Imad-ed-din Zangi

The council at Jerusalem decides to attack Damascus. After the First Crusade in 1096 AD set up Christian kingdoms all along the coast of Israel and Lebanon, of course the Fatimid caliphs who had ruled that area before were very upset. By 1144, a Mamluk general, Imad-ed-din Zangi, had managed to unite enough Turks and Arabs in his army to attack the Christian kingdoms. Zangi did not take Jerusalem, but he did take the Syrian city of Edessa nearby.

In Europe, people were very upset to learn that the Turks had taken Edessa. The Pope ordered Bernard of Clairvaux (in France) to preach a second crusade to take it back and defeat Zangi. The young king of France, Louis VII, agreed to go, along with the queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. So did Conrad III of Germany, the Holy Roman Emperor. At this time Louis was 23 years old and Eleanor was 22. Conrad was 51 years old.

From beginning to end, though, this crusade was not successful. Most of Conrad’s soldiers were killed as they marched through Turkey. When Louis and Conrad reached Jerusalem, they decided to attack Damascus, which would have made up for the loss of Edessa. But their attack on Damascus failed, and the kings and queens went home in disgust.

The Turkish atabeg (Prince Father) Imad al-Din Zangi became ruler of Aleppo and Mosul in 1128 following the murder of his predecessor by the Assassin sect. Zangi was in all respects a remarkable leader. He was a gifted soldier, not unusual for Turkish princes of the day, but also a gifted politician. He kept his troops and their commanders under a severe discipline, and in the field, lived under the same conditions. Zangi led his troops from the front, in the tradition of the Turkish warrior caste. He was among the first Turkish rulers in Syria to attempt real government—his predecessors had been mere warlords who treated their Syrian lands to looting and rapine.

Zangi ruled in the midst of internecine Muslim warfare. His early years saw a series of confusing and vicious struggles as he sought to consolidate power in Syria. He dared not challenge the Christians at this time, but so remarkable was his character, that in 1130, Alix, the daughter of Bohemund II, king of Jerusalem, offered him an alliance against her own father! This he declined, as it would have made an impossible alliance for him, and he had too many concerns in his own lands.

During a Seljuq quarrel for the succession of the throne in 1133, Zangi marched on Baghdad. Ambushed en route, he was assisted by an enemy— a Kurdish officer named Ayyub. In years to come, Zangi would remember this noble gesture and help Ayyub’s son to his first position of authority. This man would become the scourge of the crusader kingdoms—Saladin. In 1135, Zangi was nearly made ruler of Damascus, the principal city of Syria, but intrigues continued to hold him back. In 1137, he marched on Homs in central Syria, intending to take it as a steppingstone to Damascus. Caliph Unar, who ruled the city, craftily called upon the Knights Templar to aid him in his defense and then, as the Christian army approached, offered to assist Zangi in the destruction of the infidels. This Zangi did. In June 1137, the Templar army was trapped in the fortress of Barin by Zangi’s forces and forced to surrender. After the battle, however, Unar renounced his allegiance and Zangi besieged Homs, which he could not take because a combined crusader-Byzantine army was besieging his city of Shayzar. Fearing the loss of this vital city, he withdrew his army and broke the siege.

This Byzantine-crusader alliance could have been serious to the Muslim-dominated Middle East. It was, in fact, the only time that the crusaders acted as the pawns of the old empire, and had the Frankish vitality been combined with the empire’s organization, the results for Syria could have been fatal. Zangi responded with propaganda to tear the two allies apart—warning the Byzantines of the huge army that he was gathering and warning the Franks of Byzantine designs against their own newly conquered lands. He swept the enemy away, more with guile than arms, but this victory made him the preeminent man of Syria. In May 1138, he was offered a wedding alliance to princess Zumurrud of Damascus and received Homs as her dowry. It was supposed that her son Mahmud would then turn Damascus over to his new father-in-law. However, despite the agreement, Mahmud refused to turn the city over to Zangi. In July 1139 Mahmud was murdered, but before Zangi could take control of the city, the old Caliph Unar—Zangi’s ally and enemy at Homs—seized control and began plotting a new alliance with the crusaders. Thus Zangi was stalled again, more by the clever old Caliph Unar, a master of the political game, than by the crusaders.

Unable to cement his control of Syria, Zangi turned his attention north and in 1144 retook the kingdom of Edessa, the first of the crusader states to be captured and the first to fall. It was also Zangi’s last great achievement, for a servant murdered him in 1146. His kingdom fell apart, and his son Nur-al-Din was left with only Aleppo.

Zangi’s life was not dedicated to the destruction of the crusaders, but to the acquisition of personal power. At his death, his realms dissolved into the hands of various strongmen, and his son was left with a sliver of his father’s power. But Nur-al-Din, a man very different from his father, would decisively change the balance of power in the Middle East. An austere man, more at home in the library than on the battlefield, the new ruler of Aleppo would fight the Franks with his own wisdom, and others’ swords.

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