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In 1187 Saladin’s Muslim armies drove the Latin Crusaders from the Middle East.

On July 4, 1187, the Crusader army in the Latin East, led by Guy of Lusignan, king of Jerusalem, ceased to exist. Saladin’s Muslim armies slaughtered them in the brutal Battle of Hattin, fought near the present-day city of Tiberias, Israel. The bloody collapse of the Second Crusade, with the failure to take Damascus, had already forecast that the Crusaders would not expand their holdings in the Middle East. Their crushing defeat at Hattin ensured they would not even hold on to what they’d won in the First Crusade. Within months of the battle, the Muslims, under their brilliant leader, Saladin, had retaken almost every Crusader city and stronghold, including Jerusalem.

The strategic position of the Crusader states, including Edessa, Tripoli and Jerusalem, had always been precarious. Continually involved in expensive wars, they never became self-sustaining, depending instead on a constant flow of funds from Byzantium and the West. By 1187 this flow had slowed to a trickle, as European kings increasingly centralized their power and retained their revenues for domestic use. Byzantine support, which waxed and waned according to political circumstances, had also reached a low point.

Lacking sufficient cash, Crusader leaders were unable to hire enough mercenaries to follow up on battlefield victories for strategic effect. Furthermore, despite periodic spasms of crusading zeal, barely enough fighting men were arriving from the West to make up for Crusader losses. By the middle of the 12th century many knights found it easier to join the Reconquista in Spain or slaughter Slavs in the Teutonic Drang nach Osten than to make the long, perilous journey to the Latin East.

By the time Saladin invaded the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1187, this manpower deficit presented Crusader leaders with a stark choice: They could either place an army in the field or man their strongholds, but they could not do both. If the knights remained behind their walls until the Muslim army faded away at the end of the campaign season, they would likely see their fields wrecked, further reducing their resources for the following year. However, if the leaders fielded a large army and lost, their weakened strongholds would surely fall in rapid succession. They could lose everything. Typically, the Crusaders kept a minimal number of men in their strongholds and shadowed the larger Muslim armies, avoiding the kind of major battle that could lead to annihilation. When circumstances compelled them to fight, their ferocity often brought the Crusaders victory—but not always. Heavy losses since the end of the Second Crusade in 1149 had greatly reduced their options.

These strategic challenges were magnified by other setbacks in the 20 years leading up to the Battle of Hattin. First, the great Saracen leader Nur ad-Din had stripped away the County of Edessa from the Crusaders and then taken Damascus, which had often supported the Crusader cause against its fellow Muslims. Moreover, Nur ad-Din had continually mauled the Army of Antioch, which had never fully recovered from the annihilation of the kingdom’s northern forces on the Field of Blood in 1119. A final major blow came when Amalric, soon after his 1162 coronation in Jerusalem, reversed two generations of Crusader strategic policy, which had called for the army of Jerusalem to march north whenever Antioch was threatened. Instead, he turned his attention to the south and led three invasions of Egypt.

Recent historians have argued that given the situation and resources available, Amalric made an appropriate decision. Conquering Egypt would secure his southern flank and put almost unlimited financial resources at his disposal. As the ruling Fatimid Caliphate was weak and fractured at the time, Egypt must have seemed like easy pickings. However, Amalric’s invasion to the south allowed Nur ad-Din to secure his position in Syria and gave him an excuse to send his own forces into Egypt, first under his Kurdish general Shirkuh and later under Shirkuh’s nephew, Saladin.

Despite initial payments of tribute by the Fatimid caliph, Amalric never realized his anticipated financial windfall. Instead, his three invasions bankrupted the Kingdom of Jerusalem and cost it dearly in irreplaceable knights. Even worse was the damage done to the Crusaders’ overall strategic position: After Nur ad-Din’s death in 1174, Saladin declared himself sultan of Egypt and marched on Damascus. Although it took him more than a decade to secure all of Nur ad-Din’s holdings, Saladin was able to unify a massive area with substantial war resources and completely encircle the Crusader states.

The Kingdom of Jerusalem was thrown into political turmoil following the death of King Amalric in 1174. The throne passed first to his teenage son, Baldwin IV, a leper, and then to Baldwin’s 7-year-old nephew, Baldwin V. Baldwin IV’s infirmity and the youth of both kings led to more than a dozen years of political strife, as various factions contended for the position of regent. When Baldwin V died in 1186 at age 8, these factions coalesced around two main rivals for the throne: Guy of Lusignan, who was married to Sibylla (sister of Baldwin IV and mother of Baldwin V), and Raymond III of Tripoli, Amalric’s first cousin.

