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3. Second Crusade |
The resurgence of Islam and an incendiary monk fuel a second crusade

Second Crusade is drawn from Chapter Three, beginning on page 62, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

As Edessa’s fall imperils the new Christian kingdoms, Bernard of Clairvaux reawakens an apathetic Europe, but a disaster at Damascus collapses the whole effort

Second Crusade - The resurgence of Islam and an incendiary monk fuel a second crusade

Second Crusade - The resurgence of Islam and an incendiary monk fuel a second crusade
King Louis VII of France took the cross from Pope Eugene III in March of 1146 prior to embarking on the Second Crusade. In this nineteenth-century oil painting by Jean Baptiste Mauzaisse, Bernard of Clairvaux stands on the pope’s left; Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine kneels on the right.

Edessa had fallen. There was no denying it. The rumors were true. Mighty Islam had recovered strength, and the great Christian citadel near the banks of the Euphrates, 150 miles inland from the Mediterranean, had gone down before it. Now the whole precarious Christian recovery of the East was plainly at risk. All Europe was said to be shocked.

But was it? Was anyone even interested? While the news was filtering west midway through 1145, the papacy was embroiled in political turmoil with the kings of Sicily, France, and Germany. In November that year Eugene III was elected pope and immediately issued a formal crusade, which many took to mean that crusaders would be forgiven all their sins and guaranteed admission to heaven, though this was not what the church had promised.1 However, their property would be protected and loan interest forgiven. But his call had fallen flat. Even when King Louis VII of France made a Christmas appeal to rouse his vassals, they remained distinctly unenthused. Help for the imperiled Christians of Outremer looked hopeless.

Could anyone, anywhere, somehow bring Christendom alive to the danger? There was perhaps one man, though whether he would agree was another matter. He was almost everywhere revered but was preeminently a man of peace and prayer. In desperation Louis appealed directly to this powerful personality, the abbot of Clairvaux known to history as St. Bernard.

It was Bernard who had been primarily responsible for the astounding rise of the Cistercians, known from their undyed habits as the “white monks,” the reformed monastic order that had already mushroomed under his inspiration from two small, poor monasteries to more than 170. He plainly preferred a life of prayer and meditation but had repeatedly been summoned back to the world as a power broker and moral compass in papal politics, had served or would serve as an adviser to five popes, and had once courageously rescued the papacy from open schism. Frail, gray-haired, and renowned for his captivating sermons, he was far more highly regarded than Eugene, who had been his pupil. No, he told Louis, such a call must come from the pope himself.

Bernard did not conceal his reluctance to back a second mass expedition to recover Christian lands in the East. Quite apart from his personal asceticism, he considered the heresies of Europe more important than (as he saw them) the ravings of an Arab cult, no matter how militarily successful. But as a monk he was sworn to obedience. When the pope’s appeal affirmed that of Louis, Bernard complied. On March 31, 1146, at Vezelay, with pale King Louis and vivacious Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine next to him, the abbot preached his first sermon for what would become known as the Second Crusade. Face aglow, voice impassioned, he marveled at this extraordinary opportunity for redemption from sin. And in a scene reminiscent of Clermont fifty years before, the resultant clamor for crosses, led by the royal couple themselves, prompted him to fling off his habit so that pieces could be torn from it to supply them. “Receive the sign of the cross,” he told each person who came forward, “and thou shalt likewise obtain the indulgence of all thou hast confessed with a contrite heart.”

Thereafter he threw all his gifts of word, voice, faith, and physical strength into the recruiting campaign. Dying in this cause, he declared, was the best thing that could happen to a man: “You should rejoice and give thanks if you go to join the Lord. . . . This age is like no other that has gone before; a new abundance of divine mercy comes down from heaven. . . . Look at the skill God is using to save you. Consider the depths of his love and be astonished, you sinners. He creates a need . . . while he desires to help you in your necessity. This is a plan not made by man, but coming from heaven and proceeding from the heart of divine love.”

