Hello and Welcome to the History of the Copts. Episode 90. The Leper King.
So – last time we looked at the early part of Salah al Din career – he ascension from a vizier to the Sultan of Egypt to the Sultan of Egypt and Syria w/ an asterisk – given that Aleppo stayed out of reach
Now one thing you might wonder – where were the Crusaders in all of this?
Sure – they showed briefly when Nur El Din died to collect tribute from Damascus
But – for the whole time Salah el Din was fighting Aleppo and its allies in Syria – a very good time to make strategic acquisitions mind you – they were completely absent
Well – during that campaign in Damascus – the King of Jerusalem – same guy that rushed the conquest of Egypt a couple of episodes ago – got dysentery and died. At the young age of 38
Now – when he died there was a lot of ruling family drama that was going on behind the scenes in Jerusalem
The gist of it is – The now deceased king had a two children – a 13 year old Baldwin and an older sister – both – however – from an annulled marriage
The king when he died – was married to a byzantine princess – who also had her own offspring. Only an infant girl at this point
Making matters worse – Baldwin – the presumed heir wasn’t only a teenager – but, it was an open secret that he had leprosy rendering one of his arms dead
So – not an ideal heir by any measure – yet he was still crowned
Perhaps as many factions hoped to be able to influence the court through him
So – as Salah al-Din marched through Syria – Baldwin got sicker and sicker from leprosy – and his court avoided conflict as much as possible signing a truce with Kurdish Sultan
More importantly though – internally, the King’s leprosy was a huge problem. Remember – In Medieval Palestine, similar to Roman/Jewish Palestine – Leprosy was a curse from God
A sign of divine disfavor with a lot of social and religious stigma
So – regardless of what Baldwin did or didn’t do – plenty of folks just didn’t buy into his leadership – waiting for him to die
He – through no fault of his own – was like a zombie king. Alive just enough to prevent someone taking his place – yet quite dead. If not by actions – as he really tried his best– then definitely in the hearts and minds of his subjects
He was infertile – as such, could produce no heir. And – even if he wanted to abdicate – no one had the dynastic legitimacy required for a smooth transition
In theory, his older sister could marry someone powerful from Europe and go from there. But when she did – her husband died in less than a year. Leaving her a pregnant widow – where her infant son – was now the presumed heir. Complicating any future marriages
So yea – As Salah El Din’s finished his campaigns in Syria and was being recognized as the leader of the Muslim world – The Franks were divided and without a leader
Now – Despite his later reputation as a champion of Jihad – and the propaganda of his time. Salah al din was more of a practical politician than an ideologically driven warrior of faith
He tried to avoid meaningless wars – with the Franks or anyone else for that matters
Focusing instead on consolidating his internal rule – fostering trade, and – if the opportunity arises, adding small pieces to his empire via smart diplomacy or short-campaigns
So, as he went back to Egypt in in late 1176 he had no grand plans against the Franks – opting instead to take a vacation in Alexandria with his young 6-year old son – literally hanging out at the beach
With his older brother managing things in Syria
And his younger brother – still part of the day to day operations in Egypt
After the vacation, he attended to the practical consideration of governing. Fortifying cities, building a navy, judging civil cases, strengthening a communication network between Syria and Egypt and so on
He also embarked on a massive building program – where he literally ordered a lot of the smaller ancient pyramids destroyed – using the stones to build a massive wall around Cairo and Fustat as well as an impressive Citadel overlooking the city in the Muqattam – still standing today
His son, would eventually try the same but with the big 3 pyramids that are famous today. But, it ended in complete failure – as it took hundreds of men and they only managed to remove 1 stone per day – an effort lasting for 8 months – where it was just a massive waste of money and effort
So – the myth of Salah al-Din or his son – attempting to demolish the pyramids is partially true
Anyway – I digress. The point is – despite seeing the Franks with a zombie king – Salah El Din had better things to do – than a massive campaign of jihad
First, it was meaningless in the grand schemes of things and the welfare of his citizens
And second – The fortunes of war are unpredictable – a campaign like that may bring in the Byzantium or the monarchs of Europe – and turn the whole region into a mess
Over in Jerusalem however – things proceeded differently
The Leper King had now reached legal adulthood – 16 –
He dismissed his previous advisors – a diplomatic court that avoided conflict thus far with one that refused to renew the truce with Salah El-Din –
Well – it could be just classic Crusader-style God-willed-it machoman foolishness
But – to give them credit – there seem to have been a deal with Aleppo – where several high-ranking knights were released from captivity – Baldwin’s uncle among then
And a certain Reynald of Chatillione – a knight with a reputation of excessive violence – dragging and beating up the Patriarch of Antioch at some point to squeeze money out of the Patriarchy
So their release may have been the seed of a potential alliance against Salah al-Din
Especially, as these guys went straight from captivity to court – ending up very high up the chain and extremely close to Baldwin
They immediately organized a raid against Salah elDin older brother in Syria and defeating him in a minor engagement somewhere in modern Lebanon
A symbolic – if not a significant victory.
