The Christian Outremer had been a presence in the Holy Land ever since the fall of Jerusalem on 15 July 1099 and despite its many rivalries had both prospered and seen its borders extended in the years since largely because of similar divisions within the Muslim world.
It was thrown into crisis however when on 16 March 1185, King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem who had been struck down by leprosy in childhood died, aged just 24. The fact that he had proven a strong and effective leader despite his illness and his young age had surprised many, that he had also died childless did not, and ambitious noblemen had been manouevring to replace him for some time.
Prior to his death he had nominated his 5 year old nephew, also Baldwin, to succeed him which played directly into the hands of the many factions now vying for power in Jerusalem but when the young Baldwin died within a year of his succession the heir apparent became the deceased Baldwin IV’s elder sister, Sibylla.
Though she was a formidable woman in her own right and no novice to the intrigues and factional disputes of Court politics in Jerusalem, Sibylla was not expected to rule in person but through her husband the unpopular and ill-thought of Guy de Lusignan.
Born in Poitou, France, in 1150, Guy de Lusignan was of noble birth but not particularly high rank and like many Christian knights at the time he lived well beyond his means. He had earlier been exiled from the Dukedom of Aquitaine by King Richard I for the robbery and murder of Patrick of Salisbury, an English nobleman returning from pilgrimage. Fortunate to escape with his life he wandered around Europe for a time before by the mid-1170’s finding himself in the Holy Land and then Jerusalem.
Even at a time when such characteristics were considered almost a virtue, Guy was so haughty and arrogant that he was heartily disliked and little respected, nevertheless his noble birth provided him with access to the Royal Court in Jerusalem but even so efforts were made to keep him away from the levers of power but the deadly rivalries within the Court factions were to guarantee the opposite however, and it was the fact that he was ostensibly an outsider that saw him betrothed to the King’s sister.
There was no doubt that Sibylla was the rightful heir to the throne but such was the opposition to Guy that many now cast doubt upon a woman's fitness to rule and so to placate her enemies at Court Sibylla agreed to annul her marriage to Guy but only if she could then take a husband of her own choice.
In August 1186 at a ceremony in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Sibylla accepted the title Queen of Jerusalem before to the astonishment of those present she remarried Guy and handed him the crown.
Guy’s predecessor Baldwin IV had followed a peace policy with his Muslim neighbours, though it was always a tenuous peace and he had never been shy in using force to protect Christian interests where he believed they were being threatened he nonetheless recognised that the Christian Kingdom’s were isolated and vulnerable surrounded by much larger Muslim lands as they were. Thus, if a dispute could be settled by negotiation then so much the better, but it was not a policy that pleased all, especially those seeking to enrich themselves and the Religious Orders who saw the waging of holy war against the heretical Saracen as the reason for their presence in the Holy Land in the first place.
The threat posed to the Christian Outremer by the Muslim lands surrounding them only increased when they became effectively unified in 1174 under the rule of one man, Salah-ad-Din.
Saladin as he is known in the West, had been born in Tikrit in modern-day Iraq in 1137, he was of noble birth, a scion of the notoriously ambitious Ayyubid family but he was not an Arab as is often thought but of Kurdish descent. His family had been forced to flee Tikrit on the night of his birth following a violent dispute that had resulted in an honour killing and he was raised in Damascus largely under the tutelage of his uncle Asad ad-Din Shirkuh, the right-hand-man to Nur-ad-Din the powerful Vizier of Aleppo.
Saladin’s uncle Shirkuh was an experienced and formidable military commander and it was whilst serving in his uncle’s army that he honed his leadership skills and learned the arts of war.
In 1163, Nur ad-Din had intervened in the politics of the crumbling Fatimid Empire in Egypt at the request of its recently deposed leader Sharwar. His army was commanded by Shirkuh and Saladin accompanied him as one of his lieutenants.
Sharwar’s opponent, Dirgham, was supported by the King of Jerusalem Amalric I and it was in Egypt that Saladin first gained experience of fighting against a Crusader army. After a long campaign of constantly shifting alliances in January 1169, Amalric was finally bought off and abandoned Egypt to its fate allowing Sharwar to enter Alexandria unopposed. His moment of triumph was to be short-lived however, for having proven himself treacherous and unreliable he was arrested and executed on the personal orders of Saladin.
Nur ad-Din now appointed Shirkuh as the Vizier of Egypt but when he died later that year from dysentery caused by over-eating Saladin ensured that he was elected his successor. An outraged Nur ad-Din was not impressed and cursed Saladin for his impertinence but there was little he could do. Saladin on his part understood the art of diplomacy and despite seizing power he never disavowed his oath of loyalty to Nur ad-Din.
