Richard the Lion-Heart in the Holy Land, 1191-2

The weakness of the Crusades was always that its armies did not represent any immigration wave that actually wanted to come live in Palestine or Syria. Turkish migration was real, so its pressure on Anatolia and Syria never let up for long. But Europeans rarely wanted to leave Europe; they came with an eye on fame and fortune and there were always ties drawing them back. So it was with the Third Crusade, even more than with the First and Second ones.

The French king went home as soon as Acre had surrendered, but this set up problems for King Richard. The two kings had agreed both to go on Crusade because that way neither would invade behind the other’s back. It wasn’t long after Philip arrived in Paris that Richard began to receive reports that the French king and his younger brother John were plotting against him. His next year as the highest-ranking Crusader must be seen with this fear always in the background, pressuring him to go home.

Richard seems to have had a very good head for military operations, not just for single combats or tournaments. It was this skill that kept the Third Crusade going at all. Having captured Acre, the Crusaders needed to move on to a new target, probably Jerusalem. But before they could approach Jerusalem, they would need to go many miles south along the coast. Saladin’s forces had systematically demolished all fortresses along that route, as well as all of the forts on the inland road from Jaffa to Jerusalem. His army also intended to attack Crusaders on the march. Even a short trip under these conditions was terribly hazardous.

Richard’s plan was to combine his two strengths into one unusual travel itinerary. He had a large force of fighting men (many French knights stayed on after their king went home), and he had a large navy. The navy was not large enough to move the army in one quick (safe) trip, but it was large enough to carry most of their provisions. The army began to march as close to the coast as physically possible, sometimes along beaches. The navy moved reserve forces, supplies, and support staff within sight of the army, with planned stops every few days to resupply the marchers. Wounded or sick men were transferred to ships at those points, while others could catch up and join them.

Richard then marched with a steady pace that never wore his army out, stopping at good camping places. It was traditional military strategy to move very fast in a situation like this, and Saladin had prepared his own supply train for a rapid campaign. Saladin was also up against some time limits, as he still had not really unified support behind his leadership in Syria. The slower Richard’s pace, the more likely that some of Saladin’s Syrians would desert. They fought many skirmishes and one major pitched battle near Haifa, but ultimately, the Crusaders were too many and too well-supplied to be stopped.

Richard’s army finally occupied the torn-down Jaffa, no longer a fortress, and the Crusaders generally set about rebuilding all of the walled towns and forts in the region. It took many months to achieve this goal, but gradually they had a defensible strip between Jaffa and Tyre. In this way, the Kingdom of Jerusalem could technically claim that it still existed.

But who was its King? In the early days of Acre’s capture, a council of the European kings had chosen Conrad Lord of Tyre, who was now married to little Isabella, as king. Guy of Lusignan bought Cyprus from the Templars, who had bought it from Richard, and set up lordship there. Conrad’s life was very short, as it turned out. Assassins killed him in an alley; they were probably Nizaris who were now taking the Latins seriously and also loosely working with Saladin. The European leaders met again and selected the Count of Champagne, who was a widower, to marry Isabella this time. Isabella was actually pregnant with Conrad’s baby, so it was all kind of weird even for the Crusaders.

Ultimately (spoiler alert) the kingdom never really got back on its feet as such. Isabella’s baby was a girl named Maria, starting off a chain of young female heiresses who were married off as young as possible to try to produce a new heir, until finally they blended into an existing European royal house that had bigger fish to fry. It’s not really worth keeping track of them from this point on, although Europe did continue to call them royalty and keep things going.

Now the Crusaders had a serious problem: their forces were energized for one task alone: to recapture Jerusalem. And yet Richard was absolutely certain that they could never succeed. He argued that with the difficulty of re-supply over the land route, the easy availability of military observations to Saladin, and the generally difficult terrain of the city, it was nothing but a futile, expensive suicide mission. Instead, Richard believed they must march south to take Ascalon and then continue attacking northern Egyptian cities, as the Baldwins had been doing. He did lead them to Ascalon, where they rebuilt the walls.

The Crusade hit a leadership crisis then. It was Richard’s to lead; his march to Jaffa had been highly praised, and his personal courage was renowned all over the region. But he kept thinking perhaps he should go home, so he did not argue stridently in favor of assaulting Egypt. Other leaders moved to head to Jerusalem, twice. Both times, they turned back. The last feint at Jerusalem that suddenly turned back really just ended the Crusade.

What we know now shows just how important spy intelligence always is. That is, Saladin was on the point of abandoning the defense of Jerusalem to fall back to some surer stronghold like Damascus. Had the Crusaders kept marching, they would never have quit talking about the miracle of arriving in Jerusalem to find its troops gone and its gates barely defended. But in spite of their just having captured a baggage caravan from Egypt, Richard finally stopped halfway to Jerusalem and headed back to Ascalon. Perhaps the baggage capture was part of his reason: it had contained not only wheat but gold and silk, and this loot would fund a dignified exit and perhaps some profit.

Richard and Saladin both became very sick at the end of this campaign. Richard’s illness was acute and made him hardly able to settle truce terms with Saladin. Perhaps that’s why his terms were so easy. They gave back the newly rebuilt Ascalon! In the end, the only gain of the Third Crusade was that the Latins held a few coastal cities from Tyre to Jaffa, and pilgrims were permitted to see Jerusalem for a fee. Saladin’s illness came on more seriously as weeks passed, so that he died in Damascus the following year. Richard recovered and headed to Europe—-where, famously, he was arrested by the Germans and held prisoner for a hefty ransom.

