Part Four


(1146 — 1187)

May God grant victory to Islam and not to MaÎmÙd. Who is this dog MaÎmÙd to merit victory?


Unifier of the Arab East



NÙr al-DÐn, the Saint-King

Only one man remained unruffled amidst the confusion that reigned in ZangÐ’s camp. He was twenty-nine years old, a tall man with dark skin, clean-shaven but for a goatee, his forehead broad, his expression gentle and serene. He approached the still-warm body of the atabeg and, trembling, took his hand and removed his signet ring, symbol of power, slipping it onto his own finger. His name was NÙr al-DÐn, ZangÐ’s second son.

I have read the biographies of the sovereigns of old, and other than among the first caliphs I have found no man as virtuous and just as NÙr al-DÐn. Ibn al-AthÐr virtually worshipped this prince, and with good reason. For although ZangÐ’s son had inherited his father’s qualities of austerity, courage, and statesmanship, he had none of the defects that made the atabeg so odious to some of his contemporaries. Where ZangÐ struck fright with his truculence and complete lack of scruples, NÙr al-DÐn, from his very first appearance on the scene, managed to cultivate the image of a pious, reserved, and just man, one who kept his word and was thoroughly devoted to the jihÁd against the enemies of Islam.

Even more important—and herein lay his genius—he was able to weld these virtues into a formidable political weapon. As far back as the middle of the twelfth century, he understood the invaluable role of psychological mobilization, and he therefore built a genuine propaganda apparatus. Several hundred men of letters, religious figures for the most part, were entrusted with the mission of winning the active sympathy of the people and of thereby forcing the leaders of the Arab world to flock to his banner. Ibn al-AthÐr reports the complaint of an emir of JazÐra who was Ýinvited’ by the son of ZangÐ to participate in a campaign against the Franj.

If I do not rush to NÙr al-DÐn’s aid, the emir said, he will strip me of my domain, for he has already written to the devotees and ascetics to request the aid of their prayers and to encourage them to incite the Muslims to jihÁd. At this very moment, each of these men sits with his disciples and companions reading NÙr al-DÐn’s letters, weeping and cursing me. If I am to avoid anathema, I must accede to his request.

NÙr al-DÐn supervised his corps of propagandists personally. He would commission poems, letters, and books, and always took care that they were released at the time when they would produce the desired effect. The principles he preached were simple: a single religion, Sunni Islam, which meant a determined struggle against all the various Ýheresies’; a single state that would encircle the Franj on all fronts; a single objective, jihÁd, to reconquer the occupied territories and above all to liberate Jerusalem. During his 28-year reign, NÙr al-DÐn would call upon various ÝulamÁ’ to write treatises hailing the merits of al-Quds, the holy city, and public readings were organized in the mosques and schools.

On these occasions, no one ever omitted to eulogize the supreme mujÁhid, the irreproachable Muslim NÙr al-DÐn. But this cult of the personality was unusually effective and clever in that it was based, paradoxically, on the humility and austerity of the son of ZangÐ.

According to Ibn al-AthÐr:

NÙr al-DÐn’s wife once complained that she did not have enough money to provide adequately for his needs. He had assigned her three shops which he owned in Homs; these generated about twenty dinars a year. When she found that this was not enough, he retorted: ÝI have nothing else. With all the money I command, I am but the treasurer of the Muslims, and I have no intention of betraying them, nor of casting myself into the fires of hell on your account.’

Such words, very widely broadcast, proved especially embarrassing to the princes of the region, who lived in luxury and squeezed their subjects to wring every last pittance out of them. In fact, NÙr al-DÐn’s propaganda laid heavy emphasis on the taxes he abolished in the lands subject to his authority.

If he embarrassed his adversaries, the son of ZangÐ was often no less exacting with his own emirs. As time went on, he became increasingly strict about religious precepts. Not content with forswearing alcohol himself, he forbade his army to partake in it, or to have any truck with Ýthe tambourine, the flute, and other objects displeasing to God’, as KamÁl al-DÐn, the chronicler of Aleppo, explains, adding: NÙr al-DÐn abandoned luxurious garments and instead covered himself with rough cloth. The Turkish officers, who were accustomed to heavy drinking and sumptuous adornments, were not always comfortable with this master who smiled so rarely and whose favourite company seemed to be turbaned ÝulamÁ'.

