Saladin’s Legacy in the Middle East before the Nineteenth Century
Saladin’s place in the popular and historical imagination of modern Arabs is unparalleled for any pre-modern historical figure with the exception of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Saladin and the major events of his military career, namely the reconquest of Jerusalem in 1187 and legendary battles like Hittin, have been used symbolically in print, film, art, and political rhetoric to forward anti-colonial, anti-Zionist, and anti-imperial agendas. His Kurdish roots are conveniently overlooked as he was moulded into the hero of Arab nationalism, and his status as a Muslim warrior and sultan rendered him a popular figure even with Muslims beyond the Arab world. Yet, despite his popularity and stature in recent times, Saladin is commonly presented by western historians of the crusades as an obscure historical figure before the nineteenth century – a forgotten sultan, overshadowed by two other legendary warriors who battled crusader armies in their lifetimes: Nur al-Din Zengi and al-Zahir Baybars. As cultural encounters heightened with Europe, where Saladin had enjoyed legendary status for centuries, Arabs and Muslims in the nineteenth century were finally reintroduced and reacquainted with the life and achievements of the great Ayyubid commander.