All content on this blog is protected by copyright.
Content used elsewhere without attribution constitutes theft of intellectual property and will be prosecuted.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The “Chivalrous” Saracen: A Closer Look at Salah ad-Din

Saladin as Portrayed in the Hollywood Film "The Kingdom of Heaven"

Salah al-Din, or Saladin has he is more commonly known in Western literature, has long been viewed as the epitome of Saracen “chivalry.” Indeed, in the last century it became common to suggest that, while the crusaders were treacherous barbarians, Saladin stood out as a paragon of virtue and honor, a shining light of decency and chivalry in an otherwise brutal age.  This is the view of Saladin that dictated the highly sympathetic portrayal in Ridley Scott's film “The Kingdom of Heaven.”

This positive view of Saladin in Western literature is largely attributable to a biography of Saladin published by Stanley Lane-Poole in 1898. This was arguably the first scholarly biography of the 12th century Kurdish leader in the English language, and Lane-Poole made a major contribution to Western scholarship by drawing upon Arab sources for his work.  Unfortunately, he did so uncritically, adopting without scruple or embarrassment the purely adulatory descriptions of Saladin penned by the Sultan’s court biographers. The result is a work in which Saladin is described as a man “whose chivalry and generosity excited the admiration of the Crusaders.” More disturbing to the historian, Lane-Poole is so completely under the spell of his Arab sources that he claims: “...civilization, magnanimity, toleration, real chivalry, and gentle culture were all on the side of the Saracens.”

While the latter statement alone discredits Lane-Poole as a serious historian of the crusades, the damage had been done and other historians docilely followed his lead. The British Orientalist, H.A.R. Gibb, claims that Saladin inspired his followers “not so much by the example of his personal courage and resolution — which were undeniable — as by his unselfishness, his humility and generosity….He was no simpleton, but for that an utterly simple and transparently honest man…Guileless himself, he never expected and seldom understood guile in others.”

Yet, as Andrew Ehrenkreutz points out in his biography of Saladin published in 1972: “The political, social and economic climate prevailing in the Near East in the second half of the twelfth century was not conducive to seeking power through the exercise of tolerance, magnanimity, chivalry or any altruistic behavior.”  Ehrenkreutz goes on to catalogue in his meticulously documented and detailed biography the number of times Saladin used deceit, hypocrisy, propaganda, bribery, extortion, murder and, ultimately aggressive war to establish an empire in the Near East.  He notes that he spent much more time and more resources fighting (and killing) fellow Muslims than he did fighting Christians, and that Saladin was responsible for the loss of many more Sunni Muslim lives than Christian ones. Ehrenkreutz concludes that: “Most of Saladin’s significant historical accomplishments should be attributed to his military and governmental experience, to his ruthless persecution of political opponents and dissenters, to his vindictive belligerence and calculated opportunism, and to his readiness to compromise religious ideals to political expediency.”

The real Saladin probably lies somewhere between these two extreme portrayals of his character, but what Ehrenkreutz makes abundantly clear is that even in those well-documented cases of Saladin’s apparent magnanimity, we need to look closer at his the motives.  One case in point is the return of the fortress of Azaz to the ruler of Aleppo.  In June 1176, during one of Saladin’s several attacks on the  legitimate successor regime of Nur al-Din in Aleppo, his army captured the fortress of Azaz. The rest of the campaign against Sunni Aleppo, however, proved less successful, and Saladin was forced to sue for terms. Eventually a treaty was negotiated. Then according to Lane-Poole: “When the treaty was concluded, there came to Saladin a young girl, the little sister of es-Salih [i.e., the man whose place Saladin had usurped and driven from Damascus].  He received her with honour and asked her: “What is thy wish?” “The castle of Azaz,” she said. So he restored the castle to its old owners, loaded the princess with presents, and escorted her back to the gate of Aleppo at the head of his staff.” Now quite aside from the improbability of a Muslim maiden ever setting foot outside the haram of her home (in this case her brother’s home), had she spoken to a man not her relative (Saladin) she would have dishonored her brother (the Sultan of Aleppo) and so most probably would have been stoned to death.  In short, Lane-Poole’s entire story can only be fiction on the same par as an opera and utterly lacks understanding of Islamic culture in the 12th century. Furthermore, as Ehrenkreutz points out, the return of Azaz was quite simply one of the terms of the negotiated treaty. No “princess” had to plea for its return at all. Saladin surrendered it diplomatically because it was virtually impossible to hold militarily after the rest of his campaign collapsed.

