The Battle of Marj Ayyun was a military confrontation fought near the Litani River (modern-day Lebanon) in June 1179 CE between the Christian Crusaders under the leadership of the king of Jerusalem Baldwin IV (r. 1174-1185 CE) and the Muslim armies under the leadership of Saladin, Sultan of Egypt and Syria (r. 1174-1193 CE). It ended in a decisive victory for the Muslims and is considered the first in the long series of Islamic victories under Saladin against the Christians.
In 1096 CE, after an arduous march across Europe, vanguards of Christian zealots led by a French priest named Peter the Hermit had reached Byzantium in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) but failed to achieve any military gains. This campaign, known as the People’s Crusade, was followed by a better-organized, more centralized campaign in the same year, the First Crusade (1096-1102 CE), sponsored by the medieval Church.
The leaders of the First Crusade – Godfrey of Bouillon, Bohemond of Taranto, Raymond of Toulouse, and others – captured Antioch in June 1098 CE, Tripoli, Beirut, and Tyre in May 1099 CE, and finally managed to reach Jerusalem in June 1099 CE. Following a month-long siege, they entered the city on 15 July 1099 CE. With the fall of Jerusalem, the Crusaders succeeded in establishing a strong foothold along the eastern shores of the Mediterranean.
The Crusader presence in the region consolidated further with the establishment of four Crusader States, starting with the County of Edessa in 1098 CE, then the Principality of Antioch in 1098 CE, the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1099 CE, and lastly the County of Tripoli in 1109 CE. While capturing Jerusalem embodied the utmost goal of the Christian campaigns, afterwards, the Crusaders tried to expand their grip over Egypt, Damascus, Aleppo, and other Muslim dominions. However, as historian Thomas Asbridge writes:
The Muslims didn't recognize the crusaders as a religiously-motivated movement intent on conquest and settlement, they assumed this was the latest in a long line of attacks by Byzantine mercenaries. (41)
At that time, the Muslim world was divided, with rival rulers in Cairo, Damascus, Aleppo, and Mosul, and the Christians exploited this situation. However, the political strife within the Muslim world would soon be settled, when the Zengids of Oghuz Turkic origin, came to power and established a very centralized Islamic dynasty in both Aleppo and Mosul that posed a real threat to the northern dominions of the Latin Christian kingdoms for the first time since the beginning of the Crusades.
The Zengids Turn the Tide
After a short power vacuum, Imad al-Din Zengi (r. 1127-1146 CE) became Atabegh or ruler of Mosul and Aleppo. Allied with the ruler of Damascus, he entered in minor skirmishes against the Crusaders and the Byzantine Empire, and in 1144 CE, he lay a 4-month-long siege to Edessa. He captured the city in December 1144 CE but died soon afterwards, before he could make further advances.
News of the fall of Edessa reached Europe and, alarmed by the Muslim victory, the Holy See under Pope Eugene III (r. 1145-1153 CE) renewed the call for a crusade. The western European kings especially Louis VII of France (r. 1137-1180 CE) and Conrad II of Germany (r. 1138-1152 CE) answered the call and launched the Second Crusade (1147-1150 CE). This campaign was not a success at all; Edessa was never reclaimed, and the siege of Damascus in 1148 CE failed.
The Rise of Saladin
Meanwhile, Nur al-Din Zengi (r. 1146-1174 CE), Imad’s brother who had succeeded him in 1146 CE, united Aleppo and Damascus for the first time in 1156 CE, putting more pressure on the Kingdom of Jerusalem, which was struck by a civil war between Baldwin III (r. 1143-1163 CE) and his co-sovereign mother Melisende (r. 1131-1153). Baldwin managed to capture Ascalon in 1153 CE but died after being poisoned and was succeeded by his brother Amalric I in 1163 CE.
In the Western part of the Islamic world, the Fatimid Ismaili rule in Cairo was stricken with internal strife. In the middle of the 12th century CE, power struggles erupted, and these eventually led to the collapse of the Fatimid Caliphate when Yussuf Ibn Ayyub, better known as An-Nassir Salah ad-Din or Saladin, ascended to the post of vizier in Egypt in 1171 CE after his uncle Shirkuh died.
Saladin, the newly appointed Vizier of Egypt, after receiving the death news of Nur al-Din in Damascus proclaimed himself the sole ruler of Egypt in May 1174 CE. Two months later, King Amalric of Jerusalem died in July 1174 CE in Beirut, leaving the kingdom to his son Baldwin IV. Saladin, wasting no time, entered Damascus and continued to seize Homs and Hama; he became the ruler of Egypt and Syria with no rival, and thus united the Islamic realm of Egypt and Syria. In this political turmoil, the leper, ill-fated, inexperienced 13-year-old King Baldwin IV, inherited a kingdom stricken with uncertainty and surrounded for the first time by a powerful dynasty under the leadership of a shrewd, fully-experienced, fully-prepared, 37-year-old sultan.
Baldwin vs. Saladin
Since 1169 CE, the Crusader States in the Latin East had been on the defensive. Saladin captured the southernmost port city of Eilat in 1170 CE, cutting off Jerusalem from the Red Sea, but despite the events unfolding in the neighboring Muslim states, the Christians failed to unite.
