Saladin and the Crusaders

Richard Coeur-de-lion, or “Lionheart,” 1157-1199, was king of England yet he is famous above all as one of the commanders of the Third Crusade. In 1099, during the First Crusade, the Europeans had captured Jerusalem and established a Christian kingdom there. In 1187, however, the faranj were decisively defeated at the Battle of Hattin and Jerusalem retaken by the Muslims. It was to relieve them, and to try to get Jerusalem back, that Richard set off for the Holy Land.

On the way there he occupied Sicily in 1190, Cyprus in 1191, and once he arrived he retook the city of Acre which previously had been one of the Crusaders’ strongholds. The faranj established a new kingdom here which was to last until 1291. [Read more:Rabban Bar Sauma, Mongol envoy to the pope“] But that was as far as Richard got. The various European commanders were quarreling with each other and they lacked the soldiers and the patience required for a successful campaign. Despite repeated attempts, Richard never recaptured Jerusalem.

The person who stopped the Europeans was An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, 1137–1193 CE, known as “Salah ad-Din” or “Saladin.” He was of Kurdish origin but had made his career with the Fatamids in Cairo where he rose to become vizir. In 1171, however, he turned on his employer and established a dynasty of his own, the Ayyubids. It was consequently Saladin and the Ayyubid armies that defeated the Crusaders at Hattin, took Jerusalem back, and successfully defended themselves against the European onslaught.

Richard Lionheart and Saladin are the original “knights in shining armor,” and despite an abundance of high-quality scholarship on the Crusades it is difficult to separate fact and fiction. Walter Scott, the British author, published a highly romanticized account of their rivalry in 1825, and in the twentieth-century Hollywood has produced a number of similar versions. According to the Europeans, Richard is bringing Christianity and civilization to the Middle East. According to the Arabs, Saladin is defending Muslim lands against a barbarian invasion. Reading, and fantasizing, about them ever since, political leaders both in Europe and in the Muslim world have found their respective role models.

External links:

In Our Time, “The Third Crusade”

Sir Walter Scott, Talisman