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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

David Nicolle

Saladin: Leadership, Strategy, Conflict

Command 12, illustrated by Peter Dennis. Oxford:  Osprey Publishing, 2011. 64pp.  ISBN  978-1849083171. $18.95.

David Nicolle’s short biography of the Muslim leader, Yusuf Ibn Najm al-Din Ayyub Salah al-Din (1138-1193), better know in the west as Saladin, is the author’s latest volume written for Osprey’s Command military series.  Nicolle has already published a half-dozen similar works dealing with the crusading period for other Osprey series, including another biography of the same individual for Men at Arms, a fact that leads this reviewer to wonder if this is just the publisher’s way of bringing out a new edition.   Indeed, the cover illustration to this volume is a detail from a larger picture of its subject that adorns the cover of the earlier book.

Like most Osprey war books, this one provides a good basic introduction to its subject. It also contains a helpful two-and-a-half-page bibliography (pp. 60-62) and a one-page glossary of terms (p. 63). 

The volume is internally organized into short sections under the following headings:

  • Introduction
  • Chronology
  • The Early Years
  • The Military Life
  • The Hour of Destiny
  • Opposing Commanders
  • Inside the Mind
  • When War is Done
  • A Life in Words

Nicolle’s introduction supplies a useful sketch of the situation that prevailed in the Near East during Saladin’s time, explaining the political, military, and demographic divisions, as well as the relative standing of the two major, often hostile branches of Islam: Sunni and Shia.  The chronology that follows the introduction lists benchmark years in Saladin’s life, indicating why each was important. 

The next three sections (“The Early Years”, “The Military Life”, and “The Hour of Destiny”) outline the conqueror’s career as a political and military figure, a career that reached its highpoint in July 1187 when he annihilated the army of the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem at the battle of the Horns of Hattin, then retook much of Christian-held territory including the Holy City. A section on “Opposing Commanders” contains mini-biographies of the principal enemies Saladin faced, both Christian and Muslim, in particular Reynald of Chatillon and Richard the Lionheart.  Nicolle’s treatment of Chatillon is decidedly less negative than the popular perception. (For the usual portrayal of this complex and controversial figure one need look no farther than the excellent four part series, The Crusades, hosted by Python-turned-historian, Terry Jones, or Ridley Scott’s blockbuster film, Kingdom of Heaven)

Nicolle uses two sections (“Inside the Mind” and “When War is Done”) to comment on a wide variety of loosely related issues:  the effects of Saladin’s reforms on government, trade, and architecture; the true extent of his religious fervor; his sometimes ruthless use of Jihad both to unify the squabbling Muslims of the Middle East and bolster his own legitimacy; the financial strains on his regime occasioned by decades of conflict; tensions within his own family and the Ayubbid dynasty he established as well as their ongoing problems with the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad; his skillful use of marriage alliances and patronage to acquire support, and the cultural activity that accompanied his reign. The final section, “A Life in Words”, briefly summarizes the historiographical debate surrounding the career of the man widely regarded as the greatest figure of the crusading period.

Among the virtues of the volume, there are several that should be emphasized. First and foremost in the opinion of this reviewer is the series of full color maps linked to an itinerary of Saladin’s travels throughout the course of his career, starting with his first trip to Egypt in 1164 and continuing to his death on 3 March 1193.  While varying considerably in scale, taken together the maps supply a good indication of the politically divided nature of the region. Red lines show the sultan’s movements (or in a few cases the movement of land and naval forces he dispatched under a deputy commander).  Meanwhile, consecutive numbers appearing on each map refer to short passages below or to the side, informing readers just when a particular part of his journey took place and for what purpose.

As examples (each taken from a different map), consider the following:

1164:  Saladin accompanies Shirkuh with an army sent to the Fatimid Caliphate by Nur al-Din of Syria against King Amalric of Jerusalem’s second intervention; he defeats the Fatimids at Qawn al-Rish on 18 July, but is besieged in Bilbays from August to November and withdraws to Syria.

1187:  Saladin invades kingdom of Jerusalem, takes town but not Citadel of Tiberias (2 July), defeats Kingdom of Jerusalem and County of Tripoli at Hattin (4 July).

Taken together, the maps and the accompanying descriptions indicate the extremely peripatetic nature of the conqueror’s career.  Saladin was anything but an armchair warrior; little wonder that at the time of his death, “he seems to have been exhausted from years of hard campaigning.”  (p. 55)

Nicolle repeatedly stresses the severe problems Saladin faced when trying to unify and rule a highly disparate region and mobilize its resources against the crusader states.  Four of these, in particular, stand out:  the never ending financial demands occasioned by almost constant warfare; continuing competition from the Zangids, the descendants of Saladin’s mentor, Nur al-Din, whom he had largely displaced; the often hostile attitude of the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad; and finally, the tensions within his own family.  Taken together, these factors were at least as important—and probably more so—in limiting what the great warrior could accomplish than the inopportune arrival of the Third Crusade and its leader, Richard the Lionheart.

