An excerpt from Saladin the Strategist: How the Crusaders Lost the Holy Land, a military history of the famous Muslim general. Available on Amazon now.
As the year 1185 drew to a close, a long train of horses, camels, and men trudged through the rainy cold of the upper Mesopotamian plain. The army’s mood was downcast as they headed away from what had promised to be a profitable venture. Seven months earlier, they had set off to capture Mosul, a large and wealthy city which contained enormous loot. After enduring the scorching summer months in a fruitless siege, they left to chase better prospects elsewhere; when these too failed to deliver anything, they returned to Mosul to make another half-hearted attempt on the city. But by that time, winter was approaching and the weather started to get worse. Reluctantly, they began their empty-handed withdrawal.
Among the leadership, the mood was rather more anxious. Their commander-in-chief, Sultan of Egypt and Syria, Salah ad-Din Yusuf Ibn Ayyub—better known to us as Saladin—was gravely ill. He had come down with a fever in the early winter rains, and it soon got so severe that many wondered whether he would survive. These men had yoked their fortunes to Saladin, who in the space of a dozen years had swept aside old power structures of the region and created a vast empire which stretched from the southern tip of Arabia to the Taurus Mountains in the north, from the Libyan coast in the west to the Tigris River in the east. He was the keystone to this great edifice, and his death would plunge the entire region into bitter conflict.
The gloomy mood belied the true situation. Over the next few months, Saladin slowly recuperated while conducting an extensive game of diplomacy, and the following March reached a treaty with Mosul. It was an anticlimactic finish to a listless campaign: Saladin, still shivering with fever, signed an agreement which brought little change of territory or formal change in the balance of power. Yet this moment brought the forty-eight-year-old sultan to the height of power in the Muslim world. The treaty confirmed Saladin’s hegemony over an immense area and allowed him to marshal a larger army than had been seen in the region for several generations. Soon after, he directed these resources toward a new target: expelling the Crusaders once and for all from the Holy Land, where they had ruled for nearly a century.
It is these later campaigns for which Saladin is most famous today, among Christians and Muslims alike. His name calls to mind the great siege of Jerusalem, his clashes with Richard the Lionheart, and above all his great victory at Hattin, where he dealt the Crusaders a crushing blow from which they would never recover. Hattin was a spectacular triumph indeed, the fruit of a carefully-engineered invasion which accomplished what no Muslim general had managed before. It reduced the Crusaders’ territory to a tiny sliver along the coast and left them unable to take the offensive without outside help, making their eventual downfall inevitable. The bounty of his conquest was not the product of a single battle, however, but of many years of campaigning and preparation. Nor was his empire built upon battlefield victories: over twenty-four-years as an independent commander, Saladin fought just a handful of pitched battles, only two of which could be called decisive. His success was rather a product of carefully-planned campaigns, fought year after year, which steadily improved his own position while maneuvering his enemies into a corner. It owed to his skill as a strategist, not merely his skill in battle.
Medieval warfare is emblemized more by the individual warrior than by the man who commanded him. Where gunpowder-age generals from Frederick the Great to Patton were celebrated by contemporaries as great strategists, medieval song praised leaders for their prowess in individual combat. This was as true in the Christian world, which celebrated champions such as Godfrey of Bouillon and Richard the Lionheart, as it was in the Islamic—the most famous Arab poet, al-Mutanabbi, made his reputation writing panegyrics to his patron’s skill as a warrior. Compounding this, commanders did not leave memoirs to explain their thinking. Questions of supply, favorable terrain, and controlling large formations appear only fleetingly in the chronicles, making the role of generalship less visible to the modern reader.
Strategy did exist in the Middle Ages, of course. War was not just the semi-ritualized pastime of a warrior class, but a serious matter fought with intelligence for high stakes. When we put ourselves in the shoes of those generals who fought them, we can see how the challenge of moving tens of thousands of men and animals shaped campaigns, how the tactics of those armies influenced objectives, and how opportunities had to be weighed against the length of the fighting season, feudal terms of service, and the availability of reinforcements for either side. Even in those long periods of endemic conflict which appear little more than protracted squabbles, the exigencies of warfare give us a key to decipher the logic behind the endless series of raids, skirmishes, sieges, and occasional pitched battle.
