Salah ad-Din 2: A Syrian Election

Salah ad-Din


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  • 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.

  • Man, John. Saladin: The Life, the Legend, and the Islamic Empire. Bantam Press, 2015.

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  • Waterson, James. The Ismaili Assassins: A History of Medieval Murder. Frontline Books, 2008.


In the fall of 1171, Salah ad-Din sat as sultan in Egypt. The young Fatimid Caliph, al-Adid, was dead, a situation he seemed to view with some ambivalence. “If I had known he was going to die,” he remarked to his advisor, “I would not have crushed him by removing his name from the [sermon].” “If he had known you would have kept his name [in the sermon],” Al-Qadi al-Fadil replied, “he would not have died.”

However he felt about the path taken, Salah ad-Din now took charge of Egypt, seeing off challenges from without, from the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Byzantine Empire, and from within, likely forestalling much rebellion by show of force, stopping others by its application or by the efficacy of his informants. 

Members of the Fatimid dynasty lived still, and they had their supporters, as a political power with more than two centuries of history and as a religious one that claimed descent from Ali himself, the first Shia imam, cousin of the prophet Muhammed, and his first male follower. Displacing that dynasty was no small matter, and Hafizi Ismailis continued to look to al-Adid’s captive son as imam and others after. Some of these supporters would be involved in conspiracies that drew in a wide variety of plotters, Assassins, and disgruntled officials. But Salah ad-Din would not succumb to such internal opposition, would not lose his hold on Egypt now that he had it.

He had installed his family in positions of power, installed Sunni institutions where there had been Shia ones, and, though he remained in the vizier’s palace for now, he started to stretch his legs a little. There was an expedition which was sent out to Tunisia, another to Libya, a brother who was proving a financial burden in Egypt who went to Yemem.

No longer was Salah ad-Din a man with three masters, two of them competing caliphs, and after taking power, he did as anyone would. He minted new coins, on one side the name of the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad, and on the other his own as Sultan in Egypt. In time, he would come to be more even than that. 

Hello and welcome. My name is Devon, and this is Human Circus: Journeys in the Medieval World, the podcast where I focus on medieval travellers, the histories they were part of, and the way they illuminate an interconnect medieval world. Just a quick note before we start, that I am on Patreon and you can find me there at from my website, which is Follow up note: instead of purchasing an indeterminate but small number of avocados a month, you could be supporting that Patreon which will always be at just the right stage of gently yielding infirmness. Final note: though all contributions are hugely appreciated, if you do so at the $5 level, you can listen to this episode ad-free and with extra-special  bonus content at the end. And now, back to the story, the story of Salah ad-Din, part two. 

Last episode, I may have left you wondering what made this Salah ad-Din character so special. What kind of great leader, conqueror, and unifier was this, you may well have asked. He’d followed, perhaps unwillingly, as his uncle had dealt with the difficult business of Fatimid Egypt, a moderately successful tag along you might say. He’d been at the right place at the right time to be chosen as vizier, maybe as a compromise candidate, maybe even the weakest candidate by some accounts. And then he’d managed to avoid capsizing the boat just long enough to get the nod from Nur ad-Din and put the final boot in the Fatimid Caliphate. What was so fantastic about that? Today, we start to find out.

Leaving aside any egregious downplaying of his early accomplishments that I might have just committed, the best of Salah ad-Din was still to come. It is not for having Egypt flutter down into his lap that he’s remembered most. It’s for what came after, and that “after” can broadly be seen as defined by victories, of a sort, won against three imposing adversaries, against Zengids, Assassins, and Crusaders, against Nur ad-Din, Rashid ad-Din Sinan, and Richard the Lionheart. Today, I aim to get to the first two, and I’ll begin with the first victory. It was one for which he would initially not need to strike a blow, but for which many, many more would eventually be required.

Salah ad-Din’s relationship with Nur ad-Din was not perfect. Yes, they’d both done what the other had asked, broadly speaking. Salah ad-Din had arranged for the Abbasid caliph to be named in the sermon, as Nur ad-Din had directed, and Nur ad-Din had arranged for the sultan’s family members to join him, as Salah ad-Din had requested. However, this did not mean that the new Egyptian sultan was quite doing everything that was desired of him. 

After taking power, Salah ad-Din had sent a large lump sum back to Syria, but of all the wealth of Egypt, Nur ad-Din didn’t have in mind just a single gift, no matter how generous. He wanted what everyone wants: a reliable, repeating income source, one that he could make plans around. Not a one-time payment. And what he wanted, he looked for, much like how a government would look for missing funds now. He sent in the auditors, and Salah ad-Din opened his books, showing how Egypt wasn’t just a money making machine. It was an expensive ship to run, and much as you, your boss, or any large business concern might react to being audited, Salah ad-Din was not pleased. “Knife cuts and needle pricks,” he called it, and who could hold it against him? 

