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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Friday, 20 April 2018

"Saladin" by John Man

A biography of the 12th Century Islamic warrior who confronted Richard the Lionheart in the Third Crusade.

And what a man! Son of a provincial governor, Saladin was a Kurd born in Tikrit (later famous as the home of Sadam Hussein) who grew up in Damascus. He rose to become a mostly successful warrior and a ruler (under his emir and caliph) of an area stretching from Egypt to Turkey. He managed to combine ruthlessness where necessary with justice and mercy becoming famed for his chivalry, his trustworthiness and his generosity and doing his best to negotiate rather than fight. He destroyed the crusader states that had been set up after the First Crusade, reducing the Kingdom of Jerusalem to a tiny coastal strip (which didn't include Jerusalem) although having taken Acre he lost it again to the Third Crusaders,

And what a biography. I read Man's Genghis Khan about ten years ago and found it heavy going but this was a delightful read. There was sufficient scholarship but not too much and lots of fascinating facts and some interesting perspectives: the twelfth century problems of the middle east provide a carefully curved mirror in which to view today's issues. One might almost see modern Israel as a foreign (US) sponsored crusader state in the middle of a fragmented Islamic world; Sunni and Shi'a still scrap, the Assassins were the suicide bombers of their time, and today's civil strife in Syria with its shifting and reshifting alliances are an echo of the division of Saladin's day.

And it had two really helpful maps!

There were lots of bits I thought: I must find out more about this. That's always a good sign. But here are the very best of the good bits:

  • In Baalbek in Lebanon there are thousand tonne megaliths which are even today "the worlds's greatest hewn stones ... twenty times the weight of the megaliths of Stonehenge" (p 23)
  • "medieval Islam hungered for learning and inspired brilliant scholarship. Paper displaced papyrus, bookshops thrived, libraries graced the homes of the rich ... one street in Damascus had a hundred bookshops." (p 25)
  • "The only way to survive was to flee or to fawn: 'Kiss any arm you cannot break'." (p 43)
  • On Mount Qasiyoun just north of Damascus "Cain killed his brother Abel" (p 58)
  • "He lacks words for what he sees, and then lacks words to describe his own inadequacy." (p 60)
  • "seize the chance of undistracted study and seclusion before a wife and children cling to you and you gnash your teeth in regret at the time you lost." (p 62)
  • "a grim landscape of forested valleys and bare hills, surging like a wrestler's muscles" (p 68)
  • Frank Amalric sealed an alliance with the young Caliph of Egypt with "an ungloved handshake, a precedent utterly shocking to courtiers used to their ruler's untouchability." (p 90)
  • "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a princess without a husband must be in need of a prince - acknowledged not by the princess, perhaps, but certainly by those with the power to choose the husband" (p 136)
  • "Raymond was a legend for his bravery, good looks, charm and strength: they said he could crush a stirrup with one hand (which seems a silly way to prove one's strength; a horseshoe, maybe, but why a stirrup?)." (p 136 - 137)
  • Saladin put the Melkites in charge of the Holy Sepulchre "a sect that traces its rituals back to the Apostles." (p 253)
  • "licentious harlots ... selling themselves for gold, bold and ardent, loving and passionate, ink-faced and unblushing" (p 272)
  • "Lord Shang, writing in China in about 400 BC ... advised that for those who rule might is right, power everything. Human beings are idle, greedy, cowardly, treacherous, foolish and shifty. The only way to deal with them is to entice, terrify, reward and punish." (p 320)
  • "people who had endured terrible experiences, yet come through well psychologically ... shared a belief that the universe is fundamentally a supportive place, that it rewards action, and that any setback is a challenge to be overcome." (p 322)


A wonderful, extraordinarily readable biography. April 2018; 358 pages


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