Who Were the Saracens, Anyway? In the first paragraph of the Latin Rule of the Templars, the order’s

purpose was stated thus: to “defend the poor and the churches” of the Holy Land.1 The Rule never actually says against whom, but it was understood that the greatest danger to the poor and the churches came from the Saracens.

But who were the Saracens? It’s not certain where the word came from but it was in use by the time of the Romans to refer to the people of the Arab peninsula and, by association, it came to mean Moslems.2 It was a handy term for the crusaders to use since they were fairly vague on variations of belief and ethnic origins in the Near East.

The people of the area were, and still are, a mix of every migration of the world. The Near East is the pathway connecting Europe, Africa, and Asia, and even armies on their way to conquer something else had to go through it to get there. The first people to venture out of Africa went through on their way to populating the rest of the earth. The area has been ruled by Hittites, Phoenicians, Greeks, Persians, Jews, Romans, and Arabs. So by the end of the eleventh century the strip of land from Suez to Constantinople contained Armenian Christians, Jacobite Christians, Greek Orthodox Christians, Orthodox Jews, Karaite Jews, Samaritans, Arab Moslems, Persian Sunni Moslems, Druze, Egyptian Shi’ite Moslems, and the new guys, the Turks, who were ultraorthodox Sunni. And that’s just the religions. The coming of the Franks was no more than a new ingredient to the mix.

However, one problem the Western invaders had was that they weren’t up on all these variations. They didn’t understand that the Jacobite Christians were less oppressed by the Moslems than by the Byzantines, or that the Shi’ite city of Damascus preferred dealing with Christians than coming under the dominance of the Sunni caliphs of Baghdad.

In some ways, the Templars as a group learned the ropes sooner than the new princes and counts of the crusader kingdoms. In his autobiography, de Usama ibn Munqidh, emir of Shaizar, relates a tale about visiting the church that had been made next to theTemple in Jerusalem (the Templars’ headquarters—before and after the crusades, the mosque of al-Aqsa). “Whenever I went into the mosque, which was in the hands of the Templars who were friends of mine, they would put the little oratory at my disposal, so that I could say my prayers there.”3 Usama was not particularly fond of the Franks but he saw and judged them as individuals and did have friends among them, including Templars.

The Templars and Hospitallers also had groups of Moslems who paid tribute to them. For instance the Assassins paid two thousand bezants a year to each order. In 1230, the two military orders joined forces to exact retribution from the town of Hamah, which refused to pay.4

However, the main contact that the Templars had with the “Saracens” was in battle. Among the Turks, their first opponents, they came up against three very different leaders: Zengi, Nur ad-Din, and Saladin.


The first of the great Turkish adversaries of the crusaders was known to the Franks as Zengi (Zangi, Zanki), atabeg of Mosul. For most of his early career Zengi, working for the Sunni caliphs of Baghdad, concentrated on defeating the Shi’ites of Egypt and Damascus.5His first known contact with the Templars was in 1137 near Montferrand, in Tripoli.

At that time Zengi had come to the defense of the Moslem fortress of Homs, and defeated Pons of Tripoli, who died in the battle. As a result, King Fulk came north with a force that included several Templars. The Norman historian Orderic Vitalis relates the story of the battle and its aftermath:

Countless thousands of the Pagans fell, but by the will of God, whose judgments are just and right, almost the whole Christian force crumbled and all except thirty knights were slain. Only the king himself escaped, with ten of his household knights and eighteen knights of the Temple, and fled to a castle . . . called Montferrand where they stoutly resisted, although besieged for some time. . . . Zengi, although he had lost thousands of his men by the swords of the Christians, was nevertheless elated at winning the victory he had hoped for.6

At this point, Zengi was more concerned with conquering Shi’ite towns than attacking the Franks. But, since he was in the neighborhood, the opportunity was too good to pass up. He hadn’t had much luck with the Shi’ite town of Hims, and so the defeat of Fulk and his army was especially satisfying. He then besieged the remnant of the army at Montferrand and had reduced them to eating their horses and dogs, when a relief force appeared.7

The Chronicles of Damascus reports that Zengi was still the victor, even though he had to leave the field:

It became necessary under the circumstances to grant the besieged their liberty, and he made an agreement with them, on the grounds that they acknowledged his suzerainty, and stipulated for a sum of fifty thousand dinars, which they should pay him forthwith.8

Orderic doesn’t mention a payment or that King Fulk agreed that Zengi should be his lord. He states that the two men agreed to an exchange of prisoners and that Fulk, not knowing that relief was on the way, surrendered the castle in return for freedom.9

It’s interesting to me that both the Moslem and Christian accounts use the same language and that both Zengi and Fulk are fighting by the same conventions. Foot soldiers are killed; leaders and noblemen held for ransom. However far apart the worlds may seem to be, these are men of the same warrior culture. The fact is that they are part of a long tradition of Romans, Greeks, and Persians invading each other over many centuries. Even though Fulk was of German stock and Zengi Turkish, they had each grown up in a society in which the rules of war were identical.

