After a two-week siege, the massive armies of Saladin forced the surrender of the few remaining knights in Jerusalem and ended almost 90 years of Crusader rule on October 2, 1187. Sweeping through the Christian defenders throughout the summer, the Muslim king regained the greatest prize of them all — and opened the door for the Third Crusade.
Problems for the Crusaders had begun almost from the start. Once Jerusalem had been conquered in 1099, the reality that the European occupiers were isolated from their counterparts on the home continent became more apparent from year to year. Disputes about who had the proper claim to the crown — King Godfroi du Buillon or otherwise — were common, creating a climate of discord and political maneuvering within the walls of the Holy City.
By 1187, these grudges had led to severe instability. Even as a large Crusader force marched out to meet Saladin and the Ayyubid armies that July, factions within the Christian side were very near attacking each other instead of the Muslims. Seizing this advantage at the Battle of Hattin, Saladin’s soldiers made the argument largely academic: nearly all of the Crusader knights had been killed or captured in the fight. With many of the Christian leadership captured, including the king and many nobles, the arid plains of modern Lebanon and Israel were now essentially undefended.
Saladin marched his armies from town to town, claiming one after the other — seven by mid-September when he moved towards Tyre. Bolstered by the arrival of Conrad de Montferrat, Saladin found the coastal city difficult to crack and instead turned south to drive on the hundred miles to Jerusalem.
Within the Holy City, conditions were worsening from day to day. Hundreds of refugees, fleeing the arrival of Saladin’s soldiers in towns like Ascalon and Beirut, arrived to take shelter near sacred sites in the hopes God might defend them from the Muslim armies. When Saladin arrived on September 20th, there were just 14 knights inside — with a further 60 deputized by Balian of Ibelin, the de facto leader of the city — to defend the thousands inside after the king and so many others had been captured at Hattin.
An anxious public awaited the worst. Priests and monks walked barefoot around the walls of the city, hoping to repent for past sins shared among the populace and increase the likelihood their God would intervene on their behalf. As Saladin initiated negotiations to end the siege without conflict, the Christians refused. He would have to bring his 200,000-strong army in to get them.
With the Muslim advance slowly making headway despite heavy losses — including forcing the collapse of some fortifications on September 29th — Balian met with Saladin in the hopes of reopening a discussion of surrender to save his people. The approach initially rebuffed, only the ability of the Christian defenders to repel another assault made Saladin willing to consider doing so once again.
On October 2, 1187, Balian opened the gates of Jerusalem to Saladin and welcomed the Muslim king into the Holy City. In addition to handing over keys to the fortifications, Balian paid a ransom of 30,000 bezants to the conquerors so that 7,000 of Jerusalem’s residents could go free. The rest were given a month to come up with the fee — 10 bezants for men, 5 for women and 1 for a child — or end up slaves.
Remarkably tolerant when compared with his Crusader predecessors, Saladin allowed Christians to visit Jerusalem without fear of injury and even took pains to set some of his slaves captured in the siege free. In Europe, however, news of the defeat at the Battle of Hattin infuriated Pope Gregory VIII. Issuing the Audita tremendi on October 29th, the bishop had already begun building funds and mounting an army for the Third Crusade before learning Jerusalem had been lost. Two years later, King Richard the Lionheart of England, King Philip II of France and King Frederick Barbarossa of the Holy Roman Empire would begin marching their armies toward the Middle East.
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