It is said that God favors irony. Perhaps that is why His city, named for peace, has known only war and death.”
The rabbi’s father had said that to him once, when he was a restless youth and a virgin. He had changed much in the untold years that had passed since then. His desire for adventure had been supplanted by a desperate longing for serenity. His wedding night was a distant but still tender memory. The old man had learned that much of what he had believed in the morning of his life was incomplete at best. False, at worst. Yet these words had proven true, time and again. The God of irony was an accurate description of the ineffable, unpredictable Being from whom the cosmos derived its essence. Perhaps it was not fair to call God an outright trickster, but He undoubtedly had a sense of humor.
Like his people, the old man was a wanderer. He had sought the Divine Countenance in the shadowed gardens of Cordova. His weary feet had traced the Queen of Sheba’s paths through the African desert. His gray eyes had filled with tears before the Pyramids, which were ancient even when Moses played in their shadow. Yet he knew from his journeys that all paths returned here, to the navel of the world. To the Holy Land. To Jerusalem.
Jerusalem had been the prize of many conquerors, few who had been friends to the Jews. His people were banished and scattered to the winds, yet they never forgot the city of David. It beckoned them in their souls, their dreams.
Then the sons of Ishmael arose from the desert to claim their share in the legacy of Abraham. And, for a time, there was peace and the sons of Isaac began to return home.
So it was, until the Franks arrived on the horizon. Poor, illiterate, filled with hate. They sought to regain Jerusalem in the name of their Christ. The rabbi had read the sayings of this Jesus of Nazareth and had not found in them anything to explain the horror of what they did.
The Franks slaughtered the old and the weak. The women. The little ones. They killed the Muslims as infidels, and then they killed the other Christians as heretics. They gathered all the Jews who remained and locked them in the main synagogue. Then they set it on fire.
In the end, the lamentations ceased, for there were none left to lament.
Frankish historians would later boast that blood ran down the streets of Jerusalem up to the ankles of their armored soldiers. But the slaughter of tens of thousands in the Holy City was the least of their crimes. In the once pristine town of Ma’arra, emerald with vineyards and fields and olives, an evil beyond evil rose from the very bowels of Hell. The rabbi had vomited after he read the full account of Albert of Aix, the Frankish chronicler who witnessed and glorified the greatest victory of Satan over the hearts of men. For in Ma’arra, the Crusaders not only massacred the population. They cannibalized their victims. Men and women cooked in clay pots. Their children impaled on wooden spits and grilled alive.
The rabbi had once thought that these stories were the typical exaggerations of warmongers and madmen, much like the bloody tales of Joshua’s conquest of Palestine in the Holy Book. Ballads of fury meant to debase the humanity of the opponent, not actual accounts of historical events. But he had come to learn that the Franks were a literal bunch, not given to poetry or figures of speech.
Like his people, the rabbi was known by many names. To the Arabs and his brothers among the Sephardim, he answered to Sheikh Musa ibn Maymun, chief rabbi of Cairo and personal physician of the Sultan. The pale-faced Ashkenazim knew him only from his detailed and eloquent writings on matters of law and theology, which had spread through the glorious Spanish highlands into the darkness that was known as Europe. They called him Rebbe Moshe Ben Maimon in the tongue of their forefathers. The most enthusiastic of his followers revered him as “The Rambam,” although he did not consider himself worthy of any special devotion.
And the Frankish barbarians, at least the few who could read and write, referred to him as Maimonides. They also called him Christ-killer and a few other choice epithets that were reserved for his people as a whole, but he tried not to take that too personally. They were ignorant primitives, after all.
Maimonides walked slowly toward the pavilion of the Sultan, rustling his hand through his shaggy beard, as he often did when he was lost deep in thought. His body was not tired, but a force greater than fatigue burdened his soul. The oppressive, crushing weight of history. He did not know if he would live beyond the day and he wanted to treasure every breath as if it were his last. But the stench of torches and dung, both human and animal, poisoned the air. Maimonides would have laughed, had his sense of humor survived the horror of war.
