NFB’s Decisive Battles Of The World: Hattin

The Crusading period is one my favourite parts of history. What follows is its most important moment.

Name: The Battle of Hattin (sometimes known as the Battle of Hittin or Battle of the Horns of Hattin).
The War: The Crusader-Ayyubid War, part of the Crusades (between the Second and Third).
When: 4 July 1187
Where: Near the village of Hattin, outside Tiberius to the west of the Sea of Galilee, modern day Israel.
Type: Land
Forces/Commanders: Circa 20’000 troops of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Principality of Antioch and numerous Knightly Orders under King Guy of Lusignan and Raymond III of Tripoli against circa 20 to 30’000 troops of the Ayyubid Dynasty under Sultan Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūbi, better known as Saladin.


“Ah Lord God…the war is over; we are dead men; the Kingdom is finished.”
-Raymond III, Count of Tripoli

“Be quiet! We have not beaten them until that tent [Guy’s] falls.” As he was speaking to me, the tent fell. The sultan dismounted, prostrated himself in thanks to God Almighty and wept for joy.”
-Al-Afdal, Saladin’s eldest son, on the end of the battle.

…the field army of Frankish Palestine was crushed…Saladin’s victory over the forces of Latin Christendom had been absolute…the door stood open to further Muslim success”.
-Thomas Asbridge, The Crusades.

What Happened:

Jerusalem had fallen to the Christian warriors of the First Crusade in 1099. The Crusader Kingdoms, centred around the Kingdom of Jerusalem, had been founde, establishing a Christian presence in the Holy Land while various Muslim factions existed around them.

For over 80 years, the conflict had continued, both sides winning victories, both sides fighting amongst themselves on occasion. Outremer (“Across the sea”), the name given to the Christian territories by Europe, was seen by many in that continent as a beacon of holiness, one beset by heathen and heretical forces, one whose existence and continued expansion was guaranteed by God.

But Outremer was weak, surviving as long as it did through diplomatic wrangling, divided enemies and sheer luck. The royal line’s of the Crusader Kingdoms were hard pressed, with Baldwin IV of Jerusalem, despite winning a momentous victory over the Ayyubids in 1177, being stricken with leprosy, dying young and throwing his Kingdom into crisis.

The Muslim forces around the Crusaders had been united in 1171 by a figure known popularly in the west as Saladin, the leader of the Ayyubid dynasty and Sultan of Egypt. In over a decade of conquests and diplomatic manoeuvring he had gained control of a territory that surrounded the Crusader Kingdoms but during the 1180s he was honouring an uneasy and frequently breached truce with the Jerusalem Kingdom. The Sultan was not hiding his desire to reclaim the city for Islam however, and conflict between Jerusalem and the Ayyubids was never really off the table.

The King of Jerusalem, through marriage to the sister of Baldwin IV and mother of the deceased child King Baldwin V, was Guy of Lusignan, a French noble who had risen rapidly through the ranks of the Jerusalem court. That court, like many in Europe was divided into factions: a “court” faction of the King and his wife and a “noble” faction of Raymond III, Count of Tripoli, the former regent of Baldwin V. The two factions nearly caused civil war in the Kingdom following Guy’s ascension to the throne and it was only the clever manoeuvring of people like Balian of Ibelin, a Raymond supporter, that prevented it. Raymond held the fortress of Tiberius, Guy held Jerusalem.

One of Guy’s strongest supporters was a Second Crusade veteran named Raynald De Chattelon. Reynauld was infamous for attacking Muslim trade caravans passing in the immediate area, violating the truce and had even threatened to lead an assault on Mecca. By 1187, Saladin had had enough, and prepared to attack the Kingdom of Jerusalem, levying a massive army of 30’000 troops from across his territory.

Raymond had brokered his own separate truce with Saladin, allowing the Ayyubids to march their forces north through his lands. A section of these forces, under the command of Saladin’s son Al-Afdal, defeated an embassy of Guy’s in a small-scale battle at Cresson in early May. The embassy had been on its way to Tripoli to try to arrange peace between the two court factions, and its defeat left Raymond wracked with guilt. He and Guy were reconciled and met in Acre to combine their respective forces into one army, with which to face Saladin.

