Saladin, an Arab hero (12th century)

Saladin, an Arab hero (12th century)


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Saladin, Sultan of the Ayyubid dynasty who ruled Egypt and Syria in the 12th century, has gone down in legend, both in the West and in the East, for having restored Muslim power in the Middle East and recaptured Jerusalem from the Crusaders. His name is also very often associated with exceptional human qualities, which even among his opponents in the West we have not hesitated to call "chivalrous". But who was Saladin really, and especially how did he (and did he build himself) his destiny? Why and how did he become a legend in the Christian West and a myth in the Arab world?

Saladin in the service of the Turks

Rather than developing a simple biography of the sultan, we will try here to understand its importance in the ideology of the holy war, jihad (the “counter-crusade” of the Muslims for this time), with the central importance of Jerusalem, then the way in which he was recovered as a figure and a character both in the West and in the East, until today.

His real name Salâh al-Dîn Ibn Ayyub, he comes from a family Kurdish who made a fortune in the service (in particular military) of Zankî (or Zengi). The zankîdes come from the Turkish Seljuk lineage, and Ayyub, father of Saladin, was governor of Tikrit (place of birth of Saladin in around 1138, and of… Saddam Hussein) on their behalf, before assisting Nûr al-Dîn during the conquest of Damascus in 1154.

When Ayyub died, it was his brother Shirkûh who was entrusted by Nûr al-Dîn (under the authority of the Abbasid caliph of Baghdad) with the Egyptian campaign of 1164, intended to come to the aid of Vizier Shawâr in struggle with the Fatimid Caliph Al-Adid. The young Saladin accompanies him, and it is there that he gets his start quickly showing his skill, especially in politics. The men of Nûr al-Dîn, after having repelled an attack by the king of Jerusalem Amaury on Egypt, decide to take matters into their own hands: they begin by assassinating Shawâr, the very one they had come to support, and Saladin's uncle is appointed in his place by the Fatimid caliph!

Saladin master of Egypt and sultan

But Shirkûh dies quickly, and Saladin succeeds him; the caliph then makes the mistake of underestimating him. We are in 1169, and the young vizier manages during the following two years to manage an impossible situation: summoned by Nûr al-Dîn, he is therefore "vassal" of the Sunni Abbasid caliph of Baghdad ... but exercises his office under the authority of the Fatimid Shiite Caliph! In 1171, sure of his strength, he eliminated the Fatimid caliph and alone took control of theEgypt ; he then openly becomes a rival of his former master Nûr al-Dîn. He died in 1174, however, and Saladin had no trouble defeating his successors.

In the early 1180s, he established his power over an area stretching from Muslim Syria and northern Iraq, to ​​present-day Libya and the western Arabian Peninsula, obviously including all of Egypt. Yet he is already posing as a unifier of Muslims, still under the authority of the Caliph of Baghdad, who confers on him the title of sultan. For this, he decides to choose a goal common to the umma: jihad for the reconquest of Jerusalem.

Jihad and Jerusalem at the center of its propaganda

From the 1170s, he fought against Crusaders the cornerstone of its policy, organizing a real propaganda. He encourages the warlike interpretation of the notion of Jihad, a banner behind which he wants to unite Muslims and establish his legitimacy, in particular vis-à-vis the Zankîdes, "false" fighters of Allah according to him. In this, he perpetuates and amplifies the legacy of Nûr al-Dîn, as shown by the symbolic gesture of returning the minbar of his former master to the mosque of al-Aqsa in Jerusalem. Some historians have insinuated that the Jihad was Saladin's pretext for building a personal empire, but it cannot be denied that he was also a sincere believer. His certain thirst for conquest was not necessarily incompatible with his desire to serve his God.

He puts Jerusalem at the center of its jihadist propaganda, while the city is only the third of Islam's holy sites. This will be decisive for the campaign of 1187, which will largely create its legend. Indeed, he took advantage of the repeated provocations of his sworn enemy, the very agitated Renaud de Châtillon, to launch a major offensive against the strongholds of the Franks installed in the Latin States in 1186. In the past, he had experienced various fortunes against the Crusaders, including a defeat in 1177 at Montgisard against the young leper king Baudouin IV, but this time he is much better prepared, and above all, he managed to unify all the Muslims in the region behind him. He triumphed first at Hattin in July 1187, where the Crusader army was crushed and Renaud beheaded by his hand, then Jerusalem fell easily in October 1187.