The rabbi’s mind asked a thousand questions of his Lord. O God of irony, do You find pleasure in even the subtlest twists of fortune? That a peace-loving scholar should meet his doom caught in the bloody swath of a Crusader’s blade—is that not enough to tickle You? Is it truly necessary that his final memories should be forever marred by the reek of disease and defecation, the scent of the battlefield?
But his God, as usual, did not reply.
Maimonides turned to watch the preparations for battle. Turbaned Arab soldiers, working alongside fair-skinned Kurdish horsemen and statuesque Nubian warriors, milled like ants through the battle camp. Their bonds of communal purpose were intensified by an urgent energy that seemed to crackle through the air. The sensation was so real that Maimonides felt the hair on the back of his hands rising. Such was the power of destiny. These men knew that they were standing at the doorway of history. Regardless of whether they lived or died, their actions would be forever inscribed in the ledger of time. Their deeds would be weighed on the judgment scales of a thousand generations yet to come.
The old man continued on his way, navigating through a maze of mules and Arabian steeds, as well as the occasional goat that managed to escape the butcher’s pen. He passed a line of camels, some carrying razor-tipped arrows from Damascus to resupply the army, while others brought precious water from Lake Tiberias to the north. His escorts on the long journey from Cairo had said that the jihad would be won or lost on water. The Sultan had formulated a strategy that relied on cutting off the Franks from their water supplies just long enough to weaken them before the onslaught of the main forces.
The heavily armored warriors unloading the camels ignored the aging physician. They were filled with the fire of youth and paid little thought to those walking down the final paths of life. They were under the spell of the God of irony, of course, as Maimonides knew that he would probably outlive most of these boastful and confident lads. He wondered how many of them would be buried tomorrow under the twin hills known as the Horns of Hattin. He wondered whether there would be anyone left to bury them.
Maimonides reached the Sultan’s pavilion and nodded to the two Egyptians who stood before its entrance brandishing massive scimitars. The guards, twin brothers with equally cruel eyes and stony jaws, stepped aside. They did not particularly like the Jew, but he held the confidence of the Sultan. Maimonides knew that only a handful of men had access to the ruler’s presence, and fewer still could call him a friend. It had taken the rabbi years of loyal service to earn the Sultan’s trust, a journey that had begun when he had been summoned to the Citadel in Cairo to cure its newly installed conqueror of a painful fever. Maimonides often pondered the strange twists and turns of destiny that had transformed him from a modest physician to an influential adviser of a king.
The rabbi entered the tent. He marveled again at its simplicity. There was little to distinguish the pavilion from the humble dwellings of the Egyptian foot soldiers. No grand trophies or ornaments of gold. No plush carpets imported from Isfahan to cover the dry Hattin earth. Just a cabin made of striped green linen with the eagle flag of the Sultan flapping from a makeshift pole at the entrance. The Sultan eschewed the normal displays of power. Maimonides knew that this was one of the many reasons he held the undivided loyalty of his men. He was one of them in life and, perhaps by tonight, in death.
Inside the royal tent, the rabbi found his master poring over maps of the surrounding countryside. The Sultan was a brilliant military tactician whose secret lay in his attention to detail. A general must know every twist of terrain, every hill, every gulley of the battlefield better than he knows the contours of his wife’s body, the Sultan had said once. In war, there was no room for error. One mistake could set back the advance of an army, could thwart the destiny of an entire civilization, as the Arab blunder at Tours 450 years before had halted the Islamic expansion into Europe. The Sultan lived in the unforgiving glare of history and could not afford the luxury of even the slightest mistake.
Maimonides stood at attention before the Sultan, careful not to interrupt his concentration. His master ran his hand across the worn parchment one last time before glancing up at his adviser. His tanned brow had been creased in thought, his face a mask of iron focus, but his dark eyes now lit up with genuine warmth.
Sultan Salah al-Din ibn Ayyub, known to the Franks as Saladin, was a man like no other. Like King David, Saladin inspired in his followers a sense that they were in the presence of something larger than life, as if a spark of the Divine had flashed from heaven and lit a fire that consumed the hearts of men. Saladin was more than a leader. He was a catalyst. Like Alexander and Caesar before him, Saladin had come to turn the world upside down with the singular force of his will.