Zengi then turned his attention back to his main objective of gaining control of Shi’ite towns. In 1139 he began to prepare for the siege of Damascus. After some time and several bloody battles outside the walls of the city, the leaders of Damascus sent to Fulk of Jerusalem for aid. Fulk agreed and made a treaty with the city.10On hearing this, Zengi backed off, contenting himself with raids on smaller villages, both Moslem and Christian, from which he looted “an innumerable quantity of horses at pasture, sheep and goats, cattle and furnishings.”11

You see what I mean about the rules of war. That’s exactly what the Christian forces were doing.

Even though he was more concerned with uniting the Moslem towns under Sunni government, Zengi still attacked Christian outposts. The Templar castle near the Jordan River was built as a result of Zengi’s massacre of six monks who were living in a church there.12

While he never was able to take Damascus, Zengi’s greatest triumph was the conquest of the city of Edessa on Christmas Eve 1144. This was the event that led to the Second Crusade.


The son of Zengi, Nur ad-Din (Nur al-Din, Nurandin) was a fit successor to his father and a daunting opponent to the crusader states. In appearance he was “a tall, swarthy man with a beard but no moustache and a pleasant appearance enhanced by beautiful, melting eyes.”13

Unlike Zengi, who was basically interested in the political conquest of Shi’ites as well as Christians, Nur ad-Din saw his mission as the elimination of the Latin kingdoms and the return of Jerusalem to Moslem control. He left a number of inscriptions on public buildings that emphasize this. One sign of his determination to return to a pure form of Islam is that the language of these inscriptions is Arabic, not Turkish or Persian, like those of his father.14He has been credited with reintroducing the idea of jihad, or religious war, into the Moslem world.15

His most remarkable feat was in 1154 when he took over the government of Damascus through propaganda rather than force. The leaders of Damascus feared him enough to make an alliance with the Franks but the people of the town had been listening to stories, songs, and sermons about how Nur ad-Din was a “true mujahid” and the only one who could assure a victory for Islam.16 They decided to overthrow their leaders and invite Nur ad-Din in.

Nur ad-Din died in Damascus on May 15, 1174. Despite the nearly thirty years of war between him and the Latin states, William of Tyre still wrote that “he was of great renown, a just prince, persecutor of the Christian faith, cunning and prudent and religious according to the traditions of his people.”17

Nur ad-Din would be succeeded not by the son he left behind, but by the leader who, for the West, is the archetypal Saracen, the Kurd Saladin.


“Paupers aut Ecclesias defendere,” in Laurent Dailliez, Règle et Status de l’Ordre du Temple (Paris: Dervey, 1996) p. 324.


Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1971) p. 2639.


“Usama,” in Francesco Gabrieli, Arab Historians of the Crusades (New York: Dorset, 1989) tr. from Italian by E. J. Costello p. 79.


Ph. Gourdin and G. Martinez-Gros (dirs) Pays d’Islam et monde latin 950-1250 (Tourai, 2001) p. 263.


Abua’lá Hamzah ibn Asad Ibn al-Qalanisi, The Damascus Chronicles of the Crusades, tr. H. A. R. Gibb (New York: Dover, 2002). p. 227ff.


Orderic Vitalis, The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis ed. and tr. Marjorie Chibnall (Oxford University Press, 1978) Vol. VI, book XIII, v. 94, pp. 496-97.




Ibn Al-Qalanisi p. 243.


Orderic Vitalis, op. cit., pp. 500-03.


Ibn Al-Qalanisi, pp. 259-60.


Ibid., p. 262.


Malcom Barber, The New Knighthood (Cambridge University Press, 1996) p. 89.


Ibn Al-Athir, in Gabrieli p. 68. Ibn Al-Athir (555/1160-630/1233) wrote a history of the Moslem world. He was fourteen when Nur ad-Din died.


Yasser Tabbaa, “Monuments with a Message: Propagation of Jihad under Nur Al-Din,” in Vladimir P. Gross, ed., The Meeting of Two Worlds (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 1986) p. 224.


Ibid., pp. 223-37.


Gourdin and Gros, p. 195.


William of Tyre, Chronicon, ed. R. B. C. Huygens (Turnholt, 1986) 20, 31, p. 956. “Noradinus, maximus nominis et fidei christiane presequutor, princes tamen justus, vafer et providus et secundum gentis sue traditiones religiosus.”

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