By 1177 – as the new Citadel was being built in Cairo, Reynald was putting the final touches on another combined Byzantine/Crusader invasion attempt of Egypt
A serious threat if it was executed correctly
As always though with these things – as the Byzantine fleet arrived in Acre – and a powerful European warlord joined – petty argument broke out who was in charge and more importantly, how to divide the conquered territory
The Greek navy commander then called it a day – and ordered that the fleet go back to Constantinople
Nonetheless, A crusader raid took place anyway – where they besieged and failed to capture a couple of Syrian cities
Watching with extreme annoyance at all of this – was Salah al-Din in Cairo
He took the threat of a Byzantine navy and European arrivals very seriously – and mobilized his army when he heard there was a byzantine navy in Acre
When the threat dissipated, he decided to go on campaign anyway – not to capture Jerusalem or anything like that –
Nope – more of a punitive campaign and cover his expenses via tribute of possible
So, at the head of a very well-trained mamluk army of 20,000 horsemen or so – he headed toward Palestine in November 1177 AD
The European arrivals, plus most of the man power of the Crusaders armies were still besieging those two cities in Syria
So, meeting that mamluk army was a measly force of 600 knights plus a couple of thousands infantry
Led by – as one of our sources put it quote a “sick king, already half-dead”
After a brief engagement near the walls of Ashakalon – where the Crusaders were naturally easily overwhelmed – The leper king and his troops retreated to Ashakalon and closed the door
Now – if this was your typical holy war campaign. Salah el din would have besieged Ashakalon. Attempt to capture the king and move to the holy city of Jerusalem
Or – if confident leaving his rear exposed. Ignore ashaakalon altogether and go to Jerusalem right away
But it wasn’t – It was a punitive campaign to cover the expenses of gathering an army
So, he told his men to fan out – to raid and loot as many villages and towns as possible.
To capture as many slaves and sellable goods as possible – you know, earn their pay
Now – morality of medieval war aside where farmers and civilians are being targeted here. This was a rational and calculated move.
The thing that Salah Al-Din didn’t count on though – was the classic Crusader-style God-willed-it machoman foolishness
Rather than stay in Ashakalon with his 600 knights – Baldwin decided to force a battle
As his secretary and one of the primary sources for this period puts it – quote “He felt that it was wiser to try the dubious chances of battle with the enemy than to suffer his people to be exposed to rape, fire and massacre”
So, three days later, with the army of Salah El Din fanned out and only a small unit accompanying him – still numbering in the low thousands but not the whole army
Reynald of Chatillone – picked a hill overlooking a small river that Salah El Din was expected to cross
And as the Sultan’s army was crossing the river, the 600 knights – with about 80 knight templars unleashed the heavy charge – where the Sultan had the river at his back and the dust of Franks charge in the front
He – immediately recognized what was about to happen – and ran as fast he could
To their credit – his Mamluks – also recognizing that the battle was lost – didn’t run. Forming what little defense they could, to give the Sultan a chance to cross the river back and run.
It was a complete rout – with the Crusaders taking no prisoners and hunting down every Mamluk they could find – until night fell
To make matters worse – the Bedouin of Sinai, usually opportunistic guns for hire – heard of the defeat and decided to sack the camp of Salah El Din where money, food, and weapons were kept
And so – by Decemeber, Salah el Din gathered what men he could and limbed back to Egypt
Without much food or water – in freezing rain, where the cold nights of the desert could kill a man of exposure
A humiliating defeat – that tarnished the carefully crafted image of Salah el Din – the sultan, the political leader of the Muslim world.