Even less reassuring to the emirs was the son of ZangÐ’s tendency to dispense with his title, NÙr al-DÐn (Ýlight of religion’), in favour of his first name, MaÎmÙd. ÝO God’, he would pray before battle, Ýgrant victory to Islam and not to MaÎmÙd. Who is this dog MaÎmÙd to merit victory?’ Such manifestations of humility won him the sympathy of the weak and pious, but the powerful considered them simply hypocritical. It appears, however, that he was sincere in his convictions, although his public image was undoubtedly confected in part. In any event, he obtained results: it was NÙr al-DÐn who turned the Arab world into a force capable of crushing the Franj, and it was his lieutenant Saladin who reaped the fruits of victory.

Upon the death of his father, NÙr al-DÐn succeeded in assuming control of Aleppo—not much compared to the enormous domain conquered by the atabeg, but the very modesty of his initial realm itself assured the glory of his reign. ZangÐ had spent most of his life fighting against the caliphs, sultans, and various emirates of Iraq and JazÐra. His son would be unencumbered by this exhausting and ungrateful task. Leaving Mosul and its adjoining region to his older brother Sayf al-DÐn, with whom he maintained cordial relations, thereby ensuring that he could count on a powerful friend on his eastern border, NÙr al-DÐn devoted himself to Syrian affairs.

Nevertheless; his position was far from comfortable when he arrived in Aleppo in September 1146, accompanied by his close confidant the Kurdish emir ShÐrkÙh, uncle of Saladin. Once again the city lived in fear of the knights of Antioch, and at the end of October, even before NÙr al-DÐn had had time to establish his authority beyond the city walls, he was told that Joscelin had succeeded in retaking Edessa, with the aid of part of the Armenian population. Edessa was not just one more city like those that had been lost since the death of ZangÐ: it was the very symbol of the atabeg’s glory, and its fall imperilled the whole future of the dynasty. NÙr al-DÐn reacted swiftly. Riding day and night, abandoning exhausted mounts along the way, he arrived at Edessa before Joscelin had had time to organize a defence. The count, whose courage had not been bolstered by his past ordeals, decided to flee at nightfall. His supporters, who tried to follow him, were caught and massacred by the Aleppan cavalry.

The rapidity with which the insurrection had been crushed brought the son of ZangÐ fresh prestige of which his nascent regime had great need. Drawing the lesson, Raymond of Antioch became less enterprising. As for ÝUnar, he quickly offered the ruler of Aleppo the hand of his daughter in marriage.

The marriage contract was drafted in Damascus, Ibn al-QalÁnisi explains, in the presence of NÙr al-DÐn’s envoys. Work on the trousseau began immediately, and as soon as it was ready, the envoys left to return to Aleppo.

NÙr al-DÐn’s position in Syria was apparently secure. But Joscelin’s plots, Raymond’s raids, and the intrigues of the old fox in Damascus would soon seem derisory compared to the fresh danger now looming.

Reports kept coming in—from Constantinople, from the territory of the Franj, and from neighbouring lands too—that the kings of the Franj were on their way from their countries to attack the land of Islam. They had emptied their own provinces, leaving them devoid of defenders, and had brought with them riches, treasures, and immeasurable matériel. They numbered, it was said, as many as a million foot-soldiers and cavalry, perhaps even more.

Ibn al-QalÁnisi was seventy-five when he wrote those lines, and he undoubtedly remembered that he had had to report a similar event, in scarcely different terms, half a century before.

Indeed, from the outset the second Frankish invasion, provoked by the fall of Edessa, seemed a repetition of the first. Countless fighters were unleashed against Asia Minor in the autumn of 1147, and once again they bore on their backs the two strips of cloth sewn into the form of a cross. As they passed Dorylaeum, where the historic defeat of Kilij Arslan had occurred, the latter’s son MasÝÙd was waiting for them, seeking revenge fifty years on. He laid a series of ambushes and dealt them some particularly deadly blows. It was constantly said that their forces were being pared down, so that people began to breathe easier. But Ibn al-QalÁnisi adds that after all the losses they suffered, the Franj were still said to number about a hundred thousand. Here as elsewhere, the figures should not be taken too literally. Like all his contemporaries, the chronicler of Damascus was no slave to precision, and it would have been impossible for him to verify these estimates in any event. Nevertheless, one should pay tribute in passing to Ibn al-QalÁnisi’s scruples, for he adds an Ýit is said’ whenever a figure seems suspect to him. Ibn al-AthÐr had no such scruples, but he did take care, when presenting his personal interpretation of some event, to conclude with the words AllÁhu Ýaalim, or ÝGod alone knows’.

