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Poster for the Movie Saladin and the Crusaders, 1963. Often seen as a celebration of Colonel Nasser of Egypt, who wished, and failed, to replicate the Sultan’s deeds

When we enter the enemy’s terrain this is our army’s battle order, our method of advancing and retreating, the position of our battalions, the place where our knights rise up, where our lances are to fall, the paths by which to direct our horses, the arenas for our coursers, the gardens for our roses, the site of our vicissitudes, the outlets of our desires, the scene on which we shall be transfigured …

Saladin addressing his army before they entered the lands of the Crusaders.

Jerusalem was ill-prepared for a contest. Raymond of Tripoli had been made regent, since Baldwin had gone into a terminal decline, but a faction under Baldwin’s brother in-law, Guy of Lusignan, was contesting this control and accusing Raymond of plotting against the kingdom. The army of Jerusalem did not challenge Saladin when he raided Palestine, and appeared paralysed. Guy had managed to get himself named as regent over Raymond just before the sultan’s incursions, but his failure to ride out, as Baldwin would have, lost him the regency. This humiliation would later lead him to a catastrophic error of judgement.

Raymond of Tripoli secured a truce with Saladin in early 1185, as Baldwin IV lay dying. Saladin also came close to death from a contagion that spread through his camp as he besieged Mosul. Despite extreme ill-health Saladin kept his troops at the walls. Then, following a visit from a delegation of Zangid princesses, Saladin agreed to negotiate. Mosul accepted his suzerainty in March 1186; the grand coalition was now finally complete and Outremer was in dire peril. The new king, Guy of Lusignan, was not the man to save a kingdom. Raymond of Tripoli was forced to seek a further treaty with Saladin, this time for his own lands as his own king was mustering troops to attack Raymond’s capital, Tiberias.

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Saladin responded to Reynald of Châtillon’s continuing attacks on Muslim caravans by sending his son, al-Afdal, to raid Palestine. He was met in battle by a rather foolhardy contingent of Templars and Hospitallers, who had ignored Raymond of Tripoli’s advice to avoid conflict with the superior Muslim forces. They were caught by al-Afdal’s troopers at Saffuriyah on 1 May and annihilated. The Master of the Hospital died with his men.

Saladin reviewed the army in May 1187. He now commanded about 12,000 regular troopers and the chroniclers indicate that a significant number of volunteer fighters or Mujahideen, auxiliaries and Turcomen were also attracted to his standard. The entire force probably numbered about 20,000 men. On 2 July Saladin began a siege of Tiberias and quickly took the lower town. The army of Jerusalem lay not far off at Saffuriyah, as it had been shadowing the Muslim army’s progress. Guy had also called upon mercenaries and knights from Antioch to rally to him. Raymond warned Guy not to engage Saladin, but in truth the king’s army was roughly equal in size to the sultan’s and Guy still had the haunting memory of 1183 and his loss of the regency to spur him into action.

In truth, defeat would have been far more catastrophic for Saladin than for Guy. As at Mont Gisard, Saladin would have had to make a hazardous and protracted retreat. The Crusaders had been defeated many times before, but their army had always been preserved and the Muslims had been denied a decisive victory by the proximity of a fortified refuge. Saladin’s greatest achievement of the campaign of 1187 was to trap the Christian army away from any sources of security, in exposed country, where a liquidation of the flower of Jerusalem’s chivalry could be achieved.

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