Al-Kamil, Sultan Al-Malik

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Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil

Cairo, Egypt

Damascus, Syria

Sultan of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria

"In [1229] al-Kamil gave Jerusalem to the emperor [Frederick II].... The news of the handing over of Jerusalem to the Franks arrived and all hell broke loose in all the lands of Islam."

—Medieval Muslim chronicler Sibt bin al-Jawzi; quoted in The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives.

Al-Malik al-Kamil was sultan, or leader, of Egypt and later of Syria during both the Fifth (1218–21) and the Sixth (1228–29) Crusades. After successfully defending Cairo, the capital of his caliphate (kingdom) in Egypt from the Crusaders in 1221, he once again needed to deal with a Crusader army in 1228, under the leadership of the German emperor Frederick II (see entry). This time, however, he used diplomacy, or bargaining, rather than force. The result was that Jerusalem passed to the Christian West and al-Kamil was criticized by most of the Islamic world. However, the sultan had reasons for his choices. The city of Jerusalem was no longer as defensible as it once had been, nor were the Crusaders the only enemy al-Kamil was facing in the region. He also had to battle his own family for ultimate control of Egypt and Syria. His diplomatic tactics during the Sixth Crusade created the only bloodless Crusade. Al-Kamil was the last powerful ruler of what is known as the Ayyubid dynasty (1171–1252), founded by the great Muslim leader Saladin (see entry).

The End of the Ayyubids

Born in 1180, al-Malik al-Kamil Nasir al-Din Muhammad ibn al-Malik al-Adil ibn Bakr—or simply al-Kamil, as he is known in history—was the son of the sultan al-Adil, who was called Safadin in the West. Al-Adil, in turn, was the brother of the famous Saladin, a Muslim of Kurdish origin who rose from the rank of military leader to become the ruler of Egypt and Syria. Saladin recaptured Jerusalem for Islam in 1187, thus bringing about the Third Crusade (1189–92), in which the Christian West tried unsuccessfully to recapture the Holy Land from the Muslims. At his death in 1193, Saladin's Ayyubid Empire, named after his father, Ayyub, stretched from Cairo in Egypt to Damascus in Syria. His seventeen sons and several brothers began fighting among themselves for power.

In 1201 al-Adil finally managed to gain control of the empire and ruled from Cairo. Once his son, al-Kamil, was old enough, he served his father as vizier, or chief adviser, and was second in command. Another son, al-Kamil's brother al-Muzzam, was sent to Damascus to manage the Syrian part of the empire. During the lifetimes of both al-Adil and al-Kamil, they not only were faced with Christian enemies, who launched several Crusades, or holy wars, against Islam, but also had to deal with numerous relatives who still wanted a chunk of the Ayyubid Empire. They both tried to reduce the number of these enemies by means of diplomacy and negotiation. Thus, both father and son attempted a risky policy of trying to avoid direct conflict with the Franks, or Crusaders, in Palestine. They did not want to give the Christians living there a reason for uniting with the invading Crusader armies against them. This policy defined much of what al-Kamil did when he became sultan.

For example, when the Europeans were beginning preparations for the Fourth Crusade (1202–04), al-Adil had his vizier son al-Kamil make a deal with the Republic of Venice, which was responsible for transporting the Crusaders. Al-Kamil and his father knew that the Christian Crusaders were planning to attack Egypt and then use it as a base to move on to Jerusalem and the Holy Land. Al-Kamil offered the trading-minded Venetians full access to Egyptian ports at Alexandria and Damietta on the Nile delta, or mouth of the river. In return, Venice agreed not to support any expedition into Egypt. The bargain was made and kept. The Fourth Crusade never got past Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, an eastern Christian kingdom in Asia Minor that includes present-day Turkey and Greece. Egypt and the Ayyubids won a long period of peace, during which they could secure their power against threats from other Muslims.

The Fifth Crusade

During these years of peace al-Kamil continued to fortify Cairo, a process that had been begun by his uncle, Saladin. He added several towers to the Citadel, the main fortification of the city, and also finished building the walls, which were thirty feet high and ten feet deep. By the late fall of 1217 Crusaders began arriving as part of the Fifth Crusade, led by King John of Jerusalem and the armies of the Christian West, under the command of Cardinal Pelagius, the pope's representative. By the summer of 1218 these forces had arrived in Egypt and begun attacking the Egyptian port of Damietta, which lay between the Crusaders and the Ayyubid capital of Cairo, up the Nile River.

