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Monday, June 27, 2022

The Reign of the Leper King

 King Amalric of Jerusalem died unexpectedly only two months after Nur al-Din. He was only 38 years old and like Nur al-Din, Amalric left a minor heir, a youth who had just turned 13. Unlike Nur al-Din’s death, Amalric’s did not trigger a power struggle. None of Amalric’s vassals marched an army to his capital city; none of his barons staged a coup that sent his legitimate heir fleeing to the frontiers. On the contrary, although the constitution of Jerusalem gave the High Court the authority to elect kings — almost inviting rivalries and factionalism — consensus coalesced immediately around Amalric’s only son Baldwin. The youth was crowned Baldwin IV just four days after his father’s death. 

Hollywood's Baldwin IV from "The Kingdom of Heaven"

 Yet there was a problem. Roughly four years earlier, Baldwin had lost the feeling in his lower right arm. Although many doctors, including Arab doctors, had been consulted, no one found a cure. The possibility that Baldwin was suffering from leprosy was recognized, but not fully acknowledged at the time he ascended the throne. This may be because he was not severely disfigured or handicapped at the time of his father’s death. On the contrary, his face was not yet touched by the disease. Furthermore, he had not only been tutored by one of the leading scholars of the kingdom, he had received special riding instruction to enable him to control his horse with his legs alone. His outward appearance was still normal.  

Even as his condition deteriorated and the name of his condition could no longer be denied, Baldwin IV was neither isolated nor forced to abdicate. The fact that the Christian barons, bishops and commons were prepared to submit to a leper astonished the Muslim world, while many today, familiar with horror stories about lepers being ostracized and reviled, are baffled by Baldwin IV’s ability to retain his crown. The explanation lies in the fact that the crusader kingdom with its dominant Orthodox population was heavily influenced by Byzantine traditions. These viewed leprosy not as a sign of sin and divine punishment but rather as a sign of grace. By the 4th century AD, the sufferings of Job were associated with leprosy, and leading theologians reminded the Christian community that lepers too had been made in God’s image and were likewise redeemed by Christ. Legends in which Christ appeared on earth as a leper were popular, and the disease was referred to as ‘the Holy Disease.’ This was the context in which Baldwin IV reigned.

Yet while these attitudes explain why Baldwin was never repudiated, Baldwin himself deserves credit for earning and retaining the loyalty of his subjects. Throughout his reign, even as his capabilities and appearance deteriorated, Baldwin never faced rebellion or insubordination. Nor was his reign characterized by exceptional factionalism, as popular literature is prone to suggest. Nevertheless, the combination of his deteriorating health and the need to find a suitable consort for his female heir, his sister Sibylla, eventually brought the kingdom to its knees.

During most of Baldwin’s minority, the regency was held by his closest male relative on his father’s side, Raymond Count of Tripoli. Tripoli was an able administrator, who sought consensus and enjoyed excellent relations with his fellow barons, the church and the military orders. He conscientiously negotiated a marriage for Sibylla with William ‘Longsword’ de Montferrat, an eminently suitable Western lord with close ties to the Holy Roman Emperor. In foreign and military affairs, Tripoli was cautious, rapidly concluding a truce with Saladin that lasted a year.

On July 15, 1176 Baldwin IV took the reins of government into his own hands. He was just fifteen and, perhaps due to his youth, proved far less circumspect than Tripoli. He immediately chose a course of confrontation with Saladin. Taking advantage of the fact that Saladin was attacking Aleppo, Baldwin personally led a raid into Damascene territory within two weeks of coming of age and defeated forces under Saladin’s brother Turanshah. 

Baldwin also moved rapidly to renew ties with Constantinople, sending an ambassador there in the fall of 1176. Behind his keen interest in a Byzantine alliance lay Baldwin’s desire to pursue his father’s dream of conquering Egypt. To further these ambitions, Baldwin IV accepted Byzantine suzerainty on the same nominal terms as his father and furthermore accepted the appointment of an Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem. The impending arrival of a substantial crusading army under the Count of Flanders seemed the perfect opportunity for the Kingdom of Jerusalem to again take the offensive. With Saladin not yet firmly entrenched, prospects of success cannot be dismissed.

Before anything could be undertaken, however, both Baldwin and his brother-in-law became ill independently of one another. William de Montferrat died in June 1177, leaving behind a pregnant widow, and Baldwin had not yet recovered when Count Philip of Flanders arrived in Acre two months later. Indeed, Baldwin was so ill that he offered Flanders the regency of his kingdom. (Flanders, like Henry II of England, was Baldwin’s first cousin, through a daughter of Fulk d’Anjou by his first wife.)