The rest is as well known, especially in the West: the fall of the Holy City and the kingdom of Jerusalem provokes the Third Crusade and the arrival of the King of France Philippe Auguste and especially Richard the Lionheart. He became a formidable but respected enemy of the Sultan, and the Crusade ended with the Treaty of Jaffa in 1192, which confirms a status quo. Saladin died in March 1193.

Legend and myth, from West to East

Saladin’s path to posterity was much more complicated and even astonishing than one might think.

First of all, it was celebrated first ... in West ! From the beginning of the 13th century, songs of gesture celebrated his warlike qualities, but also his great leniency and his courtesy towards women. Those who fought him, like Richard, raved about him, as do those who met him - a source says Eleanor of Aquitaine had a crush on him, which saw her age at the time of Richard's mother's presence in the Holy Land is unlikely, but shows how far the legend can go (especially associated with Louis VII's wife's reputation as a nymphomaniac)… - or those who were her captives, like Sibyl, Queen of Jerusalem, who says Saladin treated her remarkably well.

How to explain this positive vision? Mainly probably because it is more rewarding to have fought a valiant adversary, it is especially the case for a Richard fond of building his own legend, or of having been defeated by an exceptional being. We must also not exclude the other, darker legends about Saladin who, this time, compared him to a demon and a being without mercy and thirst for blood with as main example Hattin, where he had all the Templars executed. Be that as it may, positive or negative, the legend of Saladin has endured in the West, resumed in the 18th century and until the end of the 19th century, when the Emperor William II respectfully visits his tomb in Damascus, participating even during its renovation!

What about the East then? Well, the path is almost the other way around: Saladin is far from celebrated after his death, even though he enjoys unquestionable prestige thanks to his reconquest of Jerusalem. In the first place, it leaves a empire certainly vast, but very fragile and almost ruined. His struggles with Richard the Lionheart also damaged his reputation for invincibility, and his religious tolerance for dhimmis (Christians and Jews) irritates the most radical Ulama (scholars of Islam). Above all, his successors are divided and, worse, for a time restore Jerusalem to the Crusaders of Frederick II! They were overthrown by the Mameluks in Egypt in 1250.

Contemporary posterity of Saladin

It is the decisive moment which harms the posterity of Saladin, because the new dynasty makes a myth of its own hero, Baybars, victorious of the Mongols then the Crusaders. This one is the true Muslim hero until the Ottoman Empire included… It is in fact necessary to wait until the XIXth and especially the XXth century so that the figure of Saladin reappears; there are several explanations for this: the context sees a Ottoman Empire weakened in the face of the West and a Turkish caliphate contested by the Arabs at the end of the 19th century, then the emergence of Arab nationalism, especially after World War II. In 1948, the creation of the State of Israel quickly paralleled the Latin States.

The reappropriation of Saladin is then almost logical: even Kurdish, Saladin was very Arabized from his childhood and therefore sees himself recovered as a great arab figure against the Turks as much as against the Hebrews and the Westerners (both assimilated to the Crusaders); winner and conqueror of Jerusalem, he is also the ideal character to express pride but also a call for a "new Saladin" ... During the entire second half of the 20th century, we then witness the construction of the Saladin myth in the Middle East: leaders claim it, like Saddam Hussein; statues like that of Damascus are erected to him; and Palestinian groups take the names of some of his victories like Hattin. It is celebrated even in popular culture, through films (like that of Youssef Chahine), but also television series broadcast as far as Indonesia!

Saladin is therefore more present than ever in the Muslim world.

Non-exhaustive bibliography

- A.M Eddé, Saladin, Flammarion, 2008.

- P. Aubé, A crusader against Saladin: Renaud de Chatillon, Fayard, 2007.

- J.M. Mouton, Saladin the Sultan Chevalier, Gallimard, 2001.


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