He was out there trying to govern Egypt, and all he was getting from Syria was the demand for more money. “A country like this cannot be run except with a large amount of money,” he pointed out; the troops had their costs and the “great men of state” their accustomed luxuries. His father, not quite yet dead by horse fall, was said to have advised his son to be tactful, not to make any unpleasant noises, but also not to let Nur ad-Din have a scrap of sugar-cane or a single gold coin.Tensions were building and no down-payment, no matter how substantial, was going to fix that.

For now, Nur ad-Din had other things to worry about closer to home. He was in amongst the territorial confusion of the Byzantine Empire, northern Crusader States, Seljuk Sultanate, and Lesser Armenia, and he was marching north to deal with disputes in that direction. But that would not hold his attention for long. He had not forgotten about Egypt, and increasingly he may have been looking to Salah ad-Din with suspicion. Did the sultan’s lack of enthusiasm for raiding the Crusader States result from a lack of desire to remove that barrier between himself and his supposed ally in Syria? The contemporary historian Ibn al-Athir certainly thought so, and he also had an Ayyubid family council meeting to consider the threat of Nur ad-Din. 

Salah ad-Din moved his pieces into place, gathering his men and means outside Cairo, and in the spring of 1174, Nur ad-Din called in troops from Mosul, Diyar Bakr, and al-Jazira. His man in Egypt was on his way back, bringing his report on the Egyptian audit, and events at least seemed to be moving towards open conflict.

But that report never reached Nur ad-Din, and his conflict with Salah ad-Din never quite reached open warfare because on May 6th, he received, quote, “a command from God that he could not disobey.” Nur ad-Din, out playing polo, went into a sudden rage and some kind of fit. He was brought back to the citadel at Damascus and fell immediately and terribly ill. 

Al-Athir, who was among the doctors called to his side, described finding him on the verge of death in small room. They advised that he be moved into a larger, well-lit room; they advised bleeding, but he only replied, scarcely able to make himself heard, that you did not bleed a man of sixty. The doctors made other attempts, but “they did him no good, and he grew worse, and he died.” As Sunni historian Abu Shama would write of him in the next century:

“He took the lead in everything that was good about his age. He re-established order everywhere… . In the lands he conquered, he found the resources necessary to continue Holy War, so that he made it easy for his successors to continue the same course. … In war, he distinguished himself by his firmness, by his use of the bow and by the vigour of his swordsmanship … His script was fine. He took pleasure in reading religious books, and followed the traditions of the Prophet. Passionate in his determination to do good, he was restrained in the pleasures of the table and the harem, moderate in spending and simple in his tastes.”

William of Tyre wrote that he was “the greatest persecutor of the Christian name and faith, but [also] a just ruler, astute and far-sighted and, according to the traditions of his race, a religious man.”

Nur ad-Din had fought to unite the Muslims of the region against crusader incursions, like his father had fought with substantial successes against the crusader states themselves, winning many victories. But like his father, he was now dead, and unlike his father had left only an eleven year old boy to continue his line. Syria was vulnerable, and if all went well, Salah ad-Din might be returning home in strength.

However, he was not alone in having an eye on Nur ad-Din’s seat of power. If the old man was dead, the Zengid line was not. There was that son to be considered, his eunuch regent Gumushtegin, various clusters of Nur ad-Din’s foremost officials and emirs, and there were two nephews as well, who, had they been able to cooperate, would have been a real threat. There was the possibility that someone else, King Amalric of Jerusalem say, might take advantage, but then, after he had attempted to nibble at the edges of his old enemy’s territory, dysentery would take him, and there was going to be a period of regency before his son would come of age. Salah ad-Din would have a real shot at Syria. That didn’t mean he needed to take it though.

While he would express his sadness for Nur ad-Din’s death in a letter to the man’s son, calling it “an earthquake shock,” the loss to Islam of its Alexander, the new circumstances brought him a kind of freedom, an independence that he’d lacked before. No one held anything over his head now. If he desired it, he had his separation from Syria. He could be who he wanted to be, perhaps a new Fatimid emperor in Egypt, perhaps a new Nur ad-Din stretching out from Syria in holy war. His future was open. So he could wait.

