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Saladin and the Battle of Hattin (1187)

The defeat at Hattin doomed the Christians in the Holy Land.
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Saladin united the Muslim world in the late 12th century. Meanwhile, Holy Land Christians bickered amongst themselves. As a result, the Muslim position strengthened greatly when compared to the Christians. Tensions between religions culminated in the Battle of Hattin in 1187. The Christians made grave errors which led to their destruction, the collapse of their position in the region, and the Third Crusade.

The great Islamic military leader Saladin spent a couple decades uniting the Muslim world under his Sultanate. Egypt fell to his command in 1169 and over the next twenty years he added more territory. Damascus, Mosul, and others became incorporated into Saladin’s kingdom. At the same time, an uneasy truce existed between the Christians and Muslims.

Christian forces defeated Saladin in battle in 1177. The crusaders essentially checked Muslim aggression with the victory. Tensions remained, but both sides honored the peace until Raynald of Chatillon began skirmishing with the Muslims and threatened the holy site, Mecca. Raynald’s actions did not represent the entire Christian community. Factions developed in Jerusalem between the older “court”led by King Guy, and the newer residents including Raynald and the Knights Templar. Guy wanted peace while Raynald worked to start a war. Eventually, Raynald agreed to a treaty with the Muslims, but an underling violated the terms. A Muslim force chopped a small Christian force to bits at Cresson on May 1, 1187. The defeat reconciled Raynald and Guy, who formed a large Crusader army and marched on Saladin.

The Crusaders believed they could not lose because God was on their side. They even carried portions of the True Cross into battle for luck. However, Saladin outsmarted Raynald. The Christian ordered the army to meet Saladin at Tiberias, which the Sultan wanted. The long and arduous march separated the Christians from their water supply and exposed their lines to attack. They began their trek on July 3 and fell under constant harassment.

By midday, the Christians still had nine miles to march. They had an ample water at this point. Logically, they should have stayed in place until morning. Instead, Raynald ordered the march to continue. His subordinates opposed leaving their watering hole for a forced march through the desert in the heat of the day. It was not reasonable to expect the knights and the army to make nine miles in a half day under those conditions. Raynald overruled them and it led to disaster.

Saladin attacked as soon as he felt prudent. The Crusaders situation became immediately desperate. The Muslims blocked the Christian retreat, but Raynald decided to switch objectives. He recognized the feebleness at attempting to defeat Saladin and decided to change the game. The Frank convinced Guy to march toward Hattin rather than Tiberias. Then, they could switch directions again and hit their main objective. Guy agreed, the Christian lines held, and night fell. The Crusaders made camp completely surrounded by Muslims. Their only hope was to race to the springs at Hattin in the morning. Otherwise, they were finished.

Saladin had his forces set fires around the Crusader position. The smoke and heat made life unbearable. Then, they poured arrows down upon Raynald’s position and people began to flee. Others tried to make Hattin before thirst and Muslim swords cut them down. Saladin quickly surrounded the Christians, who made three charges in an attempt to break out. These attempts failed and the Crusaders surrendered to the Muslims. Guy, Raynald, and many other nobles became prisoners. The True Cross was captured and sent to Damascus.

The Muslims executed the Knights Templar without mercy. Many common soldiers claimed to be Templars to show solidarity and were also cut down. Others were shipped to Muslim slave markets. Saladin met with Guy and provided ice water. When Guy handed the cup to Raynald, Saladin slapped it away and cut off the noble's head for breaking the treaty. Guy and other aristocrats were ransomed and freed.

In the wake of the defeat, Christian strongholds fell to Saladin one by one in the same manner he took Islamic lands. Christianity became isolated in the Holy Land. News of the defeat shocked Europe and led Pope Urban III to die of shock. His successor, Gregory VIII, called for a Third Crusade. Richard the Lionheart, Frederick Barbarossa, and Philip Augustus answered the call and marched to save Christendom.

The Battle of Hattin was a disaster for the Christians. Saladin had consolidated Islam and then defeated the Christians after a treaty violation. Raynald’s own stupidity led to the rout and the subsequent Islamic conquest of Crusader territory under Saladin. In the end, Hattin initiated another Crusade to save the Holy Land.