Hattin pitted the Crusader (also known as Frankish) armies under the King of Jerusalem, Guy de Lusignan, against the forces of the Muslim commander, Saladin. Saladin’s army was larger than that of his opponents, ca. 30,000 men to ca. 20,000 men, but the Crusaders had some formidable troops, especially their knights. Besides, they were encamped behind their fortifications at their base at Sepphoris (modern Tzipori, Israel), where the local springs provided an ample source of water. They could not easily be taken by assault and a siege was unlikely to work. So, Saladin decided to lure them out to fight. He surely knew that the enemy was far from united, which might well work to his advantage, especially if he forced them to make a difficult choice.
On July 2 Saladin attacked the fortified city of Tiberias, located on the Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret, Israel) about 20 miles away, which belonged to one of the leading nobles in the Crusader army. The attack broke through the city’s walls and forced the Frankish defenders back into the citadel, where their number included the noble’s wife. When the news reached the Frankish camp at Sepphoris, a heated debate followed. Some wanted to march out and relieve the beleaguered defenders at Tiberias. Others replied that it was unsafe to venture out from a secure base, especially since the noblewoman could be ransomed if captured. But the activists won, and the Crusaders headed out on July 3.
They had marched into a trap. The Galilee is hot and dry in summer and short on sources of fresh water between Sepphoris and Tiberias. Unable to cover the distance in a day, the Franks tried to reach a spring along the route, but the Muslims were able to block them. They continually harassed the Crusader army and even set fire to the dry grass, which bothered the enemy with smoke.
By the next morning, July 4, the Frankish army was dehydrated and disheartened. Muslim archers harassed them. They sought shelter on the high hill known as the Horns of Hattin, from the twin peaks of an extinct volcano. One contingent of Christian knights managed to charge through the Muslim line and make its way first to the Sea of Galilee and then home to Tyre. Others charged repeatedly but ineffectively. The Muslims surrounded the enemy and began slaughtering them before they surrendered.
It was a complete victory won at relatively little cost to the victors, who suffered only light casualties. The strategic consequences were enormous. The battle wiped out most of the gains of the Crusaders since they had conquered Jerusalem in 1099. Now, some fifty towns and fortifications under Crusader control yielded to Saladin’s men. Then, three months after Hattin, the Christians surrendered Jerusalem to Saladin. It was October 2, 1187. Later Crusaders would attempt to retake Jerusalem, but without success. The city would remain under Muslim control, though often with significant Christian and Jewish populations, for the next 730 years. Finally, British General Edmund Allenby captured it from the Ottoman Empire in 1917, during the First World War.
Saladin’s use of the indirect approach paid off at Hattin. Indeed, it can be considered the height of the military art. It’s a reminder to today’s strategists that it is possible to win a battle without destroying the places that you seek to conquer and without suffering enormous casualties in one’s own forces. Russia, sadly, has played by far different rules in Ukraine.
Barry Strauss is the Bryce and Edith M. Bowmar Professor in Humanistic Studies at Cornell University, Corliss Page Dean Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution, and author of the new book THE WAR THAT MADE THE ROMAN EMPIRE: Antony, Cleopatra, and Octavian at Actium (Simon & Schuster).