Today in Middle Eastern history: the Battle of Hattin (1187)

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Today is of course the Fourth of July, or US Independence Day, and best wishes to those who are celebrating that. But this is not a newsletter devoted to American history, so we’re here today to talk instead about the Battle of Hattin, an 1187 clash between the army of the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem and the army of the Egyptian ruler Saladin that ended in a catastrophic defeat for the Crusaders that left Saladin with a clear path toward capturing Jerusalem. It took a few months, but he did indeed capture it. Which is a story for another time.

I want to preface this, as I should probably do whenever I write about the Crusades, with a caveat about Euro-centrism and Middle Eastern history. European history overstates the significance of the Crusades, and since European history has shaped how history is taught in the post-colonial Islamic world, that means the significance of the Crusades gets overstated there as well—often by governments, insurgencies, and terrorist groups trying to generate anti-Western sentiment.

In truth, much of the Islamic world of the 11th-13th centuries barely registered the Crusades, outside of Egypt, Syria, and of course the eastern Mediterranean coast. The Crusades were a momentous world historical event to be sure—but at the time their effects were not widely felt and they were soon overwhelmed by subsequent events (the Mongol conquests most particularly). Their impact was felt far more intensely in Europe. Saladin, the victor at Hattin and the man who eventually returned Jerusalem to the Muslims, is regarded as one of the most respected Muslim figures in history by most Western audiences, but he generally doesn’t enjoy that same stature in the Islamic world except when someone is specifically invoking the Crusades as, e.g., a symbol of Islamic resistance to European domination.

I’ve been somewhat less than flattering in writing about the Crusaders, and that’s not going to change today because Hattin was actually one of their all-time biggest blunders. It’s a battle that didn’t need to be fought in a place where no Crusader army should have found itself. But it was also the product of a rapidly changing set of circumstances in which the Crusader kingdoms found themselves. The success of the First Crusade in capturing Jerusalem (1099) had been followed by the utter comedy of errors of the Second Crusade (1145-1149), whose only military success was in liberating Lisbon (yes, the one in Portugal). It failed utterly at its primary goal, which was to regain the lost country of Edessa and to strengthen the military and political disposition of the Crusaders states. By 1187, the political situation in Egypt and the Levant had totally changed. Where previously the Crusaders only had to deal with weak Fatimids and assorted small-time warlords, now the whole region was in Saladin’s much more capable hands.

Saladin had tangled with the Crusaders before, and not always successfully. In 1177, for example, he suffered defeat to a smaller Crusader army under Baldwin IV, King of Jerusalem, at Montgisard (near the modern Israeli city of Ramla). But when we pick up the story in 1187 the competent but leprous Baldwin was dead and the kingdom was ruled by the healthy but incompetent Guy of Lusignan, who as of 1180 was married (relatively happily; don’t let Hollywood fool you) to Baldwin’s sister, Sibylla, and who managed to combine incompetence and unpleasantness in a way that was highly advantageous to his enemies.

As Baldwin’s brother in law, Guy had gotten a plum job as the king’s military commander. But he got himself sacked in 1183, for two reasons. First, he habitually looked the other way while Raynald of Châtillon, Prince of Antioch, raided Muslim caravans and made other offensive moves against Saladin, often in defiance of treaties Baldwin had negotiated. This made Guy look feckless. Then, when Saladin besieged Raynald’s castle at Kerak in response to these provocations, Guy hesitated to lead the army out from Jerusalem to relieve the siege. This made him look like a coward. He fell so far out of favor that when her son (by her previous marriage), the young Baldwin V, died in 1186, Sibylla had to agree to an annulment in order to secure the nobility’s backing for her accession as queen. The idea, in principle, was that Guy would then not be able to claim the throne by marriage. This agreement contained what I think we’d have to say was a gaping loophole, however, and Sybilla exploited it by accepting her crown and then remarrying Guy. So he became king after all.

Upon Guy’s accession as king, Raynald—back in favor at court—provoked the confrontation that led to Hattin by again raiding a Muslim caravan, in the process breaking a treaty between Jerusalem and Saladin. Some later accounts have it that Raynald captured and raped and/or murdered Saladin’s sister on this raid, but contemporary accounts do not support that narrative and so it’s been discarded by historians. The nonetheless enraged Saladin sent an army under the command of his son after Raynald, which didn’t get its man but did decisively defeat a Knights Templar-led force at the Battle of Cresson on May 1, 1187. This had the unplanned effect of immediately healing a major schism in the Christian court.

