Saladin Youth Period 1138-1164

Ayyub, father of Saladin,sadly departing from the castle of Tekrit  in I138 , with his brother, on the very night of Saladin’s birth. They betook themselves to Zengy at Mosul, and were not disappointed of their welcome. The great Atabeg had not forgotten the ferry on the Tigris, and was never the man to turn away a good sword. The two brothers served in his armies in many wars, and when Baalbekk fell, in October, I139, Ayyub became the governor of the conquered city. Baalbekk, or Heliopolis, the old “ city of the Sun," was celebrated not only for its antiquity and its temples, but for its lofty situation. It stood between Lebanon and Antilibanus, overhanging the valley of the Litany, at a height of four thousand feet above the sea, and was said to be the coldest town in Syria. A legend tells how men asked the Cold, “ Where shall we ¿nd thee?" and it answered, “ My home is Baalbekk." Though far from being the magnificent city that it was in the days when Antoninus Pius built the great temple of which a part still stands, Baalbekk in the time of Ayyub was yet an important town, surrounded by fertile fields, orchards, and gardens, and defended by a strong wall, with a citadel, or acropolis, on the west. It had not yet suffered the vandal touch of the Mongols, or the ¿nal upheaval of earthquake, which reduced it to its present ruined state. Its “ presses over Àowed with grapes,” sweet water ran through the town, and mills and water wheels all around bore witness to fertility. To be placed in command of so great and prosperous a city was a convincing proof of Zengy's con¿dence, especially when it happened to be the southernmost outpost over against the hostile city of Damascus, distant only thirty-five miles.

Here the governor's son Saladin spent some years of his childhood ; and, according to the saying, they ought to have been happy years, because they have no history. We know absolutely nothing of the family of Ayyub between 1139 and I I46, the period of their residence at Baalbekk. No doubt Saladin received the usual education of a Moslem boy; probably as the son of the commandant he had the best teaching within reach. Ayyub was particularly devout, and even founded a convent for Sufy recluses at Baalbekk. His son was doubtless drilled for years in the Koran, in Arabic grammar, and the elements of rhetoric, poetry, and theology; for, whatever the race of the Saracen rulers of those days, their educational standard was Arabian; and to instil the Koran and traditions, to teach a pure Arabic style and the niceties of Arabic syntax, formed the chief aim of the learned but limited men who were entrusted with the training of distinguished youth.

Whatever schooling Saladin had at Baalbekk must have been meagre compared with his later opportunities. He was not yet nine years old when his father's patron was murdered, and the death of the great Atabeg was of course the signal for the recovery of Baalbekk by its old Damascus owner. Ayyub made no effort to defend the town. He was ever a diplomatic, prudent sort of man, keenly alive to his own interests. He saw that the two sons of Zengy, who shared their father's dominions, were occupied in watching each other, and had no time to look after Baalbekk. Mosil was distant, and Aleppo timid. On the other hand, Damascus was near, and was resolved to get back her own. When her troops entered Baalbekk, Ayyub made terms from the citadel, and before he surrendered he had arranged to receive a handsome ¿ef, including ten villages near Damascus, a good sum down, and a house in the capital. Here his statecraft and sagacity soon procured him a high position at the court of Abak, the grandson of Tughtigin, and in a few years he rose to be commander-in-chief of the Damascus army.

Ayyub held this exalted post when Zengy's son, the King of Aleppo, Nur-ed-din Mahmud, marched against Damascus in April, 1154. The name of Nur-ed-din (Noradin) is second only to Saladin among the great defenders of Islam. After the catastrophe at Jaabar, the Atabeg’s kingdom had fallen into two been brought to a successful issue,’ says William of Tyre, ‘ had it not been for the greed of the great princes, who commenced negotiations with the citizens.’ At the advice of traitors, the camp was shifted to the south-west, where, so ran the rumor, the wall was too weak to with stand the feeblest onslaught. But here the Crusaders found a more deadly enemy than strong fortifications; for in their new position they were cut off from the river and deprived of the orchard fruits ; and through lack of food and leadership despair fell upon the host, until men began to talk of retreat. There was jealousy, likewise, between the Syrian Franks and their Western allies, and out of this too fertile source of evil, Anar, the Vezir of Damascus, was not slow to reap pro¿t for himself. He pointed out to the former the folly of helping their brethren to seize Damascus, the capture of which would be but the prelude to the seizing of Jerusalem also. His arguments, supported as they doubtless were by bribes, brought about the abandonment of the siege. By Easter, I149, this valiant Crusade was on its way home.