Preaching in both Latin and French through Burgundy, Lorraine, and Flanders, Bernard sparked a fire that swept across Europe. In the Rhineland, where the message was delivered by others and morphed into a wave of anti-Semitism, the abbot himself hastened to stem such “perversion.” He also traveled in Switzerland and twice preached at the court of the German king Conrad III in Frankfurt. There, to the surprise of the entire continent, his fiery Christmas sermon about Judgment Day prompted Conrad to join with Louis. Thus Europe’s two most powerful rulers were committed.2

Meanwhile, the enthusiasm kept spreading. King Alfonso VII of Castile persuaded Eugene to extend the crusade into Spain by offering special indulgences to the Genoese and southern French. More dubious was the support the pope and Bernard agreed to give German Saxons, who sought indulgences for a territorial war against neighboring Slavic Wend pagans.

Thus the vision widened. In another letter Eugene authorized indulgences for crusaders on all three fronts–the East, Spain, and Germany–as part of one vast enterprise. In the East five armies would eventually converge: those under Louis, Conrad, Amadeus of Savoy, and Alfonso Jordan of Toulouse and an Anglo-Flemish force, which stopped on its way eastward to liberate Lisbon from the Muslims. In the northeast the Saxons, Danes, Brandenburgers, and Poles would attack the Wends. In Spain the French and Genoese would wage four campaigns against the Muslim Moors.

Precedents were set. Louis became the first monarch to levy a crusade tax. Conrad repaired roads and bridges in foreign lands as he marched through Hungary rather than risk involvement with his enemy Roger of Sicily by taking the sea route. Louis followed a few weeks behind him to allow local food supplies to be replenished.

Their combined force was perhaps stronger than that of the First Crusade, but its task was much more formidable. The First Crusaders, having taken Antioch and Jerusalem in 1099, had only then realized that they had no plan to govern them. Ominously, the vast majority of crusaders returned home that September, leaving a mere three hundred knights and two thousand infantry to hold Jerusalem. The Christians subsequently moved inland two hundred miles, then took a six-hundred-mile strip along the Mediterranean coast with only two ports and several fortress cities. To the east lay mighty Persia, much of central Asia, India, and Indonesia and to the south Egypt and North Africa, all under Muslim rule. The Christian presence in Outremer was, in other words, highly tenuous.

It was also highly fractious. Their most powerful religious ally, the Byzantine emperor Alexius I, had withdrawn his support for them after they arbitrarily took possession of former Byzantine territory. The rulers of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Edessa, all largely self-appointed, endlessly quarreled while Rome ignored them. Godfrey of Bouillon, Jerusalem’s leading liberator, had died of typhoid within a year. His brother Baldwin, although the most competent among the city’s would-be rulers, was nevertheless a somewhat unsavory candidate. He had disgraced himself in the First Crusade by initiating a blood-soaked brawl in which fellow Christian knights had killed one another. Later, with some hundred renegade knights, he abandoned the Crusade altogether and took Edessa, helped greatly by the resident Armenian Christians, who had long smarted under Muslim rule.3

For the next eighteen years Baldwin almost single-handedly established a functioning government in Outremer. A just but ferocious ruler, he handily suppressed local Muslim uprisings, rewarded friends, and had enemies publicly tortured before execution. He negotiated deals with European sea captains, swapping trading rights for arms and supplies. He exploited Muslim rivalries while himself embracing local customs, wearing a turban (with a cross) and white burnoose embroidered in gold, for example. He married an Armenian woman for her dowry and encouraged his vassals to do likewise. Gradually he made himself liege lord of the Christians and was crowned Baldwin I, King of Jerusalem, on Christmas Day, 1100.4

By the time he died in 1118, it all looked so permanent: a new, viable kingdom linked to Europe by sea with a physical infrastructure and revenue systems to support and defend it. The two orders of fighting monks, the Knights Templar and the Hospitallers, provided a much-respected standing army (see sidebar page 35), and a workable treaty with Damascus had secured the northern frontier. Two powerful kings followed Baldwin I: his cousin Baldwin II (1118—1131) and the latter’s son-in-law Fulk V of Anjou (1131—1143). But Fulk’s premature death in a freak hunting accident ended those golden years.

In actuality, however, history would record that the downfall of Outremer had already begun sixteen years earlier. In 1127 the Muslim sultan in Baghdad had chosen as governor of Mosul, on the Tigris 250 miles northwest of Baghdad, a squat figure with piercing black eyes that glared from beneath his turban. His sadistic and savage ferocity frightened both followers and foes. He crucified his own troops if they marched out of line; one man reputedly had been so terrified at the mere sight of him that he fell dead on the spot.

