The Crusades and the Two Great Muslim Generals: Imad Eddin Zangi and Nur Eddin Zangi (1095-1174)

by Dr Salah Zaimeche, BMHC

The crusades were the direct result of the state of chaos that afflicted the Muslim world throughout much of the 11th century. Muslim divisions and collapsing strength encouraged the Church to launch a three-frontal assault against Muslims in Spain and Sicily, first, and then in the East. 1 The capture of Sicily (1062-1091), most particularly, was a very encouraging sign that Muslim power was ebbing, and that Muslims could now realistically be defeated.

Christendom, however, needed both a justification for the Crusades and also an element to stir popular zeal. Therefore, as he launched the Crusades, Pope Urban II emphasised most particularly ‘Muslim crimes against the Christians.’ 2

‘This challenge to Christendom to forget its private feuds in one great effort for God and Christ,’ says Archer, ‘this skillful allusion to the glories of the old Frankish race produced an instantaneous result. As the voice of the Pope died away there went up one cry from the assembled host: “Deus Vult! Deus Vult!” (“It is the will of God! It is the will of God!”). 3

In truth, there were no Turkish atrocities and defilements of the Holy sites; and far from being in danger of extermination, the Christians enjoyed a uniquely favourable status under Muslim rule. 4 There were many reasons for the call to the Crusades, the most important of which was the Christian awareness of Muslim divisions and civil wars. 5 As Hillenbrand remarks, the timing of the Crusades could not have been more auspicious for the Europeans; had the crusaders arrived ten years earlier they would have found a better united Muslim world, now instead, it was all divided and at war with itself. 6

From all over the Western world, the crusaders descended on the Muslim world. The van of the Crusade consisted of two hundred and seventy five thousand men, accompanied by eight horses, and preceded by a goat and a goose, ‘into which someone had told them that the Holy Ghost had entered,’ says Draper. 7 The main armies followed soon after. The crusaders registered a major great victory of the city of Antioch. The city was besieged in October 1097. Phirouz, an Armenian, had acquired the favour of the emir and the command of three towers, disguising, in the words of Gibbon, his ‘foul design of perfidy and treason.’ 8 The crusaders found a ladder ready, and sixty men ascended and seized the three towers of which Phirouz had charge. 9 Soon the Crusaders were inside, breaking the gate down they let in in their comrades. 10 In the wake of the Christian victory, it is accepted that a total of ten thousand Muslims were massacred. 11 In 1098, the crusaders took Ma’arrat an’Numan. 12 There the massacre lasted three days; the Crusaders killed more than 100,000 people. 13

It was June 6, 1099, when the Crusaders arrived before Jerusalem. 14 On July 15, 1099, the crusaders, led by Godfrey de Bouillon, entered the city. 15 The population was put to the sword. The Crusaders slaughtered more than 70,000 Muslims. 16 According to an eye-witness:
‘This terrible slaughter filled all the city with dead bodies,…. “Such a slaughter of pagan folk had never been seen or heard of; none knows their number save God alone.” 17

Following their capture of Jerusalem, the Crusaders pursued their advance with the same results. In October 1101, they advanced on Saruj, captured it, and killed and enslaved all the inhabitants they found. 18 At the end of May 1102, the crusaders assisted by the Genoese, captured Qaisariya by assault, killed its population, and plundered everything in it. 19

Muslim contemporary scholars saw in the Crusade invasion and the mass slaughter of Muslims a terrible calamity upon Islam and the Muslims. 20 Instead, the Muslim reaction was piece meal. The Abbasid caliph failed altogether to render any service to the Muslim fighters. 21

The Egyptian Fatimid reaction was likewise tame and ineffective. Their only action came at Ascalon and resulted in a terrible slaughter of the Egyptian army. 22

Throughout much of the early period most of the Muslim resistance was based in the northern city of Mosul (modern Iraq). The city’s Atabegs, Mawdud, most particularly, played the leading role in such resistance. 23 Mawdud had retired to Damascus (September 19th), intending to remain there till the spring. Soon afterwards, as he entered the mosque, an Ismaili assassin sprang out and dealt him several blows. 24 The death of Mawdud deprived the Muslims of their most leading general fighting the crusaders. This was until the rise of Imad Eddin Zangi.