Richard remained popular in English eyes because he did gain fame as a knight and war leader, which they valued. But his reign cost England very badly, between his military taxation and the raising of his ransom. The drains this dashing king put on his nation were part of the background of the Magna Carta that barons forced his brother to sign. Special taxes were limited to two occasions: the marriage of one daughter, the knighting of one son. They didn’t say “and no Crusades,” but it looks that way to me.

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The Siege of Acre, 1188-91

The Crusader royal line had now devolved into a weak, chaotic state from which it never recovered. The leper king left two sisters, with the direction that European kings should decide between them. Although Jerusalem could no longer actually be ruled by either one, the European lords still all coveted the title. The “kingdom” of Jerusalem could go on.

Saladin granted Sibylla’s request to free her husband Guy of Lusignan. Guy and Sibylla sought refuge in Tyre, but Conrad refused to let them in. They literally camped outside the walls as they could, until an epidemic wiped out Sibylla and her daughters. Guy still claimed to be the King, but the faction against him forced young Isabella to divorce her husband and marry Conrad, the lord who now ruled Tyre. Conrad could now claim the same right to be king!

Guy had already begun a siege of the port of Acre, using all of the refugee forces available. The King of Sicily had sent ships, and so did the Archbishop of Pisa. Other forces arrived, so that during 1189, knights from Flanders, France, Germany, Italy and even Armenia took part. Saladin’s army had tried to lift the siege, leading to a complicated battle in which first one side, then the other, had the upper hand. At one critical point, Frankish knights charged up the hill to where Saladin’s field camp stood. Slaves in the Muslim camp began doing their own looting and escaping, while the Frankish knights also got distracted and joined in. Muslim soldiers chased the slaves, German knights chased an escaping horse, and chaos reigned. In the end, the besieging army hung on, not exactly by winning, but by not budging from their trenches.

Saladin’s army completely encircled them on land, although he could not dislodge them. Reinforcements came from Mosul and Baghdad. But every month, a new contingent of eager Crusaders arrived. Every month, too, many of them died from tropical diseases to which they had little immunity. The two sides were built up at almost an even rate, each army growing to match the other.

Muslim records say that at one point, a fleet of Frankish prostitutes landed and set up camp on the beach. The Muslim historians laughed, but not only did their own men sometimes slip away to visit the French girls, those same girls became part of a beach-based, knife-wielding shore patrol. Muslim frogmen trying to take messages into the harbor of Acre had one more hazard.

The siege of Acre, lasting so long and involving so many men from all over Europe, served as a military training school. Both sides had similar technology, such as Greek fire, and both sides could use mechanical engines like catapults. Both sides had fleets of ships to support them. The advantage was now with one side, now with the other. Inside Acre, a craftsman from Damascus invented a variant of Greek fire, a new chemical formula, and burnt down the first round of Crusader siege engines. On the sea, the Europeans gained the advantage in a ferocious sea battle, allowing them to restrict food ships from arriving in Acre. Saladin snuck a few ships in with a plan of the sailors shaving their beards and dressing like Franks, flying Cross flags, and letting pigs run around on deck! (It worked.) On land, the Europeans dug trenches and heaped up earthworks so that in the next pitched field battle, they could resist a tremendous assault.

If the Europeans had been primitive by comparison with the “developed world” of the Near East during the First Crusade, their engineers and leading knights now had learned all the tricks. (And all of these devilish ways of slaughtering other human beings came straight back to bolster the dynastic wars of Europe.) The siege of Acre was a turning point in European military history.

King Philip of France arrived and his men began to build more siege engines. Then King Richard came from Cyprus with Guy, who had rushed to join him on the nearby island. Richard supported Guy’s right to be king, while Philip supported Conrad’s. The Crusader leadership was more divided than ever.

But meanwhile, the siege went on. Diseases continued to ravage both sides, but especially in the Frankish trenches. Among them, King Richard fell ill with something like scurvy and could only lead the troops from a litter. The mood on both sides grew more desperate and vicious. Corpses were used to fill moats and trenches; more corpses were used to pollute the rivers. More and more siege engines were built, and they included engineering advances. They could throw larger stones longer distances, because they had more leverage and speed. Large stones rained on Acre mercilessly. Towers and walls grew weak, mined from below and smashed from above. There was vicious hand to hand fighting at every point where the walls had begun to fall. It went on, day after day.

At length, the starving city sent word to Saladin that it was ready to negotiate terms of surrender. Surrender was accepted by the Franks, with provisional terms including the return of the True Cross relic. The fighting ended; Saladin’s army moved back a quarter mile. Christian forces occupied the city, and the Muslim garrison became hostages to the negotiation process.

Meanwhile, a disastrous thing happened: the King of France and Duke of Austria both went home, leaving Richard to handle it all. Both had very pressing matters in their kingdoms that they really had to attend. Richard was the supreme commander now, the highest ranking ruler.

Saladin began collecting the ransom money for Acre’s Muslim garrison prisoners, and the terms were negotiated back and forth. A first payment was made, and some Christian prisoners released, when suddenly Richard rejected the terms of the negotiation and asked for a complete list of prisoner names. Saladin didn’t produce a list immediately, and Richard decided that he was stalling for time, hoping a reinforcing army would arrive to restart the battles. This may have been true, but it was not in keeping with Saladin’s personal history for handling terms. It was, however, in keeping with Richard’s personal history for impatience.

King Richard held a mass execution of all Muslim prisoners, the whole garrison. European records state that there were about 2600 men executed. He even marched them up to the same hill where Saladin’s camp had once been pitched. The negotiation was over; there was nothing left to talk about, except for everyone in the region to marvel at the savagery of the English king. His execution order became the most famous event of Richard’s life. And Saladin executed all Christian prisoners in retaliation.