And that meant that he was still in Egypt when William II of Sicily’s ill-conceived Norman invasion washed up on its shores. The assault was intended to be a co-production with Amalric’s people, but there was so much the Norman king didn’t know. He didn’t know that Amalric was dead, that the Byzantine emperor - not a friend of William’s - had sent word of warning to Salah ad-Din, or that when he landed at Alexandria, word would reach Salah ad-Din by pigeon in a matter of hours. When news arrived, possibly false, of Salah ad-Din’s imminent arrival in force only three days later, the Normans, already having suffered successful sallies from with the walls that burned their mangonels, were from driven the shores. William had accomplished little save for allowing Salah ad-Din to establish himself as defender of Islam in the absence of Nur ad-Din.

Salah ad-Din waited. He lingered. He mustered forces and moved to intervene against a Crusader threat to Syria, then halted as that threat quickly subsided. Things hung on a fine balance. There’d been somewhat worried letters from and around Syria, indications that while some emirs were in favour of arresting any Salah ad-Din supporters on sight and keeping Syria Salah ad-Din free, other leading figures opted for a friendlier approach, if one founded on similar concerns. “Let us not remove him from amongst us,” wrote the qadi of Damascus of Salah ad-Din, “or else he may remove himself from our allegiance … he is stronger than we are.”

In the end, Salah ad-Din would be invited to Damascus by its governor. The man had previously rebuked Salah ad-Din in writing for his obvious ambitions, his unsightly “designs on the house of the one who established [him],” which “[did] not befit [his] good character.” But something had changed. Perhaps the intrigues which had already toppled one prominent and powerful family alarmed the governor; perhaps it was the prospect of containing to preserve his city within the strife of a divided Syria.

By late October, 1174, Salah ad-Din had made the leap. He’d moved quickly when the decision was made, perhaps bringing as few as 700 horsemen. He wanted to be mobile and fast, and he was certain that support would find him, for what he lacked in force with this expedition he made up for in money. The wealth of Egypt would be spent in conquering Syria. Their coins and soon, they hoped, their success would supply their army. Painting a slightly more idealistic picture, Salah ad-Din said that he and his men “dawned on the people like light in the darkness,” that “the people rushed to [him] … in joy at [the coming of his] rule.”

Salah ad-Din was careful to enter Damascus not as a conqueror but as a protector, a saviour. He began with prayer in the Umayyad Mosque, returned to his father’s old house, spread around the wealth he had brought with him, and did away with a particularly unpopular tax. He claimed that he had come to rescue the city from those who had held back from holy war, to unify Islam, to see to the cause of young Al-Salih, the Zengid boy whose rule he acknowledged.

However, this posturing was not accepted by all, and Damascus was not all of Syria. Accusations poured in of treachery and naked self-enrichment. An embassy from Aleppo arrived, and its leader, who had been with Salah ad-Din as part of Shirkuh’s third venture, is said to have brandished his sword at Salah ad-Din and proclaimed “these swords that gave you the kingdom of Egypt will drive you back [to it].”

Still, if he had not entirely won over its people, its emirs, officers, and governors, Salah ad-Din now had a foothold in Syria, and as we’ll see, he would make good use of it. But first, a quick break.

After occupying Damascus, Salah ad-Din did not sit still. He went out on tour, moving quickly. He wasn’t looking to remain isolated, or for grinding siege victories; he was looking for support, for quick capitulations and comings over to his side from the cities and fortresses of Syria. Only forty days after entering Damascus, on December 8th, he was outside Homs where he was joined by one of Nur ad-Din’s foremost commanders, and on the 10th, having not reached terms, he was capturing the town, if not the citadel, and on to Hama. 

At each step he sought to justify his actions, writing of his full effort to achieve peaceful victories and his honest intentions not to snatch up a kingdom for himself, “but to set up the standard of the Holy War.” He also emphasized that with each new acquisition he intervened to halt unlawful and immoral practices. He was, at least in his own depiction, unifying and purifying.

The surrender of Hama having been arranged, it was on to Aleppo, one of two remaining Zengid capitals and home to Nur ad-Din’s son, Al-Salih. Salah ad-Din wrote home to his nephew that he hoped “that God, Exalted be He, [would] cause things to proceed peacefully without the need of war,” but soon he wrote again. He had been acting with restraint, tried to calm the outbreak of outright war and been welcomed happily by some soldiers and citizens, but he was not yet inside and saw no immediate possibility for easy entry. 

Here, he faced a city where citizens and garrison were hostile to him, where a tearful speech on the part of al-Salih begging their protection had strengthened their resolve. Their sorties beyond the walls disrupted the siege, and there was a much more serious threat too. There were assassins, as in Assassins with a capital A. 

