The Levant, the region running inland from the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean, has been fought over for millennia. Its vital trade and military roads linking Anatolia to north Africa and Arabia have been guarded and coveted since time immemorial. Control is everything, as Moses found out to his cost when he wanted to move north up the ancient King’s Highway out of the Sinai and into Edom (modern day southern Israel):
“Now let us pass through your land. We will not pass through field or vineyard, or drink water from any well; we will go along the King’s Highway, not turning aside to the right hand or to the left until we have passed through your territory.” But Edom said to him, “You shall not pass through, or we will come out with the sword against you.” The Israelites said to him, “We will stay on the highway; and if we drink of your water, we and our livestock, then we will pay for it. It is only a small matter; just let us pass through on foot.” But he said, “You shall not pass through.” And Edom came out against them with a large force, heavily armed. Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through their territory; so Israel turned away from them. (Numbers 20:17–21)
Countless cultures have fought for dominance in the region — Canaanite, Philistine, Hebrew, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Rashidun, Umayyad, Abbasid, Fatimid, Seljuk, crusader, Ayyubid, Khwarazmian, Mamluk, Ottoman, British, French, Jewish, the list goes on. Most of the conquests have been bloody. All have caused regional upheavals. Some have spread even further, sending international shockwaves east and west.
This week marks two major anniversaries of crusader history, both of which had a profound impact on the whole of Europe. On the 4th of July 1187, Saladin crushed the crusaders at the battle of the Horns of Hattin — one of the most important military encounters of the medieval world. Ninety years later, on the 1st of July 1277, Sultan al-Malik Baybars died. Although less well known in the West than Saladin, Baybars was a far more brutal and effective warlord. It was his devastating campaigns that finally ripped the heart out of the crusades, propelling the whole project into its darkening, twilight years.
When the crusaders had first conquered Jerusalem in 1099, waves of elation crashed across Latin Christendom. Jerusalem was the umbilicus mundi, the centre of Europe’s conception of the world as depicted in medieval maps like Hereford’s glorious Mappa Mundi. God clearly favoured the Christian settlers, and had given their armies Jerusalem to prove it.
The crusades were not the first time Jerusalem was under Christian rule. The Holy Land had been Christian in the days of the Byzantine Empire (c. AD 325–637). Emperor Constantine the Great and Empress Helena had Christianised the city, renaming it “Jerusalem” and wiping out the pagan remains of Aelia Capitolina built by Hadrian in AD 130 on the rubble of Jerusalem. At the heart of his new Jerusalem, Constantine built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and made it the pre-eminent Christian pilgrimage destination. However, since the Rashidun Caliphate under Umar the Great had conquered the Near East in AD 637, Jerusalem had been under Islamic rule.
Hand in hand with the crusaders’ initial elation in 1099 came the practical problem of controlling vast swathes of conquered territory far from home in their new land of “Outremer”, the place “beyond the sea”. The result was countless famous battles in which the pendulum swung one way then the other during the 192 years of crusader presence in the Levant. Although many of the engagements are still famous — like Jacob’s Ford and the Field of Blood — the Horns of Hattin stands head and shoulders above them as one of the turning points of world history.
Today, as the politically unrelated and separate conflicts in Syria and Iraq coalesce and evolve into an all-consuming regional power struggle, it is worth looking at the battle of the Horns of Hattin as a reminder of the region’s merciless ability to keep redrawing its borders and reinventing itself in blood.
First, put Ridley Scott’s epic 2005 film, Kingdom of Heaven, out of mind. It excels in evoking the existential crisis of the crusader kingdom at the tail end of the reign of the leper king, Baldwin IV. And it is a seductive and visually sumptuous world, where faith, honour, ideals, and love vie alongside ambition, bloodlust, venality, and the ugly side of unchecked militarism. But it is not a faithful account of the events leading up to the cataclysmic battle of Hattin and Balian of Ibelin’s doomed defence of Jerusalem. For a start, the real Balian was 44 years old at Hattin, did not know one end of an anvil from the other, was married to a member of the Byzantine royal family, and was born and lived his whole life as a powerful, wealthy noble in the crusader states.
The true story of Hattin is nevertheless every bit as soaked in romance and ambition as Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven.
Some years earlier, Lucia of Botrun, a beautiful and wealthy Levantine heiress, was ignominiously placed onto a huge set of scales and publicly weighed. A merchant from Pisa piled up the pan on the other side with gold bezants until he had measured out her weight in gold, which he then gave to her overlord as payment for her hand in marriage. In the wings, a headstrong Flemish crusader, Gerard de Ridefort, vowed revenge. He had previously asked Lucia’s overlord, Count Raymond III of Tripoli (of Toulouse) for her hand, but his request was refused. Despite the fact Raymond was one of the kingdom’s wisest and coolest heads, Gerard immediately left Raymond’s service, nursing a grievance that would lead to the downfall of a kingdom.
