Salah ad-Din 5: The End of the End

Gustave Doré - Richard and Salah ad-Din Battle of Arsuf


  • Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi, edited by William Stubbs. Longmans, 1864. Translated by James Brundage, The Crusades: A Documentary History. Marquette University Press, 1962.

  • De Expugatione Terrae Sanctae per Saladinum, edited by Joseph Stevenson. Longmans, 1875. Translated by James Brundage, The Crusades: A Documentary History. Marquette University Press, 1962.

  • Cobb, Paul, M. The Race for Paradise: An Islamic History of the Crusades. Oxford University Press, 2016.

  • Edbury, Peter W. The Conquest of Jerusalem and the Third Crusade: Sources in Translation, 1st Edition. Routledge, 2017.

  • Gabrieli, Francesco. Arab Historians of the Crusades. University of California Press, 1978.

  • 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.

  • Terrell, Katherine H. Richard Coeur de Lion. Broadview Press, 2019.


With the arrival of Richard I, the English King who would hardly ever see England, the story of Salah ad-Din entered a new and dramatic phase, co-starring a new and dramatic character.

There were tales in the later romance, Richard, Coeur de Lion, of the king having beehives launched into the city, of his dining on the flesh of Muslim captives and serving it to visiting envoys. There’s the scene in the Itinerarium Regis Ricardi, of a sickly Richard carried out on a silken litter to fire his crossbow at the defenders on the walls. But even if all of that was embellishment, the realities on the ground, near as we can tell, were dramatic enough.

The coming to Acre of the two crusading kings, Philip and Richard, was not entirely unheralded. News of Richard’s conquest of Cyprus had, in some form, reached Salah ad-Din. There’d been preliminary talks of Ayyubid cooperation with the Byzantine emperor to attack him there and later an attempt made to pick off incoming ships from the English fleet which met with some success. Richard made it through though. 

The man deemed by one Ayyubid chronicler to be “inferior to Philip in kingdom and rank but more famous in war and for courage,” and by another to be “the [first] man of his time for courage and guile,” had arrived. And troublingly, captive crusaders had let slip that their main efforts had actually been held back until Richard appeared. Given all that had happened, given that things had already reached the rather grim point that there were teams set aside to cut up the bodies from the trench and others to clear them away into the sea, this was not reassuring. 

Richard’s arrival brought with it new rounds of diplomacy and exchanges of gifts, of hunting dogs and falcons, Salah ad-Din all the while refusing to meet his English counterpart, insisting that kings could not fight one another having first met as friends. 

In these exchanges, Richard seems to have repeatedly been the instigator, and that’s interesting because it was Salah ad-Din who so badly needed a diplomatic solution, or at least the garrison of Acre did. Outside the city, beyond that second line of siege, was a lively marketplace where Salah ad-Din’s people could choose from 7,000 shops or take advantage of the more than 1,000 baths that had been dug into the ground and lined with clay. But that was outside. Inside, Acre was not faring so well at all. There had been talk, back before the siege had begun, of destroying the city to deny it to the enemy they were certain was one day going to come. And now, to that enemy, the garrison was going to need to give in. 

Hello and welcome. My name is Devon, and this is Human Circus: Journeys in the Medieval World, the podcast where I follow travellers about that medieval world, whether they be friars, merchants, or military leaders. At this time, I would like to thank the newest addition to the Human Circus Patreon, and that means Adam. Thank you very much, Adam.

I would also like to point out that you can find that Patreon at or by way of my website at As you probably know, Patreon is a platform for supporting projects that you enjoy on a monthly basis and also receiving something back. In my case, if you’re enjoying the podcast, you can now enjoy it with the warm feeling that you’re helping keep it alive at $1, without the distractions of ads at $3, and with bonus content at $5. That said, let’s get back to the story, one last time to the story of Salah ad-Din.

Last episode we followed those happy days after the victory at Hattin all the way up to those grindingly unhappy days outside of Acre, with Salah ad-Din watching opportunities for victory slip away, watching the numbers of the enemy troops replenish themselves, and then watching them do so again, and again as the waves of Third Crusade rolled in. Watching, fruitlessly, for the kind of support which would allow him to crack the situation open, but which never came.

