Romance and intrigue, woven in the context of the broader picture of important historical events, are a distinctive feature of all of Zaidan's novels and Saladin and the Assassins is no exception. Princess Sittalmulk, the "Lady of the Realm" and sister to the Caliph al-‘Adid, has many suitors. Saladin has been persuaded that his political ambitions would be enhanced by a union with the caliph's sister. Hasan is also a man with political ambitions who wants to become caliph. He claims Fatimid ancestry and is trusted by the people. He too believes that a union with the Caliph's sister would enhance his claim to the caliphate after al-‘Adid's death. A conspirator with few scruples he arranges to abduct the caliph's sister after she rejects his overtures. And then he conspires to get rid of Saladin by every means -- first by exploiting the rising tension between Saladin and Sultan Nuradin, ruler of Syria, and then by using the Assassins, a religious sect first to threaten and then to do away with him. One morning Saladin wakes up with a dagger firmly planted over his head with a threatening letter signed by the "old man of the mountains" the Imam of the famous Assassins ready to sacrifice their lives in the service of their cause... But lurking in the background was ‘Imadin, a loyal and courageous commoner who has been admitted to be a member of Saladin’s inner circle and who is determined to come to his master's rescue by personally confronting the Assassins. Princess Sittalmulk for her part is a strong willed woman who knows her mind and falls madly in love with ‘Imadin after he saves her life and honor. But he embarks on a far away and dangerous mission to save his master from all the dangers he is facing. Meanwhile, Hasan is intent on having his way with her, even though the caliph would like his sister to marry Saladin who had come to his rescue.
The stage is thus set for a battle for the Princesse's heart interlaced with the battle for the caliphate to succeed al-‘Adid. Who will prevail and how? The fast paced action is full of twists and turns and of unexpected surprises and suspense keeping us guessing to the very end.
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.
Professor Paul Starkey a noted scholar and translator of Arabic works translated this novel. He is the Head of the Arabic Department at Durham University, England. He is the author of several books on Arabic literature most notably Modern Arabic Literature, Edinburgh University Press, 2006 and has translated many Arab literary works, most recently some of Jurji Zaidan’s selected writings for the forthcoming volume by Thomas Philipp on -- Jurji Zaidan’s Secular Analysis of History and Language as Foundations of Arab Nationalism.
The Study Guide for students deals with a number of questions about the author, the evolution of the Arabic novel, the historical context and the events of in the novel; it also includes a list of books for further reading. Questions include the following:
1. Who was Jurji Zaidan?
2. What is a historical novel?
3. What is the early history of the Arabic novel?
4. What historical period does Saladin and the Assassins cover?
5. Who was Saladin?
6. Who were the Assassins?
7. How was Saladin viewed by European historians? What were his goals and did he achieve them?
8. Who are the principle characters of Saladin and the Assassins and what role did they play in the novel's story?