On this day in 1187, Saladin, the Kurdish-born Sultan of Egypt and Syria, and leader of the Muslim forces battling the Crusaders in the Holy Land, captured the city of Jerusalem.
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Somewhat confusingly, the “Kingdom of Jerusalem” – the Crusader regime that had come into existence with the European conquest of Jerusalem in July 1099, and covered a large part of the Land of Israel and of today’s Lebanon – had fallen to Saladin’s forces earlier that year. Saladin decisively defeated the Crusader army at the Battle of Hittin, on July 4. In the following weeks, other cities that had been under Crusader control, including Acre, Nablus and Beirut, fell to the Muslims.
Balian of Ibelin, the French nobleman who was one of the leaders of the kingdom, asked Saladin for permission to travel to Jerusalem and collect his family. Saladin assented, on condition that Balian limit his stay to one day and that he not take advantage of the opportunity to gather an army. Balian agreed, but when he arrived in Jerusalem, found himself implored by the city’s Latin Christian patriarch, Heraclius, to help them. Heraclius even offered to absolve Balian of his oath to Saladin. Balian sent word to Saladin that he had decided to fight, and began organizing a force out of the Christian refugees who had crowded into the city during the preceding months.
The siege began to the north and the west of the walled city on September 20: Saladin’s army included some 200,000 fighters, who faced a defending force of some 160 Christians. Over the course of six days, the tiny Christian force held off the Muslims, causing them significant casualties, until Saladin’s army began an assault from the Mount of Olives, to the east.
At this point, Balian met with Saladin, and offered to surrender. The two men began to negotiate terms, with Saladin offering to allow the enemy free passage from Jerusalem in return for a payment of ransom; those who remained behind would be seized and enslaved. Negotiations got bogged down on the terms of ransom, even though Saladin, who wanted to avoid bloodshed, was generous in his terms of surrender. Finally, a deal was struck, and the ransomed Christians left the city in three columns: one of Templers, one of Hospitallers, and a third led by Balian and Heraclius. The Citadel of David was turned over to the Muslims on October 2. By October 29, Pope Gregory VII had already declared a Third Crusade to recapture Jerusalem (news of the loss of the kingdom had been arriving in Rome throughout the summer). That campaign got under way two years later, when Richard the Lionheart, Frederick Barbarossa and Philip Augustus set out (separately) for the Holy Land.