Hello and Welcome to the History of the Copts. Episode 89. Salah ad-Din.
So last time – we looked at the ecclestical developments during the transition between the Fatimids and the Ayybuids – really taking us all the way to 1189. Deep into Salah el Din reign
Mark – before he died – saw the reconquering of Jerusalem by Salah el din – so, yea – we have a lot to catch up to
Also – since its in the title – If you are wondering why I say and write Salah el Din and not the familiar Saladin – its because that was actually his right title. It means the goodness of religion. Saladin while popular – is a westernized version that to me – just sounds awful. So, yea – we are sticking with Salah el Din
In that story – we last stopped when Shawar died in 1169 AD
We know – that eventually Salah el Din followed him. But how and why is intrusive to understand what is to come
You see, In the last two decades before his arrival – there have been 10 different viziers. None of them lasting more than a few years and all but Shawar were murdered
Any vizier at this point - would be in the unenviable position of having to answer to both Nur el Din in Syria – who sponsored Shawar’s expedition and troops as well as to answer to the palace in Egypt
Not to mention, in the same time – Keep Egypt’s old fatimid army in check – while fighting the Crusaders and possibly the Byzantines
With a devastated country and an economic base.
The prospects for success – or more accurately survival was bleak at best
It was a job where quote “embittered factionalism, treachery, betrayal and murder were all pervasive and ingrained features” – as Thomas Asbridge puts it in his history of the Crusades
So yea – the line for the job wasn’t exactly stretching for miles
Nonetheless, given the allure of power, there was still a line – basically a couple of Shawar’s lieutants plus a few folks of the entrenched Egyptians amirs – that were there before Shawar showed up
Nur El Din in Syria – appointed a successor who wasn’t Salah El Din – but he was far away for now, and so was basically ignored
The real action was in Egypt where it ended up being a discussion between the palace and Shawar’s inner circle
A discussion that nominated Salah el Din – where, the palace liked him, because he was considered too young and inexperienced to threatened the caliph
And Shawar’s inner circle – accepted him – more or less out of Kurdish solidatary and – because he was also too young and inexperienced to threatened any of their personal interest
The only faction that was unhappy with his nomination was the old entrenched amirs as well as the old remnants of the Egyptian army
But they had a lot to complain about anyway in the new regime, so they weren’t going to be happy no matter what plus divided and leaderless they were – at best a nuisance rather than a serious threat
The real threat was Nur el Din – who – naturally, considered Egypt to be part of his empire now
Nonetheless – he happened to like Salah El Din personally and was a patient man– so, he wasn’t going to rush into anything
Basically – taking the approach, let’s wait and see
And so – the 31 years old prince was appointed Vizier in March 26, 1169 with the odds – not particularly in his favors
Now – like Badr al Jamali before him, the first thing that Salah el din did was to invite his extended family and Kurdish connections to settle in Egypt
To become his trusted inner circle – rather than trust anyone who was already there
In addition – since that family wasn’t particularly large, not big enough to be an army anyway – he also started recruiting and eventually buying slave soldiers in bulks
Something that his uncle Shirku did before – and really many others before him since the days of the Abbasids, so not a new innovation per say
But – by now with all the wars, the business of buying, breeding and training slave soldiers was big. And Salah El Din – and especially his dynasty after him – relied extensively on them
These slave soldiers were known as Mamluks – literally, an owned entity or a person
Early on – Salah el Din relied on the military might of a couple of these mamluks – a certain Abuil Haija nicknamed the fat – because – you guessed- he was fat
And a very smart but dry eunuch – named Qaragush whose name survives in colloquial Egyptian to this day to describe cheap, hard bread – perhaps metaphorically describing the man
With them – came Salah el din’s elder brother – Turan-shah, and nephew, Taqi al Din
As well as, a younger brother whose name you should keep handy – al – ‘Adil
Forming a talented inner circle that can be relied on to be loyal
With these people in place – Salah el din quickly started shaping the government in his image – forming Sunni schools, sending gifts and promises of loyalty to Nur el Din, and perhaps most importantly - pulling an impressive but risky economic move that really solidified his position
He cancelled everyone taxes, and debts, even rents– basically everything. Not just to the government, as this would have mainly benefited the rich. But – anyone who owed anything was now free
The ultimate debt forgiveness plan. Where – literally everyone gets a new slate
This – when combined with the fact that now people at least know who was in charge, had the effect of greatly boosting the economy and Salah el din’s popularity
So good news, right? Not really if you are in the palace and is now realizing that Salah el din is slowly laying the groundwork to get rid of you
And by the palace here – I don’t necessarily mean the Caliph – a teenager/young man with little knowledge of the outside world
Rather – the beauracracy of the palace. The eunuchs, the guards, the Shi’a judges, basically everyone who benefited financially from having a caliph around – led by a certain palace eunuch named Mutamin – The de facto chief of staff of the caliph
Realizing that picking Salah el Din was a mistake – within three months, Mutamin tried to engineer an invasion to get rid of him by asking the Franks to come again
Sending a spy disguised as a beggar with a letter asking the king of Jerusalem to come with promises of assistance
Now – you must be thinking. Here we go again. The whole Shirku-Franks-Shawar drama is about to play again – only with different names
But – Salah el Din got lucky
Apparently the spy decided to get new sandals and sow the letter in them which would have been smart, if let’s say, he was disguised as a merchant
But, he was disguised as a beggar – and a beggar with new sandals travelling to Palestine is awfully suspicious
And so – he was caught in Bilbais by the garrison stationed there – and the letter never made it to Jerusalem – making it to Salah el Din instead
Realizing what was on his hand. He acted decisively executing Mutamin and appointing Qaragush in his place
But remember – the palace beaucracy is big. Mutamin was just one person. It is unlikely that he acted alone.
