Salahuddin, known to Christendom as the great and chivalrous Saladin, was born to an influential Kurdish family in northern Iraq in 1138. His father, Najmuddin Ayyub, was governor of Baalbek at the time, and his uncle, Asaduddin Shirkoh, served as a general in the Syrian army. Salahuddin was still a child when his father sent him to Damascus, where he read theology, and learned the arts of warfare. He gained military experience under his uncle’s command in campaigns against the “Frankish” (European crusaders’) ruling houses in several towns in Syria and Palestine.

Saladin, who wiped out the crusaders main army at the Battle of Hattin 1187. Soon the crusaders had almost been pushed into the sea. A call for a new crusade went out from the Pope, and the Kings of Europe answered his plea. Richard the Lion heart led an English army, but he and his fellow kings failed to drive Arabs from Jerusalem. Other crusades followed, including the children’s crusade of 1212, which involved peasants and children from the Rhineland and Southern France.

He rose to eminence during Shirkoh’s campaigns to Egypt that Nuruddin, the sultan of Damascus, had commissioned. These campaigns were intended to thwart the designs of the covetous Frankish king of Jerusalem upon that land. Strangely enough, as Shirkoh’s forces approached Cairo on January 2, 1169, the Frankish army, which had been besieging the city, retreated. Sixteen days later, Salahuddin ambushed and killed the chief Fatimid vizier, Shawar, whereupon Shirkoh entered the city and assumed the office of vizier. He died unexpectedly two months later (March 23, 1169), and Salahuddin at the age of 30 succeeded him as the vizier and virtual ruler of Egypt. Officially, however, he ruled as an agent of Sultan Nuruddin, who in turn professed allegiance to the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad.

Nuruddin wanted Salahuddin to terminate the Shia Fatimid caliphate in Egypt forthwith. Knowing that the young caliph (Al Adid) was not only powerless but terminally ill, he withheld action until the latter’s death on September 12, 1171. He then instructed the imams to bless the Abbasid caliph, instead of the Fatimid, in their Friday sermons. The Fatimid caliphate thus came to an end without bloodshed.

Even though his relationship with Nuruddin had become tense as a result of his “insubordination” in the matter of the Fatimid caliphate, Salahuddin did not proclaim himself the sultan of Egypt until after Nuruddin’s death on March 25, 1174. Nor, until then, did he move out of Egypt to subdue smaller Muslim principalities. He went some distance in the Maghreb (along the North African coast), and to the east to conquer Yemen.

Nuruddin’s heir, Ismail al-Malik, in Damascus was a mere boy controlled by a bunch of eunuchs in the palace. Salahuddin was well received when he entered the city and became the sultan of Damascus. Popular approval might have been taken as sufficient evidence of his legitimacy, but he chose to firm it up further by marrying Nuruddin’s widow. Within a few years he brought nearly all of Syria and parts of northern Iraq under his dominion, partly by skillful diplomacy and, when necessary, by swift and resolute use of force.

Salahuddin engaged the crusader in numerous battles most of which he won. He lost the Battle of Montgisard (November 25, 1177) in which he had to face the combined forces of Baldwin IV of Jerusalem, Raynald of Chattilon, and the Knights Templars. Two years later he attacked the crusaders again and defeated them at Jacob’s Ford. But they continued to provoke him.

Raynald harassed Muslim trading caravans and pilgrims. Worse still, he threatened to invade Makkah and Madina. He looted a caravan of Muslim pilgrims in 1184. On July 4, 1187, Salahuddin met and annihilated the forces of Guy of Lusignan, king-consort of Jerusalem, Raymond III of Tripoli, and Raynald in the Battle of Hattin (near Tiberias in northern Palestine). Raynald was captured and executed; Guy, too, was taken, but his life was spared. This was a terrible defeat from which the crusaders never recovered. Most of the towns under their rule (Acre, Toron, Beruit, Sidon, Nazareth, Nabulus, Caesaria, Jaffa, and Ascalon) fell to Saladin within the next three months.

When the crusaders first conquered Jerusalem in 1099, they slaughtered every Muslim and Jewish man, woman, and child in sight. By contrast Salauddin, upon taking the city on October 2, 1187, announced a general amnesty, ordered his soldiers not to hurt or harass any resident, assured those who wanted to leave safe passage and time to pack their belongings and take along with them all that they or their mules could carry.

