Nizam al-Mulk, Saladin’s first mentor and general of the Seljuks during the First Crusasde
It was five years since that skirmish at the market of Tarsus, upon whence I joined Prince Nizam’s army. Since then, there were many battles of greater scale. I was recognized as one of Nizam’s three commanders alongside two Seljuk princes, Crown Prince Ahmed (son of Sultan Malik Shah) and Prince Nassur of the minor line. I was the youngest of the three, but there were few who could begrudge my promotion.
Although Tarsus changed my life, we fought many battles of far greater significance. While the lives of Peter the Hermit and Simon the Penniless were spared by the Sultan’s decree, the peasant crusaders were enslaved, and the Sultan made no decisions regarding their kin or other groups of peasant crusaders. To raise one’s sword before the Sultan and reside in our land was treason, and the punishment to that was death.
And so in this manner did I break from Nizam’s army one day to pursue Friar Thomas, who was brother to Peter the Hermit, at Ankara. The Crusaders were outnumbered but spirited, but our forces proved more disciplined. For we were the Sultan’s men, not common rabble. I ordered the men to encircle Thomas and attacked them from all sides. The rabble did not stand a chance, and I cut down Thomas with my own curved sword before returning to Prince Nizam’s presence at Nicaea.
Nizam: “Well done, Sala-hu-din. You took initiative of command and finished off the Crusaders.”
Sala-hu-din: “Thank you, my Lord. But in truth, it is the will of Allah that has guided me.”
Ahmed: “I don’t think we should rest on our laurels and merely rejoice here, for our spies have reported a stronger group of Crusaders heading this way to Nicaea.”
Nizam: “Very well, Ahmed, and what have you done apart from bringing me this news?”
Ahmed: “My Lord, I have done my duty to…”
Nizam: “Hah….very well, your Highness. When you ascend the throne, I pray to Allah that you dedicate your time to the harlem and leave the soldiering to us.” He said in disdain.
Nassur: “My Lords, the army approaching us are not common rabble like Peter the Hermit. Their leader is the Norman French noble, Geoffrey of Bouillon. There are others in his retinue, such as Count Baldwin and Bohemund the Giant (Prince of Naples).”
Sala-hu-din: “I do not believe they outnumber us, my Lord. Neither does the Ayyubid clan lack in valor when faced with a true army of infidels. Let us be the front army in this battle.”
Ahmed: “You forget your place, Sala-hu-din! You are but a mere Kurd, and will await the decisions of Prince Nizam.”
Nizam: “As will you, Ahmed, until that time which you descend the throne and have the power of life and death over this old man…unless of course, I have returned to the Heavens.”
Ahmed: “May Allah be praised. I meant no disrespect, but only to put the young Kurd in his place. He owes more to you than any man here.”
Nizam: “And his place is in the front lines of Nicaea. Go, Sala-hu-din, do not fail me, or disappoint the name of Khalid. He fought by my side, and I can see something of him in you today.”
The memory of Father boiled my blood, and I wished only to avenge myself upon the Franks. Without saying a word further, I led my men out and marched to face the Crusaders.
Geoffrey was a tall man, almost a head higher than myself. I took pride in training my men well, but past combats had been with the rabble led by the likes of Friar Thomas. They were not well-clad chained mail Norman knights like the ones I faced before me that day, and they fought like fiends. I myself only barely managed to fend off Geoffrey’s attacks, but the same could not be said of my brothers. Many Kurds perished that day, and it was my failure.
But I realized that the Ayyubid clan would end if I died that day, for I had no brothers, so I swallowed my honor and retreated back to the fortress of Nicaea, when I knelt before Prince Nizam.
Sala-hu-din: “I have failed your Lordship today. The field now belongs to Geoffrey. I am here to take my punishment.”
Crown Prince Ahmed had always hated me, for it was said in the early days before the Prophet, some Kurds were actually Christians, so he said unto Nizam, “My Lord, the punishment for failure is death. Let Sala-hu-din’s death be a lesson for better men in the future.”
Nizam raised his hand to protest Ahmed and replied, “The justice is for me to dispense, Ahmed, at least today.” Then he turned to me and said, “Rise, Sala-hu-din. No man is a real soldier until he knows that Allah builds great men out of defeat, but let this be a lesson to you. That today, your past has been slain by Geoffrey, and that in future, you will fight with your head and not with simple fury.”