In such a crisis no man who could bear a sword could have been idle in Damascus. Ayyub, though he probably did not attain the rank of commander-in-chief until after Anar's death in the August following the siege, must have played a prominent part in the defense. Saladin was of course too young to be more than an absorbed spectator. It is true that Western legend tells how Eleanor of France carried on her amours with the future “ Soldan ”; but as he was then but eleven years old, King Louis’s jealousy found a more probable accomplice for the divorce, which afterwards took place, than a good little boy at school.

Five years later, Ayyub was the chief agent in changing the dynasty and admitting the son of his old patron to the capital of Syria. It happened that whilst the elder brother had made terms with Damascus and had there risen to high power, the younger, Asad-ed-din Shirkuh, the “ Mountain Lion,” had taken service with Nur-ed-din, and such was the valor he showed in every engagement, that his master not only gave him valuable cities in fief—such as Emesa and Rahba,—but placed him in command of the army which was destined for the conquest of Damascus.

The great opportunity seemed at last to have come. The Franks were discredited and dismayed after the miserable collapse of the Second Crusade; Mesopotamia was quiet under the magnanimous rule of Zengy's eldest son ; the indomitable Anar, who had repeatedly withstood the great Atabeg himself, was dead, and in his stead had risen Ayyub, whose brother was Nur-ed-din’s trusted marshal; and already the Prince of Damascus had humbly paid homage to the King of Aleppo. If ever the hour had struck for the realizing of Zengy's dream of a Syrian empire, centered at Damascus, it was now.

In April, I154, Nur-ed-din’s army appeared on some pretext before the unconquered city. Shirkuh opened negotiations with his politic brother within the walls. In six days all was arranged ; Ayyub did justice to his old devotion to the house of Zengy, and espoused the side of the strongest battalions. The people of Damascus, like sheep astray, now that Anar was dead, abandoned their hereditary lord, and following Ayyub's advice opened their gates to the powerfulest sovereign of the age. Nur-ed-din entered Damascus without a blow, and the brothers were duly rewarded. Ayyub alone of all the court was granted the right to be seated in the presence of the king, and was made governor of Damascus; Shirkuh was established at Emesa, with the viceroyalty over the whole Damascene province. The ferry on the Tigris had proved a sovereign talisman ; but if they owed their ¿rst advance to a stroke of fortune, both brothers evidently possessed the talent and courage to use their opportunities.

From 1154 to 1164, Saladin lived at Damascus, at the Court of Nur-ed-din, with the consideration that belonged to the son of the commandant. As to what he did, what he studied, how he passed his time, and with whom, the Arab chroniclers maintain an exasperating silence. We are informed that he showed himself a youth of “ excellent qualities,” that he learned from Nur-ed-din how “ to walk in the path of righteousness, to act virtuously, and to be zealous in fighting the infidels." As the favored governor's son, he naturally enjoyed a privileged position, but, far from exhibiting any symptoms of future greatness, he was evidently a shining example of that tranquil virtue which shuns “the last infirmity of noble minds.” This is all we are told of Saladin up to the age of twenty-five. The Syrian nobles and Saladin’s rank was now high—spent their youth in study, and their manhood in war and hunting and the cultivation of letters. Stalking the lion was the king of sports, but coursing and hawking were practiced with unflagging energy. We read of setters and falcons imported regularly from Constantinople, where they were bred with great care and science. But we are not told a word to favor the supposition that Saladin as a youth was a mighty hunter; all we know tends to the belief that he preferred a quiet seclusion, and like his sagacious father, rather than his impetuous uncle, governed his life on principles of prudence and placidity. When it came to a choice of ways, the one arduous but leading to honour and renown, the other to peaceful insignificance, Saladin, as we shall see, endeavoured to choose the latter; nor was it a case of a formal noli episcopari, but rather the protest of a retired nature against the rush and press of an ambitious career. He was one of those who have greatness thrust upon them; and though, when once fairly launched, he missed no opportunity of 'extending his power, it may well be doubted whether he would ever have started at all but for the urgency of his friends. An uneventful youth might have gently passed into a tranquil old age, and Saladin might have remained plain Salah-ed-din of Damascus with a name too obscure to be European.