The Crusaders had the first victory in this lengthy war, capturing a small fortress that guarded Damietta. However, al-Kamil was able to raise an opposing force and stop their advance. Neither side was strong enough for a direct attack. The Crusaders were waiting for reinforcements from Italy, and al-Kamil was waiting for more men from his brother, al-Muzzam. When al-Adil suddenly died on August 31, 1218, al-Kamil became sultan. The Christians were encouraged both by this news and by the arrival of more men. They advanced to the fortified walls of Damietta. Al-Kamil, fighting outside, tried to break through the Christian lines but managed only to block the Crusaders' progress upriver. All winter long the two sides fought until, in February 1219, al-Kamil had to leave the battlefield to put down a rebellion within his own court in Cairo. With al-Kamil gone, the Christians advanced, but the Egyptians were finally able to hold them off.

Al-Kamil put down the rebellion in Cairo and made a peace offer to the Crusaders: he agreed to return the Holy Lands (except for a couple of fortresses) in return for a truce lasting thirty years. Jerusalem itself could not be defended, since his brother had destroyed the city walls. Many of the professional soldiers in the Crusader forces wanted to accept this offer, but Cardinal Pelagius was against it. He wanted total victory. When his offer was refused, al-Kamil got many additional men and was able once again to take the offensive.

The Fifth Crusade dragged on through the summer, with attack and counterattack. Meanwhile, the citizens inside the walls of Damietta were running low on food and water. In late August of 1219 the sultan received an amazing visitor. Saint Francis of Assisi (see entry), the founder of the Franciscan order—a Christian brotherhood that traveled to spread ideas of Christianity, poverty, and charity—came to Egypt to try to find a peaceful solution to the Crusades. He decided to convert the sultan. Crossing the Muslim lines, Saint Francis and his companion were nearly killed. They were finally captured and delivered to al-Kamil, who offered to spare their lives if they would convert to Islam. He was amazed to hear Saint Francis make the same offer to him—if he would convert to Christianity. So impressed was al-Kamil with the honesty and sincerity of this Italian religious man that al-Kamil did not kill him, as his religious advisers urged him to do. Instead, he presented Francis of Assisi with gifts and a safe-conduct back to the Crusader lines and promised to protect him during his visits to Jerusalem. Some historians mention a month-long visit, during which al-Kamil was in daily contact with Saint Francis, while others claim that the visit lasted only a matter of hours or days.

By August 29 the battle was on again. Al-Kamil drew the Crusaders into a trap, killing large numbers of them. After this victory, al-Kamil once more offered the same peace deal. Again Cardinal Pelagius refused, thinking more men were being sent from Europe to aid him. That November the Christians captured Damietta, which was now nearly a ghost city; almost all of its eighty thousand inhabitants had been killed during the fighting or had starved to death during the siege. When the Crusaders could not agree on their next move, it gave al-Kamil a chance to regroup. The two armies continued their standoff, with frequent small battles through 1220 and into 1221.

When more Crusaders arrived in the summer of 1221, that force once again set out on the offensive but were drawn into another trap by the Muslims: They were cornered between the waters of the Nile and a canal whose waters were slowly rising. As the Christians attempted to retreat, the sultan struck, handing the Crusaders a final defeat at the Battle of Mansurah. By September 1221 the Crusaders had sailed back to Europe, and al-Kamil was once again in control of Damietta.

The Sixth Crusade

Al-Kamil had no sooner strengthened his kingdom than he received word of another Crusade on the horizon. The Sixth Crusade was led by the German emperor Frederick II, a man who was said to admire Islamic culture and civilization. In fact, al-Kamil had earlier sent a representative to the German emperor, and a correspondence had started between Frederick II and al-Kamil, who discussed topics ranging from Greek philosophy to history. Thus, when the German emperor arrived in Acre in September 1228, al-Kamil was prepared to make a deal rather than start fighting immediately. Working in al-Kamil's favor was the fact that the sultan and his brother in Damascus, al-Muzzam, had not been on good terms since the Fifth Crusade and were battling for control of the two parts of the Ayyubid empire, Egypt and Syria. When al-Muzzam died in 1227, he passed on his power to his son, al-Nasir, who was also responsible for Jerusalem. Al-Kamil quickly laid siege to Damascus and was involved in this military operation when Frederick II arrived.

