The Ayyubids were the family dynasty of Saladin (Salah al-Din), the famous Kurdish Muslim hero of the Crusades. The dynasty is normally dated from Saladin's career onward (c. 1169), but is named after Saladin's father, Ayyub. In their heyday, the Ayyubids ruled Egypt, Syria, Palestine, the Jazira (a region to the north of Baghdad and extending into Syria), and Yemen. Their rule may be divided into three major phases: Saladin's career, his prominent successors, and the dynasty's decline.
Ayyub and his brother Shirkuh came from Dwin in Armenia and served the Turkish warlords Zengi and his son, Nur al-Din, Saladin's two great predecessors in the Muslim "Counter-Crusade." Saladin accompanied Shirkuh on three expeditions to Egypt in the 1160s. After Shirkuh's death in 1169, Saladin took control in Egypt in the name of Nur al-Din and reestablished Sunni Islam there. However, a rift began to develop between Saladin and his master, Nur al-Din. This rift was prevented from developing into open warfare only by the death of the latter in 1174. That same year Saladin sent his brother Turanshah to conquer Yemen.
Much of Saladin's first decade as an independent ruler, from about 1174 to 1184, was devoted to subjugating his Muslim opponents and creating a secure power base in Egypt and Syria for himself and his family. In 1187 he achieved a decisive victory against the Crusaders at the battle of Hattin and reconquered Jerusalem for Islam. The Third Crusade, launched in response to this loss, ended in 1192 in truce and stalemate. Saladin died the following year. Despite his undoubted successes, he nonetheless failed to rid the Levant of the Crusaders.
Saladin did not envisage the development of a centralized state. He bequeathed a divided empire among his relations, giving his sons the three principalities centered on Damascus, Aleppo, and Cairo. In the ensuing power struggle, Saladin's brother, al-˓Adil, a seasoned politician, rather than Saladin's sons, emerged triumphant by 1202 and reorganized Saladin's inheritance in favor of his own sons. This kind of inter-clan struggle was deep-rooted. Yet, despite the fragmented nature of the Ayyubid confederation, three rulers, al-˓Adil (1202–1218), al-Kamil (1218–1238), and al-˓Ali Ayyub (1240–1249), managed to exercise overarching control. The succession of rulers in Aleppo remained among Saladin's direct descendants. Other principalities were set up in Transjordan and Mesopotamia. Two of these, and Mesopotamia, survived beyond the year 1250.
In 1218, the Fifth Crusade arrived in Egypt but made little impact. That year al-˓Adil died and was succeeded by his son, al-Kamil, who in the treaty of Jaffa (February 1229) gave Jerusalem back to Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor and king of Germany. However, al-Kamil retained a Muslim enclave in Jerusalem, including the Aqsa Mosque, the Dome of the Rock, and a corridor from Jerusalem to the coast. The pious on both sides were horrified at this diplomatic maneuver.
The death of al-Kamil in 1238 ushered in a turbulent period. His son, al-˓Ali Ayyub, emerged as the new sultan with the help of the Khwarazmians, displaced troops from Central Asia who had fled the approaching the Mongols. In 1244 the Khwarazmians sacked Jerusalem, to widespread condemnation. The Ayyubid dynasty was terminated in 1250 in a coup instigated by the sultan's own slave troops, the Mamluks, who raised one of their number to the rank of sultan. At the same time a new crusade, launched against Egypt under the French king Louix IX, was defeated by the Mamluks.
The unique focus of jihad during Saladin's time was the reconquest of Jerusalem. This goal had faded by the thirteenth century. With the Crusaders, the Ayyubids often practiced détente and they were criticized, even in their own time, for their lukewarm prosecution of jihad. During the Ayyubid period the remaining Crusader states became fully integrated as local Levantine polities. The Ayyubids made treaties and truces with them and sometimes, as at al-Harbiyya (1244), fought alongside them against fellow Muslims. Trade was important for the Ayyubids. They were afraid of further crusades being launched from Europe, which would disrupt their lucrative arrangements with the Italian maritime states.
