The Battle of the Horns of Hattin

July 4, 1187. Two knights stood on the ridge watching the rising sun glint off Lake Tiberias. They were hopelessly trapped, the treacherous old rogue, Raynald de Chatillon and his foolish young protégé, Guy de Lusignan, King of Jerusalem. Below, between them and the water, lay the fortress of Tiberias and the army of Saladin. Behind them lay agonizing miles of dry stony hills, across which they and their army had stumbled the previous day, harassed by Muslim skirmishers. They had run out of water; men and horses were dropping from heat and exhaustion.

The Franks and Normans of the First Crusade had established Jerusalem and three other Crusader kingdoms in 1099. Since then, the Outremer, as it was known, had attracted all sorts of adventurers, especially lower-ranked nobility like Raynald and Guy. Raynald himself, by a series of marriages and alliances, had wound up as Lord of OutreJordain, controlling castles and trade routes to the southeast of the Dead Sea. He used this position to harass Muslim pilgrim caravans traveling down the Red Sea to Mecca. The summer before, Raynald had helped Guy usurp the throne from a more legitimate claimant. Unsure of himself, Guy spoiled for a decisive battle with the Crusader nemesis, Saladin.

Saladin had his own problems. Born in Tikrit north of Baghdad, he was a Kurdish general serving Nur-ad-din, Sultan of Aleppo and unifier of Muslim Syria. Saladin captured Egypt from the Shiite Fatimid rulers and made himself vizier in 1169. After his boss died in 1174, Saladin marched north, seized his empire and for good measure, married his widow. As a Sunni loyal to the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad, Saladin became a target for the Assassins, Shiite fanatics-the twelfth-century equivalent of suicide bombers. One of them dropped on him from a tree as he rode underneath. As a Kurd, Saladin could not count on the loyalty of his Turkish and Arabic subordinates. And then there was Raynald, who looted neighbors, violated treaties, and enjoyed tossing victims from the walls of his castle at Kerak. Provoked, Saladin declared jihad on the Crusader kingdoms, promising to behead Raynald if he ever caught him. Given his shaky position, Saladin desperately needed a decisive victory over the Crusaders.

The Crusaders, led by Count Raymond III of Tripoli, relied on heavily fortified castles, and avoided direct confrontation with Saladin, effectively practicing a policy of containment. But on July 2, 1187, Saladin besieged the town of Tiberias. Over Raymond’s objections, Guy and Raynald set out with some 1200 knights and 15,000 foot soldiers on a supposed shortcut over the hills, hoping to surprise Saladin. That’s how they found themselves on the Horns of Hattin, a pair of hills with a ravine between-and no choice but to ride down into Saladin’s waiting army.

It was a massacre. While Raymond and a few of his knights broke through, most were killed. Guy and Raynald were captured and brought before Saladin. Saladin handed a goblet of water to Guy, a token of hospitality that meant his life would be spared. Guy drank part and handed the rest to Raynald. See, said Saladin, I have not offered him water myself. Then he whacked off Raynald’s head before the trembling Guy.

Within three months, Saladin captured Jerusalem and its territories except for the fortified northernmost port of Tyre, controlled by Guy’s rival for the throne, Conrad de Montferrat.

The fall of Jerusalem set off the Third Crusade, led by King Richard Lionheart of England, and King Philip II of France, who hated each other. Richard lingered in Sicily, stopped to capture Cyprus from the Byzantines, and didn’t make it to the Levant until 1191. Meanwhile, Saladin released his secret weapon: Guy. Guy promptly besieged the port of Acre, south of Tyre. While Phillip supported Conrad at Tyre, Richard supported Guy–splitting the Crusaders. Richard captured Acre and fought Saladin to a stalemate; in 1192 they signed a treaty in which Saladin kept Jerusalem but allowed pilgrim access. Before returning to England, Richard sold Cyprus to Guy as a consolation prize.

Horns of Hattin established Saladin as the greatest of all Muslim warrior heroes. And it set the pattern of jihad to recover Muslim lands from foreign infidels.

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