This governor’s name was ’imad al-Din Zengi ibn Aq Sonqur, and he was a Seljuk Turk with ambitions to take over Syria. Since his first opponents were Muslim, he kept the peace, even sought treaties, with Baldwin II while he subdued them. Once when his army accidentally tangled with Christian troops, he had trapped King Fulk in a castle but then, astonishingly, freed him in exchange for the castle and a sumptuous robe.

Nevertheless, a clash with the Christians was inevitable. Whatever else his motives, Zengi knew that faithful Muslims were under a perpetual obligation of jihad, which meant (along with other, more spiritual interpretations) taking arms against unbelievers. In an Islamic world where all authority derives from religion, embracing jihad had always offered non-Arabs a way to elevate their social status. As the champions of orthodoxy they could enhance their political profile. By 1144, with his Muslim rivals crushed, the time to tackle the Christians had come, and the obvious and most vulnerable target was Edessa.

Moreover, the city had been ripe for the taking. Its latest governor, Count Joscelin of Courtenay, had been weak, dissolute, negligent, and at bitter odds with his immediate overlord, Raymond of Antioch. Zengi had correctly suspected that Raymond would not aid his vassal. Preaching jihad, he had marshaled Turkomans and Kurds from the upper Tigris region to swell his army. Then in late November 1144 he had duped Joscelin and most of his troops into leaving Edessa by attacking one of Joscelin’s allies elsewhere. Once the count and his army had departed, Zengi laid siege to the city and undermined a wall, causing it to collapse. On Christmas Eve the Muslims had poured in to slaughter thousands of Christians while Joscelin awaited reinforcements from Jerusalem that arrived too late.5 In Baghdad the caliph had conferred on Zengi the title “Ornament of Islam, the Auxiliary Commander of the Faithful, the Divinely Aided King.”

Although it had taken nearly three years, the magnitude of this news had finally roused the West to action. Curiously, despite their lengthy preparations neither Louis nor Conrad had communicated with Christians in Outremer. Apparently, they expected to march directly from Constantinople to Edessa and easily retake it without assistance. Indeed, both the French and the Germans treated the crusade rather like a family holiday. Following the example of Eleanor, many spouses, children, chambermaids, and household staffs accompanied the knights, as did mammoth trains of trunks and luggage.

Conrad and his multitude arrived outside Constantinople early in September 1147. The young Byzantine emperor, Manuel Comnenus, like his grandfather Alexius before him, did not want to deal with more than one foreign army at a time. After Conrad swore an oath not to harm Byzantine interests, Manuel (who was married to Conrad’s sister-in-law) convinced him to accept transportation across the Bosporus rather than await Louis. However, he could not persuade Conrad to have pilgrims and noncombatants sail directly to Jerusalem instead of traveling with the overland expedition. Conrad gathered provisions at Nicea, in Asia Minor, and immediately started his unwieldy entourage moving. Unfortunately, the lumbering group was so large and so slow that it rapidly used up supplies. In October, near the ruins of the ancient city of Doryleum, about one hundred miles southeast of Constantinople, the Germans met disaster. Routed by Turks in an ambush, the few survivors were harassed all the way back to Nicea, whence most headed for home. The experience left Conrad’s second in command, young Frederick Barbarossa, firmly resolved that there must be another crusade and it must not be run like this one (see chapter 4).

King Louis and his queen had meanwhile encountered a chilly reception in Constantinople. The French were deeply mistrusted by Manuel, not only because of their close ties to his Italian Norman enemies but because Eleanor’s uncle Raymond was now prince of formerly Byzantine Antioch. For his part, Louis was infuriated to discover that Manuel had made a treaty with the Turkish sultan who controlled the territory his crusaders must cross. At length, however, he reluctantly mollified Manuel by taking an oath of homage to the Byzantine, and his army was thereupon ferried to Asia Minor–though, like Conrad, he disregarded Manuel’s advice to have his noncombatants travel by ship around Asia Minor to the Mediterranean.