The Crusades are a magnificent theater to observe the medieval art of war. Wherever there is persistent feuding among petty states, their tactics and campaigns take on a somewhat homogenous flavor—the phalanxes of Classical Greek city-states, the barons of the medieval West, or mercenary companies of Renaissance Italy, for instance. Chroniclers of these periods, writing to audiences familiar with the particular style of warfare, make sparse comments on the decisions involved, usually only noting the occasional brilliant stratagem or unique circumstances; subtler long-term changes are passed over without remark, imperceptible to contemporaries. The Crusades, by contrast, pitted radically different military systems against each another in a centuries-long rivalry which saw massive swings of fortune. Contemporary observers on either side could not help but point out the differences between the adversaries’ fighting styles and how both sides were forced to adapt. The two centuries of the Crusades saw a rapid evolution in tactics and strategy as brilliant commanders emerged on both sides; among them, Saladin was paramount.
If the backdrop to Saladin’s career was the Crusades, then the backdrop to the Crusades themselves was a much older contest between Muslims and Christians in the eastern Mediterranean. These wars began with the advent of Islam and were fought mostly in Syria and Anatolia between the Byzantine Empire and various Arab states. The tide sloshed back and forth over the centuries: the Arabs reached their high-water mark in 717 at the great siege of Constantinople, but the Byzantines shakily recovered over the next three centuries, eventually coming to exert hegemony over northern Syria and Mesopotamia. The Muslim cause was injected with fresh vigor in the eleventh century when the Seljuk Turks, originally a confederation of steppe nomads, gained ascendancy in Central Asia and Persia. They soon began pressing on Byzantium’s borders and in 1071 inflicted one of the worst defeats in the empire’s history, the Battle of Manzikert. Nearly all of Anatolia fell to them in the aftermath, prompting desperate appeals for military aid from the West. This call was transmuted by religious fervor into a movement to recover Jerusalem, snowballing into the First Crusade. By the time the armed pilgrimage arrived in the Holy Land, the Seljuk Empire had already splintered apart under its own internal stresses. Exploiting the ensuing chaos, the Western newcomers were able to seize lands which had been under Muslim control for more than four hundred years.
The Crusaders’ presence in the Levant lasted from the capture of Jerusalem in 1099 to the fall of their last major stronghold in 1291. At its greatest extent, their territory stretched inland nearly as far as the Tigris River and south to the Gulf of Aqaba. For the last century, however, they were confined to a very narrow strip along the coast following Saladin’s 1187 victory at Hattin and subsequent recovery of Jerusalem, which realized the longstanding dream of many Muslims and made him the champion of Islam. But this reputation was short-lived. Just fifty-seven years after his death, his dynasty was replaced by the much more famous Mamluks of Egypt. It was they who completed the destruction of the Crusader states and ultimately got credit in popular memory for the holy war. What is more, Saladin’s victories gradually lost their emotional resonance as time passed. The Muslims decisively beat the Crusaders, and winners do not remember every past grievance. Saladin was vaguely recalled as a great ghazi of the faith, a holy warrior whose deeds were worthy of renown, but the context of those deeds was gradually forgotten—they celebrated the jihad against the Christian invaders no more than Europeans commemorated Charlemagne’s holy war against the pagan Saxons. To the extent that his deeds were remembered at all, it was as the upholder of Sunni orthodoxy and the destroyer of the Shi’ite Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt.
Something similar happened in the West: Saladin enjoyed a reputation as a formidable opponent, but this faded with the waning of the Crusading spirit. His legend was only revived in the nineteenth century, when the Romantics became fascinated by the Middle Ages in general and the Crusades in particular. It was an easy subject to romanticize: the Ottoman Empire had been in retreat for two centuries and European armies were regularly sweeping Muslim armies off the battlefield—memories of them as truly dangerous opponents had become charming and picaresque stories. Artists painted scenes of the exotic Orient, authors such as Walter Scott wrote popular novels featuring Richard and Saladin, and historians discovered an enthusiastic audience for popular accounts of the period. The great sultan became a subject of particular interest in the Victorian world, when the men of Great Britain looked back to their medieval forebears from their perch atop the world. Saladin was imagined as the Muslim counterpart of the perfect Christian knight, a worthy adversary for that most worthy king Richard the Lionheart (and their conception of chivalry often reflected more the ideals of the Victorian gentleman than the conspicuous bloody-mindedness of its own era). It was the orientalist Stanley Lane-Poole who did more than anyone to create this romantic legend in an effusive 1898 biography which practically defined the English-speaking world’s conception of the man as a chivalrous and magnanimous warrior.