That army consisted of an unknown force of infantry, various estimates putting it somewhere between 10 and 15’000, over a thousand mounted Knights, a larger force of lighter cavalry and an array of Italian crossbowmen. The army included members of the largest Knightly Orders, the Templars, the Hospitallers and the Order of St Lazarus.  Travelling with the army was also the Kingdoms famous holy relic, the True Cross, a small fragment of wood embedded in a larger golden cross, allegedly from the cross on which Christ died. Carried by the Bishop of Acre, the Cross was a potent symbol of Christianity, and a major morale boost for the army. This army began its march north to face the Ayyubid force, stopping to encamp at the springs of Saffuriya.

In early July Saladin’s force, consisting of somewhere between 20 and 30’000 infantry and cavalry split into two forces (exact numbers do not exist, all that is known is that Saladin had a larger army): the main one camped at the village of Kafr Sabt and a breakaway force under Saladin’s direct command began a siege of Tiberius, roughly four miles away. Saladin’s aim was to lure Guy’s army away from his water sources and engage him on the Sultan’s terms.

The outer walls of Tiberius were undermined quickly with the outer fortress stormed on the same day the siege began. Most of Tiberius’ defenders were with the main army, as was the case in nearly all of Jerusalem’s stongholds. The main citadel within the fortress held out, with Raymond’s wife inside, but the attack on Tiberius was just the bait.

At a war council held on the same day that Tiberius’ outer defences were breached, Guy made his decision. Raymond argued that the Crusader army should stay put, willing to let his fortress fall for the sake of the Kingdom. His argument was simple: Saladin wanted Guy to move away from water, which would be a disaster. By waiting in the defences of Saffuriya, the Kingdom could nullify Saladin’s numbers and bide their time until the large Muslim army split apart. 

Members of the court faction, Raynald chief among them, called Raymond a coward, with the religious fervour of the period leading some to assume that a Crusading army with the True Cross could not be defeated. They argued that Guy could not accept the inevitable shame that would come with inaction and that the Ayyubid army had to be faced down (as it had at Kerak, eventually, four years previously).

Guy was in a difficult position, having to defend his Kingdom from outside assault despite inferior numbers, and preventing internal politics from ruining his chances. Four years previously he had displayed a degree of hesitance when ordered to face Saladin’s forces around Kerak , a hesitance which had nearly been disastrous and had resulted in much loss of his reputation (though subsequent analysis shows that Guy had done an acceptable, but unspectacular, job during that specific campaign).

Advised by his favourites to ignore Raymond’s warnings and unwilling to risk a fatal hesitation again, Guy ordered the army to move out towards Tiberius. His overall plan appeared to be to head first to a spring near a small village called Turan, six miles distant, before travelling to Tiberius, a further nine miles. The Sea of Galilee (also known as Lake Tiberius), next to Tiberius, appears to have been the final destination of the Crusader army in terms of water.

The first part of the planned march went fine, the Crusader Army reaching the spring at Turan by noon on July 3rd. Guy led the main force of the army, with Raymond in command of the vanguard and Balian and the Knightly Orders in the rear. The army faced constant harassments from small mobile groups of Muslim cavalry, which provided a scouting and reconnaissance role as well as a direct military one.

The slow pace of the army was not unusual, in fact it was standard. The combination of the heat with the heavy armour of most of the army meant for a slow pace, with most Crusading armies of the time unable to go more than 10 miles a day maximum.

Having reached Turan, most expected that Guy would pitch camp and advance the rest of the way to Tiberius the following day, with no water sources in-between the two points.

For reasons that have never really been made clear, Guy choose to continue his march that day, striking out for the Sea of Galilee immediately.  Seeing what his opponent was doing, Saladin moved his forces into position. Sending his lighter troops out in two flanks, he moved behind the Crusader force and took Turan. The Crusaders were now cut off from their previous water supply, with the Ayyubid skirmishers again nipping at their heels.

Saladin continued to bide his time, making sure to have every possible advantage before he struck. By now the scale of what was occurring was clear to the Christians. Trapped on an even plateau, mountains to the north blocking their path and enemy everywhere else, Guy choose to pitch camp, nowhere near water. His army waited through the night of July 3rd, thirsty and desperate. The Muslims sensed victory, shrieking their battle cries through the night.

