In “The Divine Comedy,’’ Dante reserves the peaceful, first circle of Hell for virtuous pagans, historical figures of noble standing who, because of chronology or circumstance rather than choice, were not Christians. In it, he places thinkers such as Aristotle and artists such as Homer, granting them a reprieve from torment as reward for their good character and profound contributions to the world.
One of these elite shades, however, stands apart from the rest. He had devoted his life to driving Europeans out of the Holy Land, killed thousands of Christians, and even stole a relic of the True Cross. Despite this checkered resume, the great Muslim sultan Saladin was held in such high esteem by the very people he had fought against that Dante could not deny him a place of honor in the afterlife.
How, asks medieval historian Anne-Marie Eddé, did a “relentless jihad fighter’’ ultimately come to be identified as a “valiant, generous, and magnanimous’’ figure among his former foes? Her comprehensive biography, “Saladin,’’ examines the birth and elaboration of a legend that casts a shadow even into the present day. In it, she highlights the conflict that can arise when our quest for historical truth runs up against the carefully constructed image that people of the past wanted us to see. The result is an exhaustive and, at times, exhausting reference that is rich in information, but yields a disjointed portrait of one of history’s most charismatic figures.
Saladin was born to a Sunni Kurdish family in what is now Iraq, but first came to real power in Egypt, where he needed to solidify a shaky relationship with a skeptical Shiite Arab populace. From the very beginning, the sultan worked hard to establish his legitimacy as a ruler, promoting an idealized image of himself that emphasized his wisdom, mercy, and thoughtfulness.
Military prowess and administrative skill were not enough to navigate the volatile, fractured politics of the medieval Middle East. Saladin had to represent a grand vision for regional unity and solidarity, particularly in light of the looming threat posed by Latin crusaders. His efforts, says Eddé, complicate a biographer’s work, with the sultan “endlessly wavering, even today, between myth and reality.’’ That’s how he wanted it.
Arabs and Europeans alike found something to admire in the legend. For the former, he became “the model of the sovereign who knew how to restore Arab pride and dignity,’’ a role that became more relevant as Western interventions in the region increased. The latter interpreted Saladin’s victories over Christianity as God’s punishment for European iniquity. The sultan was transformed into a literary archetype, used by writers such as Dante to critique the failings of their own leaders. The Saladin of legend is a palimpsest on which the agendas and concerns of whoever invoked him were inscribed.
Eddé untangles the concrete facts from the endless revisions and reinterpretations that turned Saladin into a larger-than-life icon over the ages, but takes it too far. Her historical narrative illuminates his rise to power and the elaborate politics of the time, but lacks liveliness. Pivotal moments in the sultan’s story, such as the capture of Jerusalem or his fierce battles against Richard the Lionheart during the Third Crusade, are presented as a mere series of events rather than being given a fully-rendered portrayal that takes into account the motivations and personalities of those involved.
This dry, academic approach is tedious, but reinforces the main conceit of “Saladin.’’ A robust legend can sometimes tell us more about the past and its people than sketchy truths.