A Sultan Is Born
Early in the twelfth century, in the city of Tovin in northern Armenia close to Georgia, there lived an eminent family of Kurds, the master of whose house was surnamed Najm ad-Din, which meant "excellent prince and star of religion." Najm ad-Din had a boon comrade named Bihruz, a man of intelligence and charm, qualities matched only by his bent for trouble. Bihruz had the misfortune to be discovered in a compromising position with the wife of the local emir, who promptly had Bihruz seized and castrated and banished from his fief.
After this humiliation Najm ad-Din decided to accompany his disgraced friend to Baghdad, the seat of the Abbasid caliphate, where the Caliph, Al Muqtafi li-amri'llah ("he who follows the orders of God"), reigned supreme over the Muslim world of the eastern Mediterranean. In Baghdad the Sultan of Iraq noticed their talents. Since eunuchs were then favored as teachers and administrators, Bihruz became the tutor of the Sultan's sons and a companion to the Sultan himself in the games of chess and draughts. He rose quickly in power and influence and soon became responsible for building some of the great buildings of the land. In his rise to power Bihruz brought his friend, Najm ad-Din, along with him. Among the rewards the Sultan bestowed on Bihruz for his service was the castle at Takreet, on the Tigris River, and Bihruz in turn bestowed the command of it on his friend, Najm ad-Din.
At the castle in Takreet, Najm ad-Din was joined by his younger and more ambitious brother, named Shirkuh, and together these Kurds from the north seemed marked for greatness. For the Arab world had arrived at a critical juncture in its history. Forty years earlier, in the year a.d. 1098, Europeans had descended on Palestine, conquering Jerusalem in what the Franks called a crusade and establishing a powerful state called the Kingdom of Jerusalem, which stretched from Antioch in the north to Elath on the Red Sea. Along the coastline and in the mountains the foreigners built huge fortresses to protect their kingdom, and thus the Muslim world was fractured and invaded, beaten, and occupied.
In the year 532 (a.d. 1137 in the Christian calendar) a son named Yusuf was born to Najm ad-Din. In Arab lands this was an ambiguous name, which was associated with all the vicissitudes of the life of Joseph the Prophet, the low life as well as the high, the greed and falseness as well as the piety and truth. The circumstances of Yusuf's birth seemed ominous as well. For on the very night that Yusuf was born, the child's uncle, Shirkuh, had a dispute with the Isfahsalar, commander at the castle gate, after the officer had insulted a woman and she had come to Shirkuh in tears. In a rage Shirkuh snatched the halberd of the commander and killed him with his own weapon. When their powerful patron, the eunuch Bihruz, heard of this in Baghdad, he was appalled and banished the brothers from Takreet in disgrace. That so terrible an event accompanied the birth of Yusuf was considered a bad sign, but later it would be said, "Good may come of adversity when you least expect it. And such was the case with Yusuf." From Takreet the brothers went to Mosul in northern Mesopotamia.
In Mosul, in the face of the European occupation of Palestine, a strong Arab leader named Zengy had taken power and was making strides in uniting the far-flung domains of Islam, where Mesopotamia was traditionally divided from Syria, where Antioch fought with Aleppo, Tripoli with Homs, Jerusalem with Damascus, where the Sunni branch of Islam fought with the Shi'ite branch. In his quest to overcome the divisions of the Muslim world, Zengy called these Kurdish brothers to his service. Najm ad-Din became the commander of Zengy's fortress in Baalbek in the Bekaa Valley, while Shirkuh became a powerful commander in the vizier's armies.
In November 1144, Zengy's forces captured Edessa in northern Mesopotamia, and thus the first of the fledgling Crusader provinces fell. The fall of Edessa was a shock to Europe. Largely through the eloquence of the Cistercian monk Bernard of Clairvaux, a campaign for a new Crusade began, and among the first to heed this call was the King of France, Louis VI, and his Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. In 1146, before the new Crusaders arrived in the Holy Land, Zengy died, and he was replaced by an even more powerful figure, Nur ad-Din. Two years later the Crusader forces were crushed outside the walls of Damascus, turning the Second Crusade into a total disaster and emboldening the forces of Islam further in their quest for the reconquest of Palestine.
Excerpted from Warriors of God by James Reston, Jr. Copyright 2001 by James Reston, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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