Salahuddin Ayyubi Salahuddin (Saladin) and the Battle of Hittin

Salahuddin Ayyubi Salahuddin (Saladin) and the Battle of Hittin

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A divided Islamic world offered feeble resistance to the Crusaders who consolidated their hold on the eastern Mediterranean and imposed their fiefdoms on the region. The Seljuks, preoccupied with defending their eastern flank against the Afghan Ghaznavids, had thinned out their western defenses. The pagan Turkish tribes across the Amu Darya on the northeastern frontiers were a constant menace. The advancing Crusaders received valuable assistance from the local Orthodox and Armenian communities. The Venetians provided transportation. Faced with a determined offensive, Tripoli surrendered in 1109. Beirut fell in 1110. Aleppo was besieged in 1111. Tyre succumbed in 1124. The warring Muslim parties did not take the Crusader invasion seriously at this stage. They considered the Christians to be just another group in the motley group of emirs, prelates and religious factions jostling for power in West Asia.

Meanwhile, the internal situation in Egypt went from bad to worse. Power had long ago slipped from the Fatimid Caliphs. The viziers had become the real power brokers. Notwithstanding the rout of the Egyptian army by the Crusaders and the loss of Jerusalem, al Afdal, the grand vizier was more interested in playing politics in Cairo than in recovering the lost territories. When the old Caliph Musta Ali died in 1101, al Afdal installed the Caliph’s infant son Abu Ali on the throne and became the de-facto ruler of Egypt. But this did not sit well with Abu Ali. When he grew up, he had al Afdal murdered. In turn, Abu Ali himself was assassinated in 1121.

Anarchy took over Egypt. Abu Ali left no male heirs. His cousin Abul Maimun became the Caliph. But he was deposed by his own vizier, Ahmed and put in prison. Not to be outmaneuvered, Abul Maimun plotted from his prison cell and had Ahmed murdered. After Abul Maimun, his son Abu Mansur succeeded him. Abu Mansur was more interested in wine and women than in the affairs of state. His vizier Ibn Salar ran the administration but his own stepson Abbas murdered him and became the vizier.

The Fatimid Caliphs in Cairo had no power and became pawns in the hands of the viziers. And the institution of vizier was usurped by anyone who was ruthless and powerful. In 1154, Nasr, the son of vizier Abbas, assassinated Caliph Abu Mansur. The sisters of Abu Mansur discovered this act of murder and appealed to Ruzzik, the governor of Upper Egypt for help in punishing Nasr. They also appealed to the Franks in Palestine. Nasr ran for his life but was captured by the Franks and sent back to Cairo where he was nailed to a cross.

Egypt was like a ripe plum ready to be plucked. The Crusaders knew that control of Egypt would deal a devastating blow to the Islamic world. The local Maronite and Armenian communities would welcome them. From Egypt they could open land communications with the Christian communities in Ethiopia and command the trade routes to India. Several invasions of Egypt were launched. In 1118, the Crusaders landed in Damietta, ravaged that city and advanced towards Cairo. The Egyptians repelled the invaders but the resources consumed in defending their home turf prevented them from defending Palestine. The last Fatimid stronghold in Palestine, Ascalon, fell in 1153.

With Egypt in disarray and the Seljuks under increasing pressure from the Ghaznavids and the Turkish Kara Khitai tribes, Crusader rule in Jerusalem went unchallenged for almost a century. The task of defending against European military invasions had to be organized from northern Iraq and eastern Anatolia. Today, these are the Kurdish provinces of Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Persia. Maudud, a Seljuk officer from Mosul, was the first to take up the challenge. In 1113, he defeated King Baldwin of Jerusalem in a series of skirmishes. But Fatimid assassins murdered Maudud in 1127. Another Turkish officer, Zengi, continued Maudud’s work. Zengi was a first rate soldier, a man of righteousness, fairness and piety. He ruled with firm justice, making no distinction between a Turk and a non-Turk. In 1144, Zengi captured the city of Edessa. This provoked a new Crusade in which Emperor Conrad of Germany and Bernard of France took part. Zengi inflicted a crushing defeat on the invaders, forcing the Germans and the Franks to withdraw. But two events took place that delayed the task of expelling the Franks from Jerusalem. In 1141, the Seljuks suffered a major defeat from the pagan Turkoman Kara Khitai at the banks of the Amu Darya. In 1146, the Fatimid assassins murdered Zengi himself.

His son Nuruddin pursued Zengi’s work with even greater vigor. A man of extraordinary ability, Nuruddin organized a systematic campaign to expel the Crusaders from West Asia. Nuruddin was a man of piety, bereft of prejudice, of noble disposition. The unsettled military conditions provided ample opportunities for capable persons and non-Turkish soldiers rose rapidly through the army. Among them were two officers, Ayyub and Shirkuh,

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