One of the Islamic world’s greatest heroes, Salah al Din Yusuf ibn Ayub, better known in the West as Saladin (1138 – 1193), was a Kurdish Sunni Muslim who rose to become sultan of Egypt and Syria, and founder of the Ayubid Dynasty. From that platform, he warred with the Crusaders, halted their tide, then rolled back their conquests by recapturing Jerusalem.
In his youth, Saladin was more inclined to become a scholar than a soldier. As a young man, however, he joined the staff of his uncle, a general in service to a Turkish ruler of northern Syria. In that capacity, he took part in a three-way struggle between the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Shiite Fatimids in Egypt, and the Sunni Turks in Syria, which ended with the Turks seizing Egypt to prevent its capture by the Crusaders.
At age 31, Saladin was appointed military commander of Egypt, and vizier to its figurehead Fatimid Caliph. In 1171 he abolished the Shiite Fatimid Caliphate and restored Egypt to Sunni Islam. Following his nominal Turkish overlord’s death in Syria in 1174, Saladin moved in with an army and extended his rule there as well. From 1174 to 1186, he consolidated his rule and with a combination of diplomacy and military force, united Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, and Palestine. Then, he turned his attention to the Crusaders.
At the Battle of Hatin in 1187, Saladin maneuvered the combined armies of the Crusaders states so they were cut off from water, then fell upon and destroyed them. The Crusader defeat was so crushing, and their losses so heavy, that within three months Saladin had recaptured the Kingdom of Jerusalem, as well as Acre, Sidon, Beirut, Nazareth, Nablus, Caesaria, and Ascalon.
The Crusaders were reduced to only three cities, but Saladin’s failure to reduce them to zero when he had the opportunity, particularly the failure to capture Tyre, would cost him dearly when Tyre became the springboard for new Crusades. The Third Crusade, led by kings Richard the Lionheart of England and Philip II of France, as well as the Holy Roman Emperor Fredrick Barbarossa, inflicted heavy losses upon Saladin, although it failed in to recapture Jerusalem. However, the Third Crusade stabilized the Crusader positions in their coastal enclaves, and ensured a continued, albeit greatly diminished, Crusader presence for decades to come.
Nonetheless, the Crusader presence had been placed on the path to eventual doom, and reduced to enclaves hugging the Eastern Mediterranean coast which were recaptured by the Muslims, one after the other. The Third Crusade finally ended with a treaty in 1192 between Saladin and Richard the Lionheart, which recognized Crusader control of the Palestinian coast between Jaffa and Tyre, and allowed Christians to travel to Jerusalem as unarmed pilgrims. Not long after the treaty and Richard’s departure, Saladin caught a fever and died in March of 1193.