The Sultan stepped forward and embraced the rabbi, kissing his cheeks. Maimonides was struck again by how young he appeared. No, not young. Ageless. His beard was midnight black, without a hint of gray, but his brown eyes were ancient pools that shone with an ineffable sadness. The years of war with the Franks had made Saladin a walking enigma. His body seemed to grow younger with time, but his eyes much older. It was as if each victory against the Crusader menace reinvigorated his external form yet drained his soul.
“Peace be upon you, old friend! When did you arrive?” The Sultan led the rabbi to a silk cushion and bade him sit. Saladin’s robes, dun-colored like his beloved desert, rippled with the natural grace of his movements. The Sultan walked like a tiger, every step conveying an aura of spontaneous ease, but brimming with the barely suppressed tension of a predator.
“The weapons caravan from Cairo just pulled in, sayyidi,” the rabbi said. “We were delayed due to a Frankish ambush.” Maimonides gratefully accepted a silver chalice filled with chilled water from the Caucasus.
Saladin’s face darkened.
“Were you hurt?” he asked, his eyes narrowing with concern and a hint of quiet anger.
“I am fine, praise God,” Maimonides replied. “It was a small band that has been raiding the Sinai since winter. Your men dispatched them easily.”
“I will get the details from the captain-at-arms later,” he said. “My heart is glad that you are here. We will need the skilled hand of a physician when the battle is over.” The Sultan stood up and returned to the map. Maimonides set aside the chalice and followed him. Saladin pointed to the parchment, which was marked with mysterious symbols. The Sultan never remembered, of course, that military plans were as unintelligible as hieroglyphics to the rabbi, but Maimonides played along, feigning comprehension as his master’s voice rose with excitement.
“The Frankish army has gathered en masse at Hattin,” he said. “Our spies claim that the entire Jerusalem legion has joined the coastal forces in a bid to crush our army.”
“I am not a military tactician, sayyidi, but that does not strike me as a wise move on their part,” the rabbi said. “Jerusalem is the true goal of the jihad, as the Franks assuredly know. Should our forces break through their ranks, the city will be open for the taking. They must be very confident.”
Saladin laughed, his eyes suddenly youthful with mirth.
“They are not confident, only brash,” he said. “I have no doubt that this suicidal tactic was devised by the great Reginald himself.”
Maimonides stiffened at the name of the Frankish noble who had terrorized the Holy Land for years. Reginald of Kerak was a true barbarian whose bloody exploits embarrassed even the most ruthless Franks. The rabbi’s sister Rachel and her family had the misfortune of being caught by Reginald’s men thirteen years before in a raid on a trading caravan near Ascalon in the Sinai. Only Rachel’s young daughter Miriam escaped alive and hid in the desert before she was found by a kindly Bedouin who helped her return to Cairo.
Miriam had never spoken of what happened during the ambush, or how she managed to survive. It was enough for a heartbroken Maimonides to know that Rachel and her husband, Yehuda, had perished in the brutal attack. Maimonides had never truly known hate until he saw Miriam after the raid. Her sparkling green eyes dead, her laughter quenched. The war ceased to be a matter of distant gossip in that moment. Driving the Franks into the sea became the goal of his life, not just the empty slogan of the average patriot, safely lounging on a feathered couch while others fought on his behalf. Maimonides wondered how many men in Saladin’s army were here for similar reasons. To avenge a personal atrocity committed by the Crusaders. To avenge themselves against Reginald of Kerak.
Saladin noticed the crack in his friend’s composure and he touched his shoulder sympathetically.
“I promised Allah that I will show the Franks mercy if He grants us victory today,” he said. “But I made no such promise on Reginald’s behalf.”
“As a man of God, I cannot preach revenge,” Maimonides said, a tiny hint of regret in his voice.
“Leave revenge to the warriors,” Saladin said. “I would like to think that there are at least a few men unsullied by blood in this world.”