Both al-Kamil and Frederick II were realists rather than being driven by religion. For the sultan, Jerusalem was merely a bargaining chip. It could no longer be defended, and he had no real concern for the holy aspect of the city in terms of Islamic tradition, with its mosques (religious buildings) and shrines. It was similar for Frederick II. He was not motivated by a religious desire to recapture the Holy Land from the Muslims but by the fact that such a victory would strengthen his position as emperor against the religious power of the pope in Europe. The emperor led his small army toward Jerusalem as if to attack. For a time nothing happened, but by early 1229 al-Kamil had signed a treaty to avoid bloodshed. In reality, however, all arrangements for transferring Jerusalem had been made before the emperor's arrival. The Crusaders got Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and a few castles leading to the port of Jaffa. The Muslims kept control of some locations inside Jerusalem, including al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Most important, al-Kamil won a ten-year truce from the Crusaders. Now he could concentrate on taking back Syria from his nephew.

Al-Kamil, however, was not prepared for the storm of protest his action caused. In Islamic eyes the sultan was supposed to be the defender of the faith, and for most Muslims he had not taken this role in the case of Jerusalem. Nevertheless, he pressed on in Damascus, finally driving al-Nasir out of that city in the summer of 1229. After having survived criticism for not defending Jerusalem, he spent the rest of his life protecting his empire against repeated invasions from Khwarismian Turks in the north and the Mongols of Central Asia, both of whom were the newest enemies of Islam. In addition, there was again a rebellion, led by another of his brothers, resulting in a civil war that finally ended in 1237.

Al-Kamil died in 1238, exhausted by fighting enemies within and without his empire. The following year his nephew al-Nasir took Jerusalem back from the Christians. However, nothing could hold the Ayyubid Empire together now. Al-Kamil's sons in Damascus and Cairo fought another bloody civil war over control of the empire that lasted until 1240. Fifteen years after al-Kamil's death, the dynasty had been eliminated and was replaced by the Mongols and Turks in Syria and by the Mamluks, or soldier-slaves, in Egypt, who finally turned against their Ayyubid masters and seized power for themselves. Al-Kamil was the last powerful leader of the Ayyubids. With his passing it became clear that the empire was in decline.

Ibn al-Baitar

Like many Muslim leaders, al-Kamil hired numerous experts to study and teach at his courts in both Cairo and Damascus. One of the prominent scientists he managed to attract was Ibn al-Baitar, who was born in Malaga, Spain, at the end of the twelfth century. He studied botany and began collecting plants. This knowledge led him to become one of the most famous pharmacists of the Middle Ages, for at that time all medicines were made from herbs. In 1219 he journeyed along Africa's northern coast and into Asia Minor, where he visited Constantinople.

Sometime after 1224 Ibn al-Baitar joined the service of Sultan al-Kamil as chief herbalist, or pharmacist. Once settled in Egypt, he expanded his knowledge of plants to include varieties growing along the southern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. His botanical knowledge grew following al-Kamil's conquest of Syria in 1229. He collected plants and herbs in Syria as well as in Arabia and Palestine, using Damascus as his new base.

His most famous works include Kitab al-Jami fi al-Adwiya al-Mufrada, an encyclopedia of medicinal plants, and Kitab al-Mlughni fi al-Adwiya al-Mufrada, an encyclopedia of medicine. The first book lists more than a thousand different medicinal plants and quotes both Arab and Greek scientists. When he died in Damascus in 1248, Ibn al-Baitar was already recognized as the greatest authority on medicinal plants in the Islamic world. When his Jami was translated into Latin in 1758, he was hailed as the greatest botanist and pharmacist of the Middle Ages.

For More Information


Hillenbrand, Carole. The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Maalouf, Amin. The Crusades through Arab Eyes. Translated by Jon Rothschild. New York: Schocken Books, 1984.

Mayer, Hans Eberhard. The Crusades. 2nd ed. Translated by John Gillingham. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Powell, James M. Anatomy of a Crusade, 1213–1221. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986.

Web Sites

"The Citadel of Cairo." Tour Egypt. (accessed on June 21, 2004).

"Egypt." Islamic World to 1600. (accessed on June 21, 2004).

"The Fifth Crusade." The ORB: On-line Reference Book for Medieval Studies. (accessed on June 21, 2004).

"The Frederick–Al-Kamil Compromise of 1229." Aljazeerah Online.,%20David%20Abulafia.htm (accessed on June 21, 2004).

"The Sixth Crusade." The ORB: On-line Reference Book for Medieval Studies. (accessed on June 21, 2004).