Saladin was born in Tikrit in modern-day Iraq in 1137. His personal name was “Yusuf”; “Salah ad-Din” is a laqab, an honorific epithet, meaning “Righteousness of the Faith.”

His father was Ajub Nejm ed-Din, a Kurd and Governor of Baalbeck, later an army commander.

As a child Saladin studied the Quran and poetry on behalf of the Atabeg of Mojul. Other information on his early childhood is scarce.

Saladin was sent to Damascus in Syria to finish his education. There he lived for ten years at the court of Nur ad-Din (Nureddin).

He had a military education under the command of his uncle, the Seljuk statesman and soldier Shirkuh.


The beginning of Saladin’s military career was under his uncle Shirkuh on behalf of Nur al-Din, the ruler of the Syrian province of the Seljuk Empire, in Egypt. With his uncle he conquered Egypt between 1164-74.

Map of conquests of Egypt in Saladin’s time By EvitoSol at  Wikipedia

Saladin was inaugurated as Vizier of Fatimid in Egypt on March 27, 1169. On being appointed to the position, Saladin repented “wine-drinking and turned from frivolity to assume the dress of religion”, according to Arabic sources of the time.

Two years later, he abolished the Fatimid Caliphate, and realigned the country‘s allegiance with the Sunni, Baghdad-based Abbasid Caliphate.

Not long after Nur ad-Din’s death in 1174, Saladin launched his conquest of Syria, peacefully entering Damascus at the request of its governor. The following year, he was proclaimed the “Sultan of Egypt and Syria” by the Abbasid caliph al-Mustadi.

A lover of justness, every Monday and Thursday Saladin sat dispensing justice. Often he sat far into the night listening to petitions. No one was refused a hearing.

As a Muslim leader, Saladin was renowned for his support of Theologians and other scholars.


After a series of crisis, Saladin and his Ayyubid army invaded the kingdom of Jerusalem with a massive force at the start of summer in 1187. The wily Saladin proceeded to defeat the Christian Jerusalem army at the Battle of Hattin near the town of Hittin on July 4, 1187 by setting fire to dry grass around the armored Crusaders in the already hot terrain.

The Battle of Hattin proved decisive as the Muslim armies under Saladin captured or killed the vast majority of the Crusader forces, removing their capability to wage war. As a result, the Muslims wrested control of Palestine – including the city of Jerusalem – from the Crusaders, who had conquered the area 88 years earlier.

Saladin and Guy of Lusignan after Battle of Hattin

The Third Crusade was launched two two years later to retake Jerusalem. The leaders were the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, the newly crowned Richard I of England and Philip Augustus of France.

Despite the Crusaders capturing Acre in 1191, the Third Crusade was considered a failure as the crusaders failed to regain Jerusalem.

In 1192 the Crusaders’ Sultan opponent Saladin and the Crusaders finally agreed to a three-year truce and free access to Jerusalem for Christian Pilgrims, a concession Saladin would have granted before the crusade.


Those who knew Saladin say little about his physical appearance apart from his being slight in stature with a short, neat beard.

A possible portrait of Saladin, found in a work by Ismail al-Jazari, circa 1185

The Muslim leader was active in his faith, very devout in prayers and fasting. In his younger days, this made him reclusive but later on became the motivation to drive the Christians from the Holy Land.

Saladin was fond of a joke often at the expense of Christians. He once planted a piece of the true cross at the threshold of his tent, where everyone who came to see him had to tread on it. On another occasion, he got some pilgrim monks drunk and put them to bed with wanton Muslim women, thus robbing them of any spiritual reward for their efforts.

As a typical Mohammedan, Saladin was fiercely hostile toward unbelievers. Despite this, he retained a kindliness and humanity to his foes, which surprised the Crusaders.

On one occasion, Saladin sent presents of the most luscious peaches and pears and fruitflavored snow from Mount Hermon to King Richard I, when his rival was confined to bed with fever. The English king refused to respond in an equally chivalrous manner.

The elite garrison of Saladin’s armies during the Siege of Acre

On another occasion, during battle Saladin saw Richard I’s horse fall and generously sent him a groom with two fresh steeds.

Saladin was a paradox for the Crusaders, Such was his chivalry and generosities to those he defeated in battle, many of his opponents believed he was a secret Christian. Later when Dante‘s Divine Comedy allocated the great men of the Christian era to their destiny after death, Saladin was placed in Purgatory rather than Hell, despite being a heathen.


Having rode out from Damascus to meet some pilgrims returning from Mecca, not long after King Richard’s departure, Saladin was forced to retire to his bed due to pain and fever. After some days the Muslim leader fell into a coma from which he never recovered and he died on March 4, 1193, at Damascus.

His last words were: “When I am buried, carry my winding sheet on the point of a spear and say these words: Behold the spoils which Saladin carries with him! of all his victories, realms and victories nothing remains to him but this.”

Saladin lived piously and simply. When he died he left no personal possessions and just one piece of gold and forty pieces of silver. There wasn’t enough money to pay for his funeral; Saladin had given his riches away to those in need.

He was buried in a mausoleum in the garden outside the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.

Saladin’s tomb, near Umayyad Mosque’s NW corner

Saldin’s prudence and generosity in contrast to Richard I’s more violent characteristics inspired Sir Walter Scott’s The Talisman.


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