Astonishingly, Flanders refused the regency of Jerusalem. Since Baldwin was still too ill to command his own army, focus turned to finding an interim commander-in-chief capable of leading the joint forces of Jerusalem, Flanders and Byzantium into Egypt.  Baldwin chose the infamous Reynald de Châtillon, who had since married the heiress of Transjordan. However, Flanders again made problems because he expected to become king of whatever territory was conquered in Egypt; King Baldwin, however, had already agreed with the Byzantine Emperor that they would divide conquered territories between them. Mistrust of Flanders and his intentions led the Byzantines to angrily withdraw their fleet of seventy ships. Flanders, too, promptly abandoned the Egyptian campaign and took his troops to the Principality of Antioch in a huff. With him went the Master and knights of the Hospital, the knights of the County of Tripoli and roughly 100 knights from the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Saladin, who had been gathering troops on his northern border to face a combined Byzantine/Frankish/Flemish invasion found himself facing an infidel kingdom nearly denuded of troops and led by a bed-ridden, teenage king. No ruler in his right mind would have squandered such an opportunity. Saladin crossed into the Kingdom of Jerusalem with an army estimated at 26,000 Turkish light cavalry, including 1,000 Mamluks of Saladin’s bodyguard.  Saladin’s intentions were unclear. Was this just a particularly strong raid to destroy, harass and terrify? Or did the Sultan hope to strike at Jerusalem itself and possibly put an end to the Christian kingdom?

The inhabitants of Jerusalem were thrown into a panic. Many sought refuge in the Tower of David because the walls of the city had been neglected in the decades of Frankish military superiority. Saladin’s first target, however, was Ascalon — the great bastion of Fatimid Egypt that had fallen into Frankish hands only a quarter century earlier.

King Baldwin, who weeks earlier had been willing to appoint a deputy (Reynald de Châtillon, Lord of Transjordan) to command his army for the invasion of Egypt, rose from his bed and assembled every knight he could. The Bishop of Bethlehem brought out the True Cross, a relic believed to be a fragment of the cross on which Christ was crucified. Riding at the head of this small force, Baldwin made a dash to Ascalon, arriving only hours before Saladin’s advance guard, on or about November 20.

Here, Baldwin apparently issued the arrière ban — the call to arms for every able-bodied man of the kingdom. With Saladin’s army enclosing Ascalon, however, it was unclear where the troops should muster. The forces Baldwin had already collected, 357 knights, did not impress Saladin. Concluding that he could keep the king and his paltry force bottled up in Ascalon with only a fraction of his own force, Saladin with the main body of his troops proceeded north to Ramla on November 22 or 23. His advance units had already spread out, looting, raping and burning, including the towns of Ramla, Lydda and Hebron. From Ramla, the main road lay wide open to the defenseless Jerusalem.

Behind Saladin, however, Baldwin sallied out of Ascalon. Rather than making a dash via Hebron to Jerusalem to defend his capital, the Frankish king chose to shadow Saladin’s army. With Saladin’s main force in Ramla, Baldwin mustered his army in Ibelin roughly 16 kilometers (13 miles) to the south. Either here or previously, he rendezvoused with the Templar Master at the head of eighty Templar Knights and, one presumes, roughly equal numbers of sergeants and turcopoles. The Templars had rushed south to defend their castle at Gaza only for Saladin to by-pass it. At Ibelin, too, the commoners responding to the arrière ban flooded in.

 What Baldwin did next was not just courageous it was tactically sophisticated: he marched his army onto a secondary road leading to Jerusalem as if trying to slip past Saladin’s force at Ramla. Saladin took the bait and pursued. Michael Ehrlich in his detailed analysis of the battle based on both Frankish and Arab sources argues that by this feint Baldwin succeeded in maneuvering Saladin onto marshy ground beside a small river at the foot of a hill known as Montgisard. Here, as the Saracens crossed over the river, the Franks reversed their direction and fell upon their ‘pursuers.’ Ehrlich notes that: ‘In these conditions numerical superiority became a burden rather than an advantage. It demanded additional efforts to maneuver the trapped army, which fell into total chaos.’[i] 

What followed was a complete victory for the Franks. The Sultan’s army was routed and fled in disorder. Many of Saladin’s troops were captured by pursuing Franks, others by local villagers set on revenge after the rape and pillage of Saladin’s marauding troops in the days before. Some of the fleeing Turks made it as far as the desert only to be captured and sold into slavery by the Bedouins, who also took advantage of Saladin’s defeat to plunder his baggage train left at his base camp of al-Arish. Saladin barely escaped with his life, fleeing on a pack camel and arriving in Cairo without either his army or his baggage. Not until his victory at Hattin did Saladin feel he had wiped out the shame of Montgisard. The cost to the Franks may have been as much as 1,100 dead and 750 wounded, but these numbers have been questioned and certainly were not corroborated by other sources. Certainly, no nobles were killed and very few if any knights.

Modern historians following Arab sources give Reynald de Châtillon credit for this astonishing victory. The Arabs, however, didn’t have a clue who was commanding at Montgisard, much less who had devised the strategy. Historians have also been mislead by the fact that Baldwin appointed Châtillon his ‘executive regent’ while he was so ill that he did not believe he could personally campaign. However, according to William of Tyre who was an intimate of Baldwin IV and his chancellor, the terms of Châtillon’s appointment were that he should command the royal army only in the absence of the king. Once Baldwin took the field — as he did most certainly did at Montgisard — that appointment was null and void.

