Jerusalem 1187

ON FRIDAY 2 OCTOBER 1187, after a twelve-day siege, and less than a century after the victorious climax of the First Crusade, the inhabitants of Jerusalem surrendered their city under the terms allowed them by Saladin. Those who could afford to pay their ransom were free to walk towards the coast; those who could not pay were to be taken away as slaves. A few Knights Hospitaller were permitted to remain to run their hospital for pilgrims located in the heart of the city adjacent to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The knights of the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ were driven out altogether – their headquarters had been the Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount. The Franks believed that the Aqsa mosque had been built on the very site of the Templum Solomonis, as they called it in Latin, and it was not long before the knights became known as the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon; or, simply and most famously, the Templars.

Saladin’s order to purify Jerusalem ‘of the filth of the hellish Franks’,1 in the words of his secretary Imad al-Din, began with the Aqsa mosque, for the Templars had been ‘overflowing with impurities’ so that ‘slackness in purifying it is forbidden to us’. 2 The walls and floors of the Aqsa mosque and the nearby Dome of the Rock were cleansed with rosewater and incense; then Saladin’s soldiers went about the city tearing down churches or stripping them of their decorations and converting them to mosques and madrasas, ‘to purify Jerusalem of the pollution of those races, of the filth of the dregs of humanity, to reduce the minds to silence by silencing the bells’. 3 Only the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was spared, Saladin saying that it would pay its way by charging Christian pilgrims an extortionate entrance fee. 4

To the Franks of Outremer – ‘the land across the sea’, as the crusader states were called – the fall of Jerusalem was seen as the terrible judgement of God. Saladin’s capture of the city even suggested to some that Christianity was an inferior belief to Islam. ‘Our people held the city of Jerusalem for some eighty-nine years’, wrote the anonymous author of the De Expugnatione Terrae Sanctae per Saladinum. ‘Within a short time, Saladin had conquered almost the whole Kingdom of Jerusalem. He exalted the grandeur of Mohammed’s law and showed that, in the event, its might exceeded that of the Christian religion.’5

Frankish misery was more than matched by Muslim exultation. ‘The victory of Islam was clear, and so was the death of Unbelief’,6 wrote Imad al-Din, as though Christianity itself was destroyed that day. For maximum effect, Saladin had waited until Friday 27 Rajab in the Muslim calendar, the anniversary of Mohammed’s Night Journey from Jerusalem into Heaven, to take possession of the city. ‘What a wonderful coincidence!’ exclaimed Ibn Shaddad, Saladin’s biographer and friend.7 Saladin radiated the triumph of jihad as he entered the city, sat upon a throne ‘which seemed as if surrounded by a lunar halo’ and gave an audience to receive congratulations. ‘His carpet was kissed, his face glowed, his perfume was sweet, his affection all-embracing, his authority intimidating.’8Saladin carefully presented his capture of Jerusalem as a great victory for the jihad for, like the ‘propagandistic posing’9 of purifying the Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, it gave out the message that he and his family, the Ayyubids (from his father, Ayyub), were the effective rulers and the protectors of Islam, not the caliph in Baghdad. To hammer home the point, Saladin ordered that gold coins be struck describing him as ‘the sultan of Islam and the Muslims’.10

Yet since 1174, when Saladin became sultan of Egypt and began his independent career, though notionally subject to the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad, he had campaigned against the Franks for barely more than a year; all the rest of his campaigns were directed against his fellow Muslims, whom he defamed as heretics and hypocrites, and who in turn saw him as ‘a dynast who used Islam for his own purposes’.11 Indeed right up until 1187, Saladin’s reputation in Muslim eyes amounted to nothing more than ‘a record of unscrupulous schemes and campaigns aimed at personal and family aggrandisement’. 12 Not surprisingly, when the news of Saladin’s capture of Jerusalem reached Baghdad, the caliph was less than happy, for he had been counting on the Franks to limit Saladin’s ambitions, and the caliph let it be known through his advisers that ‘this man [Saladin] thinks that he will overturn the Abbasid dynasty’.13 As the caliph understood, by his conquest of Jerusalem, though it had no strategic value, Saladin had won what he most needed to further his dynastic ambitions, the acquiescence of Muslims to his rule; as Saladin’s adviser Al-Qadi al-Fadil wrote, he ‘has become my master and the master of every Muslim’.14

