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Recently, I saw the 2005 film THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, a sword and shield epic centered upon the 1187 recapture of Jerusalem from the Christians by Sultan Yusuf Ibn Najni al-Din Ayyub Ibn Shadlhi Abu'l-Muzaffar Salah al-Din al-Malik al-Nasir, aka "Saladin". The hero of the film was not Saladin (Ghassan Massoud), but rather Balian (Orlando Bloom), who, as the film opens, is sweating over a hot forge as a sword maker in some dump of a rural French town in the early 1180s. Then, along comes Godfrey (Liam Neeson), a knight and minor noble back from Palestine, who reveals himself as Balian's previously unknown father. Godfrey persuades Balian to take up a sword in defense of the Holy Land. On the return trip, Godfrey dies, but not before knighting his son. Balian subsequently inherits his father's castle of Ibelin within the Kingdom of Jerusalem, becomes chummy with King Baldwin IV and his sister Sibylla (Eva Green), finds himself defending the Holy City almost single-handed against Saladin's horde after the Christian army's disastrous defeat at Hitton, and ultimately returns to France, where he ostensibly lives happily ever after with Sibylla, who now holds the title Queen of Jerusalem. Uh-huh. So, I picked up SALADIN AND THE FALL OF JERUSALEM to find out the real story.
Penned in 1898 by Stanley Lane-Poole, this volume is a competent and informative bio of the great Muslim leader, who was respected and praised even by his Crusader foes. Admittedly, the first several chapters dealing with "Saladin's world", and which describe the Muslim politics of the region and the events of the First Crusade prior to Saladin's birth and rise to power, make for educational, but less than riveting, reading. It's only with Saladin's accession as the Sultan of Egypt in 1171 that his life really becomes interesting as he subsequently labors militarily and politically to unite the Muslim Middle East under one rule, i.e. his, drive the Unbelievers into the sea, and topple the Kingdom of Jerusalem.
The book's 19th century roots show even in this 2002 reprint of the original. The occasional map, while certainly not indecipherable, doesn't have the clean look of one of modern construction. More telling, the author infrequently sprinkles the text with passages from original Latin or French sources, which go untranslated. Presumably, the average reader at the turn of the 19th century was more educated and literate than now and could be expected to get along as required in something other than English. This new reprint does, however, include a helpful section of black and white photographs that apparently, because of the presence of automobiles, didn't appear in the first release.
The tone of Lane-Poole's narrative is one of detached and uncritical admiration for his hero, as justifiably it should be, since Saladin demonstrated more chivalry, magnanimity, and honor throughout his career than his chief Crusader opponent from June 8, 1191 to October 9, 1192, King Richard I of England. Indeed, the author, who's otherwise adulatory of the Lionheart's prowess in battle, doesn't shirk from recounting Richard's barbarous order to massacre 2,700 Muslims taken prisoner during his capture of Acre, an order that the author terms "cruel and cowardly", and would today be cause for a war crimes tribunal. Well, so much for the flower of English chivalry.
SALADIN AND THE FALL OF JERUSALEM should satisfy a reader such as myself that seeks a general knowledge of Saladin and his accomplishments without getting too obsessive about it.
And what of Balian? While he was one of only three knights left after the Battle of Hitton to defend Jerusalem, and who indeed played the key role in the defense of the city and subsequent surrender negotiations with Saladin, Balian had only a relatively small part in the rest of the story - so small that I had to resort to a Web encyclopedia to get more info about the man. What I learned there was that his saga in THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN was rampant fiction evidently hallucinated by a Hollywood screenwriter in the throes of an illegal substance. Especially that bit about running off with Sybilla. Gee, why doesn't that surprise me?