After recovering from a serious illness, or perhaps sensing faster promotion as a professional crusader, Gerard soon took the dramatic step of professing solemn monastic vows as a Knight Templar, devoting himself to a celibate community life of praying and fighting. His exceptional abilities were quickly recognised, and he rose swiftly through the Order’s ranks to become their tenth Grand Master. This unique position gave him privileged access to Christendom’s royalty — especially in Jerusalem — an influence he used, among other things, to oppose and thwart Raymond whenever he could.
In 1185, on the death of the leper King Baldwin IV, his seven-year-old nephew took the throne under the regency of Raymond. But when the young king died within a year, the crown passed to his mother and step-father: Sibylla of Jerusalem and Guy of Lusignan. The kingdom promptly tore itself into two poisonously opposed factions — those like Gerard de Ridefort and the Templars who supported Queen Sibylla and King Guy, and those like Count Raymond who backed Isabella, Sibylla’s half-sister.
With the kingdom hopelessly divided, the scene was set for a catastrophe. It just needed someone to light the touch paper.
King Guy counted among his camp a maverick one-man army: Raynald of Châtillon, “the Elephant of Christ”. Raynald had been in the crusader states since the second crusade, and had spent 15 years in a Muslim jail before leading the crusader forces to a spectacular victory against Saladin at the fêted battle of Montgisard, Saladin’s most crushing defeat. Raynald was therefore a seasoned operator in the region, and had been rewarded with the lordship of Oultrejourdain (the lands beyond the River Jordan). However, he is usually most often remembered for his cruelty, endless piracy and plundering, unwillingness to obey kings, and repeated breaking of delicate truces to the annoyance of all sides.
In 1187, when Raynald again broke a truce and attacked yet another Muslim caravan travelling the King’s Highway near his Red Sea outpost at Kerak, Saladin could stand by no longer. He declared the truce to be a sham, and led an invasion army across the Jordan. Raynald’s lawlessness had finally provoked the largest united Muslim force the crusaders had ever seen.
The end began quickly. On the 1st of May 1187, at the Springs of Cresson near Nazareth, a small group of around 140 Templars and Hospitallers found themselves confronting a 7.000-strong detachment of the Muslim army under al-Afdal, Saladin’s son. The master of the Hospitallers and several senior Templars counselled retreat, but Gerard de Ridefort accused them of cowardice and ordered an attack. The result was a charnel house. Gerard de Ridefort and two other Templars were the only known survivors.
Back in Jerusalem. King Guy and the royal court knew that a full-scale onslaught from Saladin’s 30,000 men was now imminent. All they could do was wait to see where it would come.
Saladin made the first move. He advanced to Tiberias on the west shore of the Sea of Galilee. The castle belonged to Count Raymond III of Tripoli, who was away with the royal court, leaving it garrisoned by Eschiva, his wife.
On the 2nd of July, King Guy held a war council to decide on a response. And it was here, at this critical moment in the history of the crusader kingdom, that the memory of Lucia of Botrun on the gold scales filled the room. Count Raymond calmly advised King Guy that Saladin was setting a trap, trying to get the crusaders to leave the safety and water of Sepphoris. He was, Raymond explained, hoping to lure the crusaders onto arid open ground where the Muslims’ numerical advantage could be best used. But whatever Raymond said was always wrong in the eyes of Gerard de Ridefort and Raynald of Châtillon, who shouted him down, accusing him of cowardice. They argued long into the night that King Guy should immediately lead the crusaders to march on Tiberias. In undoubtedly the worst decision of his life, Guy allowed himself to be persuaded by Gerard and Raynald, and ordered the army to ready itself. He was a politician not a soldier, and his lack of experience was about to cost the crusaders dearly.
The following day, the 3rd of July, the pride of the crusading army thundered out of the springs of Sepphoris heading east for Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee. From the moment they left, the outcome was sealed. Saladin had to do very little. The summer heat was unbearable, and the mail-clad crusaders lacked water. To make them even thirstier, Saladin lit brushwood fires around them, engulfing the advancing columns in clouds of billowing smoke. Panicked, choking, and dehydrated, the crusader army broke apart, allowing Saladin to encircle them. The crusaders were finally corralled on the two hills known as the Horns of Hattin, just six miles short of Tiberias, where the massacre began.
King Guy, Gerard de Ridefort, and Raynald of Châtillon were all taken prisoner. The crusaders’ most sacred relic, the True Cross discovered by the Empress Helena in the AD 320s, was also captured, taken in triumph to Damascus, and never seen again.
