Profile of Saladin, Hero of Islam

painting of Saladin's arrival in Jerusalem

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Saladin, the sultan of Egypt and Syria, watched as his men finally breached the walls of Jerusalem and poured into the city full of European Crusaders and their followers. Eighty-eight years earlier, when the Christians had taken the city, they massacred the Muslim and Jewish inhabitants. Raymond of Aguilers boasted, "In the Temple and the porch of Solomon, men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins." Saladin, however, was both more merciful and more chivalrous that Europe's knights; when he recaptured the city, he ordered his men to spare the Christian non-combatants of Jerusalem.

At a time when the nobility of Europe believed that they held a monopoly on chivalry, and on God's favor, the great Muslim ruler Saladin proved himself more compassionate and courtly than his Christian opponents. More than 800 years later, he is remembered with respect in the west, and revered in the Islamic world.

Early Life

In 1138, a baby boy named Yusuf was born to a Kurdish family of Armenian descent living in Tikrit, Iraq. The baby's father, Najm ad-Din Ayyub, served as the castellan of Tikrit under the Seljuk administrator Bihruz; there is no record of the boy's mother's name or identity.

The boy who would become Saladin seemed to have been born under a bad star. At the time of his birth, his hot-blooded uncle Shirkuh killed the commander of the castle guard over a woman, and Bihruz banished the entire family from the city in disgrace. The baby's name comes from the Prophet Joseph, an unlucky figure, whose half-brothers sold him into enslavement.

After their expulsion from Tikrit, the family moved to the Silk Road trading city of Mosul. There, Najm ad-Din Ayyub and Shirkuh served Imad ad-Din Zengi, the famous anti-Crusader ruler and founder of the Zengid Dynasty. Later, Saladin would spend his adolescence in Damascus, Syria, one of the great cities of the Islamic world. The boy reportedly was physically slight, studious, and quiet.

Saladin Goes to War

After attending a military training academy, the 26-year-old Saladin accompanied his uncle Shirkuh on an expedition to restore Fatimid power in Egypt in 1163. Shirkuh successfully reinstalled the Fatimid vizier, Shawar, who then demanded that Shirkuh's troops withdraw. Shirkuh refused; in the ensuing fight, Shawar allied himself with European Crusaders, but Shirkuh, ably assisted by Saladin, managed to defeat the Egyptian and European armies at Bilbays.

Shirkuh then withdrew the main body of his army from Egypt, in accordance with a peace treaty. (Amalric and the Crusaders also withdrew, since the ruler of Syria had attacked the Crusader States in Palestine during their absence.)

In 1167, Shirkuh and Saladin once again invaded, intent on deposing Shawar. Once again, Shawar called on Amalric for assistance. Shirkuh withdrew from his base in Alexander, leaving Saladin and a small force to defend the city. Besieged, Saladin managed to protect the city and provide for its citizens despite his uncle's refusal to attack the surrounding Crusader/Egyptian army from behind. After paying restitution, Saladin left the city to the Crusaders.

The following year, Amalric betrayed Shawar and attacked Egypt in his own name, slaughtering the people of Bilbays. He then marched on Cairo. Shirkuh jumped into the fray once again, recruiting the reluctant Saladin to come with him. The 1168 campaign proved decisive; Amalric withdrew from Egypt when he heard that Shirkuh was approaching, but Shirkuh entered Cairo and took control of the city early in 1169. Saladin arrested the vizier Shawar, and Shirkuh had him executed.

Taking Egypt

Nur al-Din appointed Shirkuh as the new vizier of Egypt. A short time later, however, Shirkuh died after a feast, and Saladin succeeded his uncle as vizier on March 26, 1169. Nur al-Din hoped that together, they could crush the Crusader States that lay between Egypt and Syria.

Saladin spent the first two years of his rule consolidating control over Egypt. After uncovering an assassination plot against him among the Black Fatimid troops, he disbanded the African units (50,000 troops) and relied instead upon Syrian soldiers. Saladin also brought members of his family into his government, including his father. Although Nur al-Din knew and trusted Saladin's father, he viewed this ambitious young vizier with increasing distrust.

