Saladin (Salah al-Din Yusuf Ibn Ayyub)

Saladin (Salah al-Din Yusuf Ibn Ayyub)
and his Cairo

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Ismail Abaza

Artist impression of how Saladin may have appeared

Saladin (1138-1193) was born into a prominent Kurdish family, and it is said that on the night of his birth, his father, Najm ad-Din Ayyub, gathered his family and moved to Aleppo. There, his father entering the service of 'Imad ad-Din Zangi ibn Aq Sonqur, the powerful Turkish governor in northern Syria. Growing up in Ba'lbek and Damascus, Saladin was apparently an undistinguished youth, with a greater taste for religious studies than military training. There appears to have been few if any depictions of Saladin, but apparently tradition holds that he was a short man with a neat beard and even somewhat frail.

His formal career began when he joined the staff of his uncle Asad ad-Din Shirkuh, an important military commander under Nur al-Din. Nur al-Din, the ruler of Damascus and Aleppo, succeeded his father, Zengi, after that ruler's death, engaged in a race with the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem to take over Egypt. During three military expeditions led by Shirkuh into Egypt to prevent its falling to the Latin-Christian (Frankish) rulers of the states established by the First Crusade, a complex, three-way struggle developed between Amalric I, the Latin king of Jerusalem, Shawar, the powerful vizier of the Egyptian Fatimid caliph, and Shirkuh.

In the last of these military expeditions, together with his uncle, Saladin approached the walls of Cairo on January 2, 1169 at which point the Franks, who had the city of Cairo under siege, retreated. Six days later, after allowing the Franks to evacuate unopposed, his troops reached the walls themselves. Thereafter, Saladin lured the rather untrustworthy Shawar into an ambush on January 18th, killing him. His uncle, Shirkuh then became vizier. However, he also died unexpectedly on the 23rd of March.

Subsequently, Saladin became vizier to the last Fatimid caliph (who died in 1171), earning him the title al-Malik al-Nasir ('the prince defender'), and therefore his relations and successors were all given this title. It took Saladin, or more properly, Salah al-Din Yusuf Ibn Ayyub (meaning Righteousness of Faith, Joseph, Son of Job), only a few more years to became the sole master of Cairo and the first Ayyubid sultan of Egypt in 1174. The Fatimid caliph's death on September 12th of 1171 left the reins of power in Saladin's hands, under the suzerainty of Nur al-Din. The situation could not have lasted indefinitely, but the death of Nur al-Din on May 15, 1174 allowed Saladin, as the sole ruler of Egypt, to assert his right to the throne. Saladin soon moved out of Egypt and occupied Damascus and other Syrian towns, though Egypt continued to be a base of his operations.

Artist impression of Saladin made a few years after his death

Saladin claimed legitimacy not from his lineage, but from his upholding of Sunni orthodoxy. The Fatimids had failed, despite their long rule, to impart their faith to the mass of the Egyptian population, and Saladin and his successors addressed the task of making Egypt once more a center of orthodox belief.

Saladin, like the great Amr Ibn el 'As, is a romantic historical figure in whom it is difficult to find much fault. In fact, some of his most ardent admirers have often been his Christian biographers. They, as much as the Arabs, have made a myth of him, and what always attracted Europeans to Saladin was his almost perfect sense of cultured chivalry. It is said that the crusader knights learned a great deal about chivalry from him. For example, when the Crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099 they murdered virtually all of its inhabitants, boasting that parts of the city were knee-high in blood. When Saladin re-took the city in 1187, he spared his victims, giving them time to leave and safe passage. It was, after all, a holy city, and it was captured by the Muslims in a 'just war'.

In fact, despite his fierce opposition to the Christian powers, Saladin achieved a great reputation in Europe as a chivalrous knight, so much so that there existed by the 14th century an epic poem about his exploits, and Dante included him among the virtuous pagan souls in Limbo. His relationship with King Richard I of England, who managed to repel him in battle in 1191, was one of mutual respect as well as military rivalry. When Richard was wounded, Saladin even offered the services of his personal physician.

Trade and commerce was essentially built into the Muslim faith and Mohammed himself had laid down the religious rules for honorable behavior because caravan trade and business demanded a particular kind of trust in the words of others. Thus, it is said that Largesse was an essential part of Saladin's faith.

Saladin brought an entirely different concept of a city to Cairo after the Fatimids, because he wanted a unified, thriving, fortified place, protected by strong walls and impregnable defenses, but functioning internally with a great deal of commercial and cultural freedom, and with no private or royal enclaves and no fabulous palaces. He wanted a city that belonged to it's inhabitants even though he would be it's absolute ruler.

Many historians have attributed Saladin's plan for Cairo to purely local or military considerations, but Saladin had what would now be called a world view. He was, in fact, trying to defend a whole culture as well as it's territory, an ideology as well as a religion. He looked on Egypt as a source of revenue for his wars against Christian and European encroachments, and against the dissident Muslim sects who divided Islam at this time. Apparently, he wanted Cairo to be the organizing center for an orthodox cultural and ideological revival, as well as a collecting house for the vast wealth he needed for his defense against the crusades.

Though he began his career in Egypt under the Fatimids, he sought to re-educate Egypt in orthodoxy (Sunni faith) rather than simply crush his rival Muslims with the sword, which he did only when necessary (though he did lock up or execute the entire Fatimid court). In fact, while his most famous creation in Cairo today may be the military fortress known as the Citadel, his greatest architectural contribution to Cairo was probably the madrasa, a college-mosque where the interpretive ideology of the religion and Islamic law could be taught once more instead of Shi'a dogma. To this end, he imported Sunni professors from the East to staff his new schools. In eleven years, he built five such colleges as well as a mosque. However, they taught more than religion, with studies in administration, mathematics, geodesy, physics and medicine.

