Who was Saladin? - Biography & Accomplishments

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Holy Crusades were an important era in the history of the relations between Europe and West Asia. In this lesson, we'll explore the life of Saladin, and see how he impacted this crucial time.


You may have heard of the Crusades, the series of religious wars fought between the European knights and Islamic armies for control of the Holy Land. A number of famous people came out of this era, such as Richard the Lionhearted. But who were these European kings and knights actually fighting? Those Islamic rulers had names too, and none would echo through history as powerfully as that of Saladin.

Saladin, as he appeared in a 15th-century European manuscript

Known in Arabic as Salah ad-Din, this Islamic ruler of the 12th century commanded massive forces, fought the Europeans for control of the Holy Lands, started a new Islamic Empire that would reshape the world, and ended up actually improving relationships between Europe and West Asia. If ever there was a name for the history books, this was it.

Early Life

Why don't we start at the beginning? Saladin was born around the year 1137, in what is now either Syria or Iraq. His family was of Kurdish descent, and adhered to the Sunni sect of Islam. He seems to have been well educated from a young age, and while he was more of a scholar than warrior, he was entered into the military under his uncle's tutelage. It was in this position that he saw his first battles of the Crusades, leading troops against Crusaders near Giza, in Egypt. Saladin would later be credited as the architect of the Islamic victory in this battle.

Saladin in Power

By roughly 1169, Saladin had gained enough recognition and respect to catch the attention of the caliphs (Islamic rulers) of the Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt. Saladin rose quickly up the governmental ranks and was eventually named the Vizier of Egypt. This was an interesting move, since the Fatimid rulers were Shia Muslims, and Saladin was Sunni. The two sects didn't often share power. Saladin, it seems, was not about to waste the opportunity. He worked his way further into the Fatimid government, and when the caliph died in 1171, he seized control.

1171 marks the end of the Fatimid Caliphate, one of the great medieval Islamic empires. But Islamic power was far from finished. Saladin transformed Egypt into a Sunni state, aligning it with the Sunni Abbasid Caliphate based in Baghdad. He then invaded and conquered Syria in 1174, and was proclaimed the Sultan of Egypt and Syria. It was a title he'd carry with him for the rest of his life, as well as the founding of a new Islamic dynasty that would rule most of West Asia for the next century. We call them the Ayyubid Dynasty.

Saladin and the Crusades

Saladin had been a young man during the Second Crusade, when European knights had already managed to seize control of Jerusalem and established it as a European kingdom. As a Sultan, he was determined to take the Holy Land back. After a series of wars against Crusader armies, the armies met at the Battle of Hattin in 1187 to fight for Jerusalem itself. Saladin didn't just win this battle; he destroyed the Crusader army. It was one of the most significant turning points in the history of the Crusades, and Jerusalem was back under Islamic control.

The Battle of Hattin was a turning point in the history of the Crusades

Despite his reputation as a fierce defender of Islam, Saladin was also a scholar and wise politician. He treated Christians and Jews in Jerusalem with a much higher degree of kindness than Crusaders had shown Muslims when they first took the city. He asked ransoms for the European families in the city (a common practice of the time), but let poor families who couldn't afford the ransom leave without paying it.

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