• U.S.

12th Century: Saladin (c. 1138-1193)

4 minute read
David Van Biema

When Dante Alighieri compiled his great medieval Who’s Who of heroes and villains, the Divine Comedy, the highest a non-Christian could climb was Limbo. Ancient pagans had to be virtuous indeed to warrant inclusion: the residents included Homer, Caesar, Plato and Dante’s guide, Vergil. But perhaps the most surprising entry in Dante’s catalog of “great-hearted souls” was a figure “solitary, set apart.”

That figure was Saladin. It is testament to his extraordinary stature in the Middle Ages that not only was Saladin the sole “modern” mentioned–he had been dead barely 100 years when Dante wrote–but also that a man who had made his name successfully battling Christianity would be lionized by the author of perhaps the most Christ-centered verse ever penned.

When Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub was born in 1138 to a family of Kurdish adventurers in the (now Iraqi) town of Takrit, Islam was a confusion of squabbling warlords living under a Christian shadow. A generation before, European Crusaders had conquered Jerusalem, massacring its Muslim and Jewish inhabitants. The Franks, as they were called, then occupied four militarily aggressive states in the Holy Land. The great Syrian leader Nur al-Din predicted that expelling the invaders would require a holy war of the sort that had propelled Islam’s first great wave half a millennium earlier, but given the treacherous regional crosscurrents, such a united front seemed unlikely.

Saladin got his chance with the death, in 1169, of his uncle Shirkuh, a one-eyed, overweight brawler in Nur al-Din’s service who had become the de facto leader of Egypt. A seasoned warrior despite his small stature and frailty, Saladin still had a tough hand to play. He was a Kurd (even then a drawback in Middle Eastern politics), and he was from Syria, a Sunni state, trying to rule Egypt, a Shi’ite country. But a masterly 17-year campaign employing diplomacy, the sword and great good fortune made him lord of Egypt, Syria and much of Mesopotamia. The lands bracketed the Crusader states, and their combined might made plausible Nur al-Din’s dream of a Muslim-Christian showdown.

That encounter took place near Hattin, within sight of the Golan Heights. Saladin had assembled a pan-Islamic force of 12,000 cavalry near Lake Tiberias. The Christians were lured on a long July march across Galilee’s parched Plain of Lubiya. Saladin had the right bait–he had besieged the lakeside town in which a knight’s wife was staying–and the Crusader force, frying in heavy armor and unable to fight its way to the water, was overwhelmed by the Muslims. When the Christian knights retreated to the coastal fortress of Tyre, Saladin turned his army inland. Jerusalem withstood him for less than two weeks. In stark contrast to the earlier Crusader bloodbath, his occupiers neither murdered nor looted. “Christians everywhere will remember the kindness we have bestowed upon them,” he said.

In a shocked Europe, the Pope immediately called a Third Crusade. And although Richard the Lion-Hearted bested Saladin in battle after battle, he could not wrest the Holy City from him, and he returned to Europe. The city, always Islam’s third holiest site, became even more central to the faithful. Saladin’s family ruled less than 60 years longer, but his style of administration and his humane application of justice to both war and governance influenced Arab rulers for centuries. His tolerance was exemplary. He allowed Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem after its fall. The great Jewish sage Maimonides was his physician. Woven into chivalric legend as the worthy foeman, Saladin, scimitar flashing or compassionately sheathed, galloped from Dante into romances by Sir Walter Scott and eventually into young adult books that still ship in 24 hours through Amazon.com

Both Saddam Hussein and Hafez Assad have at times invoked Saladin against Israel, the new “crusader.” However, they seem unlikely to attain either the military triumph that safeguarded one world or the nobility that endeared him to another.

–By David Van Biema

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com