It had been a fairly grim time outside the city, what with the cold winter winds and rains, the climate “more than a body can bear,” the forays of the city’s hardened defenders. And then thirteen men with knives had entered the camp and attacked during the communal meal.

Gumushtegin, the regent, had looked out to the besieging army at his walls and decided to address the problem at the top. What use were clean hands if he was to lose his head, or his power? He turned to an unlikely ally for assistance, his message reaching Rashid al-Din Sinan in the mountains west of Hama, perhaps arriving by carrier pigeon at one in his network of castles and strongholds.

Rashid ad-Din Sinan was the leader of the Syrian Nizari Ismailis, or as he was sometimes called in Latin sources, the Old Man of the Mountain. And those sources paint a colourful picture, if not necessarily an accurate one. Benjamin of Tudela, travelling through the area in the 1160s and early 70s, had this to say:

“Under Mount Lebanon … reside the people called Assassins, who do not believe in the tenets of [Islam], but in those of one whom they consider like unto the Prophet… . They fulfill whatever he commands them, whether it be a matter of life or death. He goes by the name of Sheikh al-Hashishin, or the Old Man… . The Assassins are faithful to one another by the command of the Old Man and make themselves the dread of everyone, because their devotion leads them gladly to risk their lives, and to kill even kings when commanded.”

William of Tyre, familiar with them through to their negotiations with King Almaric, wrote of them also, saying:

“Their subjection and obedience to [the Old Man] is such that they regard nothing as too harsh or difficult and eagerly undertake even the most dangerous dangerous tasks at his command. For instance, if there happens to be a prince who has incurred the hatred or distrust of this people, [their leader] places a dagger in the hand of one or of several of his followers; those [chosen] hasten away at once, regardless of the consequences of the deed or the probability of personal escape. Zealously they labour for as long as may be necessary, until at last the favourable chance comes which enables them to carry out the mandate of [their lord].”

Seljuk viziers, Syrian emirs, Turkic governors, two Abbasid caliphs, the count of Tripoli, and not too many years into the future, Conrad of Montferrat, who would essentially be King of Jerusalem, they would all fall to the followers of this man, this figure of myth and legend who gives every indication of cultivating and manipulating this image. 

When Gumushtegin had approached Sinan he’d found him more than willing to cooperate. In Salah ad-Din, Sinan saw the man who had brought an end to the Shi’a Fatimid Caliphate, who had brought the hated name of the Abbasid caliph into Cairo’s Friday prayers, and who was a threat to unify the region under Sunni Islam. So his thirteen men went in.

They got close to Salah ad-Din, and but for the watchful Khumartegin, lord of a fortress in western Syria, they might have succeeded. As it was, he recognized them, for he knew them from fighting them. “What has brought you here?” he shouted as they approached. “On what business have you come?” 

Having challenged them, he quickly died in the fighting that followed, but he had raised the alarm. At least one of the assassins actually reached Salah ad-Din himself before being beheaded by one of his emirs. Close as it had come, the attempt had failed.

Salah ad-Din wrote to his brother Farrukh-Sha in Egypt with the news, and with a warning. “The knives have been distributed,” he told him, and the money spread round; Farrukh-Shah should be on his guard at all times and only trust men whose beliefs he knew for certain. And he was right to be cautious. It was not his last time crossing with the people of Rashad ad-Din Sinan.

The enemies of Salah ad-Din had evidently decided to exhaust every possible avenue to solve the problem. They’d looked to the Nizari Ismailis, and they’d even reached out to Raymond of Tripoli for assistance, offering money and returned hostages, but this only opened up a way for Salah ad-Din to leave Aleppo gracefully and to again declare himself a saviour of Islam for seeing off the resultant crusader threat. So things were well for Salah ad-Din even if he hadn’t quite managed to pry open Aleppo yet, hadn’t dealt with the surviving Zengids, yet.

He would have dealings with those Zengid princes in the months to come. There’d be stand-offs and swaps, negotiations in which one fortress or another was given up, talk of hostages exchanged, and posturing as to just who could claim to being Nur ad-Din’s son’s protector, who was forging agreements with the crusader state leadership, who was bitterly complaining in letters to the caliph in Baghdad about it. 

And then, in the spring of 1175, on April 13th, Salah ad-Din closed with the forces of his Zengid adversaries, not behind walls but out in the open. And however the battle played out, it played out extremely quickly. There is talk that the matter was settled beforehand, by negotiations, bribery, or betrayal, and maybe that was true. Or maybe the Ayyubid forces were simply superior or benefited from distrust among their opponents, between the soldiers from Aleppo and those from Mosul. Salah ad-Din, at the centre of the line, spoke of having shattered the enemy like glass and without loss to his side. 

