About Jurji Zaidan

Introductory Summary

The Conquest of Andalusia | The Battle of Poitiers | The Caliph's Sister

The Caliph's Heirs | Saladin and the Assassins

About the Novel | The Historical Context | The Translator | Study Guide

The Historical Context

Saladin and the Assassins is a historical and romantic novel set at the time of the famous Salah al Din al Ayyubi simply known in the west as Saladin, the great religious reformer of Kurdish origin, mythical leader and legendary unifier of an Islamic world in disarray by political and social contradictions at the beginning of the twelfth century. Enemies are lurking everywhere and the crusaders are solidly implanted in the region having taken possession of the tomb of  Jesus Christ in 1099 AD (492 AH).  

The events of the novel unfold in the closing years of the reign of al-‘Adid, the last of the Fatimid caliphs in Egypt and the first years after Saladin's assumption of power. He officially assumes power in Egypt after the death of the last Fatimid Caliph, al-Adid thus bringing to an end the Fatimid Shi‘ite dynasty and restoring the official status of Sunni Islam and the formal authority of ‘Abbasid caliphate in Egypt. When Egypt had fallen under Fatimid control in 969 AD (358 AH), the political situation changed and it became a completely independent state, referring no matter to any outside authority and acknowledging no sovereignty other than that of  the Fatimid caliph residing in Cairo. This was the first time that Egypt had become a fully independent sovereign state  since the coming of Islam.

There were eleven Fatimid caliphs who ruled Egypt in succession, for just over two hundred years 969 - 1172 AD (358–567 AH). During that period, the ‘Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad continued as it had always been, while the Spanish Umayyad caliphate had been instituted under the Marwanids. The Islamic Empire therefore became an object of contention for three caliphs, each of whom claimed the right to the true caliphate for himself, and denied it to the other two. The struggle was at its most intense between the caliph in Baghdad and the caliph in Cairo. There was also a religious difference between them, for the ‘Abbasid caliphate was Sunni, while the Fatimids were Shi‘i. But it was essentially a political struggle into which religion was introduced to aid their respective causes.

The position of the Shi‘a had weakened considerably in Persia and Iraq during the closing years of the Fatimid's dynasty, and this deteriorating situation was reflected in Egypt, where Sultan Nur-al-Din (Nuradin), the Seljuk commander who ruled Syria, had become the effective authority. The Seljuks put their Mamluks1 and commanders known as the Atabegs in control of the provinces, and each one ruled his province independently -- among them was Nuradin Zanki in Syria.  Among Nuradin’s commanders were a group of courageous Kurds, including Najm al-Din Ayyub (Najmudin), Saladin's father, and his brother Asad el-Din Shirkawih (Asadin), Saladin's uncle. Both had attained a high status in Nuradin’s eyes. In 1161 AD (556 AH) the caliphate in Egypt had passed to al-‘Adid el-Din Allah ibn Yusuf, who was weak-willed. His ministers competed with each other for a monopoly of influence  and gained control of the state and— over time they destroyed the country, while the caliph became impotent. Among the rivals for power was a vizier called Shawir, who had lost influence. So he asked Nuradin Zanki for assistance against his rival for the ministry. Nuradin took that opportunity to seize control of Egypt. He sent him Asadin with an army of Mamlukes, who restored the ministry to Shawir. The Crusader wars had erupted during this period, and Nuradin and his deputy in Egypt, Shirkawih, had begun to intervene more in Egypt’s affairs, together with Shirkawih’s nephew, Saladin. Shirkawih died in Egypt in 1161 AD (564 AH) and was succeeded by Saladin in the office of deputy, with the title of vizier. He was an ambitious man whose aim was to rule Egypt as an independent state. How he used his position to become the ruler of an independent Egypt is the subject of this novel.

1 Mamluks were soldiers of slave origin most often of Turkish ancestry. Over time, mamluks became a powerful military caste in various Muslim societies. Most notably, mamluk factions seized the sultanate for themselves in Egypt and Syria in a period known as the Mamluk Sultanate (1250–1517 AD). The Mamluk Sultanate famously beat back the Mongols and fought the Crusaders.