The Eventful Life Of Saladin: The Bane Of The European Crusades

Born An-Nassir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyubid, Saladin was born in 1137 and grew to become the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty and became the first to hold the title of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. A Sunni Muslim, Saladin is best remembered for fighting against European forces during the Crusades, eventually retaking the holy city of Jerusalem. During his reign, he was referred to as the de facto Caliph of Islam, and at one point his empire included Egypt, Syria, Supper Mesopotamia, the Hejez, Yemen, and some parts of North Africa. Take a look at his impressive life and how a rather common soldier grew to rule the majority of the Middle East.

He Joined The Military At A Young Age

Drawing of young Saladin
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When Saladin was just 14 years old, he began his military training. His uncle, Asad a-Din Shirkuh was a high-ranking military officer under the Emperor of Damascus, Nur Ad-Din. The two fought side-by-side in nearly every battle with Saladin being groomed for leadership.

Saladin was also involved in the Battle of al-Babein, which has been described by some historians as one of the most noteworthy battles in history. A year after conquering the kingdom of Egypt, Saladin’s uncle died, making him the head of the army and emperor of Egypt.

Early Life

Ancient Arabic school
Print Collector/Getty Images
Print Collector/Getty Images

Saladin was born in Tikrit, what is now modern-day Iraq, and was named “Yusuf, with Slah ad-Din,” an honorific epithet meaning “Righteousness of the Faith.” Although little information is known about his personal childhood, regarding education, Saladin once wrote, “children are brought up in the way in which their elders were brought up.”

Several other historical sources claim he was more interested in religious studies than joining the military, possibly inspired by the First Crusade in which Jerusalem was taken by the Christians.

He Allowed His Prisoners To Buy Their Freedom

Gold coins
Schellhorn/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Schellhorn/ullstein bild via Getty Images

After defeating the crusaders at Jersusalem, Saladin didn’t put the people inside of the city to the sword, like most might have expected. Instead, he proposed an alternative solution to the problem, which was to allow those now under his reign to pay for their freedom.

Anyone that wished to be released could pay Saladin with a small payment of gold. For children’s freedom, it was one coin, for a woman it was five, and for a man, it was ten. For those who could not pay, the only option was to be a captive for the remainder of their lives or sold into slavery.

He Had A Mind For Military Tactics

Mosaic of Saladin and Richard the Lionheart
Photo 12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Photo 12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The fall of Jerusalem eventually resulted in the beginnings of the Third Crusade, with Richard I of England, otherwise known as “The Lionheart,” leading his troops to the Holy Land to take back the city.

While Saladin and Richard’s forces were involved in countless bloody battles, both had respect for the other in their ability to command and outthink their opponent. At one point, before Richard surrounded Jerusalem, Saladin burned all of the surrounding crops so that Richard’s army would have no access to food.

He Is A Symbol Of Chivalry

Drawing of Saladin
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Saladin passed away in 1193 and was buried in his mausoleum in Damascus, Syria. Nevertheless, he left behind a legacy of nobility and bravery. Regardless that he was considered to be a fierce enemy to the majority of Europe, he was still admired for his chivalry and the mercy he gave to the Christians in the Middle East.

While he was still regarded as a ruthless and formidable leader, it was not forgotten when he spared the lives of all the Christians after retaking Jerusalem, even when the first crusaders slaughtered everyone in the city. At one point, he even had his personal physician sent over to treat King Richard after he was wounded in battle.

He Captured The King Of Jerusalem

Painting of the Battle of Hattin
DeAgostini/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

The Battle of Hattin took place on July 4, 1187, where Saladin’s forces engaged in battle with the forces of Guy of Lusignan, King Consort of Jerusalem, and Raymond III of Tripoli. In this single battle, the Crusader’s forces were essentially annihilated by Saladin, making it a major change in the tide of the war.

