The Crusades: An Arab Perspective

Unification: Saladin and the Fall of Jerusalem

We explore how Salah Ed-Din unified the Muslim states and recaptured the holy city of Jerusalem from the crusaders.

The Crusades: An Arab Perspective is a four-part documentary series telling the dramatic story of the crusades seen through Arab eyes, from the seizing of Jerusalem under Pope Urban II in 1099, to its recapture by Salah Ed-Din (also known as Saladin), Richard the Lionheart’s efforts to regain the city, and the end of the holy wars in 1291. Part one looked at the First Crusade and the conquest of Jerusalem. In part two, we explored the birth of the Muslim revival in the face of the crusades. And part three looks at the Battle of Hattin, Saladin’s siege of Jerusalem and the Third Crusade.

By 1164, almost seven decades had passed since the first crusaders arrived in the east. Their initial success had been crowned with the fall of the holy city of Jerusalem.

But within half a century, the Zengids, a Turkic dynasty ruling the northern Levant, took command of the Muslim revival and managed to recapture Edessa, the first crusader state founded in the east.

After this first big defeat for the crusaders, two powers set out to conquer Egypt in 1164. The troops of both, Nour Ed-Din Zengi and Amalric I, the crusader king of Jerusalem, fought for control of the Nile valley.

After years of struggle, Nour Ed-Din’s Kurdish general, Shirkuh, managed to expel the crusaders from Egypt.

With Nour Ed-Din now in control of Egypt, the dream of reconquering Jerusalem seemed very close. But the mission of liberating the holy city was soon passed on to his Kurdish deputy in Egypt, Salah Ed-Din, the Ayyubid, known in the west as Saladin, who had succeeded his uncle, Shirkuh, as vizier.

Salah Ed-Din declared Egypt’s loyalty to the Sunni Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad, making it an integral part of the Zengid state. Now Egypt was large and strong enough to carry out Nour Ed-Din’s grand plan to expel the crusaders.

Muslim and crusader armies fight for control of Egypt [Getty Images]
Muslim and crusader armies fight for control of Egypt [Getty Images]

In 1174, both Nour Ed-Din and the king of Jerusalem died. When a succession issue arose after Nour Ed-Din’s passing, Salah Ed-Din set out from Egypt, heading for the Levant to eventually bring the Zengids under his command by force. 

“There was no doubt that Salah Ed-Din was the legitimate heir of Nour Ed-Din’s mission. He came to Damascus specifically, even though he didn’t need to. He made it his capital because he wanted to realise Nour Ed-Din’s liberation plan,” says Ibrahim Baidoun, Islamic history professor at the Lebanese University.

The two words jihad and Jerusalem were on the lips of all Muslims. And scholars in Damascus, Cairo, Aleppo, Mosul and all the Muslim cities were preparing the Islamic nation for a glorious day.

by Muhammad Moenes Awad, professor of history at Sharjah University

Meanwhile, with King Baldwin IV, a leprous boy on the throne of Jerusalem, a struggle broke out among the nobility over who should be the regent. Raymond III, the count of Tripoli, took the prize and quickly signed a truce with Salah Ed-Din.

“Salah Ed-Din realised the time was not yet right to fight the crusaders, so he entered into a truce with Raymond, the count of Tripoli, for 10 years, 10 months and 10 days, as it was the custom back then. He started putting his internal house in order, in view of the tense political situation at the time. It required Salah Ed-Din to go into battle against small warring princes for 33 months,” says Qassem Abdu Qassem, head of the history department, Zaqaziq University.

For another eight years, Salah Ed-Din continued his efforts to reunite the territories of the Levant and Mesopotamia under his command. And when Aleppo finally surrendered, Salah Ed-Din became the mightiest ruler of the Muslim world – the Sultan of the Ayyubid state, a dynasty that ruled for another seven decades.

As the Muslim front was uniting, the King of Jerusalem faced problems controlling his vassals, who were endangering the truce with Salah Ed-Din.

Raynald of Chatilllon, who controlled Kerak Castle, allied with the Knights Templar, the most powerful and extreme of the crusader military orders. Their goal was to lay waste Islam’s most sacred sites – the Kaaba and the Prophet’s tomb in Hijaz.

“Salah Ed-Din was able to thwart this attempt and it was regarded as a major religious achievement for the Muslims. Someone had attacked the holy Muslim lands, and they were protected by Salah Ed-Din who was gaining in fame and glory,” says Mahmoud Imran, professor of European medieval history.

When King Baldwin IV died, the throne was passed to his sister. She married Guy of Lusignan who became King of Jerusalem in 1186.

The new king could not control his vassal nobles, who finally succeeded in destroying the kingdom’s truce with Salah Ed-Din by brutally attacking and looting a commercial caravan.

“Salah Ed-Din felt he had gathered enough troops, and that the time and military conditions were right, and the opposite was the case on the crusaders’ side. He thought it was the right time to start a war,” says Imran.

The Battle of Hattin

In July 1187, Saladin mobilised his army, crossing the River Jordan into the heart of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

“Salah Ed-Din chose the time and place of the battle. If he could take the fight to the heart of Palestine, he’d defeat the crusaders. So, he besieged the fortress of Tiberias. This was not an easy operation because the Kingdom of Jerusalem mobilised the biggest army since their arrival in the region in 1098,” recounts Muhammad Moenes Awad, professor of history at Sharjah University.

