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On July 4, 1187, disaster struck the Christian world. That day Muslim and Christian armies battled on a plateau by an extinct volcano called the Horns of Hattin, near the Sea of Galilee. The Christian crusaders fought desperately but eventually surrendered. The relic of the True Cross, which they had carried into battle, fell into Muslim hands. A few months later the Muslims captured Jerusalem.

Jerusalem’s fall sparked a showdown between two charismatic leaders: Saladin, unifier of the Muslim world and conqueror of Jerusalem, and King Richard I, the Lionheart, of England. It seemed inevitable their duel would climax with a titanic battle. But it was one man’s decision to avoid battle that would decide the fate of the Holy Land.

Richard was bold—and cruel. Before becoming king in 1189 he had fought in numerous battles, sometimes against his own family. Ruthlessness had helped him to survive. He was not the type of man to compromise or back down from a fight.

When Pope Gregory VIII called for a Third Crusade to recapture the Holy Land, Richard assembled an army in France. He set out on July 4, 1190, the third anniversary of the Battle of Hattin, stopping first in Sicily and Cyprus. Would-be prophets told him he was destined to slay Saladin, free the Holy Land and perhaps even battle the Antichrist.

For Saladin, meanwhile, the triumph at Jerusalem faded. The strategically important Christian-held town of Tyre had repelled his forces, and resurgent Christians had laid siege to Muslim-held Acre. Crusaders were rumored to be on their way to recapture Jerusalem.

But Saladin didn’t lack for confidence. Now in his early 50s, he had risen from obscurity to unite the Muslim Middle East under his banner. He had won at Hattin and captured Jerusalem through bravery, skill and determination. The king of England did not worry him. Richard arrived at Tyre in June 1191 and proceeded to Acre, where his forces joined in besieging the city, which ultimately fell. Richard then marched south along the Mediterranean coast, looking for a fight with Saladin, who decided to give battle on a plain north of the village of Arsuf, about 40 miles northwest of Jerusalem.

The battle began early on September 7 with a charge of the Turkish cavalry followed by a hail of Muslim arrows. The Christians suffered grievously, but Richard held them back until a tremendous charge by his Frankish cavalry put Saladin’s men to flight. The crusader victory was complete.

Richard felt certain he could capture Jerusalem by Christmas. But infighting among the crusader leaders, bad weather and supply shortages prevented him from marching quickly on the city, and as the months passed, his army weakened. Unlike Saladin, Richard could not hope for reinforcements. Saladin’s strongest ally was time.

Sensing he might not be able to win victory by force alone, Richard opened negotiations with Saladin. He demanded Jerusalem and the True Cross in exchange for peace, but Saladin would concede neither. Meanwhile, both armies suffered through weeks of heavy rain and hail. Saladin dispersed his troops, knowing he could recall them in the spring. But Richard had no such option.

By Christmas the crusader army stood only a few days’ march from the undefended Jerusalem. But exhaustion, hunger and thirst had brought Richard’s troops to the end of their tether; most hoped simply to enter Jerusalem so they could consider their vows completed and go home. Their departure would leave Richard holding an empty city with a skeleton army and with the Muslims sure to return in force.

Richard could take Jerusalem and face almost certain catastrophe or turn back and live to fight another day. With a heavy heart he chose to march for the coast. Internal factions sundered the Christian armies in the months that followed, and Richard ultimately signed a truce with Saladin and sailed for home, ending the Third Crusade.

Richard’s surprisingly pragmatic decision to turn back from Jerusalem stood in stark contrast to the Third Crusade’s ideological fervor. To abandon Jerusalem when other men might have pushed forward set Richard apart as a military commander and marked a symbolic turning point in the seesaw struggle for Palestine.