The Sultan was interrupted by the arrival of his brother, al-Adil. Larger in size than Saladin, with a wild shock of almost crimson hair and pitch-black eyes, he was brave and forceful like his kin, but did not share the Sultan’s knack for diplomacy. Al-Adil entered Saladin’s chamber and eyed Maimonides suspiciously. The rabbi was always a little uncomfortable around the flame-haired giant. He did not know why Saladin’s brother disliked him so much. At times he thought it was because he was a Jew. But the sons of Ayyub had been raised to follow the best of their prophet’s tradition and respect the People of the Book. Al-Adil had always treated other Jews with courtesy, but for whatever reason, he chose not to extend it to the chief rabbi himself.
Saladin turned to his brother.
Al-Adil hesitated, glancing at Maimonides as if considering whether the old man should be made privy to councils of war, before continuing.
“The Knights Templar are gathering into formation at the Frankish camp. Our archers are preparing for the charge.”
“Then the trumpet of Allah has called us to destiny.”
He gestured to Maimonides to follow him as he stepped outside the tent, his scowling brother in tow.
A hush fell on the camp as the Sultan emerged. His arrival signaled the beginning of the end. For nearly ninety years, the Muslim armies had been trapped in a losing battle against the Frankish invaders. They had suffered grievous losses and humiliations, none greater than the occupation of Jerusalem and the desecration of the Al-Aqsa mosque. Their tribal pettiness and fratricidal wars had made the dream of victory over the barbarians seem like a desert mirage—seductively inviting, always appearing to be within grasp, but fleeting and illusory at its core. Until today.
Saladin had achieved the impossible. He had united the warring kingdoms of Egypt and Syria after a century of chaos. The Crusaders were finally hemmed in, trapped by the sea and their own shortsighted infighting. And now the unified Muslim armies stood with a dagger poised at the heart of the Frankish kingdom. The Battle of Hattin would determine the future of the Holy Land and the destiny of the Arab people. The soldiers knew that victory today meant triumph over the forces of barbarism and ignorance that threatened to plunge the civilized world back into the illiterate darkness that still covered Europe. If Saladin were defeated today, it would leave Damascus and Cairo open to the Crusader invasion, and the caliphate would vanish into the sewers of history.
That was why he was here, supervising the final battle himself. Saladin trusted his commanders, military geniuses such as the Egyptian general Keukburi and the Sultan’s courageous nephew Taqi al-Din. But the outcome of this conflict, for good or ill, would rest solely upon Saladin’s shoulders in the annals of history. So when word had come that the Franks, desperate for water to replenish their dwindling supplies, were on the move toward the wells of Hattin, Saladin had left behind the safety of his encampment at Kafr Sabt, halfway between Tiberias and the Crusader stronghold at Saffuriyah, to take personal charge over the impending battle.
Saladin gazed with pride at his men as he approached the forward line of defense. The archers on horseback, dressed in silk tunics over cuirasses, were poised like Greek statues of Artemis, ready for the hunt. The regiment stood proudly behind red and jasmine standards. Banners bearing roses and birds fluttered in the wind around them
The Sultan pulled out a small viewing lens and gazed across the fields of Hattin. He squinted and peered through the glass toward the Crusader encampment below. Saladin’s strategy had successfully divided the Frankish army, which had been organized into three columns. Raymond of Tripoli led the forward regiment, which was currently busy defending itself from Taqi al-Din’s ambush on the road to Tiberias. Saladin had had many dealings with Raymond over the years and had come to respect him. Unlike most of his compatriots, the nobleman was a man of honor who had sought a lasting peace between their peoples. But Raymond had been thwarted at all turns by hate-filled fanatics like Reginald and was now compelled through a sense of duty to participate in this destructive war. Saladin had once told Maimonides that he would regret it deeply should he be forced to slay Raymond on the battlefield. But there was no doubt in the rabbi’s mind that the Sultan would do what needed to be done.
The middle contingent of the Crusader army, which confronted them below, was led by Reginald himself, the brutish thug whom Saladin had vowed to kill with his own hands. Maimonides knew that Reginald had personally led the attack that had resulted in his sister’s death. As a doctor, he abhorred the taking of any human life. But the rabbi had long before concluded that Reginald had left behind the hallowed status of a human being with his unbridled savagery.