To make matters worse, the defeat opened up a couple of internal issues that were boiling under the surface
Basically, Syria was a tough place to govern – and Salah El Din’s older brother was an incompetent administrator
And the tricky thing about a family business, you can’t just fire your brother for incompetence
Long story short – rather than firing his brother, he tried to reassign him to another rich area – that is not as important strategically as Damascus
Problem was – that area already had a popular ruler who had been nothing but loyal to Salah el Din – If he fired him, at worst, a rebellion would break out – at best, other loyal governors will take note
So ideally, the goal was to get that governor to resign and after a mix of diplomacy, sending an army to the area, then diplomacy again, it happened – but it was a major distraction that allowed the Crusaders to build on the momentum of victory
To appreciate the significance of what is about to happen, I think a bit on how frontiers functioned in the twelfth century is necessary.
There was no modern nation-state like border between Damascus and Jerusalem
Nope – there was zones of influence – no man land kind area where it was always dangerous to go there – regardless of whether you came from Damascus or Jerusalem
If let’s say – the Frank’s built a castle there – then, all of the sudden. It’s a lot safer for them and less safe for Damascus
Eventually, it will no longer be a no man lands – just a territory that belongs to Jerusalem while the no man zone will move deeper into Damascene territory
And so – as Salah ad-Din was embroiled in his brother’s saga. The court in Jerusalem decided to start building a castle only a day’s journey away from Damascus. At a strategic crossing point in the Jordan river
A move that will completely bound to change the dynamic of trade and power in the area. It will literally mean, no caravan from Egypt can ever make it safely to Damascus. Not to mention, everyday communication needed to govern
It was important and provocative enough – that Baldwin left Jerusalem altogether and made the building site his seat of government
And for Salah El Din – it would have been an unmitigated disaster if the castle was completed
So, unwilling to fight the Crusaders again – and distracted by the internal politics of Syria, he actually offered to pay them tribute
60, 000 dinars first, then 100,000 denars with obviously an accompanying truce.
But, Baldwin refused to entrain the offer
And so, Salah al-Din – the practical politician was left no choice but to pursue holy war
He wrapped the issue with his brother and moved to Damascus – where first, he attempted to a show of force to again, possible persuade the crusaders to negotiate
But this only created enough of a delay to allow the crusaders to complete the walls and the structure of the castle
It wasn’t quite a castle just yet – but with walls and a tower. It was defensible enough to allow for the king to leave the area and call the project a success
Again – extremely reluctant to go all in – Salah al-Din started sending raids to test the waters
The Castle but not yet castle though was manned by Templars and they were the elite warriors of the region – so every raid ended up with one of Salah al-Din’s general, sometimes friends captured or dead
One of them was successful though, in that it – managed to capture several high ranking templars knights – which threw their hierarchy off for a bit
Finally – seeing no other option but fully committing to the cause. Salah al-Din gathered his full army and set his sight on that castle
Again though – the object here wasn’t all out war – nope. It was simply to take and destroy that castle – to keep trade and communication flowing between Damascus and cairo
Hoping to avoid any open battles. Salah al-Din plan was to quickly reach the castle. Set every siege engine he got, plus – miners – specialized soldiers who mined tunnels under walls – on it
Take it – and hopefully go back before Baldwin or any army gets there
And that’s how it played out. Although, it was extremely close and bloody
Apparently, the idea behind mining was to dig a tunnel, pack it with wood, and then burn that wood down, so the walls above collapses
Well – it turns out, that the tunnel that Salah’s elDin miner dug was too small and when the fire was lit – the tunnel will go away without collapsing the walls
And digging another tunnel will take to long. So in desperation, the sultan offered a gold dinar to each soldier carrying a goatskin of water from the river to extinguish the flames, and work then continued night and day to enlarge the mine
When it was big enough, it was lit on fire again, and a small part of the walls collapsed. Just enough for few men at a time
Which meant – a 300 style like battle – where a few hundred templar knights battled wave after wave of mamluks assault – while fire is raging all around them
And Baldwin – the Leper King – leading a relief army that was only 6 hours away
The garrison was eventually overrun – All of them dying in the sack
Muslim eye witnesses say that about one thousand coats of armor and a mountain of weapons were collected from the dead and the stores of the castle
Baldwin – made it close enough to the castle to see the smoke from the fire rising. At which point, decided that the battle was lost and went back
Salah Al-Din though, still trying to avoid a battle with a full crusader army and racing to destroy the castle. Ordered that his men – literally push all the corpses in one corner – no time to bury them. While, leading personally an attempt to take down the place stone by stone
The castle was well-built though – and within two weeks. With the corpses in the open, a plague broke out – ravaging the Muslim army and killing 10 of Salah el Din’s generals
With the job almost done – but not quite there yet. The Sultan ordered that his army leave that seemingly cursed castle – a ruin of horror – where it stood as a monument to both sides on what war brings
A truce was then signed. Where neither side paid tribute – and no castles were built.