Another example is the apparent generosity of Saladin in providing Balian d’Ibelin with a safe-conduct to cross Saracen-held territory to enter Jerusalem and remove his wife and family after the Battle of Hattin but before the fall of Jerusalem. Not only was this an apparently magnanimous gesture to a Christian lord and a foe, it was topped by Saladin sending some of his own personal body-guard to escort the Lady of Ibelin to safety after her husband broke his word, and — ceding to immense pressure from the Christian population in Jerusalem — agreed to take command of the defense of the Holy City. But the “chivalrous” character of these gestures is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the Lady of Ibelin was also a Byzantine princess and a relation of the ruling Greek Emperor Isaac II Angelus, with whom Saladin had just concluded a treaty of alliance. It was still a generous gesture as Maria Comnena, Lady of Ibelin, was not a close relative of Isaac II, but Saladin’s decision was certainly salted with self-interest.

Likewise, the many instances in which Saladin treated former Sunni foes with leniency, often awarding them new lands and titles within his growing empire, demonstrates not so much his “gentleness” and “chivalry” as his cynical opportunism. If fighting men, particularly the commanders of contingents of troops that offered effective armed opposition to Saladin, could be bought with the promises of riches and titles, then why fight? After all, the alternative (killing or enslaving his opponents on capture) would only have increased the tenacity and fervor of his opponents, and Saladin had a hard enough time subduing them as it was. His mild treatment of defectors is not so much a mark of “gentleness” and “chivalry” as of opportunism that was particularly effective against the fragmented and jealous feudal lords in northern Syria.

Against these documented cases of apparent “gentleness” and “chivalry” are a number of equally well documented incidents of ruthlessness, brutality, duplicity and vindictiveness that are incompatible with the Lane-Poole/Gibbs image of Saladin. To name only a few, Saladin played a key role in eliminating the Egyptian vizier Shawar, even if the actual murder may have been carried out by someone else on the orders of the Fatimid caliph. (Shawar’s head and later that of his son were delivered to Saladin’s uncle in a silver container; no doubt it was the use of silver for transmitting the heads of murdered men that made Lane-Poole conclude that “civilization” was always on the side of the Muslims.) 

Then, having won the confidence and trust of the Fatimid Caliph, who appointed Saladin his vizier, Saladin worked systematically to undermine his regime and carried out a bloody coup d’etat against the Fatimid elite as soon as the Caliph conveniently died. While it might be argued that this was justified by repeated Fatimid conspiracies against Saladin or by Sunni orthodoxy’s hostility to Shiism, the same cannot be said of the slaughter of the unarmed women and children of the Sudanese guard that the “gentle and chivalrous” Saladin ordered burned alive in their homes. And if that weren’t enough, Saladin ended the rebellion of their men by agreeing to spare their lives if they left Cairo — only to break his word and slaughter them after they had laid down their arms.

Saladin next distinguished himself by waging war against the heir of his feudal overlord Nur al-Din, the eleven-year-old al-Salih. First, however, he sent a letter swearing humble and abject submission to al-Salih, ordered the young sultan’s name invoked in the mosques of Egypt and minting coins in his name, evidently with the intent of luring him into a sense of security.  While vowing his allegiance to al-Salih, Saladin also wrote to the under-aged Sultan’s regency council with the absurd claim that: “if death had not prevented him, [Nur al-Din] would have bequeathed to none other but me the guardianship and upbringing of his son.” (Ehrenkreutz, p. 123). In fact, Nur al-Din allegedly said on his deathbed that “Nothing makes me so sad except the thought of what will befall my family at the hands of Yusef, the son of Ayyub [i.e. Saladin].” 

Claiming a position he had been neither formally nor informally granted by Nur ad-Din, Saladin set out to gain control of Syria by force, using the resources he had accumulated by his seizure of power in Egypt.  The young Sultan’s legal guardians fled to Aleppo and Saladin gained control of Damascus without bloodshed, but the Turkish commanders and lords around the young Sultan flatly refused to acknowledge Saladin’s bogus claims to be the “true” guardian of the young Sultan. So Saladin marched his army against Aleppo. In northern Syria, Saladin met with real resistance and was ultimately repelled — with a little help from the Christians, who attacked his lines of communication, and the assassins, who made an attempt on Saladin’s life. Saladin returned to Damascus, where he gave up his pretense of serving the interests of al-Salih, and demanded patents for his position as Sultan of Damascus from the Abbasid caliph of Baghdad. He also issued coins in his own name. He then spent the better part of the next ten years fighting bitter campaigns against the family of Nur al-Din and their supporters based in Aleppo and Mosul and all across northern Syria.

