Sunday 18 December 2011

The Mirror of Virtue

On the first morning of my first full day in Egypt the first place I visited was the old Citadel of Cairo, with fortifications built by Saladin in the late twelfth century to protect it from the Crusaders.

I first came across this remarkable figure, an historical giant who stands across both the Muslim and Christian world, in the pages of The Talisman, Sir Walter Scott’s nineteenth century historical romance of the crusades, which I read in my early teens. In so many ways Saladin was the real hero of this book, a verray, parfit, gentil knyght, a Victorian recreation of a chivalric ideal.

Saladin has long been celebrated by his enemies, much more than his friends, even as far back as the Middle Ages. He seemed to be the very personification of a code of conduct that was more mythic than real, a reproach to his Christian opponents, who professed an ideal which they ignored in practice. Saladin here was the mirror of virtue. In Dante’s Inferno he is to be found in the mild first circle of hell, along with Homer, Euclid, Socrates and other virtuous pagans.

In contrast, he was a largely forgotten figure in the Muslim world, his reputation surpassed by Baibars, the Mamluk sultan of Egypt who was instrumental in bringing the Crusader presence in the Middle East to an end. He was only rediscovered in the late nineteenth century as an avatar of Arab nationalism, rather ironic considering that he was Kurdish.

Given that Saladin is a man possibly more wrapped in myth than any other it would take a bold person to attempt to disentangle the Gordian knot; to separate out fact, fiction and dewy-eyed romance. So, it was with keen interest that I opened the pages of Saladin, a biography by Anne-Marie Eddé, originally published in France in 2008. The new translation by Jane Marie Todd, published last month by Harvard University Press, was the first book I bought on my return from Egypt.

It’s a remarkable piece of work by a woman I can only describe as a historian’s historian. It’s well-argued, scholarly, and thoroughly researched book, rich in all sorts of detail. It’s also an excellent exercise in deconstruction or exploration. It does not demolish the myth of Saladin; it simply makes him, and it, more understandable.

Eddé, a specialist in Medieval history, begins with one basic question: how did this relentless jihad fighter come to be identified as valiant, generous and magnanimous figure among his former foes? Some truths are simply stated: Saladin was everything he was cracked up to be: he was pious and he was tolerant; he was a man of his word; he was a skilful soldier and an even more skilful politician; he was a patron of the arts and the sciences…and he was the world’s first spin doctor.

The Saladin myth, in other words, really begins with Saladin himself. In the complex religious and political world of twelfth century Islam he made his way to the top by selling himself, by advancing his own platform, by convincing others he was the man and this was his moment.

He was a deal-maker without parallel, moving by soft degrees to the point where he replaced the Fatimids with his own Ayyubid dynasty, uniting Egypt and Syria. He was a self-promoter, convincing much of the Muslim world that only he was capable of leading it against the threat posed by the Crusaders. He was pious, certainly, but he was no Osama bin Laden, no stupid fanatic. He could be pragmatic as occasion demanded, making bargains even with the enemy, all part of a bigger political game. Such was his success that he laid the basis for multiple interpretations of his life and actions, something the author explores with admirable skill.

Some of the details are fascinating, things I was not previously aware of. For instance, even in the midst of conflict, Saladin negotiated trade deals with Italian merchants, obtaining the wood, pitch and iron that enabled him to build the Egyptian fleet, no matter how hard the Papacy raged.

There is another truth here worth emphasising, that the Crusades themselves, from beginning to end, were a political disaster, which in the long run weakened and destroyed Christian power in the east, the power and integrity of the Byzantine Empire. Compared with such cynical ‘crusaders’ as Venice’s Enrico Dandelo it’s little wonder that Saladin is such a paragon, a true Christian gentleman!

Another virtue of Saladin is that it helps to give some understanding of what the Crusades looked like from a Muslim perspective, this movement of outlandish outsiders they generally referred to as the Franks. It was their beliefs that the Muslims found most perplexing, as one twelfth century Syrian document makes clear;

The most amazing thing in the world is that the Christians say that Jesus is divine, that he is God, and then they say that the Jews seized him and crucified him. How can a God who cannot protect himself protect others? Anyone who believes his God came out of a woman’s privates is quite mad; he should not be spoken to, for he has neither intelligence nor faith.

And for once my comment is to say no comment!

Saladin was of and beyond his times, a figure I personally would parallel with the Hohenstaufen emperor Frederick II, another wonder of the world. Eddé certainly gives us a better sense of the man, as a politician as well as a soldier, an individual who was inevitably going to appear like Ozymandias to subsequent generations. She disposes of the exaggerations while still leaving us with a figure whose myth was in a traditional form, a simple narrative explaining a complex truth. Saladin was no icon; he was a man, but what a man.

I thoroughly recommend this book and I’m going to give it five stars. I should say, though, that its strength is in academic detail rather than narrative line; some people may be discouraged by her thematic arrangement. Notwithstanding this, Eddé’s approach is forensic and exhaustive, and on that level I really don’t think this book will ever be surpassed, either as a work of history or of biography.


  1. Kingdom of Heaven with Orlando Bloom is a good film on this subject. The "Holy Land" has been fought over for centuries with the last invasion being the European Zionists, but like all others before, their time will come to an end. Yes,the Christian God got Nailed and one of my Brudders carries a Hammer?

  2. There is an article in the times, it is "" then on the front page write " Dec13 YouTube" in their search box. The agenda is to limit our access to each other and give the "Corporate" more access to all of us.

  3. Hi Ana, interesting that Saladin came to your attention. Saladin, or Salahaddin, is a fascinating figure: one of those charismatic leaders from minor and marginal provinces / countries related to a great, prestigious nation who emerge as leaders of the host nation.

    As you point out, he was Kurdish, and yet he managed to inspire and lead the Arab hosts in a way similar to that of the Epirot-Illyrian-Macedonian Alexander the Great and the Greeks, the Corsican Napoleon and the French, and of course the Austrian Schickelgrueber and the Germans.

    Saladin was certainly better behaved than his primitive European foes, but he did execute the great philosopher and Sufi mystic poet Suhrawardi, whom he summoned to Aleppo and martyred in 1191 at the age of 38, tragically cutting short Suhrawardi's career. I can't imagine Frederick II succumbing to the pressures of intolerant theologians the way that Saladin did on this occasion . . .

    Of course you are also a supporter of Franco of Spain (not without justice I must admit), and yet I cannot forgive Franco for the summary murder of the great poet Garcia Lorca . . . but I guess we've already established that, generally speaking, I'm more tender-hearted than you are . . . !

    And yet, I can see you relishing Sufi poetry, for example Jonathan Star's translation of Rumi . . .

  4. Hi Ana,
    This sounds fascinating. Saladin has always been one of those historical figures surrounded by a kind of mystique for me (admittedly, perhaps, created by my own ignorance of many of the details of his biography).

    Your mention of The Talisman has also reminded me I need to get back to my Sir Walter Scott reading... :-)

    I was a history major myself "back in the day" so I doubt I will be put off by her thematic arrangement over narrative.


  5. Ana, As you know people say all sorts of critical things about Jesus of Nazareth and, in turn, Christianity but then I discover that they have not read The Gospels or ever intend to. By the way, I have now read 'Rome & Jerusalem' which you would probably enjoy. The origins of anti-semitism are argued to have begun during the siege of Jerusalem which ended in 70AD. For a Christian perspective see: Matthew 27, 24-26 & Luke 23, 26-31. Unfortunately, Goodman does not directly tackle these explicit prophetic references. On almost everything else the author provides the reader with interesting anecdotes and scholarly detail. Josephus is a key figure in backing up historical accounts of this period.

  6. Hi Ana,

    It's an interesting post. I loved to read it from beginning to end. I think you write about Saladin with great passion and also without exaggeration.

    It's a nice article.

  7. Anthony, I enjoyed that movie though I thought the portrayal of Raynald of Châtillon was over the top even for a character who was over the top!

    I'll have a look at that link. Thanks.

  8. Chris, and not to forget the Georgian Stalin with the Russians.

    Yes, the picture is never completely perfect; even the most estimable figures are subject to the pressures of their times, and Saladin would never have advanced as far as he did if he was not generally perceived as a pious and orthodox Muslim. The exact circumstances behind the execution of Shahab al-Din Suhrawardi are not entirely clear to me though. I don't think that Franco was directly responsible for the tragic death of Lorca.

  9. Jay, if you do read it I would be fascinated to know what your own assessment is.

  10. Nobby, I'll advance that to the front of my New Year reading list. Thanks.

  11. Yogendra, thank you for saying so. :-)

  12. The Times link is titled "Hording The Funny Cats"

  13. I was always amused by his relationship with Richard (who I'm not that fond of). The little sneak in me would have scent a doctor to poison Richard, not heal him.


  14. Then you know, I assume, about the massacre at Acre?

  15. Yep, and Richard trying to sell off England like a used Etsel.


  16. There was a film on him a few years ago Kingdom of Heaven, perhaps not entirely accurate historically but then whatever is. There are only ever opinions 'and this moment and this moment.'

  17. Creeps in this petty moment from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time. :-)