The Battle of Hattin

Historical Context

The Battle of Hattin was one of the most significant battles in the history of the Crusades, a series of religious wars waged by European Christians with the objective of capturing the Holy Land from Muslim control. By the time the battle occurred on July 4, 1187, the Crusaders had established several feudal states in the Levant, including the Kingdom of Jerusalem. These Crusader states were, however, divided by internal political strife and were increasingly isolated from their European sponsors. The Muslim world, too, was fragmented. Various Muslim states fought among themselves and against the Crusaders. Salah ad-Din, known as Saladin in the West, rose to power during this period, uniting Egypt and Syria and aiming to expel the Crusaders from the Holy Land.

Political Landscape

The Crusader states had fragile alliances among themselves and with other Christian kingdoms in Europe. The Kingdom of Jerusalem was governed in a feudal manner, with barons who often acted in their own interests rather than in a unified manner. This lack of cohesion would eventually prove to be a significant disadvantage. At the center of these divisions were key figures such as King Guy of Lusignan, Raymond III of Tripoli, and Raynald of Châtillon, each of whom had different visions for how to deal with the looming threat of Saladin who, on the other hand, had successfully united significant parts of the Muslim world, bringing together a diverse coalition under the Ayyubid banner. The internal divisions and disagreements among the Crusader leaders would have a devastating impact.

The Strategic Setting

In the summer of 1187, the stage was set for one of the Crusades’ most pivotal battles. Before the battle, Saladin initiated a series of military actions to provoke the Crusaders and to stretch their defenses before eventually laying siege to the town of Tiberias, a city on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. The city was part of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, led by King Guy of Lusignan. Realizing the city’s strategic and symbolic importance and perhaps even seeking a direct confrontation with Saladin, Guy gathered a sizable force, including contingents from the militant monastic orders of the Knights Templar and Hospitaller, to march towards Tiberias and relieve the besieged city. They were joined by influential figures such as Gerard de Ridefort, the Grand Master of the Knights Templar, Raynald of Châtillon, Prince of Antioch, Raymond III of Tripoli, Balian of Ibelin and essentially the entire nobility of the Crusader States.

Stuck within the besieged Tiberias was Raymond III of Tripoli’s wife; however, he initially argued against risking the entire Crusader army to relieve the town, citing the strategic imprudence of leaving fortified positions to engage a larger, better-supplied enemy. Although his advice was initially heeded, that same evening, King Guy was visited by Gerard de Ridefort, the Grand Master of the Knights Templar, and while their discussion remains a mystery, the following morning Guy gave orders to march out and meet Saladin in the field, sealing their fate.

The Battle

Saladin had cleverly drawn the Crusaders away from their fortified positions, cutting them off from vital water supplies. The Crusaders marched through the scorching July heat, with limited access to water, wearing the heavy armor typical of European knights. By the 3rd of July, the exhausted and dehydrated Crusader army had reached a plateau near the Horns of Hattin, two rocky hilltops.

On the morning of July 4, Saladin ordered his troops to set fire to the dry grass surrounding the Crusader camp, further exhausting the already beleaguered Christian forces with smoke and heat. Saladin’s forces, which included agile archers and cavalry, harassed the Crusader flanks while preventing them from descending the plateau to reach water sources. The Crusaders were surrounded. Saladin’s forces unleashed a barrage of arrows, maintaining a safe distance to minimize the impact of the Crusaders’ superior armor and close-combat capabilities. In a desperate attempt, a group of knights led by Raymond III of Tripoli tried to break through the Muslim lines to reach water and despite conflicting accounts, were able to make their way through the Ayyubid lines. The situation for the Crusaders grew increasingly dire. Knights rallied around the “True Cross” a relic believed to be a fragment of the actual cross upon which Jesus was crucified and attempted multiple cavalry charges on Saladin’s position. Although almost reaching him, they were finally repulsed.

By the afternoon, the Crusader lines had begun to break. King Guy had made his way up the Horns and set up his tent to rally around. The eventual capture of this tent signaled the Muslim forces’ impending victory. Saladin’s troops rushed in, capturing most of the Crusader nobility, including Guy and Raynald. Saladin offered water to Guy but symbolically withheld it from Raynald, who had a reputation for brutality towards Muslims. Shortly after, Saladin executed Raynald himself. Guy was taken prisoner and later released, but the bulk of the Crusader army was either killed or captured. The “True Cross,” was also captured—striking a devastating blow to Christian morale.

The Strategic Consequences

The Battle of Hattin was a decisive Muslim victory that drastically shifted the balance of power in the region. The Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem was left virtually defenseless. Later that year, Saladin proceeded to capture Jerusalem, fulfilling his long-held ambition. The loss had a profound impact on the Crusaders, who saw a sharp decline in their influence in the Levant. Conversely, the battle galvanized Muslim forces, emboldened by the strategic brilliance of Saladin, who became a revered hero in both the Muslim world and among his respectful adversaries in Europe.

The loss at Hattin also had far-reaching consequences. News of the defeat reached Europe, creating an atmosphere of shock and urgency. It became a principal catalyst for the Third Crusade (1189–1192), attracting participation from European kings like Richard the Lionheart of England, Philip II of France, and Emperor Frederick I of the Holy Roman Empire. While the Third Crusade managed to recapture territory and secure a treaty that allowed Christian pilgrims to visit Jerusalem, it could not reverse the decline of the Crusader states. Subsequent crusades in the 13th century continued to weaken the Crusader foothold in the Middle East until their eventual expulsion.

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