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Salahuddin Ayubi and the Battle of Hittin

The Third Crusade (1188-1191) was the most bitterly fought of all the Crusades in Palestine.

Source : History of Islam / 19 Feb 2014

Salahuddin, perhaps the most celebrated of Muslim soldiers after Ali ibn Abu Talib (r), was a man who molded history with his iron will. His accomplishment in evicting the Crusaders from Palestine and Syria are well known. What is less well known is his achievement in welding a monolithic Islamic body politic, free of internal fissures, which offered the Muslims, for a brief generation, the opportunity to dominate global events. It was the generation of Salahuddin that not only recaptured Jerusalem, but also laid the foundation of an Islamic Empire in India and briefly contained the Crusader advance in Spain and North Africa.

With the dissolution of the Fatimid Caliphate in Cairo and the consolidation of Salahuddin’s hold on Syria and Egypt, the balance of power in the eastern Mediterranean tilted in favor of the Muslims. Arabia, Yemen as well as northern Iraq and eastern Anatolia were also added to Salahuddin’s domains. It was only a matter of time before the weight of this power was brought on the Crusaders. The cause for hostilities was provided by one of the Latin chiefs, Renaud de Chatellon. Renaud was the king of the coastal cities in Palestine and Lebanon. To quote the well-known historian Bahauddin: “This accursed Renaud was a great infidel and a very strong man. On one occasion, when there was a truce between the Muslims and the Franks, he treacherously attacked and carried off a caravan from Egypt that passed through his territory. He seized these people, put them to torture, threw them into pits and imprisoned some in dungeons. When the prisoners objected and pointed out that there was a truce between the two peoples, he remonstrated: “Ask your Muhammed to deliver you”.

Salahuddin, when he heard these words, vowed to slay the infidel with his own hands.”

Sybilla, daughter of the previous king Amaury and her husband Guy de Lusignan ruled the Frankish kingdom of Jerusalem at the time. Salahuddin demanded retribution for the pillage of the caravan from Guy de Lusignan. The latter refused. Salahuddin sent his son Al Afdal to hunt down Renaud. His capital Karak was besieged. The Franks, upon hearing of this siege, united and advanced to meet Al Afdal. In turn, Salahuddin moved to assist his son. The two armies met on the banks of Lake Tiberias, near Hittin, on the fourth of July 1187. Salahuddin positioned himself between the Crusaders and the lake, denying them access to water. The Franks charged. By a skillful maneuver, Salahuddin’s forces enveloped the Franks and destroyed them. Most of their leaders were either captured or killed. Among those taken prisoner were Guy de Lusignan, King of Jerusalem and Renaud, the rogue king of the coastal cities who had caused the hostilities. Included among the escaped leaders were Raymond of Tripoli and Hugh of Tiberias. Salahuddin treated Guy de Lusignan with courtesy but had Renaud beheaded.

The retreating Franks moved towards Tripoli, but Salahuddin would offer them no respite. Tripoli was taken by storm. Acre was next. Nablus, Ramallah, Jaffa and Beirut opened their gates to the Sultan. Only Tripoli and Tyre remained occupied by the Franks. Salahuddin now turned his attention to Jerusalem, known as Al Quds to Muslims. The city was well defended by 60,000 Crusader soldiers. The Sultan had no desire to cause bloodshed and offered them a chance for peaceful surrender in return for freedom of passage and access to the holy sites. The offer was rejected. The Sultan ordered the city besieged. The defenders bereft of support from the coastline, surrendered (1187).

Salahuddin, in his magnanimity, made the most generous terms of surrender to the enemy. The Franks who wanted to reside in Palestine would be allowed to do so, as free men and women. Those who wanted to leave would be allowed to depart with their households and their belongings under full protection of the Sultan. The (Eastern Orthodox) Greeks and the Armenians were permitted to stay on with full rights of citizenship. When Sybilla, Queen of Jerusalem, was leaving the city, the Sultan was so moved by the hardship of her entourage that he ordered the imprisoned husbands and sons of the wailing women to be set free so that they might accompany their families. In many instances, the Sultan and his brother paid the ransom to free the prisoners. History has seldom seen such a contrast between the chivalry of a conquering hero like Salahuddin who treated his vanquished foes with generosity and compassion and the savage butchery of the Crusaders when they took Jerusalem in 1099.

