Today in Middle Eastern history: Saladin takes Jerusalem (1187)

Our “Today in History” posts are always free, but if you want to support the newsletter and get the full Foreign Exchanges experience you know what you have to do:


Miniature depicting Balian of Ibelin surrendering Jerusalem to Saladin, from a 15th century French chronicle (Wikimedia Commons)


The same scene, Hollywood-style

There are plenty of things wrong with Ridley Scott’s 2005 Crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven. He makes a total hash out of the history of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, for one thing. In Scott’s story, Princess (later Queen) Sybilla (d. 1190) is trapped in an unhappy marriage to the malicious idiot (and later King) Guy of Lusignon (d. 1194), but in reality she seems to have been at least content with their marriage, and it’s not clear that Guy was any more malicious than your average 12th century ambitious noble. He was probably an idiot, so I’ll give Scott that. Scott’s hero, Balian of Ibelin (d. 1193), was really the hero of the siege of Jerusalem from the Christian side, but he wasn’t a heroic agnostic outsider. Balian was in reality a believing Christian who was very much enmeshed in divisive court politics. Scott eliminates King Baldwin V from the story altogether, which not only is ahistorical but makes his Sybilla’s motivations almost inscrutable. To be fair, Baldwin V is in the director’s cut, which consequently is a better version of the film.

I could go on. There’s never really a great explanation (apart from White Savior, I guess) for why Scott’s Balian, who suddenly goes from blacksmith to nobility, knows how to find water in the desert better than any Bedouin and has a better grasp of military tactics and strategy than anybody else in the film. Also, Orlando Bloom just isn’t doing it for me. In the movie’s desire to be “even handed” in its post-9/11 treatment of Muslims, it actually does a disservice to both the Crusaders (portraying many of them as little more than religious zealots) and the Muslims (removing any complexity from them in favor of a “noble savage” feel). Other than that, though, it’s really great.

There is one scene towards the end of the film that I do like quite a bit. After Saladin’s (d. 1193) army has battered Jerusalem for a few days—even knocking down one of its walls—but hasn’t been able to take the city, Balian rides out to parley with him. Balian warns that if Saladin refuses to allow every Christian inside the city safe passage out of Muslim territory, he will order the city’s Christian defenders to destroy Jerusalem itself before they make a final stand, which he promises will “break” Saladin’s army even if it emerges victorious. It’s a cool threat, even coming out of Bloom’s decidedly nonthreatening face, but the best part to me is that this is actually pretty close to how we’re told that their conversation played out in real life. The very well-renowned Arab historian Ibn al-Athir (d. 1233), who was actually in Saladin’s retinue and witnessed the siege firsthand, wrote that Balian told Saladin:

O sultan, be aware that this city holds a mass of people so great that God alone knows their number. They now hesitate to continue the fight, because they hope that you will spare their lives as you have spared so many others, because they love life and hate death. But if we see that death is inevitable, then, by God, we will kill our own women and children and burn all that we possess. We will not leave you a single dinar of booty, not a single dirham, not a single man or woman to lead into captivity. Then we shall destroy the sacred rock, Al-Aqsa mosque, and many other sites; we will kill the five thousand Muslim prisoners we now hold, and we will exterminate the mounts and all the beasts. In the end, we will come outside the city, and we will fight against you as one fights for one’s life. Not one of us will die without having killed several of you!

from Amin Maalouf, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, p. 198

OK, so this is a little different from the film, where Balian never says anything about killing women and children and says that he and his knights will destroy all the holy places in the city, not just the Muslim holy places. Regardless, this threat was enough to get Saladin to agree to stop fighting and give safe passage to the Christians in the city. He agreed partly because it was a threat that the Christian knights could certainly have carried out (at least the “destroying Jerusalem” and the “killing your potential slaves” parts) and partly because safe passage in exchange for surrendering the city was the deal Saladin had offered the defenders before the siege began. At that point, the Crusaders rejected his offer, so then he swore to take the city by force. But Balian was able to talk him back down basically to his original offer. Oh, by the way, the movie doesn’t mention that Saladin’s offer of safe passage was contingent upon the payment of ransom, and those who couldn’t pay, well, they didn’t get to leave.

There’s not a whole lot to say about the Siege of Jerusalem itself; the fate of the city was sealed months earlier at the Battle of Hattin, when its army was virtually wiped out in the single most devastating defeat the Crusaders ever suffered. After Hattin, Saladin’s army scooped up Acre and then Ascalon before setting its sights on the main prize, Jerusalem, which it besieged on September 20.