At Nicea Louis was joined by the remnant of Conrad’s army and learned of the Germans’ debacle. Rather than head directly overland as planned, he decided to take a longer route along the coastline, in part to ensure adequate provisions. At Ephesus, however, Conrad became ill, so he returned to Constantinople (where Manuel served as his personal physician). Meanwhile, as their food supplies dwindled, the French ignored warnings that the Turks were massing against them. Turning southeast, they marched inland on a more direct route, apparently relying on the goodwill of Manuel within his empire. But the local populace and garrisons provided neither food nor military assistance, and the Turks repeatedly attacked. By January 1148 people and animals were facing starvation. Toward the end of the month the Turks inflicted enormous casualties at Antalya, on modern Turkey’s southwest Mediterranean coast, making conspicuous use of a nearby Byzantine fortress obviously assisting the enemy.

This and other incidents have persuaded most historians that Manuel so feared and distrusted the French that he deliberately plotted their destruction. With the expedition now back on the coast, for example, he promised a fleet to take it to Antioch but provided only enough ships for the royal party and a few knights. The rest of the army and the pilgrims, deserted by their king, were left to continue overland; barely half ultimately made it to Outremer.

Louis and Eleanor, meanwhile, reached Antioch’s port of St. Simeon in late March to find that Conrad had already arrived. The whole purpose of their undertaking was now in dispute, the destruction of their armies in Asia Minor having ended any chance of regaining Edessa. Louis proposed that they merely proceed to Jerusalem as pilgrims. Then came another problem, something he did not need: embarrassingly public displays of affection between his wife, the insatiable Eleanor, and her uncle Raymond–her past paramour (when she was fifteen), it was said. When Louis opposed Uncle Raymond’s proposal to attack Aleppo, Eleanor loudly supported her uncle. Eventually the king ordered her confined under guard outside the city.

Meanwhile, a war council held at Acre in June decided that the crusaders could still strike a resounding blow for Christendom by seizing Damascus, the chief city in Syria, about halfway between Antioch and Jerusalem. In fact, this could have effectively hindered the passage of any Muslim army along the coast and would have significantly strengthened the Christian military position. But local Christian leaders from Outremer had their doubts. Damascus, though Muslim, had faithfully observed its treaty obligations and protected the Christian kingdom’s northern flank.6 Why attack it? Moreover, who would govern it if the attack succeeded? Nobody knew.

The attack nevertheless proceeded in July, with the western Christians assembling their largest force yet. Under the joint command of Louis, Conrad, and the teenaged King Baldwin III of Jerusalem, they attacked Damascus from the west, basing their army in suburban orchards with abundant supplies of food, water, and wood. They rapidly drove back the defenders and occupied most of the area needed for a long siege.

But then came an extraordinary decision. Apparently panicked at the approach of a Turkish army, they abandoned their camps and moved to the eastern side of the city, where allegedly weaker walls would provide them with a faster entry. But they could not break through. Moreover, there was no water and little food anywhere nearby, and the Muslims had immediately retaken the area the crusaders had vacated. They had placed themselves in a position from which they could only withdraw.

So the assault failed. Five days after the arrival of its armies at Damascus, the Second Crusade in the East was over–just like that. Recriminations followed, featuring accusations of Damascene bribery and betrayal on the part of Outremer’s barons and knights, including the Templars. The bitterest accusations were made by the French against the Byzantines for sabotaging the original plan, and those sores were rubbed open when Louis’ royal party, returning home by sea, was attacked by Manuel’s navy because it was sailing aboard Roger of Sicily’s ships. The king narrowly escaped capture, and the vessel carrying Queen Eleanor was briefly detained. Upon landing in Sicily, Louis and Roger mapped out a campaign against the Byzantines, but nothing came of it.7 Meanwhile, many blamed Eleanor for the expedition’s failure. Her fling at Antioch led eventually to a marital annulment.

While the reconquest of Spain did prove largely successful (see pages 170—175), crusaders on the third front against the Slavic Wends produced unimpressive results. One major siege, at Dobin, ended inconclusively with a peace treaty in which the Wends agreed to renounce idolatry. Another, at Demmin, was unsuccessful, while a third, at Stettin, was abandoned when attackers discovered that the place was already Christian.