The fall of Jerusalem sent Europe into a frenzy. Pope Clement III called for a new Crusade. The Latin world was up in arms. Those taking the Cross included Richard, King of England; Barbarosa, King of Germany; and Augustus, King of France. The military situation in Syria favored Salahuddin on the ground and the Crusaders at sea. Salahuddin sought an alliance with Yaqub al Mansur of the Maghrib to blockade the western Mediterranean. Yaqub had his hands full with the Crusaders in his own backyard. The monarch of the Maghrib did not appreciate the global scope of the Latin invasions. The alliance did not materialize and the Crusaders were free to move men and material across the sea.

The Third Crusade (1188-1191) was the most bitterly fought of all the Crusades in Palestine. The European armies moved by sea and made Tyre their principal staging port. Acre was the first major point of resistance in their advance on Jerusalem. The three European monarchs laid siege to the city while Salahuddin moved to relieve the city. A long standoff ensued, lasting over two years, with charges and counter-charges. On many occasions, the Muslim armies broke through and brought relief to the city. But the Crusaders, with their sea-lanes open, were re-supplied and the siege resumed.

What followed was an epic armed struggle between the cross and the crescent. Salahuddin’s armies were spread thin all across the Syrian coast and the hinterland to guard against additional Crusader attacks by land. Barbarosa, Emperor of Germany, advanced through Anatolia. There was only token resistance from the Turks. Barbarosa brushed this resistance aside, only to drown in the River Saraf on his way. Upon his death, the German armies broke up and played only a minor part in the Third Crusade. The defenders in Acre offered valiant resistance, but after a long siege, exhausted and spent, surrendered in 1191. The victorious Crusaders went on a rampage and violating the terms of surrender, butchered anyone who had survived the siege. King Richard is himself reported to have slain the garrison after it had laid down its arms. The Crusaders rested a while in Acre and then marched down the coast towards Jerusalem. Salahuddin marched alongside them, keeping a close watch on the invader armies. The 150 mile long route was marked by many sharp engagements. When the Crusaders approached Ascalon, Salahuddin, realizing that the city was impossible to defend, evacuated the town and had it razed to the ground.

A stalemate developed with Salahuddin guarding his supply routes by land while the Crusaders controlled the sea. Richard of England finally realized that he was facing a resolute man of steel and made an overture for peace. Meetings took place between Richard and Saifuddin, brother of Salahuddin. At first, Richard demanded the return of Jerusalem and all the territories that had been liberated since the Battle of Hittin. The demands were unacceptable and they were refused.

It was at this juncture that Richard made his historic proposals to bring peace to Jerusalem. According to its terms, Richard’s sister would marry Salahuddin’s brother Saifuddin. The Crusaders would give the coast as dowry to the bride. Salahuddin would give Jerusalem to his brother. The bride and groom would rule the kingdom, with Jerusalem as its capital, uniting the two faiths in a family bond. But the priests and many among the Franks were opposed. Threats were made for the ex-communication of King Richard. Tired and disgusted with the narrow-mindedness of his comrades, Richard longed to return home. Finally, a peace treaty was concluded between Richard and Salahuddin. Under its terms, Jerusalem would remain under the Sultan but would be open to pilgrims of all faiths. Freedom of worship would be guaranteed. The Franks would retain possession of a strip of land along the coast extending from Jaffa to Tyre but the bulk of Syria and Palestine would remain in Muslim hands.

The Third Crusade marshaled all the energies of Europe on a single enterprise, namely, the capture of Jerusalem. But all that the full might of Europe and the combined resources of its monarchs could claim was but one insignificant fortress, Acre. Salahuddin returned to Damascus, victorious and hailed by his compatriots as a symbol of valor and chivalry. He had achieved what few before him had achieved, namely a united ummah facing a common foe. He spent the remainder of his days in prayer and charity, building schools, hospitals and establishing a just administration in his domains. This prince of warriors passed away on the fourth of March 1193 and was buried in Damascus.


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