In keeping with future generosity, he gave orders that the wounded and captured were to be released rather than killed or sold. These men who fought against him today might well be lining up on his side in the future, for that was how it went: a man serving in a garrison for one master could just as easily soon be serving another were his fortress to change hands.  

In the aftermath of the April 13th victory, which, conclusive as it had been in itself, had not in fact brought regional dominance or caused Aleppo to open its gates, Salah ad-Din wrote to Baghdad asking for letters of investiture covering Egypt, Yemen, the Maghreb, and Syria, including, quote, “all the lands contained in the [Zengid] state, together with everything that may be conquered for the Abbasid cause by our swords and our armies.” He wanted the nod of approval for what he had, and also what he had yet to win, but when the caliphal envoy arrived with robes of honour and the requested paperwork, he only got the first part and also a pointed reminder that he really ought to be attacking Jerusalem and protecting Egypt. 

The caliph, while not taking sides, seemed to be pointing him away from Syria, while Salah ad-Din, in his reply, pointed the finger back at the “Lord of Mosul,” that he had “wronged the Caliph’s servant and used his tongue and his pen against him” and he had words for the treachery of Aleppo too. Salah ad-Din would not be leaving Syria to pursue more southern interests just yet.

In fact, he settled in Damascus for nearly a year, weathering the drought that had followed the winter and strengthening his position or at least trying to hold it all together. In an otherwise optimistic letter back to Egypt, there was an order that taxes be collected and the money sent on; if it didn’t come immediately, then, quote, “ears will feign deafness, although tongues have answered the summons, and hosts will disperse.” Soon after this, and despite an agreement of peace, in early 1176, soldiers came from Mosul again, this time with Nur ad-Din’s nephew Saif among them, and again Salah ad-Din moved to meet them and won. 

Again, he had been victorious in open battle and again he refrained from bloodily pressing his advantage, had refrained from giving up his ability to claim the moral advantage. Officers were well-treated and released. What he did do was plunder his enemy’s camp and, among other forms of treasure, capture Saif’s collection of birds - parrots, nightingales, and doves included - and have them returned to Saif with this message: “Tell him to go back to playing with these birds, for they are safe and will not bring him into dangerous situations.” The losers of the battle were sent “naked, bare-foot and impoverished, blaming one another for oath-breaking,” off to Aleppo. And around Aleppo, Salah ad-Din set up about knocking down the fortifications that surrounded that strong point, for example the castle of Azaz, in May 1176, where Rashid ad-Din Sinan’s men found him again.

This time, there were four of them, and they got closer than the thirteen had. Pretending to be bodyguards, they got close enough that Salah ad-Din’s armour was pierced and his face cut before they were cut down. They got close enough that one threw him to the ground and died wrestling over control of the knife in his hand. They got close enough that from then on he had a stockade put up around his tent, that he would not speak to people he didn’t know, and that when he rode, if he saw anyone he didn’t recognize, he’d order them removed from his party. 

If the assassins weren’t actually assassinating him, then they were certainly starting to affect him. His attackers had gotten close enough that after a new round of siege warfare did not cause Aleppo to crack, he turned his attention squarely upon them. They may have appeared like ghosts in his camp, but they were flesh and blood. Their fortresses were stone. They could be besieged, starved, and slain, or so it was to be hoped.

However, after as little as six days of sustained assault upon their castle of Masyaf, Salah ad-Din abandoned the effort. What had happened? Was he overawed by the impregnable fortress of the legendary assassins or the victim of some manner of wizardry on their part? There are stories of a glowing light descending from the castle and into his tent, of his waking with a cry to find a figure, identified as Rashid ad-Din Sinan himself, slipping from his tent and leaving behind a poisoned dagger and a written death threat. But his attackers had nearly gotten to him before without resorting to metamorphosis, and there's no reason to think that on this, their third attempt, they would have refrained from killing him in his sleep. 

More believable are reports that there were threats made against his uncle, that further death threats were made against his emirs and all his family if he would not negotiate, and that news had come in from the south that Amalric’s successor, Baldwin the Leper, was taking advantage of the situation to come raiding within 10 kilometres of Damascus. There was no great mystery, no magical masters of murder, needed for Salah ad-Din to turn away from Masyaf.