So, at his execution – the palace intrigue was ratchet up a notch – and the plan went from inviting the Franks to come – to inciting an internal rebellion
Stationed in Cairo was close to 50,000 black Sudanese troops. The remnant of the old Egyptian army – who were mostly leaderless, and ineffective, but when paid regularly could be relied on to be loyal to the palace
And so, they rebelled – rioting in Cairo and essentially besieging Salah el Din in his palace – not necessarily a very secure building
This could have been it. The rebellion that ended the career of Salah El din – similar to the so many ones before it.
But – instead – it was here, that the genius and brutality of Salah el Din are on full display
He knew that he couldn’t fight them head on. He didn’t have enough troops to do that – even knowing that they were ineffective and disorganized
So – he sent Abu’l Haija the Fat – not to fight them per say – but rather to delay and distract them
In the same time – he sent agents to the quarter of Cairo where the Sudanese troops wives and children lived ordering them – to burn the place down
This act of calculated atrocity – shattered the morale of rebellious troops.
Salah el Din had effectively proven he was capable and willing to burn the place down before he goes down
And without effective leadership, the rebellious troops capitulated
Presumably, Salah el Din offered them mercy and continued pay if they leave Cairo
Most took up the offer – but once out of the city and travelling south in smaller, disorganised groups – Salah El Din’s older brother Turan-Shan set up hunting parties – where those groups were hunted down and killed – eliminating them as a faction in the complicated politics of Egypt
Basically – in six months – Salah el Din has set down the tone for his entire career
Subtle, generous diplomacy coupled with pious Sunni Orthodoxy, with sprinkling of cold-blooded terror when the situation calls for it
Now – that the palace is checked – and the old army of Egypt is mostly gone. Left to deal with – is Nur El Din – who is happy with pressuring Salah El Din to remove the Caliph and patiently waiting for the situation in Egypt to call for his direct intervention
And – the Crusaders, who had rushed a failed invasion to Egypt only a year ago – despite a tentative agreement with the byzantine for a combined invasion and a garrison inside Cairo
Well – it was time for that combined invasion – coming right on the heels of the failed rebellion
In late summer 1169 – a huge Byzantine fleet showed up in the horizon of Damietta – with a Crusader army approaching on land
Rather than be the end of Salah el Din though – it was a great gift
All the regional Muslim powers took a hard look at the situation and quickly realized that – Its going to be either Salah El din in Egypt or the Crusaders. So, better fall in line behind him.
Both the Fatimid and the Abbasid Caliph supported him, with presumably the Fatimid caliph giving him a million denars to organize a resistance and the Abbasid Caliph pressuring Nur El Din to join him in Egypt –
And to be clear – Nur El Din himself, obviously preferring Salah El Din to the Crusaders in Egypt was happy to supply and send a huge army to defend Damietta
And as the city was well-fortified. The Crusaders and the Byzantines ended up in a prolonged 3 month siege – where more and more men and money were flocking to the Salah El Din – while they made little progress
So – they called it off. Going home achieving nothing, but swelling the treasury and the army of Salah el Din
Who – used the momentum of his success and quickly followed up by capturing Gaza as well as the red seaport of Aqaba
Small, depopulated, and very strategic acquisitions – mainly to open up the land trading routes between Egypt and the rest of the Muslim world – rather than a grand conquest and holy war per say
He still on shaky grounds for such a thing– and even as the Crusaders were besieging Damietta – he didn’t feel comfortable enough to leave Cairo, feeling a betrayal from the inside
His main concerns at this point was to survive – and to continue the economic boost as he slowly reinstates taxation
For the first part – he feared another Byzantine invasion, so he ordered Alexandria and other coastal cities fortified
As for the economic boost and taxation. He left trade untaxed – which had all kind of good and bad effects. Sufficient to know for now – Egypt was a good place to do business in under Salah El Din
But that was it. Everything else returned back to normal, with even slightly higher rates to make up for the lost revenue
Now – putting down an internal rebellion, presiding over an economic boom, rebelling the crusaders and the byzantine invasion–
Salah el Din position as both the vizier to the Shia’ Caliph and an agent to Nur El din was becoming unsustainable.
