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Statue of Saladin in Damascus

Saladin is a peculiar figure in Kurdish nationalist dialogue. On the one hand, he is arguably the best known Kurdish person to the world, even if they are not aware he is Kurdish. On the other hand, he did not do anything to advance Kurdish nationalism, but rather a fighter for the Islamic world. Those interested in Kurdish culture generally take two positions towards Saladin- one that he did not care for Kurdish people at all, as he showed with his relocation from Kurdish regions to Egypt and Syria. Another a recognition that nationalism did not factor in during those days, but a common Islamic identity and the advancement of family and tribal interests did. They point out that despite this, Saladin is an important historical figure Kurdish culture should acknowledge and embrace. Ironically, it is within Arab Nationalist circles that Saladin finds the most warm reception, with leaders from Nasser in Egypt (acknowledging Saladin’s role in the growth of Cairo) to Saddam in Iraq (Saladin’s home) adopting imagery associated with Saladin to advance pan-Arab aspirations, seeing Saladin as the last great leader to ‘unite’ the Arab peoples against foreign conquest.

Saladin was born in either 1137 or 1138, and died in 1193- living the entirety of his life in the 12th century. It was a tumultuous time in the Middle-East. The Abbasid Caliphate’s collapse left many small kingdoms in its wake, and the creation of Turkic kingdoms – the Zengids and the Seljuks- the latter the predecessor to the Ottoman Empire. Saladin’s family originated from the Rawadid tribe, which was a branch of the Hadhabani tribe, who had originally exerted power in the Caucasus region. As I mentioned before in the Medieval principalities, Saladin’s family moved to Tikrit and became assimilated into the Arab circles there.

Saladin took advantage of the crisis in the Middle-East, still reeling from the formation of the Crusader States in the Levant, to take control of the Shi’a (Ismaili) Fatimid Egypt. Originally sent with his brother Shirkuh, by the Zengid ruler Nur-ad-din to help in a power struggle in Fatmid Egypt, Shirkuh seized power in Egypt and Saladin assumed control following his death. With the death of Nur-ad-din, Saladin forged a kingdom uniting realms in Syria with Egypt. In the years that followed until his death, Saladin provided some of the strongest challenges the Crusaders faced until then. Saladin’s forces was distinguished by his use of Kurdish chiefs in leadership roles which he used as a counterweight against Arab and Turkish notables in the region to solidify his power base. By means of his action and disposition, Saladin earned a reasonably warm reputation in European circles for years to come, which had apparently existed long enough for Kaiser Wilhelm II to visit the tomb of Saladin in Damascus and gift the Ottoman Empire a marble coffin, which is in Saladin’s tomb alongside his original one.

In the Middle-East Saladin’s image was more heavily invoked by Arab Nationalists, particularly those that pursued pan-Arab aspirations in the framework of republican revolutions across the region. Saddam Hussein notably invoked it the most in building his regime, despite his actions against Kurds that Saladin came from. Saladin’s eagle was a common symbol in Ba’athist insignia (as it was in Nasser’s Egypt), and Saddam even designated the term to Jash (pro-Ba’ath Kurdish militias) that fought against the Peshmerga. Saladin was largely ignored by Kurdish nationalists due to his heavy use by Arab nationalists, as well as the truth that Saladin couldn’t be considered a Kurdish ‘patriot’ or figured into any sense of the Kurdish legends, which often involved stands against the empires that would come to occupy the region of Kurdistan.

Saladin could not be expected to be a ‘patriot’ as nationalism was not a force in those years- indeed ‘nationalism’ as an appreciable force would not be seen until the years of the enlightenment in Europe , especially in the late 1700s and onwards. Saladin pursued his interests as well as those of his family, and his allegiance was to Islam. This is important to take in mind, both to those Kurds who try to glorify the Ayyubid Dynasty as a Kurdish Empire, and those that chastise Saladin for not taking the chance to declare a “Kurdish” empire.  Both seem to not realize the world that Saladin lived in, and rather try to apply our modern politics and relations to a world from over 800 years ago.

Saladin’s name can be seen in Kurdish areas- north of Hawler where much of the KDP’s political structure exists at Sari Rash is known as “Masif Selahaddin”, as is some universities. The Golden Eagle traditionally associated with Saladin (also used in Egypt and Iraq) can be found on the seal of the President of the KRG, as well as the KRG in general.

Saladin should be examined more by those constructing history- not so much as an example of Kurdish nationalism, but simply to understand the progress of Kurds in the region. As I’ve mentioned before, Kurdish activities and history before 1500 is difficult to research, and further examination into Saladin (and his own past), can help to bridge the gap that exists in the early days of Kurds under Islam, and what exactly had preceded them.