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Friday, April 15, 2016

Richard the Lionheart's "Noble" Adversary - Saladin

Richard the Lionheart was a man of war and he had many adversaries in his lifetime. He fought his father more than once in his early years and fought with his father against the rebellious lords of the Aquitaine and against the French King even more frequently. He spent the last six years of his life in a bitter struggle against King Philip II. Yet of all his adversaries few have captured the imagination of chroniclers, novelists or artists as much as the man he fought in the Holy Land - Sultan Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, more commonly known as Saladin.

Saladin has long been viewed as the epitome of “chivalry.” His honesty and sense of honor are often compared favorably to the duplicity and dishonor of Richard's Christian foes such as the Holy Roman Emperor and Philip of France. Indeed, in the 19th century it became common to suggest that, while the crusaders (including Richard!) 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 the purely adulatory descriptions of Saladin penned by the Sultan’s court biographers. Indeed, 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.”  With this statement, Lane-Poole dismisses Richard the Lionheart, the troubadour, and paragon of Western chivalry, without so much as a mention. 
Yet, as Andrew Ehrenkreutz meticulously documents in his biography of Saladin, far from being the embodiment of "magnanimity, real chivalry, and gentle culture," Saladin used deceit, hypocrisy, propaganda, bribery, extortion, murder and, ultimately aggressive war to establish an empire in the Near East.  Notably, Saladin spent much more time and many 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. 

Furthermore, the many instances in which Saladin treated former 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 image of Saladin as the paragon of chivalry. To name only a few, Saladin played a key role in eliminating the Egyptian vizier ShawarThen, having won the confidence and trust of the Fatimid Caliph, 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.

So, yes, Saladin did break his word when it suited his purposes -- as he did to Richard the Lionheart with regard to the surrender of Acre.

Saladin next distinguished himself by waging war against the heir of his feudal overlord Nur al-Din, the eleven-year-old al-Salih -- but only after first swearing humble and abject submission to al-Salih. When the young Sultan’s legal guardians refused to acknowledge Saladin’s bogus claims to be the “true” guardian of the young Sultan, Saladin 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 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.

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 has led some historians to suggest 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 hostages at Acre by Richard the Lionheart four years later.  If Richard the Lionheart's reputation was sullied by the massacre at Acre, so was Saladin's by the massacre after Hattin. The 12th century was a brutal age, and empires were not built with kindness and "gentle culture" -- not in France, Aquitaine, Egypt or Syria.

Saladin in a character in my three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin:

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1 comment:

  1. "Saladin has long been viewed as the epitome of “chivalry.”"

    The longest running joke of our lifetimes.


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