Saladin: Separating life from legend

His is an epic story of empire and bloody conflict, the scourge of the crusaders and the man who recaptured Jerusalem from the Christians in 1187 - yet how much do we know about this titan of Medieval Islamic history.

Jonathan Phillips, a Professor of Crusading History, attempted to untangle the man from the myth as he discussed his book The Life and Legend of Sultan Saladin at Hay Festival tonight.

Phillips looked beyond the crude stereotypes of the clash of civilisations to paint a much more nuanced picture of a sophisticated leader who was capable of acting with mercy and justice.

He said Saladin , a Kurd, was praised for being, "wise in counsel, valiant in war and generous beyond measure." And although Phillips rated him as a good general it was his ability to bring people together, and demand loyalty that gave him the edge over his rivals.

He died in March 1193 and after that his legend went into overdrive. Although initially hated by the Christian West within a relatively short span of years his reputation grew as his achievements were recognised. There are records of children in Oxfordshire being named Saladin as early as 1240, and much later in history a British World War One destroyer was named HMS Saladin.

Phillips said this went further in the Near East with leaders from Egypt like Nasser, Saddam Hussein in Iraq  and the Assad regime in Syria using his name to boost their cause. The Saladin legend also has a firm grip on popular culture of the Near East with films of his life, a ballet and is a figure who is regularly invoked by Kurdish and Arab newspapers.

If you like watching Hay Festival events digitally please sign up to the Hay Player for more from the world’s greatest thinkers.

Picture Paul Musso