This legend was not fabricated whole-cloth, exaggerated though it might be. Saladin was in many ways the Islamic counterpart to a Christian ideal, and many Western contemporaries indeed praised him. What is often missed, however, is the context for that praise, the values of an extremely militaristic culture. One hundred fifty years after Saladin’s death, a knight named Geoffroi de Charny wrote the Book of Chivalry, the highest expression of the ideals of the feudal age. Although his book mentions the importance of manners and courtly etiquette, the focus was on feats of arms: its constant refrain qui plus fait, mieux vault—he who does more is more worthy—drummed into readers the importance of straightforward martial prowess. Charny himself died carrying the French king’s standard at the Battle of Poitiers in the Hundred Years’ War, embodying those ideals to the last.
War was not a way of life for the Victorians as it had been for the military aristocracy of the Middle Ages. During the long peace of nineteenth-century Europe, most wars were fought in the service of overseas colonial ventures. This was the same time that Western imperial powers were starting to make inroads in the Muslim world and Europeans began traveling to the East in larger numbers than at any time since the Crusades; in the romantic spirit of the age, many travelers sought out the sites and monuments associated with their medieval forebears. In an ironic twist, these same travelers also helped revive Saladin’s memory in the Muslim world: the local French-speaking upper classes who looked to the West got caught up in the contemporary enthusiasm and revived his memory among their countrymen. Yet if Europeans were rediscovering him at the zenith of their power, Muslims found him at their nadir. They adopted him as a symbol of resistance and victory over colonial invaders, a figurehead to rally support for various political movements, something which has continued to this day.
Every age and every place will make use of history for its own purposes, but only in the 20th-century did historians began taking a more critical eye to Saladin’s life. They started to examine his reputation against his actions, finding that he was indeed a real man influenced by worldly ambitions and subject to human frailties. They placed his actions in the context of twelfth-century geopolitics and the attendant pressures of dynastic interest, ideology, and human nature. If their aim was not to completely overturn Saladin’s legend, it was to shift the focus away from the individual and toward the larger forces shaping the world. Some historians went farther, questioning his very interest in the holy war and seeing in their subject a purely self-serving actor who pursued dynastic expansion above all else.
Beyond questions of Saladin’s reputation, motives, or character lie the raw facts of his accomplishments. He achieved much in a few short decades, principally through feats of arms. Saladin was one of the rare generals of the Middle Ages who practiced strategy at a high level: although neither the most brilliant battlefield commander of his age nor flawless in his judgment, his entire art of war consistently supported his strategic objectives, from tactics on the battlefield to campaign design, war policy, and political maneuvering. What exactly were those objectives? The glib response—“conquer as much as possible”—may well be the correct one, but does not illuminate his decision-making. The man left no memoirs and accounts only occasionally show us glimmers of his inner thoughts; even his military decisions are sometimes obscure. Yet his actions over more than two decades reveal a consistent pattern which allows us to judge his accomplishments.
Saladin’s life as a strategist began in 1169, when he became the commander of the Syrian army occupying Egypt. These forces had been sent by the most prominent Muslim dynast of the time, Nur ad-Din of Aleppo, to extend his realm in the hopes of eventually surrounding and crushing the Crusader states. Aleppo was far from Cairo, however, making Saladin the de facto ruler of Egypt. After Nur ad-Din’s death in 1174, the young general emerged as the most powerful prince in the central Islamic lands and quickly added much of Syria to his possessions. This did not bring him security, but only destabilized an already precarious situation: Nur ad-Din’s relatives—the Zengids, as their dynasty was known—were naturally hostile to what they saw as a usurper. They formed a coalition which resolutely opposed Saladin’s ambitions from 1175 until 1186, when he secured formal hegemony over their lands. Although many contemporaries accused him of neglecting the war against the Crusaders to focus on dynastic expansion, much of this was the natural response to an age-old dynamic whereby a ruler could only maintain his own security in such a volatile environment by staking out strong claims at the expense of his neighbors. Nor was he the only one to do so: the emir of Mosul swallowed up large swathes of his neighbors’ lands, and the regent of Aleppo violated a peace treaty as soon as he believed it to be advantageous.