After capturing Guy and Raynald, Saladin personally executed Raynald for his unnecessary and merciless slaughter of Muslim caravans. When Guy was sure that he was next, Saladin spared him stating, “[I]t is not the wont of kings, to kill kings, but that man has transgressed all abound, and therefore I did treat him thus.”

He Led The Demise Of The Fatimid Caliphate

Culture Club/Getty Images
Culture Club/Getty Images

Being devoted to Sunnism, this led him to spread the religion throughout Egypt, eventually resulting in him halting the rise of the Smail Shia caliphate there. While in Egypt, Fatimid Caliph al-Adid declared Saladin ad a vizier, otherwise known as a high official.

However, this proved to be a mistake on the Caliph’s part, as Saladin slowly and quietly began to rebel, weakening the Fatimid system and spreading his Sunni beliefs further into Egypt. In 1171, after the Shia Caliphate al-Adid’s death, Saladin removed the Fatimid Caliphate and was named the Sultan of Egypt.

He Led The Europeans To Create A Tax in His Name

King Richard attacking
Universal History Archive/Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Getty Images

After the Christian’s devastating defeat at the Battle of Hattin and the loss of the city of Jerusalem, it appeared the Crusades had been a failure. Yet, when the European officials heard about this, they decided to go on yet another crusade to take back the Holy Land. However, to assemble a new campaign, the Europeans needed more funding. So, English officials established a new tax known as the Saladin tithe.

This was a ten percent tax on the property that was collected by priests, churches, bishops, and deans from local churches. People who refused to pay were imprisoned and the money taken was never actually used, as King Henry, who ordered the tax, never went on a crusade.

He Made A Truce With King Richard

King Richard Surrendering
DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini via Getty Images
DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini via Getty Images

King Richard the Lionheart of England was at the head of what would be the Third and final Crusade. Yet, although he was inspiring to his own forces, Saladin was a man that won the hearts of his subjects through modesty, mercy, and fairness. This resulted in the opposing leaders respecting each other greatly, not wishing direct harm to either of them.

There was once even a rumor that Saladin lent Richard some of his own horses for a more fair fight. Their mutual respect resulted in a truce between the two with Richard leaving Jerusalem under Muslim control and Saladin promising safe passage for the Christians.

Dealing With Assassins

Sketch of Saladin
adoc-photos/Corbis via Getty Images
adoc-photos/Corbis via Getty Images

During a peaceful period of his reign, in 1175, there was a threat to Saladin by an Ismaili division led by Rashid ad-Din Sinan that called themselves “The Assassins.” Eventually, it became clear to Saladin that there were plots to have him killed in the works. Saladin once found a poisoned dagger by his tent and was attacked once and injured when two assassins dressed as guards.

To put an end to this madness, Saladin discovered the headquarters of “The Assassins” and threatened to burn it to the ground and show no quarter. Wisely, the threat was taken seriously and a treaty was drafted in which Saladin and Sinan made peace and the threat was taken care of.

Saladin United The Islamic States

Drawing of Saladin
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Not only was Saladin an incredibly pious Muslim, but he was also an incredible politician and leader. Aside from his countless victories against the Crusaders, he also managed to expand Muslim sovereignty over regions that had once belonged to the Crusaders and some that followed other beliefs.

Under his reign, he established Islam as the forefront religion to areas such as Yemen, Syria, Mosul, among others. Among the Turks, Arabs, and Kurds, he’s not only seen as a military leader but as a man that was a key player in the unification of the Islamic states, many of which remain today.

He Was A Studious Leader

Picture of Saladin
Universal History Archive/Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Getty Images

A gifted student and of Kurdish descent, Saladin devoted much of his studies to both Kurdish and Arabic languages. During his tie as a young student, he dedicated his time to studying both the Kurdish and Arabic languages, without knowing how these would play such a major part in his political career.

During this process, he learned the Arabic book of Hamasah and all ten editions by heart. He was also incredibly interested in the breeding of Arabic horses, something that would prove to be valuable during his battles during the Crusades.