Despite their religious reverence for Jerusalem, the Ayyubid dynasty never chose it as a capital, preferring Cairo or Damascus. During the Fifth Crusade in 1219, al-Mu˓azzam, who, like other Ayyubids, had beautified the Holy City, dismantled its fortifications lest it should fall into Crusader hands again. This action, justified as sorrowful necessity by al-Mu˓azzam, provoked widespread condemnation among the local Muslim population. Worse was to come when al-Kamil, plagued by inter-familial strife, and anxious to deflect another crusade, ceded Jerusalem to Frederick II. The Holy City remained a pawn on the Levantine chessboard, coming back under the control of the Ayyubids in 1239 and then handed back to the Crusaders five years later, then being sacked in 1244 by the Khwarazmians and returning to Muslim control.
In other respects, the Ayyubids were keen to prove their Sunni credentials, building religious monuments in Jerusalem, Damascus, Cairo, and elsewhere and choosing grandiose jihad titulature on their correspondence, coins, and monumental inscriptions. They founded no less than sixty-three religious colleges in Damascus alone (the Ayyubids were Shafi˓is or Hanafis). They welcomed Sufis, for whom they founded cloisters (khanqahs).
The Ayyubids's relationship with the Baghdad caliphate was complex. Like earlier military dynasties that had usurped power, the Ayyubids sought legitimization from the caliph in Baghdad. Caliphal ambassadors mediated in inter-Ayyubid disputes, and the caliph al-Nasir (d. 1225) created around himself a network of spiritual alliances with Muslim rulers, including the Ayyubids. Such symbolic links did not remove mutual suspicion, however. Both sides feared each other's expansionist aims and denied each other military support.
Saladin inherited eastern governmental traditions brought to Syria by the Seljuks. In Egypt continuity also existed between Fatimid and Ayyubid practice, especially in taxation. This process is mirrored in the career of Qadi al-Fadil, a Sunni Muslim who had served the Fatimid government in Cairo but later became Saladin's head of chancery. The Ayyubids expanded the existing system of iqta˓ (land given to army officers in exchange for military and administrative duties) to the benefit of their kinsmen and commanders. Armed with the revenues of Egypt, Saladin built up a strong army which included his own contingents (˓askars) as well as iqta˓ holders, vassals, and auxiliary forces. The Ayyubid armies were composed of Kurds and Turks, with the latter predominating. The recruitment of slave soldiers (mamluks), always a feature of Ayyubid military policy, intensified under al-˓Ali Ayyub. This able ruler began to centralize his administration in Cairo, thus foreshadowing the policies of the Ayyubids's successors, the Mamluks.
Apart from Saladin's brief attempt to build a navy, the Ayyubids were not interested in fighting the Crusaders at sea. They did not construct castles in the Crusader manner, preferring instead to build or strengthen city fortifications and erect citadels, as in Cairo and Aleppo. The fragmented nature of Ayyubid power led to a proliferation of small courts based on individual cities, such as Cairo and Damascus. Here the Ayyubid princes patronized the arts. Some, such as al-Amjad Bahramshah and Abul-Fida of Hama, were themselves men of letters; others (Saladin, al-˓Adil, and al-Kamil) were exceptionally able rulers.
Two key characteristics of Ayyubid policy were already evident in Saladin's time: the promotion of Sunni Islam and the need to rule a united Syro-Egyptian polity. Saladin had acquired great prestige by abolishing the two hundred-yearold Ishma˓ili Shi˓ite caliphate of Cairo. The key Ayyubid principalities were Cairo and Damascus; when these were united under one ruler, equilibrium and stability prevailed.
It is important to view the Ayyubids not only in relation to the Crusaders but also within their wider Islamic context, where they had to contend with other neighboring states. Among these were the powerful Anatolian Seljuks, the Artuqids and the Zengids in the Jazira, and the Caucasian Christian kingdoms. Traditionally, the Ayyubids have been cast as opportunistic, self-serving politicians, but their survival depended on local Levantine solidarity. In times of crisis or external aggression the Ayyubids would ally with their close neighbors, whoever they were, to defend their territory.