Negotiations outside the city between Richard and Salah ad-Din idled along. The odd envoy was sent out by Richard, on one occasion asking after a little fruit and snow -yes, snow- from his opponent, on a day that also included actual fighting. Inside the city however, it was all a little more urgent in the talks with their besiegers. What if they surrendered the city and its contents but would all be allowed to leave freely? No, well what if they also released a captive crusader for every member of the garrison to go free? Still no? Well then what about throwing in the True Cross? 

What their assailants were asking, the return of “all their lands and the release of all their prisoners,” these were requirements which simply could not be met. Salah ad-Din was not going to just hand over Jerusalem now, nor all his other conquests won at the expense of the Crusaders. But the walls of Acre had been breached and attempts to patch them up would not hold indefinitely. Were those walls to fail, were they to be taken by force and without terms agreed, the garrison could expect little in the way of kindness. Their lives hung in the balance, and tensions were clearly high as messages trickled out to update Salah ad-Din.

On July 3rd, he heard that they would surrender. On the 7th, it was that they would fight to the end. Then, on the 12th, there was another wave of attacks and a new message was swum out to him: a surrender had not only already been arranged but on particularly punitive terms: The crusaders were to have the city and all it held complete with ships at harbour, along with 200,000 dinars, 1,500 prisoners, a further one hundred imprisoned men of rank to be handpicked by the crusaders, and the True Cross which had been lost at Hattin. 

Salah ad-Din was horrified. He rushed to send in the order that on no account were they to agree to all of that, but while getting it inside would need to wait for the cover of nightfall, by noon it was going to already be too late. A great shout would rise up from the crusaders as their banners appeared above the walls and the conquerors entered the city, the kings of England, France, and Jerusalem, along with Duke Leopold of Austria who had taken command of the remaining German contingent, all jockeying for the most prestigious positions within. 

In the scenes that followed, feelings were going to be hurt, egos bruised beyond repair. Leopold would actually leave in anger after his banners were thrown down, would later avenge himself on Richard by having the English king arrested as he journeyed home from crusading through Austria. But that was not until later. 

For now, a two year struggle had reached its conclusion, and even as his men tried to distract him with thoughts of what must come next and with the turn to defend Jerusalem, Salah ad-Din was near inconsolable.

But upset as he was, what did the defeat actually mean for him? A loss of prestige, certainly, and potentially a very important one to a force united in no small part by success and the appearance of an ability to deliver it. On the other hand, it meant he was no longer tied down to Acre, and to a fight in which he was never likely to achieve a total victory. He’d repeatedly tried drawing the enemy out into battle at optimal locations where a speedy response might encircle them, another Hattin, but he’d never shown any signs of making any actual headway against their fortifications. Now, the board was again more open, no longer limited by the need to commit so much to one siege, one fixed point. 

Before anything else, however, he needed to arrange for those terms to be met. He was not the one who had signed off on them, but they had essentially been written against his account. That meant a great deal of money and no small number of prisoners were going to be expected of him in short order. And that was going to be a problem.

In developments familiar to us from any number of movie scenes involving hostage negotiations, it was going to take some time to round up the desired prisoners and dinars, it couldn’t all just be helicoptered in immediately. According to one source, a set of monthly instalments was agreed to, but when the first came due, more difficulties emerged. For one, Salah ad-Din wanted Acre’s garrison released or at least hostages of his own. Which leads us to the questions. Was he just manufacturing problems, fending off the creditors at his door, or were the delays entirely reasonable? And did Richard ever intend to release the garrison at all? How much were his actions motivated by wanting to be rid of their bothersome bodies’ encumbrance? 

On August 20th, the first payment then overdue, Richard assembled and slaughtered 3,000 prisoners. They were men of the garrison along with some 300 of their family members. Their bodies later inspected, it would become clear that in his cruelty, Richard had spared the leadership. Issues of shared nobility aside, he was essentially preserving the most mobile sources of value for later. 

As a consequence of the massacre, his side could now no longer expect to benefit from Salah ad-Din’s general policy of mercy no matter the cost. This appalling act, witnessed by some of his men who had skirmished with Richard’s but been unable to do anything to halt it, and coming right after the shock of losing the city, angered him deeply. It enraged him enough that he would now be killing the prisoners taken. 

