Towards the middle of the 12th century, much of the Holy Land was in the hands of European Christians. Beginning in 1095, the Catholic Church had sanctioned a number of religious expeditions known as the Crusades, efforts at capturing the Holy Lands and Christendom’s most sacred city, Jerusalem. The only problem: as most are aware, Jerusalem bears a certain amount of religious significance in Islam and Judaism as well. As a result, the Crusades were immensely unpopular in much of the Near Middle East and Muslim armies were raised to stop the invading knights. By the 1160s, a new challenger had arisen, ready to take on the pope’s armies and evict the Crusaders from the region. His name was Saladin, and his victory at the Battle of Hattin forever changed the balance of power in the Near Middle East.
ASAP: Crusader knights were lured into the mountains of the Holy Land and beaten by sun, thirst, and the determination of Saladin’s Muslim Armies.Read on for details!
The Road to the Holy Land
In the 1170s and 1180s, Saladin – a Sunni Muslim of Kurdish origin- rose to prominence as the vizier (minister) of Egypt. He went on to conquer Damascus and Aleppo, and by 1185, his territory was uncomfortably close to the Crusader States. A truce was made, but in early 1187, a French noble by the name of Raynald of Châtillon attacked one of Saladin’s caravans. Saladin, finally armed with military justification, raised an army and set siege to Tiberias, a Crusader town on the Sea of Galilee (in modern-day Israel). Trapped there was Eschiva, the wife of Raymond III of Tripoli, a prominent Crusader.
Saladin had an army of between 20 and 40,000 men. Unlike the Hospitallers, Knights of the Templar, and other heavily-armoured fighters in Guy’s repertoire, Saladin’s Muslim forces were unprotected but mobile. 12,000 of them were mounted on horseback, and many more were skilled archers backed by an advanced chain of supply. They knew the terrain well, had ample access to water, and were generally supported by the local populace. (They also had God on their side, but remember – so did the Crusaders).
Guy of Lusignan – King of Jerusalem and a French knight of Poitevin – was in a tough spot. He was aware of Saladin’s exploits, but uneasy about the prospect of battle. With the siege at Tiberias, however, he had little choice, and English donors’ money had already been spent. His expensive army consisted of 20,000 knights and infantryman, a motley crew of mercenaries, noblemen and press-ganged footsoldiers. Interestingly, a number of Muslims – including the turcopoles – fought alongside the Crusaders. His men camped at Sepphoris, some 25 km (15.5 miles) from the Sea of Galilee; Guy wanted to wait there, but, accused of cowardice by his advisors, began marching towards the siege at Tiberias to rescue Eschiva. Little did the Crusaders know, however, that Tiberias was merely the bait in a trap that was to be sprung in the mountains near Hattin.
On July 3rd of 1187, Guy’s Crusaders set off optimistically at dawn. Soon, the men were sweating under the hot sun and desperate for water. The knights in particular suffered under layers of chainmail and tunics adorned with religious symbols. As Guy’s men drew close to the Springs of Turan, Muslim archers emerged and began harassing them with indirect fire. The springs – contrary to Guy’s intel – were mostly dried up, and Guy was forced to press on, his men growing more hot and unhappy by the minute. As night fell, the Crusaders made camp near Kafr Hattin in the shadow of the two-horned volcano of Hattin. They had hoped to drink from the springs there, but Saladin’s men arrived first and blocked the Crusaders’ path. That night, the Muslims began beating on drums and burning grass to dehydrate the unhappy Christians.
As dawn came on July 4th, the exhausted and thirsty Crusaders began forming up for an attack. The siege of Tiberias was all but forgotten, and one objective remained: to reach the nearby springs. The Muslims began firing arrows into the crowd, but Guy’s lines held, and an attack was launched. Saladin’s cavalry, however, managed to push the worn-out knights back, and many of the Christian infantry threw down their weapons and fled to the volcano. There, they were massacred by Saladin’s men, leaving a much smaller reserve of knights to continue the fight. Guy’s expensive army was in ruins, but the bloodshed had only just begun.
