Saladin (Salah ad Din, Yusuf )

Of Kurdish ethnicity, Saladin was born in Tikrit, Iraq, and was raised in northern Syria. After a religious education, he served with his uncle, Asad ad Din Shirkuh, for Abu al-Qasim Nur ad Din (1118–74), who had inherited rule over Syria from his father, Imad al-Din Zangi (1084–1146), founder of the Zangid dynasty.

After military successes in repelling Crusader States in Syria and acting on Shirkuh’s advice, Nur ad Din extended his control into Egypt. After Shirkkuh’s death his nephew Saladin was appointed vizier over Egypt. Saladin quickly moved to eradicate Fatimid control over Egypt. In 1171 he abolished the Shi’i Fatimid Caliphate and returned Egypt to orthodox Sunni rule.

Saladin then established the Ayyubid dynasty in Egypt and joined with the weakened Abbasid Caliphate based in Baghdad. After Nur ad Din’s death, Saladin, using Egypt as his base of support, extended his control over Syria, Palestine, and northern Iraq and established Damascus as his capital.

Recognizing that warring local rulers and political forces had enabled the crusaders to establish control over the coastal areas of the eastern Mediterranean and Palestine, Saladin sought to unify Iraq, Syria, and Egypt under his control. He established new religious schools and mosques as a means to encourage the regeneration of Islam.

By 1187 he was strong enough to attack the crusaders and to win a major military victory at the Battle of the Horns of Hattin. He then quickly moved to take Jerusalem after over 80 years of Christian rule.

Saladin citadel in egypt

However, in notable contrast to the bloody massacres inflicted on Jerusalem’s inhabitants by the crusaders, Saladin was magnanimous in victory and even the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was left untouched. His tolerance and diplomacy earned him the praise of Muslim and Christian envoys alike.

To wrest Jerusalem away from Muslim control, a Third Crusade under King Philip II Augustus of France and Richard I of England, the Lion Hearted, was mounted. The two monarchs soon quarreled but Richard successfully enlarged crusader control over the coastal areas.

The battle between Richard I and Saladin’s forces for control over Jerusalem resulted in a stand-off. Tired of the battle and recognizing the balance of power in the region, Richard I negotiated an agreement, the Peace of Ramla, with Saladin in 1192.

Under this agreement the coastal area of Palestine remained under Christian dominance but Muslims retained control of Jerusalem. Saladin returned to Damascus, where he died shortly thereafter. His family continued the Ayyubid dynastic control over Egypt until 1250, when it fell to the Mamluks.

Saladin statue
Saladin statue