As the king of Jerusalem, hideously deformed by leprosy, sank into impotence, two rival clans embarked on power-struggle. The first, which favored coming to some arrangements with Saladin, was led by Raymond III the count of Tripoli, while the second extremist faction was Reynald of Chatillon, the former prince of Antioch. (Maalouf, 255)
Despite the ongoing quarrels that threatened to undermine the Crusader States, skirmishes broke out between Muslim and Christian armies, and Baldwin IV (r. 1174-1185 CE), although outnumbered, won a major military confrontation and was able to deliver a blow to Saladin’s armies at the Battle of Montgisard, a short distance from Ramlah in November 1177 CE.
Battle of Marj Ayyun
The Kingdom of Jerusalem still hoped for an opportunity to attack Egypt, but they were not strong enough. In 1178 CE, a fortress at Jacob's Ford - a border crossing outpost north of Lake Tiberias, called by the Arab scholars Beit el-Ahzan - was built as a post of defense and a base from which attacks in the future might be made. On the borders, the castles and posts were now under the command of the fierce religious military orders. During the summer of 1179 CE, severe drought gripped the Levant, while minor skirmishes erupted. Saladin offered to pay the Crusaders 100,000 dinars in exchange for halting incursions and dismantling the castle at Jacob's Ford but the Crusaders refused, and hostilities resumed.
Islamic armies commanded by Saladin himself, aided by Farukh, invaded in every direction to despoil villages, crops, and round up livestock to replenish herds that had died in the drought. They penetrated westward as far as Sidon and other coastal cities in the Lordship of Beirut. To stop Saladin’s advance, Baldwin’s forces combined with those of the Knights Templar under Odo of St. Amand and the forces of the County of Tripoli under Raymond III (r. 1152-1187 CE) and Baldwin II Lord of Ramla. They charged from Safad in Palestine to the north, reaching Toron castle in Tibnin (modern-day Lebanon) c. 13 miles (21 km) east of Tyre, and then heading toward Marj Ayyun to the south of the Litani River.
At the beginning of the confrontation, King Baldwin’s forces attacked what they thought was the Islamic main force but, in fact, was only the advance guard. The Templars, who were in the vanguard, surprised the Islamic forces, driving them back across the Litani and possibly taking Farukh Shah himself temporarily captive. However, rather than falling back to regroup with the rest of the Crusader army or waiting for the arrival of reinforcements, the Templar Grand Master, Odo de St. Amand, ordered an attack against the numerically superior Islamic forces. The Islamic advance guards scattered and, believing they had won the battle, some of the Crusader forces gave pursuit, while others started plundering the dead.
Saladin, hearing of the attack of his vanguard, hastened forward with the bulk of his army and overwhelmed the disintegrated Crusader forces. The most effective weapon of medieval warfare was a mass cavalry charge, but that was only possible once per engagement. The Franks spent their power of charge on Saladin's advance guard and thus they were overtaken by the main body of Saladin's troops.
During the battle, Baldwin was unhorsed and had to be carried off the field on the back of a medieval knight. The king only escaped capture because his men rallied around him with the help of reinforcements from Reynald of Sidon (r. 1171-1202 CE). The Crusaders were routed and dispersed.
Several important Franks were captured, including Hugh of Saint-Omer Prince of Galilee and Tiberias, who was ransomed by his mother, Odo de St Amand, Grand Master of the Knights Templar, who was kept prisoner until he died in captivity in 1180 CE, Raymond of Tripoli's stepson Hugh of Tiberias, and Baldwin II of Ibelin Lord of Ramla, who was ransomed by Byzantine emperor Manuel I Komnenos. At that time, Baldwin II Lord of Ramla was a leading candidate to marry Sibylla, the widowed sister of Baldwin IV. As she was Baldwin IV's heir-presumptive, her future husband was expected to become king on Baldwin's death. Baldwin II's untimely capture appears to have made it easier for the more hawkish, staunch anti-Islamic Guy de Lusignan to gain Sibylla's favor.
The battle of Marj Ayyun - provoked by raiding of cattle and crops in the lordships of Beirut and Sidon - has not received much attention in the history of the Crusader States. It is often completely ignored as it was a minor setback; it did not lead to the loss of any territory, a city, or a castle. However, the battle was a major factor in the capture and destruction of the unfinished Castle of Jacob's Ford by Saladin, which can be considered as a major turning point for the Crusaders and an indirect cause for the loss of border war.
One account suggests, the Templars attacked Saladin's larger force on their own, rather than falling back, warning the king, and fighting with him. William, Archbishop of Tyre, blamed the reckless actions of the Templars for the defeat, as he stated. However, the Templars were not subjects of the king and followed their own policies and strategies.
For the king himself, the battle revealed the deterioration of his physical condition; he could no longer command his armies from horseback. Saladin was able to exploit his victory, laying siege to the new Frankish fortress at Jacob’s Ford and destroying it in August 1179 CE.
In 1180 CE an agreement between Damascus and Jerusalem guaranteed the free movement of goods and caravans in the region as well as the freedom of worship for the Muslims in the Holy Lands. The peace would not last long, though. Upon the death of Baldwin IV in 1185 CE a power struggle erupted in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and Saladin, provoked by the transgressions of Reynald of Chatillon and the military blunders committed by Guy of Lusignan, took advantage of the situation. He defeated the Kingdom of Jerusalem in a landslide victory at the Battle of Hattin on 3 July 1187 CE and captured Jerusalem the same year.