As well as using the propaganda of jihad to make his Muslim rivals submit to his authority or to eliminate them altogether, Saladin also used jihad as an excuse for imposing Muslim rule on Christians, who even at this time were still the majority of the population in Syria, Palestine and Egypt.15Jihad has its origins in the Koran, which enjoins Muslims to ‘proclaim a woeful punishment to the unbelievers’16 and to ‘make war upon them: God will chastise them at your hands and humble them’.17 Defined as a ‘divine institution of warfare’, the purpose of jihad is to extend Islam into thedar al-harb – that is, the abode of struggle or disbelief (as opposed to the dar al-Islam, the abode of peace, where Islam and sharia law prevail); and jihad ends only when ‘the unbelievers have accepted either Islam or a protected status within Islam’.18 Jihad is also fought when Islam is in danger, so that when Christians reclaim Christian territory from Muslim occupation, that too can be a reason for jihad. It was a concept that perfectly suited Saladin’s ambitions, providing religious justification for his imperialist war against Outremer.

Saladin and his army conquered Jerusalem and made war in the Middle East as an alien power – alien in religion from the Christian majority and both ethnically and culturally alien from the indigenous Greek-, Armenian-, Syriac- (that is, Aramaic-) and Arabic-speaking population. Saladin himself was a Turkified Kurd who began his career serving the Seljuk Turks, who were invaders from Central Asia, and his army at Jerusalem was Turkish, though with a Kurdish element.19 The Turks looked down on the Arabs whose rule in the Middle East they had replaced, and the Arabs viewed the Turks with bitter contempt; nor is there much evidence ‘of the Arab knights learning Turkish, the language of their military overlords, nor that the Turks learned much Arabic’.20 Being alien also meant being indifferent, so that after his capture of the city Saladin acknowledged that the Franks had ‘turned Jerusalem into a garden of paradise’;21 yet he himself neglected Jerusalem and caused it to decline,22 just as he destroyed everything he could along the coast, regardless of the welfare of the native population. This was no war of liberation, of reclaiming lost lands; it was the continuance of previous aggression, of Islamic imperialism driven by Saladin’s dynastic ambitions.

The disaster had been anticipated by the Frankish chronicler William of Tyre, who died in 1186, the year before Jerusalem fell, but who, in recounting how Saladin had begun tightening the noose round the kingdom of Jerusalem with his seizure of Damascus in 1174, analysed why the Franks seemed unable to rise to the threat. ‘The question is often asked, and quite justly, why it was that our fathers, though less in number, so often bravely withstood in battle the far larger forces of the enemy. [. . .] In contrast to this, the men of our times too often have been conquered by inferior forces.’ William gave three reasons for this situation. First, ‘our forefathers were religious men and feared God. Now in their places a wicked generation has grown up.’ The second reason was that, until the advent of Saladin, the Franks in Outremer had enjoyed a ‘long-continued peace’ with their Muslim neighbours, so that now ‘they were unused to the art of war, unfamiliar with the rules of battle, and gloried in their state of inactivity’. But only with his third reason did William of Tyre identify what in fact was the fundamental problem. ‘In former times almost every city had its own ruler’, but now ‘all the kingdoms round about us obey one ruler, they do the will of one man, and at his command alone, however reluctantly, they are ready, as a unit, to take up arms for our injury. Not one among them is free to indulge any inclination of his own or may with impunity disregard the commands of his overlord.’23

But in those autumn days of 1187 after Jerusalem had fallen, neither the faith nor the fighting spirit of the Franks was entirely overwhelmed. The kingdom of Jerusalem had suffered a comprehensive defeat from which no feudal monarchy could have emerged with its powers unimpaired, but the military orders survived and became more important than before. This was particularly true of the Templars, whose single-minded policy and purpose was to preserve, to defend and now to regain Jerusalem and Outremer from the full might of the Turks.

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