The rear contingent of the Crusader army was led by Balian of Ibelin and contained the heaviest concentration of the fanatical Knights Templar and Hospitallers. Maimonides knew these men would fight to the death and would never surrender, and he uttered a silent prayer of thanks that the knights had been substantially weakened as a result of lack of water and the never-ending skirmishes that Saladin’s men inflicted on the Frankish army. The fools were so busy swatting the minor attacks the Muslims were provoking from the rear that they could provide little support to Reginald’s central column. Those forces now found themselves alone, facing the full mass of the Muslim army at Hattin. The divided Crusader regiments had unwittingly walked into Saladin’s trap.
Maimonides watched his master as he scanned the distant Crusader camp. The Sultan’s eyebrows rose as he focused on a crimson pavilion at the center of the base. A blue standard bearing an embroidered golden cross flew arrogantly in the wind.
“So it has come to this at last. King Guy himself graces us with his presence,” he said, with a trace of wonder.
Maimonides turned to the Sultan, startled. This was unexpected. “I’m surprised that cur would find the courage to step outside the gates of Jerusalem.”
Al-Adil unsheathed his scimitar and held it high, a towering symbol of power and defiance.
“I shall take great pleasure in separating Guy’s head from his shoulders,” he said. “Unless you would prefer the honor yourself, brother.”
Saladin smiled, accustomed to al-Adil’s outbursts.
“It is not fitting for kings to tear each other apart like rabid dogs,” the Sultan said.
Al-Adil snorted. His was a world of blood and iron that had little place for idealism.
“They will not show you such mercy should their knights come upon you in battle,” he said.
“That is why we are better than them, my brother,” Saladin reminded him. “Our compassion is our greatest weapon. With it we slay the resistance in a man’s heart and quell his hate. When you defeat the rancor, you have replaced an enemy with an ally.”
Al-Adil turned away, shaking his head, but Maimonides smiled. Saladin was a man unlike any the rabbi had met in his life. A Muslim who bowed his head to Mecca, he nonetheless embodied the highest teachings of the Talmud. If such men led every nation, perhaps the Messiah would hasten.
The rabbi peered across the desolate field to the Crusader camp in the distance. Regardless of the course that the battle took, he knew that the end was nigh. He said a silent prayer for the men who would lose their lives in the next few hours. Maimonides forced himself to include a prayer for those among the Frankish enemy destined to die as well, but his heart was not in it.
© 2010 Kamran Pasha
An Epic Novel of the Crusades
Shadow of the Swords
An Epic Novel of the Crusades
Saladin, a Muslim sultan, finds himself pitted against King Richard the Lionheart as Islam and Christianity clash against each other, launching a conflict that still echoes today.
In the midst of a brutal and unforgiving war, Saladin finds forbidden love in the arms of Miriam, a beautiful Jewish girl with a tragic past. But when King Richard captures Miriam, the two most powerful men on Earth must face each other in a personal battle that will determine the future of the woman they both love—and of all civilization.
Richly imagined, deftly plotted, and highly entertaining, Shadow of the Swords is a remarkable story that will stay with readers long after the final page has been turned.
Author Kamran Pasha Discusses Who He Most Admires in History
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In this sweeping historical novel, Kamran Pasha brings to life the Third Crusade and the epic battle between Richard the Lionheart, King of England, and the Muslim Sultan, Saladin. Just when Saladin has finally taken Jerusalem for the Muslims and believes a time of peace is setting in, King Richard is departing from England to regain the Holy City for Christianity. Another bloody war is launched in the name of God, as these two men fight for the honor and glory of their faiths and the love of one beautiful Jewess. In this deeply moving and thought-provoking novel, Pasha recreates some of the most earth-shattering moments in history that still impact us today.
1. Many examples of leadership are presented throughout the book: Saladin, King Guy, King Henry, Richard, Conrad. Discuss the leadership style of each of these characters. Is it better to be feared than loved? What makes each of these rulers successful or not?
2. Sir William muses see more