Salah ad-Din halted briefly in Damascus, marrying Nur ad-Din’s widow and joining his sister with her brother, solidifying his connection to the Zengid family and its legacy. And then he returned to Egypt. After all that money spent, that struggle in diplomatic maneuvering and open combat, he had, thus far, only been partly successful in uniting Egypt and Syria, was no closer to making Aleppo his own, and had nothing at all to show for the caliph’s wishes that he push the crusaders out of Jerusalem and the coastal cities. All of that would come, in time, but first Salah ad-Din would be taking a break in Egypt, and we will be taking a much briefer break here.

Of course, Salah ad-Din’s break in Egypt was not really a break. He was the founder of a dynasty, not the sort of late-dynasty sultan prone to immersing himself in overindulgence. He was busying himself with rebuilding the Egyptian navy and arranging envoys to Genoa to secure its materials, with starting work on an enormous wall to enclose Fustat and Cairo, with strengthening the fortifications of his other cities, and with less military matters also: a college in Alexandria, questions of internal trade, the lifting of a pilgrims’ toll covering travel on the Red Sea and corresponding replacement payments to Mecca to make up the loss, a move of significant PR value. 

Meanwhile, his enemies also were not resting. The rulers of Aleppo had formed agreements with the crusader states that had involved a release of prisoners, including a man named Reynald de Chatillon who would be Salah ad-Din’s fierce adversary in years to come, and there were rumours that those crusader states might again be considering an attack on Egypt - maybe with the assistance of a Sicilian fleet, a Byzantine one, or a count from Flanders -or that they might instead move against his Syrian holdings. Into the face of these threats, in November of 1177, Salah ad-Din prepared to advance. If his enemies in the Kingdom of Jerusalem went north, he reasoned, the way would be open to him. If they remained, or came south towards Egypt, then “the lance points would be in their breasts,” but as it happened, those lance points would not be in the breasts he hoped for.

At first, matters fell out as they often did for Salah ad-Din. The path seemed clear for victory. His opponent, Baldwin the Leper, was undermanned for the moment, a company of his knights being away elsewhere on campaign, and Salah ad-Din certainly had the numbers on his side as he swept towards Ascalon. There, Baldwin briefly formed up before him, but correctly assessing the strength disparity or heeding those who did, he elected not to fight and fell back behind the walls. And this too was just fine for Salah ad-Din. Rather than remain and lay siege, his troops turned to plundering the countryside, raiding Ramla and Lydda and as far north as Qalqilya. It was a perfectly sensible thing to do if Baldwin would only hold his end up and cling to Ascalon.

That was not what Baldwin would be doing though. Together with the aforementioned Reynald de Chatillon and the Grandmaster of Gaza with his Templars, who had answered Baldwin’s call for aid, he came out from behind the walls and went hunting. 

It’s not clear exactly where he found Salah ad-Din, but it is clear that his coming was unexpected. There was time for trumpets to be sounded, a beating of drums, a desperate effort to muster and to arm. Much of the Egyptian cavalry was either scattered or tangled with the baggage in the midst of a river crossing. Some of those at hand were without immediate arms or armour, their mounts exhausted, and they were hemmed in on one side by a river. They did still have numbers on their side, and they seem to have had their moments in the battle, just not enough to save them.

As things fell apart, Salah ad-Din himself almost fell victim to a trio of horsemen, his bodyguards, in their yellow silks and armour, were required to rush him away as the enemy tore into their baggage and then gave chase. Until nightfall, conquerors pursued the conquered, and if Baldwin had gone all in on the pursuit, who knows what kind of calamitous damage he may have inflicted. As it was, he fell back to Ascalon, not taking part in the chase, and he and his men had done quite enough.

Salah ad-Din’s army was scattered, much of its provisions taken, its retreat marked by days of severe rain and cold. And after the rain, came its total absence as they entered the desert, much of the force still in confusion, many of their horses collapsing, dead. William of Tyre wrote that “it could truly be believed that even the elements had conspired against the enemy.” It was only by the Al-Fadil-hired Bedouin guides that they made it through as they did, but some were betrayed by those same guides and captured, and others surrendered themselves rather than die in the desert for lack of food or water.

In the second week of December, Salah ad-Din and those who made it back with him approached Cairo. Couriers and pigeons had spread out ahead of him putting the best possible face on the loss, but Imad al-Din knew the truth behind the happy words those messengers brought. “I rode out to listen to what they had to say,” he wrote, ”and to hear how God had given victory to the Muslims. But I heard them saying: ‘good news! The Sultan and his family are safe and are arriving with spoils.’ … They would not be giving good news of his safety unless there had been a defeat.” 