The fall of Jerusalem to Salahuddin, and the crusaders’ successive defeats, shocked religious and political circles in Europe and prompted a third crusade in 1190 under the joint leadership of Richard I (the “Lionheart”), of England, and the kings of France and Austria. The Austrian king died on the way, and the French king went back home after a short stay in Palestine, leaving it to Richard to deal with Salahuddin. They met at the battle of Arsuf (September 17, 1191), which Richard won but not decisively. On his way to Jerusalem in June 1192, he became too sick and tired to continue, and made peace with Salahuddin (Treaty of Ramla), providing that Jerusalem would remain under Muslim control, but that it would be open to Christian pilgrims to visit freely. Soon thereafter, Richard left Palestine.

It is said that Richard was greatly impressed by Salahuddin’s generosity of spirit. Once when he was sick with fever, Salahuddin offered to send his personal physician to examine and treat him. On another occasion, Richard lost his horse, and Salahuddin sent him two of his own. When, on his way to Jerusalem, his men were without fresh water and extremely thirsty, Richard appealed to Salahuddin for supplies of fruit and water, which the latter sent.

Sir Walter Scott’s work, “Talisman,” depicts Salahuddin in Richard’s tent in the garb of a physician. So do legend and fable. Actually the two men had never met. Richard wanted a “summit” meeting, and sent a delegation of his knights to propose one, but Salahuddin declined. He asked the knights to tell Richard that they would meet only if and when one of them appeared before the other as a captive.

In terms of personal qualifications, Salahuddin is said to have been rather short, light brown of skin, slight of build, slim and frail, with piercing brown eyes and a pointed black beard. Beyond physical appearance, he was gentle, kind, merciful, and generous; tolerant and forgiving, courteous but firm; hardheaded, prudent, patient and persevering; courageous and chivalrous; competent planner and strategist.

He was a keeper of his covenants, and straightforward in that he said what he meant and meant what he said. He was pious and, according in some versions, he may have damaged his health by excessive fasting. He was strictly honest; huge amounts of public revenues remained at his disposal but he took none of them. He gave away to the poor and the needy much of any salary that he may have drawn. His family and friends found upon his death that his “treasury” (more like a small cash box) contained no more than one gold piece, which would not be enough to meet his funeral expenses.

It appears that he did not care much for hierarchical distinctions. His subjects were free to sue him. He would not tolerate cruelty on the part of his functionaries, and forbade beating of servants. He banned exclusive enclaves or mansions for the wealthy in Cairo. He made it a thriving city in which commerce and cultural freedom flourished. He tended to treat his subordinates with respect and as near equals.

It has been reported that his secretary was once riding alongside him, and as they came to a muddy patch, his mule splashed mud on Salahuddin’s garment. He pulled back to ride behind the Sultan to avoid his mule’s mud-slinging. The Sultan is said to have laughed and told his secretary to ride alongside, not behind, him, for a bit of mud would not hurt him any.

One afternoon Salahuddin was resting in the opening of his tent when a servant brought him a document to sign. He told the servant to bring it back later because he was extremely tired at that time. The servant said the matter would brook no delay, and that he must sign the paper right away. Salahuddin then pleaded that he did not have an inkwell on hand. The servant retorted that an inkwell sat on a table at the back of the tent, implying that not he but the sultan himself should get up and fetch it. Believe it or not, that is exactly what the sultan did, and the servant got away with behavior that in most quarters would have been regarded as gross and intolerable impertinence.

Salahuddin was a friend to learning. He established six colleges (seminaries) that taught not only religion but also mathematics, physics, geodesy, medicine, and administration. He recruited professors and scholars from all over the Muslim world to teach at these institutions and to undertake scholarly writing. He built a spacious hospital in Cairo that provided clean beds, free food and medicines, and employed physicians, druggists, and other needed helpers. It maintained a separate ward for women. Next to this hospital he built a facility that cared for mentally disturbed persons, treated them in a humane fashion, and employed experts to discover what had driven the inmates to their respective states of mind.

He was zealous but by no means a fanatic. In his struggle against the European invaders he had the support of eastern Christians — the Georgian orthodox and the Egyptian Copts, who preferred him to the pope in Rome.

On the negative side, it may be noted that he dismantled the elaborate bureaucracy the Fatimids had maintained, appointed fellow-Kurds to high offices, gave many of his officers control over large tracts of fertile land, and thus furthered, if not introduced, feudalism in Egypt.

The Umayyad mosque, where Saladin buried

He died in Damascus on March 4, 1193. He was buried in the grounds of the Umayyad mosque (also known as the Grand Mosque of Damascus, is one of the largest mosques in the world) and his tomb remains one of the most frequently visited in the Muslim world.


Lane-Poole (S.), Saladin and the fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, London, 1889.

James (M. L.), The age of the crusades, New York, 1914.

Murray (A. V.), The Crusades: an encyclopedia, CA : ABC-CLIO, 2006.

Anwar Syed at