The two contemporary Christian chronicles of the battle based on eye-witness accounts both identify King Baldwin as the commander of the overall army, while one adds the detail that the Baron of Ramla led the vanguard in accordance with the custom of the kingdom. The latter point is important as it makes it clear Ramla’s prominence was not invented by the chronicler after the fact. According to the custom of the kingdom, command of the vanguard always fell to the baron in whose territory a battle was fought; Montgisard was in the lordship of Ramla. Ehrlich also points out that the entire victory at Montgisard was predicated on superior knowledge of the terrain and the ability to maneuver Saladin into a disadvantageous geographic position. He summarizes: ‘Led by a local lord, who certainly knew the terrain better than anybody else on the battlefield, the Frankish army managed to defeat the Muslim army, in spite of its initial superiority.’[ii] Regardless of who masterminded the strategy that led to victory, the seventeen-year-old king, who had appeared on death’s door only weeks before, took sound advice, accepted risks, and rode with his troops although he could not wield a weapon. Is it any wonder that his subjects loved and trusted him thereafter?

Perhaps this astonishing and dramatic victory went to Baldwin’s head. One year later, in October 1178, he ordered the construction of a major castle at the ford across the Jordan known as ‘Jacob’s Ford.’ This was a vital strategic position, less than a day’s ride from Damascus at the gateway to Galilee, but it was also, at least from the Saracen point of view, on Saracen territory. Saladin first tried to bribe Baldwin into stopping work, offering a reported 100,000 dinars for him to dismantle the work already done. When Baldwin refused the bribe, Saladin attacked.  Arab sources report that Saladin was so determined to destroy this castle that ‘he tore at the stones with his own hands.’[iii]

By the summer of 1179, the castle, although garrisoned by the Templars and functional, was not complete. The outer works, the second ring of what should have been a concentric fortress similar to Crak de Chevalliers, were still under construction. In early September 1179 Saladin attacked. The castle was undermined, parts of the walls collapsed, and the Templar commander threw himself into the flames as the Saracens broke in. The garrison and the construction workers were slaughtered and the wells poisoned — too soon it seems. Almost at once illness overwhelmed Saladin’s army, killing ten of his emirs and an unknown number of his troops.

Although the loss ‘Jacob’s Ford’ is often pointed to as the ‘beginning of the end’ of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, that judgement seems heavily colored by hindsight. The destruction of an incomplete castle built on Saracen territory did no more than re-establish the status quo ante. Saladin did not try to occupy and control the castle nor to build his own fortress at this location. Furthermore, he agreed to a two-year truce shortly afterwards. Yet there can be no question that for both the Sultan and the King the gauntlet had been thrown down and picked up; both were bent on hostilities.

Throughout the early 1180s, the Saracens made repeated raids on the borders of the kingdom and the audacity of these raids seemed to increase. In addition to this small-scale border raiding, Saladin undertook major campaigns against the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1182, 1183 and 1184. The campaign of 1182 was a full-scale invasion and the Franks, still commanded by Baldwin IV in person, defeated Saladin’s army at a day-long battle in intense heat at Le Forbelet. Although this was not the rout Montgisard had been, it was more than enough. Furthermore, Saladin’s better showing had more to do with Saladin having learned a lesson at Montgisard than with Frankish weakness.

The following year, Saladin again undertook a full-scale invasion, crossing the Jordan on September 29. The Franks mustered a huge army, allegedly numbering 1,300 knights and 15,000 foot. Saladin successfully raided round-about, and there were casualties on by sides in various skirmishes, but the decisive confrontation failed to materialize before Saladin was compelled by logistical factors to withdraw across the Jordan. The remaining two Saracen incursions prior to the campaign that led to the Battle of Hattin were both attempts to capture the border fortress of Kerak. In both cases Saladin broke off his siege as soon as a Frankish field army came to the relief of Kerak.

Yet it would be wrong to picture the Kingdom of Jerusalem as besieged and on the defensive throughout this period. King Baldwin personally led raids into Damascene territory in late 1182. In addition, Reynald de Châtillion twice initiated offensive operations, once striking at Tarbuk (1181-1182) and the next year launching ships in the Red Sea. Bernard Hamilton argues compellingly that both of these operations — far from being the actions of a ‘rogue baron’ intent on disrupting the (non-existent) peace for his own gain — had clear strategic aims. In the first case, the raid prevented Egyptian forces from reinforcing Saladin in his campaign against Aleppo and in the second case embarrassed him with his Muslim subjects during his campaign against Sunni Mosul. Baldwin IV had wisely concluded a ten-year alliance with Mosul that included substantial payments to the Franks.