Meanwhile, Saladin attacked the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, crushed the city of Gaza, and captured the Crusader castle at Eilat as well as the key town of Ayla in 1170. In 1171, he began to march on the famous castle-city of Karak, where he was supposed to join Nur al-Din in attacking the strategic Crusader fortress but withdrew when his father passed away back in Cairo. Nur al-Din was furious, rightly suspecting that Saladin's loyalty to him was in question. Saladin abolished the Fatimid caliphate, taking power over Egypt in his own name as the founder of the Ayubbid Dynasty in 1171, and reimposing Sunni religious worship instead of Fatimid-style Shi'ism.

Capture of Syria

In 1173 and 1174, Saladin pushed his borders west into what is now Libya, and southeast as far as Yemen. He also cut back payments to Nur al-Din, his nominal ruler. Frustrated, Nur al-Din decided to invade Egypt and install a more loyal underling as vizier, but he suddenly died early in 1174.

Saladin immediately capitalized on Nur al-Din's death by marching to Damascus and taking control of Syria. The Arab and Kurdish citizens of Syria reportedly welcomed him joyfully into their cities.

However, the ruler of Aleppo held out and refused to acknowledge Saladin as his sultan. Instead, he appealed to Rashid ad-Din, head of the Assassins, to kill Saladin. Thirteen Assassins stole into Saladin's camp, but they were detected and killed. Aleppo refused to accept Ayubbid rule until 1183, nonetheless.

Fighting the Assassins

In 1175, Saladin declared himself king (malik), and the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad confirmed him as the sultan of Egypt and Syria. Saladin thwarted another Assassin attack, waking and catching the knifeman's hand as he stabbed down towards the half-asleep sultan. After this second, and much closer, threat to his life, Saladin became so wary of assassination that he had chalk powder spread around his tent during military campaigns so that any stray footprints would be visible.

In August of 1176, Saladin decided to lay siege to the Assassins' mountain strongholds. One night during this campaign, he awoke to find a poisoned dagger beside his bed. Stuck to the dagger was a note promising that he would be killed if he did not withdraw. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, Saladin not only lifted his siege, but also offered an alliance to the Assassins (in part, to prevent the Crusaders from making their own alliance with them).

Attacking Palestine

In 1177, the Crusaders broke their truce with Saladin, raiding toward Damascus. Saladin, who was in Cairo at the time, marched with an army of 26,000 into Palestine, taking the city of Ascalon and getting as far as the gates of Jerusalem in November. On November 25, the Crusaders under King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem (son of Amalric) surprised Saladin and some of his officers while the vast bulk of their troops were out raiding, however. The European force of just 375 was able to route Saladin's men; the sultan narrowly escaped, riding a camel all the way back to Egypt.

Undaunted by his embarrassing retreat, Saladin attacked the Crusader city of Homs in the spring of 1178. His army also captured the city of Hama; a frustrated Saladin ordered the beheading of the European knights captured there. The following spring King Baldwin launched what he thought was a surprise retaliatory attack on Syria. Saladin knew he was coming, though, and the Crusaders were soundly thrashed by Ayubbid forces in April of 1179.

A few months later, Saladin took the Knights Templar fortress of Chastellet, capturing many famous knights. By the spring of 1180, he was in position to launch a serious attack on the Kingdom of Jerusalem, so King Baldwin sued for peace.

Conquest of Iraq

In May of 1182, Saladin took half of the Egyptian army and left that part of his kingdom for the last time. His truce with the Zengid dynasty that ruled Mesopotamia expired in September, and Saladin resolved to seize that region. The emir of the Jazira region in northern Mesopotamia invited Saladin to take suzerainty over that area, making his task easier.

One by one, other major cities fell: Edessa, Saruj, ar-Raqqah, Karkesiya, and Nusaybin. Saladin repealed taxes in the newly-conquered areas, making him very popular with the local residents. He then moved toward his former hometown of Mosul. However, Saladin was distracted by a chance to finally capture Aleppo, the key to northern Syria. He made a deal with the emir, allowing him to take everything he could carry as he left the city, and paying the emir for what was left behind.

With Aleppo finally in his pocket, Saladin once more turned to Mosul. He laid siege to it on November 10, 1182, but was unable to capture the city. Finally, in March of 1186, he made peace with the city's defense forces.

