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

Miniature depicting Balian of Ibelin surrendering Jerusalem to Saladin, from a 15th century French chronicle
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 example–contrary to the film, Sybilla (d. 1190) and Guy of Lusignon (d. 1194) seem to have been at least content with their marriage, Balian of Ibelin (d. 1193) wasn’t a heroic agnostic outsider but was instead a believing Christian who was deeply enmeshed in divisive court politics, and Scott eliminates King Baldwin V from the story altogether (the director’s cut, which includes all the Baldwin V scenes they shot and then cut from the film, is a better movie because Sybilla’s actions actually make some sense).

I could go on. There’s never really a great explanation for why Scott’s Balian, who goes from blacksmith to nobility, suddenly learns 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. 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 insane religious zealots) and the Muslims (removing any complexity from them in favor of a “noble savage” feel). And that’s just a few of the historical problems. I’m sure a film critic would have technical complaints as well.

But there’s 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, to the point of 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, Balian will order his knights 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 Orlando 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 [DWD note: I think he may have been bluffing here…]. 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!

(taken from The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, by Amin Maalouf, 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 holy places in the city, not just the Muslim holy places. Also, the movie doesn’t mention that Saladin extracted a ransom for the Christians he allowed to leave, and those who couldn’t pay, well, they didn’t get to leave. Anyway, this threat was enough to get Saladin to agree, partly because it was a threat that the Christian knights could certainly have carried out 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.

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 most of the city’s martial strength and almost its entire cadre of potential commanders was either killed or captured in the single most devastating defeat the Crusaders ever suffered. After Hattin, Saladin’s army scooped up Acre and then Ascalon before setting its sites on the main prize, Jerusalem, which it besieged on September 20.

Saladin's activities
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, manned 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 the will and determination of the people inside the city. 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 (contrary to the film, Balian was at the 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 Jerusalem 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 Balian’s wife, their children, and their household servants were all safely taken out of Jerusalem and delivered to Tripoli by Saladin’s men. Another thing you don’t see in the film is that there were 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 he probably had enough men to carry out his threats to destroy the Muslim holy sites and ensure that Saladin gained nothing 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.

Here’s an interesting Muslim sidelight: 2 October 1187, which was the day Saladin formally accepted Jerusalem’s surrender and entered the city, corresponds to 27 Rajab 583 on the Islamic calendar. 27 Rajab is the day when Muhammad was said to have gone on his miraculous “nighttime journey” to Jerusalem (in the year 620 on our calendar but the year 2 BH — Before the Hijra — for Muslims). I’m not sure if Saladin orchestrated the terms of the surrender that way on purpose, but as a pure coincidence it seems almost too good to be true.

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 those folks, for example. Saladin’s brother, al-Adil, asked for and was gifted 1000 Christian slaves that 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 Hospitallers and Templars were forced by public outrage to donate some funds to ransom 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 at 10 dinars per captive. They were real good guys. 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 had reached Rome, but the loss of Jerusalem spurred this process on, 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.

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