Salah al-Din: Characteristics of Conquest – Part II

Section II: Salah al-Din’s Victories at Hattin and Jerusalem

While there is debate as to Salah al-Din’s abilities in the realm of military tactics and strategy , his victories at the Horns of Hattin and Jerusalem were both decisive. In the case of Jerusalem, it was the accomplishment of a long-stated goal – the liberation of Jerusalem from the Crusaders – thus, Salah al-Din must be credited with at least successful tactics, even if his overall strategy was not to be considered “brilliant”. In fairness to the question of Salah al-Din’s military savvy, it should be noted that Salah al-Din was never free from internal problems- his motives were suspect by the caliph, petty issues sidetracked some of his commanders, and the financial and personal strain of his long campaign deterred his allies in the north from sending necessary troops, especially during the third Crusade (EOI, 912).

Salah al-Din’s decisive victory over the Franks occurred at the battle of Hattin and provides the historian an excellent opportunity to view Salah al-Din’s tactical decisions, and to see how his character affected certain battlefield decisions. Prior to the battle of Hattin, Guy de Lusignan and his forces were holed up in Sepphoris and, according to Salah al-Din, refusing to come into the open to do battle, so Salah al-Din decided to try and force them into the open, and into unfavorable territory (Lyons, 256-257). On July 2, 1187, Salah al-Din made the decision to assault Tiberius, in an attempt to draw the Crusaders out of Sepphoris to relieve Tiberius, a dangerous gamble given that Salah al-Din could have found his forces sandwiched between two enemy armies (Nicolle, 53, 61). Salah al-Din, along with a small force, attacked Tiberias, where the Countess Eschiva was residing, and having successfully defeated the perimeter defenses by bringing down a tower, Salah al-Din’s men plundered the town and killed or captured the people (Lyons, 257). Upon hearing the news of Tiberias’ fall, King Guy called together his commanders to discuss the situation (Lyons, 258). Here the record of events blurs a bit due to conflicting accounts given by Muslim chroniclers. Ibn al-Athir, whose account agrees with several accounts written by the Franks, wrote that Raymond advised Guy to cede Tiberias to Salah al-Din due to the overwhelming size of Salah al-Din’s army and due to Raymond’s belief that Salah al-Din’s men would likely press for returning home if Tiberias was in Muslim hands; this despite the fact that Raymond’s wife was taking refuge from Salah al-Din in the town’s citadel (Lyons, 257-258). According to Ibn al-Athir, the aggressive Reynald de Chatillon disputed Raymond’s advice, accusing him of taking sides with Salah al-Din (Lyons, 258). The chronicler Imad al-Din, however, wrote that Raymond argued for racing to Tiberias’ defense, an account which agrees with the contents of a letter written to Pope Urban in which Guy was convinced to act based both on Raymond’s pleas, and those of Countess Eschiva’s sons (Raymond’s step-sons) (Lyons, 258). Regardless of which account is most accurate, Salah al-Din’s gamble paid off and Guy did move into the open.