As depicted in Kingdom of Heaven, Saladin invited King Guy and Raynald of Châtillon into his tent, where he offered a groggy Guy a cup of iced water to slake his thirst. When Guy then passed the cup to Raynald, Saladin responded that he had not personally offered refreshment to Raynald, and was therefore not bound by any rules of hospitality towards him. He asked Raynald why he had broken so many oaths over the years. Raynald replied that kings had always acted thus, and he had done no more. Saladin then personally beheaded Raynald, before dragging his decapitated body over to a terrified Guy. “Kings do not kill kings”, he reassured Guy, but explained that Raynald was an oath-breaker whose repeated “maleficence and perfidy” had warranted immediate death.
Guy and the other captured nobles were all eventually ransomed, apart from the 230 Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller whom Saladin judged too militarily dangerous to be allowed freedom. He ordered them beheaded on the spot:
With him was a whole band of scholars and sufis and a certain number of devout men and ascetics, each begged to be allowed to kill one of them, and drew his sword and rolled back his sleeve. Saladin, his face joyful, was sitting on his dais, the unbelievers showed black despair. (Imad ad-Din, On the Conquest of the Holy City)
With their army decimated, the crusaders could only watch as one by one their cities then fell. Queen Sibylla and Patriarch Heraclius mounted a last-ditch defence of Jerusalem, before roping in Balian of Ibelin, who had dropped by to collect his family. Balian’s involvement was in strict defiance of an oath of non-belligerence he had given Saladin in order to be allowed to travel to Jerusalem, but he wrote to Saladin to explain his predicament, and Saladin seemed happy for Balian to try to organise Jerusalem’s defences. In any event, they both knew Jerusalem could not withstand a siege. Balian had only a handful of knights, so spontaneously knighted the city’s squires to help in the effort. But it was largely symbolic. On the 2nd of October, Balian went to Saladin’s tent. Saladin confirmed that he had sworn to kill all Jerusalem’s men and to enslave the women and children. In response, Balian threatened to execute the 5,000 Muslim prisoners in Jerusalem, kill the crusaders’ families and livestock, destroy all treasures, and raze the al-Aqsa mosque and Dome of the Rock to the ground before he and the men marched out to meet their glorious deaths at Saladin’s hands. Unnerved, Saladin suggested a peaceful surrender, which Balian accepted. Saladin then granted safe passage to all inhabitants who could pay their way, and sold the remaining men, women, and children into slavery.
The reaction across Christendom was utter disbelief. It was unthinkable that Jerusalem was no longer a Christian city. Four generations of Western children had grown up knowing that Jerusalem was part of Christendom. The grief at losing it tore deep into the soul of the West. On hearing the news, Pope Urban III died of shock. Within two years, Europe’s leading warrior, Richard the Lionheart, was personally in Outremer to set things right. But the tide had turned, and he failed ever to set eyes on Jerusalem.
Although the crusader states would limp on for another 105 years from their new headquarters at Tyre and then at Acre, medieval Christendom never again owned Jerusalem outright, and life became immeasurably harsher for the remaining crusaders and settlers — notably as a result of the campaigns of Sultan al-Malik Baybars, who died on the 1st of July 1277, providing the other major Levantine anniversary this week.
Unlike any of the crusaders’ previous opponents, Baybars was a military machine. On some levels, Saladin was not an especially talented general — over the course of 17 years of campaigning against the crusaders, he was regularly not successful on the battlefield. Baybars, on the other hand, was a highly effective general. He rose to power by murdering two Sultans of Egypt (including the last Ayyubid of Saladin’s dynasty), before finally taking personal control as Sultan, leading a hardened army of Mamluks from Egypt and Syria. He was a warlord who had built Egypt’s military caste of slave soldiers (mamluk means slave) into a juggernaut that dominated without opposition, steamrollering both the crusaders and the Mongols invading from the east. To put that into perspective, the Mongols had recently blitzkrieged their way from China to Poland, slaughtering entire populations. No terror like it had ever been seen. In many cities, there was no one left to clear away the mountains of rotting bodies. When Baybars and his Mamluks defeated them in AD 1260 at Ain Jalut (in the Jezreel Valley, Galilee), it was the first time the massed Mongol forces had ever been convincingly beaten. It is little wonder that the Islamic world has always told stories of Baybars, whereas Saladin fell into relative obscurity until resuscitated by Western interest.
Saladin may have broken the crusaders’ hearts, but it was Baybars who effectively snuffed out the crusade movement. As the news from Syria and Iraq in the last few weeks now makes clear, the complexion of the Levant region is changing again. The vacuum in Iraq and the disintegration of society in Syria have created new groups, alliances, and interests. We do well to remember that the region is one where nothing has ever stood still for long.