Salah ad-Din spared no effort in redeeming the event, going furthest in his letter to the caliph’s vizier that “if one hundred Muslims were martyred, yet thousands of unbelievers were killed… The people said that it was a defeat but through the blessing of the Caliphate it was a victory.” Elsewhere he wrote of God leading them through the waterless desert with no losses of consequence. However, the rise of Salah ad-Din had been suddenly, sharply halted, and the troubles were not limited to Egypt. Syria, which he had, for now, been prevented from intervening in, was in utter chaos. 

Salah ad-Din’s uncle, Shihab ad-Din, was dead in Hama while droughts and the inattentions of his brother Turan-shah, who was said to have “plunged in the sea of his own pleasures,” had done nothing good for the situation in Damascus. Turan-shah had overseen a general weakening and paid the crusader states off in money and ill-afforded grain to protect that weakness. If there was one potential bright spot in the region for Salah ad-Din it was that his rivals in Aleppo were in no position of great strength either. A struggle had been playing out there between al-Salih’s vizier and his regent Gumushtegin, a struggle in which the vizier had been experiencing some success right up until the point he was assassinated, by Assassins. And Gümüshtegin did not get to relish his victory for long because he was in turn blamed for the killing, arrested, tortured to death, and left hanging by his heels from the walls. 

Naturally, all of this was viewed with some interest from the crusader states. It invited a new round of raids led by the Count of Flanders and Raymond of Tripoli, on Hama and then on to the castle of Harim where the besiegers settled in for a bit, their proximity to Antioch something of a double edged sword. Supplies were brought up easily enough, but as William put it, the attackers “were given to dissoluteness and paid more attention to dice and other harmful pleasures than military discipline.” They were going to Antioch for supplies, but more often for “baths, feasts, drunkenness, and other lubricious pleasures.” Meanwhile, the Count of Flanders regularly made noises about heading home. And so the siege dragged on and into early 1178.

In Egypt, Salah ad-Din was aware of all of this. It was a time of rebuilding, rearming, and replacing mounts, a time of keeping up the constant work of caliph buttering. Salah ad-Din could not afford to let up on what was essentially an enormous political campaign. He was already a lord, sultan of Egypt and much of Syria, but he was running for a higher office. He could not afford to stay away from Syria, not for his reputation as the champion of Islam, not for his reputation as a competent ruler who was able to hold his own borders. So, back to Syria he went.

As you might be picking up by now, the story of Salah ad-Din is not one of unremitting successes, a parade of victories built upon some childhood story of hardship and setbacks. Here he was, back in Damascus, appalled at his brother’s debt, hindered by the Nile’s stubborn refusal to flood, troubled by disagreements over the governance of Baalbek, at intermittent war with his competing coreligionists, ever promising to carry the holy war against the crusader states, and occasionally actually skirmishing with crusaders or sending his Egyptian fleet against their coast. 

In early 1179, he’s dealing with a Seljuk Sultan to the north. In August, he’s sapping the walls and storming the castle at Jacob’s Ford, built less than a year earlier, and, despite his deserved reputation for generosity and clemency, massacring many of its defenders. He’s worrying about his finances, the stream of money bleeding out of Yemen. And always, he’s dealing with the Bedouin, and with food, or more specifically wheat and barley sown in the Syrian winter and ready in spring. 

The problem was that this harvest drew Bedouin each year from the deserts to the east, and what with the shortages, Salah ad-Din did not want them consuming the grains. But he also didn’t want to make them angry. He might need them soon enough and certainly didn’t want to be fighting these people who Al-Fadil termed “an enemy within the ribs” any more than necessary. They were already seen as serving the aims of his opponents, as combatants, guides, or spies, rather more than he’d like, already were prone to piracy on the rivers, brigandry elsewhere. The solution was, of course, to send them into other lands, to direct them on raids towards Beirut and Sidon. Let them eat others’ grain. Unsupported, they were not quite strong enough to push far into those territories, but the idea was sound.

Meanwhile, in Baghdad, the Abbasid caliph died and so did his vizier, murder naturally suspected and the latter’s body dragged about and cut to pieces by a street mob. In Alexandria, that troublesome older brother, Turan-shah, did too, though likely from intestinal problems; he’d been transferred from Damascus but showed no signs of any lifestyle adjustments, was remembered kindly by the poets to whom he had been so generous, was otherwise remembered for the enormous debt he left behind. In Constantinople, Emperor Manuel was also nearing the end, his empire ripped apart by infighting, intrigue, and expensive military defeat at the hands of the Seljuks. And Baldwin IV of Jerusalem, the Leper, his leprosy was worsening, and he’d suffered some close calls too, caught out cattle-raiding in Salah ad-Din’s territory, unhorsed, and nearly captured, with losses to his personal guard. Maybe that was why he was willing to go to Salah ad-Din in the spring of 1180, looking for a truce, and Salah ad-Din, who rarely was without several balls in the air and was besides running short of money, agreed, though his followers would try to put the agreement in a better light than that.