Sibylla had the support of both Knights Templar Grand Master Gerard of Ridefort, who hated Raymond because of an earlier perceived slight to his honor, and Raynald of Châtillon, one of Jerusalem’s most powerful nobles. Raynald saw Guy as weak, vain and indecisive and thus much easier to manipulate than Raymond. However, most of the nobles would support Sibylla only if she put aside her marriage to Guy. They despised him because several years before, as regent under Baldwin IV, Guy had refused battle with Saladin in almost the same location and circumstances he would later face at Hattin. Although Saladin’s army had subsequently broken up without consequences for the Crusaders, Guy’s contemporaries considered him a coward and were wary of his deficiencies as a military leader.

After consenting to divorce Guy on the condition she could choose her new husband, Sibylla double-crossed the stunned nobles at her coronation, calling Guy forward to rule the Kingdom of Jerusalem. An enraged Raymond then attempted a coup. When it failed, he returned to his own dominion in Tripoli and made a separate peace with Saladin—a move that would have repercussions for the kingdom.

Earlier, while serving as regent, Raymond had negotiated a truce between the Crusaders and the Muslims (one of many such truces during the Crusades), which unintentionally gave Saladin time to consolidate his control of Syria— and unfortunately lulled the Crusaders into feeling so secure that they devoted their time to internal squabbles. With that truce due to end in April 1187, Guy sent two of his most trusted advisers, Templar Grand Master Gerard and Hospitaller Grand Master Roger des Moulins, to Tripoli to try to bring Raymond back into the Christian fold. But in a demonstration of just how wide the rift had grown between the Crusader factions, Raymond—perhaps hoping to enlist Saladin’s help in overthrowing Guy— allowed al-Afdal, Saladin’s eldest son, to lead a 7,000-man Muslim army intent on pillaging Guy’s lands through his territory in Galilee. It was an act of outright treachery. When Gerard learned of the presence of al-Afdal’s army, he assembled some 150 knights and rashly attacked the Muslims at the Springs of Cresson, near Nazareth. The knights charged to their doom against al-Afdal’s considerably larger force. Only three knights, including a wounded Gerard, survived. The heads of most other knights ended up atop the Muslims’ spears. As with most medieval battles, it can be assumed the Crusader force also lost a few hundred infantrymen, who were not socially important enough to merit mention in the chronicles. More significant, the kingdom had lost some 10 percent of its knights in a minor engagement. They would be sorely missed at Hattin.

After the slaughter at Cresson, even Raymond’s strongest supporters denounced his traitorous actions and forced him to seek peace with the king. Guy, knowing that Saladin’s army was already forming for a renewed assault on the kingdom, could not afford to let this internecine quarrel continue and welcomed Raymond with open arms. Their political truce would enable the Crusaders to present a united front against the coming Muslim invasion, but it was an uneasy peace.

While the Crusaders worked out their differences, Saladin assembled an army of at least 30,000 men for an assault on the Latin states. He used Raynald’s 1186 attack on a caravan traveling between Damascus and Cairo as a pretext for not renewing the truce with the Crusaders. Although others, such as Nur ad-Din, had tried to raise Muhammad’s idea of jihad (Arabic for “struggle”), the notion of a holy war against the Crusaders had never taken root in the greater Muslim world. Saladin’s army was the first that considered its cause a holy war, and the Crusaders themselves—Raynald in particular—were responsible for provoking this new mindset. During an earlier round of hostilities in 1182, Raynald had led an expedition down the Red Sea coast with the announced objective of sacking Medina and Mecca. Although Muslim forces thwarted this assault, Raynald’s actions enraged the Muslim world and rallied them to raise the banner of jihad. Saladin was so angered by the threat to the holy cities that he vowed to kill Raynald with his own hands.

Guy realized the upcoming battle with Saladin would decide the fate of the Latin states, so he mustered the full strength of the kingdom. Castles and cities were stripped of all but skeleton troops as the army assembled at Sephoria. By the end of June, Guy had amassed approximately 1,200 knights and 18,000 to 20,000 other troops of widely varying quality. Moreover, he had ordered the True Cross—reportedly fashioned from remnants of the cross on which Jesus was crucified—be brought along to inspire the Crusaders.

