Salah al-Din Yusuf (AD1137-1193) has gone down in medieval history as the most famous Saracen (a general name for Turks and Arabs). His impact, however, was limited to the Third Crusade. In Europe he was known as Saladin. Of Kurdish birth, he was a skilled general who became ruler of Egypt and Syria. He was considered wise and even admired by some Christian knights for his chivalrous behaviour. He would reconquer the Holy Land for the Muslims, but conclude a treaty that allowed Christian pilgrims to visit there without being persecuted.

Leaders of the Third Crusade

Saladin united and led the Islamic world to victory in Jerusalem after 88 years of Crusader rule. He recaptured Jerusalem in AD1187, after defeating the Christians at the Battle of Hattin. When his soldiers entered the city of Jerusalem they were not allowed to rob or kill civilians, or damage the city, as Saladin thought it went against his Islamic principles. The more successful Saladin was, the more the Muslims saw him as being their natural leader.

The success of Saladin had stunned the Christians of Europe. The Crusader army had been largely annihilated by the motivated army of Saladin in what was a major disaster for the Crusaders and a turning point in the history of the Crusades. Pope Gregory VIII ordered another crusade to regain the Holy City for the Christians. This was the Third Crusade (AD1189-1192), led by King Richard I (Richard the Lionheart) of England, Emperor Frederick Barbarossa of Germany and King Philip II of France. Refer Image 1

Saladin and Richard

The most decisive conflicts in the Third Crusade were the ones fought between Saladin and Richard the Lionheart. Emperor Frederick had drowned on his march across Europe, and King Philip II had returned to France after a successful siege on Acre, an important port near Jerusalem which would allow the Christians to easily land their ships. Richard had been left alone to continue the war. During the occupation of Acre, the Christians captured and massacred 2000 Muslim soldiers, for whom Saladin had agreed to pay a ransom but was prevented by a breakdown in the process of payment.

Richard was determined to take back Jerusalem from Saladin. He marched his troops mostly along coasts to allow ships to supply them, but the journey was difficult. In AD1191, they met in battle with the Muslims at Arsur. Richard won the battle, but delayed his attack on Jerusalem due to the exhaustion of his troops. In AD1192, Richard finally marched on Jerusalem, but he himself was so exhausted that he asked his enemy, Saladin, for fresh water and supplies. A strict Muslim, Saladin agreed to this request, believing he was required to help even an enemy in need. Saladin even offered the services of his personal physician, a significant gesture given that Islamic medicine was considered to be advanced compared with Europe's at the time. This, however, allowed Saladin's men to spy on Richard's forces and report back on the number of soldiers gathered.

It was found that only about 2000 soldiers and 50 knights remained of Richard's forces, a number which was considered insuficient to take back Jerusalem. Richard, therefore, sought a truce with Saladin. In AD1192, the Treaty of Ramla was signed, leaving Jerusalem in Muslim control, but allowing Christian pilgrims to again visit without being persecuted. Neither side was enthusiastic about the truce. They were, however, both utterly exhausted, and in AD1192, Richard sailed for Europe never to return to the Holy Land. Not long after Richard's departure, Saladin died in AD1193 at Damascus. His tomb, located in the Umayyad mosque, has become a major destination for tourists in that region of the world. Refer Image 2

Saladin's legacy

Saladin's relationship with Richard had been one of chivalrous mutual respect as well as military rivalry. Both, in fact, had been celebrated in the courtly romances that developed in Europe, and in an epic poem written in the 14th century about Saladin. Saladin was portrayed as virtuous because of the amnesty and free passage that he gave to the defeated Christians despite the previous violence of the Crusades. Richard had even praised Saladin as being the greatest and most powerful leader in the Islamic world, and Saladin in turn stated that there was no more honourable Christian lord than Richard. After the treaty, the two continued to send each other gifts as tokens of respect. Muslim rulers sought to capitalise on the reputation of Saladin by naming a governorate in modern Iraq after him, Salah ad Din.