Nor is it likely that he would have distinguished himself as a scholar or poet. To judge by later years, his literary tastes tended to the theological; he loved poetry indeed, but less than keen dialectic; and to hear holy traditions traced and verified, canon law formulated, passages in the Koran explained, and sound orthodoxy vindicated, inspired him with a strange delight. Like his father Ayyub, he was above all things a devout Moslem; and at Damascus he had ample opportunities for cultivating divinity. Learning in those days meant theological armory more than anything else, and wise men came in throngs from the East and from the West, from Samarkand and from Cordova, to teach and be taught in the mosques and medresa: of Damascus. They must have brought with them the knowledge of other lands and other customs and arts. Perhaps Saladin sat and listened in the west corner of the Great Omayyad Mosque, when Ibn-Aby-Usrun was holding his lectures there. He could have no better master than one who was styled a “leader of his age in talents and legal learning," and whom Nur-ed-din not only brought with him to Damascus, but even built colleges in most of the great cities of Syria for him to lecture in, that his wonderful gifts might be known of all. He became a judge in Mesopotamia, and it speaks well for Saladin’s faithfulness to early ties that, when the old man lost his sight, the Damascus youth who had become the greatest of Sultans refused to let him be deprived of his honorable office.

A negative proof of the retired life led by Saladin in youth and early manhood is found in the fact that Osama, who spent nearly the whole of the ten years, 1154-1164, at Damascus in intimate relations with the court (when it happened to be there), does not once mention him, and when at last he met him in 1174 it seems that a formal introduction had to be made.* Had Saladin been constantly at court, Osama must have known him. At the same time it must be remembered that the Arab chief was between sixty and seventy at the period of his earlier Damascus residence, and would hardly have paid much attention to a mere youngster; and further, that the old poet's impulsive Bohemian nature could have had little in common with the staid young man who preferred the society of divines. Saladin possibly thought Osama a sad warning, and the wild old Arab perhaps retorted with the opinion that the governor's discreet son was no better than a prig.

The fact that Saladin, who was afterwards the most renowned leader of his time, was apparently a completely obscure individual up to the age of twenty-five, is the more curious when it is remembered that his uncle Shirkuh, who afterwards brought him into public life, was Nur-ed-din’s right-hand man, a conspicuously able and ambitious general, and was even spoken of as almost his colleague in sovereignty.1' When in 1159 Nur-ed-din was apparently dying of a malady which kept him stretched for months on a bed of sickness at Aleppo, Shirkuh, then unquestionably the premier noble of Syria, was on the point of seizing the crown itself, and was only deterred by the ever prudent counsels of Ayyub, who suggested that it might be wise to wait and see whether their master was really going to die or not In 1160 Shirkuh acted as leader of the Damascus caravan of pilgrims to Mekka, and displayed extraordinary pomp on the occasion; yet we do not hear of Saladin among his brilliant staff, nor did the latter, despite his religious instinct, ever perform that journey which to Moslems is the crowning act of grace. Shirkuh of course took a prominent part in the wars of Nur-ed-din, in the conquest of Harim (Harenc) from the Franks in 1162, and the ensuing capture of fifty Syrian fortresses, whereby the kingdom of Zengy's cautious son was extended to Marash on the border of the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum on the north, and southward to Banias at the foot of Mount Hermon, and to Bozra in the Hauran.

In all this Saladin had no share: if he had taken the smallest part in any warlike operation we may be sure his admiring biographers would have recorded it. It was not until Shirkuh made his memorable expeditions to Egypt that the future “ Sultan of the Moslems” emerged from his voluntary retirement and stepped boldly into his uncle's place as the true successor of Zengy in the role of Champion of Islam.