Bantam Press 304pp £20
Saladin – victor over the Shi‘i Fatimid caliphate of Cairo, founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, conqueror of Jerusalem – looms large in the history of the Crusades. Praised for his victories, leadership skills and chivalric qualities by supporters and opponents alike, he has been an exemplar of astute and courageous leadership, not just for his contemporary followers and biographers, but also for a wide range of writers and politicians ever since, from Walter Scott to Kaiser Wilhelm II to Gamal Abdel Nasser. Saladin has now found his place in the oeuvre of John Man, author of previous books on Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan and Kublai Khan.
John Man’s Saladin is the latest entry in a crowded field and comes soon after the English translation of Anne-Marie Eddé’s magisterial study (Saladin, 2011). Man, who clearly admires much about his subject, sets himself two objects for his own contribution to the range of biographies of Saladin on offer: first, to distinguish between the factual and fictional elements in the medieval sources on Saladin’s career and, second, to understand why Saladin has remained a hero over the centuries after his death in 1193. Given the subjects of Man’s previous books, it is unsurprising to see a strong focus here on Saladin’s skills as a political and military leader, his abilities on the one hand to forge a state of sorts out of the mess of post-Fatimid Egypt and post-Zengid Syria and, on the other, to take the war against the Crusader states into the heart of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.
The story is a familiar one, but Man’s engaging prose tells it well and the book is an enjoyable read. He spends quite a bit of time establishing a villain as a counter to the narrative’s hero, in the form of the crusading adventurer Reynald de Châtillon. The zenith of the tale comes with the Battle of Hattin in 1187 and the subsequent execution of Reynald and capture of Jerusalem. Along the way, and this time more unexpectedly, we learn a surprising amount about homing pigeons.
There are some unfortunate inaccuracies: for example, the 10th-century military commander Jawhar would probably be surprised to learn that he was the ‘first Fatimid caliph of the new Cairo’. Perhaps the main hindrance to Man’s study, however, is that the nature of medieval Arabic biographical sources do not really give him the necessary information to understand Saladin’s extremely successful leadership. We are told that a crucial ingredient in forming good leaders is the right balance between security and insecurity early in life, but Saladin’s insecurities are merely given as ‘the wider insecurity of religious strife, Sunni versus Shia, Islam versus Christianity, local leaders versus each other’. It is hard to see how this would have helped a young Saladin stand out from the crowd.
Harry Munt is Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of York.