The boy, Yusuf, grew up in Baalbek and Damascus. Though he was slight of build, his intelligence, his mannerliness, his generosity, his piety, and his modesty were noticed in the palaces of Damascus. Like a few others of his age, he was drawn to wine and women in his adolescence, but the seriousness of the historical situation eventually impressed him, and he renounced these temptations. Later it would be said that from the education of his sovereign, Nur ad-Din, Yusuflater called Salah ad-Din or Saladinlearned to walk in the path of righteousness, to act virtuously, and to be zealous in waging war against infidels. In the court of Damascus the principle of striving in Allah's cause was emphasized, and the youth took to heart this invocation in the Koran: "Those who strive in Our Cause, we will surely guide in Our way, for verily Allah is with those who do right."
In 1163 Nur ad-Din saw clearly the next step in the unification of the Arab world against the European occupation. In Egypt the Fatimite caliphate (which practiced the Shi'ite rather than the Sunni way of Islam) was in disarray, and this presented the lord of Syria with a target of opportunity. Nur ad-Din ordered Shirkuh, Saladin's charismatic uncle, to undertake a succession of invasions to the south and ordered the young Saladin, now twenty-six years old, to accompany his uncle. Reluctantly, Saladin complied.
As Shirkuh and Saladin headed south, Nur ad-Din himself laid siege to the greatest of all the Crusader castles, Krak des Chevaliers, in central Syria, but the fortress was impregnable and the Muslim forces were turned back. The time was not yet ripe for a frontal assault on the Crusader kingdom.
In 1164, with Saladin in command of the vanguard of the army, Shirkuh conquered Cairo. But within weeks he was forced to withdraw when Crusader forces came to the aid of the Egyptian caliphate. Three years later a second invasion failed, again due to the support of the Crusaders, for above all else the Crusader kingdom could not abide a united Egypt and Syria. So desperate was this crisis considered in the Crusader kingdom that any baron refusing to heed the summons forfeited 10 percent of his income. Two further invasions faltered, until on January 8, 1169, in the fifth attempt, Shirkuh entered Cairo in triumph. Gloriously, he proclaimed himself to be the new King of Egyptand then, abruptly, died two months later. Poison was suspected.
Pondering this reverse in Damascus, Nur ad-Din settled on Saladin as his uncle's successor. The young soldier was chosen not because of his strengths but because of the perceived weaknesses of his youth and inexperience. In truth, Nur ad-Din did not want a powerful competitor in Cairo, and he was certain that he could control his malleable and polite ward. In this he would be disappointed.
At first Saladin was the compliant subordinate. Mercilessly, he followed Nur ad-Din's orders to expunge the Shi'ite way of Islam in Egypt and replace it with the Sunni way. He requested of his lord that his father, Najm ad-Din, be allowed to come to Cairo. "My happiness will thus be complete," he wrote to his lord in Damascus, "and my adventure will be similar to that of Yusuf [Joseph] the faithful." Nur ad-Din granted the request. When Najm ad-Din arrived in the spring of 1170, his son greeted him with honors, even offering to resign and turn the command of Egypt over to his father. But his father replied, "O my son, God would not have chosen you to fill this post if you were not deserving of it. It is not right to change the object of Fortune's favors." Two years later, while riding near the Gate of Victory, the Bab an-Nasr, Najm ad-Din was thrown from his horse and died.
Between 1169 and 1174, while successive Crusader attacks sought unsuccessfully to undermine the grip of Damascus on Egypt, Nur ad-Din and Saladin developed an increasingly tense relationship after Saladin balked at certain directives from Damascus. Finally, in early 1174, Nur ad-Din had had enough of this impudence and mustered an army to invade Saladin's Egypt. But on May 15 of that year, as these preparations were under way, Nur ad-Din died. Absurdly, his power was handed to his eleven-year-old son.
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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