How exactly Saladin rose from obscurity to near-immortality — and why his name remains so potent today — is the subject of Jonathan Phillips’s superb, highly readable and definitive biography...
He has the rare gift of writing scholarly history for a popular audience, and he is in fine form here, weaving together evidence from Arabic and Latin chroniclers, archaeological digs and medieval poets with modern sources including Middle Eastern theatre, cinema and propaganda. Phillips’s narrative of Saladin’s career is vivid and judicious, punctuated by set pieces that charge along like battle scenes from Game of Thrones.
This excellent book explores both the man — who famously defeated the crusaders at the battle of Hattin and took back Jerusalem in 1187 — and the myth. Phillips, a professional historian who specialises in the history of the crusades, first takes us deep into the Near East of the 11th and 12th centuries, a world of such spectacular fragmentation, complexity and dynamism that it makes the region’s current tumult seem tame by comparison. It was this environment that Saladin had to navigate. As Phillips shows, religious solidarity often counted for little, or actively promoted intra-faith violence.
Jonathan Phillips’s new book is more than just a biography. Nevertheless, its basic task is to clear away the myths by looking at Saladin’s life through the lens of modern historical scholarship. And, as so often happens, the truth – so far as we can see it – turns out to be much more intriguing. This book paints a rich, absorbing picture of the 12th-century Middle East, an ethnic-linguistic kaleidoscope where many cultural and religious assumptions were very different from our own, but politics was… well, politics... One major lesson of this book is that the facts about the distant past are much, much more interesting than the opportunistic uses made of them by anyone in the present.
The book is, first, a conventional biography, superbly researched and enormously entertaining. That by itself would make this one of the outstanding books of the year. But Phillips, professor of crusading history at Royal Holloway, University of London, also addresses that enduring adoration of Saladin by offering an analysis of cultural memory. The topic of memory is popular among historians at present, but their treatment of it is often so laden with arcane jargon and theory that it becomes incomprehensible. Phillips, in contrast, is clear, concise and illuminating, shedding light on animosities in the Middle East today.
Finally, a look at the book’s copious endnotes is instructive. These include references to a number of books and articles published in 2018. Contemplating the endnotes, I marvel that one scholar can have read so much. Then again, I marvel that so much has been written about Saladin and the Crusades for one scholar to read.