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.