Saladin’s activities

While you know that I don’t generally have very nice things to say about the Crusaders, there is a certain something about the defense of Jerusalem, carried out mostly by common citizens and squires—some of whom were knighted by Balian out of a sheer desperate need for manpower—that you have to respect. These weren’t the putzes who rode out to their destruction at Hattin, they were the people abandoned by those putzes. The fact that they managed to hold out for even 12 days against Saladin’s much larger (20,000 men against maybe 5,000 Christian defenders), much better equipped, much better trained army is a testament first to the challenges of medieval siege warfare (Jerusalem was a tough nut to crack), but also to their will and determination. Yes, we could say that they made a big mistake not jumping on Saladin’s original offer of a peaceful surrender of the city, but let’s not discount the fact that a) they may not have trusted Saladin to keep his word and b) these were genuinely religious people who may have had difficulty abandoning “Christ’s city” to the Muslims without at least putting up a fight.

Contrary to the film, Balian and Saladin actually knew each other before they met outside the walls of Jerusalem. After Hattin (also contrary to the film, Balian was present at that battle), Balian fled to Tyre, and while he was there he asked Saladin for permission to retrieve his wife—Maria Comnena, who also happened to be the widow of former King Amalric I (d. 1174)—from Jerusalem. Saladin agreed in return for Balian’s promise not to raise arms against him. But when Balian got to the city, the leaderless inhabitants begged him to stay and organize the defense, so Balian went to Saladin again and asked to be released from that promise. Balian must have asked nicely, because not only did Saladin absolve him of his promise, but he had Balian’s wife, their children, and their household servants all safely taken out of Jerusalem and delivered to Tripoli. Another thing you don’t see in the film is that there were some Christian inhabitants of Jerusalem—Orthodox Christians, for example—who actually welcomed the arrival of the Muslims, because their freedom of worship had been suppressed by the Catholic Crusaders.

Saladin’s army bashed itself against the walls for almost 10 days but was unable to get past them, despite having brought massive siege machinery with it. In the meantime, it suffered considerably higher casualties than the defenders. On September 29, Saladin had part of the wall mined and then sent his army into the breach that created, but the opposing sides fought to a stalemate. However, even though the defenders were taking fewer casualties than Saladin’s forces were, they bore those casualties far more painfully than Saladin did thanks to the disparity in numbers between the two forces. When Balian rode out for his parley with Saladin, with clergy and women engaged in communal prayer throughout Jerusalem, he was simply out of men to defend the city. I don’t want to say that Balian was totally bluffing Saladin, because I do think he could have carried out his threat to ensure that Saladin gained nothing materially in victory, but if the Muslims had managed to collapse another section of the wall it seems doubtful that the Christians could have fought them off again.

As I said above, the notion that the defeated Christians were given “safe passage” out of Muslim lands belies the fact that they had to pay for that safe passage, at the price of 10 dinars a piece. This was a sum that many simply couldn’t meet, it may be that as many as 15,000 were sold into slavery. But many of the siege’s wealthier participants made some efforts to free those who couldn’t afford their own ransom. Balian was able to arrange a 30,000 dinar ransom for about 7000 of them, for example. Saladin’s brother, al-Adil, asked for and was gifted 1000 Christian slaves whom he immediately liberated. The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Heraclius (d. ~1191) then requested a group of slaves to liberate and was given 700, while Balian was given 500 for the same purpose. Saladin released the aged, along with another 1000 Christians who were supposedly from the city of Edessa/Urfa, the birthplace of one of Saladin’s men. The Grand Masters of the Hospitaller and Templar orders were forced by public outrage to donate some funds to ransom additional captives.

Still, we’re told that Heraclius and the two Grand Masters all left the city loaded with enough loot that they could have probably ransomed the remaining Christian captives as well. They were real good guys, is what I’m saying. Christians who were already native to Jerusalem (mostly Orthodox and Syrian Christians) were allowed to stay and were left untouched, and Christian pilgrims were allowed to freely enter the city (including non-Catholics who had been denied entry into the city by the Crusaders). In Europe, plans for another Crusade had already gotten underway after word of Hattin reached Rome, but the loss of Jerusalem sped things up, and by 1189 a new group of Crusaders was forming to try to take Jerusalem back from Saladin. They failed, but not for lack of trying.