Thus, when we look back on the reign of Baldwin IV (1174-1185) we see that Baldwin won all but one of the confrontations with Saladin in which he personally took part. (He was bested on the Litani in 1179, shortly before Saladin destroyed the castle at Jacob’s Ford). Furthermore, as late as the autumn of 1182, Baldwin was still leading raids into Damascene territory — on horseback. However, between phases of apparent vigor, Baldwin also had bouts of weakness when he was bedridden and seemed on the brink of death. These are recorded in the summer of 1177, in the summer of 1179, and again the summer of 1183. These bouts of illness were probably not, or only indirectly, related to his leprosy. Tyre refers to them as fevers, and the cyclical nature of the attacks suggests they may have been malaria. Yet, in addition to these periods of debilitating weakness, Baldwin IV was also disintegrating before the eyes of his subjects. He was dying a little more each day. Despite both these weaknesses, Baldwin’s reign would not appear one of increasing vulnerability were it not for a single fact: the succession had not been adequately resolved. It was the crisis over Baldwin’s successor that ultimately tore the kingdom apart — and then only after Baldwin himself had found eternal peace.

[i] Ehrlich, Michael. ‘Saint Catherine’s Day Miracle — the Battle of Montgisard,’ in Medieval Military History, Vol. XI [Woodbridge: Boydell, 2013] 105.

[ii] Ehrlich, 105.

[iii] Barber, Malcolm. ‘Frontier Warfare in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem: The Campaign of Jacob’s Ford, 1178-179’ in The Crusades and their Sources, editors John France and Willaim G. Zajac. [Farnham: Ashgate, 1998] 14.

This entry is an excerpt from Dr. Schrader's comprehensive study of the crusader states.

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is also the author of six books set in the Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades. Baldwin IV is a major character in the first two books of the Jerusalem Trilogy, Balian d'Ibelin:Knight of Jerusalem and Defender of Jerusalem. Find out more at:


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Monday, June 20, 2022

The Revival of Jihad and the Rise of Saladin

Ironically, just when the crusader states started acting like secular powers with no particular religious raison d’ d’être, religious war, jihad, enjoyed a revival in the Muslim powers of the Middle East. 

Zengi had at times employed the language of jihad to justify his conquests, but contemporaries and historians agree that Zengi was not motivated by religious zeal. Rather, he cynically used calls for jihad to motivate the masses. His son Nur al-Din, in contrast, did not simply trot out jingoistic slogans against ‘polytheists’ and ‘pigs,’ he systematically supported Sunni orthodoxy. This included support for religious institutions, particularly madrasas. The latter were colleges of higher education dedicated to the study of Islamic theology and law. Madrasas proliferated in Nur al-Din’s domains and provided much of the intellectual underpinning for his wars against both the ‘heretical’ Shias and against the Christians. The madrasas fostered a generation of Islamic scholars dedicated to jihad, and capable of providing the military elites with beautifully worded and meticulously argued religious justifications for the aggression they wished to undertake anyway.

Nur al-Din was adept, indeed masterful, in employing every conceivable media for jihadist rhetoric — whether in personal letters, sermons, inscriptions on tombs and buildings, or poetry.  By all these means, Nur al-Din beat the drum of jihad, calling on his subjects to push the infidel into the sea and ‘restore’ Muslim control of Palestine, particularly Jerusalem. It is hardly incidental that this propaganda also emphasized the need for religious and political unity as a prerequisite of success. Jihad justified the suppression of dissent within Islam and the eradication of domestic political opponents as well as war against rival Muslim powers. Thus, the pursuit of jihadist goals justified both external aggression and internal oppression.

To be fair, Nur al-Din did not just preach jihad, he also lived according to Islamic principles. As a ruler, he founded and sponsored hospitals, orphanages, bathhouses and mosques, while also placing great emphasis on ruling justly. As an individual he prayed, listened to readings of the Koran, abstained from alcohol, and forbade music and dancing in his court and camp. William Archbishop of Tyre called Nur al-Din ‘a mighty persecutor of the Christian name and faith’ but acknowledged his fundamental piety by noting  he ‘was a just prince, valiant and wise, and, according to the traditions of his race, a religious man.’[i] Indeed, according to the Jacobite Patriarch of Antioch (Michael I Rabo, 1166-1199), Nur al-Din ‘considered himself like Muhammed, and was waiting for the Lord to speak to him as he had to Moses.’[ii] Nur al-Din’s death was allegedly welcomed by many of his subordinates who resented his puritanical Islam and disliked the fact that prayer had banished music, dance and wine. His death was also welcomed by Saladin, albeit for very different reasons.

Saladin, namely, had come to power in Egypt without the approval of his sultan and he was in trouble with him. Nur al-Din had, to be sure, sent his trusted Kurdish emir Shirkuh to Cairo, and Shirkuh’s murder of the Fatimid vizier Shawar been in Nur al-Din’s interest. Shirkuh’s coup enabled a Sunni to seize control of the Fatimid state, making it only a matter of time before the Shia caliph also disappeared.