Throughout this bloody, exhausting and bitter struggle for complete supremacy in Syria, Saladin used the excuse of needing to unite Islam for jihad against the crusader states. Ehrenkreuz notes: “…the overly long and bloody conflict in the Muslim camp had been caused, not by Saladin’s ambition to build a united front against the Crusaders, but by his opponents’ realistic refusal to recognize his claims for other than they were: an adventurous and unscrupulous policy of personal and territorial aggrandizement.”

Which is not to say that Saladin did not fight the Christians too. In fact, Saladin undertook a number of campaigns against the Christians including the invasion of 1177 that ended Saladin’s complete humiliation at Montgisard, the invasion of 1179 that ended in the routing of the Templars and the capture of nearly 300 Christian knights and nobles on the Litani. The siege of Beirut in the same year, the campaign that ended in the draw at Le Forbelet in 1182, the equally indecisive campaign of 1183, and the sieges of Kerak in 1183 and 1184. This may sound like an impressive track record, but given Saladin’s overwhelming strategic advantages, and the fact that the Kingdom of Jerusalem was led by a youth slowing dying of leprosy, his lack of success suggests either strategic and tactical incompetence or anemic motivation.

Not that Saladin didn’t demonstrate his hatred of the Franks.  When in August of 1178, less than a year after Saladin’s scalding defeat at Montgisard, Christian prisoners fell into Saladin’s hands he had them summarily executed, one by one, by members of his retinue. Aside from it being against Sharia law to kill men who had surrendered, it was hardly a demonstration of “chivalry.” Nor was it an isolated incident. When the Christians involved in the Red Sea raids were finally run-to-earth and captured, Saladin again ordered their execution. According to Bernard Hamilton in his excellent work The Leper King and His Heirs, the Christian prisoners were “taken to Mecca where, during the great annual pilgrimage, they were…slaughtered ‘like animals for sacrifice.’” Clearly these men were mercenaries and they had killed Muslim pilgrims and captured Arab shipping so perhaps they were not worthy of mercy, but the same cannot be said of the “unlucky common Christian soldier whom the sultan had slain when he noticed a minor facial scratch his son al-Afdal [by then in his late teens] sustained in the battle of Arsuf.” (Ehrenkreutz, p. 228.)

Last but not least, no discussion of Saladin would be complete without reference to the brutal execution of the Templars and Hospitallers taken captive at the Battle of Hattin. On July 6, these knights and sergeants, bound and helpless, were beheaded in public. Bartlett describes the scene in Downfall of the Crusader Kingdom as follows: “Saladin gave the task…to a group of religious Sufis, holy men largely untrained in the arts of war. Some of them took six or seven attempts to sever the heads of their victims…However justified the death of these men might have been in military terms, the cruelty and indignity of their death did Saladin no credit whatsoever. It was an act of violence, almost barbarism, which Saladin’s apologists have all too frequently glossed over.” (Bartlett, p. 204-205.) It is important to remember that this massacre preceded — and may indeed have helped instigate — the slaughter of the Muslim garrison of Acre by Richard the Lionheart four years later.

Saladin in a character in Book II and III of my three part biography of Balian d'Ibelin. 

 Buy now!                                       Buy now!                                   Buy now (paperback)
                                                                                                                or Kindle!

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Militant Orders in Literature - Two Reviews

Crusader by Michael Alexander Eisner

This is a melancholy, not to say morbid book. While extremely well written and well researched with excellent characters, I found myself just wanting to get it over with. The construction of the novel, a monk recording a "confession," has many intriguing advantages, but knowing from the start that the hero returned from the crusade a wreck suffering from "demons" made me dread reading the next chapter. I knew there was bound to be even worse to come. In retrospect, I also found the villain too evil.

That said, this is certainly a good book, even a profound book. This book does make you think, and the narrators are excellently drawn. This book even has a spark of genius in it. It is more than just a story, more than adventure or romance or mystery. It was definitely a Spanish book; I could see, hear and smell Spain in the pages, and readers who have an affinity to Spanish culture may like it better than I.