Whatever the exact numerical strength of the new Frankish invaders, there is no doubt that their forces, added to those of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Tripoli, were quite adequate to upset the Arab world, which observed their movements with growing dread. One question arose unflaggingly: which city would they attack first? Logically, they should begin with Edessa. Was it not to avenge its fall that they had come? But they could as well assault Aleppo, striking at the head of the rising power of NÙr al-DÐn. In that event, Edessa would fall almost automatically, In fact, neither was the target. After lengthy disputes among their kings, says Ibn al-QalÁnisi, they finally agreed among themselves to attack Damascus, and they were so sure of taking it that they made agreements in advance about how the dependencies would be divided up.

Attack Damascus? The city of MuÝÐn al-DÐn ÝUnar, the only Muslim leader to have signed a treaty of alliance with Jerusalem? The Franj could have done the Arab resistance no greater service. With hindsight, however, it appears that the powerful kings commanding these armies of Franj believed that only the conquest of a prestigious city like Damascus would justify their long journey to the East. The Arab chroniclers speak mainly of Conrad, king of the Germans, never making the slightest mention of the presence of Louis VII, king of France, a personality, it is true, of no great distinction.

As soon as he was informed of the designs of the Franj, Ibn al-QalÁnisi reports, the emir MuÝÐn al-DÐn began preparations to defeat their maleficence. He fortified all the points at which an attack might be feared, deployed soldiers along the routes, replenished the wells, and destroyed the water sources in the environs of the city.

On 24 July 1148 the Frankish troops arrived before Damascus, followed by long columns of camels laden with their baggage. The Damascenes poured from their city in their hundreds to confront the invaders. Among them was an aged theologian of Moroccan origin, al-Findalawi.

Upon seeing him walking ahead, MuÝÐn al-DÐn approached him, Ibn al-AthÐr reports, greeted him, and said, ÝVenerable old man, your advanced age exempts you from fighting. It is we who will defend the Muslims.’ He asked him to turn back, but al-Findalawi refused, saying: ÝI have sold myself and God has bought me.’ Thus did he refer to the words of the Almighty: ÝGod has bought the persons and property of the faithful, and will grant them paradise in return.’ Al-Findalawi marched forward and fought the Franj until he fell under their blows.

Al-Findalawi’s martyrdom was soon followed by that of another ascetic, a Palestinian refugee named al-Halhuli. But despite these acts of heroism, the advance of the Franj could not be checked. They spread across the plain of GhÙÔa and pitched their tents, coming close to the city walls at several points. On the night of that very first day of battle the Damascenes, fearing the worst, began erecting barricades in the streets.

The next day, 25 July, was a Sunday, Ibn al-QalÁnisi reports, and the inhabitants began making sorties at dawn. The battle ceased only at nightfall, by which time everyone was exhausted. Each side then returned to its own positions. The army of Damascus spent the night opposite the Franj, and the citizens stayed posted on the walls watching, for they could see the enemy close by.

On Monday morning the Damascenes took heart, for they saw waves of Turkish, Kurdish, and Arab cavalry arriving from the north. ÝUnar had written to all the princes of the region appealing for reinforcements, and they were now beginning to reach the besieged city. It was reported that NÙr al-DÐn would arrive the following day, at the head of the army of Aleppo, and so would his brother Sayf al-DÐn, with that of Mosul. According to Ibn al-AthÐr, at their approach MuÝÐn al-DÐn sent one message to the foreign Franj and another to the Franj of Syria. He addressed the former in the simplest possible terms: The king of the Orient is on his way; if you do not depart, I will hand the city over to him, and you will regret it. For the others, the Ýcolons’, he used a different language: Are you now fool enough to aid these people against us? Have you failed to understand that if they take Damascus, they will seek to deprive you of your own cities? As for me, if I am unable to defend the city, I will deliver it to Sayf al-DÐn, and you know very well that if he takes Damascus, you will no longer be able to hold your positions in Syria.