He Was A Young Man During The Second Crusade

Painting of Saladin
DEA / G. NIMATALLAH/De Agostini via Getty Images
DEA / G. NIMATALLAH/De Agostini via Getty Images

During the Second Crusade, Saladin was a young man when the Europeans managed to seize control of Jerusalem and establish it as a European kingdom once again. However, as a young sultan, he was determined to take control of the city once again.

After a number of battles against the Crusader armies, the two forces met at the Battle of Hattin in 1187. This resulted in Saladin crushing the European armies, resulting in a change of tide in the war and Saladin’s eventual take over of Jerusalem.

He Made A Lot Of Improvements To Egypt

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adoc-photos/Corbis via Getty Images
adoc-photos/Corbis via Getty Images

After taking control of Egypt, in Cairo, one of his greatest accomplishments is considered to be the construction of Cairo’s citadel and various other mosques and constructions that can still be seen to this day. Furthermore, he also constructed a massive wall around Al-Qahira which is modern-day Cairo.

Various statues and paintings of him remain across the Middle East, most of which portray him as a victorious and noble leader, no matter the number of atrocities he himself committed.

He Came From Essentially Nothing

Bishop with Saladin
Glasshouse Vintage/Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Glasshouse Vintage/Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

When Saladin first entered Egypt, he was essentially a nobody and just the nephew of the army’s leader. Yet, in just a short amount of years, Saladin would grow to become its ruler. After fighting for five years in Egypt, everything changed in a matter of months.

Firstly, Saladin had his greatest enemy, the vizier of Egypt assassinated. Not long after that, Saladin’s uncle died, leaving him as one of the most viable individuals to take over power in the city.

Putting Down Rebellions

Saladin on a horse
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

After exposing those that were conspiring against him inside of Egypt, this would only be the beginning of Saladin’s problems. Supposedly, just a day after disposing of the assassins that made an attempt on his life, although he was vizier of Egypt, many Egyptian soldiers weren’t quick to forget that Saladin had once fought against the Egyptians for years.

An army of more than 50,000 rose up against him, but this wasn’t enough to overthrow him. He eventually put down the revolt and nobody questioned his position of power for years to come.

He Lost Two Important People Within A Year

Picture of Saladin
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

In just under a year, Saladin lost two very important men in his life. First, his father was killed in a horse-riding accident. Then, only eleven months later, his lord and mentor, Nur ad-Din of Damascus, fell ill and died.

While these two events may have been devastating to Saladin, they also greatly shaped his life. For the first time in his life, Saladin could do whatever he wanted, and after these two deaths, he really began forging his own trail.

Returning To Damascus

Painting of Saladin
API/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
API/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

After leaving Damascus for Egypt years before, he jumped at the opportunity to return to his homeland. He considered annexing the city himself. However, he realized that it wouldn’t look very good if he went about annexing the city that was once ruled by his close friend and mentor.

After a march through the desert, Saladin was welcomed back to the city with open arms and the city opened the gates for him and his army.

Conquering Throughout Syria

Picture of Saladin and men
ullstein bild via Getty Images
ullstein bild via Getty Images

While Nur ad-Din, Saladin’s mentor, had ruled Damascus, he controlled the vast majority of surrounding cities. Yet, when he left for Egypt, many of these cities revolted. This all changed when Saladin finally made his return back to Damascus.

Almost as soon as he arrived, he began putting down revolts, conquering every city that had at one point rebelled. Of course, by doing this, he made a fair share of enemies, including the emir of Aleppo, Gumushtigin, who even attempted to have Saladin assassinated, by failed in his efforts.

He Didn’t Care About Material Possessions

Soldier riding on horse
Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images
Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

Regardless that Saladin conquered countless portions of land and cities, he had little interest in material gain. He was known to be incredibly generous and gave away almost every cent that he earned (or took) to further his cause and support his people.

He passed away in Damascus on March 4, 1193, at 56 years old. One rumor has it that on his death bed he had only one gold piece and forty pieces of silver, an amount so small that it couldn’t even afford him a funeral.