Saladin Captures Jerusalem
Riddled with political intrigue and precarious leadership, the Crusaders’ Jerusalem proved all too vulnerable to attack. Though nearly a century had passed since the Crusades had cut a bloody swath through the Muslim world, the gulf between Christianity and Islam had been irreparably widened. Conquering Jerusalem from the Crusaders became a popular theme in Islam, but it took a truly inspiring leader to make the attack succeed. That leader was Saladin.
Even as Saladin was making plans to besiege Jerusalem, the city was torn from within by bids for succession. Baldwin IV, the tragic young “Leper King,” had died, leaving only a small son behind to succeed him. At last a civil war was avoided by the appointment of Guy of Lusignan, Baldwin IV’s brother-in-law.
But the new king also may have been the city’s undoing. In 1187, Guy of Lusignan made the fatal decision to attack Saladin’s armies where they camped in Hittin, which is in Galilee. Had he refrained from attacking, Saladin may well have been forced to turn back his armies for lack of food. But instead a battle was engaged, and the Frankish armies suffered a devastating defeat.
The Triumph of Saladin
From the scene of his overwhelming victory, Saladin led his armies through the Holy Land and proceeded to bring the entire country to its knees. Those Franks who had survived the battle at Hittin ran to Tyre for safety, which would later signify difficulties for Saladin’s foothold in Palestine. But in the meantime it was Saladin’s hour to conquer, and in 1187 when he reached the walls of Jerusalem, his victory seemed a foregone conclusion.
By this time, the legend of Mohammed’s Night Journey had become attached to Jerusalem, and Al Aqsa, the Remote Mosque, was seen as the landmark of this divine event. The importance of Jerusalem in Muslim lore had thus increased over the years, and Saladin inspired his troops with stirring oratory in which he urged his men to retake one of the cities holiest to Islam.
Meanwhile, a ray of hope arose for the Christians in Jerusalem. Baron Balian of Ibelin had entered the city, with the permission of Saladin, to collect his wife and children. He took an oath to Saladin to remain in Jerusalem for only one night to carry out his task. But when Balian witnessed the hopeless state of Jerusalem for himself, he was moved to ask Saladin to free him from his oath, so that he could stay in Jerusalem and help in its defense. Saladin agreed, arranging for an escort to take Balian’s wife and children to safety. This action among many others has contributed to Saladin’s reputation in history as a chivalrous and heroic figure.
But Balian could not succeed, as the city was simply too weakened and the Muslim armies too strong. On October 2nd 1187, Saladin’s armies broke through the walls of Jerusalem and made it their own.
It was ultimately a bloodless conquest—Saladin had sworn an oath that no Christians would be killed once the city was taken, and that oath was kept to the letter. The Franks were banished from the city, leaving only the eastern Christians behind. Though the Crusades were to continue for many years to come, never again would Christian armed forces succeed in capturing Jerusalem.