Happy Independence Day to my US readers (which seems to be most of you)!
I wasn’t planning on writing today, but then I remembered that today is also the 828th anniversary of the Battle of Hattin, the 1187 Crusader defeat that all but guaranteed that Jerusalem would fall to the Ayyubid army under the command of Saladin (which it did, not quite 3 months later, on October 2). Islamic history is one of the things we do around here, so we should say something about this important battle.
I want to preface this, as I should probably do whenever I write about the Crusades, with the usual caveat about being Euro-centric when it comes to history. European history overstates the importance of the Crusades to the rest of the world, 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, mostly by governments, insurgencies, and terrorist groups trying to whip people up into an anti-West frenzy. In truth, most of the Islamic world of the 11th-13th centuries barely registered the Crusades at all, since its effects never spread beyond the eastern Mediterranean coast. Saladin, the victor of Hattin and the man who returned Jerusalem to the Muslims, became arguably the most famous and respected Muslim figure in Western history but was a relatively minor guy in Islamic history, mostly important for finally putting the reeling Fatimid Caliphate out of its misery in 1171 and establishing a new dynasty that would rule Egypt for all of, uh, about 75 years, before it gave way to the much longer-lasting Mamluk kingdom. Hattin was Saladin’s greatest victory and is critical to his reputation in Western historiography, but most of his reputation in the Islamic world today is a product of Westernizing history in the post-colonial period, and should not be taken as a reflection of his stature throughout most of Islamic history.
I’ve been, well, less than flattering in past writing about the Crusaders, and the truth is Hattin was actually one of their biggest blunders. It’s a battle that didn’t need to be fought in a place where no Crusader army should have found itself. 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). By 1187, the political situation in Egypt and the Levant, which thanks to Fatimid weakness had been so fractured a century earlier (this is a major reason why the First Crusade actually succeeded despite its own deep problems), had completely changed, as Saladin took control of Egypt and then reunited it with the former Fatimid lands in the Levant under his direct authority.
Saladin’s army had been beaten by a smaller Crusader force under Baldwin IV, King of Jerusalem, in 1177 at Montgisard (near the modern Israeli city of Ramla), and he seems to have been reluctant for a rematch (Baldwin was a very capable military man). But by 1187 the kingdom was in the hands of Guy de Lusignan, who was married (happily; don’t let Hollywood fool you) to Baldwin’s sister, Sibylla, and appears to have made up for the fact that he wasn’t the brightest bulb in the pack by also being personally unlikeable. Left to his own devices, Guy might have avoided war with Saladin; he’d actually been sacked as Baldwin’s regent and top general in 1183 because he believed it was smarter to employ a Fabian strategy against Saladin’s forces, who could go out on campaign but couldn’t stay on the march indefinitely (he should have stuck to his own guns on this). But the issue was taken out of his hands when Raynald of Châtillon, Prince of Antioch, provoked Saladin by raiding caravans passing between Egypt and Syria, and then provoked him again by refusing Guy’s order to make restitution. Saladin was happy to be provoked.
Saladin had previously signed a treaty with Raymond III of Tripoli, who had been Baldwin V’s regent for the few months that the boy was on the throne before he died and was succeeded by Guy. Raymond and Guy had nearly gone to war with each other in 1186 as they each backed rival claims to the Jerusalem throne (Guy his own, through his marriage to Sibylla, and Raymond his own, as regent, and that of Sibylla’s younger sister, Isabella). But when Saladin sent an expedition through Raymond’s territory that wound up attacking and crushing a small Crusader force, Raymond repudiated the treaty and made common cause 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. Meanwhile, on July 2 Tiberias fell.
Here’s where the Crusaders made their first mistakes. 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 fortress 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 desperately wanted the Crusaders to march out and meet him in a pitched battle, where his forces stood a better chance of success. Moreover, Tiberias was at best a consolation prize; Jerusalem was obviously the key city in the region, and you couldn’t take Jerusalem without defeating its army either in the field or in a siege. For Guy, who remember was inclined not to try to fight Saladin in a pitched battle, to march that army out into the open field, where it was at its most vulnerable, to try to recover the less important Tiberias, was basically giving Saladin everything he could have wanted. Saladin knew all this, and his offensive against Tiberias was almost certainly the first part of a trap to goad Guy into doing, well, pretty much exactly what he did.
This was an unfortunate decision on Guy’s part, but it probably wasn’t entirely his fault. Accusations of cowardice had followed him since 1183, and his tenuous hold on the throne probably didn’t allow him to do the smart thing and wait Saladin out. There was too much pressure at court for him to Do Something, and Guy gave in to it.
The second part of the trap was getting Guy to lead his army away from water. This part of the story does rely 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 noted (although chroniclers aren’t always the most reliable on these sorts of things) that Raymond argued forcefully against leaving the springs at Sepphoris to try to recapture Tiberias; he saw the danger and realized that it was better to let Saladin have Tiberias (which, remember, was his fortress and where his own wife was still being besieged in the citadel) than to take the bait. Guy initially seemed like he might take Raymond’s advice (which, again, was more in line with what appears to have been his instincts regarding fighting Saladin, but some counsel from Gerard de Ridefort, the head of the Knights Templar, convinced him to march out and fight. 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.
When the Crusader army left Turʿan, Saladin sent the two wings of his force around them to take the village, which both 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 break out toward 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…hustled north all the way to Tyre. So much for his reconciliation with Guy, I guess. 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 and which disappears from history after the battle. The bulk of the army was slaughtered; the common soldiers who survived were mostly sold into slavery (though some, like captured members of the Knights Templar, were executed), but Guy and the other surviving nobles were fairly well treated on the whole (Raynald was the exception; Saladin beheaded him personally).
In his The Concise History of the Crusades, American 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 made for a new Crusade, but it would be two years before it actually left Europe for the Levant.