MuÝÐn al-DÐn ÝUnar’s manoeuvre met with immediate success. Having reached a secret agreement with the local Franj, who now undertook to convince the king of the Germans to abandon Damascus before the arrival of the reinforcing armies, he sought to assure the success of his diplomatic intrigues by granting attractive bonuses. At the same time, he sent hundreds of snipers into the orchards ringing the city to ambush and harass the Franj. By Monday night the dissension aroused by the wily old Turk began to have its effect. The suddenly demoralized attackers had decided on a tactical retreat to regroup their forces, and they now found themselves harassed by the Damascenes on a completely exposed plain, with no water supply whatever. Within a few hours their position had become so untenable that their kings no longer contemplated seizing the Syrian metropolis, but thought only of saving their troops, and themselves, from annihilation. By Tuesday morning the Frankish armies were already falling back towards Jerusalem, pursued by MuÝÐn al-DÐn’s men.

There was no doubt about it, the Franj were not what they used to be. Negligence and disunity among military commanders, it seemed, were no longer the unhappy prerogative of the Arabs. The Damascenes found this amazing. Was it possible that this powerful Frankish expedition, which for months had caused the entire Middle East to tremble, was disintegrating after only four days of battle? It was thought that they were preparing some trick, Ibn al-QalÁnisi says. But no. The new Frankish invasion really was finished.The German Franj, Ibn al-AthÐr says, returned to their country, which lies over yonder, beyond Constantinople, and God rid the faithful of this calamity.

ÝUnar’s surprising victory raised his prestige and tended to make people forget his past compromises with the invaders. But MuÝÐn al-DÐn was in the last days of his career. He died a year after the battle. One day when he had eaten lavishly, as was his habit, he was taken ill. It was learned that he had been struck with dysentery. That, Ibn al-QalÁnisi notes, is a fearful disease from which few recover. With ÝUnar’s death, power passed to the nominal sovereign of the city, ÝAbaq, a descendant of Tughtigin, a young man of sixteen of scant intelligence who would never stand on his own two feet.

The real winner of the battle of Damascus was undoubtedly NÙr al-DÐn. In June 1149 he succeeded in crushing the army of Raymond, prince of Antioch, whom ShÐrkÙh, the uncle of Saladin, killed with his own hands. ShÐrkÙh cut off his head and brought it to his master, who in accordance with custom sent it on to the caliph of Baghdad, in a silver box. Having thus removed any Frankish threat to northern Syria, the son of ZangÐ was free to devote all his efforts to the realization of his father’s old dream: the conquest of Damascus. Back in 1140 the city had preferred to strike an alliance with the Franj rather than submit to the brutal yoke of ZangÐ. But things had changed. MuÝÐn al-DÐn was dead, and the behaviour of the Occidentals had shaken even their most fervent partisans. Above all, NÙr al-DÐn’s reputation was nothing like his father’s. His aim was to seduce the proud city of the Umayyads, not violate it.

When he and his troops reached the orchards ringing the city, NÙr al-DÐn proved more concerned to win the sympathy of the population than to prepare an assault. NÙr al-DÐn, Ibn al-QalÁnisi reports, acted benevolently toward the peasants and did not impose his presence upon them. Throughout Damascus and in its dependencies, the people prayed to God on his behalf. When, shortly after his arrival, abundant rains fell, ending a long drought, the populace credited NÙr al-DÐn with ending their sufferings. ÝIt was thanks to him’, they said, Ýand to his justice and exemplary conduct.’

Although the nature of his ambitions was clear enough, the master of Aleppo refused to comport himself as a conqueror.

I have not pitched camp here in order to make war against you or to lay siege, he wrote to the leaders of Damascus. Only the many complaints of the Muslims have induced me to act in this way, for the peasants have been despoiled of their goods and separated from their children by the Franj, and they have no one to defend them. Since God has bestowed upon me the power to grant succour to the Muslims and to wage war on the infidels, and since I command great quantities of resources and of men, it would be impermissible for me to neglect the Muslims and fail to take up their defence, especially since I well know that you are unable to protect your provinces and am aware of your degradation, which led you to seek the aid of the Franj and to deliver the goods of your poorest subjects to them, subjects whom you have criminally wronged. This pleases neither God nor any Muslim.

This letter revealed the full subtlety of the strategy of the new ruler of Aleppo, who now put himself forward as the defender of the Damascenes, in particular of the disinherited among them, visibly seeking to arouse them against their rulers. The sharp response of the latter only helped to bring the citizenry ever closer to the son of ZangÐ. ÝAll that stands between us now is the sword’, they said. ÝThe Franj will come to help us defend ourselves.’

