This is intended to be the first (and longest) of a series questions about the Siege of Jerusalem in 1187. It was originally one massive question, but the community rightly recommended that I break it down. This question and another one by others are related but (I think self-evidently) distinct.

I want to preface this one by saying that I'm not trying to assume a rigid ethnic or tribal model for understanding Saladin's army; this is just what I'm asking about right here.


In 1187 Saladin embarked on a campaign to retake Palestine from the Crusader Kingdoms. Thomas Asbridge describes his army as including "12,000 professional cavalrymen ... 30,000 volunteers" from "Egypt, Syria, the Jazira and Diyar Bakr". Ethnically, the army was composed first of Turks, and then Kurds, with the largest contingent being Turcomen nomadic tribes. But it also included remnants of the old Fatimid army, such as Arabs (Egyptian, Syrian, Bedouin), Nubians or sudani, and Berbers from the Western Sahara.

It seems like these ethnic identities played a key role in determining one's role and status within the army. Turks were prized as cavalry, including mamluks and Turcomen horse-archers, who were said to be impatient and war-like. Kurds fought "as distinct units" and their cavalry rode "shaven horses", favoring swords over lances. Nubians were "famous infantry archers" who used large powerful bows instead of composites, and no shields of any kind. Arabs were "proud of their reputation as hard-riding light cavalry", and said to be excellent lancers and raiders. Bedouin Arabs often fought as longbow infantry archers alongside horsemen.


All this brings me to the more detailed iteration of my question:

  • To what extent did ethnic identity impact the structure of Saladin's army and the roles of individuals within it? Did Turks and Kurds identify as "soldiers of Islam" and serve in a wider variety of roles, while other groups had more local identities and focused traditions of warfare, or is that my misconception? What else (that I've missed) were such groups known for?

My own efforts have at best partially answered the above, so I'd appreciate a more cohesive and robust picture, fact-checking, a tying things together.


  • The Crusades. Thomas Asbridge.
  • Saladin in Egypt. Yaacov Lev.
  • Saladin and the Saracens. David Nicolle.
  • The Third Crusade 1191. David Nicolle.
  • Saracen Faris. David Nicolle.
  • This helpful blog.
  • A whole lot of google.


Several smaller questions came up as I tried to get a more robust picture of what set apart different groups. These are helpful but optional; answer as many or few as you please, either as part of a full answer or in a comment.

1) Turks and Turcomen. Is there a difference? I got the sense the latter were peripheral tribes?

2) Infantry. Did any group(s) make up the bulk of close-combat infantry levies?

3) Arab Subgroups. What if anything distinguished Egyptian, Syrian, and Bedouin troops?

4) Berbers. I've found absolutely nothing about them in this context. Any scrap helps.

  • 5
    I can see why they wanted it split up. I researched your addendum 1 (I was curious), and it looks like they are probably synonymous when referring to Saladdin's era. Today the word is sometimes used for descendants of Ottoman Turkish immigrants in Iraq.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Dec 18, 2017 at 16:54
  • 1
    @T.E.D. Thanks. I also just stumbled at random on a passage in one of my books referring to "free Turcomans, detribalized Turkish professional soldiers, and [...] mamluks" so I suspect the issue is that Turcoman may refer to the vast majority of Turkish who lived within the context of traditional societies, as opposed to those who had permanently picked up roots. Just a guess on my part of course, it could even just be a quirk of the individual historian.
    – Random
    Commented Dec 18, 2017 at 17:14
  • Splendid question. The only edit I'd consider is to remove the date from the title for clarity. "How did ethnicity impact Saladin's army?" is an excellent title. the date adds as much as a bicycle adds to a fish.
    – MCW
    Commented Dec 18, 2017 at 17:23
  • @MarkC.Wallace: Thanks, I appreciate it. :) Normally I'd agree about the title, but as I'd planned to ask several related questions about a single siege I thought it might be helpful to any later site visitors interested in info about the same if I grouped them under one obvious header.
    – Random
    Commented Dec 18, 2017 at 17:47
  • 2
    OK, I think this makes it pretty definitive, and it jibes with what I was seeing elsewhere. "Turkomen" was what the 11th Century Muslims called Oghuz Turks who were Muslim. Apparently at that time many Oghuz were also either Christian or Shamanist, but by Saladin's time they were almost entirely Muslim, so by then its just another word for "Oghuz". The Oghuz were the ancestors of the Ottomans, as well as a lot of other smaller Turkish ethnic minorities in west and central Asia. The term "turk" likely started life as an abbreviation for it.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Dec 18, 2017 at 20:25

1 Answer 1


This question has so many perspectives I'm not sure I can provide a reasonable or satisfactory answer to cover them. So, I'll focus on the general objective, with particular emphasis on providing "... a better sense of how Saladin's army looked and acted in the field*" (OP's comments).

Saladin's Military Mindset

The straight answer is Saladin's Ayyubid army adopted the method of Steppe Warfare.

This should not be surprising as he was, in his blood and upbringing, a nomadic warrior. Saladin was born in Central Iraq, Tikrit (1138), from the powerful Hadbānīya Kurd tribe, and steeped in the tradition of military families - he was nephew and son to 2 military governors of the Great Seljuk Sultan Muhammad Ibn Malik Shah.