As it became clear that he wasn’t going to go away quickly, everyone was asking – which side is he on?
And so – one of the great mysteries of his reign took place. The death of the last Shi’a Caliph العاضد
There are basically three versions of what happened – depending on the primary source.
The first, one of the brothers of Salah El Din – went to the palace with troops with the intentions to seize and imprison the Caliph – and the Caliph, committed suicide rather than be subject to imprisoning and torture
You know – naked power grab, but no intentions to kill the Caliph
The second – is similar – only there was no troops involved. Rather a party of sorts with Salah el Din, his older brother, and the Caliph – the kind where there was lots of wine and a concubine or two
After which, Salah el Din sought a legal opinion from Islamic judges on whether it is– quote “lawful for the Caliph to drink wine and to indulge in debauchery?” -
The answer to which, was obviously no – and that the caliph should be removed if it was proven against him
And with the legal opinion in hand. The same brother in the first version – kills the Caliph
Again – power grab, but only killing the Caliph following quote unquote the “law”
The third – is that Caliph just died from natural causes at the ripe age of 20. Just as Salah el Din was consolidating his rule
Possible I guess, but real good timing.
Salah el Din is a mythological figure in Islamic history – so, he gets the aura of “could no wrong great man” of so many other mythological figures
But –the point is – In September 10th, 1171. Around the Coptic new year eve when the Nile reaches its highest point- where many Egyptians – Muslims and Christians celebrated the event
Salah el Din orders that the Friday prayers in Fustat be done in the name of the Abbasid Caliph not the Fatimids
The following day – New Year- he presided over an imposing military parade in the capital, as virtually the entire might of his armies marched through the streets
The Caliph – who considered Salah El din a friend. Alarmed at this developments, asked him to come to the palace –
where he intended to extract a promise from him to not harm his family
In essence, accepting the fact on the ground that Salah el Din is in charge, but wishing to perhaps extend the life of the dynasty –
He was ignored though.
Then – two days later. The Caliph died. Like said – in an awfully suspicious timing.
When he died – Salah El din gave him a great burial with a lot of pomp and respect.
While ordering in the same breath that his family be locked away in a comfortable prison, making sure that none of them is allowed to have offspring – to ensure that the dynasty dies out.
And finally, proclaimed himself as the Sultan of Egypt
New year, new me kinda of vibe
Staring with amusement and annoyance at this development was Nur El Din over in Syria
Amused – as he could rightly boast that on paper, his empire now includes Egypt
Annoyed – as it only belonged on paper. Salah el Din – like his mentor, Nur El Din himself was a master of niceties and symbolic gifts to create an image of a humble simple servant to his benefactors
But – naturally – saw himself as a sovereign ruler who only answered to God
And when it came to taxation and money. Well – that was up to him on what to do with the cash, not to Nur El Din
Getting lucky again though, rather than get locked into a conflict with the Syrian Sultan right away
Egypt’s and Salah El din ended up on the bottom of Nur El Din to do list for a couple of years as several events in the west took his attention
First, Nur El din’s brother over in Iraq died – and so did the Abbasid Caliph. So, he had to get involved there
Then –trade was becoming an issue with the Crusaders and tensions between Nur El din and the Franks were increasing quickly
Basically – there was lots of money to be made by both Nur El Din and Salah El Din if they can only truly secure a land-route between Damascus and Cairo – that will continue all the way to the silk road and china
The only problem was – a depopulated piece of land in modern Jordan that the Crusaders controlled through two imposing Castles.
To make a long story short – Nur El Din essentially asked Salah El Din to help capture them – and not worry about taxation – assuming of course that it would be Nur El din that keeps the area
Now – for Salah El Din. This was a tough decision. If he didn’t help Nur El Din, well, what kinda of pious ruler would he be? Abandoning jihad against the infidels
And if he did – well, he would had just opened a high way from Damascus to Cairo, that Nur El din can take anytime
So – he did the only thing that could be done. He pretended to help.
Showing up at the castles for a siege, staying for a few days, then leaving for one reason or another – essentially leaving Nur El Din to fight the Crusaders by himself
He did that in 1171 – Fresh off his coronation as the Sultan
And a second time in 1173 – where it was clear to Nur El Din what was happening
So – he finally decided to force a confrontation sending a financial official in 1174 to audit all of Egypt’s finances
Salah El Din – let the official in – but also started mobilizing troops. And so did Nur El Din.