Even as dawn came, Saladin did not attack, instead allowing the Christians to continue their now pitiful march towards Tiberius, waiting for the height of the midday sun to increase their torment even further. He ordered nearby scrubland to be set alight, the winds carrying the smoke into the tormented Crusader lines.

Parts of the Jerusalem army began to break, surrendering without a fight. Saladin finally began to engage the enemy, with bowmen that had been placed all around the Crusaders. With a huge supply of arrows having been previously prepared, Guy’s army were soon hard-pressed by the deadly barrage, a barrage they were incapable of returning in kind. Saladin ordered his cavalier cavalry to keep what mounted men the Crusaders had left busy, while he readied the main attack.

The army’s formation started to break apart under the strain. Raymond, desperately, formed up his own forces and knights and attempted an attack. The Muslims he faced offered limited resistance, choosing to part and allow his minimal part of the entire force to break out. Having done so, Raymond, along with Balian and his knights, choose to ride off, leaving Guy to his fate.

The departure of Raymond should have been the final blow to Crusader morale, and it did cause many to despair and surrender, but it actually steeled the resolve of others, especially the forces around Guy himself. What infantry that was willing formed up and attacked seeking to break out towards the Sea of Galilee. Their weak attack was thrown back with heavy losses. Most of the Christian cavalry was now dead, forcing the Knights to fight on foot. Saladin’s massive army now moved in for the kill, forcing Guy to retreat north. Saladin may have been further boosted by defecting knights telling him of the situation inside the Jerusalem camp, but this is disputed by sources.

North lay two areas of higher ground, dubbed the “Horns of Hattin” after a small village on their north face. The two hills were, and remain, the remnants of an extinct volcano with some believing that they are the site of the Sermon on the Mount. Contemporary depictions of the battle paint the points as much higher than they are today. At any rate, they were considered large enough to form an effective defensive position by the Crusaders, with what little time remained to them. With the remains of an Iron Age fort helping them and the True Cross as a rallying point, Guy pitched his tent and played the last card left to him.

Seeing the position that Saladin himself was holding within his army, Guy and the knights that were left with him charged towards it, seeking to kill the Sultan, the only thing that could turn the tide of the battle.

The record is unclear, whether two or three charges were attempted. Either way, the Crusaders got dangerously close to their goal, hacking through the Muslin lines. But, the attacks did falter, and Guy’s forces suffered heavily as they retreated both times.

The last time, the Ayyubids pursued in force and attacked the Christian position on the hill. After a last bitter struggle, Guy, his major supporters and the True Cross were captured and the Crusader army was defeated, most of it killed. Saladin had won his great victory.

Why It’s Decisive – Effect On That War

It ended it, or at least that part of it. Saladin executed Raynald himself in the aftermath, and had Guy imprisoned. Those of the Knightly Orders who had survived were all butchered. Most of the other prisoners were sold as slaves, dramatically reducing the price of that commodity, due to the sheer number of them.

The destruction of the Crusader army left the Kingdom undefended and Saladin took full advantage, taking Acre, Nablus, Jaffa, Tiron, Sidon, Beirut and Ascolon all in quick succession, before turning his attention on Jerusalem itself. Led by Balian, the Christians defended the city long enough to get merciful terms and prevent a massacre on the same level as the 1099 taking of the city. In less then then three months, Saladin had destroyed the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

The Kingdom was apparently dead, but the loss of Jerusalem spurred Europe into action. The Third Crusade was soon called, the “clash of champions” as the great Kings of Europe took sail to liberate the Holy Land again, chief among them Richard the Lionheart. Guy, set free by a scornful Saladin, took part, besieging Acre with a pitiful amount of men, a suicide mission, until the new Crusaders arrived to assist. The war was bloody, with two aborted marches on the Holy City, and ended with an uneasy truce, the Kingdom of Jerusalem restored on a narrow strip of land on the coast, but the city itself still in Muslim hands. Guy became King of Cyprus until his death, Raymond dying of disease the same year as the battle. Saladin lived only another few years, one of the greatest Muslim rulers in history. The Kingdom of Jerusalem lasted another 104 years, before falling to the Mamluks, the end of the Crusades.