Across Europe disappointment in the failed Second Crusade ran deep. The effect on church morale was devastating. Most judgmental were two German commentators, the anonymous “Wurzburg annalist” and one Gerhoh of Reichersberg, who said the entire enterprise had been the work of the devil and a revolt against God’s righteous punishment, inspired by “pseudo-prophets, sons of Belial and witnesses of the Anti-Christ, who by stupid words misled Christians.” On the other hand, the Cistercian bishop Otto of Freising, half-brother of Emperor Conrad, took a more dispassionate view. Attributing the outcome to the mysterious but always benevolent ways of God, he observed that nonetheless, “it was good for the salvation of many souls.”

Bernard was held most responsible and was said to be devastated by the outcome. He had simply done what the pope asked him to, he pleaded, and the failure was undoubtedly due to the impurity of the leadership. But the depth of his disappointment is difficult to discern in the highly disciplined tone of his written comments. In any case, his role in the Second Crusade did not significantly affect his reputation. He would continue to be revered for spiritual insight, and upon full reflection he wrote De Consideratione, one of the finest expositions in Christian literature of resignation to the will of God: “How can human beings be so rash as to pass judgment on something they are not in the least able to understand? … It is true the hearts of mortal men are made in this way: we forget when we need it what we know when we do not need it. . . . The promises of God never prejudice the justice of God.”

Bernard would die just four years after the forlorn return of the crusaders, mercifully spared knowledge of the later consequences of the mission that he had so fervently preached. For as the Christian armies slunk away westward, with them went the lingering myth that heavily armored crusaders in large numbers would always prove invincible. This conviction alone had helped sustain Outremer. Now the Muslim world knew that the Christians’ presence was by no means permanent. They could be driven out.

Though the fearsome Zengi had been the first to discover this, he did not live to see the failure of the Second Crusade; he was murdered during drunken slumber by a disgruntled eunuch slave. He was succeeded by his son Nur al-Din Abu al-Qasim Mahmud. Nur al-Din of Aleppo inherited his father’s militant Sunni Muslim zeal if not his vindictiveness. Accompanied by Palestinian émigré jihadist poets, who called for the reconquest of their homeland “until you see Jesus fleeing from Jerusalem,” Nur al-Din pushed into the Christian territories. But first he must suppress Damascus, which blocked his path south and whose residents feared his grip even more than they disliked the Christians. In 1154 he took the city by assault.

The Christian kingdom of Jerusalem was the next logical objective, but here he faced the formidable Angevin family, who had ambitions of their own. The youthful Baldwin III had first had to overcome the rivalry of his own mother, Melisende, who thwarted his assumption of power until, after winning civil a war with her, he banished her from the kingdom. He then married into the Byzantine royal household, and to strengthen the Christian position on the Mediterranean coast, he installed the Templars in Gaza and captured the port of Ascalon, near the Egyptian border. When Baldwin III died childless, his brother Amalric was crowned king.

Amalric invaded Egypt, where the Fatimid regime had disintegrated and the country had descended into complete anarchy. He found himself confronting not only the Egyptians but rival invaders, namely the army of Nur al-Din, which had bypassed Jerusalem and was intent on bringing heretical Fatimid Egypt into the fold of orthodox Sunni Islam. For the next five years Egypt’s two invaders fought it out inconclusively until Nur al-Din’s Egyptian commander died. He then had to appoint a new vizier, and thus appeared upon the stage of history the great pivotal figure of the Crusades. His name was Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub–known in the West as Saladin.

A nephew of the former commander, Saladin had served with unobtrusive competence as his uncle’s chief lieutenant, but at age thirty-two he was not viewed as a promising soldier. In fact, his reluctance to fight had brought upon him the contempt of many in the military, who were also unimpressed by what they saw as his scrawny physique and meek demeanor. However, his father was a Kurdish mercenary who had served as governor of Damascus, and he was known in Nur al-Din’s circle for intelligence, religious zeal, and courtly propriety. Women thought him dark, handsome, and charming, and in his youth, Saladin later confessed, he had enjoyed both them and wine with abandon.

Until, that is, he discovered the power of the Qur’an, after which he became known for ascetic simplicity, drank only water, ate mainly fruit, lived in a small house near a mosque and a library, and always slept on a simple roll-up mattress. Serious and contemplative by nature, he had been unenthusiastic about his uncle’s military mission but nonetheless had taken an active fighting role, commanding the vanguard in the successful invasion of Fatimid Cairo. Whatever his martial disinclinations, the new vizier, erect and dignified, looked very much the military leader in his coarse black woolen coat trimmed with gold thread, black fez wrapped in a white turban, and scimitar at his side, with his mounted and yellow-cloaked Mamluk bodyguards always preceding him, beating kettledrums to signal his approach.