It wasn’t the first time he’d signed on to this sort of thing, negotiated a peace or something else; he’d attempted to negotiate the outright purchase of the Jacob’s Ford castle rather than bother with siege warfare before the price crept too high and talks broke down, before he wound up writing to Baghdad that he’d pulled apart its foundation with his own hands. Again and again, he’d shown willingness to engage in truce or treaty with people that he would then accuse his rivals in Syria of dealing with in much the same way. He’d write to the caliph and complain that this or that leader of Mosul or Aleppo was in cooperation with assassins or crusaders, and he’d protest his own purity in the matter, assure Baghdad that his own holy war with the enemy was well in hand or at least well on the way. But here he was again, putting that particular war decidedly on the back burner, opting for peace with that enemy instead.

In the background of Salah ad-Din’s claim in Syria was always the nagging reality that Al-Salih, the son of Nur ad-Din, existed. It was all very well for now. He’d positioned himself nicely through familial connections to be able to make a claim to Zengid lineage; he could always continue to posture as the true protector of that lineage and indeed of Al-Salih himself, over and against all those who were actually around Al-Salih in Aleppo. But if Al-Salih grew up, and he had grown up - he was now nineteen years old - and if he had children himself, well then eventually there may well be a claim made on Salah ad-Din’s possessions in Syria. When that happened, he might be in an awkward spot to justify his continuing to hold them.  

So it was that Salah ad-Din took a distinct interest in the development of this young man, in the loyalty he had accrued in Aleppo, the piety he had displayed, refusing to take wine even during illness, and then his final illness which took hold on November 18th, 1181. By December the 4th, Al-Salih Ismail al-Malik was dead, and what a strange, short life it had been, the prisoner in the palace, surrounded since his father had died when he was eleven by people fanatically loyal to his person and promise as Nur ad-Din’s son, but also by those who played for power in his orbit, who claimed to speak for his best interests while seeking only to further their own.

Naturally enough, Salah ad-Din did not sit still at these developments. He had heard word of the early days of sickness and arranged for a relay of couriers and carrier pigeons. He’d wanted to be prepared to block others’ access to Aleppo and leap into action as soon as the news went out. Unfortunately for him, even as he set out his plans, a key piece of them was away in the desert dealing with the troublesome Reynald de Chatillon, and there was nothing that could be done to prevent Nur ad-Din’s nephew, ‘Izz al-Din Mas’ud of Mosul, crossing the Euphrates and entering Aleppo. 

Salah ad-Din, not yet realizing that he had already lost his opportunity, wrote to one of his emirs, with lands just west of Aleppo, saying:

“The emir knows of the recent death of the Lord of Aleppo, which is our territory. In quest of it we shall not turn aside our reins as it is covered by the diploma of investiture given us by the Commander of the Faithful and we only left it with al-Salih, after administering its territories and taking its castles and fortresses, in order to respect the rights of his father… We have kept faith with the dead, but now the face of truth is clear for us… The emir is asked to help.. Let him come himself with his men… Let him act as a man acts in his own interest.”

When he learned he was too late, he didn’t give up on Aleppo. He continued his lobbying campaign with Baghdad, pressing his points that the lands granted him by the previous caliph should be considered to include Aleppo, that he had only just then been prevented from taking it because his forces had been away elsewhere, defending the very “gateway to Medina” against the very people he accused the Mosulis of conspiring with, and that quite aside from any issues of right and wrong, this dividing of Syria could only result in weakness and prevent the prosecution of holy war. And as to that last part, it was hard to say he was wrong.

Up to that point, Salah ad-Din’s life, his career, must be considered an enormous success. His trajectory, though not without downward turns, had brought him from relative unimportance to the heart of the world stage. Certainly that’s the look one gets tracing it forward from his birth. Going back is another matter though. We know him to be a giant, a somewhat legendary leader, and that he had perhaps not yet lived up to. He hadn’t lived up to his own dreams, so often proclaimed in writings to Baghdad, of becoming the unifying champion of Islam. For those last important chapters of his life, we’re going to wait for next episode. 

If you are listening on the Patreon feed, then please do wait a moment for the bonus section aka the after parchment, this time on the adventures of Reynald de Chatillon. If you’re not, then thank you, as always, for listening. I’ll be back next time with the conclusion of the Salah ad-Din story, and I'll talk to you then.