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Paul E. Walker: Former Associate Professor of Islamic Studies, McGill University, Montreal The most famous of the Muslim military heroes was Saladin. In the late 12th century he succeeded in uniting various parts of the Middle East and Mesopotamia and in overtaking the Christian armies of the early crusades through a combination of shrewd diplomacy and decisive attacks. Saladin was born in Takrit, Mesopotamia (in modern Iraq) to a Kurdish family. As a youth, his pursuits tended more toward the religious and scholarly than toward the military, but this changed when he joined the staff of his uncle, a military commander. By age 31 Saladin became commander of the Syrian troops and vizier of Egypt. In the following years, Saladin used his considerable talents to bring the Muslim territories of Syria, Egypt, northern Mesopotamia, and Palestine under his control. Then, in 1187, he launched a holy war against the armies of the European crusaders, who had conquered Jerusalem 88 years before. In contrast to the European conquest of Jerusalem, Saladin's capture of the city was far more civilized and less bloody. By 1189 the crusaders occupied only three cities in the entire Middle East. Saladin's conquest sparked the Third Crusade, which was led by the famed military leader Richard I (the Lion-Hearted). The clash between these two great powers ended in a draw, but a treaty was drawn up that allowed Christians to visit holy sites in the area. Saladin died a peaceful death in Damascus in 1193. Muslim sultan of Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and Palestine, founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, and the most famous of Muslim heroes. In wars against the Christian crusaders, he achieved final success with the disciplined capture of Jerusalem (Oct. 2, 1187), ending its 88-year occupation by the Franks. The great Christian counterattack of the Third Crusade was then stalemated by his military genius. Saladin was born into a prominent Kurdish family. On the night of his birth, his father, Najm ad-Din Ayyub, gathered his family and moved to Aleppo, there entering the service of 'Imad ad-Din Zangi ibn Aq Sonqur, the powerful Turkish governor in northern Syria. Growing up in Ba'lbek and Damascus, Saladin was apparently an undistinguished youth, with a greater taste for religious studies than military training. His formal career began when he joined the staff of his uncle Asad ad-Din Shirkuh, an important military commander under the emir Nureddin, who was the son and successor of Zangi. During three military expeditions led by Shirkuh into Egypt to prevent its falling to the Latin-Christian (Frankish) rulers of the states established by the First Crusade, a complex, three-way struggle developed between Amalric I, the Latin king of Jerusalem; Shawar, the powerful vizier of the Egyptian Fatimid caliph; and Shirkuh. After Shirkuh's death and after ordering Shawar's assassination, Saladin, in 1169 at the age of 31, was appointed both commander of the Syrian troops in Egypt and vizier of the Fatimid caliphate there. His relatively quick rise to power must be attributed not only to the clannish nepotism of his Kurdish family but also to his own emerging talents. As vizier of Egypt, he received the title king (malik), although he was generally known as the sultan. Saladin's position was further enhanced when, in 1171, he abolished the weak and unpopular Shi'ite Fatimid caliphate, proclaimed a return to Sunni Islam in Egypt, and became that country's sole ruler. Although he remained for a time theoretically a vassal of Nureddin, that relationship ended with the Syrian emir's death in 1174. Using his rich agricultural possessions in Egypt as a financial base, Saladin soon moved into Syria with a small but strictly disciplined army to claim the regency on behalf of the young son of his former suzerain. Soon, however, he abandoned this claim, and from 1174 until 1186 he zealously pursued a goal of uniting, under his own standard, all the Muslim territories of...
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