10 Questions with Jonathan Phillips

Sponsored by BYU Studies—Historian Jonathan Phillips is a professor of the history of the Crusades at Royal Holloway, University of London, and the author of The Life and Legend of the Sultan Saldin (Yale University Press, 2019).

Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you fell in love with history.

Jonathan Phillips: I grew up near the castles of South Wales (Chepstow, Goodrich, Grosmont, Caerphilly) and visited them many times as a child. I also read a lot of good fiction aimed at children, notably Ronald Welch’s Bowmen of Crecy and Knight Crusader. They made a huge impression on me, creating a very clear image in my mind as to what the medieval period looked like as well as the sounds and smells of the age.

Finally, my grandfather was a cartographer and he ended up surveying the Lebanon in the 1940s; in his later years he used to enjoy telling me about his adventures with the Bedouin and how they looked after him as he walked the area around Mount Hermon. Hugely evocative, if a bit romanticised, I suspect!

I was lucky enough to have two inspirational teachers at university, Professor Peter Jackson and Professor Jonathan Riley-Smith, and their support and advice enabled me to establish myself in an academic career. I am fortunate to be in a profession where I get to teach (which I enjoy very much—and let me plug the MA in Crusader Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London here)—along with writing; writing academic books, textbooks as well as ‘crossover’ books such as this one, which is based firmly on extensive academic research but, I hope, produced in an accessible and engaging manner.

What is the backstory for The Life and Legend of the Sultan Saladin?

Jonathan Phillips: I had been writing about the crusades for many years, but in this instance, a visit to Damascus in 2009 triggered the wish to work on this book. I saw a dance-musical about Saladin—a remarkable event—and this set me thinking as to how his legacy had survived down to the present day.

Jonathan Phillips is the author of ‘The Life and Legend of the Sultan Saladin’ (Yale University Press, 2019)

That set me off on a detective trail to look at his image and myth, and in doing so, logically, I had to cover his life and career.

In all of this, as a western-facing historian, I felt slightly as a trespasser, but it was a total pleasure to immerse myself in the numerous Arabic sources, many of which were new to me and gave me such an wider understanding of the Muslim Near East. I was also very fortunate that a number of scholars gave me their time, linguistic expertise and were kind enough to advise and support my research. 

Who was the real Saladin?

Jonathan Phillips: The real Saladin is, of course, impossible to reach, but with some reasonably careful assessment of the evidence available, several key things emerge. I should say that many historians have written about him and depending upon time and place, have different views.

‘My’ Saladin’s central feature are thus: He was from an ambitious Kurdish clan who seized their opportunity to create a dynastic power base in Egypt and to build an empire. But he also grew up in the context of the jihad, the counter-crusade against the Franks, and it is clear to me that he was determined to take Jerusalem back for Islam. This certainly became his overt priority once he had secured his position in the Muslim Near East, although it was undoubtedly always present amongst his motives.

As a man, he was interested in poetry and culture, he loved hunting and polo. He was brilliant at choosing his close associates and they stayed incredibly loyal to him; likewise his family too.

We have a strong suggestion of his affection for his wife, although sadly our knowledge here is very limited; he had no less than 17 sons….

He was known for justice, mercy and especially his generosity; Saladin was a great dispenser of patronage and this was a key reason for his success. At root, he was plainly very charismatic, as well as a man of immense personal endurance and fortitude.

What are some of the most common prevailing myths about Saladin?

Jonathan Phillips: That depends where you are… To many modern Shiis he will never be forgiven for ending the Fatimid Shiite caliphate in Cairo in 1171; some describe him as an ally of the crusaders. The former is true, but he was, of course, positioning himself as the champion of Sunni Islam; he did make occasional truces with the crusaders but to describe him as an ally is taking things too far.

He can be over-idealised as the man who drew the Muslim Near East together, but that is to ignore his struggles against Sunni Muslims too, especially the heirs of his former patron Nur al-Din. He was much criticised at the time for this, but he would answer that in capturing Jerusalem, God indicated with whom favour lay. In the popular image, taking back Jerusalem entirely swamps the earlier episodes.

