Saladin was not an Arab or a Turk. He was a Kurd. His real name was Yusuf bin Ayyub. He was the nephew of Shirkuh, a Kurdish lieutenant in the army of Emir of Damascus Nur ad-Din. Saladin began his career as Nur ad-Din’s chief of police in Damascus. The contemporary chroniclers have reported extensively on Saladin’s deeds as a ruler, but they have barely anything to say about the early days of his life, and no description of his physical features has survived. It was not in Damascus but in Egypt that Saladin attained the status of a world-historical Sultan.
In the 1160s, the Egyptian government was in chaos. A conflict had broken out between the vizier of Egypt and the Fatimid caliph. There was a spate of coups and assassinations. Power was being nominally wielded by Fatimid Caliph al-Adid, an eleven year old boy who was a puppet in the hands of various strongmen in Cairo. The political situation was unsustainable. The Fatimid caliphate was on the verge of collapse, and Egypt was up for grabs.
Both Nur ad-Din and Amalric, King of Jerusalem, were trying to take advantage of the chaos in Egypt. Amalric marched his army of crusaders to Egypt in 1163. His army met the Egyptian army at Pelusium, a city on the eastern side of Egypt’s Nile delta. Amalric was victorious, but the Egyptian army opened the Nile dams flooding the river, making it impossible for Amalric’s forces to cross into Egypt. Amalric was forced to retreat.
Shawar, the former vizier of Egypt who had been deposed in a power struggle, went to the court of Nur ad-Din and pleaded for assistance. In April 1164, Nur ad-Din dispatched Shirkuh with a sizable army to Egypt with orders to restore Shawar on the throne of Egypt. In the fighting that followed, Dirgham, the vizier of Egypt was killed, and Shawar became the new vizier.
Once he had attained power, Shawar refused to remain subservient to Nur ad-Din. He tried to bribe Shirkuh with 30,000 gold dinars in return for his departure from Egypt. When Shirkuh refused to accept the money, Shawar turned to the Kingdom of Jerusalem. He requested Amalric to help him in destroying the army of Shirkuh. Amalric agreed to send his army. In the summer of 1164, Amalric’s forces besieged Shawar’s forces at Bilbais. The siege lasted for three months after which a cessation of hostilities was negotiated—both Amalric and Shirkuh departed with their forces, and Shawar was left in control of Egypt.
In 1166 and 1167, Nur ad-Din and Amalric made several attempts to intervene in Egypt. When Shirkuh marched into Egypt with his troops (this time with his 29 years old nephew Saladin), Amalric arrived with his own troops. Shirkuh was forced to withdraw. Shawar agreed to pay tribute to Amalric (an amazing sum of 400000 gold dinars), and allowed the Kingdom of Jerusalem to station its troops in Cairo.
At this point Amalric overplayed his hand. He had a treaty with the Byzantine Empire to attack Egypt jointly. But Amalric decided to attack Egypt on his own with some help from a newly arrived contingent of crusaders from France. He did not want to share the Egyptian loot with the Byzantines. This time Shawar turned towards the benefactor that he had earlier betrayed, Nur ad-Din, who immediately dispatched Shirkuh and Saladin with a large army. Amalric’s forces were decisively defeated, and he had to retreat from Egypt.
Having driven the crusaders out of Egypt, Shirkuh and Saladin invited Shawar to their camp for a meeting. Shawar thought that it would be a traditional meeting and he rode to their camp, but on the way he was confronted by Saladin and his men. They forcibly unhorsed Shawar and beheaded him. Later they presented Shawar’s head to the caliph as a proof of their success. Shirkuh was appointed the vizier of Egypt, but he died in two months due to a throat infection.
Being Shawar’s nephew, Saladin had a claim to the throne, but there were several more powerful claimants. Saladin displayed remarkable political acumen in playing other claimants against each other, and he emerged as a compromise candidate. In March 1169, 31 years old Saladin’s appointment as vizier and commander of the army was confirmed by the Fatimid caliph.
This was a big step upwards for Saladin. But his hold on power was tenuous. He was a Sunni Kurd in a Shia country. He was commanding the Sunni army of Nur ad-Din but the nominal head of the country was the Shia Fatimid caliph. He could easily become a target of a coup or assassination. Saladin proved to be a ruthless and fearsome ruler. He crushed every entity that could threaten his life and throne. He maintained a respectful attitude towards Nur ad-Din, paying regular tributes to him and promising his loyalty to him. But he refused to allow Nur ad-Din’s family members to enter Egypt.
When Nur ad-Din died in 1174, Saladin immediately moved to take advantage of the power vacuum that had been created in the Near East. He positioned himself as Nur ad-Din’s successor. The members of Nur ad-Din’s Zengid dynasty saw Saladin as a usurper. They wanted Nur ad-Din’s empire to go to his lone son As-Salih Ismail al-Malik who was eleven year old when his father died. Saladin claimed that he was there to protect the rights of As-Salih. But it was clear that he was focused on cementing his own rule. By applying coercion, Saladin managed to peacefully grab Damascus, and he solidified his position by getting the Abbasid caliph to recognize him as the overlord of Egypt and southern Syria.
There were several assassination attempts on Saladin. But he had a knack for survival. In 1176, he married Nur ad-Din’s widow Ismat ad-Din Khatun to strengthen his claim to Nur ad-Din’s legacy and empire. He continued to take measures against the Zengids to weaken their resolve to oppose him. When Nur ad-Din’s son As-Salih died in 1181, the Zengids lost their only rallying point. By using threats, bribery, and force Saladin managed to get the Zengids to give up Aleppo and Mosul. In 1187, he defeated a crusader army in the battle of the Horns of Hattin, and was proclaimed the Sultan of Egypt and Syria.