Historian Taqi al-Din Ahmad al-Maqrizi (1364–1442) is a contemporary source for the history of the Ayyubid Sultans. From his Khitat, or Chronicles, we learn details about the characters, reigns, and struggles of the various Ayyubids, from their origins through Salahuddin and his successors. Al-Maqrizi describes conditions in the Holy Land and in the Near East before the Crusades began, and shows the fragmentation of rule in the region. Far from being a unified Islamic empire, the region was ruled from Baghdad only in name. The Abbasid caliph was himself not independent, but controlled by Seljuk military leaders. In Anatolia (today’s Turkey), other groups of Turkic warriors put pressure on Byzantine control of the region. Egypt was ruled by the weakening rival caliphate, the Fatimids of North Africa. Syrian and Palestinian cities and their surrounding lands were ruled by rival leaders who often fought among themselves, or contested their succession among rival family members. The absence of unified rule made life unstable for everyone, and left the situation along trade routes and pilgrimage routes alike uncertain. The situation also prevented a unified response to the arrival of the First Crusade, or resistance to their rule.
Al-Kamil was raised to be a ruler, and educated with the necessary military skills and intellectual preparation for rulers in this time of rival power centers. He learned to recite the Qur’an, and studied Islamic law and religious sciences. Paul Moses, author of The Saint and the Sultan, narrates (p. 68) that during negotiations between Salahuddin, Richard the Lionhearted, and al-Kamil’s father, the English king conferred knighthood upon the eleven-year-old al-Kamil as a symbolic gesture of his relationship with Salahuddin. Al-Kamil was raised in a Muslim society that was multireligious, in which Jews and Christians maintained their own laws, customs, and houses of worship. The presence of diverse religions was completely ordinary, and had existed in these lands for centuries already. Neither Christian nor Jewish groups had vanished with the arrival of Islam, but continued to conduct their religious life. Members of society, regardless of religious group, practiced trade, farmed, and participated in a shared economic, cultural, and artistic life. Jews and Christians performed government service, worked as merchants, and interacted with Muslims. Western European crusaders, when they found themselves ruling over Muslims and Jews, had to adapt, in fact, to this diversity, and could not eliminate the practice of other religions.
Among the lessons al-Kamil grew up with was the treatment of crusader prisoners and hostages by Salahuddin, and the contrast between his rule and the behavior of the crusaders in Jerusalem after their victory. The massacre of 1099, in which Muslims, Jews, and Eastern-rite Christians were killed by the crusaders, was followed by destruction and misuse of holy sites such as the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. In contrast, Salahuddin had ransomed the prisoners and refrained from massacre and destruction. Salahuddin’s religious policies weretolerant of religious diversity in the Holy Land, leaving the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to Christians, although he converted some others and placed restrictions on some Christian activities. As a ruler in his own right, al-Kamil gained a reputation among the Coptic Christians of Egypt for tolerance and justice, for listening to their concerns and judging fairly, on more than one occasion against the claims of Muslims. The Coptic chronicles record these acts of justice and tolerance, and also the fact that he was well-informed about their affairs.
Dialogue at the courts of Muslim rulers was also a long-standing tradition. Religious scholars, scientists, and all sorts of artists gathered around the rulers, holding discussions and sharing their knowledge and skill. Artisans created fine objects such as silk textiles, ceramics, glassware, wood carving, and metalwork for use in the palace, among the wealthy, and for export across the Mediterranean to Italy and Spain, for example. In their speeches calling for Crusades, the Popes of Rome sometimes called for to this trade with Muslims to stop. The luxury goods that left Egyptian and Syrian ports, however, were too valuable for European importers to give up.
Diplomats and military leaders came to the court of al-Adil (who ruled from 1200–1218) and the young al-Kamil learned how negotiations and warfare among rivals were required to stay in power, and how Salahuddin had secured rule over Egypt, and how his sons’ rivalry for power took a toll on their subjects. As his father Sultan al-Adil grew older, he granted al-Kamil power to make decisions over political, social and economic matters. Struggles among fellow Muslim rulers and Ayyubid rivals were only one side of the challenges al-Kamil faced. The crusaders continued to hold territories in the eastern Mediterranean, especially important port cities, and the Church planned and executed new attempts to recover Jerusalem and strengthen their foothold in the Holy Lands.