Tactical/Technological Innovations

Hattin is a lesson on hubris. Guy, unable to turn back, unable to let part of his Kingdom go in order to save the rest, unable to face possible shame as he had before, blundered into successive disasters, until his army no longer had any hope of victory.

Beyond that, the two armies contrast in a huge way. The Ayyubids were united, well-formed, prepared, patient. Jerusalem’s army was divided, undisciplined, ill-ready and reckless. Guy failed to recognise the importance of logistics and resources, bizarrely. It seems inconceivable that any commander could ignore the importance of water in such an environment, but that is what happened.

Even before all that, simply assembling the army and leaving most of the kingdom undefended was a disastrous mistake. It would have been wiser to defend their walled positions. It is likely they would have lost some, but Saladin could not have kept his army in the field long enough to threaten the entire Kingdom, or its capital.

Saladin was the master in holding back until the right moment, not committing his main force until victory was all but assured. But he was also a master of psychological warfare, understanding the importance of demoralising the Crusaders before the final attack, of forcing them to despair and abandon hope of victory.

Macro-Historical Importance

Immense. The Crusaders had reached their high water mark before the battle, and would never recover. The spirit that had engulfed Europe over the previous century continued, but it would never be able to make as much of an impact as it had. The story of Outremer after Hattin would be one of decreasing land and disastrous expeditions.

Saladin’s victory insured that Islam would remain dominant in the Middle-East and the Holy Land. The Ayyubid dynasty would not last, but its Mamluk and Ottoman successors would maintain control until well into the 20th century.

If the defeat had been reversed, either through direct battle or a denial of battle, it is difficult to imagine what would have happened. The Kingdom would have survived longer certainly, and no Third Crusade would have occurred, at least not at that time. Saladin remained powerful but he was not invincible: his predecessors had a tendency to not die naturally. Moreover, failure to capture Jerusalem, and a third defeat at the hands of the Christians, may have finished him.

The Crusaders would have been exultant, a miracle achieved. Guy’s rule would have been secured and Outremer at his feet. Muslim dominance of the Middle-East would have been challenged. The Mongols were soon to be on the horizon: who knows if the Crusaders would have been able to gain the victory that the Muslims did at Ain Jalut?

In National Consciousness

The Horns of Hattin and the area around them are today a national park of Israel. The remains of a victory monument, built by Saladin some time after the battle, are still visible.

The actual battle gets little recognition on a national scale, but the figures involved certainly do. Saladin is an icon of the Muslim world, perhaps the most famous Muslim to have ever lived. Guy is both a symbol of Crusading incompetence, but also of bravery, due in no small part to his role in the early stages of the Third Crusade.

Pictures of the battle are all in the typical style of the time, depicting ranks of massed men, perfectly in formation, not reflecting the reality as told by those who were there.

The True Cross vanishes from history after the battle, its recapture a long held dream of subsequent Crusades.

Within the Church, the battle is remembered as a gigantic disaster, one that, according to popular legend anyway, killed the then Pope, Urban III, when he first heard about it. Conversely, the battle is seen as a major victory for Islam, one of the big steps towards their conquest, or rather re-conquest, of the Holy Land.

The battle is a focal point of the 2005 epic Kingdom of Heaven. In the movie, the main character (a heavily fictionalised Balian of Ibelin, mixed with Raymond, played by Orlando Bloom) criticises Guy’s (Martin Csorkas) plan to march out, leave water and face Saladin. Balian chooses to stay behind, while Guy and his army blunders into disaster. The battle itself is not shown, only its bloody and corpse-strewn aftermath. The Guy of the film is shown as a power-hungry idiot, so obsessed with pursuit of glory that he walks into a trap set by the much more cultured and intelligent Saladin.

The battle has its place in literature, usually through the eyes of the Crusaders, always as a momentous and horrific defeat.

Hattin is one of the most important moments in the military, political and religious history of the Middle-East.

For more of NFBs Decisive Battles, check out the index here.

This entry was posted in History, Middle East, NFBs Decisive Battles Of The World, Religion, War and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to NFB’s Decisive Battles Of The World: Hattin

  1. Pingback: NFBs Decisive Battles Of The World: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Gerald says:

    Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

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