In in 1177, Salah-al-Din (known in the West as Saladin) launched a full-scale invasion of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem. It was less than ten years since Saladin had assassinated his way to power in the Fatimid Caliphate in Cairo, and ruthlessly suppressed numerous rebellions to establish Sunni rule over the largely Shia and Coptic Christian population on the Nile. It was only three years since the coup d’etat in Damascus by which he had established himself in the heart of Syria but failed to take key cities such as Aleppo and Mosul. Saladin had thus largely united the Caliphates of Cairo and Baghdad for the first time in 200 years, but his hold on power was precarious. In Egypt his faced suspicion and opposition because he was Sunni, and in Syria he was viewed as a usurper and upstart because he was a Kurd and had stolen the Sultanate from the rightful Seljuk heir.
Saladin countered these internal doubts and dissatisfaction with his rule with the age-old device of focusing attention on an external enemy: the Christian states established by the crusaders along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. These states represented not merely a military threat to his lines of communication between Egypt and Syria, but had also in the 1160s invaded Egypt five times. These were not all outright wars of aggression, as the Shia Viziers had requested Christian help against their Sunni enemies in three of the campaigns, but the fact remained that army of Jerusalem, often aided by Byzantine fleets, had conducted campaigns on Egyptian territory and once come close to capturing Cairo.
Saladin did not simply beat the drum of alarm concerning an external enemy in order to rally his subjects around him, however, he took up the cry of “jihad” — Holy War. This was a clear attempt to increase his stature vis-a-vis his remaining rivals in Syria. Salah-ad-Din means “righteousness of the faith,” and Salah-ad-Din throughout his career used campaigns against the Christian states as a means of rallying support.
Saladin had not invented jihad. The word itself appears multiple times in the Koran, but with varying meanings. It was also used as justification for the Muslim conquests of the 7th Century. It had, however, been largely forgotten or neglected until Nur ad-Din, the Seljuk ruler of Syria from 1146-1174, resurrected the concept. Most historians agree, however, that Nur ad-Din used jihad when it suited him but remained a fundamentally secular ruler. He had, however, unleased the jinni from the bottle and the concept of “Holy War” soon gained increasing support in the madrassas and mosques across the Seljuk territories of the Near East. By the time Saladin came to power there was a body of already radicalized youth eager to follow the call to jihad.
Meanwhile, in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, King Amalaric, who had been so intent on conquering parts if not all of Egypt, had died. He had been succeeded by Baldwin IV, a youth suffering from leprosy. Consciousness of his own weakness and short life expectation, Baldwin IV sent to the West for aid, and in early August 1177, Count Philip of Flanders reached Acre with a large force of Western knights.
On the advice of the High Court, Baldwin IV offered Philip of Flanders the regency of his kingdom, whose armies were preparing yet another invasion of Egypt aided by a large Byzantine fleet. Flanders, however, insisted on being made king of any territories the joint Christian forces conquered. The idea did not sit well with either the King of Jerusalem or the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, both of whom were footing the bill and providing the bulk of the troops for the expedition. The result was that the entire expedition was called off, the Byzantine fleet withdrew and Philip of Flanders took his knights and half the barons of Jerusalem north to attack the Seljuk strongholds of Hama and Harim instead.
Saladin had gathered his forces in Egypt to repel the impending attack. He rapidly learned that the invasion of Egypt been called off, the Byzantine fleet withdrawn, and the bulk of the fighting forces of Jerusalem moved north. It was a splendid opportunity to strike, and Saladin seized the opportunity with a force estimated at 26,000 light horse — which leaves open the question of whether there were infantry with Saladin or not. The force also allegedly included some 1,000 mamluks of the Sultan’s personal body guard.
According to an anonymous Christian chronicler from northern Syria, the news of Saladin’s invasion plunged Jerusalem into despair. The king was just 16 years old, had no battle experience of his own, and his most experienced commanders (or many of them) were besieging Hama. The Constable of the Kingdom, the competent and wise Humphrey de Toron II, was gravely ill. But King Baldwin rallied what forces he had — according to Archbishop William of Tyre, Baldwin’s former tutor now his chancellor and our best contemporary source — with just 376 knights made a dash to Ascalon.
Arriving there only shortly before Saladin himself on November 22, King Baldwin took control of the city, but could not risk open battle because of the imbalance of forces. His dash to Ascalon may have been heroic, but now, with just a fraction of his forces, Saladin was able to bottle-up the King and his knights at Ascalon. Which meant, nothing lay between Saladin and Jerusalem except scattered garrisons. Saladin left a force of undefined size to maintain the siege of Ascalon and moved off with the bulk of his troops.
The Sultan and his emirs were so confident of victory that they took time to plunder the rich cities of the coastal plain, notably Ramla and Lydda, but also as far inland as Hebron. In Jerusalem, the terrified population sought refuge in the Citadel of David.
But Baldwin IV was not yet defeated. With the number of enemy troops around Ascalon dramatically reduced by Saladin splitting his forces. Baldwin now risked a sortie. He and his knight broke out of Ascalon and rendezvoused with Templars from Gaza (although to this day no one knows how he got the message to them). Together, the royal party and the Templars and started to pursue Saladin’s dispersed and no longer disciplined army. Meanwhile, King Baldwin had already issued the arrière ban, a general call to arms that obligated every Christian to rally to the royal standard in defense of the realm, and infantry started streaming to the royal standard.
On the afternoon of November 25, King Baldwin’s host of about 450 knights (376 secular knights and 84 Templars from Gaza), with their squires, Turcopoles and infantry in unspecified numbers caught up with the main body of Saladin’s troops at a place near Montgisard or Tell Jazar, near Ibelin (modern day Yavne). The Sultan, as he later admitted to Saracen chroniclers, was caught off-guard. Before he could properly deploy his troops, the main force of Christian knights led (depending on which source you believe) by Reynald de Chatillon or “the Ibelin brothers” or the Templars had smashed into Saladin’s still disorganized troops, apparently while some were still crossing or watering their horses in a stream.
Although the battle was hard fought and there were Christian casualties, the Sultan’s forces were soon routed. Not only that, Saladin himself came very close to being killed or captured and allegedly escaped on the back of a pack-camel. But for the bulk of his army there was no escape. Those who were not slaughtered immediately on the field, found themselves scattered and virtually defenseless in enemy territory. Although they abandoned the plunder they had accumulated, it was still a long way home — and the rains had set in. Cold, wet, slowed down by the mud, no longer benefiting from the strength of numbers, they were easy prey for the ordinary citizens and settlers of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The latter, after the sack of Lydda, Ramla and other lesser places, had good reason to crave revenge. Furthermore, even after escaping Christian territory, the Sultan’s troops still found no refuge because once in the desert the Bedouins took advantage of the situation to enslave as many men as they could catch in order to enrich themselves. Very few of the Sultan’s men made it home to safety in Egypt.
Saladin was badly shaken by this defeat. He had good reason to believe it would discredit him and initially feared it would trigger revolts against his rule. Later, he convinced himself that God had spared him for a purpose, and he was to learn from his defeat. He never again allowed himself to be duped by his own over-confidence and his subsequent campaigns against the crusader states were marked by much more caution. However, it was not until the crushing defeat of the Christian armies at Hattin in July 1187 — almost ten years later — that he had his revenge.