In 1218, the dangerous invasion of the Fifth Crusade began when the Franks (crusaders) marched on the Egyptian Delta city of Damietta with the idea of taking control of Egypt―or at least its gateway city. Al-Kamil’s father al-Adil died soon after hearing that the Franks had captured a tower along a branch of the Nile. Al-Kamil became Sultan of Egypt in 1218, in the face of the Frankish invasion of Egypt, after having served as his father’s viceroy (deputy) from the age of twenty. Early in his rule, he also faced a famine when the Nile floods failed for three years. Al-Kamil worked to build up the irrigation dams to support agriculture, but disease and hunger killed many.
Al-Kamil also faced uprisings, rebellions among his armies, and rivalries that usually marked the change of ruler. After he had strengthened his position as ruler, he continued the defense of Egypt against the crusaders, who now besieged Damietta, and finally took the city, killing many inhabitants. The crusaders’ attempt to invade even further toward the capital of Cairo finally led to their defeat. The crusaders’ camp was flooded by cutting the irrigation dams and releasing the Nile. St. Francis’s visit to al-Kamil’s camp took place during that time. The Fifth Crusade ended with a treaty that returned Damietta to al-Kamil, after the Frankish army would have died of hunger had not al-Kamil sent food for weeks.
Jerusalem remained under Muslim rule, but to prevent another siege of Jerusalem, the city’s walls were dismantled. Later, in 1229, al-Kamil agreed to treaty to give up Jerusalem to the Franks—an attempt to avoid a sixth crusade. This was a great trial for al-Kamil, because he was accused of giving up the holy city after so much struggle. His personal relationship with Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor—and partner in the treaty—was also controversial. Frederick II was the son of Frederick Barbarossa, ruler of Sicily. Sicily’s court culture in Frederick’s time was influenced by the Muslims who had ruled the island until the Norman invasion. As the Sixth Crusade was being planned, Frederick II, who also ruled Sicily, was suspected of disloyalty to the Church, and sympathy toward the Muslims. Al-Kamil offered a Frederick II a peace treaty to avoid another devastating attack on Egypt, and fear that the disunity of the local Muslim rulers might cause greater losses to the crusaders. Al-Kamil offered to cede the city of Jerusalem to Frederick, except for the Muslim holy places, the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque, for a period of ten years. Frederick was willing to accept this offer in order to save face for himself, having been viewed as a reluctant crusader. The treaty was agreed to, and Jerusalem, as the greatest symbol to the crusaders, was turned over to Frederick in a ceremony. Behind this encounter were two men who preferred peace to war, and who had a cordial relationship. They even exchanged questions about mathematics, and Frederick well understood and even sympathized with the Muslims’ position in Jerusalem, and was inclined to tolerance. Al-Kamil was not rewarded for the treaty by his fellow Muslims, who saw only that his father had won the city back from the crusaders at great cost. It was poorly understood that it probably prevented much worse destruction and loss in the entire region. In the end, his decision proved to have been a wise one, since Jerusalem was in fact retaken, and the Seventh Crusade, led by Louis IX against Egypt, was decisively defeated by forces under al-Kamil’s son and successor.
Throughout his reign, al-Kamil had little relief from both rival Ayyubid and other rivals challenging his power. Al-Maqrizi’s History of the Ayyubid Sultans of Egypt paints a picture of the constant pressure on al-Kamil from plots by rival rulers, some from among his own relatives. There were the risks of upsetting relations with the Abbasid caliph—though he was no longer very powerful—in Baghdad. crusaders were major foreign enemies, but far beyond Baghdad, the Mongol advance on lands and cities of Central Asia was moving toward the city, and threatened Syria and Egypt if Baghdad fell to the Mongols, which happened in 1258.
Al-Kamil met these many challenges by trying to negotiate peace wherever possible, making trade pacts with other Mediterranean cities like Venice, and looking after the welfare of his people rather than seeking glory on the battlefield. Al-Maqrizi described al-Kamil as one who was sparing with the resort to war and the risk to soldiers and civilians. The pages of the History are also filled with accounts of years when the Nile floods failed, the scarce rains did not fall, and prices rose with people’s hunger. Plague often struck populations weakened by hunger and suffering warfare. Administering domestic affairs for the welfare of people meant taking care of defensive walls, keeping roads secure, and maintaining irrigation. Al-Kamil was always interested in scholarship and learning beyond the military challenges. Al-Maqrizi wrote of him:
Al-Kamil much loved men of learning, preferring their society. He . . . listen[ed] to the traditions of the Prophet, and himself related traditions. . . . He built the Kamiliyah College of Traditions in Cairo. . . . He loved discussions with Muslim scholars]. . . . Learning and literature flourished under him.