Saladin’s coup on the death of his uncle Shirkuh, on the other hand, was not sanctioned by Nur al-Din. Saladin had been elected by the emirs in Egypt, a majority of which were Kurds, without consulting the sultan’s wishes. Furthermore, the election took place before a background of threatening crisis. Despite Shirkuh’s coup, the Egyptian bureaucracy and military remained intact and many of these men were still loyal to the Fatimids. The Frankish threat also remained real after five successive invasions, several of which had come close to taking Cairo. Both factors made the rapid election of a new vizier essential. Sending to Nur ad-Din in Damascu for his advice or approval did not seem practical. Saladin proved to be the candidate on whom everyone could agree, although by no means enthusiastically.

Yet Saladin’s rule was far from secure. He had to ruthlessly suppress a revolt by the Nubian troops, burning their families alive, to force them to withdraw from Cairo in exchange for their lives — only to betray them and slaughter them anyway. He then billeted his own troops in their former barracks for his own safety. Clearly, the situation remained volatile until another timely death came to Saladin’s rescue: the Fatimid Caliph died. This enabled Saladin, officially the caliph’s chief officer and protector, to simply end the ‘heretical’ caliphate. Saladin blandly announced to the caliph’s son and should-be successor that his father ‘had not made a bequest that recognized him as his successor.’[iii] Indeed, Saladin had not even waited for the critically ill caliph to die. He had ordered the imams in the mosques of Cairo to substitute the Sunni caliph for the Fatimid one in their Friday prayers a week before the caliph’s death. The Egyptian people, tired of war, acquiesced in the change of religion as well as the change of ruler.

Nur al-Din, on the other hand, might welcome the extermination of the Fatimid Caliphate, but he was alarmed by Saladin’s increasingly independent behavior. He rightly suspected that Saladin no longer viewed himself the Sultan’s servant, but rather as his equal and rival. To reassert his authority, Nur al-Din ordered Saladin to assist in a campaign against the Frankish castle of Kerak.

Saladin feared that if he showed up, he would be arrested or otherwise removed from his lucrative position in Cairo. So, he told Nur al-Din that there were rumors of Shia plots against him and if he left Cairo, it would fall back into the hands of the ‘heretics.’ While undoubtedly a convenient excuse, Saladin may not have been fabricating these rumors. A plot was uncovered hatched by pro-Fatimid elites, who hoped to drive Saladin and his Kurdish/Turkish troops out of Egypt with the help of the Sicilians and the Franks. The plot was foiled by a traitor in their ranks, and Saladin had the traitors arrested, killed and crucified. Despite this action against the known traitors, Saladin remained sufficiently insecure to dismiss all Jews and Coptic Christians from his bureaucracy.

Yet no matter how real the threats, Nur al-Din didn’t believe they were the reason Saladin consistently failed to obey orders. By early 1174, Nur al-Din’s patience had run out. He prepared an invasion of Egypt to bring Saladin to heel. Saladin, however, was saved yet again by a timely death. Nur al-Din fell mortally ill before he could embark on his campaign and died on 15 May 1174. He left behind a nine-year-old boy, al-Salih, as his heir.

The competition between the various Seljuk princes for control of Nur al-Din’s empire began at once. Saladin was only one of several contenders, and at this point in time he gave no indication of being more moral or more religious than any of the others. Indeed, from this point forward until shortly before his death, Saladin was predominantly preoccupied with fighting his Sunni Muslim rivals. Furthermore, throughout his career, Saladin relied heavily upon nepotism. He consistently appointed family members to positions that controlled fiscal and military resources, an indication of fundamental insecurity. Although he gained control of Damascus bloodlessly and rapidly in October 1174, al-Salih took refuge in Aleppo and remained a rallying point for dissatisfied subjects and emirs. It was 1183 before al-Salih died and Saladin could take Aleppo. Even then, he faced serious opposition from Mosul, which remained in the hands of the Zengid dynasty.

As seen from Jerusalem, however, Saladin was the greatest threat to the Kingdom since its inception. Hostility between Shia Egypt and Sunni Damascus represented a fracture in Dar al-Islam in the Middle East that the Franks had been able to exploit. To have the vast financial resources of Cairo controlled by the same hostile power that held near-by Damascus was inherently threatening. What made the situation even more dangerous was that Saladin continued Nur al-Din’s policy of publicly and ardently expounding jihad.

Whether Saladin pursued jihad from conviction or expediency is controversial. Was jihad only a means to distract his subjects from his usurpation of power and his Kurdish extraction? Christopher Tyreman argues that Saladin was ‘a conquering parvenue with no legitimacy,’ who ‘needed to demonstrate his religious credentials … through overt performance of Koranic models [including] dedication to the culture of jihad.’ He argues that ‘regardless of Saladin’s private beliefs’ his political situation required him to behave like a model Islamic leader.[iv] Other historians go even further, suggesting that the promotion of jihad by Saladin’s regime did not originate with him at all, but was rather the work of his sophisticated bureaucracy, manned by the graduates of Nur al-Din’s madrasas. Contemporary Muslim critics of Saladin such as al-Wahrani depict Saladin’s court in Egypt in 1177 as wanton and rife with drunkenness and homosexuality. Then again, accusations of sexual misconduct, intemperance and hedonism were standard, almost interchangeable charges routinely used to discredit Muslim and Christian rulers alike, particularly by their respective clerical opponents. Last but not least, many have pointed out that if Saladin had died in 1185, that is before the conquest of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, he would be remembered as nothing more than one of countless petty Middle Eastern despots, struggling to establish a dynastic empire by means of bribery, murder, and warfare.

