In fall of 1187 Saladin's "12,000 professional cavalrymen [and] 30,000 volunteers" arrived at Jerusalem and began a two week siege, assaulting the walls with towers, arrows, rocks, and greek fire. During the first five days of the siege he attacked the walls around the western wall, from the Tower of David and Damascus Gate. After failing there he moved to the northern wall, where he finally breached the city and obtained a surrender.

Accounts of the siege don't tell us what formations Saladin used to attack the walls, which is unfortunately exactly what I want to know. My first thought was that I could make a reasonable guess from accounts of another siege he led in 1188, where his "soldiers advanced in waves establishing a shield wall [...] behind which their archers and crossbowmen kept up repeated volleys of arrows [and then the] assault troops [...] storm[ed] the walls with scaling ladders and ropes." Saladin's army attacked in multiple divisions over the course of the day.

This seems plausible (though if you think it's not then this question changes to why and what is). But even so, it still leaves one big question to my mind.


  • Given the military thinking of his day, what would Saladin have likely done with the rest of his army, in particular the cavalry and horse-archers, as a division of his infantry attacked the walls?

Regarding the cavalry, my first thought was defending the infantry from enemy sorties, but I still don't know where you'd best position them for that, or how feasible it is for such big targets to be riding up to the walls. I also don't know what use if any the famous Turkish horse-archers would be in a siege. Finally, my guess is that Saladin's siege weapons would have been positioned behind his archers at near their maximum range, but I wanted to fact check that. Corrections to my thinking or examples from comparable battles are welcomed. Thanks for your time.

  • Hold on a second here...*Saladin* had access to Greek Fire?
    – T.E.D.
    Dec 19, 2017 at 21:47
  • ... tipty tapity, ah sort of. It was a separate Arab formula they called "naft", but probably roughly the same effect.
    – T.E.D.
    Dec 19, 2017 at 21:52
  • @T.E.D. Exactly. I used the term more people would know as I've seen done in popular histories.
    – Random
    Dec 19, 2017 at 21:57
  • 2
    @Era - Horse archers tend to use smaller bows and don't get the same range ground archers can...I'd guess the horses were held in reserve until the city gates were opened for them to flood in or perhaps dismounted and used as infantry. I've heard sources of Naft (naphtha) being used by Saladin's siege equipment as well. Time to dig through sources
    – Twelfth
    Dec 19, 2017 at 22:06
  • 1
    @era The western side likes to gloss over this a bit, so I found a three part series on Aljazeera about the Crusade from the Muslim perspective, but have yet to watch. Otherwise, wiki mentions the Northern wall was chosen as the Crusaders didn't have a gate to counter attack through. This leads me to believe knights were counter attacking on horseback during the western wall siege. It also mentions they breached the wall via mining, there were infantry mining. How effective are horse archers vs heavily armoured knights charging through miners? I'm thinking the cav dismounted for this.
    – Twelfth
    Dec 20, 2017 at 21:16

1 Answer 1


A contemporary account of the siege states:

The cruelest of tyrants [Saladin] also arrayed up to ten thousand armed knights with bows and lances on horseback, so that if the men of the city attempted a foray they would be blocked. He stationed another ten thousand or more men armed to the teeth with bows for shooting arrows, under cover of shields and targets. He kept the rest with himself and his lieutenants around the engines.

So, his cavalry was to deter defenders' attempts at counterattack with their own cavalry, while siege engines and infantry archers suppressed fighters on the wall. And during the first day of the siege:

They [defenders of Jerusalem] decided that everyone, with such horses and arms as could be mustered, should leave the city and march steadily through the gate which leads to Jehosephat. Thus, if God allowed it, they would push the enemy back a bit from the walls. They were foiled, however, by the Turkish horsemen and were woefully defeated…

  • 2
    Good find, seems like an exact answer.
    – Semaphore
    Dec 21, 2017 at 6:43
  • @Semaphore It seems a bit contradictory to other pieces I've found. The first attempt at Jerusalem appears to have failed due to crusaders being able to rally from the gates and break parts of the siege...the siege from the north was more successful as the crusaders lacked a gate to counter attack from. Not finding any mention of the mining breach that successfully brought down Jerusalem either. This account seems more like a (badly biased) dramatization than anything historic.
    – Twelfth
    Dec 27, 2017 at 22:12

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.