Saladin grew up serving the Zengid dynasty - who were Orghuz Turks (Islamicised turk warriors) with direct military lineage back to the Seljuk Turks. Lest we forget, the greatest claim to fame of the Seljuk Turks was the Battle of Manzikert. 'Fame' because the Seljuk Turks were the first Muslim commanders who captured a Byzantine Emperor.

Saladin's Jihad

Whether Hattin, or Jerusalem, or the rest, Saladin's fights should not be seen as discrete events but rather a series of battles with an overarching objective, namely a holy war (jihad) in the form of a counter-Crusade (1187-1189). Without underestimating the importance of Jerusalem, Saladin's counter-Crusade was not just to unite Syria and Egypt. He was reclaiming Bilad al Sham - the original Islamic province of the Rashidun caliphate (the original Caliphate).

Remember, Saladin was a Sunni, whereas the Fatimids were Shi'ites. Because of Bilad al Sham, from the perspective of fellow Sunni Muslims, he was rebuilding Islam -- not just taking back castles/towns/cities. Also, that's why -- with his political base of Sunni Muslims strongly supporting him back in Egypt -- he never had to return home to pacify rebellions.

In this sense, his military legacy was beyond that of the Zengids - whether Nur al-Din (his overlord) or his father, Imad ad-Din Zengi. A better comparison is Khalid ibn al-Walid, the Rashidun Capliphate's first significant military leader (he united Arabia and won over a 100 battles in a span of 13 years, from 629 till his death in 642).


Hattin has been well-examined, especially by Western historians. There's more than enough material for research (not necessarily a good thing imho). If you're looking for more - though they may not be Saladin's army - but I would consider the following battles, given the geographical setting, just as useful in the in terms of 'look and feel' of the combat:

The Ayyubid Army

There was no significant difference between the Ayyubid army and the Franks in terms of military tools:

For a little under two centuries, from 1099 to 1291, Europe fought a series of wars and battles for control of the Holy places in the Middle East—the campaigns that today we call the crusades. Although the forces against which they fought over this period were many and varied, it is perhaps those of the great Muslim leader Saladin in the later twelfth century that had probably the greatest effect on the armies and tactics of Western Europe.

Much like the armies of Western European, those of Saladin were composed of both horse and foot soldiers in which the cavalry, though fewer in number, were again dominant—not only in the tactics and strategy adopted but also in the minds and hearts of those that fought—it is the mounted soldiers who were remembered both then and today. And again though very different in detail, the arms and armor worn by the Middle Eastern troops was broadly similar to those used in the West—the mail shirt, helmet, sword, lance, and bow, for example.

Medieval Weapons- An Illustrated History of Their Impact 2007, pp. 139-40.

In terms of ethnic composition, you have done most of the research (your listed biblio). If you're looking for recommendations on additional sources, I would add the following (the last 3 entries are also by Nicolle)

  • Armies and Enemies of the Crusades 1096-1291
  • From Saladin to the Mongols: the Ayyubids of Damascus, 1193-1260
  • Arms & Armour of the Crusading Era 1050-1350 - Western Europe and the Crusader States, vol 1 (Greenhill, 1999)
  • Arms & Armour of the Crusading Era, 1050-1350- Islam, Eastern Europe and Asia, vol 2 (Greenhill, 1999)
  • Horse Armour in the Medieval Islamic Middle East (an academic article)

Combat Tactics of Heavy and Light Cavalry

Going through research on Hattin and the additional battles listed above, I believe you would discern a clear pattern in the modus operandi. Instead of just calling it nomadic hit-and-run for their light cavalry, I believe a better description is tactical swarming:

Many examples of military swarming at the tactical level come from the ancient world and the Middle Ages. The most common swarmer in history has been the horse archer, which was introduced into warfare by the nomadic barbarians of Central Asia. Swarmer-versus-non-swarmer battles usually involved light cavalry armies of nomadic people fighting infantry armies from more-settled agricultural communities. The Eurasian steppe produced most of the well-known mounted archers, including the Scythians, Parthians, Huns, Avars, Bulgars, Magyars, Turks, Mongols, and Cossacks.

The firepower and mobility advantages of the steppe warrior were not surpassed until the invention of gunpowder. Whether their opponent was Persian, Macedonian, Roman, Frank, or Arab, mounted archers usually fared well. Unfortunately, many of the ancient examples of swarming offer little detail because of the remoteness of the events and the lack of accurate and complete accounts. There are few ancient or medieval historical sources on the history of warfare between swarmers, because most swarmer armies were nomadic. Often, only a brief description of the conflict is available.

Swarming on the Battlefield - Past, Present, and Future, 2000 - p.13

For heavy cavalry, it is the standard close-quarter combat. I emphasise this because of the almost-overwhelming emphasis (by contemporary scholars) on light cavalry of nomadic warriors. They had heavy cavalry too. In Saladin's case, it would be the corps of Mamluks in the Ayyubid army, the Salahiyya - elite royal guard with the best training and armour. They were not just his personal bodyguards (more research - Mamluk Studies Review, University of Chicago)

Additional reference:

  • Thanks! You took a difficult, somewhat aimless question and gave a great answer.
    – Random
    Commented Jan 11, 2018 at 17:56
  • You're welcome. Hope it helped clarify (added a bit more reference).
    – J Asia
    Commented Jan 12, 2018 at 7:16

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