In the year 1127, Imad Eddin Zangi, the Atabeg of Mosul, was appointed commander of the east 25 Zangi, ‘the terrible foe of the Crusaders,’ says Muir, came to the front. 26 He was Atabeg, or Major-Domo, at one of the Seljuk Courts, and was also much occupied with the affairs of the Abbasid Caliphate at Bagdad. Succeeding to the leadership of Mosul, he entered on a campaign against Syria. Beating the Franks at every point, he seized many of their strongholds. 27 While thus pursuing a victorious course, he was called back to Baghdad, and there detained for several years getting himself embroiled in the internal squabbles of the declining Caliphate. 28 Following his retirement to Mosul, he established there his power-base. Once he asserted his power, Zangi, ‘descending like a whirlwind on Syria, ravaged the Christian territories, and with great slaughter beat the Crusading armies back.’ 29 Multitudes were slain, and many knights made prisoners. King Fulk himself was pursued and taken captive, but he was graciously allowed by Imad Eddin to go free. 30

In 1144, Zangi was strong enough to mount a major offensive on one of the main crusader strongholds: Edessa. 31 Edessa was a very strategic town whose control opened domination over much of northern territory. Imad Eddin arrived with a great force and led siege to the city. The siege lasted for weeks before, on Christmas Eve of the year 1144, a wall collapsed and the Muslims entered the city. 32 Zangi had all the Franks rounded and executed but spared the lives of the local Christians, even allowing the local Armenians, Jacobites and Greeks a certain autonomy. 33

The fall of Edessa marked a significant turning point in Muslim fortunes, and soon the whole state of Edessa was regained for Islam. However, just as the fall of Edessa was deemed a major breakthrough for Islam, it was cause of distress in Christendom. The Second Crusade was launched shortly afterwards as a direct consequence. The news of the fall of Edessa was brought by some Armenian bishops to Pope Eugenius at Viterbo. Although the pope’s letters to the French king, Louis VI I., and the nobles of France, and his renewal of the old privileges granted to Crusaders by Urban played their part in rousing the faithful to take the Cross, again. 34 The Pope again sounded his heavenly summons to the battle, and Bernard of Clairvaux, like Peter the Hermit, during the first Crusade, made Europe ring afresh with the cry, a repetition, in fact, of what happened fifty years before. 35

Before the Second Crusade arrived, Zangi’s career, just like that of his leading predecessors, was once more interrupted by assassination. He was murdered on 14th September 1146 as he lay asleep during his army’s siege to an enemy stronghold. His two murderers fled to the castle. 36

Zangi’s conquests paved the way for the future successes of Nur-Eddin and Salah Eddin. 37 Nur Eddin was to devote his life to the furtherance of his father’s policy, and in a reign of nearly thirty years (1146-1174) was to shake the whole foundation of Frankish power in the East, says Saunders. 38

The First great challenge to Nur Eddin was represented by the armies of the ‘Second Crusade,’ a vast army composed of men from different lands. The French King, Louis, and the German Emperor, Conrad, headed the vast force thus assembled, and it marched in great pomp, with noble ladies in its train. 39 However, in Asia Minor, great losses were suffered from the Turks. Hardly one-tenth survived to reach the Holy Land. Still, the local Franks were so greatly strengthened by the reinforcements that they attempted to storm Damascus. 40

For many leading crusaders, the capture of Damascus would split the Muslim world between the Muslims of Egypt and Africa and those of Syria and the East. 41 The armies, which advanced on Damascus were led by three rulers, the French King: Louis, Emperor Conrad of Germany, and the local crusader King, Baldwin. 42 Unable to meet this large force, the Muslims retreated within the city walls and allowed the crusaders to establish themselves in the orchards, and began to besiege the city. 43 Nur Eddin had kept sending reinforcements into the city through the north, and the defenders were, thus, able to organise sorties, which claimed innumerable lives amongst the besiegers. 44 As the crusaders ranks dwindled fast, retreated was soon sounded. The retreat, however, soon turned into rout as Turkish horsemen inflicted terrible losses on the fleeing men. The stench of the dead polluted the plains for many months after according to chroniclers. 45