I bowed to Nizam and Ahmed and took my post at the fortress guard, holding back tears of humiliation with sheer will. I wouldn’t forget the shame that the Crusaders put me to that day, but also would learn to plan well before a fight in the future. There was a saying from the Middle Kingdom that “To know one’s enemy and oneself was the key to a hundred victories” or something like that. I took those words to heart and remembered well that Allah only helps those who help themselves first.
The siege of Nicaea took many months, but soon, we realized we had made yet another mistake. Bohemund the Giant led a force of Neapolitans and crushed Nassur’s contingent from behind. Our supply lines were effectively cut, and our men were fighting on empty bellies. Soon, despite our greater numbers, we were defeated. Nizam marched to Jerusalem, a holy city that the infidels would claim as their own, while Nassur and myself were ordered to defend the ancient city of Antioch against Bohemund’s forces.
I did not know how Nizam fought in detail, but I realized that he was no match for the combined forces of Baldwin and Geoffrey. The Crusaders were better armed than us and had better armour. Many of our men wore light army and thought of this as another insurgency mission, but it was not. Geoffrey was a great leader who could truly inspire men to a battle frenzy, and he received the blessings of Pope Urban himself before he marched against us. Much as I loved Nizam, he was no extraordinary general, but merely a man who had risen through the ranks in times of relative peace. He was no match for an accomplished soldier as Geoffrey.
After a year of siege, Jerusalem too fell under the sword of the Crusaders, and Nizam was forced to retreat to Edessa. Geoffrey proclaimed the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem and anointed fearless Baldwin as its king. The news came to Sultan Malik-Shah as a shock, for Jerusalem was the third most sacred city of Islam after Mecca and Medina, and soon, the Sultan passed away. Nizam released Ahmed from command and allowed him to return to Bagdad, where he was crowned as Sultan Ahmed Shah.
The war continued pretty much for me and Nassur, and though Nassur was a true Seljuk and my senior, most of the men in Antioch deferred to me. I worked tirelessly to prepare the defenses of this ancient city and rallied the men to throw boiling water and coals upon the Crusaders, but our force and spirit was spent. They had seen both me and Nassur defeated by the Franks.
The Neapolitans stormed Antioch and took it after three months. I told Nassur to flee the city, for he was a Seljuk prince and someone had to bring the news to Sultan Ahmad at the capital. I knew it was better to die here than meet the spiteful Sultan and admit my failure.
That day, as Antioch was to fall, I prayed to the Almighty, “Give me death, my Lord, for I would not shame the Ayyubid clan before the Sultan again.”
And then, I heard a voice inside my head, “Stand firm, my son, for every defeat you undergo today will teach you to be a worthy general, and one day, I shall grant thee a victory worthy of your perseverance.”
I was shocked by the holy voice, but could not believe my prayers were being answered. I thought Nassur had disobeyed me, haughty Seljuk prince that he was, and stayed behind to mock me even in this serious time. Breaking my prayer, I stood up and angrily demanded, “Nassur, what nonsense is this?!”
But Nassur was not there, he was probably on his way to Bagdad. All I saw was a bright light, and even then, it was waning. It was a miracle, but miracles did not save Antioch from Bohemund, and neither would it save me. I was tied by a haughty Norman night who bought me before Bohemund, now ruler of Antioch.
Bohemund: “So you are Saladin, the first man to face Geoffrey in battle, and that the blood of the holy Friar Thomas was on your hands.”
Sala-hu-din: “My name is Sala-hu-din. It is true, much as the blood of my father was on the hands of his brother, Peter the Hermit, and as mine will be on yours. But my brothers will avenge me. Even as we speak, Prince Nassur has returned to his cousin Sultan Ahmed, and they will find reinforcements. Your rule over Antioch and Jerusalem will never last, infidel.”
Bohemund laughed and replied, “Well said, Saladin, but no, I will not stain my hand with your blood. I have no intention of killing a warrior prince of such renown as yourself. Perhaps, we can be friends one day when the land is at peace, for today, I shall spare your life.”
Saladin: “And you will regret this decision, Prince Bohemund, for one day, the Latin Kingdom will fall in my hands, but I will promise to return this favor even if you may not be around that day.”
And so, in this manner, did Bohemund spare my life, but I left in disgrace on a horse much lower than my status. There were no servants to serve me. I was a commander without an army. In this condition, I marched many miles to Tripoli, the humiliation of many defeats on my shoulder. But then too, I recalled the holy voice on the night before the fall of Antioch and I
knew it was the voice of the Almighty. I would not fall upon my own sword today, not when there was still time to regain my glory and avenge myself upon the Crusaders.