As Saladin gained preeminence within the region, pressure mounted on him to use the resources of his empire against the Crusaders. An 1176 treaty with his Islamic neighbors created a peace which endured for a full six years, during which he launched three invasions of Christian territory. These only achieved limited success: although he clearly held the upper hand against the Crusaders, he seemed unable to deal them a fatal blow. He blamed this on the lack of support from his fellow Muslim rulers, and used this as a casus belli to renew the war against the Zengids. Saladin spent the next four years in a near-constant state of war against them, while simultaneously leading another two campaigns against the Kingdom of Jerusalem. By 1186, he had expanded his personal dominions and compelled his neighbors to contribute soldiers to the holy war.
Were Saladin’s wars against his fellow Muslims indeed motivated by his own professed ideals? It is a difficult question to judge from the distance of eight centuries, especially when most surviving sources were written in the aftermath of his great victories over the Crusaders. Historians have debated his true motivations for the past hundred years: some maintain that he was an enthusiastic holy warrior whose long-term goal had always been the expulsion of the Christians; others that his heart was set on gaining power within the Muslim world, and that he only confronted the Crusaders when public sentiment forced him to. Yet whatever the sultan’s true feelings about the matter, he did in fact marshal a grand coalition against the Crusaders and use it to retake Jerusalem, then spent the next five years in hard fighting against the remaining Christian territories and the forces of the Third Crusade. Nor was the Hattin campaign a lucky fluke, but the culmination of six invasions of the Kingdom of Jerusalem which began in 1177 and trace a clear evolution in his style of warfare—he plainly took the matter very seriously. Both word and action support the assumption that Saladin’s overriding objectives were to gain control over the core Islamic lands and to expel the Crusaders from the Holy Land.
How, then, do we judge Saladin as a strategist? He was not completely successful in either of his objectives—he failed to gain direct control over Mosul and did not completely destroy the Kingdom of Jerusalem—but his successes show the mark of a sustained strategy. Strategy is always a dance between long-term goals and the exigencies of the moment: the greatest designs cannot be carefully laid out in advance, but must tailor plans to the changing contours of circumstance. In a world as tumultuous as Saladin’s, it is therefore the ability to manufacture and seize opportunities—more than the ability to design and execute a carefully-planned sequence of actions—which marks a good strategist. This can be opaque to outside observers: the best laid-plans often go to waste, and terrible decisions sometimes bring great success. Absent detailed memoirs, logs, and letters, we cannot always tell what guided a particular decision, and even then, human factors such as jealousy, laziness, and favorite mistresses often exert more of an influence on decisions than the record suggests. But over a long enough career, a general’s strategic wisdom eventually reveals itself. Consistent actions, actions consistently avoided, and adaptations to failure give us insight into his decision-making—the management of fortune, in other words.
Three events in Saladin’s career, each spaced five years apart, help illustrate this. The first was a major disaster he suffered during his 1177 campaign against the Crusaders. He had great initial success and nearly overran the Kingdom of Jerusalem, but then became careless and loosened his control over his troops. This gave an opening to the enemy, who, although heavily outnumbered, was able to inflict a crushing defeat on him. Saladin learned from that experience and prosecuted every subsequent campaign with much more discipline. The second was in 1182, when he launched a daring attack by land and sea on Beirut in the heart of Crusader territory. This too ended in failure, but it was no disaster: he made a calculated gamble which would have paid off big if it succeeded; as it happened, he could content himself with the spoils of what amounted to a raid in depth. The third event occurred in 1187, when Saladin’s preparations finally met with luck, and the Crusader army walked into his carefully-engineered trap at Hattin.
