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Set against his many assets, Saladin sucked at tying a turban.

Saladin (/ˈsælədɪn/; 1137 – 4 March 1193), born An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub (Arabic: صلاح الدين يوسف بن أيوب‎), was a Kurdish terrorist white-turban Muslim, famous for his excellent table manners and knee-trembling poetry. He is credited with beating the Crusaders and starting a strange relationship with King Richard the Lionheart of England.

Saladin is still considered a great hero in the Islamic countries of the Middle East. More surprisingly, he is one of the very few Muslims that Christian chronologers had a good word for and not subject to the usual abusive Latin descriptions of his family background. He was the soldier who re-took Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187.


Amongst their many abominations, the Christians brought along a Vuvuzela.

Traditionally, the Kurds have claimed Saladin as one of theirs. Since Kurdish is an Indo-European language, related to Iranian (on the Indo side) and with most European languages as in-laws, this has let everyone explain Saladin's legendary good manners. In fact, it is more likely he was a historical mongrel who spoke and wrote fluent Arabic.

At Saladin's birth, the Christians were in the ascendancy; they had successfully planted four states running from Egypt to the borders of the Byzantine Empire. However, in his youth, one of these states (Edessa) had fallen in 1144, and a subsequent crusade (the Second one) had turned into a Franco-German farce. This had career opportunities written all over it.

Salad days[edit]

Saladin's hard nuts dispensed with armour to do battle with their tin can opponents.

Saladin's first major sponsor was the Turkish governor of Northern Syria Nur 'Never-Say-Never-Again' ad-Din. Nur had long wetted his sword in the blood of the infidels, especially that of the Franks. Saladin was sent to Egypt to support Nur's allies there.

Saladin rapidly rose to prominence, even though Egypt was under the Shiite Muslim caliphate known as the Fatimids, while Saladin was a Sunni. However, the Crusaders were equally willing to crusade against Muslims of either sect. In 1169, Saladin and his patron helped repulse a Christian attack, but Saladin took the opportunity to overthrow the Fatimids. Saladin now held Egypt, but Nur remained his superior, with plans to assault Egypt and then assault Saladin. These plans were cut short in 1174, when Nur's life was, as well.

Saladin took the death as a sign of God and gave up old his bad habits, notably wine, also belching at the dinner table. He was not Nur's successor but, by 1185, he had married his rival's number-one wife, killed his sons, and implemented his lifelong goal: uniting all the Muslim sects to create a formidable enemy for the Crusaders.

Battle of Hattin[edit]

Muslims:1 Christians:0

The Crusaders, by now, were over-promoted and under-funded. Since their first campaign, their number had dwindled to one Kingdom (Jerusalem), and one Statistical Metropolitan Area (Tripoli).

Jerusalem's King was Baldwin IV, a-k-a Baldy the Bits-Dropper on account of his leprosy. His title was defender of Christ's tomb but he lacked Christ's power of regeneration, and eventually completely disintegrated in 1185, leaving his nephew Baldwin as King Baldy V, in the custody of the leper's sister, Sybilla. Her husband Guy (yes, That Guy) was in actual control. However, Raymond of Tripoli was the nominal regent, because Everybody Loves Raymond. Little Baldwin lasted barely a year, death coming via a hacking cough, which may have meant he had leprosy too. Having Jerusalem's rulers drop like flies, after their extremities did, led to a struggle between rival factions. Still, Jerusalem had plenty of potential allies in Europe. Some asked Saladin to break the stalemate. He obliged, though ready to retreat if 'the Franks' were to show up.

The decisive battle occurred near a double hill called the Horns of Hattin, in 1187 in a part of Israel now called Hittin. That is simply what evolves when your written language omits the vowels. Saladin assembled an army of 40,000. The Knights Hospitaller advised Guy against advancing against Saladin, and the Knights Soda-Jerk nodded in agreement. But Guy was loath to dismiss the army he had assembled without doin' some Hittin' of its own. The Crusader army comprised 18,000–20,000 men, which simple arithmetic shows is about half that of Saladin's, but still impressive as Crusader armies go. And they had a fortified encampment.