March Toward Jerusalem

Saladin decided that the time was ripe to take on the Kingdom of Jerusalem. In September of 1182, he marched into Christian-held lands across the River Jordan, picking off small numbers of knights along the Nablus road. The Crusaders mustered their largest army ever, but it was still smaller than Saladin's, so they merely harassed the Muslim army as it moved toward Ayn Jalut.

Finally, Raynald of Chatillon sparked open fighting when he threatened to attack the holy cities of Medina and Mecca. Saladin responded by besieging Raynald's castle, Karak, in 1183 and 1184. Raynald retaliated by attacking pilgrims making the hajj, murdering them and stealing their goods in 1185. Saladin countered by building a navy that attacked Beirut.

Despite all of these distractions, Saladin was making gains on his ultimate goal, which was the capture of Jerusalem. By July of 1187, most of the territory was under his control. The Crusader kings decided to mount a last, desperate attack to try and drive Saladin from the kingdom.

Battle of Hattin

On July 4, 1187, the army of Saladin clashed with the combined army of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, under Guy of Lusignan, and the Kingdom of Tripoli, under King Raymond III. It was a smashing victory for Saladin and the Ayubbid army, which nearly wiped out the European knights and captured Raynald of Chatillon and Guy of Lusignan. Saladin personally beheaded Raynald, who had tortured and murdered Muslim pilgrims and also had cursed the Prophet Muhammad.

Guy of Lusignan believed that he would be killed next, but Saladin reassured him by saying, "It is not the want of kings to kill kings, but that man transgressed all bounds and therefore did I treat his thus." Saladin's merciful treatment of the King Consort of Jerusalem helped cement his reputation in the west as a chivalrous warrior.

On October 2, 1187, the city of Jerusalem surrendered to Saladin's army after a siege. As noted above, Saladin protected the Christian civilians of the city. Although he demanded a low ransom for each Christian, those who could not afford to pay were also allowed to leave the city rather than being enslaved. Low-ranking Christian knights and foot-soldiers were sold into enslavement, however.

Saladin invited Jewish people to return to Jerusalem once more. They had been murdered or driven out by the Christians eighty years before, but the people of Ashkelon responded, sending a contingent to resettle in the holy city.

The Third Crusade

Christian Europe was horrified by the news that Jerusalem had fallen back under Muslim control. Europe soon launched the Third Crusade, led by Richard I of England (better known as Richard the Lionheart). In 1189, Richard's forces attacked Acre, in what is now northern Israel, and massacred 3,000 Muslim men, women, and children who had been taken prisoner. In retaliation, Saladin executed every Christian soldier his troops encountered for the next two weeks.

Richard's army defeated Saladin's at Arsuf on September 7, 1191. Richard then moved toward Ascalon, but Saladin ordered the city emptied and destroyed. As the dismayed Richard directed his army to march away, Saladin's force fell upon them, killing or capturing most of them. Richard would continue to try to retake Jerusalem, but he had only 50 knights and 2,000 foot-soldiers remaining, so he would never succeed.

Saladin and Richard the Lionheart grew to respect one another as worthy adversaries. Famously, when Richard's horse was killed at Arsuf, Saladin sent him a replacement mount. In 1192, the two agreed to the Treaty of Ramla, which provided that the Muslims would retain control of Jerusalem, but Christian pilgrims would have access to the city. The Crusader Kingdoms were also reduced to a thin sliver of land along the Mediterranean coast. Saladin had prevailed over the Third Crusade.

Death of Saladin

Richard the Lionheart left the Holy Land early in 1193. A short time later, on March 4, 1193, Saladin died of an unknown fever in his capital at Damascus. Knowing that his time was short, Saladin had donated all of his wealth to the poor and had no money left even for a funeral. He was buried in a simple mausoleum outside of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.


  • Lyons, Malcolm Cameron and D.E.P. Jackson. Saladin: The Politics of the Holy War, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
  • Nicolle, David and Peter Dennis. Saladin: The Background, Strategies, Tactics and Battlefield Experiences of the Greatest Commanders of History, Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2011.
  • Reston, James Jr. Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade, New York: Random House, 2002.
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Szczepanski, Kallie. "Profile of Saladin, Hero of Islam." ThoughtCo, Oct. 18, 2021, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2021, October 18). Profile of Saladin, Hero of Islam. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "Profile of Saladin, Hero of Islam." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).