Despite the sympathy he had gained among the population, NÙr al-DÐn preferred not to confront the reunited forces of Jerusalem and Damascus, and so agreed to withdraw to the north. But not without having made some gains: his name would now be mentioned in the Friday sermons just after those of the caliph and sultan, and coins were struck in his name, a common manifestation of allegiance by Muslim cities seeking to appease conquerors.

NÙr al-DÐn was encouraged by this partial success. A year later, he returned to the Damascus area with his troops, sending a new letter to ÝAbaq and the other leaders of the city. I desire no more than the well-being of the Muslims, jihÁd against the infidels, and the release of the prisoners they are holding. If you come over to my side with the army of Damascus, if we help each other to wage the jihÁd, my wish will be fulfilled. ÝAbaq’s only response was to call upon the Franj once again, now marching under the banner of their young King Baldwin III, son of Fulk. They soon arrived, and camped at the gates of Damascus for several weeks. Their knights were even granted permission to wander through the souks at will, which inevitably aroused tension with the people of the city, who had still not forgotten those who had fallen three years before.

NÙr al-DÐn prudently continued to avoid any confrontation with the coalition partners. He withdrew his troops from the environs of Damascus, waiting for the Franj to return to Jerusalem. For him, the battle was primarily political. Playing the bitterness of the citizens for all it was worth, he sent letter after letter to the Damascene notables and religious leaders denouncing ÝAbaq’s treason. He also made contact with many military officers exasperated by ÝAbaq’s open collaboration with the Franj. For the son of ZangÐ, it was important no longer merely to stimulate protests that would embarrass ÝAbaq, but to organize a network of accomplices within the coveted city who could induce Damascus to capitulate. The father of Saladin was entrusted with this delicate mission. By 1153, after some skilful organization, AyyÙb had indeed succeeded in winning the benevolent neutrality of the urban militia, whose commander was a younger brother of Ibn al-QalÁnisi. Several personalities of the army adopted a similar attitude, so that ÝAbaq’s isolation grew day by day. In the end, he was left with no more than a small group of emirs who still urged him to hold out. Having decided to get rid of these last hard-liners, NÙr al-DÐn arranged for false information to be sent to the ruler of Damascus to the effect that a plot was being hatched within his own entourage. Without bothering to find out whether or not the information was well-founded, ÝAbaq quickly executed or imprisoned several of his collaborators. His isolation was now complete.

One last operation remained. NÙr al-DÐn suddenly began intercepting all convoys of food heading for Damascus. Within two days the price of a sack of grain had risen from half a dinar to twenty-five dinars, and the populace began to fear starvation. It remained only for the agents of the ruler of Aleppo to convince public opinion that there would have been no shortages had ÝAbaq not chosen to ally with the Franj against his coreligionists of Aleppo.

On 18 April 1154 NÙr al-DÐn returned to the gates of Damascus with his troops. Once again ÝAbaq sent an urgent message to Baldwin. But this time the king of Jerusalem did not have time to react.

On 25 April the final assault was launched on the eastern side of the city.

There was no one defending the walls, the chronicler of Damascus reports, neither soldier nor citizen, except for a handful of Turks in charge of guarding a tower. One of NÙr al-DÐn’s soldiers rushed toward a rampart, at the summit of which stood a Jewish woman, who threw him a rope. With it he scaled the wall, reaching the top of the rampart without anyone’s noticing. He was followed by many of his comrades, who unfurled a banner, planted it atop the wall, and began to shout: ya manÒÙr, ÝO, victorious one!’ The Damascene troops and the population abandoned any resistance, because of their sympathy for NÙr al-DÐn, for his justice and good reputation. A sapper ran to BÁb al-Sharq, the east gate of the city, and shattered the closing apparatus with his pick. Soldiers rushed through it and fanned out through the main arteries of the city without encountering any opposition. BÁb TÙma, Thomas Gate, was also thrown open to the troops. Finally, King NÙr al-DÐn made his entrance, accompanied by his entourage, to the great joy of the inhabitants and soldiers, all of whom were obsessed by their fear of famine and their terror at being besieged by the Franj infidels.

Generous in victory, NÙr al-DÐn granted ÝAbaq and his close collaborators fiefdoms in the region of Homs and allowed them to flee with all their property.

NÙr al-DÐn had conquered Damascus by persuasion more than by force, with little fighting and no bloodbath. The city which for a quarter of a century had fiercely resisted all those who sought to subjugate it, be they Assassins, Franj, or supporters of ZangÐ, had allowed itself to be seduced by the sweet insistence of a prince who promised to guarantee its security and to respect its independence. Damascus was not to regret its decision, and thanks to NÙr al-DÐn and his successors, the city enjoyed one of the most glorious periods of its history.

