaign may had a hand in the decision.

Whatever influenced the choice, what happened was that King Amalric had re-entered Egypt and this time without an invitation. He’d begun in October of 1168 and reached Bilbais in early November, violently sacking it without delay. He’d marched on, and at this point, as Amalric’s army approached, Fustat burned, the fire generally, though as I mentioned a few episodes ago, not universally, taken to have been ordered by Shawar to deny Amalric its spoils and its use as a staging point for taking Cairo. And then the king swung his army north, settling into camp and beginning negotiations with Shawar, which is an interesting step and not at all indicative of a man who actually wanted to take the city and hold it. It seems instead that he was there to again extort from the Fatimids what he could, always a very profitable move in the past. This looked less of an invasion then, than it did a raid. But even so, he had to know Nur ad-Din would respond.

And indeed he did. According to Ibn al-Athir, he dispatched Salah ad-Din to Homs to bring Shirkuh in to receive his orders, and, at Shirkuh’s urging, he ordered a reluctant Salah ad-Din along on this, the third of Shirkuh’s Egyptian expeditions. Salah ad-Din is said to have wanted not to go, content enough with the adventures he’d already had and those lands around Aleppo. But he went. It was back to Egypt for the two of them and this time back with enough men that they wouldn’t necessarily need to fight a battle. 

Once again, as the Syrian army moved south, Amalric made to intercept them. Shirkuh, who seems to have a had real knack for this aspect of war in particular, took his army safely past and, again, into position outside of Cairo, from where he could make a threat, maybe a deal, and from where he could dissuade Amalric from his Egyptian ambitions. Amalric, apparently not there for open battle, was suitably dissuaded. 

By January 2nd, the King of Jerusalem was out of country, and by January 8th, Shirkuh and Salah ad-Din were in to Cairo. They’d likely waited until Amarlic and his men were well away, until Shawar had no outside forces he could drag in and involve in his struggle to retain power, until an audience with the Fatimid caliph could be arranged where Shirkuh was clothed in a robe of honour, until the 18th, when Shawar was killed.

The soon to be ex-vizier had tried of course to avoid his fate. But without Amalric, he didn’t have the strength to keep Shirkuh out. He tried buttering Shirkuh up with gifts, visited his camp daily in full and flashy parades, softening Shirkuh to his side a little, but apparently it was our Salah ad-Din who spoke up. “While Shawar holds power,” he said, “we have no authority.” 

By some accounts, Shawar was actually plotting an arrest of Shirkuh and his officers at a friendly banquet. By some accounts, it was Salah ad-Din himself who unhorsed Shawar riding out one day, and who kept him in a tent waiting for Shirkuh to return while “one messenger after another came from the caliph’s palace to demand Shawar’s head.” And then at some point during the day, they got what they asked for. The palace, the caliph, had no use for a vizier who could not keep the caliphate secure. Much better to have a new vizier entirely and a friendly Syrian force of their own to go with it. Shawar, for all his clever maneuvering, was left outmaneuvered and without an army powerful enough to make up the difference, and so he died and into his place with silky smoothness went Shirkuh, the uncle of Salah ad-Din.

But when I say silky smoothness, I really mean that it was a quick turnover, like Shawar looking on from the afterlife might well have felt everyone had moved on a bit too quickly and may not have even actually cared about him after all. In was not smooth in the sense that it lacked for disturbance. Shirkuh’s assumption of the office of vizier experienced pretty severe opposition at first, from angry mobs in the street, and it seems they were only dispersed when he said they could plunder his predecessor’s palace to their heart’s content, a good card to have in hand if you could afford it. 

That bit of unseemly ugliness aside though, there he was, Shirkuh, vizier of Fatimid Egypt. In his circle now was al-Qadi al-Fadil, who we know well, and in his circle was Moses ben Maimon. And of course Salah ad-Din was there. In Egypt, he’d already won some renown, in battle and in holding together Alexandria under siege. And he’d have more opportunities, much more, to make of himself something far greater than could up to this point have been imagined. For those, he’d just need to wait a little longer, and we will just need to wait until after this quick break.

