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The Ayyubids (1174-1260)

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The Ayyubid dynasty, which reigned over the Near-East from 1174 to 1260, was marked by a major figure: Saladin (Salah al-Din, r. 1169 - 1193). Born in 1183 in Takrit (Iraq), he was the son of Ayyub, the military governor of Kurdish origin who ruled over that town. He and his family left for Syria to work for Zengi, the master of Mosul and Aleppo, and later for his son, Nur ad-Din. In 1169 Saladin arrived in Egypt, at that time under the control of the waning Shiite Fatimid caliphate, to replace his uncle Shirkuh as vizier of Egypt and new commander-in-chief of the Syrian army. Two years later, in 1171, Saladin abolished the Fatimid caliphate and became master of the country, where he re-established a Sunnite power and declared allegiance to the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad. Egypt thus became a major political centre from which Saladin could expand his reach, controlling progressively Syria, part of al-Jazirah and even Yemen.

Saladin distinguished himself particularly in his battles against the Crusaders: he was the champion of the Sunnite jihad. In this way, he recovered the government of Damascus in 1174, followed by those of Hama, Homs and Baalbek, despite opposition in northern Syria (Aleppo) and in Upper-Mesopotamia (Mosul). But the great victory of Saladin’s troops against the Franks took place at Hattin, near the Sea of Galilee, on July 4th 1187. His troops took on those of the King of Jerusalem, Guy de Lusignan, who was taken captive. Following this episode, Saladin’s army recaptured the cities of Tiberias, Nazareth, Sidon, Beirut, Gaza and Hebron, Acre and above all Jerusalem, which thus once again became Muslim after 88 years of Crusader occupation. This marked the collapse of the states of the Latin East, and it was this Muslim offensive that spurred the Franks to reconquer these territories by organising the Third Crusade, conducted between 1187 and 1192 par Barbarossa, Richard the Lionheart and Philippe Auguste.

In order to mark this reconquest, Ayyubid architects developed two main types of construction : fortresses and madrasahs (schools). Their role as defenders of the jihad is embodied in these austere constructions. They used sober materials, such as stone, and the use of varied colours sometimes remained the only decorative detail. Certain buildings were nonetheless embellished with rather discreet geometric or figurative carved motifs. Among the most significant examples to have come down to us, the citadel of Aleppo (beginning of the thirteenth century) remains one of the masterpieces of this defensive architecture. Towering over the city and surrounded by a glacis, it could only be entered by means of a long ramp, broken into sections by two massive stone gates. As for the madrasahs, they affirmed the Sunni Muslim faith, with their modestly-sized but very elegant buildings. Consisting of a courtyard surrounded by classrooms, they often opened into an iwân and contained a mihrab decorated with coloured stones formed into geometric interlaced patterns, as in the Madrasa Faradis in Aleppo (1235 - 1236). Already present in Syria, they spread into Egypt during this period.

Saladin can also be seen as the heir of a policy of territorial unification of the Near-East combined with a family-based conception of power. This often led to discord, which however was transcended by the common interest. The territory controlled by the Ayyubids was made up of a group of principalities organized around single cities, with the exception of Egypt, which was a unified country. He also restored economic stability, as well as trade-routes to the South (Sudan, Yemen) but also to Italy, all the while relying on a pre-existing military and organizational infrastructure.

This stability enabled the development of major artistic centres, often close to the seats of power. Mosul thus became the main centre for the production of metals luxuriously inlaid with gold, silver and sometimes copper, a technical innovation of this period. Other workshops were founded in Syria, notably in Damascus and doubtless at Aleppo. The artisans worked for the courts that commissioned them and moved about with them. Several craftsmen also signed their work, indicating their origin (nisba) : The city of Mosul (al-Mawsil) is mentioned regularly, even though these craftsmen no longer worked there. The motifs adorning these metals present a varied iconography, notably representing princely pleasures (hunting, musicians…) or the signs of the zodiac, but complemented by certain novel themes, such as field-labour. A certain number of pieces also bear perfectly identifiable Christian motifs: Virgins with Child, haloed saints …These motifs, doubtless drawn from the very numerous eastern Christian communities of that period, were reworked by the dinandiers.

As for their work in other artistic domains, little information has come down to us. Poles of ceramic-production probably existed in Northern Syria and in Cairo, though we have no definite description of them. Yet the objects produced were circulated with some success: pieces have been found in Italy in particular. Varied as to their forms, they bear decorative designs painted under glaze, displaying a newfound mastery in the use of the colour red. Thus we find jugs or cups with figurative and vegetal motifs of great elegance, in a range of colours using blue and black, in addition to red.

The techniques of glass-decoration were also evolving. Extra-transparent pieces (beakers, bottles…) bear an enamelled pattern. This technique, which pre-dated the reign of the Ayyubids, was honed in order to broaden the range of colours, and the use of gold became more widespread on the most luxurious items.

After Saladin’s death in 1193, his direct descendants were gradually pushed aside to make way for his brother, Al-Adil (r. 1200 - 1218), and then for Al-Kamil (r. 1218 - 1238). They continued his policies, preferring to negotiate with the Franks rather than to fight them, and restoring Jerusalem to Frederick II. The family solidarity that had prevailed until the reign of As-Salih (r. 1240 - 1249) dissolved in the face of the multitude of family rivalries. This latter ruler raised himself an army made of Turkish slaves who, seizing upon the internal squabbles of the Ayyubids, took power in Egypt on the death of the last Ayyubid in 1250. The new Mamluk dynasty was born.

A. C. –R.