The Muslim response to the Crusades was initially muted and disunited. The inhabitants of the region were shocked by the incursions and horrified by the violence and barbarous habits of the newcomers, but those with the military skills - the Saljuq princes and their atabeys - could not surmount their political differences to fight against them. The impassioned plea of the religious scholar al-Sulami, who went to Baghdad to beg the Saljuq sultan and ‘Abbasid caliph for assistance, fell on deaf ears. It was not until the ambitious atabey of Mosul and Aleppo, Imad al-Din Zangi, and his son Nur al-Din began to create a larger Muslim enclave straddling northern Syria and Iraq that a counter-offensive conceptualized as a jihad began. During the late 1120s Imad al-Din consolidated his control over his domains. By the 1130s he was pushing southwards in Syria and northwards towards the Crusader county of Edessa. Its fall in 1144 triggered the Second Crusade in 1148, which failed to achieve its main goal, namely the capture of Damascus. Instead the Zangids managed to consolidate their control of the Orontes valley from Aleppo down to Hama, Homs and finally Damascus, creating a unified Muslim bloc adjacent to the Crusader principalities on the coastal strip of the Levant.
In the 1160s both the Crusaders and the Zangids began to view Egypt, where the Fatimid caliphate was fading fast, as the next prize. During the early 1160s Amalric, the Latin king of Jerusalem, threatened Egypt repeatedly but was forced back by the approach of Zangid forces each time. In 1167 the Zangids tired of the game and Nur al-Din sent one of his Kurdish commanders, Shirkuh, into Egypt to occupy it. He was accompanied by his nephew, Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi, better known in Europe as Saladin. When Shirkuh died soon after, Salah al-Din assumed the Zangid command in Egypt. He consolidated his position by assuming the role of chief minister to the Fatimid caliph but soon, under pressure from Nur al- Din, he suppressed the Fatimid caliphate. In 1171 the sermon at the Friday Prayer in Cairo was dedicated to the Zangids, Saljuqs and ‘Abbasids after over two centuries during which it had been offered to the Shi’i Fatimids. The termination of the Fatimid caliphate was the end of an era: the Umayyad caliphs of Cordoba had been gone for over a century, their palaces alternately sacked by unpaid Berber soldiers and irate Cordoban townspeople, while the ¡¥Abbasid caliphs resided in the twilight world of Baghdad and left the real business of government to politico-military dynasts such as the Zangids. It was only a matter of time before they too would disappear from the Muslim political stage.
In Egypt power passed to Salah al-Din and his descendants, the Ayyubids, who soon extended their control over Syria at the expense of their former Zangid patrons and the Latin kingdoms. In 1187 Salah al-Din achieved his greatest victory when he defeated the Crusaders at the Battle of Hattin and recaptured Jerusalem. The fall of Jerusalem triggered the Third Crusade (1190-92), which engendered the romantic European image of the encounter between Richard the Lionheart and Salah al-Din but, in fact, led to little gain for either side. In the truce of 1192 the Muslims kept Jerusalem but the Crusaders retained their strategically more important coastal base of Acre. Salah al-Din died the following year. Although he was eulogized as a holy warrior by some of his contemporaries, in subsequent centuries other heroes loomed larger: his Zangid master Nur al-Din, and the later Ayyubid slave soldier Baybars, who helped halt the Mongol advance through Syria in 1260 and then, having become Mamluk sultan, dedicated annual military campaigns from Egypt to dislodging the last remaining Latins from the Levantine coast until his death in 1277. The task was finally completed when the Mamluk sultan Qalawun recaptured Acre in 1291.
During the last decades of the caliphate the ‘Abbasids made a startling comeback in the shape of al-Nasir (r. 1180-1225), an ambitious caliph who attempted to claw back some real power from the various condottieri who passed through Baghdad and extricate himself from Saljuq clutches. On the political front he managed to ally himself with the rulers of Khwarazm in Transoxania and kill the last Saljuq sultan, Tughril, and then avoid Khwarazmian ‘protection’ by making an alliance with the Ghurids of Afghanistan. Having achieved some freedom of political action, he set about restoring the authority of the caliphate by developing an integrative version of Islam which brought together Sunnism and Shi’ism under the umbrella of Sufism (Islamic mysticism). He gave his religious programme an institutional framework in the form of the futuwwa, a term literally meaning ¡¥young men¡¦ but used in this era for groups of men bound by a common moral or honour code and loyal to a particular master or leader. In some contexts futuwwa were little more than urban gangs or militias, but al-Nasir reformed the organization, took over its headship himself, and made it into an empire-wide hierarchy, a military order in the service of the caliph.
However, al-Nasir could not turn back the clock. It had become normal throughout the Islamic world for locally based warrior sultans to rule in the place of the universal caliph, who had become a symbol rather than a reality for the majority of Muslims. In other words, political plurality had become a fact of life. It is for this reason that the final demise of the ‘Abbasid caliphs in 1258 at the hands of the invading Mongols did not cause more distress. The Mongols had arrived in force in Transoxania in 1222, a few years before the death of al-Nasir, to punish the ruler of Khwarazm for having killed a Mongol ambassador. Chinghiz Khan swept through Transoxania and Khurasan, burning, pillaging and destroying cities. Their inhabitants were given a choice - surrender or die - and those who thought the Mongols were bluffing did not live to tell the tale. Although the numbers of deaths given in the chronicles are hugely inflated, they convey the utter desolation caused in the region by this punitive attack. The Mongol conquest of the Middle East, which was directed by Chinghiz Khan’s grandson Hulegu, took place 30 years later. As the Mongols advanced, most cities surrendered quickly to avoid the fate of those who had paid the penalty for resisting the clan of Chinghiz Khan. The Mongols reached Baghdad in 1258, took the city and killed the ‘Abbasid caliph. A member of the ‘Abbasid family made it to Cairo, where the new Mamluk sultan willingly set him up as a latter-day caliph, but his status was not widely recognized outside Mamluk domains in Egypt and Syria.
The arrival of the Mongols radically altered the political geography of the Middle East by drawing a line through the heartlands of the ‘Abbasid caliphate. The eastern Islamic lands from Iraq through Iran to Khurasan and Transoxania became part of the vast Mongol empire, while the western half of the region, Syria, the Arabian peninsula, Egypt and the rest of North Africa were divided up between a number of Muslim regimes, the majority of whom accepted that they were sultans rather than potential caliphs. The cultural legacy of earlier centuries nonetheless lived on, and it is to the society and culture of the ‘Abbasid age that we now turn.