Yet it was too unremittingly depressing to satisfy me as a reader. Maybe I've just been lucky, but my experience of life is of light as well as shadow, of beauty as well as ugliness, and of good as well as evil. The light, the beauty and the good gets too little space in this book.

Silk Road by Colin Falconer

“Silk Road” by Colin Falconer is well named because the silk road itself is the most complex, vivid and well-drawn character of the book.  Falconer clearly did his research about the route itself – its changing geography and climates, and the diverse and fascinating people, who lived along it during the 13th century.  His descriptions of the route itself are vivid, informative and evocative, as are his meticulous and convincing portrayals of Mongolian culture, life-style and politics in this period.

Indeed, Falconer does an outstanding job of giving the reader insight into the Mongolian mentality and ethos without romanticizing it.  He is brutally honest about the repulsive excesses – of both drink and violence – without being self-satisfied or smug.  All in all, I felt he provided a balanced and nuanced picture of this, for us, alien society.  Likewise, his description of how the women’s feet were crushed and bound in China is one of the most brutally honest descriptions I have ever read. 

Unfortunately, Falconer does not match his very impressive knowledge of the Mongols and the topography of Asia with equal knowledge and understanding of the Christian world in the 13th century.  He depicts France and Provence of the 13th century as if he were describing Norsemen half a millennia earlier – huddling around smoking fires and wearing furs! Really? St. Louis? The man who commissioned St. Chapelle? The popes that built the palaces in Poitiers and Avignon? Another jarring example of his ignorance of French society is Falconer’s allegation that French women could not inherit property. Try telling that to Eleanor of Aquitaine!  Falconer appears not to have read Joinville’s account of the St. Louis’ crusade, or he would know King Louis could not command his Queen to so much as pay his ransom! He could ask it, not command it.  Finally, allow me a third example: Falconer repeatedly claims that Westerners did not bathe frequently and some were “afraid” to do so.  Absurd! Bathing is described in medieval books, depicted in medieval manuscripts and evidenced by archeology.  While the wealthy had their own baths, the poor went to bath-houses and tips were called “bath money” not “drinking money.”  It was only after the Reformation – and the spread of a strict morality that  saw bath houses as hotbeds of sin -- that hygiene deteriorated dramatically in European cities.  Given the fact that much of the dynamic of “Silk Road” rests on comparisons between “the West” and the cultures of the East, this profound ignorance of Western culture destroys the power and impact of Falconer’s alleged comparisons. 

Similarly, I found Falconer’s Mongol characters vivid and convincing. I liked his heroine Khetelun and her father very much.  They came to life for me in all their complexity and contradictions.  Kubilai and Miao-yen are likewise complex and compelling characters.  But Falconer fails miserably in making William a believable character.  William remains a caricature of heartless bigotry.  Furthermore, because he is a monotone character he is completely uninteresting. I kept hoping for some nuance, some change, some insight, but he remained flat, predictable and so boring.  Josseran eventually takes on some contours, but most of the book he is simply a vehicle for criticizing “Western” civilization – not as it was but as Falconer in his ignorance imagines it was.  He is obsessed with his sexuality and so in place of real dialectic with different cultures and religions, with have shadow-boxing.

The structure of “Silk Road” had the potential to offer provocative challenges to our understanding of Christianity, but it fell flat because the “Christianity” of this book is an empty fa├žade, only superficially related to the religion itself.  Certainly there were bigots and hypocrites who called themselves Christians and even preached Christianity, but if this book were to seriously examine the merits of the various cultures and theologies, it would have to portray not the counterfeit but the genuine “coin” of all the religions. It would have to discuss the religion itself – not create a straw man of sheer bigotry. 

At times I had the impression that Falconer genuinely hated Christianity, but in the end I decided he simply shied away for serious, theological debate.  It was easier to describe the superficial differences of simplistic characters than explore the depths of a complex theology.

In short, it’s not a bad book if you want to learn more about the Mongols in the second generation after Genghis Khan, but beware of the misinformation about Medieval Europe and don’t expect a genuine discussion of the theological differences between the great religions of the period.

The militant orders play a major role in my three part biography of Balian d'Ibelin.
Books I and II are on sale now!

     Buy now!                                                                                               Buy now!

A landless knight, 
a leper king,
and the struggle for Jerusalem.