The crusaders held a war council in Ain Safouriah, debating whether to wait for Salah Ed-Din to attack them or preemptively attack his troops. The crusader armies, under the command of King Guy of Lusignan, decided to march towards a decisive battle against Salah Ed-Din.

Who was Salahuddin?

“It was a fatal error which brought disaster to the crusader kingdom. They had to travel around 20 kilometres under the scorching July sun. They had no water and hadn’t set up any supply lines,” says Awad.

In his camp around Tiberias, Salah Ed-Din was waiting for the crusaders as they carelessly walked into the trap he had set for them. When the thirsty army finally camped at Hattin, Salah Ed-Din had already blocked the way to the only water source, the Sea of Galilee.

On July 4, 1187, the two parties confronted each other in a key battle considered to be the most decisive in The crusade’s history. By the end of the battle of Hattin, the vast majority of the crusader forces had been either captured or killed.

“He smashes the Frankish army, he captures the king of Jerusalem, he seizes the True Cross. And this is the great military victory that will open the way to recapturing Jerusalem itself,” says Jonathan Phillips, professor of history, University of London.

Salah Ed-Din’s recapture of Jerusalem

Within two months of victory at Hattin, Salah Ed-Din’s forces had taken most of the Levantine coast and, in September 1187, he arrived with his army before the walls of Jerusalem.

Saladin was famous throughout history for his generosity, his justice, and his ability to inspire his people. This earned him respect on the Christian side and Muslim side.

by Jonathan Phillips, professor of history, University of London

After a 10-day assault on the city, Balian of Ibelin came out to meet Salah Ed-Din to offer unconditional surrender. On October 2, 1187, the Muslims entered Jerusalem peacefully.

“The scene is a complete reverse of the bloody massacre of July 1099. The crusaders were allowed to leave. Noble families and commoners did so in a peaceful convoy without being harassed by the Muslims,” says Qassem Abdu Qassem, head of history, Zaqaziq University.

Salah Ed-Din, the Kurdish officer, now the greatest Muslim Sultan, had liberated Jerusalem after 88 years of crusader occupation – fulfilling a dream he inherited from his master Nour Ed-Din Zengi.

However, newly liberated Jerusalem was not to be Salah Ed-Din’s final target. In November 1187, he commanded his army to march to Tyre and put it under siege. But for two months the heavily fortified city held out.

“Tyre was the sole harbour remaining in the hands of crusaders. And Tyre began to put pressure on Acre, and they imposed a siege on Acre that would last more than two years” says Abdu Qassem.

The Third Crusade

“The fall of Jerusalem to Saladin in 1187 caused a seismic shock in Western Europe. The pope was said to have died when he heard the news. This is something that arouses Christendom in a way that’s never happened before,” says Phillips.

Europe mobilised its armies, and its three greatest monarchs set off towards the east: Frederick I, the Holy Roman Emperor known as Barbarossa; Philip II of France, known as Philip Augustus; and Richard the Lionheart, King of England.

“All the brave kings and rulers of the west have to take the cross; they have to go to try to recover Jerusalem from the Muslims. This is what’s known as the Third Crusade, arguably the greatest crusading expedition of the crusading age,” says Phillips.

While Barbarossa died in Asia Minor on his way to the Holy Land, Philip Augustus and Richard the Lionheart arrived safely by sea. Their armies immediately joined the crusaders who had been besieging Acre for two years.

Unable to break the siege of Acre, the Muslims surrendered in July 1191.

Emperor Barbarossa dies in Asia Minor on his way to the Holy Land [Getty Images]
Emperor Barbarossa dies in Asia Minor on his way to the Holy Land [Getty Images]

Philip Augustus soon returned to France, leaving Richard the Lionheart in sole command of the Third Crusade. It was the spark that rekindled his dream of glory through the recapture of the holy city of Jerusalem. 


by ”Qassem

wanted to return home, but with a victory of some kind. That victory proved farfetched on the battlefield, so he thought he could realise it in the field of diplomacy.”]

With his throne in jeopardy back in England, Richard the Lionheart established a truce with Salah Ed-Din, which became known as the Ramla reconciliation.

“The Ramla reconciliation kept the situation as is. Richard was unable to change the military situation on the ground. The lands Salah Ed-Din had conquered remained under his control, while the crusaders only kept Tripoli, Antioch, which was already under their control, and had not been fought over, as well as Acre, which they had managed to capture,” says Abdu Qassem.

After more than a year in the east, Richard the Lionheart returned to Europe without the keys to Jerusalem. Hence, the Third Crusade had ended in failure.

On March 4, 1193, Salah Ed-Din passed away, but he left a long lasting legacy.

“The Islamic jihad movement led by Salah Ed-Din was able to defeat the best Latin troops and recover Jerusalem, the symbol of the long-standing struggle. But the problem was that Salah Ed-Din’s successors were not of the same calibre, so the life of the crusaders’ settlements extended for almost another 100 years,” says Abdu Qassem.

Salah Ed-Din captures Jerusalem in 1187: The Crusades episode 3