 

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Richard the Lion-Heart sets out, 1188-91

If we had to choose one person to stand for the Third Crusade, without question it is Queen Eleanor’s third son Richard. There isn’t really much to tell, apart from his story.

Richard was 32 when his father suddenly died. He had been collecting titles from his brothers and mother in the previous years: Duke of Normandy, Count of Poitiers, Count of Anjou, Duke of Aquitaine. He had been an active knight and war leader since he was 16, too. (Some of that “war leading” was part of his brothers’ rebellion against their father.) He was really not prepared to step into the task his father had cherished: governing and reforming England’s laws. But he was very much prepared for taking on his father’s last task: taking the Cross to go and save Jerusalem.

Richard stopped in London long enough to be crowned and to shake down the kingdom thoroughly. In addition to rounds of special taxation, he looked for creative funding methods, like selling the King of Scotland freedom from his oath of allegiance. He sold many important government positions, including the Chancellorship (the highest office!). He’s known for declaring that he would have sold London itself, had there been a buyer.

The atmosphere of feverishly hustling up all the gold he could get contributed to the first tragic event of his reign. Everyone wanted the new king’s favor, and he wanted money, so some leaders of Jewish communities came to London to present gifts. They were stripped and flogged, and rumor flew that the king had ordered a massacre of the wicked killers of Christ. Mobs attacked Jewish businesses and homes around London, then later in other cities. The following year, Jews in York took refuge in the city’s tower, but knights headed out on Crusade stormed the tower and massacred them all.

It seems that what Richard got right about kingship was the great principle of not actually doing it. He appointed regents in England and Normandy, and then he left, never to return to England. Folk legend gave him virtues he did not have, since they knew so little about him. Might he have been the best king ever? Sure, as long as it was an open question. It’s very unlikely that actual adventures of Robin Hood took place during his Crusade years, as later legends stated. It’s even less likely that, had he returned to govern, he would have set all to right. During these years, the barons were starting a long, ferocious power struggle against the king, which led to the creation of Parliament. Richard would have followed the same course of favoritism, robbery, and arrogance that the other kings did.

Richard and King Philip II of France went on Crusade together as a way of keeping the peace; each feared that the other would invade his territory. They went first to Sicily, where Richard’s sister Joan had married the Norman king. But Joan’s husband had died while Richard prepared his Crusade army, and a nephew had taken the throne. Richard sacked the city of Messina and negotiated a generous pension for Joan.

In these negotiations, he also rather carelessly made other provisions. He promised that his successor would be his brother Henry’s newborn son, and that this boy would marry a Sicilian princess. Then he sent Joan to collect a bride from the small kingdom of Navarre, while he had not yet formally ended his own betrothal to a French princess. Philip and Richard were barely on speaking terms by the time they left the island. Richard’s time in Sicily has the feel of a bull’s teatime in a china shop. He just did things without looking too far ahead.

Joan brought Richard’s chosen bride, Berengaria, to Cyprus. They actually had intended to meet Richard in the Holy Land (where he’d quickly conquer), but terrible storms had shipwrecked them. Cyprus was Byzantine territory. Joan, Berengaria, many other people, and all their gold were now Byzantine captives.

Richard arrived in Cyprus and started to work his magic. First, he sacked the town of Limassol. When Guy of Lusignan (now set free by Saladin) and other Crusade leaders arrived, together they just defeated all other Byzantine forces and seized Cyprus. Richard offered the Byzantine governor surrender terms of “I will not put you in irons,” so he surrendered—–and was locked up in *silver* chains.

Oddly, this governor was the older brother of the now-deceased Emperor Manuel Komnenos. He’d been passed over for the throne, but by 1190, he was living this independent life on Cyprus. He was known as a violent, unjust man, so I guess his father had been right in passing him over. Nobody on Cyprus was sorry to see him go. He became a prisoner of the Hospital Knights until years later when Richard himself was a prisoner being freed, and those terms included “oh yeah, let’s not forget Isaac back in Tripoli. He can go now.”

Richard married Berengaria with a lavish feast on Cyprus, and he crowned themselves King and Queen of Cyprus. Later, he sold the island to the Templars. If only they had been in the market to buy London…! And if only succeeding at life was just all about lavish feasts…he’d have been a great husband, had the story ended right there.

 

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Ahoy the Third Crusade! 1189-1190

They say the current Pope died of a stroke when he heard about the loss of Jerusalem and the True Cross relic. The new Pope Gregory VIII of course began his tenure by proclaiming a new Crusade. Loss of the Holy City had been punishment for their sins; Hebrew prophets like Jeremiah could be borrowed for sermons on repentance. Christendom must repent of their luxurious, worldly ways and give an extra tithe to raise a new army.

In Constantinople, the dynasty of the Komnenoi had been overthrown by members of its extended family. The Emperor was now Isaac Angelos, and the plain fact was that Isaac did not want a new Crusade. He wanted to stabilize the local status quo, push back the Seljuk Turks on his eastern side, and accept Saladin. It was hard enough to maintain his own power against palace coups and revolts. He married his sister to a Norman knight to gain European alliances, and that knight (Conrad of Montferrat) then became the guy who took over Tyre in its hour of chaos! So his brother in law ruled Tyre (and by extension, Tripoli), and Greek rites were back in Jerusalem’s churches. Things were pretty good for the Byzantine Empire.