 A divided kingdom,
a united enemy,
and the struggle for Jerusalem

Friday, July 10, 2015

Collapse of a Kingdom: Jerusalem 1187

On July 4, 1187, Salah ad-Din crushed the Christian army under the command of Guy de Lusignan. Of the estimated 20,000 infantry, 1,600 knights and maybe as many as 8,000 light cavalry (Turcopoles) who fought at the battle, only some 3,000 infantry and perhaps 300 knights escaped the carnage as free men. The remainder were either killed or captured. 

On July 5, Tiberius, despite being virtually impregnable, surrendered. Five days later the economic heart of the Kingdom, Acre, likewise capitulated without a fight. On July 26, the castle of Toron followed, and just three days later Sidon too surrendered. On August 6, Beirut capitulated -- all without a fight. Meanwhile, although the exact dates are unknown, Nablus, Nazareth, Haifa, Hebron, Caesarea, Arsur, Lydda, Ramla, Mirabel, Ibelin and Bethlehem 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. Although the fight at Jaffa was so bitter that al-Adil allowed his troops to plunder and enslaved all the surviving inhabitants, 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 Hospitaller Castle Krak de Chevaliers is one of the Castles that Successfully Defied Saladin
Salah ad-Din next concentrated his forces at Jerusalem. Despite a spirited defense led by Balian d'Ibelin, which included a number of successful sorties out of the city and one of which drove the Saracens all the way back to their camp and forced them to redeploy, the walls were breached by mining on September 29. Ibelin was forced to surrender the city and only his diplomatic skills saved the bulk of the survivors from slavery; they were instead allowed to buy their freedom at a fixed price of 10 dinars per man, five per woman and two per child. On Oct. 2, Salah ad-Din's army entered the Holiest City in Christendom. It was less than three months since the disaster at Hattin. 

The Damascus Gate of Jerusalem through which Balian d'Ibelin left Jerusalem for the last time after surrendering the city; he led roughly 15,000 Christians to Tyre.
Only the coastal city of Tyre remained Christian in all of what had once been the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

A Map of the Crusader States from my book "Defender of Jerusalem"
This rapid and largely bloodless surrender of city after city has led many superficial observers and casual students to conclude that the Kingdom of Jerusalem was fundamentally "rotten at the core." That it was inherently unsustainable. Even that the native population was indifferent to or "welcomed" the return of Muslim rule. None of that is true. The Kingdom of Jerusalem collapsed because it was indefensible.

King Guy had issued the equivalent of the “levee en masse” of the Napoleonic era, the arriere ban, and every able-bodied fighting man had mustered at Sephorie. Left behind in the castles, towns, and cities were women, children, the old and the ill. There were no garrisons capable of offering effective resistance. Worse, even if there had been, there was no point to resistance since there was no army capable of coming to the relief of a city under siege. 

Thus when Saladin’s army appeared before the walls of one fortress or city after another, the citizens had the choice of surrender in exchange for their lives and such valuables as they could carry or hopeless resistance. Since the rules of contemporary warfare dictated that resistance justified massacre, rape, and enslavement, it is hardly surprising that the Christian cities and castles capitulated one after another. What is surprising is that some cities -- Jaffa, Ascalon, Jerusalem and Tyre -- defied Saladin despite the hopelessness of their situation. Particularly the defense of Jerusalem is a tribute to Christian -- not just Latin Christian -- love for their freedom and their country: the Holy Land. 

The aftermath of Hattin is described in detail in Book II of my three part biography of Balian d'Ibelin. 

Defender of Jerusalem: A Biographical Novel of Balian d'Ibelin on sale soon.

A divided kingdom,

                         a untied enemy, 

                                               and the struggle for Jerusalem.


Buy Book I now in Paperback or Kindle format!

Read more about the history of the Kingdom of Jerusalem at: Balian d'Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

An Avoidable Defeat with Devastating Consequences

The Battle of Hattin
July 4, 1187

The devastating defeat of the combined Christian army at the Battle of Hattin on July 4, 1187, was one of the most significant disasters in medieval military history.  Christian casualties at the battle were so enormous that the defense of the rest of the Kingdom of Jerusalem became impossible, and so the defeat at Hattin led directly to the loss of the entire kingdom including Jerusalem itself. The loss of the Holy City, led to the Third Crusade, and so to the death of the Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich I “Barbarossa”, and the extended absence from his domains of Richard I “the Lionheart.” Both circumstances had a profound impact on the balance of power in Western Europe. Meanwhile the role of the critical Pisan and Genoese fleets in supplying the only city left in Christian hands, Tyre, and in supporting Richard I’s land army resulted in trading privileges that led to the establishment of powerful trading centers in the Levant. These in turn fostered the exchange of goods and ideas that led historian Claude Reignier Condor to write at the end of the 19th Century that: “…the result of the Crusades was the Renaissance.” (The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem 1099 to 1291 AD, The Committee of Palestine Exploration Fund, 1897, p. 163.)