The day after his victory, NÙr al-DÐn assembled the ÝulamÁ', qÁÃÐs, and merchants and delivered a reassuring speech; he also brought along large stocks of food and abolished a number of taxes affecting the fruit trade, the vegetable souk, and the distribution of water. An appropriate decree was drafted and announced from the pulpit the following Friday, after the prayer. The eighty-year-old Ibn al-QalÁnisi was still on the scene to share in the joy of his fellow citizens. The population applauded, he reports. The citizens, the peasants, the women, the poor—everyone addressed public prayers to God that NÙr al-DÐn be granted long life and that his banners be ever victorious.

For the first time since the beginning of the Frankish wars, the two great Syrian metropolises, Aleppo and Damascus, were united in a single state, under the authority of a 37-year-old prince who was determined to prosecute the struggle against the occupier. In fact, all of Muslim Syria was now unified, except for the small emirate of Shayzar, where the Munqidhite dynasty still managed to preserve its autonomy. But not for long, for the history of this tiny state was to be shaken in the sharpest and most unexpected manner imaginable.

In August 1157, as rumours were circulating in Damascus that NÙr al-DÐn was preparing an early campaign against Jerusalem, an earthquake of unusual violence devastated all of Syria, sowing death among Arab and Franj alike. Several towers of the Aleppo city walls collapsed, and the terrified population dispersed into the surrounding countryside. In ÍarrÁn the earth split so deeply that the remains of an ancient city were visible through the immense breach. In Tripoli, Beirut, Tyre, Homs, and MaÝarra, there were countless dead; innumerable buildings were destroyed.

But two cities were hit harder than any others by the cataclysm: Hama and Shayzar. It is said that a teacher in Hama, who had left his classroom to satisfy a pressing call of nature in a nearby vacant field, found his school demolished and all his pupils dead upon his return. Dumbfounded, he sat bleakly upon the ruins wondering how he would break the news to the parents, but none of them survived to claim their children.

On that same day in Shayzar, the sovereign of the city, the emir MuÎammad Ibn SultÁn, a cousin of UsÁmah, was organizing a reception in the citadel to celebrate his son’s circumcision. All the city’s dignitaries were there, along with the members of the ruling family, when the earth suddenly began to tremble. The walls collapsed, decimating the entire assembly. The emirate of the Munqidhites simply ceased to exist. UsÁmah, who was then in Damascus, was one of the few members of his family to survive. Deeply moved, he wrote: Death did not advance step by step to destroy the people of my race, to annihilate them separately or to strike them down two by two. They all died in the twinkling of an eye, and their palaces became their tombs. Then he added bitterly: The earthquakes struck this indifferent country only to rouse it from its torpor.

The tragedy of the Munqidhites did indeed inspire their contemporaries to much reflexion about the futility of all things human. More prosaically, the cataclysm offered people the opportunity to conquer or pillage with impunity in desolated cities or fortresses whose walls had crumbled. Shayzar in particular was immediately attacked, by both the Assassins and the Franj, before finally being taken by the army of Aleppo.

In October 1157 NÙr al-DÐn was taken ill as he was travelling from city to city supervising the repair of the walls. The prognosis of the Damascene physician Ibn al-Waqqar, who always travelled with him, was pessimistic. The prince hung between life and death for a year and a half, during which time the Franj occupied several fortresses and carried out a number of raids in the environs of Damascus. But NÙr al-DÐn took advantage of this period of enforced inactivity to ponder his destiny. During the first part of his reign, he had unified Muslim Syria under his aegis and had put an end to the internecine struggles that had weakened it. Now he would have to wage the jihÁd to reconquer the great cities occupied by the Franj. Some of his closest collaborators, especially the Aleppans, suggested that he start with Antioch, but to their great surprise, NÙr al-DÐn opposed this. Historically, he explained, that city belonged to the RÙm. Any attempt to seize it would tempt the Byzantines to interfere directly in Syrian affairs, and that would force the Muslim armies to fight on two fronts. No, he insisted, the RÙm must not be provoked. Instead they would try to recover an important coastal city, or even, God willing, Jerusalem.