Problems plagued the Crusaders almost from the beginning. Their morale was already low when they began marching for Tiberius, knowing they were facing a long, hot, waterless march (Nicolle, 62). Furthermore, at the beginning of the march, the Crusaders thought a “half-crazed” Muslim woman had cursed them, so they built a fire in which to burn her, which, as legend has it, did not succeed in burning her, so a soldier “split her head with an axe” (Nicolle, 62) Adding to this low morale was a report that the Crusader horses would not drink water before the march , which, if true, must have certainly concerned the cavalry given the heat and distance involved (Nicolle, 62). Salah al-Din knew that to win the imminent engagement, he must prevent the Crusaders from reaching the water at Lake Tiberius, and it seems that from the moment his opponents left Saffuriyah, Salah al-Din controlled the day (Nicolle, 53). Counting on his archers to level the playing field with respect to the armor-clad Frankish Knights – by shooting their horses and thus neutralizing the knights’ effectiveness – Salah al-Din had 400 loads of arrows brought to the battle and arranged for even more to be brought should they be needed (Lyons, 261). He ordered contingents to attack the column, and the majority of the Crusaders had to forgo drinking water at Touraan’s spring in order to reach their objective, which added to the collapsing morale (Nicolle, 62). Further adding to the breakdown in Crusader morale were the military and psychological techniques Salah al-Din employed to wear them down in advance of the final battle; he relied on incessant Muslim drumming, the previously mentioned elimination of Crusader horses by Muslim archers, and the wasting effect of heat and thirst (Nicolle, 62). Finally, the Crusader rear forces were forced to halt which prompted a change of plans; King Guy was convinced to change the army’s direction and head toward the springs of Hattin, six kilometers away, and from there, to attempt to reach Lake Tiberius the following day (Nicolle, 62). Again exhibiting his control over the battlefield, Salah al-Din detected the change in Crusader plans and ordered Taqi al-Din’s men to block Crusader access to Lake Tiberius (Nicolle, 64). The morning of July 4, 1187 saw the Crusaders arise and begin marching toward the spring at Hattin, a five kilometer march (Nicolle, 65). Ibn al-Athir gives a description of one of the unique tactics Salah al-Din employed to weaken the enemy’s resolve: “some of the Muslim volunteer fighters had set fire to the ground there. The grass was abundant and the fire spread. The wind was against the Franks and it carried the heat and smoke of the fire towards them. Thirst, the hot weather, the heat of the fire, the smoke and the heat of the battle all combined against them” (Richards, 322). Salah al-Din’s psychological warfare started to pay off at this point; six knights deserted to Salah al-Din and told him that the Crusader forces were at their end, which seems to have prompted Salah al-Din to order “controlled charges” on the column resulting in the loss of many Crusader horses (Nicolle, 68, 71). Shortly thereafter, one of the most interesting events of the battle took place – Count Raymond of Tripoli , perhaps on the order of King Guy, charged north in an attempt to break through the Muslim line and reach the water at Hattin, but instead of trying to stop this charge, Taqi al Din moved his forces aside and let Raymond’s forces race through and down the steep slope, then closed ranks again to prevent him from fighting his way back up the incline (Nicolle, 73). Back on the plateau, the Crusaders were descending into chaos; the infantry was racing for the Horns of Hattin and, upon reaching the northern horn, refused to come down and help the beleaguered cavalry despite King Guy’s orders and the pleas of the bishops (Nicolle, 73). It was not long before the knights’ horses were shot out from under them and they found themselves fighting on foot; King Guy then ordered his troops to ascend the Horns for safety, the knights reaching the southern Horn (Nicolle, 73). Salah al-Din’s forces now stormed the Horns and by early afternoon, the Crusader forces that had not been killed surrendered; the Muslim forces then turned on the saddle between the Horns in an attempt to dislodge the knights (Nicolle, 76-77). When King Guy’s red tent finally fell to the ground, Salah al-Din’s victory was assured, although Balian d’Ibelin and some of his knights in the rearguard managed to escape (Nicolle, 77).

The crushing defeat at Hattin meant that for the immediate future, the Kingdom of Jerusalem and Frankish army would not pose a threat to Salah al-Din (Lyons, 266). With the battle of Hattin decided, Salah al-Din now turned his focus on the recapture of Jerusalem, which in military terms had little “strategic importance”, but was vital nonetheless, as it had been the “focal point in his efforts to win support” and had to be taken if he was to prove his oft-proclaimed sincerity of intentions (Lyons, 266).

Salah al-Din’s victory at Jerusalem was significant, not just for the fact that he recaptured Jerusalem, but also for the fact that his victory involved a pragmatic decision to negotiate and show mercy despite his previous vow to wipe out the occupiers in revenge for the 1099 bloodthirsty slaughter of Muslims.