We will never know Saladin’s motives, but without doubt he used the language of jihad to unite and motivate his subjects. Furthermore, in the last fifteen years of his life he sought to live in accordance with Sharia law. There is evidence that Saladin experienced a religious epiphany after an attempt on his life in 1176, and possibly a reaffirmation of his religious convictions in 1185. Like Nur al-Din before him, he built mosques, libraries and madrasas. He gave generously to pious causes and charities. He abolished unlawful taxes, even when this reduced his own revenues. He reformed his personal life to conform with Sunni orthodoxy — and he embraced jihad.

His secretary and biographer, Baha ad-Din, who knew Saladin intimately, claims: ‘Saladin was very diligent and zealous for jihad… [H]is love and passion for it, had taken a mighty hold on his heart and all his being…. In his love for the jihad on the path of God he shunned his womenfolk, his children, his homeland and all his pleasures….’[v]  Baha al-Din claims that Saladin told him directly: ‘…when God grants me victory over the rest of Palestine I shall divide my territories, make a will stating my wishes, then set sail for their far-off lands and pursue the Franks there, so as to free the earth of anyone who does not believe in God, or die in the attempt.’[vi]


[i] Tyre, Book XX, Chapter 31, 394.

[ii] Barber, Malcolm. The Crusader States. [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012] 261.

[iii] Philipps, Jonathan. The Life and Legend of the Sultan Saladin. [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019] 71.

[iv] Tyreman, Christopher. The World of the Crusades: An Illustrated History. [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019] 167.

[v] Baha al-Din Ibn Shaddad. The Rare and Excellent History of Saladin translated by D.S. Richards. [Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002] 28.

[vi] Gabrielli, Francesco. Arab Historians of the Crusades. [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957] 101.

 This entry is an excerpt from Dr. Schrader's comprehensive study of the crusader states.

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is also the author of six books set in the Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades.


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Monday, June 13, 2022

Consolidation and Cooperation with Constantinople

Despite the loss of Edessa, the heartland of the crusader states was remarkably robust and resilient throughout this period.


 Baldwin II, who had no sons, was succeeded at his death in 1131 by his eldest daughter Melisende without controversy. She had married Fulk d’Anjou in 1129, and he was crowned co-regent with her in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The hereditary Count of Anjou, Fulk had taken the cross and served as an associate, temporary member of the Templars in the Holy Land in 1119-1121. After his heir Geoffrey married the daughter and heiress of King Henry I of England, the widowed Fulk abdicated Anjou in favor of his son and agreed to marry Melisende.

Jerusalem experienced and weathered its first serious constitutional crisis when Fulk tried to sideline his wife and co-regent Queen Melisende. The barons of Jerusalem suspected him of wanting to alienate the crown for a younger son from his first marriage and solidly backed Queen Melisende. Likewise, the ecclesiastical lords remained staunchly loyal to the queen. Insinuations of infidelity failed to undermine her position because the rumors were (rightly) dismissed as an attempt by her husband to discredit her.  In the end, a man famed for his ability to bring rebellious vassals to heel was forced to respect his wife’s position of equal power. So much so, that William of Tyre writes: ‘But from that day forward, the king became so uxorious that, whereas he had formerly aroused [his wife’s] wrath, he now calmed it, and not even in unimportant cases did he take any measures without her knowledge and assistance.’ [i]

Furthermore, once a working relationship had been established between the co-monarchs, they worked together as an effective team. A natural division of labor evolved in which King Fulk focused on military and foreign affairs, while Queen Melisende managed the domestic administration of the kingdom. Due to Melisende’s status as ruling monarch (not merely queen-consort), there was no disruption in government when King Fulk died in a hunting accident 10 November 1143. Melisende continued to rule, now jointly-with her son Baldwin III, who was just 13 at the time of his father’s death. Although the kingdom was briefly roiled when in 1152 Baldwin resolved to push his mother aside and take sole control of government, the crisis was rapidly resolved without international or security repercussions. Baldwin III reigned until 1163, when he died childless, and was succeeded by his brother Amalric. Amalric was required to set aside his wife Agnes de Courtenay before the High Court would recognize him as king, but once he complied with this requirement, his succession was seamless and rapid. The kingdom remained stable.  