Unfortunately for NÙr al-DÐn, events were soon to prove his fears justified. In 1159, as he was barely beginning to recover his health, he learned that a powerful Byzantine army, commanded by the emperor Manuel, son and successor of John Comnenus, had been assembled in northern Syria. NÙr al-DÐn quickly dispatched ambassadors to the emperor to extend him a courteous welcome. When he received them, the basileus, a wise man of majestic bearing and with a genuine interest in medicine, proclaimed his intention to maintain the most cordial possible relations with their master. If he had come to Syria, he assured them, it was only to teach the rulers of Antioch a lesson. It will be remembered that twenty-two years before, Manuel’s father had also come to Syria, supposedly for the same purpose; but that had not prevented him from making an alliance with the Occidentals against the Muslims. Nevertheless, NÙr al-DÐn’s ambassadors did not doubt the word of the basileus. They knew the rage felt by the RÙm at the mere mention of the name of Reynald of Châtillon, the knight who had presided over Antioch since 1153—a brutal, arrogant, cynical, and contemptible man who would come to symbolize for the Arabs everything evil about the Franj and whom Saladin would swear to kill with his own hands.

Prince Reynald, whom the chroniclers called ÝBrins Arnat’, arrived in the Middle East in 1147, dominated by the already anachronistic mentality of the first invaders: he thirsted for gold, blood, and conquest. Shortly after the death of Raymond of Antioch, he managed to seduce and then marry Raymond’s widow, thus becoming the lord of the city. His exactions had soon made him odious not only to his Aleppan neighbours, but also to the RÙm and to his own subjects. In 1156, on the pretext that Manuel had refused to pay him a promised sum, he decided to take revenge by organizing a punitive raid on the Byzantine island of Cyprus, and he asked the patriarch of Antioch to finance the expedition. When the prelate expressed reluctance, he was thrown into prison and tortured; his wounds were then coated with honey and he was chained and left exposed to the sun for an entire day, his body ravaged by thousands of insects.

The patriarch, not surprisingly, finally opened his treasury, and the prince, after assembling a flotilla, disembarked on the coast of the Mediterranean island, crushed the small Byzantine garrison with no trouble, and unleashed his men on the island. Cyprus neverfully recovered from what was done to it in that spring of 1156. All the island’s cultivated fields were systematically ravaged, from north to south; all the livestock was slaughtered; the palace, churches, and convents were pillaged, and everything that was not carried off was demolished or burned. Women were raped, old men and children slaughtered; rich men were taken as hostages, poor ones beheaded. Before setting off loaded with booty, Reynald ordered all the Greek priests and monks assembled; he then had their noses cut off before sending them, thus mutilated, to Constantinople.

Manuel would have to respond. But as the scion of the emperors of Rome, he could not do so in some merely typical manner. He had to reestablish his prestige by publicly humiliating the brigand knight of Antioch. As soon as Reynald heard that the imperial army was on its way to Syria, he realized that any resistance would be futile and decided to beg forgiveness. As amply gifted with servility as he was with arrogance, he presented himself in Manuel’s camp barefoot, dressed as a beggar, and threw himself before the imperial throne.

NÙr al-DÐn’s ambassadors were present at the scene. They watched ÝBrins Arnat’ lie in the dust at the feet of the basileus, who, apparently not even deigning to take note of his presence, calmly continued his conversation with his guests, waiting several minutes before finally casting a glance at his adversary and instructing him, with a condescending gesture, to rise.

Reynald obtained his pardon, and was therefore able to preserve his principality, but his prestige in northern Syria was tarnished for ever. In fact, the following year he was captured by Aleppan soldiers during one of his plundering excursions north of the city, and he spent sixteen years in captivity before reappearing on the scene, once again to play the most execrable of roles.

As for Manuel, his authority was to rise steadily after this expedition. He succeeded in imposing his suzerainty over the Frankish principality of Antioch and the Turkish states of Asia Minor alike, thus regaining for the empire a decisive role in Syrian affairs. This resurgence of Byzantine military power, the last in its history, redrew the map of conflict between the Arabs and the Franj. The permanent threat to his borders now represented by the RÙm prevented NÙr al-DÐn from launching the sweeping reconquest he had desired. But since the power of the son of ZangÐ also kept in check any expansionist inclinations on the part of the Franj, the situation in Syria was effectively at an impasse.

Then suddenly, as if the pent-up energies of the Arabs and the Franj were seeking some other outlet, the epicentre of war shifted to a new theatre of operations: Egypt.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!