In this story of Salah al-Din’s recapture of Jerusalem, Balian d’Ibelin now reappears in one of the most amazing instances of two enemies showing each other graciousness and honor. Balian’s wife, Queen Maria Comnena, and their family were in Jerusalem, while Balian was in Tyre after his escape from Hattin (Regan, 139). Salah al-Din granted Balian safe conduct to retrieve his family from Jerusalem provided he not stay in Jerusalem more than one night, and promise to not take up arms against the Muslim forces (Regan, 139). Balian agreed and reached Jerusalem whereupon he was inundated with pathetic pleas from the Patriarch Eraclius and the people to head up the defense of the Holy City against Salah al-Din’s impeding invasion (Regan, 139). Balian, as a man of honor, was torn between honoring his oath to Salah al-Din who had shown him kindness and trust, and his duty to defend the Holy City (Regan, 140). Adding to the pressure on Balian, Eraclius warned him that not defending Jerusalem would be a greater sin than breaking his oath to Salah al-Din, and he even absolved Balian of his guilt in breaking the oath (Regan, 140). After agonizing over his decision, knowing that the defense was likely to be futile in the given circumstances, Balian wrote to Salah al-Din, explaining his dilemma, and Salah al-Din’s response to Balian was a gracious release from his oath and permission to organize the defense of Jerusalem (Regan, 139-140)! What’s more, Salah al-Din sent men to take Queen Maria and her children to Tripoli, and even entertained them in his own tent; he gave the young ones “family jewels and costly garments” and wept over the lot of this family (Regan, 140)!

Salah al-Din was not enthusiastic about fighting to take Jerusalem and commented to a delegation of leading citizens of Jerusalem during a negotiation over Jerusalem’s surrender: “I believe that Jerusalem is the House of God, as you also believe, and I will not willingly lay siege to the House of God or put it to the assault” (qtd. in Regan, 140). In yet another example of the merciful side to Salah al-Din’s nature, he presented the delegation the chance to build up the fortifications of Jerusalem and to develop the lands around the Holy City for a radius of 5 leagues, and even offered to furnish the inhabitants with money and supplies for this effort (Regan, 141)! The catch to his offer was that if an army did not come to Jerusalem’s rescue by the next Feast of Pentecost, the inhabitants were to surrender the city, and in return Salah al-Din would both give the inhabitants safe passage to Christian territory, and ensure that Christian holy sites would be respected, something the Crusaders had not done in 1099 (Regan, 141). The citizens of Jerusalem, however, disdained Salah al-Din’s offer, replying that they were honor bound by their religion to defend the city, and Salah al-Din then swore to take Jerusalem by force and began building up his troops for the effort (Regan, 141). By September 20, the day Salah al-Din arrived at Jerusalem, the number of refugees from the various Christian villages and castles had swollen Jerusalem to three times its normal size, if not more; there were perhaps more than 60,000 people within the city, less than 6,000 of which could have been counted as soldiers (Regan, 143). Here again, Salah al-Din’s psychological warfare savvy contributed to his efforts during the siege of Jerusalem; he made it clear that his battle was against the Latin Franks, not the Syrian, Orthodox or Jacobite Christians who shared the city, which undoubtedly strained the efforts of the defenders to recruit from these groups (Regan, 145). After an unsuccessful first week of siege, Salah al-Din moved his forces to the north-east corner of the city, between the Postern of St Magdalene and the Barbican ; here, Salah al-Din’s sappers were able to undermine a section of the city wall, digging a shaft approximately 100 feet long beneath the Barbican, and supporting it with wooden beams which, once the shaft was completed, were burned, bringing down the shaft and wall above (Regan, 144, 146-147). This breach of the wall at the Barbican forced Balian to make a painful decision between surrendering the city or allowing it to fall under Salah al-Din’s assault (Regan, 147). The Patriarch Eraclius, who had so confidently argued for Balian to organize the defense of the city, now pleaded with Balian to negotiate with Salah al-Din to save the women and children who would surely be brutalized once the city fell (Regan, 147). Balian finally relented and began seeking an audience with Salah al-Din who refused him twice due to his rage over the losses he had suffered during the siege, and finally told Balian that he intended to take the city forcibly in revenge for the Crusader slaughter of Muslims in 1099 (Regan, 148). At the very moment Salah al-Din was reproaching Balian for offering to surrender a city that his forces were already defeating, a visible reversal in the battle took place which caused Salah al-Din to rethink his position (Regan, 148). The following day when Balian returned to Salah al-Din’s tent, Salah al-Din demanded to know what reason Balian could possibly give to dissuade him from keeping his oath to take Jerusalem by force, (an odd question had Salah al-Din not secretly been hoping for a way to bring a more merciful end to the siege), especially when the occupants had so arrogantly rejected his earlier offer of safe conduct out of the city (Regan, 150). The fact that Salah al-Din received Balian and was even willing to discuss the theoretical possibility of accepting Jerusalem’s surrender leads me to conclude that Salah al-Din in fact was not looking to make a bloody, vengeful statement, nor looking to simply lecture Balian, but rather seeking a way out of more carnage. This is again evidence of Salah al-Din’s propensity to show mercy when he considered it unnecessary to do otherwise, despite the consideration he gave to Balian’s threatening reply . Balian, in response to Salah al-Din’s question, believed that his only hope was to threaten a ‘scorched earth’ response to a Muslim assault in which the defenders would destroy not only their own lives, but also the wealth of the city as well as Muslim holy places (Regan, 150). According to Ibn al-Athir, Balian stated:

