Al-Malik an-Nasir Yusuf ibn Najm ad-Din Ayyub Salah ad-Din - known to the English-speaking world as "Saladin" - is one of the best-known and most romantisized figures of the Crusades. In 1169, with the aid of his uncle Imad ad-Din Shirkuh, Yusuf established himself as the Zangid ruler of Egypt, putting the Shia Fatimid Khalifate out of its misery.
With the death of Nur ad-Din in 1174, Yusuf stepped forward as one of the premiere powers in the Islamic Middle East, standing in the front ranks in the struggle against the Frankish invaders. His wars against the Crusaders culminated in his crushing victory at Hattin in 1187 and the subsequent occupation of Jerusalem. Yusuf spent the final years of his life fighting against the latest Frankish invasion of Richard I Lionheart of England - known in the west as the Third Crusade. He died in March of 1193, a sad and tired man. His previously stable kingdom almost immediately erupted in civil war, and would not experience a measure of peace again until the rise of the Bahri Mamluks in the 1250s.
Both Muslim and Christian chroniclers offer a highly romanticized view of Yusuf Salah ad-Din. He was invariably depicted as a gentle-spirited, merciful, and recklessly generous holy warrior, a passionate Muslim and jihadist yet also gentle and understanding in his dealings with Jews and Christians. One of his Christian contemporaries lamented "Oh! If only he had been born in Christendom!"
Modern historians have tended to be harsher in their appraisal of Salah ad-Din. A skilled politican, he was no less inclined to use murder, bribery, and at times atrocious violence to acheive his goals as any of his contemporaries. He was a competent general, but he was no military mastermind. None of the stories about his legendary generosity and kindness can now be verified - they may well be nothing more than the propoganda of his most devoted apologists - such as his biographer Imad ad-Din (What Befell Sultan Yusuf). All that said, Salah ad-Din acheived what no Muslim leader before him had for ninety years - the reconquest of Jerusalem and the surrounding regions. He was also the first Islamic ruler in several centuries to control Syria, the Jazirah, and Egypt. The fact that even his Christian foes - normally scornful and bigoted in their view of "Saracens" - were full of admiration for him would suggest that he was a man with a higher moral standard than many of his contemporaries and enemies.
In this post, I'm not going to focus on Salah ad-Din himself, but rather on the army with which he acheived the recapture of Jerusalem. Salah ad-Din was the commander-in-chief of a flexible army with diverse origins; men of many countries - and followers of all the Abrahamic faiths - served in its ranks.
The Army of the Late Fatimid Khalifate
Salah ad-Din, previously a young, timid, and obscure emir, rose to power in Egypt in 1169, with the deaths of the Fatimid wazir Shawar and Salah ad-Din's own uncle and patron, the Kurdish warlord Shirkuh. Egypt was effectively brought under Zangid control in this year, but Salah ad-Din effectively ruled as an independent ruler for the five years before the death of Nur ad-Din. Al-Adid, the sickly young Fatimid Khalif, did not die until 1171; he is traditionally believed to have died of an illness, but there were whispers that Salah ad-Din had murdered him.
The Fatimid Khalifate - which followed Shia Islam, unlike the Zangids (Salah ad-Din himself was firmly Sunni in his beliefs) - was already in decline at the time. Most of its professional soldiers were mercenaries or allied contingents. Reference is made of an urban militia (malawi) operating in Alexandria, Cairo, and the other major cities of Egypt; these men were probably equipped with tall shields and thrusting spears like the ahdath of the Syrian and Jaziran emirates. Little else is known of native Egyptian soldiers in the lifetime of Salah ad-Din.
Foreign troops serving in Fatimid Egypt included Armenians, Slavs, western Europeans, Berbers, Arab settlers in Egypt, Ethiopians, and even Jews. Most promiment amongst these were the Ethiopians and Armenians. The latter had migrated en masse to Egypt on several occasions in the 11th and 12th Centuries, and provided mail-clad, lance-wielding cavalry similar to western knights. The Ethiopians (Sudanis) appear to have fought as infantry archers and swordsmen. Black soldiers were numerous and influential in Fatimid Egypt, forming the khalif's bodyguard as well as a number of elite regiments in the standing army. The fact that Armenians and Ethiopians - both Christian peoples - formed the most effective elements of the Fatimid army is a powerful testimony to this state's policy of religious toleration. Salah ad-Din had great respect for the black Ethiopians, keeping some of them to serve in his army. He discharged the last of the Armenians c. 1170, however, when their officers were implicated in a plot to restore Fatimid dominance over Egypt.
The Fatimid army was a force dominated by infantry, not cavalry. The backbone of any Fatimid field army was a phalanx of infantry carrying long spears (sariyah) and body shields (januwiyah). Cavalry, including Armenian knights, Arab cavaliers (faris), and Turkish or Kurdish slave soldiers (ghulams) are seldom mentioned and apparently spent most of their time guarding the flanks of the infantry. This reliance on sturdy infantry is reminiscent of earlier Islamic armies - perhaps even those of the Prophet himself.
