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Wednesday, May 8, 2019

The Generosity of a Sultan

The Sultan Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, more commonly known in the West as Saladin, had gone down in history as an exceptionally generous lord. Indeed, not only his contemporary biographers eulogized (and sometimes criticized) him for his generosity, the descendants of his opponents transformed him into a “perfect, gentle knight” to fit their own concepts of chivalry. By the 19th Century, Saladin had been turned into a parody, a character better suited to an opera than the cut-throat politics of the 12th century Middle East. Yet despite serious scholarship that puts Saladin more in perspective, some of his actions still stand out as exceptionally generous — particularly against the backdrop of Saladin’s ruthless rise to power. One of those acts of generosity was his treatment of Balian d’Ibelin and his lady during the siege of Jerusalem in 1187.
Today I want to look more closely at that incident.

At the Battle of Hattin on July 3/4, 1187, Saladin succeeded in delivering a devastating defeat to the Frankish army. An estimated 17,000 Christian fighting men were either killed or captured in the course of the two-day battle. The King of Jerusalem, the Masters of the Temple and Hospital and effectively the entire nobility of the Kingdom of Jerusalem fell into Saracen hands. Only four barons escaped death or capture: Tripoli, Sidon, Edessa, and Ibelin.

The castles and towns of the kingdom had been denuded of troops in order to meet the invasion; those troops were now dead or captured. Furthermore, with the entire feudal army obliterated, no town or castle could hope for relief in the foreseeable future. Because -- according to the laws of war -- a city that fell to assault would be put to the sword, city after city capitulated on terms rather than engage in a futile resistance that could only end in butchery or slavery. Nablus, Nazareth, Haifa, Hebron, Bethlehem, Caesarea, Arsur, Lydda, Sidon, Beirut, Gibelet, Ramla and Ibelin all fell bloodlessly to the Saracens in the months immediately following the Battle of Hattin. Only at Jaffa and Ascalon do we hear of "fierce" resistance. 

By September 5 -- just two months after the Battle of Hattin -- only two cities in the entire Kingdom remained in Christian hands along with a handful of isolated castles. The city of Tyre, located on an island off the coast, had prospects of holding out until reinforcements could come from the West. It refused capitulation and withstood two sieges by Saladin’s forces, eventually becoming an important bridgehead for the Third Crusade.

The other exception was Jerusalem. Saladin had offered Jerusalem extremely generous terms of surrender because Saladin did not want to bombard the Holy City and risk damage to the sacred sites of his own religion. He offered a delegation of burgesses (note there were no nobles or knights in the city to negotiate on its behalf) to give them one year to see if aid came from the West. During this time he guaranteed access to food-stuffs and freedom of movement, but at the end of the year, if no relieving force had come, the citizens were to surrender Jerusalem without further resistance and withdraw with all their moveable property.  The burgesses of Jerusalem refused, greatly angering Saladin, who then vowed to take the city by force.

It was after this exchange that Balian d’Ibelin came to Saladin and requested a safe-conduct to enable him to remove his wife and children from Jerusalem. One presumes he had heard about the above and did not want to see his wife and children subjected to either the siege nor the inevitable bloodbath that would follow when the city fell — as it must — to assault by the Sultan’s forces. Notably, all four of Balian’s children were under the age of ten at this time.

Before describing what happened next it is important to remember just who Balian d’Ibelin was. Ibelin itself was a small barony, owing only ten knights to the feudal levee and the Baron of Ibelin was a “rear-vassal” holding his title from the Count of Jaffa rather than directly from the crown. However, through his marriage to the Dowager Queen of Jerusalem Balian had assumed control of the large and wealthy crown barony of Nablus, and through his brother’s self-imposed exile also controlled the barony of Ramla and Mirabel. Thus, at Hattin Ibelin had commanded the troops of three baronies or well over 135 knights — possibly the third-largest secular contingent after the King and the Count of Tripoli. 

After the Battle of Hattin, Ibelin’s position became even more prominent. First, the King, the Constable, and nearly all the other nobles were in captivity. Ibelin, Tripoli, Sidon, and Edessa were the only barons left in the Kingdom. Of these, Tripoli together with Sidon had broken through the Saracen lines in a cavalry charge early in the battle. Despite accusations of treason from the anonymous chronicler of the Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi, there is no evidence (or motive!) for treason on the part of Tripoli at this point. A cavalry charge was the Frank’s best tactic and — had it been successful — Hattin would probably be remembered as a great Frankish victory with Tripoli as the hero. Tragically, however, the force of the charge was insufficient to rout the Saracens. Tripoli and Sidon at the front of the charge survived, but only a handful of knights and no infantry managed to escape with them. Tripoli and Sidon rode all the way back to their own baronies far to the north, where Tripoli died within weeks and Sidon dug in to defend his castle of Beaufort — unsuccessfully as things turned out.

Yet some 3,000 troops including several hundred knights managed to escape the Battle of Hattin and turned up in Tyre. There they were to provide the backbone of the tenacious defense that ultimately proved successful. Although we have no account of how these 3,000 men escaped the pincers of Saladin’s army on the Horns of Hattin, we do know is that the only two barons listed with the rearguard also survived the battle as free men, suggesting that the rearguard (or what was left of it) fought its way off the battlefield successfully. Possibly, the rear-guard under Ibelin made one of the two charges that nearly reached Saladin himself. Neither Christian nor Muslim sources describe the fate of the rearguard, but both Ibelin and Edessa escaped the debacle to remain free men. 