His piety reinforced his instinct for iron discipline. When Sudanese guards were suspected of disloyalty, he massacred them. When rioters rampaged in Cairo, he hanged them. When the habitually unruly Bedouin Arabs defied him, he declared open war on them. On Nur al-Din’s orders, he changed the Egyptian state liturgy from Fatimid to Sunni, requiring prayers for the caliph in Baghdad. His was, in short, a very effective regime–altogether too effective for Nur al-Din, who, with reason, began to fear him. Twice, for instance, he had called on Saladin for military aid and none had arrived. But then, while preparing to attack him in Egypt, Nur al-Din died of a heart attack, leaving a ten-year-old heir. Turmoil soon reigned in Damascus. Saladin, while professing great admiration for the late Nur al-Din, marched north, brutally took over all Syria and Mesopotamia, and proclaimed himself sultan of a vast territory that surrounded Christian Outremer.

Outremer’s vulnerability was by now obvious in other respects. Amalric I had died two months after Nur al-Din and was succeeded by his son, Baldwin IV, thirteen years old and suffering from leprosy. The kingdom was torn by interfamily feuding. “Old-resident” Christians wrangled with newcomers, who considered their predecessors degenerately self-absorbed, given to perfumed extravagances, and hopelessly quarrelsome and corrupt. Military reinforcement from the West dwindled. Between 1148 and 1183, seven papal communiqués calling for a new crusade had produced no armies. Christian knights totaled only about twelve hundred throughout Outremer, and these were mainly Templars and Hospitallers, now bitter rivals, refusing to associate with one another and both growing rich on the boundless bequests of admirers. Throughout the feeble eleven-year reign of the disabled Baldwin IV and his two successors, battles raged over the control of the monarchy. By 1187 Guy of Lusignan, who had married into the Baldwins but was widely despised as a cowardly and self-seeking parvenu, reigned as king.

Saladin was altogether aware of these deep Christian disabilities, but in preliminary clashes he encountered unexpected resistance. Christian forces prevailed against him in a number of horrific battles, the most dramatic of them in 1177 at Montgisard, near Ascalon, when Saladin was moving in for the kill on Jerusalem. Outremer’s leper king, then sixteen, rose from his sickbed to rally his vastly outnumbered knights against the Muslim army. Saladin, overconfident and uncharacteristically undisciplined, met near disaster, barely escaping with his life thanks to a fast camel and his faithful Mamluk guard.8 So he patiently dickered with the Christians instead, making and renewing treaties with them at Jerusalem, Tripoli, and Antioch while he strengthened his position, which was not easy. It took him three more years to claim Mosul and eight to gain control of Aleppo, about two hundred miles northeast of Damascus, during which he again escaped murder by the Assassins (see sidebar, pages 76—77).

Still, his most humiliating problem, if not his most serious, was his repeated failure to take the stronghold castle of al-Kerak. From behind eighty-foot walls, it overlooked the south end of the Dead Sea on the main caravan route between northern Arabia and Cairo. Its master was a renegade Christian, Reynald of Chatillon, who was as much an irritant to the government at Jerusalem as he was to Saladin. The man’s daring defied reason. When he built five galleys in the desert, transported them 130 miles to the Red Sea, then led a series of pirate raids down the Arabian coast, this prompted a rebuke to Saladin from the Baghdad caliphate for failing to protect pilgrims.

When in violation of a truce he pillaged a treasure-laden caravan, slaughtering its guards and taking Saladin’s own sister prisoner, this brought rebukes from Jerusalem and Damascus. He sneered at both. Three times Saladin laid siege to al-Kerak but couldn’t take it. The Christians didn’t even try.

