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Saladin and the Christian Crusaders

Saladin, or Salah al-Din, or Selahedin, was a twelfth century Kurdish Muslim general and warrior from Tikrit, in what is currently northern Iraq. Saladin founded the Ayyubid dynasty in Egypt. The Muslim leader was renowned in both the Muslim and Christian worlds because of his leadership and his military prowess. He was also seen as a chivalrous figure who showed mercy during his war against the Christian Crusaders. The image of Saladin developed in his lifetime and persisted long after so that he has remained a heroic figure much revered in both the Islamic world and the Christian world, the latter in spite of the fact that he opposed Western expansion into Islam and fought agasint the West in the Crusades. Still, he is idolized in literaure and art and is often the subject for Western writers as for Islamic writers, though the two groups tend to celebrate different aspects of his life and character, with the West focusing on his mercy and chivalry and Islam focusing on his role in the jihad against the West.

The Crusades were waged by certain of the European powers against the Muslims for several reasons, with the religious element being only one of those reasons. The Muslim world was divided into factions. Muslim Spain had started to go its own way in the eighth century. Much of the Muslim world was under siege from the Seljuk Turks. The Muslims were in control of the Holy Lands, the seat of Christianity, and in the eleventh century European Christians undertook the Crusades to recapture the Holy lands, notably the city of Jerusalem. The Crusaders saw their opportunity because of the dissension within the Moslem world itself.

Reuven Firestone notes the way the religious war has been treated but also finds that there is little scholarship on the concept in spite of its prevalence. The Crusades were one example of the "holy war," a term coined by in his monograph by that name published in 1901. Firestone notes that there have been some "scholarly studies... written also on holy war in the context of the medieval Christian Crusades, particularly as a possible deviation from the Western concept of the 'just war.'" In the Muslim context, the holy war is known as a jihad. The word actually means "striving" and has nothing directly to do with war, but it has been taken over by those who want to give a religious tinge to their war against the West and against Israel in particular.

Esposito notes how the Crusades created an image for each side that persists to this day: "For the Christian West, Islam is the religion of the sword; for Muslims, the Christian West is epitomized by the armies of the Crusades." (Esposito, Islam: The Straight Path 59). The hostility from the Christian side was considerable from the first as some Christian leaders denigrated Muhammad as an impostor and as the anti-Christ: "Islam was dismissed as a religion of the sword led by an infidel driven by a lust for power and women" (Esposito, Islam: The Straight Path 59).

The Crusades began with the departure from Europe of the People's Crusade of Peter the Hermit. Five groups marched east, and the first two committed such excesses along the way that they were annihilated by the Hungarians. The third group started to butcher Jews on the Rhine and was also scattered by the Hungarians. The final two groups reached Rome in 1096. Alexius received these Crusaders with caution, giving them food and money and urging them to wait for the next contingent of Crusaders outside the city walls. They began to loot the suburbs and even sacked churches, so Alexius sent them over to Civirot, a fort that he had built on the Marmara's Asiatic shore. They continued to pillage, however, and even began torturing Christians. They began to ravage in the Sultanate of Rum. Alexius had warned their leader to avoid contact with the Turks until support arrived, but he lost control of his followers. Some 25,000 were killed. Three thousand survivors were brought to New Rome to wait for the next Crusaders.

In the spring of 1097, the Crusaders started crossing to Anatolia. At the time, the Seljuk states were fighting among themselves and were also warring with the Fatimids. In Anatolia, the Seljuks were engaged in a military occupation and had little control over the nomadic Turkoman herders, so their rule could be terminated by taking the garrison cities they had created. Alexius directed the Latins' attack on Nice. He also crossed to Asia but did not join in the battle there, for with his small force he would have been at their mercy. However, an imperial contingent accompanied the Crusaders, and an imperial fleet was transported to Lake Ascania. The Turks realized that they were cut off from Iconium, where the Sultan had fled, and they also feared Latin brutality. They thus offered to surrender Nice to the Emperor. Alexius' Turkish mercenaries then penetrated the city and placed on the ramparts the silken Roman standards with Christ's monogram surmounted by a red dragon. The Crusaders were permitted to enter only in small groups. In this way, Nice was spared pillage and massacre, but its food, wine, gold, silver, gems, and costly cloth were taken by the Crusaders.

The Crusaders later scattered the united forces of the Sultan and the Emir of Cappadocia and continued marching southward almost unhindered. Alexius took advantage of the opportunity to retake Anatolia eastward to the source of the Sangarius and southward almost to the mouth of the Indus. The Turks, however, continued to march westward, and by 1112 they were swarming around Nice, Abydus, Adamyttium, and other regions. The free peasants who might have fought for their lands were by then largely replaced by serfs or slaves who sympathized with the invaders. Alexius took to the field once more even though he was past sixty and in broken health, and he forced the Sultan of Rum to acknowledge his suzerainty. Direct Roman rule in Asia now covered the Black Sea littoral, the land west and north of a line reaching from Sinope through Philomelium to Smyrna, and the Aegean seaboard as far as the Amanus range.

Once the Crusaders reached Cappadocian Heraclea in 1097, they separated. The main body moved on to Antioch while certain factions took control of specific regions as they passed through them. The crusaders were at first repelled from Antioch, but they attacked with renewed zeal after the discovery of the lance said to have pierced the side of Christ on the cross; the Crusaders now defeated the Moslems. They recaptured Jerusalem and butchered every Jew and Moslem they found.

Saladin would become the hero of the third crusade when he successfully defended Islam and ejected the Crusaders. From this time forward, he was celebrated in Islam, but he was also celebrated by the West, as Dana Carleton Munro notes when writing,

From all those engaged in the crusading wars romance has singled out Saladin as its own particular hero, with Richard the Lion-Hearted as a poor second. The choice was a natural one, for Saladin had the qualities which commended him to both Christian and Muslim. He did not have the broad tolerance in religion with which Lessing endowed him in Nathan der Weise; no Muslim leader could have had this tolerance; some of the Christian leaders in the Crusades came nearer to it through their acquaintance with the many religions they found in the Holy Land, and through their disillusionment with their own narrow inherited faith. Saladin did have the virtues of generosity and courtesy, with which Scott, following the example of medieval Christian writers, depicted him in The Talisman. He won the admiration of followers and enemies by his bravery. He never broke his word, a virtue which his opponents made use of, but did not imitate. Although he could be stern in his vengeance on occasion, he was usually merciful, and in this respect his character shines brilliantly against the barbaric background of the age.

To a degree, Saladin may sand out because he exceeds the expectations of the Westerners, who demonized Islam and so saw Islamic leaders as barbarians who would be unlikely to be chivalrous or show any regard for the enemy at all. Other Islamic leaders must have been more openly ruthless as well so that Saladin stood out for his fairness and adherence to a certain code of battle. As Stanley Lane-Poole noted at the end of the nineteenth century,

Saladin is one of the few Oriental Personages who need no introduction to English readers. Sir Walter Scott has performed that friendly office with the warmth and insight of appreciative genius. It was Saladin's good fortune to attract the notice not only of the great romancer, but also of King Richard, and to this accident he partly owes the result that, instead of remaining a dry historical expression, under the Arabic…[continue]

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