There’s an account of Baha al-Din’s of a knight taken captive soon after this, “evidently a person of consequence,” with “elegant hands and feet, and … a distinguished bearing.” He’s questioned for a while through an interpreter, and then Salah ad-Din gives the command that he’s to be beheaded. And the knight asks the interpreter what’s been said, what order had the sultan just given. And he hears what’s to happen.


He changed colour and said, “But I will give you one of the captives in Acre.”

The Sultan replied, “God’s mercy, it must be an emir.”

“I cannot get an emir set at liberty,” answered the Frank.

He acknowledged that [the massacre] was an abominable act, but said it was the King alone who had decreed and commanded it to be done. After the afternoon prayer, the Sultan rode out according to his custom, and on his return ordered that the prisoner should be put to death. Two other prisoners were then brought in before him, whom he likewise ordered to be put to death.

Salah ad-Din’s seemingly limitless patience had at last reached its end. The killing continued with any who strayed from the main body of Richard’s army as he marched south from Acre with Salah ad-Din following, just inland, waiting for an opportunity to strike. His men, with their light armour and swift horses, were described as being like flies which when driven away, returned immediately when no longer chased. The crusaders’ infantry were compared to porcupines, so many were the arrows which lodged in their armour, sometimes more than ten, though they still trudged heavily forward.

There was fierce fighting around Caesarea at the end of August, where Salah ad-Din would claim his enemy had lost 1,000 horses. Then, on September 7th, at Arsuf, on the way down the coast towards Jaffa, “the flies” returned in force. The general view has been that Salah ad-Din saw the open space there between wood and sea as the opening he wanted, but others more recently have argued that it was Richard who chose the site. This line of thinking goes that he feared being drawn into those woods which were elsewhere on the march much closer to the sea; he wanted to be attacked in that wider open space where a counter charge could be successful. He invited it. Or so that theory goes.

Whether or not he wanted to be attacked there at Arsuf, Richard and the rest of the army were not going to be encircled and beaten into submission like had happened at Hattin. Their baggage was protected alongside the water. They were proceeding slowly, resting regularly, hugging the coast, and keeping themselves well-supplied by a following fleet, Hospitallers at their rear and Templars to the vanguard. 

When the attack came, it burst from the woods, and began with blasts of gong and trumpet, and waves of arrows and javelins, all to create cracks in the crusader line that could then be torn into by charging cavalry. But the cracks never came, and that was really the story of the battle. Held from pulling straight back by the sea waters behind them, and held from charging forward by Richard and his knights rushing up and down the line, just as Salah ad-Din opposite rode along his, the crusaders kept their discipline. And as the attackers swung round to try the rear, the Hospitallers there did the same, keeping their position at the tail of the army, and firing crossbows as they withdrew. The day wore on, and horses and men began to tire from the repeated charges.

There was a signal which had been arranged, six blasts of the trumpet for the counterattack to begin, but two knights, who either simply got carried away or saw an opportunity and maybe had Richard’s blessing to take it, rushed forward through their own ranks and kicked things off early, inspiring those around them to follow. At Richard’s command, the rest are said to have followed suit. Across the field, in the Ayyubids’ centre, Ibn Shaddad described something more organized than two overzealous knights. He saw the enemy cavalry gathering, taking up their lances, and then shouting “like one man,” as the infantry before them moved aside to allow their advance through.

This counter-charge drove in among an enemy too tightly packed to open ranks and accommodate them. Richard’s men crashed into them, regrouped, and charged again, and again, throwing Salah ad-Din’s army in disarray and, eventually, retreat. Richard would boast that Salah ad-Din had “lost more that day … than on any day in the previous 40 years,” and there were descriptions of his advancing “with untiring sword strokes … as if he were reaping the harvest with sickle, so that the corpses of the [enemy] he had killed covered the ground everywhere for the space of half a mile.” But that was probably pushing it a little. 