Saladin’s hold on Egypt was an uncertain one but through military prowess, no little charisma, and force of personality he was able to secure his hold on the country and gradually over time unify the rest of the Muslim world under his personal rule. This had been no easy task but Saladin had changed both as a ruler and as a man and he was no longer simply the earnest young warrior and ruthless man of violence.
Always studious he now surrounded himself with Islamic scholars and personally undertook a deeper understanding of the Qu'ran presenting himself as the upholder of the Muslim faith and in doing so he vowed to rid the Muslim lands of the Infidel and to recapture the Holy City of Jerusalem for Islam.
The unification of the Muslim world under one man was the realisation of Baldwin’s greatest fear with the forces at Saladin’s disposal should he choose to bring them to bear far out-weighing his own. He would continue to defend to Christian possessions in the Holy Land but he wanted to avoid outright conflict with Saladin at all costs.
Despite Baldwin’s best efforts including a victory over Saladin at the Battle of Montgisard in November 1177, the power of the Muslims continued to grow as they more and more encroached upon Christian held lands and threatened their possessions.
In early 1185, with Baldwin so ill he was confined to his bed, many who had long viewed his peace policy as being weak and ineffective began to openly voice their opposition to it. One of the most vocal in wanting to adopt a more aggressive approach was Guy de Lusignan but with his eyes firmly set upon the succession he did not push too hard.
No such considerations restrained his close associate and ally Raynald de Chatillon, however.
Raynald, who had been born in the Loire region of France in 1125 to no better than minor nobility at best joined the Second Crusade as a knight in 1147 and following its defeat decided to remain in the East. It seems likely, as was the case with many, that he had joined the Crusade not out of any religious conviction but because he saw it as an opportunity to make a fortune for himself and his future behaviour would appear to confirm this view.
In 1156, he became entangled in a dispute with the Byzantine Emperor Manuel Comnenus I, whom he insisted owed him money and as a result vowed to take revenge by attacking the Byzantine owned Island of Cyprus and taking what was due to him. The fact that he did not possess the means to do so did little to deter him.
Unable to travel to Cyprus he instead attacked the city of Antioch where capturing the elderly Patriarch he had him stripped naked, smeared in honey, and lowered over the city walls in a cage to be burnt by the sun and stung by bees until the old man agreed to fund his expedition to Cyprus.
Once he arrived on the Island he proceeded to pillage, burn, and put its people to the sword just as he had promised forcing an outraged Byzantine Emperor to march an army against him.
Raynald and his few knights were in no position to wage a war and aware that defeat was inevitable rather than face death Raynald walked barefoot to the Emperor's camp, fell to his knees, and begged his forgiveness. So complete was his act of contrition that not only was his life spared but he avoided punishment altogether. But chastening experience of his confrontation with the Emperor did little to modify his behaviour, and travelling to Syria he continued to rob and plunder at will. Finally, on one of his many raids he was captured by the Saracens who imprisoned him deep in the dungeons at Aleppo where he was to remain for the next seventeen years until the ransom for his release was finally paid.
Such was the isolation of the Crusader Kingdom's and the paucity of knights that Raynald, free once more to behave as he always had, was to prove useful to Guy becoming in effect his right hand man.
Having helped Baldwin defeat Saladin at the Battle of Montgisard he was rewarded with the Dukedom of Oultrejordan and through marriage received the formidable fortress of Kerak de Chevaliers.
Kerak was not only the most impregnable of the many Crusader fortresses it also overlooked the main route for the many caravans travelling from Egypt to Damascus and for a man with the piratical tendencies of Raynald de Chatillon they were to prove an irresistible target. He attacked and robbed them with impunity to the distress and outrage of Baldwin but with the tacit support of Guy, and it was in one of these raids that Raynald captured Saladin’s sister, who later died in mysterious circumstances. It was rumoured that she had been raped by Raynald and had later taken her own life in shame, and given Raynald’s reputation this seems more likely than not.
Saladin was furious and demanded of Baldwin that his sister be released immediately and the perpetrator punished.
The dying King Baldwin was not only willing to comply but was eager to do so aware of the danger that Raynald and those around him posed to his policy of peace with the Muslims but he passed away before anything could be done.
His successor Guy de Lusignan saw things very differently.
Upon learning of his sister's death in captivity Saladin requested the return of her body for burial and again demanded that Raynald be punished. Guy replied that his sister's body was not in his possession and that as Raynald was safely behind the walls of his formidable castle at Kerak there was little he could do. Instead, he denounced Raynald at Court for his errant behaviour, but few took this seriously.
The uneasy peace between the two Kingdoms now began to break down.
