Salahuddin Al Ayyubi (Saladin) & The Art of War



An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub also known as Salah ad-Din or ( 1137 – 4 March 1193), was the first sultan of Egypt and Syria and the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty who led the military campaign against the crusader states in the Levant.


At the height of his power, the area under his rule included Egypt, Syria, Upper Mesopotamia, the Hejaz, Yemen and other parts of North Africa. He was sent to Fatimid Egypt in 1164 accompanying his uncle Shirkuh, who was a general of the Zengid army, on orders of their lord Nur ad-Din, an atabeg (governor) of the Seljuks, to consolidate Shawar amid his ongoing power struggle for vizier to the teenage Fatimid caliph al-Adid.


Shawar was assassinated in 1169 and Shirkuh’s natural death occurred later that year, al-Adid appointed Saladin as vizier, a Sunni Muslim to an important position in the Shia caliphate. As vizier, Saladin following al-Adid’s death in 1171, united the Shia Fatimid Caliphate and with the Baghdad-based Sunni Abbasid Caliphate.


Saladin started opposing the crusaders in Palestine and carried out the successful conquest of Yemen as well as dealing with rebellions in Egypt. After Nur ad-Din’s death in 1174, Saladin launched his conquest of Syria, entering Damascus at the request of its governor.  Saladin defeated the Zengid army at the Battle of the Horns of Hama and was proclaimed the “Sultan of Egypt and Syria” by the Abbasid caliph al-Mustadi.


Saladin made further conquests in northern Syria and Jazira, and escaped two attempts on his life by the “Assassins”.



Saladins army defeated the Crusaders at the decisive Battle of Hattin in 1187, and wrested control of Palestine – including Jerusalem – from the Crusaders, who had conquered the area 88 years earlier.

This battle on 4 July 1187 was between the Crusader states of the Levant and the forces of Saladin. Saladin captured or killed most of the Crusader forces, removing their capability to wage war and Muslims once again became the eminent military power in the Holy Land, re-conquering Jerusalem and most of the other Crusader-held cities.

The battle took place near Tiberias in what is now Israel. The battlefield, near the town of Hittin, had as its main geographic feature a double hill (the “Horns of Hattin”) beside a pass through the northern mountains between Tiberias and the road from Acre to the east. The Darb al-Hawarnah road, built by the Romans, served as the main east-west passage between the Jordan fords, the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean coast.



Early on July 3 the Crusader army started out towards Tiberias, and they passed the Springs of Turan, which were insufficient to provide their army with water. During midday Raymond of Tripoli decided that the army would not reach Tiberias by nightfall, and he and Guy agreed to change the course of the march towards the left in the direction of the Springs of Kafr Hattin, only 6 miles (9.7 km away). And from there they could march down to Tiberias the following day.

The morning of July 4 the crusader army was basically surrounded on the hill top. In normal circumstances this move would have been a mistake for Saladin to attack, as the crusader army was quite close to his in troops, and would have been able to punch a hole in the Saladins army, but after a day and a night without water the crusader army had lost much focus on winning. Saladin attacked and the crusaders tried to escape and were cut down and those left on the hill fought to exhaustion and were eventually were forced to surrender. Saladins forces captured King Guy, along with Reynald of Chatillon and most of the great barons of the Kingdom, as well as capturing the Holy Cross. The prisoners were all well treated, apart from Reynald of Chatillon, whose raids had led to the defeat, and Saladin felt such hatred that he personally beheaded him.

The defeat at Hattin for the crusaders effectively destroyed of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. With the King in his hands, and the army destroyed, Saladin was able to capture city after city. Tiberias surrendered quickly and by October 2 , Jerusalem itself surrendered.



Strategy Number 1:

Saladins army positioned themselves between the crusaders and the water so that the crusaders were forced to pitch camp overnight on the arid plateau near the village of Meskenah. According to Ibn al Athir the Franks were “despondent, tormented by thirst” whilst Saladin’s men were jubilant in anticipation of their victory. Saladins forces strategised that to withdraw the basic nesseities of the crusader army in this case access to drinkable water and that this will effect their willingness to fight phyically in an optimal state.

Master Sun from The Art of War called this: “Thus it is that in war the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory”.


Strategy Number 2:
Throughout that night the Muslims demoralised the crusaders by praying, singing, beating drums, showing symbols and chanting. They set fire to the dry grass, making the crusaders’ throats even drier. Crusaders now became more thirsty, demoralised and exhausted. These tactics were focused on attacking the minds of the crusader forces – today this would be called psycoloigical warfare.

Master Sun from The Art of War said about this as: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”.


Strategy Number 3:
Early morning July 4, the crusaders became blinded by smoke from the fires set by Saladin’s forces. Saladins split his army in three divisions: the centre under Saladin himself, the right under his nephew Taki ad-Din and the left, commanded by Gökböri. Here Saladin prepared for the desisive battle by positioning his forces where they will be most efefctive – like on a chess board.

Master Sun from The Art of War talked of dividing forces: “The control of a large force is the same principle as the control of a few men: it is merely a question of dividing up their numbers. There’s no difference when commanding a big army or a few men, it’s simply a question of instituting signs and signals. If our forces are ten to the enemy’s one, to surround him; if five to one, to attack him; if twice as numerous, to divide our army into two”.


Strategy Number 4:
The crusaders came under fire from Saladins mounted archers from the Gökböri division who had been resupplied with 400 loads of arrows that had been brought up during the night. One of England’s greatest victories was because of the skill of its archers. During the Battle of Crecy in 1346, they killed almost 2000 French knights and soldiers. Whilst the English lost just 50 men. Archery was a stand off weapon like a missle or sniper is today – it keeps the bulk of ones own army on stand-by whilst picking off enemy soldiers at a distance.

Master Sun said of this: “When you shoot a bow and arrow, you aim at the clouds, not because you expect to hit them, but so that you may reach the distant target on the ground”.



Saladin had a great reputation in Europe as a chivalrous knight, as someone who fought honourably and for his generosity. Despite the Crusaders’ slaughter when they originally conquered Jerusalem in 1099, Saladin granted amnesty and free passage to all the defeated Christian army. 

Saladin was respected by his enemies. King Richard praised Saladin as a great ruler and warrior, saying that he was without doubt the greatest and most powerful leader in the Islamic world. Saladin in turn stated that there was not a more honorable Christian lord than Richard. After the treaty, Saladin and Richard sent each other many gifts as tokens of respect but never met face to face.

When we look at the character of Saladin in April 1191, a crusader woman’s three-month-old baby had been stolen from her camp and sold. The crusaders urged her to approach Saladin directly with her grievance – which she did. According to Bahā’ al-Dīn, Saladin got the child back for her personally: “He gave it to the mother and she took it; with tears streaming down her face, and hugged the baby to her chest. The people were watching her and weeping and I (Ibn Shaddad) was standing amongst them. She suckled it for some time and then Saladin ordered a horse to be fetched for her and she went back to camp”.

King Richard the Lionheart left the Holy Land early in 1193. A short time later, on March 4, 1193, Saladin died of an unknown fever in his capital at Damascus. Knowing that his time was short, Saladin had donated all of his wealth to the poor and had no money left even for a funeral. He was buried in a simple mausoleum outside of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.


Mohammed Abbasi

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