Saladin and Jerusalem

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Saladin and the Capture of Jerusalem

Saladin stands out in Western accounts of the Middle Ages because his beliefs and actions reflected supposedly Christian characteristics: honesty, piety, magnanimity, and chivalry. Unlike many Muslim rulers, he was not cruel to his subordinates; Saladin believed deeply in the Koranic standard that all men are equal before the law. He set a high moral tone; for example, he distributed war proceeds carefully to help maintain discipline in the ranks. As an administrator, Saladin showed great vision. He altered the tax structure in Egypt and elsewhere to conform to Koranic instructions, and he supported higher education. It was his vision—together with luck and military skill—that enabled him to begin a quest for Muslim unification that would bear fruit many years later. Saladin was born in 1138 in Tikrit, Mesopotamia (now modern-day Iraq). His formal name was Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub. Salah al-Din was an honorary title that translates as “Righteousness of Faith.” His father, Ayyub, and his uncle, Shirkuh, were both generals in the army of Zengi, the Muslim leader who captured the County of Edessa from the crusaders in 1144. When Zengi died in 1146, Saladin moved with his father and uncle to Damascus in Syria, the main city of Zengi’s empire. Zengi’s son, Nur-ad-din, had taken over Damascus after his father’s death, and Saladin began work for Nur-ad-din, following in the footsteps of his father and uncle. The Muslim world was rent by religious differences. The Seljuk caliphate, ruled by Nur al-Din, was of the more liberal Sunni sect and had its seat of power in Baghdad. The Fatimid caliphate of Egypt, which had embraced the more orthodox Shict, was a volatile agglomeration with weak rulers. Like a splinter between them was the Latin Kingdom, a Christian stronghold along the eastern Mediterranean coast, ruled by a Frank, Amalric I. Nur al-Din believed that if Amalric were able to join forces with the Byzantine emperor to conquer Egypt, the whole Islamic world would be threatened. The stakes were great: Rich trade routes to the Orient, religious and educational centers, and plentiful agricultural lands could be lost. Saladin, as one of Nur al-Din’s primary advisers, helped plan three Syrian invasions of Egypt between 1164 and 1169 to conquer the Fatimid caliphate. During part of this period, Amalric had a treaty to defend Cairo against Syrian invaders. Saladin’s first command came at Alexandria, where he was in charge of one thousand men under difficult conditions. After a short time back in Damascus, Saladin returned on Nur al-Din’s orders to Egypt after the Fatimid alliance with Amalric broke down. Saladin had solemn uncertainties about returning to Egypt, in part because he distrusted the motives of his powerful uncle Shirkuh, who was leading the return. The political situation there was dangerous and unstable. When Shirkuh suddenly died, however, Saladin was well placed to assume Shirkuh’s place as vizier of Egypt commanding Nur al-Din’s forces there; in this case, he was the compromise candidate among many factions. At the age of 30, Saladin drew strength from Koranic exhortations to fulfill God’s purpose. Saladin, like Nur al-Din, was pious. He kept little money, acting instead as caretaker for the whole Muslim community; the proper function of wealth, he believed, was to further the aims of Islam. Both men saw stable leadership in Egypt as a key to preserving Muslim unity. Still, Nur al-Din was suspicious when Saladin insisted on independence to do this—including lessened payments of tribute. Not only did Saladin have military bases on the Egyptian front, but he also had to fight political battles at his rear. Saladin consolidated power in Egypt by getting rid of Fatimid commanders and substituting loyalists; uprisings continued in the provinces for some years, but finally Fatimid rule was abolished. Now Saladin built up the military and raided nearby areas. His...
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