However, as Saladin moved once again against Jerusalem, he saw that Reynald could serve a purpose. Thus, in May 1187 he amassed a great army near the Sea of Galilee. Then, under the terms of a treaty with the feckless King Guy at Jerusalem, he “requested permission” from the Christians to bring seven thousand soldiers peacefully through their territory to avenge Reynald’s caravan attack. The Christian commander on the spot, the heroic Raymond of Tripoli, knew he could not possibly stop them, so he sent a warning to Jerusalem that this was no punitive mission but an all-out offensive. Hearing this, 120 Hospitallers launched what amounted to a suicide mission against the Muslim army and were wiped out. But full-scale war was now on. Withdrawing, Saladin built up his army to thirty thousand, including twelve thousand cavalry. In July he struck, surrounding the Christian fortress at Tiberias, on the west shore of the Sea of Galilee, and trapping the residents, one of them Raymond’s wife. His main force now occupied a high ridge between two pointed peaks known as the Horns of Hattin, near the Galilee shore.

Filled with mutual mistrust and barely on speaking terms, the Christians had gathered in late June at the fortress of La Safouri, a few miles east of Acre on the Mediterranean. By emptying garrisons everywhere, they had managed to assemble the largest Christian army in Outremer history, some twenty thousand soldiers, although only twelve hundred were knights. One contingent was led by the mutinous Reynald from al-Kerak, another by King Guy closely guarding the true cross, which he did not want to leave behind in defenseless Jerusalem. But what now? Should they march east and confront Saladin at Hattin? No, said Raymond, they should withdraw to the security of the coastal fortress and let Saladin besiege them rather than march fifteen miles through parched, nearly waterless valleys under a blazing sun. With thirty thousand men to feed, he contended, Saladin would soon have to withdraw; then they could attack his exiting rearguard. But Reynald argued for immediate attack, and after much vacillation Guy sided with Reynald.9

Marching out July 3, the Christian forces arrived at a well-watered campsite early in the afternoon where, again rejecting Raymond’s advice, King Guy insisted they press on. Along the bare hilltops the Muslims were now visible all around. As soon as the crusaders passed, they swept down from behind, cutting them off from any water supply. Leading the vanguard with the Hospitallers, Raymond tried to hurry the army to another site with water, but a mile from the Horns of Hattin their path was blocked by thousands of Muslim troops.

With the Christians now effectively waterless, at dusk Saladin set fire to the dry grass of the valley, filling the air with smoke. All through a sleepless night his archers shot the knights’ horses; dawn came, and still he did not attack. In the high heat of late morning, when he set a remaining field ablaze, the smoke blew westward into the valley as the desperately exhausted and thirsty Christians struggled uphill toward the Sea of Galilee. They were climbing the far side of the very slope where Jesus had preached the Sermon on the Mount. King Guy’s thirsty soldiers joined the weak assault, refusing to stay behind with him, true cross or no true cross, but none could break through the Muslim line.

Now the Muslim cavalry fell upon the rearguard Templars and pushed them back toward the center, where, ineffectually and inexplicably, King Guy had erected tents for defense. A few knights, Raymond among them, were allowed to escape, but nearly all the Christians were butchered where they stood. At the end of the day, Guy’s red tent fell as the Muslims seized the true cross along with the king himself, Reynald, and the master of the Templars. Presented to the sultan at his pavilion as the sun set, they all were treated with courtesy, but only Guy, as a fellow monarch, was spared. Saladin personally sliced off Reynald’s arm with his sword; then, in a show of contempt, he ordered slaves to cut off his head. He had Muslim scholars and holy men execute every Hospitaller and Templar (except the master of the Templars, whom he saved as a future bargaining chip). The rest of the prisoners were sold as slaves. The true cross was stuck upside down on a spear and carried to Damascus.

With the Christian army destroyed, Saladin spent the rest of the summer seizing one Christian stronghold after another. In September he laid siege to Jerusalem, which he took on October 2. Then, to the surprise of the inhabitants and the everlasting luster of his reputation, he spared all its Christian inhabitants. The disintegration of the crusader states, signaled in Edessa and accelerated by the humiliating failure of the Second Crusade, was now complete. Jerusalem was lost. The heroic legacy of the First Crusaders and the early Outremer kings was left in utter ruin. On October 29, 1187, Pope Gregory VIII issued “Audita Tremendi.” It was the eighth papal letter since 1148 to call for a crusade–and the first that would bring a response.

This is the end of the Second Crusade category article drawn from Chapter Three, beginning on page 62, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster. To continue reading more about Second Crusade from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at