Saladin: The Politics of the Holy War; Malcolm Cameron Lyons & D.E.P. Jackson; Cambridge Press
Some books are easy reads, while others are definitely not. Saladin: The Politics of the Holy War falls into the second category, although to a student of Middle-Eastern History and in particular the Third Crusade it is a should-read. To a western reader the Muslim names - both people and places â€“ will be confusing, but this well-researched publication of the Cambridge University Press is worth toughing out. It was published in 1982, placing it well ahead of the plethora of post-9/11 books, most of which should be regarded with skepticism.
Little contemporary writing is available to inform us of Saladinâ€™s birth, except that his father, Ayyub, was a Kurd who about that time was Castellan of Takrit, in what is now Iraq, and a member of the Muslim warrior-administrator class; Saladinâ€™s actual birthplace is obscure. Ayyub supported Zangi in his battles against the Christians, and eventually became an important personage in Damascus, when Saladin was apparently quite young. The authors trace Saladinâ€™s personal development from his youth in Damascus, where the earliest writings place him, through his role as Vizier of Egypt, to become the only individual who has ever brought the Islamic world together, albeit for only a few years. He was not a ruler, but an administrator, responsible to the Caliph in Baghdad (who never completely trusted his motives), but ultimately powerful enough to marshal and wield the resources needed to achieve major victories (such as Hattin) and to confound the likes of Richard the Lionhearted.
How, or more precisely Why, did he do this? The authors donâ€™t say Why, but lead the reader through the How of the career of this complex individual. They show that his faith and ambition led him to apply his administrative skills to demand allegiance (including military support) from the many small city-states that made up the Muslim world in the twelfth century, his power extending as far east as Yemen. Along the way he used a mix of religion, intrigue, coercion, and politics to bring together these disparate groups to a common cause. Saladin was also known for his generosity, which led the people of many small fortified cities to lay down their arms rather than fight, knowing that they would be spared. This should be contrasted to the Christian practice, documented by eastern and western observers, of major bloodshed when cities were captured.
After his death this web of allegiances quickly dissolved. The disaster of the Fourth Crusade, coming only ten years later, dampened the Vaticanâ€™s ardor for crusading and Saladinâ€™s world subsequently was largely left alone. In the end, he was the victor because he denied continued Christian domination of Jerusalem â€“ which was his stated goal.
Meticulous attention to detail informs the reader of such things as Saladinâ€™s knowledge of the bloodlines of rivalâ€™s horses, much as todayâ€™s military leaders understand their opponentâ€™s weaponry. As a youth he spent much time playing polo outside the Damascus city gates -- typical of a warrior-class upbringing â€“ it was that practice that led contemporary western observers to comment that the professional Muslim fighters were the worldâ€™s preeminent horsemen, surpassing even the Bedouins in their ability to fight while mounted.
In 1193 Saladin died (Muslin year 589) in Damascus, shortly after the Siege of Acre and the stalemate against Richard at Tyre. The cause of death was not reported, but other commentators note that the symptoms described by Beha ed-Din were consistent with Typhoid Fever
But in the end, Saladinâ€™s diplomatic maneuvering may have been as skillful as his generalship of the armies in the field; he proved himself more adept than Richard by negotiating the truce that retained Jerusalem â€“ this is detailed by the authors. Saladin believed at the time of his death that the crusaders would ultimately return, but he could not have foreseen the conclusion of the Fourth Crusade, which resulted in the Sack of Constantinople and never reached the Holy Land.
This is not a book for the casual reader â€“ there are many that are more accessible Nor is it a hagiography â€“ it includes details that may make the reader cringe. But for a thorough and detailed understanding of scholarly research into a troubled time that may have direct precedent to ours this book should be part of the study process.
NOTE: This is a review of a different book than the one I reviewed above and earlier, although the subject is the same individual. The earlier work was from a member of Saladin's staff and an eyewitness to post-Hattin events; the later book was written by scholastics at Oxford using the historical method and a wide range of original documents (both Arabic and from the Crusaders, which were principally in French or Latin).
Christ you know it ain't easy,
You know how hard it can be.
The way things are going
They're gonna crucify me.
Ballad of John and Yoko