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By the 12th century the European Franks had conquered much of the Holy Land through a series of bloody Crusades. Endless dissension and treachery among Islamic warlords made it impossible for their forces to organize themselves against the Christian stranglehold.

An Arab leader named Saladin changed all that and earned himself the distinction of becoming the most famous of Muslim heroes. He defeated the Crusaders at Acre and won back Jerusalem, ending an almost 90 year occupation. In 1192 Saladin signed an agreement with King Richard the Lionhearted that guaranteed Jerusalem would remain in Muslim hands. During his 30 year rule Saladin’s achievements were called extraordinary and upon his death at age 55, Saladin would be lionized as a man who had been the “worthiest of adversaries”.

Saladin, whose Arabic name was Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, was born to a prominent Kurdish family in 1138 in the small town of Tikrit in what is now Iraq. At the age of 14 he joined the service of the Syrian ruler, Nur ad-Din, and went on to distinguish himself as a warrior, despite young Saladin’s preference of poetry over military campaigning.

By 1169 he was appointed commander in chief of the Syrian army and Vizier of Egypt and the Fatimid caliphate. He quickly revitalized Egypt’s economy and re-organized its land and naval forces. In 1171 he vanquished the Fatimid regime and established himself as the country’s sole ruler. Saladin’s next goal was Syria, which he conquered with a small but disciplined army and for the next 12 years concentrated on uniting all the Muslim territories of Syria, Northern Mesopotamia, Palestine, and Eqypt. He accomplished this in whatever method he deemed necessary: expert diplomacy or military force.

Saladin’s reputation grew as a generous but firm ruler. He encouraged the spread and growth of Muslim beliefs and institutions, founded colleges and mosques, and commissioned scholars to spread the Muslim doctrines to all corners of his kingdom.

By 1187 Saladin was able to turn his full attention and his military might against the Crusader forces. On July 4 of that year he destroyed the Christian armies at Hattin, in northern Palestine. Losses were so staggering that Saladin’s forces were able to win back almost the entire kingdom of Jerusalem which included Acre, Beirut, Sidon, Nazareth, Jaffa and Ascalon.

Saladin’s greatest coup came on October 2 when Jerusalem finally surrendered after 88 years of Christian control. However, unlike the Crusaders had carried out a bloody and rampant slaughter, Saladin’s conquest of the Holy City was civilized, with very little loss of life.

By 1189 Saladin achieved an almost complete victory against the Crusaders, whose remaining strongholds dwindled to the city of Tyre and 3 others. Once the West realized the magnitude of Saladin’s accomplishment, the Pope immediately ordered a counterattack, yet another Crusade. Kings from 3 countries sent their armies but in the end this latest Crusade achieved very little. When Richard I finally returned home in October of 1192 his Crusader forces had regained only a short expanse of the Palestine-Syrian coast and Jerusalem remained in Saladin’s control.

Saladin returned to his own capital at Damascus. On March 4, 1193,the he became ill with a fever and died a short time later. His family continued to rule over Egypt and other surrounding lands until the Mamluks overthrew them in 1250.

Saladin’s methods of administration and his just treatment of both warriors and governments influenced the Arab world for centuries. Stories and romantic ballads penned by the likes of Walter Scott and Dante told of Saladin’s bravery and military genius, and of his “great-hearted soul”, and have forever immortalized this liberator of Jerusalem in the annals of Muslim and Medieval history.