The scene is this: It’s February of 1169 and Salah ad-Din’s uncle, Asad ad-Dīn Shīrkūh bin Shādhī, is dead in the bathtub. He was a tough man, blind in one eye and noted for his energy, endurance, experience as campaigner, and, I would hope, his uncanny trick of not encountering enemy armies. However, he was not known for his good health. He was overly fond of rich foods, and as he’d aged had become quite overweight. Very likely the comforts that came with being made vizier to the Fatimid caliph had done him no favours, and clearly he had some other bodily complications, for after one last heavy meal, he’d retired for a nice hot bath, experienced a seizure of some sort, and died. King Amalric, when he heard the news, was said to have dropped to the ground to thank God and declare himself ready to return to Egypt. And given how things had been going, one wonders how the death was received by Shirkuh’s supposed master back in Damascus.

When Shirkuh expired in the tub, that was Nur ad-Din’s emir, his general who had won an advantage in Egypt against the efforts of Dirgham, of Shawar, and of Amalric, but since then, Shirkuh’s successes had brought his position into question. What was he even doing there in becoming vizier, and where were his real loyalties? Were they still with the Sunni Nur ad-Din back in Damascus? With the Shia Fatimid Caliph Al-Adid, now his caliph in Cairo? Or with himself, with the dream of an empire of his own and the power to realize it. 

Nur ad-Din is said to have rejoiced at the news that Egypt was “conquered,” ordering the news announced and publicly celebrated, but there are also hints, in letters at the fringes of his family, that he was displeased with what Shirkuh had done and might have liked to have done something about it. He might well have found the opportunity to replace his man in Egypt a welcome one. And maybe it’s a mistake to think in terms of “his man” and of master and servant. It’s true that Nur ad-Din was a patron to Shirkuh and his family. It’s true that he had contributed men and money to Shirkuh’s expedition. But maybe it’s better to think of this as an independent body of fortune seekers, seizing treasure with Nur ad-Din’s blessing, but not under his command as a unit of his army. 

To whatever degree he was Nur ad-Din’s representative, when Shirkuh died, it was of course not Nur ad-Din who would choose Shirkuh’s successor in the role of Fatimid vizier. By some accounts it was the surviving emirs among Shirkuh’s forces who made the selection, with some sources admitting that there was perhaps a little disagreement before it was made. But according to Ibn al-Athir, it was the Fatimid caliph and his advisors who chose Salah ad-Din, and you can see how Salah ad-Din might make sense to them. 

He was one of the Syrians’ own; they likely would not have accepted any less. And he was, as far as al-Athir tells us, the least powerful of the emirs, the one who did not have a military following of his own, an ideal choice to try to create division in the Syrian ranks and for the Fatimids to find themselves a vizier they could control, one who may have been thought of by his people as admirable enough if also unambitious and somewhat inexperienced. If this telling is to be accepted, and I’m not sure the idea that Salah ad-Din, Shirkuh’s nephew, did not have a following necessarily should be, then the caliph and his advisors might have looked at Salah ad-Din and thought, “Here is an appealing candidate, at least palatable to our belligerent Syrian visitors and also someone we can bend and shape, more easily controlled than his uncle, certainly.” But in that, they would only have the first part right.

As had been the case when Shirkuh replaced Shawar just three months earlier, when Salah ad-Din assumed the role of vizier with all its substantial powers, he did not do so unopposed. There were some few among the Syrians who turned immediately for home, unhappy with the turn of events, and then, as was written, those who remained “[had] conquered… but they [had] come amongst a people whom they [did] not know… and they [saw] faces that frown[ed] at them.” There were indeed many within Egypt who would still have wanted these Sunni outsiders ousted, and there were many without who still viewed Fatimid Egypt as a rich and perhaps still poorly defended prize, the King of Jerusalem and Byzantine Emperor among them. 