As far as Guy was concerned this was no bad thing for he saw in the possibility of renewed conflict with the Saracens an opportunity to consolidate his own power in Jerusalem where he still had many enemies the foremost of whom was Raymond of Tripoli who had been Regent during the short reign of Baldwin V and was furious that Queen Sibylla had overlooked his own claim to the throne in favour of her husband.
Raymond was prepared to fight for what he believed was rightfully his but Guy’s more aggressive stance towards the Muslims had gained him the approval and support of the Religious Orders - the Knights Templar, Knights Hospitaller, and the Order of St Lazarus. Unable to muster the forces to oppose Guy, a frustrated Raymond had little choice but to subject himself to his rule, for now at least.
Having barely avoided conflict with Raymond, Guy now was eager to unify Jerusalem behind him and nothing provokes blind obedience in the otherwise recalcitrant than war.
Made aware by his agents in Jerusalem that the Crusaders were looking to confront him Saladin assembled his army, 30,000 strong, and crossed the River Jordan in late May 1187.
In response to this threat Guy mustered 20,000 men, the largest Crusader army seen in a hundred years. At its head would be carried the relic of the One True Cross accompanied by the Bishop of Acre, in the absence of Heraclius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, who as the army was being assembled for departure came down with a sudden and undefined illness.
Marching through the desert in full armour in temperatures that could reach over 100 degrees Fahrenheit made progress painfully slow, often less than six miles a day. The route taken was also an arduous one dictated as it was by the availability of fresh water.
In a move designed to lure the Crusader army away from the sanctuary of the Suffuriya Springs at Sephoria where they were encamped, Saladin laid siege to Raymond of Tripoli’s castle at Tiberias vowing to do to his wife Eschiva, what had been perpetrated on his sister at Kerak.
At a Council of War on the night of 2 July, despite the possibility that he might lose both his fortress and his wife, Raymond advised against leaving the safety of Suffuriya Springs. In a heated exchange that saw both Raynald and the leader of the Knights Templar Gerard de Ridefort accuse him of cowardice, Raymond was overruled.
Guy was also inclined to fight with the consolidation of his position as ruler of Jerusalem more important to him than any short-term tactical or strategic considerations - if Saladin was offering battle he could not be seen to refuse it. In any case, they had the One True Cross they had God on their side.
Saladin’s tactic had worked like a dream, and the following morning the Crusader Army left to march the 11 miles to Tiberias.
In the baking hot conditions there was not the slightest possibility that they would complete the journey in a single day and their progress was slowed further by constant attacks from Saladin’s cavalry with the Crusader's rearguard made up of the Religious Orders commanded by de Ridefort and Balian of Ibeln with orders to keep the road to Jerusalem open coming under particular pressure.
By around midday the Crusaders reached another small spring and desperate for water they halted; common sense dictated they camp there for the night but after only a brief stay Guy ordered the march to resume.
Saladin later remarked:
“Satan incited Guy to do what ran counter to his purpose.”
In the meantime, the fortress at Tiberias had effectively fallen to the besieging Muslims with only the small citadel still holding out and with Saladin arriving to take personal command he ordered the forces besieging Tiberias to depart and outflank the Crusade Army cutting off their line of retreat.
As night fell with their line of retreat threatened, short of water, and still some miles from their destination the Crusaders made camp.
The Muslim chronicler Baha ad-Din Shaddad described their predicament:
“They were closely beset as in a noose, while still marching on as though driven to the death that they could see before them, convinced of their doom and destruction and themselves aware that the following day they would be visiting their graves."
Saladin had the Crusader’s where he wanted them on an open plain between two steep hills known as the Horns of Hattin. It was ground where he could easily manoeuvre his cavalry, keep his enemy under a constant hail of arrows, and avoid as much as possible hand-to-hand combat where he knew the Christian knights were at their most formidable. He had also ensured that any wells or other sources of water in the vicinity had been poisoned.
As the sun rose on the morning of 4 July, the Crusader’s woke to find their camp engulfed in a choking smoke from fires that Saladin had ordered lit. Blinded by the smoke and barely able to breathe they stumbled about unable to avoid the barrage of arrows and other missiles or see the Muslim cavalry emerge from the darkness to ride them down or slash at them with their scimitars. Unable to remain where they were and expecting an imminent attack they broke camp in a hurry.
In the intense heat and desperate for water Count Raymond led two desperate assaults on the supply at the nearby Sea of Galilee but was repulsed on both occasions. It was to be his last action as soon after both he and his men abandoned the field.
In their efforts to get away from the smoke and constant rain of arrows the Crusader infantry had fled to higher ground and only Guy and his knights now remained on the plain where he had them re-pitch their tents in a vain attempt to block the on-rushing Muslim cavalry but with no infantry left to form a defensive line his knights began to fall in their hundreds until they too were forced to flee to the surrounding hills.