The Ayyubid Army - Origins and Composition
Salah ad-Din, as Ibn Ayyub, was the first ruler of the Ayyubid Dynasty, which would persist in Egypt until 1250 AD and would last in Syria until 1341. The Ayyubids, unlike the Fatimids, had a predominately Turkish and Kurdish military heritage - their sultans were Kurds, and most of the soldiers and emirs were Turks. Salah ad-Din's preference for cavalry, both armored lancers and light horse-archers, is proof of this.
As stated above, Salah ad-Din disbanded most of the standing army of the Fatimid Khalifate between 1169 and 1174; all the Armenians and many of the Africans were sent home. Most of these soldiers felt greater loyalty to al-Adid; few of them were Muslims and those who were tended to be Shi'ites. It only took a few mutinies and attempts on his life to convince Salah ad-Din that he needed to create a new army.
More is known about Salah ad-Din's cavalry than his infantry. They were recruited from many sources. Most famous amongst them were Turkish slave-soldiers (mamluks), who had been known as ghulams under the 'Abbasids and Fatimids. Purchased as slaves from their Christian or pagan families on the steppe lands, young boys were trained in furusiyya (the art of cavalry warfare), taught Arabic, and encouraged to convert to Islam before being set free and enlisted in the army. Mamluks - despite their servile origins - were influential and respected individuals, many rising to the rank of emir. From 1250 until the early 16th Century, Egypt would be ruled by a succession of sultans drawn from the mamluk emirs.
Cavalry were also drawn from free peoples. Many prominent Kurdish emirs from Syria and the Jazirah brought contingents of armored horsemen to serve under Salah ad-Din. Such cavalrymen were known as faris or tawashi; the term kumah appears to have been used for those who were exceptionally heavily armored. Bedouin peoples and Arab tribes from what is now Saudi Arabia - most prominently the Judham tribe - also contributed cavalrymen, predominately mounted archers and javelineers. Turcoman clans and both Arab and Turkish populations living in Syria provided the archtypal horse archers of the "Saracen" army. Renegade western knights and possibly a fresh batch of Armenians also served under Salah ad-Din.
Generally speaking, Salah ad-Din's infantry was inferior to his cavalry. But they were no "rabble" of peasants and fanatics, as they have been traditionally depicted. The Ayyubid infantry were well drilled and disciplined, and had a particular expertise for siege warfare. Sappers and artillery experts were recruited from Aleppo and Mosul, archers from Ethiopia, Lebanon, and elsewhere, and both trained and untrained spearmen from across Syria and Iraq. Young mamluks were sometimes required to fight on foot. Religious volunteers (muttawi'ah and ghazis) were almost invariably on foot. Such troops were poorly equipped and had no sense of discipline or self-control, but their rabid ferocity and their local knowledge made them surprisingly valuable on campaign.
Armament and Armor
The wide diversity of ethnic types and battle tactics displayed by the Turkish, Kurdish, Arab, and African elements in Salah ad-Din's army reflected on their equipment. No single weapon or piece of armor could be considered typical of the entire army. Two of the most commonly seen weapons were undoubtedly the composite bow - the favored weapon of steppe tribes for at least 1500 years of history before this time - and the slightly-curved saber of the Turkish peoples (kilij). Straight thrusting swords (sayf) modelled very closely on the ancient Roman gladius were carried by well-equipped infantrymen.
Mamluks and Arab and Kurdish cavalrymen generally carried a thrusting spear, a composite bow, and an axe, sword, and dagger for sidearms. The axe and sometimes the spear were stored in the saddle when not in use, but the bow was kept in a bowcase hooked onto the belt on the right hip. In addition to the three-four meter dariyah/sariyah, infantry spearmen also used the shorter sabarbahah, as well as several kinds of javelin. Berbers and Arab tribes favored light javelins and long daggers; mercenaries from Persia used the double-headed zupin javelin. Light, single-headed were carried by most cavalrymen and seem to have been a favorite sidearm of lightly-equipped infantrymen; most spearmen carried an axe, short sword, or dagger as a secondary weapon.
The composite bow mentioned above was the favored missile weapon, but crossbows are also mentioned as being carried by both infantry and cavalry. The Turkish nawak seems to have been a hybrid between a composite bow and a crossbow, it was a composite bow with an "arrow-guide"; unfortunately there are no modern specimens and few detailed contemporary depictions to reveal just what the nawak looked like.
Most infantry and light cavalry either fought unarmored, or in cotton-padded garments; leather or fur coats were worn by Turkish horsemen, as well as distinctive hats. Lamellar armor made of hardened leather was favored by most heavier cavalrymen, though chainmail shirts were also used. Conical helmets (baydah), some with mail aventails to protect the face and neck were worn by mamluks.