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.