Article abstract: In a period of disunity in the Muslim world, Saladin conquered and unified warring factions. Then, as Sultan of Syria, Saladin defeated King Richard I of England in the Third Crusade and drove the Christian rulers from Jerusalem.
Al-Malik al-Nasir Salah al-Din aba l-Mussafer Yusuf ibn Ayyub ibn Shadi—or Saladin, as he has been known since his own time—learned diplomacy at his father’s knee. Born in the town of Tikrit on the banks of the Tigris River, Saladin was the third of eight children of the Kurdish Najm al-Din Ayyub. Ayyub had risen to prominence in the decade before Saladin’s birth in the service of the Seljuk Empire and was ruler of Tikrit. As an ethnic outsider, Ayyub had developed administrative skills that made him useful to his overlord, but he was also ambitious for wealth and power. After performing a favor for a rival leader, Ayyub was forced—on the very night of Saladin’s birth—to flee Tikrit with his family. Despite this episode, Ayyub’s status as an outsider made him a logical compromise candidate for later positions in an atmosphere of jealousy and intrigue; later, Saladin would be elevated for similar reasons.
Ayyub became governor of Baalbek, in Syria, and it was here that Saladin spent his childhood. Like many other well-born youths of his era, Saladin became an accomplished horseman and hunter—lion and gazelle were favored prey—and he learned hawking. He was a highly skilled polo player. Following the accepted educational program for young ruling-class men, Saladin studied the Koran and learned poetry, grammar, and script. He spoke Kurdish, Arabic, and probably Turkish. Also in his early years he drank wine.
Saladin early followed his father and brothers in a military career. His brother Shahan Shah fought in the Second Crusade and was killed in 1148. During this period, Ayyub attained leadership of Damascus, and even before his brother’s commander, Sultan Nur al-Din, conquered that city, Saladin became a member of Nur al-Din’s military establishment.
When he was only fourteen, Saladin had his own fief, and at sixteen he had considerable property holdings. He may have had a wife by this time, according to some historians, but others say there is no evidence of his marriage before age thirty.
At the beginning of his military career Saladin was posted near Nur al-Din in Aleppo, but at age eighteen he became a deputy in Damascus, responsible for administrative and judicial matters. There Saladin cultivated a love for the fairness and impartiality of Koranic law, and he rendered judgments with loyalty and compassion. When he found that his chief accountant was dishonest, Saladin resigned his position and returned to Nur al-Din as an aide-de-camp.
Their close relationship led to a turning point for Saladin, one of importance to the entire Islamic world for a century: He was sent to Egypt, a major battleground of Islam in the Middle Ages. There he gained his vision for unification of the Muslim world and expulsion of the Christian Crusaders.
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 Shiʿa sect, 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 principal 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 grave misgivings 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...
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