This was not a reverse Hattin. The Ayyubid forces had not been rounded up or killed, had not actually been lost in any truly meaningful numbers. But they had been routed. They had been scattered to the trees and hills, their morale gone with them, and their leader, who at the end had been seen attempting to rally his men with only 17 of his own guard still around him, could scarcely eat he was so despondent. There would have been little appetite for a return to open battle, and there would have been great concern for the fate and future of Jerusalem. Salah ad-Din drew back eastward, and Richard, wary of pursuing his enemy and needing to secure a port for resupply, settled into Jaffa.

For what followed, we’ll continue on after this short break.


What followed was a cagey period of waiting. Richard was gathering his resources in Jaffa, but where would he go next? Was it to be east to Jerusalem or south to Egypt to deny Salah ad-Din its resources? That second possibility was a worrying one, enough so that Ascalon, 50km south of Jaffa, was demolished for fear it would serve as a base of operations and despite Salah ad-Din’s misgivings that he would rather “lose all [his] children than cast down a single stone from the walls” of that beautiful city. 

Negotiations began again. Salah ad-Din’s envoys met with Conrad of Montferrat while his brother met with Richard. The English king asked for Jerusalem, the lands west of the Jordan, and the True Cross, all of which Salah ad-Din refused. Richard then tried for a marriage between Salah ad-Din’s brother and his own sister, Joanna of Sicily, along with a release of prisoners, and the opening of Jerusalem to Christians, which Joanna then refused. So he tried his niece, Eleanor of Brittany, instead. For a man who had won the most recent rounds of the fighting, Richard was looking very eager to negotiate their speedy conclusion. 

1191 became 1192, and while Salah ad-Din called for reinforcements to Jerusalem, Richard repaired Ascalon. Al-Fadil noted in Egypt that public wrongdoing among all classes had reached new peaks, while Salah ad-Din, who was still writing to the caliph, wrote that after four years of war, morale was low, horses scarce, and equipment and armour hard to come by. 

The months passed, and oddly, they were not in Richard’s favour. He had won the opening rounds but now, like the dominant boxer who suddenly sustains a serious cut, it was very much looking like he was the one now needing to end things quickly. He'd lost more horses than was ideal and would have a tough time replacing them, and despite his recent victories, actually going inland after Salah ad-Din without securing a route for water and other supplies could be fatal. And he knew it. Besides, his own side in all of this had started to crumble.

There was the increasing antagonism between contingents such as the Genoese and Pisans; there was increasing antagonism between Richard and Conrad of Montferrat, but perhaps even more critical were those who had already departed. There had been that kerfuffle back in Acre that had lost Richard the support of Duke Leopold, and King Philip also had been driven home from Acre by dysentery, disagreements with Richard, and a need to return to domestic affairs. With Richard stuck in the Holy Land, English holdings back in France might be vulnerable to Philip’s unwanted attentions, just as his very crown could be vulnerable to those of his brother, John. He had to wrap matters up.

Diplomatic efforts continued, with Salah ad-Din entertaining offers both from Richard and from Conrad, who was now very much his own man in this affair. But while Richard pressed for an in person meeting, while he appears to have been sensitive to each side's need to appear strong in the deal, stating his intention that “the lands be divided so that the Muslims may not blame [Salah ad-Din] and the Franks may not blame [him],” Salah ad-Din seems to have basically distrusted these advances. “If I die,” he is quoted as saying, “these armies, [meaning the Ayyubid ones] will hardly stay united and the Franks will grow strong. The best thing to do is to continue the fight until we drive them from the coast or die.” 

He did not attack though. He waited in Jerusalem through a winter that made any great movements difficult. If he was concerned his life might be ending, he clearly did not think it so immediate that he needed to rush into anything rash.

The strategy now was largely defensive. While raids did go out, fortifications were also being strengthened. At Jerusalem, prisoners by the thousand combined with Mosuli masons to raise new towers and dig a deep trench; trees that the crusaders might make into siege engines were cut down. And despite the pressures on Richard to leave, it was starting to look like all these preparations were going to be necessary.

Diplomatic possibilities were still explored. It seemed that Richard might be allowed Beirut so long as it were not fortified, rights of pilgrimage and priests to Jerusalem might be granted, Jerusalem might be given to the Franks but the Rock and Citadel to the Muslims. But Salah ad-Din pressed for Ascalon and Jaffa, uncomfortably close down the coast to Egypt, to be abandoned. No agreement was made, and Richard did not leave.

Instead, he attacked. In May, he seized the coastal fortress of Darum. Then, in June, he was moving inland, and it was reported he was mustering supplies before marching on Jerusalem. During this time, small parties struck out towards the city on scouting raids, and Richard is said to have come within 8km on one of them. He also successfully intercepted a large caravan from Egypt, taking prisoners, money, and, most importantly, large numbers of camels and horses. Salah ad-Din, as seems to have been increasingly the case, did not take the news well. Indeed, one witness reported that “no news ever came that grieved his heart more,” indicative either of his weakened condition or the seriousness with which he viewed the increased mobility it granted his enemies.

The Ayyubids destroyed the cisterns around Jerusalem. Emirs were given responsibility for the walls. Discord within the ranks was dealt with, in particular objections from Salah ad-Din’s mamluk soldiers, a precursor of trouble to come for his descendants. On the 3rd of July, Salah ad-Din prayed in the al-Aqsa Mosque, “tears pouring down on to his prayer mat.” Then, things took another turn.

Word came in that Richard had broken camp, that he was worried for shortage of water, and then on the 5th, that his army was drawing back from the confrontation, back towards the coast. A council of war had assessed the way forward and found it undesirable, which raised the question, what use was this army, if it could not be brought to Jerusalem? It was a question many in this rather loosely united army would have asked as they pondered what to do next. 

Egypt might have made the most sense, but then there was news that he’d be heading north to Beirut instead. Salah ad-Din, by way of response, moved back towards the coast, surveilling Jaffa, and by the end of the month beginning his attack, a return to the offensive complete with the usual complement of mangonels and sappers. There were some among his leadership who wanted to wait on these grinding tools of destruction, but he, who had experienced a siege or two in his time now, would not delay and ordered an assault. 

The effort was enough to elicit offers from the garrison of surrender, but very conditional offers. The garrison wanted three days grace and promised that if no reinforcements reached them by then, they would give up. This Salah ad-Din refused, and when the same suggestion again was given by Jaffa’s defenders, he refused again, but these diplomatic moves did seem to be slowing the pace of things. Meanwhile, though the curtain wall had been breached, that gap had been filled with piles of burning brushwood and the garrison came out to fight before the gates time and again, not exactly showing signs of collapse. Still, they again initiated negotiations, and it was agreed that soldiers might be exchanged and Jerusalem-style ransoms could be paid. Salah ad-Din just needed to halt his attack. But he couldn’t. Things had started to slip from his control.

He informed the envoys that the Franks should lock themselves inside Jaffa’s citadel and leave his men to pillage the town. He could not hold them back.

As the plundering was carried out, the news came that Richard had abandoned the march to Beirut and was headed their way. Salah ad-Din wanted to finish the job at the citadel, needed to take it from the stubborn garrison within, but still he had no hold over his troops. They were tired and busy about the business of looting, and maybe he knew he could not bend them to his will because apparently he made no attempt. On July the 31st the sound of trumpets warned of ships sighted, and Salah ad-Din told one person that the army could hold back any landing, but they were in no way prepared or positioned to do so. 

What the sultan did do was send in people to try to move along the surrender of the citadel, and those inside were willing enough. They just weren’t willing to come outside when uncontrolled pillagers were running amuck in the streets, a reasonable enough cause for fear. They wanted the men out before they came out. So some effort was made - there are stories of Salah ad-Din’s mamluks beating and actually also robbing their allies - and some 47 Franks did venture out to surrender, but now more ships were being seen, around 35 of them. And with things suddenly looking more hopeful, the other Franks looked less likely to give themselves up and briefly mustered a counter-attack. 

From the waters, Jaffa certainly looked occupied enough. For the now 50 ships off-shore, all that was apparent were Muslim flags and Muslim soldiers. Those at sea were not coming ashore, not if they weren’t informed of the situation, not without one of those immense individual efforts on which these things sometimes turn. 

In this case, it was a priest who dove into the water and swam to Richard’s galley, for this was a relief force under his command, rushing ahead by sea while the main body came by land. Brought before the king, the waterlogged priest hurried to make the situation clear, that there were Christians “exposed like sheep to be slain,” that they were hemmed in and at the end of their limits by the tower. Richard, on hearing the news, didn’t hesitate. “We will die with our brave brothers-in-arms,” he is to have replied, “and a cursed light on him who hesitates.”

Galleys were rushed aground. Men leapt into the water, Richard himself only half armoured and waist deep.

As he was reaching dry ground, Salah ad-Din was in talks with Jaffa’s leaders, still arranging its surrender. He received whispered news of Richard’s arrival but gave away nothing of it himself to his visitors. He probably hoped his army could manage well enough, for long enough, but finally, when presses of his men came running past, clearly in flight, concealment became impossible. Jaffa had been snatched back and would not now be surrendering. 

Richard and Salah ad-Din, the two lords, now faced each like two fighters who had punched themselves into exhaustion, pushed their armies to pretty much the full extent of their willingness to be pushed. As Richard had told his envoy to say to Salah ad-Din, “The Muslims and the Franks are done for. The land is ruined, utterly ruined at the hands of both sides. Property and lives on both sides are destroyed. This matter has received its due.” 

There’s an incident where Salah ad-Din catches Richard with less than a 1,000 foot-soldiers and 17 horsemen, but when he orders his men to attack them, they only tell him to get “his servants who beat the people at Jaffa” to do so. Food was scarce and, whatever Salah ad-Din’s preferences, the will to fight scarcer. On the other side, the French contingent were now short on money and planning to leave, and Richard was very sick, and sending envoys again to ask for fruit and snow, and peace. He would even be willing to give up Ascalon if only he could be given some compensation. 

The Treaty of Jaffa was signed by Richard on September 2nd, the English king so ill, he did not even wait to hear its final details before offering his hand. On the following day, Salah ad-Din also signed.

The agreement effectively brought an end to the Third Crusade, brought a 44 month truce, the dismantlement of Ascalon, and a coastal remnant of the Crusader kingdom from Jaffa to Tyre. Such was the stalemate won at enormous cost in money, blood, and effort for all involved. For his part, Salah ad-Din despaired somewhat at what the future might hold. He recognized that with that piece of the coast, the crusaders could return later in greater strength, while of the Muslim leaders he said, “You will see [them] sitting at the top of their towers and saying ‘I shall not come down,’ and the Muslims will be destroyed.” But there was no fighting left to be done. 

There was an exchange of gifts between the two leaders, and a few days later, “the two armies mingled.” Muslims entered Jaffa to trade, and Franks came in droves to Jerusalem to fulfill their pilgrimage. The Bishop of Salisbury, still with much diplomatic capital to be won, told Salah ad-Din, quote, “If anyone were to bring your virtues into comparison with those of King Richard, and were to take both of you together, there would not be two other men in the world who could compete with you.”

One of those men was going home now, with adventures still to be had along the way, adventures I think I might cover, but not now. The other had reached the conclusion of yet another gruelling struggle, just one of the many that seemed to virtually fill his life.  

Richard had been a source of anguish for Salah ad-Din, but he was not, as he is sometimes seen, the opponent to define him. To that end one might better look to Reynald de Chatillon, the villain to Salah ad-Din’s chivalrous statesman, to Guy de Lusignan, who had been there for his decisive victory at Hattin and initiated the setback at Acre, or to the earlier Kings of Jerusalem, Baldwin the Leper or Amalric, alongside whom he had carved out a space for himself. Or really, we might decide that the defining opposition was not Christian at all. We could look to Nur ad-Din, his family’s patron and then his rival for religious prestige and political power. We could look to the seat of the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad, occupied by men who Salah ad-Din played his role and postured before, sought support from, and was, in the end, disappointed by.

In the closing months of 1192, Salah ad-Din returned to Damascus which he had not seen since 1189. He had wanted now, at last to go Mecca, but it was al-Fadil’s part to remind him of why he couldn’t just now. The caliph would need to be warned of Salah ad-Din’s intentions in going that way, so that he did not think him to be planning anything malicious; there were still Franks about who, truce or not, would hardly have forgotten about Jerusalem; and there were injustices to be dealt with at home: people who suffered in poverty, violent crime in Damascus, neglect in Jerusalem, an empty treasury. “One of the most important tasks is to establish sources of revenue,” he told him. “There was much discussion of this earlier, but things occurred to divert the master’s attention.”

Things certainly had occurred, and now Salah ad-Din was 54 years old, and a very old 54. The day after his arrival in Damascus he held an audience for all to come see him. He received them in their throngs and heard many poems of praise. He settled into days of work and the occasional gazelle hunt.

By the following February, however, he was clearly in decline, easily exhausted, given to forgetfulness, and moving with difficulty. It was, quote, “as though his body was full.” He rode out one day to meet the pilgrims making their return. And that night he fell sick, a fever at first. After four days, he was bled, after which he grew worse. By the sixth he could hardly take water, complaining of it being too hot and then too cold. By the ninth, he could not take liquids at all, and he slipped in and out of consciousness. Al-Fadil and Ibn Shaddad would go to him, and then carry the news of the day outside into the city on their faces. Everyone knew the end was near.

Salah ad-Din died on the morning of March 4th, with the Qur’an read aloud by his side. His body was washed, prepared, and buried, though not yet in any great mausoleum for he had not arranged to build one for himself. He had never focused much at all on such things; quote, “He left neither goods, nor house, nor real estate, neither garden, nor village, nor cultivated land, nor any other species of property.” His sword and armour were sent to the caliph, along with the letter of his son al-Afdal, praising Salah ad-Din and asking to be recognized as his father’s heir. Those Ayyubid letters to Baghdad were not done quite yet, even if Salah ad-Din was no longer around to send them.

The story of Salah ad-Din is some ways one of self-definition, of a human-being attempting to carve their place in the chronicles, fighting not just against armies but also those who would fit their actions within a different narrative. It’s about a man rising, not from nothing but one of many, taking his opportunity when it came, and really running with it. He was ruthless when he needed to be, removing obstacles in his path as he assumed and held power in Egypt, as he expanded into Syria, as he turned to conquest of the Crusader kingdom on the coast. He learned from those around him, men like his uncle Shirkuh and Nur ad-Din, and whether or not you took him at his word as to his motives,, Salah ad-Din was certainly aiming for greatness.

And he did achieve it too. Sure, his life was not without setbacks or defeats. There were opportunities lost, battles lost, cities and castles lost. He died with Jerusalem in hand but not Acre or Tyre. His last great campaign failed to expel the crusaders from the coast. So Salah ad-Din was not quite the victorious unifier of Levantine Islam he’s sometimes now viewed as in the popular imagination - did not have that type of universal approval - but he was something not so terribly far off. 

For someone who struggled so consistently to define his role within his own time and place, he may have been a little gratified by the kind of positive press he was going to receive even in Latin Christian Europe. Not right away of course. He was going to spend some time as the fearsome adversary, the man who had inspired a “Saladin tithe” in England. However, he’d soon appear in one 13th-century chronicle as “the Scourge of Christians,” in the sense of being God’s instrument in correcting them, and in the centuries after his death, he would come to be seen as the kindly gentleman, the virtuous knight, and, despite his opposition to the crusaders, a kind of Christian-adjacent figure, in with the “acceptable” pagans in Dante’s Inferno. But given how he fought to establish himself as something more than a player for territory in regional power-politics, as a defender of Islam and the caliphate, given the opposition he received in doing so, I’m not sure just how much of a consolation prize that would have been. 

I’m going to part ways with An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub now, to wish him well and carry on. I started with Salah ad-Din with the intent of connecting the world of Maimonides to that of those who journeyed in the Mongol Empire in the 13th century, and I have spent a little longer doing that than initially planned. I hope you’ve found it worthwhile though. I’ll be back soon with a bit of medieval travel, then back with an episode that completes that connection, on the Ayyubid legacy and the rise of the Mamluks. Or possibly the other way round. We’ll see. For now, if you’re hearing this on the Transcontinental Friar feed on Patreon, then keep listening for more on the story of Conrad of Montferrat. If not, then thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you soon.