Toward the end of June, Saladin tried to lure the Crusaders away from their water supply at Sephoria, southeast of Acre, and into an open battle with his superior forces. Failing to do this, he launched an assault on the city of Tiberias, where Raymond’s wife, Eschiva, and sons had taken shelter. Unsure how to proceed, Guy called for a meeting with his leading nobles on July 2. Despite his family’s plight, Raymond strongly advocated that Tiberias be abandoned and that Guy simply bide his time until the Muslim army of irregulars dispersed at the onset of the dry season. Guy agreed, although his use of the same tactic at the same location four years earlier had resulted in his being branded a coward by the other knights and hounded from the regency.

Later that night, however, Raynald and Gerard reminded Guy of Raymond’s recent treachery and pointed out that aggressive action had served the Crusaders well in the past. During their conversation a message arrived from Raymond’s wife, urgently requesting rescue. Although Raymond still advocated leaving Tiberias to its fate, the rest of the knights took up a call to go forth and “save the Lady of Tiberias.” That apparently strengthened Guy’s resolve, and he immediately issued marching orders.

Guy organized his column into three groups: The king himself would command the center, with Raymond in the van and Balian of Ibelin and the Templars in the rear. On July 3, the Crusaders set out from Sephoria toward a small spring at Turan, about a third of the distance to Tiberias. Saladin immediately broke off the siege and led his forces to confront the advancing Crusaders. Inexplicably, the Crusader host marched past Turan without stopping to water either horses or men, although there was no other water source on their direct route across the treeless hills and plains to Tiberias, on the shore of Lake Tiberias (now known as the Sea of Galilee). In a letter written after the battle, Saladin dispassionately described this oversight as “contrary to their best interest.” From the moment of that decision, the Crusader army was doomed.

Scorched by the brutal sun, the armored Crusaders inched toward Tiberias. Saladin’s skirmishers massed in front of and on the flanks of Guy’s army, and Crusader casualties began to mount. The Muslim horse archers kept up a continual harassing fire while looking for any weaknesses that would allow their heavy cavalry to split the Crusader column. In keeping with tactical tradition, Saladin directed his main force against the Crusaders’ rear. He also sent the wings of his army around the Crusader column to occupy Turan and set themselves astride the Crusaders’ escape route. By 9 a.m., with the temperature rising, the Crusaders were surrounded and effectively cut off from any water.

For long hours, Guy pushed his compact formations up toward Maskana, on the hills overlooking Lake Tiberias, but incessant Muslim attacks began to string out the column. In the early afternoon, messengers from Balian and the Templars told the king the rear guard was in danger of being overwhelmed. Again uncertain of what to do, Guy sent a message forward to Raymond, seeking advice. Back came counsel that he should halt the column and pitch tents in order to mass his forces for a big push toward Tiberias in the morning. After ignoring Raymond’s earlier sensible advice to stay at Sephoria and await Muslim developments, Guy then accepted Raymond’s spectacularly bad advice to halt and make camp on the waterless plain near the village of Maskana.

On the western end of a plateau overlooking Tiberias and the freshwater lake, the exhausted and thirsty Crusaders drew together and made camp for the night. Morale was low, and many of the infantry had already deserted or ceased fighting, while all around them swarmed exultant Muslims. Under cover of darkness, Saladin had his camel caravans bring up plentiful water and tens of thousands of arrows for the next morning’s battle. He also had his men stack brush upwind of the Crusader camp. In the morning they lit this great mass of tinder, enshrouding the demoralized Crusaders in choking clouds of smoke.

At dawn, from behind the blinding haze, the Muslims closed in on the Crusaders, firing arrows by the thousands as they advanced. According to a Muslim chronicler:

The Muslim archers sent up clouds of arrows like thick swarms of locusts, killing many of the Frankish horses. The Franks, surrounding themselves with their infantry, tried to fight their way to Tiberias in the hope of reaching water, but Saladin realized their objective and forestalled them by planting himself and his army in the way.

Once more at a loss, Guy sought advice from Raynald and Gerard, who both advocated a breakout attempt by the mounted knights—apparently intending to leave the surviving infantry to its fate. Guy ordered his brother, Aimery, constable of the kingdom, to assemble enough knights for a concerted charge, to be led by Raymond.

