Impending Collapse: Holy War and the Fall of Jerusalem in 1187

Written by: Jack Bennett.

October 2, 1187. On the anniversary of Muhammad’s ‘Night Journey’ from Jerusalem to Heaven, Saladin made his triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Following victory at the Battle of Hattin in July, Muslim forces had swept throughout the Crusader States, systematically recapturing Latin Christian settlements, and dismantling the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’. This piece aims to examine the political and military factors behind the Kingdom’s disintegration. 

Decades of corrosive internal political factionalism, and increasing detachment from Western European support had created instability and deepening turmoil within the Kingdom of Jerusalem by 1187. Despite previous signs of revived strength, and even expansion, between 1154 and 1163 – such as King Baldwin III capturing the port of Ascalon in 1153 and the capture of Harim in 1158, by the 1170s and into the 1180s these positive developments had been truly undermined by Latin Christian divisions. This was seriously damaging to the geographic safety and position of these proto-colonial territories, which were founded upon the interaction between religious zeal, and the pursuit of political and material acquisition. The roots of this divisionism amongst the Latin Christian monarchy and nobility of the Crusader States, can be traced to the dispute between King Baldwin III and the Queen mother, Melisende, which physically divided the Kingdom of Jerusalem into north and south territories between 1150 and 1152 –  undermining the political stability of the Crusader States. By 1187, these entrenched divisions had corrupted the core monarchical and noble political frameworks underpinning security and survival on the Levantine coast. 

During the reign of King Baldwin IV between 1174 and 1185, and in the aftermath of his death, the Crusader States became increasingly vulnerable. Critically, Western Europeans regarded the Latin Christian states in the Near East as autonomous, as a result of the evolution of hybridised-cultures since the First Crusade, thus distancing them from monarchical power in the West. In 1184, Patriarch Heraclius was sent to Europe in order to initiate another crusade. However, both Henry II of England and Louis VII of France were unwilling to partake due to their own internal political rivalries. Therefore, without the required strong Western European political and military support required in the previous decades of establishment and consolidation to sustain the Crusader states on the Levantine coast, they became vulnerable to the increasing Muslim military threat. Following the death of Baldwin IV in 1185, a power vacuum was created, with two competing factions emerging between Guy of Lusignan, married to Sybilla of Jerusalem, and Raymond III of Tripoli – former regent to Baldwin IV. This reached its climax in 1186 when Humphrey IV of Toron and Isabella of Jerusalem were positioned as competitors to the throne. Within  the same year,  the degree of disunity in the Crusader States is further highlighted by Raymond’s forging of a truce with Saladin, betraying the Latin Christians of Outremer by granting his access to Tiberias and hence the entire Kingdom of Jerusalem. 

Importantly, individual poliking by the Franks within the Crusader States had undermined their integrity and strength prior to 1187. For instance, Baldwin of Ibelin exiled himself to the Principality of Antioch in 1186, due to the power exerted by Guy and Sybilla as monarchs within the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Additionally, the conspiracy and attempted to siege of Jerusalem in 1180 – led by Bohemond III of Antioch and Raymond III of Tripoli, reveals the fundamental disunity across the Crusader States that prevented cohesive, coordinated military combat of the increasingly effective sources of Islamic power in the Near East under successive rulers. Military weakness contributed to an increasing reliance on the Military Orders to uphold the integrity of the Crusader States as the twelfth-century progressed, as illustrated by the Kingdom of Jerusalem’s defeat in 1187 at the Battle of Cresson, at which Hospitaller and Templar forces were completely annihilated by Saladin’s forces, providing a prelude of the calamitous defeat at the battle of Hattin later that same year. This political factionalism further jeopardised the legitimacy of the monarchy on the journey to Jerusalem’s capture in 1187. King Amalric I changed the political and military objectives of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, with his desire to expand into Egypt during the 1160s. This resulted in the Frankish expedition of 1164 – which was beaten at Bilbeis, and another in 1167, ending in a truce with the Egyptian Fatimids. Critically, this compromised the security of the northern Crusader States of Antioch and Tripoli in the face of ever-present Muslim incursions and expansion under the leadership of Nur ad-Din. 

To perceive the Franks of the Near East as completely enfeebled, however, would be a true oversight. In 1177, the Franks triumphed at the Battle of Montgisard, a victory that was widely reported in western Europe, doing little to convince people of the Latin Christian’s desire for help. The construction in 1178-79 of the castle of Jacob’s Ford was a strategic act of forward aggression which forced Saladin into an act of destructive protectionism of Damascus. The Franks also succeeded in maintaining naval preeminence in the eastern Mediterranean through the protection of Beirut from Saladin’s seaborne attack in 1182. Yet, these glimmers of hope were compromised during the 1180s with Saladin’s achievement of hegemonic power in the Near East. 

The contrast between leaders of the Muslim and Frankish worlds in the Near East in the decades preceeding the events of 1187 could have not been greater. As the Crusader States descended into infighting, division and weakness; Saladin secured his position in Egypt, expanded his politico-military influence and unified Muslim populations through the encouragement of jihad across the Near East. This political and religious evolution held deeper roots, truly beginning in the 1130s under the leadership of Zengi, who brought together the Muslim military strongholds of Aleppo and Damascus by 1138. Crucially, the capture of Edessa in 1144 by Zengi proved a pivotal turning point in the survival and eventual decline of the remaining Crusader States, through the removal of a strategic defensive buffer, providing Zengi with a decisive foothold in Frankish territory from which to further threaten the Crusader States. 