Nur ad-Din Zangi's tomb in Damascus, Syria

Nur ad-Din Zangi’s tomb in Damascus, Syria

The Muslims now had a new spirit: jihad, and for their part, had now a great leader, under whom they could unite: Nur Eddin Zangi.
‘In the Sultan of Aleppo (Nur Eddin Zangi), as in the general (Shirquh), who had risen through his favour,’ Cox notes, ‘we have a man to whom the chronicles of the time and of later ages delighted to ascribe the magnanimity and simplicity of Omar.’ 46

Nur-Eddin gradually united the once shattered Muslim world, added the kingdom of Damascus to that of Aleppo, and waged a long and successful war against the Crusaders, spreading his rule from the Tigris to the Nile, and forcing the crusaders ‘to own the wisdom and courage, and even the justice and piety, of this implacable adversary,’ says Gibbon. 47 Nur Eddin was an exceptional military leader, too, always leading from the front. He maintained constant pressure of the crusaders allowing them little opportunity to coalesce against him. Following his success at Damascus, in 1148, he followed by many other victories. 48 Nur Eddin had under his command the able and loyal Kurdish general, Shirquh, and his nephew Salah Eddin, a united leadership, ever animated by the chief desire `to rid the land of the infidels.’ 49 This began with the return of Egypt to the anti Crusader fold.

In the state of decay the Fatimid dynasty of Egypt, had fallen, Nur Eddin and the Crusader King, Amalric, competed over it. 50 The Fatimid Caliph’s Viziers sought aid each against the other from both Nur Eddin and Amalric. At last a friendly treaty was concluded with both, which Amalric was the first to break, ravaging the country and pressed the caliph to pay him large amount of money for protection. 51 The desperate Caliph appealed to Nur Eddin, sending locks of his ladies’ hair in token of extremity. 52 Nur Eddin gladly despatched his general Shirquh to the rescue, before he was betrayed by the Fatimids. At one point, Crusaders and Fatimids signed a pact, which put Egypt directly under Crusader protectorate for the first time in the history of the crusades. 53 The crusader-Fatimid coalition managed to force Shirquh out of Egypt on two occasions, before, in January 1169 he attacked the crusaders with devastating consequences, forcing them to retreat, and making a triumphal entry in Cairo. 54

In 1171 the Fatimid Caliph died. 55 Now, the religious schism between the Sunnite and Shi’ite caliphs, which had materially aided the Christians in their earlier conquests, was ended, and Christendom was now confronted with a technically united Islam. 56 Following the death of Shirquh, his nephew, Salah Eddin became governor of Egypt, representing Nur Eddin. Nur-Eddin himself was soon to die, at last having unified for the first time in centuries a wide stretch of Muslim territory from Egypt to Damascus, bringing large Muslim populations together in the fight to repulse the Franks. Now such lands were united under another great leader: Salah Eddin.

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Nur ad-Din Zangi’s tomb in Damascus, Syria. Source.