… However, if they see that death is inevitable, by God we will slay our sons and women, burn our property and goods and not leave you to benefit from it by a single dinar or dirham, nor take captive a single man or woman. When we have finished that, we shall destroy the Dome of the Rock, the Aqsa Mosque and other sites and then kill the Muslim prisoners we have, 5,000 in number. We shall not leave you any mount or animal without killing it. The we shall come forth, all of us, against you and fight you like desperate men fighting for their lives. Not one of us will be killed at that time until he kills many more of you. We shall die nobly or win victory gloriously (qtd. in Richards, 332).

Salah al-Din, knowing the vicious fanaticism the Crusaders were capable of, weighed the threat carefully; he knew honoring his oath only to take a razed Jerusalem by force would be of little value, and the assault thus far had been bloody enough that he could reason with himself that he did in fact force this surrender by his assault (Regan, 151). Thus Salah al-Din decided that the wisest course of action was to be generous and negotiate the surrender, the terms of which were set at 10 dinars for every man, five for every woman, one for every child, and 30,000 bezants for the freedom of roughly 7000 poor inhabitants (Regan, 151). Adding to the graciousness of his proposal, Salah al-Din gave the inhabitants 40 days in which to raise the money, after which time, those who couldn’t pay were to be taken as slaves (Regan, 151). In a tragic contrast to the generosity of Salah al-Din, the inhabitants of Jerusalem exhibited selfishness and callousness with respect to their neighbors. Balian was unable to persuade the military orders to use their wealth to pay the ransom for the poor, nor did the Latin church help the poor; in fact, the heads of the Latin church were only willing to pay for their own ransom (Regan, 152). Salah al-Din, again reinforcing his reputation as a man capable of gracious and merciful acts, set free many poor who could not pay the ransom, while the residents of Jerusalem, including the Patriarch Eraclius, carted off as much of their possessions as they could, with complete disregard for the needs of their poor neighbors who were destined to slavery (Regan, 152). Eraclius, in fact, carted off so much treasure and tapestries that Salah al-Din’s amirs were appalled and pleaded with Salah al-Din to confiscate the wealth of one they viewed as “unholy”, but he was unwilling to go back on his word (Regan, 151).

With the conquest of Jerusalem, Salah al-Din completed the crowning achievement he had dreamt of for so long, an achievement which assured him his place in history as one of the leading champions of Islamic Holy War.

Part III –

Part I –

Kevin Banks

Geopolitical analyst with extensive background in languages and information technology.
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