A year later Saladin led an army out of Egypt and took control of Syria. He was proclaimed the Sultan of Syria and Egypt, and his vast empire now held the Crusader kingdom in its grip like a lobster claw.
Only because of the divisions among petty potentates, because of the feud between the Islamic sects of the Sunnis and the Shi'ites and between competing caliphates in Egypt and Syria and Turkey had the First Crusade succeeded. But gradually, with a slow inevitability that was almost providential, the Arab world consolidated its power in the face of the European occupation. The Arab recapture of Edessa had been the critical first step, and the failure of the Second Crusade gave the Islamic world confidence that it could drive the Christians into the sea. A succession of three strong Arab leaders advanced the union of the Arabs: the able Zengy who had recaptured Edessa and ruled until his death in 1147, the powerful Nur ad-Din who united all of Muslim Syria and Mesopotamia under Sunnism and subdued Egypt in 1169, and now Saladin.
When in 1175, at the age of thirty-eight, Saladin took power in both Damascus and Cairo, the centuries-old divisions evaporated. The Fatamid caliphate of Egypt was finished, and with its demise the Sunnism of the north supplanted Shi'ism along the Nile. In the spring of 1175, Saladin was declared King of Syria and was recognized as the Emperor of Syria and Egypt by the titular leader in the Middle East, the Caliph in Baghdad.
"When God gave me the land of Egypt, I was sure that he meant Palestine for me as well," Saladin proclaimed.
The dream of a united front against the Christians was a reality at last. That Arab dream was the Christian nightmare. For ninety years, through skillful alliances and offensive, destabilizing raids and strategic castles, the Latin Kingdom had kept its enemies off balance. The survival of the Latin Kingdom would now depend on its internal discipline and its military skill.
Before his final offensive began, the Sultan had one remaining task to accomplish within his own empire. He needed to subdue the last of the independent fiefs. In 1183, in the Muslim month of Safar (June) and after the death of a child-emir, he captured Aleppo. Beyond the military importance of the city, this triumph was fraught with symbolic importance. Aleppo was known as the Gray Castle, and among the public there was a popular saying that presaged even greater triumphs ahead:
Thy taking of the Gray Castle in the month of Safar announces the conquest of Jerusalem for the month of Rajab.
In 1186 the Sultan took Mosul in Upper Mesopotamia. He was well poised to strike. The month of Rajab was in the offing.
The Kingdom of Heaven
The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem had come into existence eighty-nine years earlier with the First Crusade. In 1098 Godfrey of Bouillon had stormed the walls of the Holy City and massacred the Muslim defenders by the thousands. The stone streets of Jerusalem ran with blood, through which the victorious Crusaders waded before falling to their knees in a mass of thanksgiving at the Holy Sepulcher.
Thirty years later the small kingdom was at the peak of its power. Christian knights pushed its boundaries outward as if the Muslim world were a feather pillow. The kingdom had thrived on the division of the enemy. The thousand tribes of Arabia had their minor emirs and viziers, who aligned themselves with the caliphates of either Cairo or Baghdad, fought over petty disputes, and prayed as part of either the Sunni or the Shi'ite sects of Islam.
By 1131 the Crusader kingdom comprised the greater part of Palestine and the coast of Syria. The European invaders, who over time became known generically as Franks, concentrated in the important coastal cities of Latakia, Tortosa, Tripoli, Beirut, Tyre, Acre, Haifa, Caesarea, Jaffa, and Ascalon, as well as the inland cities of Edessa, Antioch, Tiberias, and, most important, Jerusalem itself. The rural areas were left largely to the native population, who outnumbered their overlords five to one. In their bucolic pastures the natives cultivated their crops in peace and were content to give half the harvest to their absentee landlords from abroad. These indigenous peoples were allowed to govern themselves.
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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