The importance of Hattin to contemporaries was not just the magnitude of the defeat, but the unexpectedness of it.  In retrospect, the victory seems inevitable. Muslim states had always surrounded the crusader kingdom (as they hem in Israel today) and the Muslim rulers could call on much larger military and financial forces than their Christian opponents.  In the early years of Latin presence in the Holy Land, the divisions among the Muslim leaders, most especially the rivalry and hatred between Shia Caliphate of Cairo and the Sunni Caliphate of Baghdad, had played into Christian hands.  However, once Saladin had managed to unite Syria and Egypt under a single, charismatic leader the balance of power clearly tipped to the Muslims.

Yet that is hindsight. In fact, there was nothing inevitable about Saladin's victory. Christian armies under Baldwin IV of Jerusalem and Richard I of England defeated Saladin on the battlefield more than once.  Saladin was a powerful, charismatic and clever commander, who knew how to deploy his forces effectively and use terrain to his advantage — but he was not invincible. Indeed, he was dealt a defeat every bit as devastating as Hattin in November 1177 at the Battle of Montgisard. His invading army was annihilated, and he himself had to flee on the back of a pack-camel. In July 1182, the Christian army under Baldwin IV stopped another full-scale invasion by Saladin, forcing him to withdraw across the Jordan with comparatively few Christian losses. In June the following year, 1183, the Christian army confronted yet another invasion on an even larger force and again forced Saladin to withdraw — this time without even engaging in an all-out battle.

Despite these apparent successes, it was clear to the King of Jerusalem that Saladin was getting stronger with each new invasion attempt.  Saladin had increased his own power base from Cairo and Damascus to Aleppo, Homs and Mosul, while the Christians had no new infusions of blood, territory or income. In consequence, in 1184 Baldwin IV sent a frantic plea to the West, begging for a new crusade and offering the Western leader — whoever he might be — the keys to the kingdom, literally. The lack of response reflected Western complacency about the threat to Jerusalem and implicit confidence in the ability of Baldwin and his barons to continue to defeat Saladin’s attempts to push the Christian kingdom into the sea.

It was because of Baldwin’s earlier successes against Saladin, that the news of Hattin and the loss of Jerusalem shocked the West, allegedly causing the immediate death of Pope Urban III. How was it possible that a young and vigorous king, Guy I, could lead the same army to defeat that a youth suffering from leprosy (and only commanding his armies from a liter) had led to victory again and again?  

Rarely in human history has a defeat been so wholly attributable to poor generalship on the losing side as at Hattin. To be sure, Saladin set a trap for the Christian armies. The bait was the citizens and garrison of Tiberius under the command of the Countess of Tripoli, who were besieged in the citadel after the fall of the city on July 2.  The Christian army was mustered at Sephorie, only some 15 miles to the west. The pleas for help from the Countess and Tiberius naturally evoked a response from the Christian army, most notably her four grown sons.  But the Count of Tripoli himself warned that it was a trap and opposed the decision to go to the aid of Tiberius. Tripoli’s reasoning convinced the majority of his peers and the council of war composed of the leading barons agreed to stay where they were and force Saladin to come to them. However, the Grand Master of the Temple went separately and secretly to King Guy after the council dispersed and convinced him to order the advance for the following day. In short, although warned, King Guy took the bait.

To relieve Tiberius, the Christian army had to cross territory that was at this time of year devoid of fodder for the horses and where water sources were widely dispersed. With Saladin’s forces already occupying the springs at Cafarsset, on the southern route from Sephorie to Tiberias, the Christians had no choice but to follow the northern track, which led via the springs of Turan. Intense heat and harassment by the enemy slowed the Christian march to a crawl, and by noon on July 3, the Christian army had advanced only six miles to the springs of Turan.  With nine miles more to go, it was clear the army could not reach Tiberius before nightfall and prudence alone should have dictated a halt at Turan, where men and horse could rest and drink. Instead, King Guy against all reason ordered the advance to continue. Immediately, Saladin sent his troops to occupy Turan, thereby not-only blocking the Christian retreat but harassing the Christian rear-guard and further slowing the rate of advance.

