Saladin is the Western name of Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, the Muslim sultan of Egypt and Syria who famously defeated a massive army of Crusaders in the Battle of Hattin and captured the city of Jerusalem in 1187. At the height of his power, he ruled a unified Muslim region stretching from Egypt to Arabia. Saladin was celebrated by Muslims and many Westerners of later generations for his political and military skills, as well as his generosity and chivalry.
Early Life and Rise to Power in Egypt
Saladin was born Yusuf Ibn Ayyub in the central Iraqi city of Tikrit in 1137 or 1138. His family was of Kurdish descent, and his father Ayyub and uncle Shirkuh were elite military leaders under Imad al-Din Zangi, a powerful ruler who governed northern Syria at the time. After growing up in Damascus and rising through the military ranks, the young Saladin joined an army commanded by his uncle Shirkuh, who served Zangi’s son and heir, Nur al-Din, on a military expedition to Egypt.
In 1169, after Shirkuh’s death, Saladin was chosen to succeed him in command of Nur al-Din’s forces in Egypt. He was also appointed vizier of the crumbling Fatimid Caliphate, which ruled Egypt at the time. With the death of the last Fatimid caliph in 1171, Saladin became governor of Egypt, and set about reducing the power and influence of Shia Islam and reestablishing a Sunni regime there. Governing in the name of Nur al-Din, he strengthened Egypt as a base of Sunni power in the Near East.
Campaigns Against Fellow Muslims
Nur al-Din died in 1174, and Saladin launched a campaign to take control of the lands he had ruled. He also sought to establish his regime as a major military player capable of challenging the four Western-controlled Crusader states, which had been established after the First Crusade in 1098-99.
As sultan of Egypt, Saladin returned to Syria and managed to capture Damascus, Aleppo, and Mosul from other Muslim rulers. Saladin’s forces also conquered Yemen, which enabled him to consolidate control over the entire Red Sea. In addition to his military exploits, he also pursued diplomatic efforts to achieve his goals. He married Nur ad-Din's widow, Ismat, who was also the daughter of the late Damascan ruler Unur, which helped him gain legitimacy through association with two ruling dynasties. Finally, he gained widespread Muslim support by proclaiming himself the leader of a jihad, or holy war, dedicated to defending Islam against Christianity.
Saladin’s goal was to unite the Muslim territories of Syria, northern Mesopotamia, Palestine and Egypt under his rule, and by 1186 he had achieved it through a mix of diplomacy and military force. Known for his love of poetry and gardens, he also gained a reputation as a generous and noble leader—helped along by the official biographers he hired to record his feats.
Defeat of Crusaders and Capture of Jerusalem
After nearly a decade of fighting smaller battles against the Franks (as the Crusaders from Western Europe were called), Saladin prepared to launch a full-scale attack in 1187 by assembling troops from across his realm south of Damascus and an impressive Egyptian fleet at Alexandria. His army met the Franks in a massive clash at Hattin, near Tiberias (modern-day Israel) and defeated them soundly on July 4, 1187.
Victory in the Battle of Hattin was followed by a string of quick victories across the Kingdom of Jerusalem, culminating on October 2, 1187, when the City of Jerusalem surrendered to Saladin’s army after 88 years under Christian control. Though Saladin had planned to kill all Christians in Jerusalem as revenge for the slaughter of Muslims in 1099, he agreed to let them purchase their freedom instead.
By that time, Saladin’s forces had taken control of a number of other important cities from the Crusaders, including Acre, Tiberias, Caesarea, Nazareth and Jaffa. Yet he didn’t manage to capture Tyre, the coastal fortress to which most of the surviving Crusaders retreated after their defeats.
The Third Crusade and Saladin's Death
In the wake of Saladin’s capture of Jerusalem, Pope Gregory III called for a new Crusade to recapture the city. In 1189, Christian forces mobilized at Tyre to launch the Third Crusade, led by three powerful kings: Frederick I “Barbarossa,” the German king and Holy Roman Emperor, King Philip II of France and Richard I “the Lionheart” of England.
The Crusaders laid siege to Acre, finally capturing it in 1191 along with a large part of Saladin’s navy. Yet despite the military prowess of the Crusader forces, Saladin withstood their onslaught and managed to retain control over most of his empire. His truce with Richard the Lionheart in late 1192 ended the Third Crusade.
Just a few months later, in March 1193, Saladin died in his beloved gardens in Damascus. Though relatively young (just 55 or 56), he was exhausted from a life spent in near continuous military campaigns. By the time of his death, he had given away much of his personal wealth to his subjects, leaving behind not even enough to pay for his own burial. The coalition of Muslim states Saladin assembled would pull apart after his death, but his descendants in the Ayyubid dynasty continued to rule in Egypt and Syria for several generations.
Mark Cartwright. Saladin. World History Encyclopedia.
Paul E. Walker. Saladin. Encyclopedia Britannica.
David Nicolle. Saladin (Bloomsbury, 2011)