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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