Up until that point, Saladin’s record showed him to be a good, but by no means remarkable, battlefield commander who possessed excellent political instincts. Yet it was during this period that he laid the groundwork for his future victories, pursued fleeting opportunities, and refined the strategy which would bring him victory at Hattin. This crowning achievement reflected the lessons of two decades of campaigning, consistently applied for long enough to yield great fruits. Saladin the Strategist tells this story by looking at his career from the perspective of a commander or staff officer. It places his evolving strategy in the context of broader political realities, and examines the logistical, geographic, and tactical factors which shaped his campaigns. My emphasis throughout is more on the operational and strategic levels of war than on his battlefield tactics. This is partly a reflection of Saladin’s own focus, but also a reflection of the sources, which do not describe battles until the latter part of his career—where they exist, I treat them in greater depth.
Part I covers the background to Saladin’s career, from the broader geopolitical situation through his apprenticeship to arms, up until he became the independent ruler of Egypt with Nur ad-Din’s death. This period shows how Saladin learned the art of generalship, and how his greatest strengths and weaknesses were visible early on.
Part II treats Saladin’s entry onto the stage of world politics, when he staked out his claim in the Zengid realm and fought his first two campaigns against the combined might of Mosul and Aleppo. By the end, Saladin had established a foothold in Syria and emerged as the most powerful sovereign of the broader region. It also saw his first serious clashes with the Christians, including two major invasions of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and reveals the complexity of the political environment.
Part III traces Saladin’s growth from the greatest power in the region to a true hegemon. By 1186, he was universally recognized as the one sovereign who could assume the mantle of leadership in the war against the Crusaders. This phase in Saladin’s career saw the maturing both of his art of war and political abilities.
Part IV covers the war against the Kingdom of Jerusalem, starting with the diplomatic arrangements among his Muslim allies through the invasion of Kingdom of Jerusalem and its aftermath. This campaign showcased Saladin’s most spectacular battlefield victory, but also his worst strategic lapse which would permanently mar his legacy.
Part V treats the Christian counterattack of the Third Crusade. This, along with the Battle of Hattin and the fall of Jerusalem, constitutes the most famous episode of Saladin’s career, during which he made war and peace with Richard the Lionheart. This period is almost the exact inverse of his conquest of Jerusalem: despite several battlefield losses which harmed his overall position, his strategic judgment and discipline preserved his overall strategic advantage. It also neatly bookends Saladin’s life, as he died just months after the conclusion of his last campaign.
The last two parts on the war with the Christians cover a period of only six years. Western biographies of Saladin are sometimes criticized for focusing too much on the story of the Crusades and the legend of Richard the Lionheart at the expense of the rest of his career. While there is some justice in this, it mostly reflects a limitation of the sources. Saladin always protested his loyalty to the Zengid dynasty which he fought and ultimately subdued. This put later Muslim writers in the awkward position of having to praise his enemies while also justifying his wars against them—or in the case of one pro-Zengid writer, explain why his patrons submitted to a usurper. As a consequence, they do not put great emphasis on his campaigns and battles from this period. This intra-mural conflict also deprives us of complementary narratives: the Battles of Hama and Tell as-Sultan, two of Saladin’s most important victories, are described in far less detail than Hattin, which was of great interest to Christian and Muslim authors alike. Moreover, we many more accounts from the later period written by people who were close to the action. Historiography is not the only reason to place such weight on the later period. The Crusaders were always Saladin’s most formidable adversaries, and it is against them that his own abilities are best assessed. His early clashes with them reveal how his campaign plans and overall strategy evolved in concert, but the Crusaders’ skillful defensive strategy always frustrated his attempts to precipitate a decisive battle. From the Hattin campaign onward, by contrast, we see how tactical, operational, and strategic considerations influenced one another in an intense period of nearly continuous fighting. The Third Crusade moreover allows us judge the ultimate success of Saladin’s grand strategy. Most sovereigns of the period ruled over ephemeral states, built from fleeting conquests which could not sustain a serious reverse. The arrival of a major Crusade in Palestine was like a stress test to Saladin’s empire, allowing us to see its strengths, its weaknesses, and the overall balance of power which resulted from his long policy of steady accumulation and carefully managed risks. But to truly understand this, we have to look back at the century before Saladin began his ascent to power.