The aging Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick I Barbarossa, set out pretty quickly on his own Crusade. Emperor Isaac actually sought an alliance with Saladin, terrified that a new wave of Latin trouble was coming. The German army arrived on Byzantine territory and asked permission to cross, but the Emperor tried to block them. The Germans occupied a Greek city and defeated the Byzantine army sent to remove them. So that’s about how the Third Crusade started out, as to cooperation. It worked out badly for Emperor Isaac, too; his power dwindled until finally a coup removed and blinded him.

The Germans didn’t get far. In June 1190, the Holy Roman Emperor’s horse slipped on a rock while crossing a river in Turkey. He died, and here we get those horrible royal burial details again. His son had the flesh boiled off his bones, so that the bones could go on with them to the Holy Land, fulfilling his oath. With difficulty, the remaining Germans brought the bones to Tyre, where cousin Conrad helped bury them in Acre.

Meanwhile, the really spectacular part of the Third Crusade was still ramping up, back in England and France. Henry II thought he’d join and started taxing England for the Crusade, but he died. That left Richard being crowned midway through the taxing process, inheriting the mission. Richard was all too happy to leave London as soon as possible and head out on a war adventure. He had been working on overthrowing his father with France’s help; now he joined the Crusade with his dear friend, the French King Philip II.

 

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Saladin takes Jerusalem, 1187

Saladin’s siege of Jerusalem was almost an anti-climax to the Battle of Hattin. He had already made a post-battle sweep of the region, seizing Nablus (where the Dowager Queen had been living), Ascalon, Acre, Jaffa, Sidon, and Beirut.

In most of these port towns, terms of surrender were accepted. Once it became known that Saladin kept his terms, more towns surrendered. Christians who did not want to live under “dhimmi” terms, paying the special tax, were allowed to leave. The roads were full of refugees trudging toward Tripoli, if it could take them all in.

The only city that did not fall to Saladin in this sweep was Tyre, which remained the sole Crusader foothold by the end of 1187. That’s where all of the battle survivors fled, and a freshly-arriving Norman lord took control. Saladin might have assaulted Tyre, but he chose to go for easy, fast momentum and keep his eye on Jerusalem.

In late September, Saladin camped outside Jerusalem. The city’s commander was the Dowager Queen Mother’s second husband, if you can follow that. Sure, he was a Norman nobleman, but you can see how the chain of command had been disrupted by the losses at Hattin. With most of the monastic knights captured and executed, and most other cities taken, he had few choices. After holding out for a few weeks, he surrendered the gate key to Saladin.

Saladin’s siege had collapsed some outer wall portions, but for a siege, the damage had been light. His original terms of surrender had been generous, but after he was put to the trouble of a siege (with many casualties and much cost), he demanded it unconditionally. Count Balian, the commander who negotiated with him at the wall, told him that in the case of unconditional surrender, the city’s inhabitants would begin a program of destruction. Al-Aqsa Mosque and all Muslim slaves would be the first to go, then they would destroy treasures and other holy sites, and then they would start to kill their own families. This may have been an exaggeration, but perhaps not by much. Balian had been willing to give up weeks ago, but the city had refused to go without a defense, saying they preferred death. Saladin certainly took Balian at his word, and they started to negotiate.

In the end, each family was assessed for a self-ransom to be permitted to leave, and the king’s treasury would pay a reduced sum for the poor. In the administration of the surrender, Saladin’s orders tended to be generous (and, his records say, actually checking the purchased ransom of every individual turned into a fiasco). Women got the benefit of the doubt, as did native Christian Syrians. Some Frankish Christians snuck away in the night over the wall, or dressed as Muslims to saunter out without paying. Thousands of the poor who could not pay were rounded up for slavery, then some freed. Muslim slaves were freed, and the cross atop Al-Aqsa came down. Priests were allowed to carry away their relics and church treasures, permitting a very large sum to slip out of Saladin’s grasp.

Saladin’s attitude to Jerusalem was definitely special and religious. He was very aware of the symbolism of its capture, and he wanted to recreate it for the glory of Islam. Although he had been pragmatic in his alliances many times, he was gradually becoming more motivated in war to defend the faith. Around this time, they began to refer to the holy war against invading Christians as Jihad. As bad as that word’s connotation is to us, in this case it meant that Saladin gave the holy city more generosity.

The refugees left Jerusalem in long, columns, heading toward Tyre. But they had a rough time. Fighting men were welcomed to Tyre and Tripoli, but really nobody wanted the ransomed poor. Antioch didn’t want them. They drifted from city to city, some settling in Armenia, some going all the way to Alexandria. Histories say that Italian ships were reluctantly willing to carry them to Europe, where perhaps some found their way back to Sicily or even Normandy.

Saladin began remodeling the city. He decided to keep the Church of the Holy Sepulchre open, but pilgrims from Europe would be paying a fee now. On the other hand, Coptic Christians who had been kept out of the city were now completely welcome since Saladin was their own Sultan. Al-Aqsa was turned back into a mosque, with the Templars’ horse mess swept out and carpets lining the floor. Saladin invited local Muslims and Jews to return to populate the city, too. As a final touch, the Byzantine Emperor asked to have all the Latin churches converted back to Greek rites.

By the end of 1187, when Saladin had circled back to mop up the remaining castles, it seemed like the last 87 years had been rolled back. Muezzins called faithful Syrians from Al-Aqsa’s minaret, Jews from Ascalon repopulated the bazaars, and Greek priests and monks filed quietly through the alleys to their services. The crack that had opened, the vulnerability caused by Turkish invasion and disunity, had been closed. And so it seemed, for about forty years. That’s a blink of the eye to us, but it was long enough for the old folks to die and children to grow up. Long enough for Saladin’s city to become the new normal.