As in other Osprey volumes, the text is accompanied by original illustrations—here three full color prints drawn by illustrator, Peter Dennis—depicting scenes from the sultan’s life.  Their value lies in showing the clothing, armor, and weapons of the period.  It would have been nice had the author thought to add a fourth illustration devoted entirely to displaying figures outfitted with the full range of arms and armor typical of a Moslem army in Saladin’s period.  (An illustration of just this sort picturing not crusade-period warriors, but fourteenth-century mercenaries fighting in Italy can be found in another Osprey volume, David Murphy’s Condottieri 1300-1500:  Infamous Medieval Mercenaries.)

Having said this, there are also certain problems with the book that should be pointed out. First and foremost, from the perspective of a military historian, Nicolle does not provide a uniform treatment of the major battles fought over the course of Saladin’s career.  The sultan’s most important encounter, his victory over the crusaders at the Horns of Hattin (1187), as well as the campaign leading up to it, is extensively covered (pp. 19-31).  Also treated in some detail is the far less well-known battle of Al Babayn, fought against a joint Fatimid-Crusader army in Upper Egypt in the spring of 1167 (At different points in his narrative, the author gives the date of this engagement as either March or April). For Nicolle, Al Babayn, the first major battle in which Saladin took part, merits a full-page battle map containing numerical references accompanied by test, tracing the movement of both forces (p. 12); this despite the fact that Al Babayn was not really Saladin’s battle!  The strategy and tactics were those of his uncle, Shirkuh, under whom he was then serving.  

Following coverage of Hattin, Nicolle sketches in the sultan’s various military engagements leading up to the arrival of the Third Crusade.  He describes the protracted “double siege” of the port city of Acre, which the crusaders finally took June 1191.  By contrast, he only mentions in passing Saladin’s defeat at Arsuf (September 1191) and omits entirely any mention of the last wild fight for Jaffa. Since these two engagements pitted him against his most famous and talented opponent, Richard the Lionheart, and constitute much of the basis for Richard’s renown as a military commander, a reader interested in the crusades might have expected at least as much treatment of these two battles as the author devoted to Saladin’s fledgling effort at Al Babayn.

A second reservation involves the author’s choice of illustrations.   The drawings by Peter Dennis are a valuable addition to the volume, but by contrast, the smaller photographs, many of them taken by the author, are less so.  For while some of these are directly relevant to Saladin’s life and career, others are merely generic to the period and several even seem irrelevant.   This reviewer was left wondering if indeed there are no better illustrations that could have been swapped for some of the less interesting or less informative ones currently inhabiting the volume’s pages.  Actually, in a few cases, either a better photograph of the subject or a more enlightening caption might have served to enhance its value as an illustration.  The use of one photograph taken by the author in particular (p. 59) seems especially questionable.  It shows a niche in a building largely obscured by the extensive scaffolding standing in front of it, and accompanied by the following caption:

When Saladin retook Jerusalem in 1187, he had a new pulpit of wood and ivory, which Nur al-Din had prepared for this day, placed in the al-Aqsa Mosque.  Sadly, the passions that can sill be aroused by the Crusades resulted in an Australian fanatic setting fire to the mosque in 1960 in the belief that this would hasten the Second Coming of Jesus, and destroyed Nur al-Din’s pulpit in the process.

This reviewer is left wondering why the author did not simply select a pre-1960 picture showing the pulpit intact rather than his own, sadly obscured photograph of the damage. Since Osprey adheres to strict page limits in their volumes, then excluding several of the questionable illustrations might have left room for more of the maps which (as noted above) number among the work’s greatest strengths.  For example, space could have been allotted to battle maps of Arsuf and Jaffa similar to the one devoted earlier on to Al Babayn.

Finally, this reviewer finds the last section, “A Life in Words”, disappointing.  While the author states that, “Muslim opinions of Saladin were…varied, with chroniclers being divided into pro-Ayyubid and pro-Zangid camps,” he does not adequately demonstrate this.   What is more, his brief historiographical treatment fails to live up to the publicity on the book’s back cover  that reads in part,

Most chroniclers present [Saladin] as a man of outstanding virtue, courage and political skill.  More recently, however, efforts have been made to portray Saladin as an ambitious, ruthless and even devious politician, and as a less brilliant commander than is normally thought.  This book sets out to reveal that the truth is, as usual, somewhere in between.

Nicolle does not specifically identify, much less quote any of that recent literature that portrays Saladin “as an ambitious, ruthless and even devious politician, and as a less brilliant commander than is normally thought.”  The only negative work he refers to by name is Andrew Ehrenkruetz’s Saladin (State University of New York Press, 1972 [hardly “recent” –ed.]).  And although Ehrenkreutz is characterized as “an essentially unsympathetic, though hugely knowledgeable, modern biographer” (p. 59), the quote taken from his work does not impugn Saladin’s character or ability; it merely emphasizes the difficulties that he faced and overcame in order to accomplish all that he did.

In conclusion, despite several shortcomings, the new Osprey volume on Saladin will not disappoint readers wishing to acquire a solid introduction to this complex and fascinating figure and the world in which he lived.  The book also supplies those readers with a good, up-to-date bibliography, listing sources where they may continue to explore the subject.

L.J. Andrew Villalon

Professor emeritus, University of Cincinnati and Senior Lecturer, University of Texas at Austin <avillalon@austin.rr.com>

Page Added: August 2011