On July 4, 1187, the Muslim forces of Saladin (Salah al-Din) decisively defeated the crusader army south of the Horns of Hattin in Palestine, capturing Guy, king of Jerusalem; Reginald of Châtillon, Saladin’s enemy whom he personally killed; over two hundred Knights Hospitaller and Templar Knightly Orders whom he ordered to be killed; and many crusaders whom he ransomed. The remaining captured Christians were sold on the local slave markets.
Born into a Kurdish, Sunni, military family, Saladin rose rapidly within Muslim society as a subordinate to the Syrian-northern Mesopotamian military leader Nur al-Din. Participating in three campaigns into Egypt (which was governed by the Shi`ite Fatimid dynasty), Saladin became head of the military expeditionary forces in 1169. After he was appointed wazir(adviser) to the Shi`ite caliph in Cairo, he consolidated his position by eliminating the Fatimid’s sub-Saharan infantry slave forces. Finally, in 1171 the Shi`ite Fatimid caliphate was brought to an end by Saladin with the recognition of the Sunni caliphate in Baghdad. In the meantime, Nur al-Din kept pressuring Saladin to send him money, supplies, and troops, but Saladin tended to stall. An open clash between the two was avoided by the death of Nur al-Din in 1174.
Although Egypt was the primary source for his financial support, Saladin spent almost no time in the Nile Valley after 1174. According to one of his admiring contemporaries, Saladin used the wealth of Egypt for the conquest of Syria, that of Syria for the conquest of northern Mesopotamia, and that of northern Mesopotamia for the conquest of the crusader states along the Levant coast.
This oversimplification aside, the bulk of Saladin’s activities from 1174 until 1187 involved fighting other Muslims and eventually bringing Aleppo, Damascus, Mosul, and other cities under his control. He tended to appoint members of his family to many of the governorships, establishing a dynasty known as the Ayyubids in Egypt, Syria, and even Yemen. At the same time he was willing to make truces with the crusaders in order to free his forces to fight Muslims. Reginald of Châtillon violated these arrangements, to Saladin’s annoyance.
Modern historians debate Saladin’s motivation, but for those contemporaries close to him, there were no questions: Saladin had embarked on a holy war to eliminate Latin political and military control in the Middle East, particularly Christian control over Jerusalem. After the Battle of Hattin, Saladin, following the predominant military theory of the time, moved rapidly against as many of the weak Christian centers as possible, offering generous terms if they would surrender, while at the same time avoiding long sieges. This policy had the benefit of leading to the rapid conquest of almost every crusader site, including the peaceful Muslim liberation of Jerusalem in October 1187. The negative was that his policy permitted the crusaders time to regroup and refortify two cities south of Tripoli—Tyre and Ashkelon.
From Tyre, Christian forces, reinforced by the soldiers of the Third Crusade (1189–1191), encircled Muslims in Acre, destroyed the bulk of the Egyptian navy, and, under the leadership of Richard the Lion-Heart, captured the city and slaughtered its Muslim defenders. Saladin, by avoiding a direct battle with the new crusader forces, was able to preserve Muslim control over Jerusalem and most of Syria and Palestine.
Saladin’s reputation for generosity, religiosity, and commitment to the higher principles of a holy war have been idealized by Muslim sources and by many Westerners including Dante, who placed him in the company of Hector, Aeneas, and Caesar as a “virtuous pagan.”