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The Jerusalem Family and Saladin, 1177-1187

The rulers of the Crusader kingdoms are difficult to track through this period without careful focus, although they helped by reliably naming the heir of Tripoli “Raymond,” of Antioch “Bohemund,” and of Jerusalem “Baldwin.” Lifespans were short, due not only to battle dangers, but also to diseases like malaria that were rampant in the Near East. The women who survived disease and childbirth were married to two and three men, since they also carried inheritance rights that needed to be protected. Few of the girls married by choice; husbands were imported from Europe, bringing fresh strength, money, and feudal ties to powerful kings.

In 1177, the current King Baldwin was a teenager with leprosy. He had been trained as a knight, so he had fighting skills as long as he could fend off the progressive crippling symptoms. He fought left-handed, guiding his horse with only his knees, since his right arm had become crippled first. Doomed to die painfully in any case, he was a bold fighter who tried to challenge Saladin’s gradual encirclement of his kingdom. In his most notable battle of November 1177, he was trapped with some Templars in Ascalon while Saladin’s army raided southern Palestine. Then he decided to sally out and attack; it was such an unexpected move that Saladin’s army, reduced by sending out raiding parties, could not regroup when they were suddenly attacked while crossing a river. Both Baldwin and Saladin survived, but Saladin recalled it as his most frightening defeat.

Baldwin had a sister Sibylla and a much younger half-sister Isabella (whose grandfather was the Byzantine Emperor). Both girls were fated to be married as young as possible, since it was unclear if Baldwin would live long, and leprosy made him infertile.

In 1177, Sibylla was a teenage pregnant widow. Luckily she at least had a boy (named Baldwin), but now they had to start over. Everyone argued about what to do with her next. They wanted another wealthy European knight, like the first one (cousin to King of France), but matches kept falling through, probably sabotaged by political factions. Finally, young Baldwin chose the newly-arrived brother of his Constable. He was not as high-ranking as they’d have liked, but was vassal to the King of England and a skilled knight. So Guy of Lusignan entered the family in 1180. Guy and Sibylla had two daughters, but so far, little Baldwin V looked healthy.

Baldwin the Leper King came to detest Guy of Lusignan. He realized that they had brought into the family a wily schemer, but the schemer stayed one step ahead of Baldwin. As Regent for Baldwin when he had become blind, Guy permitted things Baldwin opposed, for example…and not a minor example…Guy allowed a powerful knight named Raynald de Chatillon to rob Arab caravans traveling through Outrejourdain (basically, the “West Bank”). The Jerusalem kingdom received a fair amount of tax money through its castles that guarded the caravan routes, but Guy and his friend double-dipped by also robbing those they should have guarded. Jerusalem had a truce with Saladin at the time, but Raynald claimed it didn’t apply to him.

The Leper King, now blind and clearly dying, had his nephew Baldwin V crowned, with Raymond of Tripoli appointed as regent. He wanted to bar Guy from making Sibylla the Queen, so he stipulated that only the European kings could choose which of his sisters should inherit in the event of the little boy’s death. Then he died. Sadly, the little boy died the following year, the last Baldwin. Of course, faced with uncertainty, the High Council recognized Sibylla as Queen, and she immediately crowned her husband as King Guy. Little sister Isabella had been married off to a local lord, but he too swore allegiance to Sibylla and Guy.

The Muslim caravan owners complained to Saladin, Sultan of Egypt and Emir of Damascus, about the robberies committed by Crusader knights. They had put in a claim for compensation from Jerusalem (due to the truce), but Raynald and Guy refused it. Some legends say that Saladin’s sister had been traveling with the caravans and was also injured. Up to now, Saladin had had his own battles with Baldwin’s knights, winning some and losing some, but always turning back to his Muslim rivals. Now with his sights set on winning the Caliph’s approval, Saladin turned his full energies to the Holy Land.

The Countess of Tripoli was at Tiberias, by the Sea of Galilee, when Saladin’s forces besieged it. The Count of Tripoli had a truce with Saladin (almost an alliance, so much did he hate King Guy), but reluctantly, he broke this off and sided with the other Crusaders. Once again, the united knights of Tripoli, Antioch and Jerusalem, with the Hospitallers and Templars, acted as a single Crusader army. They rode to Tiberias with the largest army they could muster, to meet Saladin’s force.

The Battle of Hattin, near Tiberias, was a complete disaster. The Christians lost the battle worse than they ever imagined. Saladin’s army even captured the relic of the True Cross! Both King Guy and little Isabella’s husband were captured, as was the scoundrel Raynald who had started the trouble. A small group of lords, including the Count of Tripoli, had escaped from the battle by making a charge at some Arab forces who just moved aside to let them pass.

Saladin executed Raynald but spared Guy and the other nobles, taking them to Damascus to await ransom. However, he had a mass execution of the captured (and locally hated) Hospitaller and Templar knights, and he sold into slavery the lower-ranking knights who would not bring in a good ransom. Saladin could now mop up the remaining Crusader fortresses and towns left essentially undefended.

 

 

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Saladin builds an empire, 1171-1187

 

When Saladin became Vizier of Egypt, he was technically the agent of at least two higher powers. One was Nur ad-Din, the ruler of Aleppo, Mosul and Damascus; the other was, of course, the Sunni Caliph in Baghdad, who wasn’t very powerful by now. It didn’t take long for Saladin to make Nur ad-Din pretty concerned about his independence. Once you’re effectively the Sultan of Egypt, why should you be at the beck and call of some Emir of Mosul? right?

