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Saladin: a West Asian man sitting crosslegged


Saladin started the Ayyubids

When the First Crusade defeated the Fatimid Caliphs and captured Jerusalem in 1099 AD, people were very upset. People in Egypt and Syria gradually decided that the Fatimids were too weak to rule anymore. One of their generals, Saladin (Salah ad-Din ibn Ayyub in Arabic), took over control from the Fatimids. He founded the Ayyubid dynasty (ai-YOU-bid).

The Fatimids (before the Ayyubids)
The First Crusade
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Citadel of Aleppo, Syria (built by Saladin, 1100s AD)

Citadel of Aleppo, Syria (built by Saladin, 1100s AD)

Who was Saladin?

Saladin, the Sultan of Egypt, was Kurdish, from Tikrit in northern Iraq. He came to Egypt in 1168, when he was 31 years old, as an assistant to his uncle, who was a general and then became the vizier of the last Fatimid caliph.

What’s a vizier?

After Saladin’s uncle died the next year, Saladin took power for himself.

Saladin controls Indian Ocean trade

In 1173 Saladin’s older brother Turanshah conquered Yemen, in the Arabian Peninsula. That gave Saladin control of the very profitable trade from India through the Red Sea. The Ayyubids were trading with the Delhi Sultanate in northern India, with the

More about the Arabian Peninsula

Saladin was a very successful general. He followed the Mamluk generals Zangi and Nureddin in taking back most of the territory that had been lost to the First Crusade. Saladin won back Jerusalem in 1187 AD. He built the great wall that surrounds Jerusalem’s Old City today.

Who were the Mamluks?

Saladin’s attitude towards the conquered Europeans was unusually kind – unlike the Athenians, who murdered the Melians, or Alexander, who killed the men of Tyre. Saladin let the Europeans leave the city and take ships back to Europe. People began to see Saladin as a kind and fair ruler.

Saladin and Sunni Islam

Tomb of Saladin

Tomb of Saladin in Damascus, Syria

Saladin was a Sunni Moslem, so he brought back Sunni worship to Egypt and Syria, even though the Fatimids had been Shiites.

Sunni and Shiite Islam
What’s a madrassa?
Medieval Islamic science

He opened a series of madrassas, or schools, which helped to bring Sunni faith to the people, and also spread science and math from the big university in Baghdad to Egypt and Syria.

Saladin and medicine

A lot of medical research started up in Cairo – first Maimonides (who also worked as Saladin’s doctor) and then Ibn al Nafis. This also brought the Ayyubids closer to the Seljuks in Baghdad.

Who was Maimonides?
Jews in the Islamic Empire
Who was Ibn al  Nafis?

How did Saladin die?

Saladin died of a fever in 1193 AD, when he was 56 years old. (Probably some of his good reputation comes from dying pretty young, before he got old and things fell apart.) He was buried in Damascus, in Syria, next to the great Umayyad Mosque there.

The Damascus Mosque

Saladin’s sons ruled after him

After his death, Saladin’s sons and relatives broke up his empire. That way they could each have their own small kingdom to rule. There were small kingdoms at Damascus, Aleppo, Hims, Hamat, and Diyar Bakr. But the Ayyubid sultans of Egypt were the richest, so they mostly controlled all the smaller kingdoms.

Who was Francis of Assisi?
More about the Fifth Crusade

Scholars and preachers like Maimonides and Francis of Assisi visited or lived in Cairo, the richest city of the rich Ayyubid sultanate. When Pope Honorius attacked Egypt in the Fifth Crusade, the Ayyubids fought them off.

The Mongols and the Ayyubids

By this time, the Mongols were attacking the Ayyubids from the north. Mostly the Ayyubids fought the Mongols off, but they had to work pretty hard to do it

What happened to the Ayyubids?

The later Ayyubids bought enslaved Turkish and Mongol people to be their army rather than fighting themselves. People called these enslaved soldiers the Mamluks.

More about the Mamluks
Slavery in the Islamic Empire

But little by little the Ayyubid sultans had less and less power and the Mamluks got more and more power. In the Sixth Crusade, the Crusaders fought as mercenaries for the Ayyubids against the Mamluks in exchange for control over Jerusalem. Finally in 1250 AD the Mamluks took over Egypt entirely. By 1260 the Mamluks had also taken over most of the other Ayyubid kingdoms.

Learn by doing: Islamic archery
Go on to the Mamluks

Bibliography and further reading about the Ayyubids:


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