It seemed like – everyone had enough.
Salah el Din – went back to empire building. While, the Leper King went back to dying slowly.
The Sultan – followed up his truce with the Crusaders, with a peace treaty with Byzantium – who had a suffered another big loss to the Sultanate of Rum – i.e the Suljuks of Anatolia and were reconsidering their alliance with Crusaders that seems to bring nothing but trouble
And just to close the loop there – a period of civil unrest would see a massacre of all the Latins living in Constantinople in a couple of years. Ending in façade of cooperation between the two powers.
Similarly – a non-aggression pact was secured with the Armenians who had their own little state at this point
Lastly – completing the diplomatic encirclement of Aleppo – the Abbasid Caliph died. And Salah el Din – went out of his way to earn the support of the new Caliph
And once this was completed – in again, the perfect timing. Nur El Din son – the other Sultan of Syria. Living in Aleppo died – only 19 years old
An event – that shortly saw the armies of the sultan marching toward Aleppo
Interestingly through Crusader territory – where both sides took great pain to avoid conflict
Aleppo – resisted though. Not willing to just open its door to Salah El Din
And he - a master of propaganda – rather than engage into a highly damaging civil war with Aleppo
Decided to attack the Crusaders instead – again. Picking his targets carefully, and avoid all or nothing battles
The goal wasn’t to defeat the Crusaders – nope. Rather cover his expenses, plus create an image of a pious warrior of the faith that wants to unite the Muslims – I.E – Aleppo, please let me in!
A half-hearted siege of Beirut took place, where his army mostly looted the country side – until the Crusaders showed up
During that campaign – Salah el Din fired one letter after another to the Caliph asking him, to essentially declare fellow Muslims valid targets of Jihad – if they refused to help in his fight against the franks
Basically, suggesting that he should be empowered to subjugate any Muslims who refused to join him in the jihad.
While describing the rulers of Aleppo and Mosul as rebellious enemies of the state. They
were accused of seizing power on grounds of hereditary succession when, lawfully, command of these cities should have been in the gift of the caliph.
It was really a work of art and it bore partial fruit as at least one warlord around Mosul, promised assistance if Salah el Din were to go there
Playing on a whole different level than everyone else at this point. Salah El Din went. Capturing enough territory to isolate Mosul
Then – going back to Aleppo and offering that territory to its ruler – in return for the Syrian city
A deal that concluded in 1183 – removing the astrick from his sultanate of Syria
Now – Aleppo – like Cairo when he took over. Was a hodgepodge of ethnicities and religions – and when he arrived. It was through a backdoor deal with its ruler. So, the average citizen of Aleppo wasn’t exactly a fan
But – copying a page from his time as a vizier. He enforced dhimmitude strictly, and cancelled taxes and debts
Within six months – he created a base of support within the city populace from its Sunni elements. Enough, to greatly diminish the threat of civil unrest.
That base of support though – clamored for Salah el Din to fulfill his promises to liberate Jerusalem
And he – for his part. Well – was not particularly excited about it.
But – if let’s say - classic Crusader-style God-willed-it machoman foolishness leads one knight to attack Macca itself
Well – what choice does the Sultan have then?
Thank you for listening, farewell, and until next time!
The History of the Patriarchs by" multiple
The Coptic Encyclopedia by" Aziz S. Atiya (editor)
The Cambridge History of Egypt, Vol. 1: Islamic Egypt, 640-1517 by" Carl F. Petry (Editor)
The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land by" Thomas Asbridge