  1. Al-Sulami: Un traite Damasquin du debut du XIIem siecle, ed E. Sivan, Journal Asiatique, 1966, p. 207.
  2. In A. C. Krey, The First Crusade: The Accounts of Eyewitnesses and Participants, Princeton University Press; 1921; pp 33-36.
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  6. C. Hillenbrand: The Crusades, Islamic Perspectives, Edinburgh University Press; 1999; p.31.
  7. J.W. Draper: A History of the Intellectual Development of Europe; George Bell and Sons, London, 1875; vol ii; pp. 22-3.
  8. E. Gibbon: The Decline and Fall; of the Roman Empire; op cit; Vol 6; p. 301.
  9. T.A. Archer: The Crusades; op cit; 70.
  10. Ibid; p. 71.
  11. C.R. Conder: The Latin Kingdom; op cit; p. 47.
  12. Ibn al-Athir: Kamil; x; op cit; p. 190.
  13. Ibid; p. 190.
  14. T.A. Archer: The Crusades; op cit; p. 84.
  15. B. Z. Kedar: The Subjected Muslims of the Frankish Levant, in Muslims under Latin Rule, 1100-1300, ed J.M. Powell, Princeton University Press, 1990; pp 135-74; at p.143.
    On the dumping of corpses, see e.g., Gesta Francorum et aliorum Hierosolimitanorum, ed. K. Mynors, trans. R.Hill; London, 1962; p.92.
  16. Ibn al-Athir: Kamil; X, pp.193-95 in F. Gabrieli: Arab Historians of the Crusades; London; Routledge; 1957; p.11.
  17. T.A. Archer: The Crusades; op cit; p. 92.
  18. Ibn al-Qalanisi: The Damascus Chronicle of Ibn al-Qalanisi, extracted and tr. by H.A. R. Gibb; London, Luzac and Co, Ltd, 1932, p. 49.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibn Al-Qalanisi: Dayl tarikh Dimashq, Damascus, 1983, p.218.
  21. C. Hillenbrand: The Crusades, op cit; p.42.
  22. T.A. Archer: The Crusades; op cit; 96.
  23. S. Runciman: A History of the Crusades; Cambridge University Press, 1962; vol ii; p. 115.
  24. S. Runciman: A History; vol ii; op cit; p. 127. T. Archer; p. 150.
  25. T.A. Archer: The Crusades; op cit; 197.
  26. W. Muir: The Mamluke or Slave Dynasty of Egypt; 1260-1517; London; Smith, Elder & Co; London; 1896; Introduction; p. xix.
  27. Ibid.
  28.  Ibid; p. xx.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Ibid.
  31. S. Runciman: A History; op cit; p.235.
  32. Ibid; p. 236.
  33. Ibid; p. 236-7.
  34. R. Payne: The Crusades; Wordsworth Editions; 1986; p. 156.
  35. W. Muir: The Mamluke or Slave Dynasty of Egypt; op cit; p. xxi.
  36. The First and second crusades from an Anonymous Syriac chronicle: tr. by A.S. Tritton and notes by A.H. R. Gibb: JRAS: Part two: April. Pp. 273-305; 291.
  37. H.M.J. Loewe: The Seljuqs; in The Cambridge Medieval History, Vol IV; Edited by J. R. Tanner, C. W. Previte; Z.N. Brooke, 1923; pp 299-317; at p.317.
  38. J. J. Saunders: A History of Medieval Islam; Routledge; London; 1965; p. 162.
  39. W. Muir: The Mamluke; op cit; p. xxi.
  40. Ibid.
  41. N. Elisseeff: Nur Ad Din, op cit, p. 417.
  42. R. Burns: Damascus, A History; op cit; p. 153.
  43. Ibn Al-Qalanisi: Dayl Tarikh Dimashq, Damascus, 1983.
  44. S. Runciman: A History; op cit; p. 282.
  45. Ibid; p. 284.
  46. G.W. Cox: The Crusades; Longmans; London; 1874; p.100.
  47. E. Gibbon: The Decline and Fall; op cit; Vol 6; p. 336.
  48. Abu Shama: Kitab al-Rawdatayn; ed. M.H. M. Ahmad; 2 vols; Cairo; 1954; p. 55.
  49. J.H. Lamonte: Crusade and Jihad: in N.A. Faris ed: The Arab Heritage, Princeton University Press, 1944; pp 159-98; p.171.
  50. William of Tyre: A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea; 2 Vols; tr and ed by E. Babcock and A.C. Krey; New York; Columbia University Press; 1943; repr 1976; xix, ii; pp. 901-2 and others.
  51. W. Muir: The Mamluke; op cit; p. xxii.
  52. Ibid.
  53. A.S. Atiya: Crusade, Commerce and Culture; Oxford University Press; London; 1962; p. 74.
  54. W.B. Stevenson: The Crusades in the East; Cambridge University Press; 1907; p. 194.
  55. J.H. Lamonte: Crusade and Jihad: op cit; pp 159-98; at p. 176.
  56. Ibid.