Wednesday, May 18, 2005
Kingdom of Heaven
Graphic from Outremer
Finally got to see Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven. I wasnt going to, but curiosity got the better of me. Mainly, I was curious about what licences Hollywood was prepared to take in tackling the story of the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin. It turns out Hollywood took a lot, but on the whole, it was compelling story if you are at all interested in what probably was the first instance of large scale Holy War in the last millennium. And I use the term 'holy' rather loosely.
Balian of Ibelin, the hero of the movie played by Orlando Bloom, led the defense of Jerusalem. The movie got that part right. But the real Balian was not a blacksmith from Europe. His family was already there in Palestine and have been there since the First Crusade. He was part of the Old Guard of knights, and was on the whole an honorable man who took his faith and his vows of knighthood seriously. After Saladin conquered Raymond of Tripoli's city of Tiberias (Raymond was played by the always-competent Jeremy Irons in the movie), Reginald of Chatillon urged that the Christian armies march to try to take it back. Balian and Raymond urged restraint even though the latter's wife was trapped in the besieged city. Balian and Raymond wanted to wait for more favorable conditions since Saladin controlled the sources of water near Tiberias. But the hawks in the council headed by Reginald ridiculed them as cowards. In the end, Guy of Lusignan, nominal king of Jerusalem, was swayed to march to Tiberias with disastrous results. As the Latin army marched from their last water source, Saladin's army moved in behind them to cut off their access to water. It was no contest after that. The Latins fell in the Battle of Hattin. King Guy was taken prisoner along with Reginald of Chatillon. Balian, by some miracle, was able to escape to Tyre with a handful of knights.
Later Saladin's army surrounded Jerusalem. Balian's wife and kids were trapped in the city and he asked Saladin for permission to get them. Saladin gave his permission on the condition that he leave the same day. But when Balian got there, the people of Jerusalem begged him to lead the defense of the city. Balian asked Saladin to release him from his oath. Again Saladin agreed and even saw to it that Balian got his family our of the city first. And the battle for Jerusalem was on.
In the movie, Saladin was portrayed as a wise, compassionate, and noble leader. Some Christian fundamentalist groups criticized the movie for this portrayal of Saladin, saying he wasnt such a nice guy, mentioning his threats to kill every Christian in Jerusalem. But there is a compelling reason for portraying Saladin as a nice guy. That's because he really was a nice guy. Of course he could be ruthless when needed, but on the whole he was compassionate toward his enemies to the point that even his advisers criticized him.
His threats to kill every Christian, judging by his actions after he took the city, were mere bluff to get a more favorable position during the negotiations for the terms of surrender. But Balian trumped him. Balian said that they would kill their Muslim prisoners and they would destroy the Dome of the Rock, one of the holiest shrines in Islam, where the prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven. Balian said something like, "You wouldnt want to be the general under whose command such a thing as this happened, now, would you?" So the terms were set. The citizens of Jerusalem could walk out of the city unharmed if they could pay a ransom. No problem for the rich people, but what about the poor? Balian ransomed several thousand out of his own pocket, and Saladin, well, he set people free just because. Any reason he could think of, with no ransom being paid. Of course some citizens remained and became slaves, but they fared much better than the Jews and Muslims who were in the city during Godefroi de Bouillon's First Crusade. In some accounts, the streets of Jerusalem were ankle deep in Muslim blood. The Jews were slaughtered in the synagogues where they sought refuge. In the movie, Saladin said, "I am not those men [the first crusaders]." He certainly wasnt.
Later, his advisors were urging him to destroy the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Latins' holiest church, but Saladin refused. He allowed the Christians to continue visiting the Church. He also invited the Jews to return to the city. During a battle in the Third Crusade, he saw Richard Coeur de Lion, King of England fighting valiantly on foot after he lost his horse. Saladin dispatched one of his trusted lieutenants to deliver a horse to Richard as a gift with the message, "Kings shouldnt fight on foot."
In the movie, Richard was travelling overland on his way to Jerusalem. He didnt. He and his armies got there by ship together with the French forces headed by his one-time boyfriend (ahaa-a-aaay) Philip Augustus, King of France. It was the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa who travelled by land with his 100,000+ Germans. And it was the German army that caused Saladin much concern early on. He knew Frederick was a formidable leader. But as luck would have it, Frederick died in an accident when he fell into a river with all his heavy armor on. He drowned. Leaderless, his army disintegrated. Only 5000 were able to make it to the Holy Land. To the Muslims, it was Allah who smote the German army. If Frederick hadnt died they wouldve lamented "Syria and Egypt once belonged to Islam," as one Muslim chronicler wrote.
The lesson of Saladin is probably lost on those so-called warriors of today who target civilians. A deeply religious man who meditated on the Quran before his major decisions, he would have frowned on such acts of cowardice. And the most convincing endorsement for Saladin's compassion is the fact that he won. He was able to take on the best armies of the West and triumphed. Try telling that to those 'freedom fighters' in Iraq who are working to get the Americans out... by killing Iraqis.