As the sun grew hotter and the Crusaders began to collapse from exhaustion, Saladin’s men completed their encirclement of the remaining knights and mercenaries. Throughout the remainder of the day, brutal hand-to-hand combat wore down Guy’s forces. Knights, well-armoured but slow, were tackled by mobs of Muslim troops and their chainmail torn off. One by one, the Crusaders’ tents began to fall, until only Guy’s remained. As Saladin watched, the King of Jerusalem was seized and the fighting stopped. According to Ibn al-Athir, Saladin stepped down from his horse, “…prostrated himself in thanks to God Almighty and wept for joy.” Victory was complete.
Only 200 knights escaped to tell the tale of Saladin’s decisive victory. The rest were killed, sold into slavery, or died of thirst. As Guy was brought to meet Saladin, the former King of Jerusalem was offered a drink, a sign that he would be spared. Guy, suspecting a trick (and unaware of the local customs of the region he used to govern), rudely declined. Saladin still spared him, however, and released Eschiva from the siege at Tiberias. In the ensuing months and years, Saladin captured 52 towns in the Holy Land, including Jerusalem. Not only had the former vizier of Egypt kicked off the Ayyubid Dynasty, a productive and prosperous period that saw the revitalization of the Fertile Crescent; he had decisively beaten the invading forces of the Crusades and provided a strong warning to Christendom.
In a hurry? Here are the ASAP notes on this topic.
- Who? 20,000 Crusaders from Europe and the Near Middle East led by Guy of Lusignan; they faced off against roughly 20-40,000 Muslim soldiers under Saladin.
- Where? Near the mountainous volcano known as the “Horns of Hattin”, close to Tiberias, a Galilean city in modern-day Israel.
- When? From July 3rd to the 4th, 1187.
- What? The Battle of Hattin was a showdown between massive Crusader and Muslim forces. Saladin lured them in by besieging Tiberias, and then began harassing the Crusaders and depriving them of water on their march. The Crusaders were forced to make camp at nightfall on the 3rd near Hattin, but they were kept up all night by Saladin’s men and prevented from reaching the springs. The worn-out Crusaders were beaten the following day by Saladin’s cavalry.
- Why? Saladin wanted to recapture Jerusalem and the Holy Lands from the Christians, who had captured the city during the 2nd Crusade. Saladin skilfully outmanoeuvred an expensive and well-equipped army by using the unforgiving terrain against his enemies.
- Result: Decisive Muslim victory. The Crusaders came back later but achieved only temporary gains. Meanwhile, Saladin established the successful Ayyubid Dynasty and revitalized Muslim society.
Food for Thought
Like what you’ve read? Here are a couple essay questions/prompts to get you thinking. Good writing is all about answering questions the reader didn’t know they had, after all. These questions are to inspire further research, help with an academic paper, or maybe just get you thinking more about the topic.
- Assess Saladin’s victory. Did the Crusaders ever stand a chance? What tactical mistakes did they make, and what could they have done differently?
- What were the impacts of the battle on ordinary civilians in the region? What was life like for Muslims in the Crusader States? Come up with some pros and cons for the battle and the Crusades in general.
- Assess the long-term impacts of the battle in myth and popular culture. How was Hattin viewed (or suppressed) in European and Muslim society, and how is it viewed in a modern context?
- How did Saladin translate his victory at Hattin into success in founding the Ayyubid Dynasty?
- What was the Christian reaction to Hattin, and to what extent did ensuing Crusades manage to reverse some of Saladin’s gains?
Further Reading & Citations
Here are a couple useful sources for further reading or using to flesh out an essay. Remember to cite everything properly!
- קדר, בנימין זאב, and B.Z. KEDAR. “THE BATTLE OF ḤAṬṬĪN REVISITED / קרב קרני-חטין: מבט אחר.” Cathedra: For the History of Eretz Israel and Its Yishuv / קתדרה: לתולדות ארץ ישראל ויישובה, no. 61 (1991): 95-112.
- Bartlett, W. B. 2007. The road to Armageddon: the last years of the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton.
- France, John. 2015. Hattin.
- CHEVEDDEN, PAUL E. “The Islamic View and the Christian View of the Crusades: A New Synthesis.” History 93, no. 2 (310) (2008): 181-200.
- BEBEN, D. (2018). Remembering Saladin: The Crusades and the Politics of Heresy in Persian Historiography. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 28(2), 231-253.