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

Today is of course American Independence Day, but you know we’re not really here to talk about that. But today is also the anniversary of the Battle of Hattin, the 1187 Crusader defeat that all but guaranteed that Jerusalem would fall to Saladin’s army–which it did, on October 2. So let’s talk about that instead.

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 compared with his reputation in Europe, he was a relatively minor guy in the Islamic world of his day, 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. Not exactly the Roman Empire.

Hattin was Saladin’s greatest victory, and is critical to his reputation in Western historiography, but his modern reputation in the Islamic world–and, indeed, much of the importance placed on the Crusades in the Islamic world today–is mostly a product of European influence. When Europeans began the long process of colonizing the Middle East in the late 18th century, they brought with them centuries of histories and legends about the Crusades, many of which heavily featured Saladin and usually as The Good And Noble Muslim. That in turn increased the Crusades’ importance among Muslims and raised Saladin’s profile as a symbol of resistance to the European presence. Which is not to say Saladin and the Crusades weren’t important in their day, just that you can get a misleading sense of that importance from observing how they’re treated in the modern world. Anyway, enough about that.

I’ve been…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 authority.

In 1177, Saladin’s army had been beaten by a smaller Crusader force under Baldwin IV, King of Jerusalem, at Montgisard (near the modern Israeli city of Ramla), and Saladin doesn’t seem to have been interested in a rematch. But by 1187 the kingdom was in the hands of Guy of Lusignan. He was married (happily; don’t let Hollywood fool you) to Baldwin’s sister, Sibylla, and made up for the fact that he wasn’t the brightest bulb in the pack by also being personally unpleasant. Guy had been sacked as Baldwin’s top general in 1183 for two reasons. First, he habitually looked the other way while Raynald of Châtillon, Prince of Antioch, raided Muslim caravans and then captured the town of Aqaba. 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 he’d helped cause. He fell so far out of favor that, in order to get the Jerusalem nobles to agree to her accession as queen upon the deal of her son, King Baldwin V, in 1186, Sibylla had to agree to an annulment so that Guy would not be able to claim the throne by marriage. Immediately after Sibylla was crowned, though, she announced her new marriage…to Guy. That was quite a loophole the nobles left her.

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 that Jerusalem had signed with Saladin. This incident may also have involved the capture and rape of Saladin’s sister, though there’s a strong possibility that detail was invented by later writers to give Saladin a little extra motivation for what was to come. The 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 schism in the Christian court.

The treaty that Raynald broke, you see, 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 force it defeated there was really more of an embassy from Guy imploring Raymond to come back into the fold than it was a military force. The result was that 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. Meanwhile, on July 2 Tiberias fell.

Here’s where the Crusaders made their first mistake apart from letting Guy take the throne in the first place. 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 desperately wanted the Crusaders to march out and meet him in a pitched battle, where his forces stood a better chance of success, rather than holing up in very well-fortified Jerusalem. 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 to march that army out into the open field, where it was at its most vulnerable, just to recover Tiberias was basically giving Saladin everything he could have wanted. Saladin surely knew all this, and his offensive against Tiberias was the first part of a trap to goad Guy into doing, well, pretty much exactly what he did.

The second part of the trap was getting Guy to lead his army away from water. This part of the story relies 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 on these sorts of things) have Raymond arguing forcefully against leaving the springs at Sepphoris to try to recapture Tiberias–and remember, Tiberias was his city, so he had the most to lose if the Crusaders failed to recover it. Guy initially seemed like he might take Raymond’s advice, but court politics intervened. Guy had been trying to rebuild his reputation since 1183, and influential figures at court like Raynald and Templar leader Gerard of Ridefort were now egging him on and accusing Raymond of cowardice for arguing against taking action. There was considerable pressure on Guy to Do Something, basically, 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.

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

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.

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A 15th century illustration of Hattin (Wikimedia)

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…hauled ass 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, the instigator of this whole affair, was the exception–Saladin is said to have beheaded him personally.

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 made for a new Crusade, but it would be two years before that army actually left Europe for the Levant.

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Author: DWD

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