Throughout this period, from 1131 when Melisende and Fulk were crowned until the death of Amalric in 1174, the Kingdom of Jerusalem enjoyed a period of peace and prosperity characterized by economic growth and development, the expansion of trading ties, the evolution of sophisticated judicial and financial systems, and decisive military superiority. It has been calculated that Muslims attacked twelve times less often during this period than in the first fifteen years of the kingdom’s existence. Furthermore, most major battles were ‘waged on Muslim ground in proximity to centres of Muslim population, and most ended in a decisive victory for the Franks.’[ii] Frankish superiority on the battlefield was so great that for most of this period the Saracens tried to avoid battle altogether. They preferred surprise raids on what we would call ‘soft’ targets. Furthermore, the Frankish army could muster and deploy so rapidly, that if Saracen raids ran into resistance, they broke off the attack before the kingdom’s military force could be brought to bear. Warfare of these period was, therefore, characterized by short raids of limited scope.

The exception to this was the Frankish capture of Ascalon in 1153 after an eight-month siege. This represented a major defeat for the Fatimids, who had invested heavily in holding on to the city. Ascalon was a base for the Egyptian fleet and as soon as it was lost to them, all the Frankish cities to the north became more secure as did merchant shipping in the Eastern Mediterranean. Furthermore, Ascalon had been a base for lightning raids into the interior of the kingdom, reaching as far as Hebron. To protect the surrounding region against these raids, in the early 1140s King Fulk ordered the construction of four major castles: Gaza, Blanchegarde, Bethgibelin, and Ibelin. At the same time (1142) the Baron of Transjordan built on Roman foundations the mighty castle of Kerak southeast of the Dead Sea. These castles, far from being indications of weakness and fear, represented the self-confidence of the Franks. They were bastions for projecting power, not places of refuge.

The growing importance and viability of the Kingdom of Jerusalem was also reflected in a shift in Byzantine foreign policy. Up to this time, Constantinoples’ relations with the crusader states were based on demands for submission to Byzantine suzerainty. While these claims were more formal or nominal in the case of Jerusalem itself, Byzantine efforts to regain control of Antioch were tenacious and largely successful, forcing the Princes of Antioch to recognize the Emperor as their overlord. Then, in 1155, the new Prince of Antioch, Reynald de Châtillon, provoked the just ire of Constantinople by raiding the Byzantine island of Cyprus and engaging in an orgy of savagery including the mutilation of prisoners, extortion, rape, pillage, and destruction. Although Châtillon was condemned by the Latin Church and Baldwin III of Jerusalem, his behavior reinforced existing Byzantine prejudices against the Latin Christians as ‘barbarians.’ Yet his savagery also surprisingly provoked change.

While Emperor Manuel I collected a large army to march against Châtillon, Baldwin III signaled agreement with the need to teach the violent Prince of Antioch a lesson. Châtillon rapidly recognized that he was trapped and friendless. In a dramatic gesture, he Manuel barefoot and bareheaded with a noose around his neck to symbolize his complete surrender to the Byzantine Emperor. After this incident, Manuel concluded that Baldwin III was worth cultivating. What followed were a series of strategic alliances symbolized by royal weddings. Two of Manuel’s nieces married successive Kings of Jerusalem (Theodora married Baldwin III in 1158 and Maria married Amalric I in 1167), and Manuel himself married Maria, the daughter of the Prince of Antioch in 1161.

One can see these marriages as a conscious attempt to civilize and subtly influence policy in Western courts, but Manuel was also willing to ransom prominent crusader lords languishing in Muslim captivity. Ransoming prominent prisoners created ties of gratitude, while also serving as public relations gestures that earned respect and admiration from the public at large. Thus, Manuel ransomed even his archenemy Reynald de Châtillon, as well as Bohemond III of Antioch and paid a king’s ransom (literally) for Baldwin d’Ibelin, the Baron of Ramla and Mirabel. Yet without doubt the most important feature of Manuel’s co-operative policies with the crusader states were a series of joint military operations. These included action against Nur ad-Din in 1158-59, an invasion of Egypt in 1167-68, and a joint siege of Damietta 1169.  

The Frankish-Byzantine invasion of Egypt in 1167-68 was only one in a series of five military interventions in Egypt undertaken by King Amalric between 1163 and his death in 1174. The key characteristics of these operations were their opportunistic and the geopolitical character. Amalric’s interventions in Egypt had nothing whatever to do with ‘crusading.’ Nor were they in any way racist or religious much less genocidal. In all campaigns, Amalric was operating exactly like his Muslim (and Christian) neighbors in seeking geo-political and economic benefits. Ideology, not to mention idealism, was completely lacking.

Since the capture of Ascalon in 1153, the Fatimids had been paying ‘tribute’ to the Kings of Jerusalem, but the Fatimid state was rotting from the inside as two competing viziers, Dirgham and Shawar, intrigued against one another for power. Inevitably, the tribute disappeared into someone’s purse or was used for other purposes providing a pretext for a Frankish invasion in 1163. Amalric’s invasion force came within 35 miles of Cairo before the acting vizier Dirgham, panicked, agreed to an even larger ‘tribute,’ and Amalric withdrew. Unfortunately, the success of this campaign appears to have whet Amalric’s appetite for more. Egypt was fabulously wealthy, and the ruling Shia elite was not particularly popular with the majority Sunni population or the Coptic Christians, who still formed a significant minority. Amalric smelled blood.