Conquest and expansion continued under the leadership of Nur ad-Din from 1146. By establishing authority in Mosul and Aleppo in 1149, Nur ad-Din invaded the Principality of Antioch, besieging the town of Afamiya and eventually gaining a significant hold over the Crusader State after the Battle of Inab in the same year. Crucially, in 1153 Nur ad-Din achieved preeminent authority in the Near East through the control of the ‘Muslim Holy Trinity’ of cities: Aleppo, Mosul and Damascus – ensuring political and military stability and the continuous expansion of hegemony. However,  in the years 1154-63, Nur ad-Din might have experienced a spiritual awakening and laid the foundations for jihad, but he chose not to commit his forces to a Holy War against the Crusader states. Thus by 1163, Nur ad-Din was in a position to pursue expansion into Egypt, simultaneous to the dissolution of Fatimid power in the region, effectively surrounding the Crusader States and undermining their position further. 

Following Nur ad-Din’s death in 1174, Saladin established his control over the Near East, assuming control of Damascus, through patient diplomacy and propaganda rather than through force. Since 1169, Saladin had established his authority in Egypt and by the end of 1174, several of warlords across the Near East now supported him in the continued expansion of his Ayyubid Empire, as he took control of Homs, Hama and Baalbek with little bloodshed. The conquest of Aleppo proved more difficult, and it was not until 1183 that Saladin finally brought the city under his control. Like Nur ad-Din, Saladin had spent the first ten years of his rule mostly fighting other Muslims- perhaps this was a necessary precondition to waging Holy War on the Franks and prizing Jerusalem from their grasp. Crucially, from 1186, his spirituality began to deepen and he dedicated himself to the cause of jihad and the ultimate recovery of Jerusalem.

Throughout the course of the twelfth century, the increasingly strained relations between the Crusader States and neighbouring Byzantine Empire fundamentally undermined the potential for Latin Christians to respond to the amassing tide of Muslim dominance and politico-military unity. Under Emperor John II Comnenus, Raymond of Antioch, Joscelin II of Edessa and Raymond II of Tripoli were forced to accept overlordship from 1142. This political maneuver only served to reduce the autonomy of the Crusader States, individually and as a collective. Therefore, without a positive alliance with the Byzantines, the threats to the Kingdom of Jerusalem could not be effectively dealt with. Furthermore, John’s alliance with the German Emperor Lothair III against Roger of Sicily caused further factionalism within the Crusader States during this period, due to a previous allegiance with European nobles. Further diminishing of the Kingdom of Jerusalem’s authority and power in Outremer and over fellow Crusader States occurred during the reign of Emperor Manuel I. His alliance with Nur ad-Din in 1159, and eventual capture of Reynald of Chatillon in 1160, corroded relations with Latin Christians and the King of Jerusalem, weakening their strategic position in Outremer by compromising the potential for military cooperation and support in the face of expanding Muslim aggression. 

Pivotally, in 1176 the Byzantines were defeated at the Battle of Myriokephalon, preventing a substantial and powerful countering of Saladin’s growing expansionism in the Near East. The most clear demonstration of debilitated Byzantine-Latin Christian relations is illustrated by the reign of Emperor Andronikos I from 1183-85, and the explicit, violent enactment of anti-Frankish sentiment in Constantinople which lead to thousands of Latin Christians being massacred. These strains culminated in 1187 under Emperor Isaac II Angelos, with Slavic and Bulgar rebellions averting Byzantine military power and resources from supporting the Crusader States in their hour of need at the fatal Battle of Hattin. The Kingdom of Jersusalem suffered diplomatically and militarily as a consequence of disintegrating ties with the Byzantine Empire, due to the growing inability to stem the tide of Muslim expansion in the Near East. 

The fall of Jerusalem in 1187 highlights the debilitating nature of increasing internal Latin Christian politico-military factionalism throughout the twelfth-century, which consequently compounded the threat of Muslim unification through jihad and military expansionism to the position of the Crusader States on the Levantine coast. The fallout from Jerusalem’s capture had polarising ramifications in European Christendom and the Muslim world of the Near East, triggering both the Third Crusade of 1189-9 and further religiously zealous military expeditions, under a succession of Western Christian kings and nobles, as well as assisting the pericipitous decline in Saladin’s authority across the Ayyubid Empire in the aftermath of victory. Jerusalem, therefore, maintained its politico-religious power beyond 1187. 


Asbridge, Thomas. The Crusades: The War for the Holy Land, Simon and Schuster, 2012.
Cobb, Paul M. The Race for Paradise: An Islamic History of the Crusades. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.
Phillips, Jonathan. The Crusades, 1095-1204 (Seminar Studies). Abingdon: Routledge, 2014. 
Phillips, Jonathan. Holy Warriors: A Modern History of the Crusades. New York: Vintage, 2010. 

Riley-Smith, J. S. C. “Peace Never Established: The Case of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 28 (1978): 87-102

Tyreman, Christopher. God’s War: A New History of the Crusades. London: Penguin, 2007. 

Image Source: illustrated view of the Dome of the Rock from the cover of Simon Sebag Montefiore, Jerusalem: The Biography, (London: Phoenix, 2012)

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