So Nur ad-Din would command, Saladin would sorta cooperate. Saladin sent him gifts from the conquests, and he joined in one military operation—almost. It looked like there would be a showdown between the ad-Dins; the Crusaders would have loved making popcorn and working out where to fit their interests in. But then suddenly Nur ad-Din died, and he left a child heir. Now what?

Nur ad-Din’s father Zengi had appointed various relatives to ruling posts all over Syria and Iraq, and they were all still working together. It was in their family interests to support the little boy, al-Salih. Saladin needed their cooperation unless he planned to just outright conquer their cities, so at first, he sent condolences and support for al-Salih. But he didn’t *do* anything supportive. He was busy in Egypt…

First, Saladin had to build up his own family ruling network. Nobody could make it for long without a sort of mafia like this. Saladin had (at least) four brothers who were all capable generals: Turanshah, Tuktegin, Ahmed and Taj Buri. Turanshah immediately became Saladin’s right hand, fighting an invading force of Nubians while Saladin tried to shore up loyalty in Cairo.

Turanshah took an Egyptian army to Yemen in 1174. He conquered its key port city of Aden and became the Emir of Yemen. That was the first in a string of Emirships for Turanshah, who was also the Governor of Upper (Southern) Egypt and had received tribute from Nubia. Brother Ahmed became known as al-Adil and was Saladin’s substitute ruler in Cairo when he had to leave. Eventually, he became Sultan himself (but that’s some years off). When Saladin eventually fought Crusaders, al-Adil handled many of the field operations and negotiations. The other brothers were field commanders, and Saladin’s sons began to get old enough to join them.

Saladin put a lot of energy into Egypt. His political infrastructure included a theological school for Malikis, the type of Sunni theology now dominant in Africa. This was smart, as it surely opened up embassy ties for previously isolated Shi’ite Egypt.

But that troublesome question of Syria, and the child heir, still persisted…was Saladin the boy’s subordinate, or was his power base grown to where Saladin should be master of Syria too?

Saladin had a propaganda problem in conquering Syria. Technically, there was a Caliph in Baghdad whose name featured in Friday prayers, and Nur ad-Din’s child should have been Saladin’s feudal lord as well. Saladin could only take power legally if he was preventing anarchy, if he was each time arriving in a Muslim city at the “request” of its ruler or to rescue it from revolt or Crusader attack. Feigning Crusader attack, he conquered Homs; then Nur ad-Din’s remaining relatives rose up against him, and in clean battle he conquered most of Syria’s cities. The remaining cities negotiated to recognize him as King (Arabic Malik) of Syria. He even married Nur ad-Din’s widow.

During the Syrian campaign, Saladin survived several ferocious Assassin attacks. In each case, his guards and Saladin himself were just quick enough to get out of the way of the knives. In the second instance, Saladin did end up lightly wounded and very shaken by how close a call it was.

With the Malik of Syria deal made, he turned his army to besiege the nearest Nizari fortress in the Syrian mountains. The strongest Nizari fortress was Alamut in Persia, but this Syrian one was its local equivalent. Its ruler became known in the 3rd Crusade as “the Old Man of the Mountain.” Crusaders were astonished at his guards’ fanatic devotion, sacrificing their lives for nothing at his whim and without hesitation. It proved impossible to conquer this fortress, as previous besiegers could have told Saladin.

There are different legends of what happened. One says the Old Man himself snuck into Saladin’s tent, leaving behind a threatening note. Another says an Assassin messenger spoke to Saladin with only two bodyguards present, and shocked the king by proving that those trusted bodyguards were actually loyal Assassins! The Nizari message was clear: we can get you whenever we choose.

But the Old Man of the Mountain and Saladin reached an understanding such that Assassin attacks on him stopped, and his forces withdrew. This neutralized or even harnessed the most powerful force for chaos in the region. Later, Saladin gained the cooperation of the other breakaway fortress group in Syria, the Druze. Apparently, the Knights Templar and Hospitaller had been so harsh in their actions against local people that these radical, solitary groups felt it was better to join the reigning Sunni power when it had a chance at driving the Crusaders into the sea.

Saladin’s growing power was a direct threat to the Crusader kingdoms. The Crusaders had only achieved limited success in a time when Baghdad, the Turks to the north, and the Fatimids to the south were not united. Now surely Saladin would force them out unless they could move to limit his power. They tried; Amalric’s son Baldwin IV defended Ascalon and attacked Damascus, but while the Crusaders were still too strong to be driven out, Saladin was too strong for them to win. In 1179 the Crusaders built a fortress by the Jordan River, but Saladin fought a tough battle against the Templar knights to capture it. In 1180, both sides backed off from open war and concluded a truce.

A truce with the Crusaders allowed Saladin to build up his Cairo power base better. He rebuilt walls and bridges and founded more schools. His political base in the city became secure. He skirmished with Bedouins who were pirates in the Red Sea and rogue traders, sometimes acting as paid guides to Crusader armies.

In 1182, the extended family of Nur ad-Din and Zengi, still rulers of various cities, revolted against him. Saladin prepared to take half the Egyptian Army north to reconquer Syria; he would remain away from Cairo for the rest of his life.

Most Syrian cities capitulated again to negotiation and threat, without a bloodbath. He besieged Mosul, but he had to be careful since the legal supreme ruler was still the Caliph of Baghdad, nearby. Saladin was not willing to overthrow the Caliph (who had religious authority). Instead, after a period of small battles and shifting alliances, he promised the Caliph that he would conquer territory for him, in exchange for Mosul.