Meanwhile, however, Dirgham’s rival Shawar had fled to Damascus and appealed to Nur al-Din for assistance. Nur al-Din sent one of his most reliable emirs, a Kurd by the name of Asad al-Din Shirkuh. Despite initial setbacks, Seljuk-backed Shawar was able to kill Frankish-backed Dirgham, only to discover that his ‘protector’ (Shirkuh) was intent on replacing him.  Shawar immediately turned to the Franks for help. He offered Amalric payments greater than what Dirgham had paid to keep the Franks out, if the Franks would come in to fight his battles for him. In April 1164 Amalric obliged by returning to Egypt with an army. He rapidly put Shirkuh on the defensive, besieging him at Bilbies.  But Nur al-Din countered by attacking Antioch. In the Battle of Artah on 10 August 1164, Nur al-Din decisively defeated a combined Frankish-Byzantine army, taking Bohemond III of Antioch, Raymond III of Tripoli, the Byzantine Dux Coloman, and Hugh VIII de Lusignan captive — effectively decapitating the entire Christian leadership in the northern crusader states. Once again, a catastrophe in the north undermined successes in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Amalric was forced to negotiate a truce in Egypt in order to address the situation in the north. Both the Franks and the Damascenes withdrew from Egypt, restoring the status quo ante.

Three years later, Nur al-Din made a renewed attempt to seize control of Egypt, and Shawar again turned to the Franks. Amalric initially enjoyed astonishing successes, aided by an Egyptian population that blamed the invading Turks/Kurds for their misery. He succeeded in capturing Alexandria, briefly taking Shirkuh’s nephew Salah al-Din — better known in the West as Saladin — captive, but he then accepted terms. The Turks withdrew and the Egyptians agreed to pay an even larger annual tribute (100,000 gold dinars) for Frankish ‘protection.’

Amalric, however, let his three-fold success delude him into thinking more was possible. He appears to have envisaged a powerful kingdom controlling the Nile as well as the Eastern Mediterranean. It was an alluring illusion. The capture of Egypt would have made the Kingdom of Jerusalem a major Mediterranean power — and a majority Muslim state. No King of Jerusalem and Egypt could have retained the mantle of ‘Protector of the Holy Sepulcher,’ and a Christian ruling elite in Egypt would sooner or later have become as unpopular as the Shia Fatimids.

However, Amalric, the Hospitallers, and the Italian city-states were mesmerized by the wealth of Egypt. While Manuel I of Constantinople was probably more realistic, he had little to lose and much to gain if Christian control could be extended. Egypt had, after all, once been a component part of the Eastern Roman Empire. Manuel therefore sent a substantial fleet including impressive horse transports.

In Jerusalem, however, significant opposition to yet another invasion of Egypt surfaced. An attack constituted a violation of the agreement with Shawar, and the Templars warned King Amalric not to make the mistake of the Second Crusade: attacking an ally and creating a new enemy. The Templars refused to take part in the invasion of 1168. William of Tyre likewise expressed the views of other clerics that warned a violation of the treaty with Shawar would displease God. The militants triumphed and the invasion went ahead.

Again, the Franks met with initial successes, taking Bilbais in three days and engaging in an orgy of plunder and murder without discriminating between Muslims or Coptic Christians; this atrocity turned the Copts against the Franks for years to come. Meanwhile, betrayed by his former friends the Franks, Shawar turned to his old enemy Nur al-Din. Meanwhile, the Franks advanced on Cairo. Shawar set fire to the old city to stop the Frankish advance, and then started bribing Amalric again. By then, however, Shirkuh had arrived with his Kurdish/Turkish Sunni army. This now threatened Amalric’s rear. The Franks chose to withdraw — all the way to Jerusalem. The Byzantine fleet likewise headed for home, only to run into storms which destroyed much of it. The campaign had become a fiasco.

Yet far more fateful, this blatant violation of international law triggered a regime change in Cairo. Shirkuh had rescued Shawar from the Franks, but Shawar had no credibility left.  Within days of his arrival, the Kurdish emir had the Egyptian vizier murdered. The Sunni Shirkuh made himself vizier of Shia Egypt. Two months later, Shirkuh too was dead, apparently of over-eating. His successor was his nephew Saladin, and the Kingdom of Jerusalem would never be the same again.

[i] William of Tyre. A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea, translated by Emily Atwater Babcock and A. C. Krey [New York: Octagon Books, 1976] Book XIV, Chapter 18, 76.

[ii] Ellenblum, 164.


This entry is an excerpt from Dr. Schrader's comprehensive study of the crusader states.


Dr. Helena P. Schrader is also the author of six books set in the Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades.


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