As the Muslims pressed forward, Guy ordered the charge. Over the preceding century, the furor of a Frankish charge had turned the tide of many a desperate battle. However, this time Saladin was prepared, his men well drilled to cope with such an attack. As Raymond’s mailed fist of armored knights thundered forward, the Muslim line opened and let it pass straight through. What happened after that is clouded by many conflicting accounts: The force was either swarmed upon as it paused to regroup or Raymond, seeing that all was lost, simply led them away to safety. Regardless, Raymond and his sons escaped the Muslim encirclement, and for many this was proof of his treachery. The fact that he died within months of the battle was seen as evidence of God’s justice.

Guy’s position was now even more desperate. Under a storm of arrows and incessant attacks his army managed to inch its way toward the ragged rim of an extinct volcano known as the Horns of Hattin. There the knights sheltered amid Iron Age walled ruins, erected the royal red tent and, presumably, placed the True Cross within it. But they remained surrounded, without food or water, and were apparently too exhausted to break through Saladin’s army. As a Muslim chronicler relates:

No matter how hard they fought, they were repulsed; no matter how often they rallied, each time they were encircled. Not even an ant crawled out from among them, nor could they defend themselves against the onslaught. They retreated to Mount Hattin to escape the storm of destruction; but on Hattin itself they found themselves encompassed by fatal thunderbolts. Arrowheads transfixed them; the peaks laid them low; bows pinned them down; fate tore at them; calamity chewed them up; and disaster tainted them.

Balian managed to lead one desperate charge clear of the encirclement. But the rest of the army was trapped.

Despite their dismal predicament, the Crusaders maintained discipline and continued fighting. At some point Guy spotted Saladin on the battlefield and gathered a force of mounted knights to assault his position and try to turn the Crusaders’ fortunes by killing the Muslim leader. Twice they charged. Both attacks failed, although for the Muslims they came perilously close to success. Muslim chronicler Ibn al-Athir recorded an eyewitness account from Saladin’s son, al-Afdal:

The Frankish king had retreated to the hill with his band, and from there he led a furious charge against the Muslims facing him, forcing them back upon my father. I saw that he was alarmed and distraught, and that he tugged at his beard as he went forward crying, “Away with the devils!” The Muslims turned to counterattack and drove the Franks back up the hill.… But they returned to the charge with undiminished ardor and again drove the Muslims back upon my father. His response was the same as before, and the Muslims again counterattacked.… I cried, “We have beaten them!” My father turned to me and said: “Be quiet. We will not have beaten them until that tent falls.”

No sooner had these words escaped Saladin’s lips then the Muslims swept over the hill, collapsed the tent, captured the True Cross and began rounding up prisoners, most of whom lay about on the ground, too exhausted to resist further.

Immediately after the battle, Saladin had Guy and Raynald brought to him. He offered Guy some water, which the beaten king drank greedily. When Guy offered the cup to Raynald, the latter refused. Saladin angrily exclaimed, “Drink, for you will never drink again.” Raynald calmly answered that if it pleased God, he would never drink anything offered by Saladin. He then told Saladin that if the battle had gone the other way, he would have beheaded the sultan. Enraged, Saladin called Raynald a pig, ran him through with a sword and had him beheaded. The head was later sent to Damascus and dragged through the streets.

Saladin also had the captured Templar and Hospitaller knights beheaded after they refused to convert to Islam. Thousands of others were sold into slavery, aside from those nobles worth ransoming. Guy was held prisoner in Damascus. Saladin released him the following year, and in 1189 Guy laid siege to Acre, sparking the Third Crusade.

After the battle, Saladin wasted no time in exploiting his victory. Within two weeks he had captured nearly all of the Crusader ports. Only Tyre resisted, due to the timely arrival of Conrad of Montferrat. Most of the castles and cities in the interior also fell, with the exception of the great fortresses at Kerak, Belvior, Sphet and Belfort. In September, Saladin encircled and laid siege to Jerusalem. The city, commanded by Balian of Ibelin since his successful breakout from Hattin, surrendered on October 2.

The Kingdom of Jerusalem had largely ceased to exist, and tales of the defeat struck the Western world like a thunderbolt, galvanizing it for yet another great crusade. In 1189 Richard the Lionheart, Philip Augustus and Frederick Barbarossa began moving toward the East, vowing to recapture Jerusalem.


For further reading, James Lacey recommends: God’s War: A New History of the Crusades, by Christopher Tyerman, and Arab Historians of the Crusades, by Francesco Gabrieli.

Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here