Saladin set out to fulfill his promise. Chief among his targets was Jerusalem, the idea of which was waved like a banner. Jerusalem became the ideal of Muslim redemption; it was deemed the third holy city after Mecca and Medina. When it was a Muslim holding, it had not been considered that way, it had mostly been important to Jews and Christian pilgrims. But now, used as a rallying cry for Saladin’s rise to top leadership, its importance grew.

 

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Christendom attacks Saladin 1.0, 1169

In 1169, Nur ad-Din’s agent Saladin became Vizier to the last Fatimid Caliph in Cairo. There was one armed revolt in protest, but Saladin had already been diligently executing possible rebel commanders, so it didn’t last long. Saladin then inherited the vast Fatimid Army, which included black African regiments, as well as North Africans and conscripted Egyptians. With this army, he set out to extend Egyptian power. By this time, the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem had gradually pushed its power into the southern desert, from Gaza to the Red Sea.

Saladin’s first challenge was an alliance between Emperor Manuel Komnenos and King Amalric of Jerusalem; they married each other’s cousins and planned to invade Egypt.  King Amalric was the second son of Melisende and Fulk, born after Fulk’s palace-coup defeat briefly healed the marriage. Brother Baldwin III died childless, but Amalric had married young to a Norman heiress and had three children already. When Amalric became King, he was forced to divorce his wife for reasons that are unclear, but the three children were happily accepted as a downstream source of heirs. Amalric was more of a scholar than a warrior, but still he made a strong king, and when he made an alliance with the Emperor, things looked good for Jerusalem’s power to rise.

Manuel and Amalric seemed to be counting on Egypt to put up little defense. They probably knew about the infighting among viziers and generals. In 1168, Amalric and the Hospitaller Knights rode into Egypt and seized the fort of Bilbeis, north of Cairo. They marched straight at Cairo just before Saladin became Vizier; his predecessor offered a huge sum of gold to Amalric to go home. That’s how low Fatimid Egypt’s power had sunk.

Then Saladin happened.

In 1169, twenty Byzantine war ships, 150 galleys, and a flotilla of support craft sailed to Damietta, the nearest Egyptian port city. Some of the ships were personnel carriers who brought a large land army with knights to land at Damietta. Amalric settled into a siege of its fortress, but he would have needed to act with speed and force—and he didn’t. The besiegers ran out of supplies while the new Vizier Saladin put down the revolt and took control of the army. Then he turned north to Damietta.

In disarray, Amalric had to withdraw and sign a truce with Saladin. Saladin followed up quickly by invading Eilat, a port city on the Red Sea. (It marks the base of the sharp south-pointing triangle on a map of Israel.) Eilat had been the Crusaders’ one Red Sea port; now gone. He also seized Gaza, then a Crusader southern outpost. Gaza had a garrison of Templars, the most aggressive knights, but Saladin feinted an attack elsewhere to draw them off.

The Kingdom of Jerusalem felt seriously threatened. It was obviously a terrible thing to have an agent of Nur ad-Din now ruling Egypt; Crusader strategy had been based on playing Turks and Egyptians off each other. Briefly, it appeared that perhaps Saladin had rebelled against Nur ad-Din and there might be a “Clash of the ad-Dins” for the Franks to profit from. Then Nur ad-Din died. Sultan Saladin ruled unopposed.

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Sultan Saladin ends Shi’ite rule in Cairo, 1171

Saladin and Richard the Lion-Heart are the most famous names of the Crusades, and finally we’re getting to their stories. We met Richard via his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine; now we meet Saladin through Zengi’s successor Nur ad-Din. First, why were so many of these leaders named Something ad-Din? This name is a Laqab, a descriptive surname parallel to “the Lion-Heart” or “the Good.” Din means Faith in Arabic; Nur ad-Din was the Light of the Faith, while Salah ad-Din was the Righteous of the Faith. Their given name, used at home by Mom, is usually forgotten (Saladin’s childhood name was Yusuf).

During the Second Crusade period, Zengi’s son Nur ad-Din ruled Aleppo and Edessa. He married the princess of Damascus, Ismat ad-Din (Purity of the Faith) Khatun (“princess” in Turkic). Damascus hovered between alliances with Turks and Crusaders, depending who seemed stronger, but eventually its ruler died and Nur ad-Din absorbed it. He appointed the former Governor of Tikrit Ayyub  to be its ruler under his authority. Ayyub’s brother was one of Nur ad-Din’s field generals.

All we can say about Ayyub’s family background is that it’s the same mix that produced Nur ad-Din: Turkic, Kurdish, Arab, probably intermarried until it didn’t matter. Their tribal name is in Kurdish, but it means “nomads,” so the root ancestry could be the Arabs who brought herds of goats to the valley of the Tigris River, back in the 8th century. Ayyub is “Job” in Arabic, while his brother always went by a Kurdish name.

Ayyub’s son Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub went into active military service. Nur ad-Din was ambitious to extend his father Zengi’s project: unifying the former Caliphate by conquest, including the jewel in the crown: Egypt. Remember Cairo was built by Shi’ites who aggressively sent missionaries into Persian and Arab lands to agitate against Turkish rule (since Turks were by no possible pretense descended from Mohammed’s tribe).

So Nur ad-Din sent General Shirkuh (“Mountain Lion” in Kurdish) and his nephew Salah ad-Din down to Egypt. The Fatimid dynasty was so weakened that the teenage Caliph had no real control, and the viziers were playing out power games. One vizier thought allying with Nur ad-Din would return him to power, and it did, but Shirkuh and nephew Saladin stayed on in Cairo. Saladin actually befriended the weak Caliph and, ultimately, Saladin was appointed Vizier to the Ismaili Shi’ite Caliph!