Was Saladin a man of mercy? Mainly, yes. Most notably in ransoming, rather than slaughtering the defenders of Jerusalem when he took the city in 1187. The opportunity to avenge the massacre of Muslims by the First Crusade in 1099 was there, but Saladin chose not to do so.

He was also famous for his kindness to female captives, as well as the old and, often to the noble. He did, however, execute his challenger, Reynald of Chatillon after the Battle of Hattin, along with hundreds of knights of the Military Orders, the sworn enemies of Islam, who would not desert their faith or pay a ransom.

What is Saladin most famous for?

Jonathan Phillips: Undoubtedly Saladin is most famous for the recovery of Jerusalem from the crusaders (more properly known as the Franks, the name given for the Europeans who settled in the Holy Land after the First Crusade) for the people of Islam.

Who defeated Saladin?

Jonathan Phillips: Saladin was defeated on several occasions. First in 1177 at the Battle of Montgisard as he sought to assert himself against the Franks quite early in his career. Poor discipline meant that the Franks caught him out and really smashed up his forces.

The most significant defeat was at the Siege of Acre where, after almost 2 years (August 1189 to July 1191), he was unable to relieve the garrison from the crusader siege, not least because Richard the Lionheart turned up to tip the balance, and his men had to surrender the city. In the aftermath, Richard executed 2400 Muslim prisoners, a horror and a humiliation to Saladin.

He was also defeated a couple of months later at the Battle of Arsuf where a heavy crusader charge forced his men from the field, while his attempts to take Jaffa in the summer of 1192 were thwarted by the dynamism of King Richard.

But… on the other hand, he did keep hold of Jerusalem, which was, of course, the ultimate target of the crusaders.

Portrait of Saladin, Sultan of Egypt and Syria. Illustration to page 627 of Andrew Thevet’s ‘Les vrais pourtraits et views des hommes illustres,’ Paris 1584. This image is in the public domain in the United States and other countries where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or fewer.

How did Saladin die?

Jonathan Phillips: Saladin had been ill many times over the last few years of his life. He had struggled terribly with chronic colic and stomach problems that at times, meant he could not ride out on campaign. His immune system periodically collapsed when, for example, he was covered in boils from the waist down.

We should not forget his mental health either; we read of the terrible stress he was under as the leader of the counter-crusade, the man responsible for keeping Jerusalem in Muslim hands, for running a huge empire, and in facing down the mighty armies of the Third Crusade.

He died on 4 March 1193 after an illness described as a bilious fever; in essence, he was exhausted and likely unable to resist another debilitating episode, although by this time, the crusaders had returned to Europe, meaning he kept hold of Jerusalem. 

Why does Saladin have a complicated legacy?

Jonathan Phillips: Saladin’s legacy is so complicated because the central event in his life, the recovery of Jerusalem for Islam (it is the third most important site to the Islamic faith as the site of the Prophet’s Night Journey to Heaven), is/was of such importance to so many people, Muslims and Christians alike.

Is it hard to watch movies about the Crusades as an historian? Do you have any favorites?

Jonathan Phillips: It is indeed difficult to watch such movies. I really enjoy el-Naser Salaheddin, the 1963 Youssef Chahine film. It is in Arabic, although with subtitles, and is a real party-political piece for Arab Nationalism hung around the events of 1187-92.

Terrible prosthetics, a cast of thousands and great contemporary cinematography.

But a real insight into the legacy of Saladin and the Crusades to the people of the Near East in the twentieth century. 

If you could go back in time and witness any event from Saladin’s life, what would it be?

Jonathan Phillips: That is almost impossible to answer! I’ve certainly thought about it and I would like to have known his reaction to being chosen vizier of Egypt in 1169 (his first real break); learning of the death of his rival and patron, Nur al-Din in 1174; seeing Richard the Lionheart arrive at Acre and then Jaffa.

But, perhaps most obviously, the moment he secured victory at the Battle of Hattin, knowing that it almost certainly delivered Jerusalem into his hands. His entry into Jerusalem should probably be on the list too.

Sorry—spoiled for choice!

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