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Decisive Battles of History: Hattin

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The Battle of Hattin was a decisive historical battle that paved the Muslim reconquest of Jerusalem. Read on to learn about it and its key actors.

The Battle of Hattin was a decisive historical battle that paved the Muslim reconquest of Jerusalem. Read on to learn about it and its key actors.

Political Background of the Battle of Hattin

The losses the Byzantine Empire suffered in the second half of the 11th century prompted Emperor Alexios to ask for help from Western Christianity. Pope Urban listened to the pleas of the Byzantine Emperor and called for a Crusade that would retake the Holy sites of Christianity from the Muslims. Urban’s fiery spirit passed onto tens of thousands of men in the 1090s, and several of the leading noblemen of Europe and even peasants fired up by the roaming recruiters banded together to form the first crusading armies.

Thanks to the divided nature of the Muslim world in the late 11th century, the Crusaders succeeded in conquering many important cities on the Levantine coast like Antioch, Tripoli, Tyre and most importantly, Jerusalem. Once their mission was accomplished, most of the Crusaders returned home, but some noblemen decided to remain behind and set up several Crusader states.

The relative weakness of the Muslim world allowed the Crusaders to succeed in the late 11th century, but there was no guarantee that this weakness was to last forever. And nor did it.

On the remnants of the broken up Seljuk Sultanate rose the Zengid dynasty in Syria. Under the leadership of Nur ad-Din, the Zengid dynasty solidified its control over most of Syria. When the Kingdom of Jerusalem threatened the rapidly declining Fatimid dynasty, Nur ad-Din sent his subordinate Shirkuh to assist the ruler of Egypt. The capable lieutenant of Nur ad-Din succeeded in expelling the Crusaders and maintained Muslim rule in Egypt.

Shirkuh was named the vizier of Egypt, and by all measures, thanks to his control of the formidable Zengid army in Egypt, he became the power behind the throne. Unfortunately for Nud ad-Din, he died not much later, and the Caliph named his nephew and second in command, Saladin as his successor.

At the time, Saladin was still a relatively young man, in his early 30s, but if the Caliph believed he could manipulate him, he was to be proven very wrong. In a few years' time, Saladin took over Egypt and set up his own dynasty, the Ayyubids, as the country's rulers.

Sultan Saladin, the founder of the Ayyubid Empire

Sultan Saladin, the founder of the Ayyubid Empire

Who Was the Sultan Saladin?

The rise of the talented and ambitious Saladin even led to a rift with Nur ad-Din, who seemingly came to distrust his former general. However, before things could have escalated further, Nur ad-Din died in early 1174. His son followed him, but the boy, who was only 11 years old at the time, could not replace his father.

Saladin, on the other hand, was a capable candidate. He saw the opportunity presented to him by chance, and in the years that followed the death of Nur ad-Din, Saladin did his best to unite Egypt and Syria under his control.

Saladin succeeded in ousting his opponents from Aleppo, but he failed to achieve the same outcome in Mosul. Saladin also fought against the Crusaders in the 1170s and 1180s, with mixed results, but he only suffered one big defeat at the Battle of Montgisard.

Saladin was a very pragmatic politician, and when his interest demanded so, he was more than willing to make temporary truces with the Crusaders. One such truce was reached in 1185, but not all Christian lords were willing to respect the truce. The most notorious troublemaker was Raynald of Chatillon, who constantly harassed pilgrims. Saladin was outraged by Raynald’s actions and swore to kill the treacherous man with his own hands.

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He sent one of his sons and the emir of Gokbori to raid Crusader lands, and in May 1187, the forces of Gokbori inflicted a heavy defeat upon the Templars of Gerard de Rideford at the Battle of Cresson.

Movements leading up to the Battle of Hattin

Movements leading up to the Battle of Hattin

King Guy's Unsuccessful March Against Saladin

The threat of Saladin managed to unite the rival factions of the court in Jerusalem to face the common enemy.

Saladin came up with a clever strategy to draw the Crusaders into a battle on his terms. He besieged the castle of Tiberias, the fief of a leading Christian nobleman Raymond of Tripoli. Nonetheless, Raymond saw through the ruse right away and advised King Guy not to march against Saladin to relieve Tiberias, as the venture was too risky.

What made Raymond’s advice even more impressive was the fact that even Raymond’s wife was besieged by Saladin, and still, Raymond was able to argue for a more cautious approach. Unfortunately, the advice of Raymond received a hostile reception. Hotheads like the Templar Master Rideford or Raynald of Chatillon accused Raymond of cowardice and even outright treachery.

King Guy finally took the side of the hotheads, and the army of Jerusalem left their strong defensive position at Sephoria to march against Saladin. The Christians set out at the beginning of July 3, 1187, but by the middle of the day, it became obvious that they would not reach Tiberias. The July heat was sweltering, and they were also running short on water. They were also constantly harassed by Saladin's horse archers, who forced them to halt their advance and make camp in an indefensible position.

Saladin, in the meantime, took the town of Tiberias. He left a small force to blockade the Citadel, where the wife of Raymond barricaded herself with her remaining forces and took the rest of his army to join his cavalry. The Christians started to march towards the village of Hattin the next day, but the horse archers of Saladin constantly harassed them.

The thirsty and demoralised army soon began to disintegrate. The infantry abandoned the cavalry, while the vanguard of the army led by Raymond of Tripoli charged to break out of the encirclement. Saladin’s men were more than willing to allow the panicking soldiers to flee and let them go by opening gaps in the encirclement. The Christian infantry fled to a hill, where they were joined by the remaining centre of the army led by King Guy.

Saladin ordered an attack on the hill, and his forces overwhelmed their thirsty enemies. In the end, King Guy ordered his men to surrender.

Saladin accepting the surrender of King Guy

Saladin accepting the surrender of King Guy

Jerusalem Falls to Saladin's Forces

Most of the Christian army perished or was captured during the battle, which greatly weakened the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Saladin's men overran most of the kingdom in the remainder of 1187, and before the year was over, even Jerusalem fell to the forces of Saladin.

The fall of Jerusalem shocked the Christian world, and a new Crusade was called to retake the Holy City. Legendary European military leaders like Frederick Barbarossa or King Richard the Lionheart took the cross and marched East to begin the Third Crusade.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Andrew Szekler

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