From the high ground the Crusaders charged again and again in increasingly frantic attempts to break through the encirclement but despite at times being hard-pressed the Muslim Army held firm.
By now few in number, dehydrated, and exhausted the Crusader Army was finished but Saladin ordered the attack pressed home until Guy’s tent was either destroyed or seen to be lowered. Only when the Christian King was either dead or in captivity would the battle be over.
Saladin’s son who witnessed the scene wrote:
"As the Muslim’s turned upon the Franks and drove them back to the hill I shouted “We have beaten them” but my father rounded on me and said “Be quiet!” We have not beaten them until that tent falls. As he was speaking to me, the tent fell. The Sultan dismounted, prostrated himself in thanks to God Almighty and wept for joy."
Saladin had utterly routed the Crusader army with fewer than 3,000 men escaping the carnage and these were mostly the troops of Raymond of Tripoli and Balian of Ibeln who had fled the battle before the final denouement.
Among the captives were the cream of Crusader nobility - Gerard de Ridefort, William of Montferrat, Humphrey IV, and both King Guy and Raynald de Chatillon. The Bishop of Acre had also been killed and the One True Cross captured, turned upside down, and carried off to Damascus in triumph.
Saladin now ordered members of the Religious Orders, the so-called Warriors of Christ, to be beheaded but offered other prisoners the choice of death or converting to Islam and being sold into slavery. Many chose the latter but fewer were spared than might have been expected amid the clamour to execute an Infidel.
Guy de Lusignan and Raynald de Chatillon he would deal with personally.
According to the chronicler Imad al-Din al Isfahani who was present:
"Saladin invited King Guy to sit beside him, and when Raynald entered in his turn, he seated him next to his King and reminded him of his misdeeds, How many times have you violated an oath, how many times have you signed agreements that you have never respected? Raynald replied, King’s have always acted thus, I did nothing more.
Seeing that Guy was gasping from thirst he ordered a goblet of water be brought. Guy downed what he required before handing what remained to Raynald. Saladin chastised him for not having permission to do so. He then left for a while, upon his return he drew a knife and slit Raynald’s throat. As he lay upon the ground gasping, he hacked off his head.
He then had the body dragged before Guy. Seeing the terrified look on the King’s face, he reassured him: it is not the wont of Kings, to kill Kings."
But he would not be spared the humiliation of being paraded before the walls of Jerusalem riding backwards on a donkey naked except for a fake crown.
The Horns of Hattin was a disaster for the Crusaders in the Holy Land, Jerusalem was now virtually undefended and over the next few weeks the towns of Acre, Nablus, Jaffa, Torin, Sivon, Beirut and Ascalon all fell to Saladin’s forces. Only the port city of Tyre held out and it was to continue to do so with long-term consequences for the future not just of Saladin but the entire Middle East.
By the end of September, Saladin’s forces stood before the gates of Jerusalem itself.
There was little need to order an all-out assault on the city and by 2 October he had negotiated its surrender with Balian of Ibeln and his treatment of Jerusalem’s population would stand in stark contrast to the blood-soaked barbarity of the Crusaders a hundred years before.
There was little retribution and those captives who could purchase their release were permitted to do so. He also set the price lower than that being demanded by his Emirs so that as many could be freed as possible. Indeed, he, along with some of his leading nobles, even purchased the freedom of some of the poorest with their own money.
Nonetheless, many thousands were to be sent into slavery.
Having defeated the Crusader Army, destroyed their capacity to wage war, and recaptured Jerusalem for Islam, Saladin's reputation as a great military commander and leader of his people had been sealed at the Horns of Hattin but it would begin to unravel just three years later in confrontation with his most formidable opponent Richard the Lionheart, King of England.
Though he was to retain control of Jerusalem and much of the Holy Land his failure to defeat Richard in combat undermined his power and influence within a fractious Islam and even as his reputation as a generous and dignified opponent who personified the finer aspects of Islamic society soared among his enemies abroad he was being seen as increasingly weak and ineffective at home.
Forced into a negotiated settlement with Richard that permitted the Crusaders to retain much of the coastal strip of Palestine he had failed in his promise to rid Holy Land of the Christian presence and many of his followers now began to desert his cause and look for leadership elsewhere.
Saladin his power much diminished died of a fever on 4 March 1193, aged 55, a disappointed if not broken man.
Buried outside the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus his family barely had the money to pay for his funeral as he had given away much of his fortune in charitable works and alms for the poor.
Seven hundred years later it was Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany who donated a marble sarcophagus in his honour.