Salah ad-Din’s first challenges would be domestic. He spread Shirkuh’s wealth generously about, gradually moved Fatimid forces away from Cairo, and then faced down a military uprising and defused a treacherous plot.

The story goes that a powerful eunuch of the palace named Mu’tamin al-Khalifa was at the head of a conspiracy of those who took issue with the way land and power was being parcelled out among these newcomers and that he turned to a familiar would-be friend to help rectify the problem. Very much like Shawar before him, he wrote to Amalric, urging him to attack Egypt at once. The message was dictated to a Jewish scribe and sewn into the sole of a courier’s shoe. But sadly for him, that written message went astray. 

One of Salah ad-Din’s informants is supposed to have seen the courier, to have noticed this character who dressed poorly but in the best of shoes. The courier was arrested and promptly gave up the Jewish scribe. The Jewish scribe was arrested and promptly gave up the eunuch. And Mu’tamin al-Khalifa, likely not knowing that his plot had already unravelled, left Cairo for his countryside home and was ambushed and killed. 

These events are portrayed with some unanimity in our sources, but that doesn’t mean they went exactly this way. Yaacov Lēv points out that this combination, all in one story, of a, quote, “despised black eunuch who holds the reins of power behind an Isma’ili heretic and uses a Jewish infidel to conspire with the Crusaders, a religious enemy, is too much to swallow,” that the discovery of the whole conspiracy due to mismatched clothes is something of a literary convention, that the sources are overwhelmingly Sunni, and that whole thing feels very much like the justification for a violent crackdown. The narrative, in short, should be treated with suspicion.

As for the uprising I mentioned, that took the form of a reported 50,000 Sudanese soldiers taking to the streets the day after al-Khalifa’s death, and taking up positions in the great square, where they attracted rebellious Egyptian emirs and commoners to their cause. And this was not just an uprising. It was also something of a referendum on the question of the Syrian presence and influence, and in it, the most important vote would be cast by the palace. The chosen site for the face-off, chosen by the Sudanese, was directly in front of two palaces, two buildings held by palace troops. 

Come to us, the rebels seemed to be saying, and we’ll see which side the people on those palaces support.

It was an awkward situation to deal with, and one that Salah ad-Din approached cautiously, likely waiting for some sign from the caliph or his people, some indication, but such a thing was slow to come. Still, when Christian Armenian archers from atop one of those palaces started to shoot down at the Syrians, Salah ad-Din ordered that they be burned out. And this pushed someone within the palace to finally make their choice. Word came out to Salah ad-Din and his men, that they were to drive the other side from the city. Demoralized, and no doubt shocked to not have the support of their caliph, the Sudanese retreated from the square.  

Back down the Qasabat al-Qahira, they were pushed, Syrian forces hemming them in from the side streets and setting fire to the quarter of the city where the Sudanese lived. Lacking homes and the support of their caliph, they lost their will to continue. Quarter was agreed upon, but it does not seem to have been honoured for somewhere out across the Nile the retreating soldiers were hunted down and destroyed almost in their entirety, and it was Salah ad-Din’s older brother Turan-Shah who did this. The new vizier of Fatimid Egypt only wanted those around him who he could be sure of.

Salah ad-Din solidified his grip on power. He turned back challenges to his authority and to Egypt’s independence. He saw off a Byzantine assault by boat that was to have been coordinated with Amalric but sputtered out when the crusaders, who had already negotiated trading rights in Egypt with the Italian city states, failed to show in time and then the allies fell into disagreement before storms finally scattered their ships. He wrote that he had “dashed the hopes of the Egyptians, the Franks, the Byzantine Emperor, the Genoese and the races of the Rum.” He strengthened fortifications and even went on the offensive, twice raiding the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and he strengthened his own personal position, surrounding himself with family members: an uncle, three brothers, two nephews and his father Ayyub. He disposed of distrusted emirs and civil servants. 