It seemed that war was happening – or at least a show of force to be followed by tense diplomacy
Salah El Din got lucky again though – Fate intervened to prevent what could have been a disastrous Sunni civil war
While playing polo outside Damascus – Nur El din suffered what may have been a heart attack and died 10 days later – at the relatively young age of 56 on May 1174
Leaving on an 11 year old child as an heir but a whole lot of ambitions warlords and family members who fancied themselves as the next sultan of Syria.
And lest you forget – given the tensions just prior to his death. Salah El din army was already mobilized and ready to go – when Nur el Din died
So, almost immediately at his death, Nur El Din’s realm was fractured into a million little pieces with every warlord with a garrison deciding he is going to do things his way.
The largest of those pieces was obviously Salah el Din in Egypt – who in a perfect would have proceeded to swallow all the other pieces linearly and I could just end the episode right now and then
But – it never works out this way. In the very same time – A Sicilian fleet attacked Alexandria – a nothingburger at the end. But, initially it looked like a serious threat.
Also – in the same time old Armenian units from the Egyptian army, plus Fatimid loyalists with the help of a Nubian army – staged a rebellion in Upper Egypt
Salah El Din – to his credit. Completely ignored Syria for now. Putting an end to the rebellion and pushing forward all the way into Nubia. Conquering a large chunk of northern modern Sudan
Also – sending his brother to secure an import port in Yemen – essentially controlling the red sea trade
Then when that work was done, he finally turned his attention to Syrians who were still trying to figure out who was in charge
His message to the elites there was simple and powerful
If you want peace and order – invite me quote “your servant” to come and I will fight on your behalf
If not, just know that Syria is surrounded by enemies on all sides, and chaos will reign
A message that was made clear when the Army of Jerusalem moved against Damascus – and the city ruler had to capitulate and pay them tribute to go away
A humiliating, but smart move given the circumstances – that Salah El Din used with great effectiveness to undermine the legitimacy of that ruler as a weak governor who prefers to avoid jihad
To which – the ruler responded too quite eloquently in a letter to Salah el Din saying quote “let it not be said that you have designs upon the house of the one who established you [as] this does not befit your good character”
To which Salah El Din responded by appealing to the common unity of Islam – saying quote
“We choose for Islam and its people only what will unite them”
And his efforts worked, by the end of the summer of 1174 – Salah El Din was invited to come to Damascus. To aid it’s populace or to be exact, to unite the Muslims and pursue jihad against the Franks
He went there not as a conqueror – remember, it was only 6 years ago that he was the head of its market police. But as a favorite son saving the city from chaos
Going with two powerful weapons – a large army of loyal Mamluks and a lot of gold dinars to spread around
And so piece by piece – Syria fell. Mostly peacefully – until he arrived at Aleppo – in the north.
A large city with an imposing fortress – where the 11 year old child lived and refused to be quote unquote be “protected” by Salah El Din
What followed then is a bitter two year civil war – where Salah el Din always could claim victory in individual battles, but Aleppo – still resisted
Fearing the reputational damage of shedding the blood of fellow Muslims – Salah El Din asked for peace – involving the Abbasid Caliph
After a period of intense negotiation – peace was reached, although it stood on a shaky ground
Salah el Din got all of Syria – up to Aleppo and recognized as the Sultan of Egypt and Syria by the Caliph
While Aleppo got the 11 year old child and heir, keeping their independence
Now – during that civil war, our old friends the order of assassins got involved
Apparently, the ruler of Aleppo has paid them handsomely to assassinate Saleh el din
And he – a heretic sunni who deposed a Shi’a dynasty – made a good ideological target as well
So they targeted him, coming extremely close a couple of times. Literally drawing blood at one of these attempts
Basically – traumatizing him for life. As he no longer socialized freely anywhere out of fear of assassination.
So, wrapping up the peace with Aleppo, he decided to wipe off the order of assassins from his domains
And you gotta give it him, he really tried – but failed miserably
The order of assassins has mastered both guerilla warfare and the terrain – building large castles in the mountains where they couldn’t be reached
And knowing how and when to strike – targeting the leaders, rather than the common soldiers
So, after another two years of failed attempts – he essentially called it a day
Giving Syria to his older brother to govern – while he returned to Egypt after a long four year absence where his younger brother Al A’adil ran Egypt independently and did pretty well
His Syrian campaigns – while difficult and mixed in terms of success. Were still fruitful. Now, that his domains stretch from Sudan to Northern Syria. He could, if he wanted to – sustain large multi-year campaign to drive the Crusaders off altogether.
Not just yet though. He had just come out of a miserable 4 years of failures.
It was time, to go back to Cairo and rest for a bit. Maybe, build a castle or two/
Thank you for listening, farewell and until next time.
The History of the Patriarchs by" multiple
The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land by" Thomas Asbridge