Edessa promptly discredited himself by surrendering Acre without a fight in the very first days following the Battle of Hattin. Notoriously greedy, Edessa was evidently only concerned with removing his personal fortune — which he speedily did, fleeing all the way to Antioch to never again play a role in the history of Outremer. Although the citizens of Acre rioted in protest against the surrender, in the absence of leadership they too accepted the Sultan’s terms.

And Ibelin? Ibelin was now, as Ibn al-Athir wrote, “almost equal in rank to the King.”[1] He was, more accurately, the only baron still at large in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. But rather than defiantly rallying the remaining troops of Christendom for the relief of Jerusalem or taking command of the city of Tyre, Ibelin went to Muslim leader who had just shattered the Christian army and overrun the Kingdom of Jerusalem to ask a personal favor.

To be sure, Tyre already had a vigorous and defiant commander in Conrad de Montferrat. Ibelin was as welcome in Tyre as a second captain on a ship. Yet one can only imagine Sultan Salah ad-Din’s amazement and puzzlement when this man who was “almost like a king” came to ask a favor for one wife and two sons. Saladin, of course, had four wives and an unnamed number of concubines. He had seventeen sons. It must have seemed very odd that this powerful Frankish lord would humble himself for just one woman and two small boys. It is not hard to imagine that he felt a degree of pity bordering on contempt for a once proud baron now reduced to worrying about a wife and four small children.

The Sultan was gracious to his defeated foe. According to Christian sources, Saladin was happy to give Ibelin an escort and a safe-conduct to go to Jerusalem to remove his wife, children, and household. Yet significantly, Saladin insisted on a condition: that Ibelin go unarmed and remain only a single night. Furthermore, he made Ibelin swear on Christian Gospels that he would abide by these conditions. These conditions suggest that Saladin did not entirely believe a fighting man of Ibelin’s reputation (Ibelin had played a prominent role at Montgisard and fought in every major battle since) would want to go to the Holy City only to rescue his wife and young children. In the Sultan’s eyes, the latter must have seemed imminently replaceable, while the alternative of taking command in Jerusalem must have appeared more honorable. In short, he suspected Ibelin’s true motives for seeking a safe-conduct to Jerusalem.

Indeed, no sooner had Ibelin reached Jerusalem than he was beseeched to remain and take command of the defense by the civilians trapped inside the city. Remember, there were no knights left in the city, and most of the sergeants of the Military Orders had likewise been lost at Hattin. Instead of fighting men, Jerusalem was flooded with refugees from as far away as Nablus and Hebron. There were allegedly 50 women and children for every man in the city. There were also disproportionate numbers of clerics because the city was the home of many religious institutions. The Continuation of William of Tyre puts it this way:

The citizens went to the patriarch and asked him for God’s sake to keep Balian in the city as they had no captain or governor who could help them. The patriarch … asked him to stay. Balian replied that he had sworn an oath to Saladin and could remain no longer. The patriarch said that he could absolve him from his oath for it would be to the benefit of Christendom. He accepted the patriarch’s arguments and … stayed in Jerusalem. He gave such advice as he could to the best of his ability, and he remained there right up to the time Jerusalem was evacuated.[2]

And his wife and children?

We know Ibelin sent a message to Saladin explaining his decision. In some versions, he asked the Sultan to absolve him of his oath, rather than informing him of a fait accompli, but this seems unlikely. As a devout Christian, the absolution of the patriarch was more important to Ibelin than that of the Sultan. Possibly, Balian asked yet another favor of the Sultan by requesting a Mamluk escort to bring his wife and children to safety, but it would have been the pinnacle of impudence to ask a favor of the man he had just betrayed. It is more likely that Ibelin informed the Sultan of his decision and his reasons for doing so, inwardly convinced that by his action he thereby condemned his wife and children to martyrdom alongside the rest of the Christian population of Jerusalem. It was a courageous decision that should not be disparaged.

The Sultan, however, now showed true generosity and nobility. He sent his Mamluks to escort the Lady and children of Ibelin to safety. This gesture of kindness for a man who had just broken his word stands out as a genuine act of chivalry. It is only moderately mitigated by the fact that Saladin had just signed a treaty with the Byzantine Emperor, and probably did not want any diplomatic embarrassment should the Emperor’s cousin (the Lady of Ibelin) come to harm during an assault on the city.

This raises the question of why would Saladin show such mercy to an enemy who had just broken his word in such a flagrant fashion. Was he truly just being chivalrous to women and children? Or did this gesture signal something else, something deeper and more innate to Saladin’s nature — namely, respect for Ibelin’s decision.

As a devout Muslim, Salah ad-Din had more respect for a man willing to fight and die for his faith, than for a man worried about a wife and children. In short, it was perhaps precisely because Ibelin had broken his word and chose to remain in Jerusalem that Salah ad-din — Righteousness of the Faith — looked on him with (new?) respect.

This thesis is borne out by the fact that Salah ad-Din continued to demonstrate respect for Ibelin after the latter mounted a highly professional defense of Jerusalem — but that is material for a separate entry.

The interplay between Ibelin and Saladin with respect to Ibelin’s safe-conduct and the negotiations for the surrender of Jerusalem are described in detail in Defender of Jerusalem.

[1] Ibn al-Athir, XI, 361-6, quoted in Gabrieli, Francesco (trans.) Arab Historians of the Crusades. Univ. of California Press, 1957, p.139.

[2] Edbury, Peter (trans). The Conquest of Jerusalem and the Third Crusade. (The Old French Continuation of William of Tyre) Ashgate, 1998, p. 49-50.

1 comment:

  1. Another possibility is Saladin saw Balien accomplishing the end game he wanted for Jerusalem. Emptying it of infidels without a massacre while extracting a maximum of ransom.


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