A depiction of the Christian army advancing toward Hattin carrying the “True Cross”
from the film “The Kingdom of Heaven”

When darkness fell on July 3, the Christian army was still six miles short of its objective and forced to camp in an open field completely surrounded by enemy forces.  The Christians had been marching and fighting for hours without water in the intense heat of a Palestinian summer. Men and horses were exhausted and further demoralized by the sound of Saracen drums surrounding them and the countless campfires advertising the enemy’s strength. 

By morning, those fires were brush-fires intentionally set ablaze to windward of the Christian army, a tactic that dried their already parched throats further while half-blinding them with smoke. Out of the smoke came volleys of arrows, and again “some of the Christian lords” urged King Guy to charge Saladin’s position at once, in an attempt to win the battle by killing the Sultan.  King Guy instead chose to try to march the entire army toward the springs of Hattin, still some three miles away and cut off by one wing of Saladin’s army.

While the Christian cavalry tried to drive off the Saracen cavalry in a series of charges and counter-charges, the infantry stumbled forward until, half-blinded by smoke, constantly attacked by the enemy and near dying of thirst, the morale of the Christian infantry broke.  As casualties mounted, some of the infantry retreated up the slopes of the “horns” of Hattin, two steep hills that flanked the plane on which the army had camped and refused to fight any more. 

Meanwhile, the Count of Tripoli with his knights and Lord Reginald of Sidon finally broke-through the surrounding enemy, charging east toward the Lake of Tiberius.  The Christian infantry that had not fled up the slopes tried to follow in the wake of the cavalry, but the Saracens under the command of one of Saladin’s nephews stepped aside to let the armored knights through and then closed ranks again, cutting off the Christian infantry that was cut down or taken captive.

Mid- or late afternoon, with the infantry either already slaughtered or refusing to come down from the hilltop, King Guy ordered his knights to retreat up the slope as well. At this stage, many of the knights were fighting on foot because their horses became vulnerable once the infantry cover was withdraw.  During this final phase of the battle the most precious relic of the crusader kingdoms, believed to be a piece of the cross on which Christ was crucified, was lost. The Bishop of Acre, who had been carrying it, was killed, and the effect on Christian morale of the loss of this Christian symbol — believed to have brought victory in dozens of earlier battles —  was devastating.

The final stages of the Battle of Hattin as depicted in the film “The Kingdom of Heaven”

But still King Guy did not surrender.  What few knights were still mounted made one (or two) last desperate charge(s) to try to kill Saladin, who was mounted and clearly identifiable among his troops.  One of these charges may have been lead by Balian d’Ibelin. While the charge came close enough to Saladin for him to have to shout encouragement to his men, like Tripoli before him, once Ibelin was through the enemy, he had no chance of fighting his way back up-hill through the ever thickening ranks of the enemy closing in on their prey. Within minutes, King Guy’s last position was over-run and he along with most of his barons were taken prisoner.

Of the roughly 20,000 Christian soldiers who had set out from Sephorie, only an estimated 3,000 infantry managed somehow to escape into the surrounding countryside and eventually take refuge in the castles and walled towns then still in Christian hands. Of the 1,600 knights and barons that mustered for the battle, only four barons, Tripoli, Sidon, Edessa and Ibelin, escaped capture along with maybe 200 - 300 knights. The remainder including the King of Jerusalem, the Masters of the Temple and Hospital, the Constable Aimery de Lusignan, the Lords of Oultrajourdain, Toron, Gibelet, and others — effectively the entire nobility of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. While the majority of these lords and knights were held for ransom, the 230 Templars and Hospitallers that survived the battle were executed at Saladin’s orders.

Medieval painting of prisoners being led away (here by a Christian king)

The Battle of Hattin is described in detail in Book II of my three part biography of Balian d'Ibelin. 

Defender of Jerusalem: A Biographical Novel of Balian d'Ibelin on sale soon.

A divided kingdom,

                         a untied enemy, 

                                               and the struggle for Jerusalem.

BUY NOW!                   

Professor Andrew Latham and I discuss Hattin with J. Steven Roberts on Real Crusades History here:

Read more about the history of the Kingdom of Jerusalem at: Balian d'Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem.