September 20, 1187: Saladin Lays Siege to Jerusalem, Ends Christian Domination of the Holy Land

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A Brief History

On September 20, 1187, the Islamic forces of the famous Kurdish Muslim leader Saladin laid siege to the capital of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem, the holiest city in the Christian world and likewise in the Jewish world, and the third holiest city in Islam.  By October 2, 1187, the siege came to an unusually quick conclusion when the Christians surrendered the city, never to regain the main object of the Crusades again.  Saladin, an historical character praised for his humanity during a time of terrible excesses allowed generous terms for the Christians, including continued access to their holy places.

Digging Deeper

At the urging of Pope Urban II European Christians mounted a Crusade (First Crusade 1095-1099) to conquer the Holy Land (mainly Jerusalem and the surrounding area including Nazareth and Bethlehem) from the Islamic worshippers that had arisen in Northeast Africa and in Southwest Asia (the Middle East) since the life and death (632 AD) of Muhammad.  The holiest of the Holy Places were centered in Jerusalem, where the Holy Sepulchre (tomb of Jesus Christ), Golgotha (site of the Crucifixion of Christ), and the Via Dolorosa (path of Christ carrying the Cross).  (Jewish religious tradition places Jerusalem at the holiest place on Earth, including Temple Mount and the remainder of the West Wall, while Muslims rank Jerusalem as the third most sacred city with the location of the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque on Temple Mount.)

When the Christians of the First Crusade took the City of Jerusalem in 1099, the wild excesses of the Crusaders became a legendary bloodbath of murder, rape, and looting.  Even in an age of cruelty, the sack of Jerusalem was somewhat shocking.  When Saladin took Jerusalem back for the Muslims, he was far more generous in his treatment of the defeated Christians, allowing thousands to ransom themselves to be allowed to leave and those unfortunates without such means to become slaves instead of being slaughtered.  The treasury of the Kingdom of Jerusalem was used to pay ransoms for those Christians that could not afford the ransom, and the Grand Masters of the Knights Templar and the Hospitallers were beseeched to also buy the freedom of Christians, but the leaders of those orders originally refused.  A ruinous riot nearly broke out due to the stinginess of those monastic fighting orders and the Grand Masters reluctantly relented and paid for some ransoms. Saladin also allowed Christians to have continued access to their holy places, and pilgrimages by Christians were allowed to continue unabated.  Just as Muslims had converted churches to mosques in areas they had originally conquered from Christians, the Christians had converted many mosques into churches, including the Dome of the Rock.  Saladin’s Muslim forces quickly took down the golden cross that Christians had erected above the Dome of the Rock.  (Note: This author has visited Jerusalem and the surrounding area, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Dome of the Rock.)

When the Christian Crusaders first conquered Jerusalem, they established The Kingdom of Jerusalem to include Jerusalem and also the other cities in the Middle East conquered during the Crusades.  When Saladin successfully reconquered Jerusalem for the Muslims, the Kingdom of Jerusalem officials retired to Tyre where they kept up the supposed administration of the Kingdom until later being forced to move their operation (capital of the Kingdom) to Acre.  Catholic Christian control of the Kingdom of Jerusalem had lasted only about a century and was never a firm and convincing rule over the land.  Continued squabbling and mutual distrust with Byzantine Christians headquartered in Constantinople (modern day Istanbul, Turkey) prevented a united Christian front, although admittedly the fractious Muslim states also suffered from a lack of unity.  Even with a lack of Muslim unity, the Islamists always greatly outnumbered the Christians.  Even the great Saladin did not establish a firmly united Muslim front, though he did manage to invoke his own brand of “Holy War” as an Islamic Crusade to push the Christians from Jerusalem.

A possible portrait of Saladin, found in a work by Ismail al-Jazari, circa 1185

Jerusalem and the surrounding area (Palestine, Israel, the Levant) has remained a fought over and contentious area over the ensuing centuries, with the establishment of Israel in 1948 starting a new era in serious conflict on the world stage over the so called Holy Land.  In 1967 the Israelis took over East Jerusalem from Jordan and has held both sides of the city ever since.  In December 2017, the United States agreed to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, formally recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel (declared the Israeli capital by Israeli law in 1980) and in turn generating severe backlash from Islamic majority countries.

Question for students (and subscribers): Have you or anyone in your family visited Jerusalem or other places in the Holy Land?  Do you think Jerusalem should be the Israeli capital or a United Nations controlled city?  Do any Arab countries have a legitimate claim on Jerusalem?  Do you think the Christians were right to mount the Crusades to capture the Holy Land?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

A battle of the Second Crusade (illustration of William of Tyre’s Histoire d’Outremer, 1337)

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Armstrong, Karen. Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths.  Ballantine Books, 1997.

Asbridge, Thomas. The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land. HarperCollins e-books, 2010.

Man, John. Saladin: The Sultan Who Vanquished the Crusaders and Built an Islamic Empire. Da Capo Press, 2017.

The featured image in this article, which shows Balian of Ibelin surrendering the city of Jerusalem to Saladin, from Les Passages faits Outremer par les Français contre les Turcs et autres Sarrasins et Maures outremarins, c. 1490 as scanned from Terry Jones and Alan Ereira, Crusades (New York: Facts on File, 1995), 161, is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.


About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.