The treaty Raynald broke had been signed by Saladin and Raymond III of Tripoli, during Raymond’s brief stint as regent for young Baldwin V. When the boy died and Sibylla pulled her fast one on the court, Raymond and Guy nearly went to war with one another, as they each backed rival claims to the Jerusalem throne (Guy his own, and Raymond that of Humphrey of Toron, the husband of Sibylla’s younger sister Isabella). But Saladin’s army passed through Raymond’s territory on the way to Cresson, and the Templar group it defeated there was really more of an embassy from Guy imploring Raymond to come back into the fold than a full-fledged military force. After the battle, then, Raymond repudiated his treaty with Saladin and patched things up with Guy. At that point Saladin brought his entire army (probably around 30,000 men) to besiege one of Raymond’s main castles, at Tiberias, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Guy and Raymond met with their armies (a combined 20,000 men) at Sepphoris, west of Tiberias, and discussed what to do next. Tiberias fell on July 2.

Here’s where the Crusaders made their first serious mistakes. For starters, when Tiberias fell Guy should have turned his army around and marched back to Jerusalem. Saladin’s army was just kind of OK at siege warfare, and had been unsuccessful in a few sieges on Christian fortresses like Raynald’s castle at Kerak. He was able to take Tiberias, but Tiberias wasn’t being defended by a force anywhere near the size of Jerusalem’s army. So Saladin wanted and arguably needed the Crusaders to march out and meet him in the open field, where his forces stood a better chance of success than they would have in a prolonged siege of Jerusalem. It was impossible for Saladin to take Jerusalem without defeating its army, so for Guy to march that army out of the city, where it was at its most vulnerable, to try to recover the relatively unimportant Tiberias, gave Saladin everything he wanted.

Saladin’s conquest of Tiberias seems to have been the first part of a trap meant to goad Guy into doing pretty much exactly what he did. The second part of the trap involved getting Guy to lead his army away from water. It relied on Guy doing something exceptionally stupid. A king might be arrogant or oblivious enough to figure that his army, with God on its side or whatever, could defeat any enemy in a pitched battle, but it takes a real blockhead to move his army away from water in the dead of summer in a region where it gets pretty hot and water isn’t so easy to find.

Chroniclers (although chroniclers aren’t always the most reliable sources on these sorts of things) have Raymond arguing forcefully against leaving the springs at Sepphoris to try to recapture Tiberias. Guy initially seemed like he might take Raymond’s advice, but court politics intervened. Guy had been trying to rebuild his reputation as a fighting man since his 1183 humiliation, and influential figures at court like Raynald and Templar leader Gerard of Ridefort were now egging him on and accusing Raymond of cowardice because he was arguing for restraint. There was considerable pressure on Guy to Do Something, and he gave in to it. Not only did Guy order the march to Tiberias, but when his tired army reached the village of Turʿan on July 3, instead of letting it rest (again near water), Guy ordered it to keep marching. It’s like he wouldn’t be happy with anything other than a total catastrophe.

Troop movements at Hattin, in French but I assume it’s straightforward enough—Muslims in green, Crusaders in black (Benherz via Wikimedia Commons)

When the Crusader army left Turʿan, Saladin sent the two wings of his force around them to take the village, which encircled the Crusader army and ensured that it couldn’t retreat toward the water it had just left. Guy was finally convinced that marching straight to Tiberias was futile, and ordered the army to head slightly northward toward the springs at Hattin. But by this point they were being harassed so badly by Saladin’s force that they couldn’t move very far. They camped, intending to make a break for the springs the next day. Saladin’s army made loud celebratory noises all night to demoralize the Christians, and started a grass fire upwind of their camp to parch them just a little bit more.

The next morning the battle started in earnest, as the desperate Crusaders tried to reach any water they could find. Raymond led a small force that managed to break through Saladin’s lines and…double timed it north all the way to Tyre. So much for his reconciliation with Guy. The fight shifted quickly from an offensive push to get to water to a hopeless defensive action to try to preserve some part of the army as well as the “True Cross,” which the Crusaders had with them. It disappears from history after the battle, though relics purporting to be fragments of the cross can be found all over the place to the present day. The bulk of the Crusader army was slaughtered. The common soldiers who survived were mostly sold into slavery (though some, like captured members of the Knights Templar, were executed), while Guy and the other surviving nobles were fairly well treated on the whole. Raynald, the instigator of this whole affair, was the exception—Saladin is said to have beheaded him personally.

Saladin seizing the “True Cross” from Guy, from a manuscript of the Chronica Majora by 13th century chronicler Matthew of Paris (Wikimedia Commons)

In his The Concise History of the Crusades, Crusades historian Thomas Madden calls Hattin “the greatest defeat in crusading history,” and he’s almost certainly right. The Crusaders’ position in the Levant would never be as secure after Hattin as it had been before it. The Christian army was utterly destroyed, which meant that Jerusalem could no longer be protected and the Crusader kingdoms had no ability to go back on the offensive without new forces from Europe. Saladin began taking Crusader fortresses (mostly by surrender, to avoid pointless suffering) left and right: Acre, Sidon, Jaffa, Ascalon, and many others, leading up to his siege of Jerusalem in September. Plans were begun for a new Crusade, but it would be two years before its armies began departing Europe.