Except that Saladin attacked somewhere else; namely, Raymond's castle at Tiberias, containing Raymond's wife Eschiva. Raymond and Guy reconciled, planned future sit-com seasons, then marched their army onto the plain to take the bait. Not only did the Crusaders no longer have fortifications, the Muslims had all the nearby bodies of water. Raymond diverted his forces from the main group, because they were 'choking for a drink'. They got to Lake Tiberias, and got drinks served all around, though they never got out. Guy's forces diverted up the Horns, or 'anywhere but the battle'. However, the battle came to them.

Saladin took Guy prisoner (the first of the Fall Guys) but assured him that 'kings do not kill kings', a directive that did not save the Hospitallers, nor the Soda-jerks nor even the Shoe-shine Men. The brass were treated well and eventually enough money was paid to get them released. But one consequence of assembling 20,000 men is that there is no one left to defend anywhere else. In the wake of the Battle of Hattin, Saladin found it easy pickings to knock off 52 towns, from Acre to Beirut.


'Ok lads, any other plans to beat these Muslim boys?'

Jerusalem, though its curbside recycling and community website were intact, was now a capital city without a recognisable army and wide open to attack. Saladin moved his forces there and surrounded the Holy City in September 1187.

The rulebook says that cities that didn't immediately surrender are a legitimate venue for a slaughter party. Hell, the Christians themselves had one in Jerusalem back in 1099. Queen Sibylla issued warnings to Saladin that, if he attacked the city, Jesus himself would climb down from Heaven and slaughter them. Unfortunately for Sibylla, Saladin was still not awed by the transcendental power of Christ, and he attacked anyway.

After about 10 days, it was obvious Jerusalem would fall. Its defenders were ready to destroy everything in the city, but Saladin wanted it in one piece. A deal was struck: The residents could save themselves by paying Saladin their own ransom. Those who refused were chained up and led away to a slave auction to see who else might bid.

When news that Jerusalem had fallen reached Europe, Pope Urban III dropped dead — though he was a creaking 67-year-old. His replacement was Pope Rural I, who pledged to retake the city for the 'true faith'. Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, King Henry II of England, and King Philip II of France volunteered to lead the armies of the West against this 'Saladin fellow'. However, it wasn't a united Christian front; the Byzantine Empire (more bothered by Turks than Arabs or Kurds) sent a congratulatory letter to Saladin and asked that all Christian shrines be handed over to them for safe keeping.

The Third Crusade[edit]

King Philip and King Richard sit down to an absorbing demonstration of beheading skills. 5,223...5,224...5,225

Saladin had time to prepare for this new Crusade. In addition, the Christians whose lives he had spared provided useful dirt on the attackers. Barbarossa was the dangerous one; the German leader had marched his army across the Byzantine Empire uninvited and was getting very close to Saladin. But he drowned after trying to swim across a Turkish river in a sign of Germanic bravado. This induced many German soldiers to return home to their beer and sauerkraut; only a few thousand Germans ended up in Palestine.

Saladin still had Franks and beans to consume. The French crusaders arrived in May 1191, whilst the English contingent made a month-long detour to retake Cyprus from the Greeks. They made the fortuitous decision not to attack in sequence but to wait until they were reunified, and recaptured Acre after four years in Muslim hands. The conflict was bloodless until Richard, already known for his moodiness, had the entire Muslim garrison massacred. It was a tough call for Saladin to stand down and sacrifice his forces at Acre. He saw his Christian enemies as fierce and brave, attributes matched only by their total ineptitude at actual military tactics.

When Dicky didn't meet Sali[edit]

The Hollywood rendition, however, had Saladin and Richard meeting, for a 12th century version of paper, scimitar and broadsword.