There are some indications that Nur ad-Din was disappointed with his actions, with his taking the role in the first place and then failing to wait for orders or at least advice before spending all that money. But on the other hand, he did actually do as Salah ad-Din requested in sending his family, and he may also have been distracted by the severe earthquake which then hit Syria, leaving wreckage in many of its cities and much work that had to be attended to much closer to home than Egypt.

While Nur ad-Din settled matters in Syria and dealt with the falling out of the death of a brother, Salah ad-Din was putting down roots round the Nile. He had his brother in charge of ‘Aidhab, the Red Sea port that David ben Maimon passed through two episodes ago, and his father in charge of Alexandria and Damietta. He was converting religious sites, appointing emirs, and generally creating a social web to support his position or perhaps, given the chance, to raise it upwards. That chance, when it came in 1171, came not for himself exactly. It came for the Abbasid caliph, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t take advantage of it.

Sources tell us that in June of 1171, Nur ad-Din sent word to Salah ad-Din that the Abbasid caliph’s name was to be included in the Friday sermon. It was no small thing. To proclaim the Abbasid caliph rather than the Fatimid one during the Friday sermon was to declare for a side with the kind of religious support that could entirely change the situation on the ground. This was not a question of tossing off some words of appeasement to earn the support of a party or parties; this was closer to placing the thumb of god on the scales and tipping them towards who should or should not be allowed to rule. What was being asked was that Egypt be made Abbasid, to be brought within the realm of the caliph in Baghdad rather than the one in Cairo.

The houses of certain Egyptian emirs were surrounded and Caliph al-’Adid told that those killed were only those who rebelled against him. Some said that Salah ad-Din was already stripping al-’Adid of his belongings, even his horses, so that he could no longer go out on public processions; others, that vizier and caliph were friendly enough that Salah ad-Din would go unescorted into the palace for days on end. Maybe both things can be true. 

Al-’Adid fell deeply ill, poisoned some said, perhaps by himself, or reacting to a bad fall. He’s supposed to have called for Salah ad-Din then, to ask him to care for his children, and Salah ad-Din, who later regretted it, to have refused to go, thinking some treachery to be planned. The end was closing in.

It was June of 1171 when Nur ad-Din had written, but Salah ad-Din had not acted immediately. He’d sought advice, on the legalities and the advisability of arranging for the Friday prayer to be said in the Abbasid caliph’s name, and he’d made arrangements. It was the 10th of September when those arrangements bore fruit.

On September 10th, the Friday prayer was given, and under threat of death, the preacher did not give it in al-’Adid’s name. When al-’Adid asked and heard that no name at all was given he responded, with what I imagine was despair or perhaps grim acceptance, that the next Friday, it would be in someone’s name. Al-’Adid knew that it would not be in his. 

On September 11th, Salah ad-Din paraded his men in a great show of force through the city. On September 13th, Caliph al-’Adid was dead. On September 17th, it was as al-’Adid had predicted, and the Friday prayer was said in the name of the Abbasid caliph al-Mustadi’.

Members of the Fatimid family lived still, clothed, supported, and kept in the palace,  but the dynasty as a real power was done, finished. It was now the hour of the Abbasids in Egypt, or more immediately the Ayyubids, the family of Salah ad-Din, for he, born into hurried exile, was now essentially lord of all Egypt. And that’s where we’ll leave him, in Cairo or al-Qahira, “the City Victorious,” perhaps already then in 1171 looking out towards Syria and wondering what might come from that direction, wondering if Nur ad-Din would stir and stretch out towards him. Nur ad-Din may have dreamed of uniting Syria and Egypt, but it would not happen quite as he imagined and it would not happen yet. 

If you’re listening to this on Patreon, then please do stay with me for a little something extra, today on the tale of a 12th-century man who was, rather strikingly, both bishop and pirate. If not, thanks as always for listening, and I’ll talk to you again soon.