When the Caliph died in 1171, Saladin saw no reason to continue the charade. He abolished the office and appointed himself Sultan. For Egypt, it was just another regime change; most Egyptians were still Christians, and the Muslims were still mostly Sunni. The big question was whether Saladin’s new dynasty would rule well or not. Saladin’s descendants are known as the Ayyubids, not the Saladinids, because “ibn Ayyub” was in both his name and his son’s. Arab/Egyptian tradition names each individual as Himself son of Father son of Grandfather (the Town/Region Resident).

I have a whole small book about Egyptian Christians under Ayyubid rule! As soon as I get the Third Crusade out of the way, we’ll talk about it!

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Prester John’s Letter, 1165

“Prester John” was the unlikely name of a legendary Christian king somewhere far in the East. From century to century, people kept hearing and passing on rumors of his wealth and piety. A medieval Obi-Wan Kenobi, he was thought to be the West’s only hope as the Turks and Mongols closed in.

There was a longstanding tradition that colonies of long-lost forgotten Christians were in India. Some said the Magi had gone back to Persia and India after seeing Jesus in Bethlehem, and that belief began there. There’s a firmer tradition that Jesus’ disciple Thomas sailed to the east, including a set of Jewish colonies on the southwest coast of India. The churches there all remember St. Thomas as their founder, and some accounts recall the names of his first converts among the Brahmins. Their liturgy has always been in Syriac, rather than Greek or Latin. They may be the original core of the legend of a lost Christian nation in the east.

In the 400s, followers of Bishop Nestorius left Constantinople after the Council of Chalcedon declared their ideas to be heresy. Like Thomas, they went eastward. Christians in Persia wanted to be separate from the Roman-Byzantine church because they were being accused of disloyalty in Persia. When Nestorian priests came as banned refugees, they were welcomed. From Persia, Nestorian missionaries went further east, including south to the coastal Indian churches. Further, we know that in Genghis Khan’s time, some of his neighbor tribes were Nestorian Christians. All of the Great Khan’s sons married Christians!

But the stories of the lost King Prester John began before the time of Genghis Khan and persisted long after. “Prester” seems to be a corruption of Presbyter, or Elder. He was a king, but he was also a bishop and, additionally, a descendant of the Magi.

Bishop Otto of Friesing, who accompanied Conrad of Germany on the Second Crusade, believed that Prester John almost joined them. As King of India, he had beaten the Muslim Persians solidly just before the Crusade began. His army came as far as the Tigris River to help win back Edessa, but there he met with an unexpected check. Otto says that someone told him the river would freeze so that his army could ride across it. Prester John’s army went north to find the ice, but the Tigris never freezes over. They waited until another summer had passed and winter came again, but there was still no ice. His army gradually drifted away, and Prester John had to turn for home without ever seeing Jerusalem. What a near miss! He could have saved the whole Crusade from failure!

In 1165 a letter that Prester John supposedly sent to Emperor Manuel Comnenos began circulating around Europe. It was copied and recopied. They took it seriously enough that in 1177, the Pope sent a messenger eastward to find Prester John and give him a reply letter. The messenger never came back.

The much-copied letter tells us that Prester John, King of India, has 72 kings who pay tribute to him. Most of them are pagan, he says, but there are also ten tribes of Israel (the Lost Tribes found!). He provides a list of the amazing animals that live in India, starting with elephants and dromedaries, but quickly passing to crocodiles, red and white lions, white bears, silent grasshoppers, gryphons, pygmies, giants, and one-eyed and horned men. (I’m most curious about those silent grasshoppers.)

In one area of Prester John’s India, no venomous animals can live, while in another, a river coming from Paradise washes gemstones up on its shores. But in the region where pepper trees grow, the snake infestation is so severe that the only way to harvest the pepper is to burn down the forest. That way, the only snakes that survive are the ones who hid in caves, but the rest are piled into big heaps by the harvesters, who are now free to pick the pepper.

The rest of the letter goes on in that way: every legend of the far-off lands makes its way into the list. There are rivers flowing with gemstones (probably pearls), and local children learn to stay underwater for a long time to find them. There are worms called salamanders, who live in fire, and from them, women spin silk. The people live in unimaginable wealth and moral virtue. On and on. There’s just one problem, it turns out: they don’t have many good horses. Other than that, it’s pure Paradise. (Imagine being short on the one thing Europe had lots of! What a marketing pitch!)

As long as that letter circulated, Europeans were sure that Prester John’s army would show up soon. He would sack Baghdad and bring his army from the east, and then finally the Crusades would be successful.

In 1221, a Fifth Crusader brought back word that Prester John’s grandson King David had defeated the Muslims and was on his way. That rumor didn’t pan out; it was actually the Mongols who were on their way, and they did not at all intend to rebuild Jerusalem. In 1306, Ethiopians visited Europe, and rumor spread that finally, at last, Prester John’s kingdom had been located. It was just in Africa, not India.

So for several centuries, Europeans continued to believe that Prester John ruled in Africa, and in some legends, his kingdom was not only Christian but specifically white. Explorers might any day come around the corner of a mountain and find a native white tribe with churches! When the legend finally died out as supposed fact, it lived on in myth. Shakespeare mentions Prester John, and John Buchan wrote an adventure novel about him in the 20th century. His legend was useful for feeling better about colonizing Africa. What was Rhodesia but a sort of modern-day Prester John’s kingdom?

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