King Philip now returned to France to comfort his wife, leaving behind a contingent to help reconquer Jerusalem, between smoking Gitanes. He told Richard, 'the glory will be all yours'. Richard pressed on, but first wanted a side trip to Jaffa for a supply of oranges.

Saladin tried the same tactics as before with the Christians, blocking wells and removing the bottled water from the tourist stops along the march. He also tried flattery, sending Richard flowers and a box of Turkish Delight. The latter was actually a troop of dancing slaves, as Saladin understood his English rival had a Queer Eye for the Dervish Guy.

The march to Jerusalem was treacherous, as any soldier who took off his helmet for a breather was a sitting duck for Saladin's archers. But the infidels' crossbows gave better than they got. Saladin tried a scorched-earth tactic, but the Crusaders were supplied by ships following their march down the shoreline. Unfortunately, the army had to not just march through esplanades and beachfront but through the Wood of Arsuf, where on 7 September 1191, sniping gave way to full-out Bungle in the Jungle. Saladin's forces surrounded the Crusaders and made loud noises, but Richard hoped to delay the attack until the Saracens were at close range. The Hospitallers demonstrated their specialty, marching backwards toward their destination to always face the enemy. However, the impetuous Hospitallers finally charged the Muslims, and the Frankish forces deftly stepped aside to let them through. Richard maintained the cohesion of his force, shouting, 'Okay, let's do that instead'. Saladin's forces took the sudden fierceness as evidence of a calculated military plan.

Saladin personally entered the fray to encourage close fighting. Richard was all-in with that, likewise supervising to discourage fighting until Saladin's men came conveniently close. But the two adversaries still never met. Arsuf went to the Crusaders in straight sets.

Proceeding to Jerusalem showed the value of packing the right things for a war. The Crusaders had no siege engines; though they hoped to get timber from the local forests, they found only the Mount of Olives with its stunted fig trees. Richard took this so hard that he refused to even look at the city he had travelled thousands of miles to capture and sack.

Richard sent a message to Saladin: Let's Dance. Saladin was keen to talk now; he had plenty of enemies in the Muslim world, jealous that he had recaptured Jerusalem. He wanted Richard to go home to wherever 'England' was. The two men conversed via shouted messages to emissaries and translators, but without meeting, either 'nose-to-nose' or 'toes-to-toes'. They agreed that the Kingdom of Jerusalem would win the match, now consisting exclusively of coastal suburbs, while Saladin got to keep the Holy City.

In October 1192, Richard left Palestine. Saladin still considered him a barbarian but said if the English king ever came back, he would be most welcome. Probably not.


Saladin died of a sudden fever in March 1193 and was buried in Damascus. Irony of ironies, if Richard had dallied for a few more months, his job would have been easier. Saladin left behind 15 sons to fight out who was to rule the empire Saladin had assembled, and fight it out, they did. By then, Richard was sitting a prison cell in Austria, but that's another story.

Legacy and depictions[edit]

Professor Saladin Higgins

Saladin's renown is actually a European invention. Saladin's contemporaries respected him for capturing Jerusalem, but his inability to defeat Richard let the Crusaders hang on to territory for another 99 years. Muslims viewed Saladin's mutual admiration society with Richard as weakness. In time, Saladin was largely forgotten (except by the Kurds).

In contrast, the Christians lauded Saladin as a Muslim gentleman, though they were puzzled that someone who denied the divinity of Christ could be so valiant. Italian poet/writer/poser Dante refused to cast Saladin's spirit into Hell. Instead, he sent him to Purgatory, that well-known town in Texas where souls ponder the reality of the afterlife.

Saladin's story was once again largely neglected until the novelist Sir Walter Scott in Ivanhoe revived ideas of the golden age of chivalry and wrote stories involving Richard, Saladin, and Robin Hood. As a consequence, Saladin appeared as the exotic Middle Easterner with impeccable table manners and a poem for every occasion. This carried over into film and television adaptations. If an actor like Rex Harrison could play Julius Caesar, Doctor Dolittle and Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, he was Islamic enough to play Saladin.