One of the schools that he built was near the grave of the Imam el Shafi'i, the founder of one of the four main rites of the orthodox Sunni sect, and the school to which many Egyptians still belong and to which Saladin himself was a member. This was in the southern cemetery known as Khalifa.

Saladin's imprint on Cairo is still very visible today.

But, of course, Saladin did think of the city's defenses. Even though he opened up the royal city, he still had to have a genuine fortress that would be invulnerable to any kind of military attack. Thus, between 1176 and 1177, he began to build the Citadel, today, one of Cairo's most famous monuments. He also needed a center of absolute authority within the city, and this need would also be met.

Saladin's imprint on Cairo is still very visible today. Above all, he wanted to enclose the whole of it, including the ruins of Fustat-Misr with a formidable wall, and he began with Badr's wall to the north and extended it west to the Nile and the port of al Maks. On the east, under the Mukattam Hills, he carried Badr's walls south to his Citadel, which was built two hundred and fifty feet above the city on its own hill.

Regrettably, however, though he may have shaped Cairo, little of his building work remains. None of his religious monuments have survived, and little of Saladin's Citadel or his city walls are left. Perhaps the most impressive work that does still remain is the original perimeter of the Citadel, especially when viewed from the rear, which makes its medieval character absolutely real. However, most of today's Citadel was not built by Saladin, and in fact most every conqueror including the British added something to it.

the Citadel that Saladin built was a hospital

Perhaps one of the most regrettable losses within the Citadel that Saladin built was a hospital, who his secretary, Ibn Gubayr, described almost in terms of any good modern clinic today. He said it was a "palace goodly for its beauty and spaciousness". Saladin staffed it with doctors and druggists, and it had special rooms, beds, bedclothes, servants to look after the sick, free food and medicine, and a special ward for sick women. Nearby, he also built a separate building with barred windows for the insane, who were treated humanely and looked after by experts who tried to find out what had happened to their minds.

Saladin opened the palaces of al-Qahira (Cairo) and sold off the fabled treasure of the Fatimids, including a 2,400 carat ruby, and an emerald four fingers in length and the caliph's splendid library, to pay his Turkish troops. He replaced the Fatimid's elaborate bureaucracy with a feudal system that gave his military officers direct control over all Egypt's rich agricultural lands, an act that has been blamed for a very sever famine which occurred during his successor's reign.

Such wealth enabled Saldin to stride from success to success in Palestine. At the Battle of Hattin (where he captured Jerusalem) in 1187, he dealt the Crusader kingdoms a blow from which they never recovered. Thousands of Christian prisoners were marched the 400 miles back to Cairo, where they were forced to work extending the city's fortifications and building the Citadel.

Saladin left Cairo in 1182 to fight the crusaders in Syria, and he never returned. By the time he died in Damascus in 1193, he had liberated almost all of Palestine from the armies of England, France, Burgandy, Flanders, Sicily, Austria and, in effect, from the world power of the Pope, as well as establishing his own family in Cairo. In his battles against these European crusaders, he often had the aid of eastern Christians, who were as much the victims of the western armies as anybody else in the eastern lands. The Proud Georgians, for instance, preferred Saladin to the Pope, and so did the Copts of Egypt.

In the end, Saladin was succeeded by his brother al Adil, but the groundwork of the city of Cairo was now developed and it would struggle on often through the reigns of cruel, arbitrary, intelligent, cultured, brutal, artistic rulers with a populace who lived a very full and risky life of hard work, trade, gaiety, terrible suffering, calamity, patience and extraordinary passions who somehow managed to break the confines of the religion and the harsh authority which governed their lives in future years.

A timeline of Saladin's Life:

  • 1138: Born in Tikrit in Iraq as the son of the Kurdish chief Najm ad-Din Ayyub.

  • 1152: Starts to work in the service of the Syrian ruler, Nur al-Din.

  • 1164: He starts to show his military abilities in three campaigns against the Crusaders who were established in Palestine.

  • 1169: Serves as second to the commander in chief of the Syrian army, his uncle Shirkuh.

  • 1171: Saladin suppresses the Fatimid rulers of Egypt in 1171, whereupon he unites Egypt with the Abbasid Caliphate.

  • 1174: Nur al-Din. dies, and Saladin uses the opportunity to extend his power base, conquering Damascus.

  • 1175: The Syrian Assassin leader Rashideddin's men make two attempts on the life of Saladin. The second time, the Assassin came so close that wounds were inflicted upon Saladin.

  • 1176: Saladin besieges the fortress of Masyaf, the stronghold of Rashideddin. After some weeks, Saladin suddenly withdraws, and leaves the Assassins in peace for the rest of his life. It is believed that he was exposed to a threat of having his entire family murdered.

  • 1183: Conquers the important north-Syrian city of Aleppo.

  • 1186: Conquers Mosul in northern Iraq.

  • 1187: With his new strength he attacks the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, and after three months of fighting gains control over the city.

  • 1189: A third Crusade manages to enlarge the coastal area of Palestine, while Jerusalem remains under Saladin's control.

  • 1192: With The Peace of Ramla armistice agreement with King Richard 1 of England, the whole coast was defined as Christian land, while the city of Jerusalem remained under Muslim control.

  • 1193 March 4: Dies in Damascus after a short illness.






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