Iṣmat ad-Dīn Khātūn


Vulgar History Podcast

Iṣmat ad-Dīn Khātūn

December 17, 2023

Ann Foster:
Hello and welcome to Vulgar History, a feminist women’s history comedy podcast. Before we get into today’s episode, I want to take a moment to acknowledge the deaths and unfolding devastation in Palestine and Israel. I apologize for not speaking up sooner. What’s happening in Gaza and Israel right now is horrifying. My heart goes out to everyone who is being affected by this, which I know includes listeners of this podcast. I also want to state unequivocally that I stand against Islamophobia and antisemitism. 

Gaza is now the deadliest place for civilians in the world. As of this recording, more than 10,000 lives have been lost in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank and more than 1.4 million people have been displaced in Gaza. People in Gaza are experiencing daily bombardment, severe hunger, dehydration, and a lack of medical care, not to mention the serious long-term mental health impacts of the violence on everyone, including children. I echo the calls from organizations like Doctors Without Borders, the United Nations, the World Health Organization, UNICEF, Save the Children, and the International Council of Nurses to call for immediate de-escalation and a cease-fire, for an end to the bombing of Gaza, for the safe release of the hostages, and for aid to be allowed to enter. 

How can we help? We can pay attention, share information about this situation, join protests, and contact our elected representatives to let them know we demand a cease-fire. I have put links in the show notes for more information about actions we can all take. If you have the means to do so, consider supporting organizations like MSF, Doctors Without Borders, and World Central Kitchen, which provide necessary help to places in need of medical care and food. The Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund, PCRF, also provides medical and humanitarian relief. Save the Children is working to provide essential services and support. I have put links to these organizations in the show notes. 

Learning more about the history of this region can also help better understand what’s going on today. Some podcasts that I recommend to listen to, to learn about the history of this part of the world include The History of the Crusades, The Islamic History Podcast, PreOccupation: A Not-So-Brief History of Palestine, and Head On History. Our editor, Christina Lumague did an episode of her podcast, Historias Unknown, about this and so has the podcast Jewitches. I put links to all those podcasts in the show notes as well. There are also numerous books that go into depth about the history of the Levant, which is this region, which I’m going to explain in one second, but if you want to read books on this topic and the history, I’ve put a link to a book list I made up in the show notes as well.

So, the Levant. Today’s episode takes place in a region that English-speaking historians and others refer to as the Levant so that’s the term I’m going to use for this geographic region. This term, the Levant was first used in English in 1497, referring to ‘the East’ or ‘Mediterranean lands east of Italy.’ I think it’s technically a French word, levant. French people, let me know. But in this instance, this refers to the direction of the east where the sun rises each day. From the western Mediterranean, the Levant was to the east where the sun rose, and thus how it received its name. 

So, this is a term that has been used and still is used to refer to different areas in different times throughout history. First, it was a term used in reference to ancient lands along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea in the Old Testament of the Bible. This region also holds many important cities like Jerusalem, Petra, Jericho, and Damascus. The modern-day Levant includes countries instead of kingdoms; these Levant countries include Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, parts of Syria, and western Jordan. Some people use a broader definition of this area that can include some or all of the following countries: Cyprus, Turkey, Egypt, Libya, Greece, and Iraq. So, if you picture just on a map, that’s the place we’re talking about. The borders of the countries and regions we have now have all changed throughout time but some of the oldest cities ever are in this area and they often have the same name so I’m mostly just going to be using city names in this episode just to try and make it as clear as possible. 

So, land in this part of the world has always been coveted because it’s close to lots of water sources, which is good for agriculture, so this often led to conflict over who controls the land. Also, it’s some of the oldest cities in the world so as long as there have been people there have been people fighting about land. So yeah, this is one of the earliest places where agriculture developed. It’s also a location that’s strategically useful for trade, and then because some of the oldest civilizations started here, there are lots of religious sites there for many different religions. 

I wanted to do an episode that takes place in the region because it’s in the news right now due to the current warfare because this whole podcast, not this episode, but this whole podcast is really like, I want to learn about stuff and after I do I like to tell you about it. So, I’ve been learning about a lot of stuff about this for myself, partially just to recontextualize the history of this region. It’s more than what’s happening in the news, there’s such a rich history to this whole area so I’ve been reading and learning lots about the history of this and I want to share with you some of what I’ve recently learned including about a very interesting woman who lived in oldy times in this area. 

So, in the usual Vulgar History style, if you’re not familiar with that, I’m skipping the details of major battles. There are a lot of battles in this story, and I am skipping them because that is what I do. I like to focus on the personalities and people and imagine what it was like to be them and live in that place. In order to just focus on the story of the woman who we’re talking about today. Also, I do want to state that while religion is incredibly important to everyone in this story like it is in a lot of the episodes I do, religion is not a part of my life personally. So, I’m really retelling this story in terms of people and what they did and I’m hoping to do so as respectfully as possible for religious people. 

So, today’s story is about a woman who lived a very, very long time ago whose name was Iṣmat ad-Dīn Khātūn. The references I used for this were Wikipedia, a book called The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf, the book Queens of Jerusalem: The women who dared to rule by Katherine Pangonis, the book The Life and Legend of the Sultan Saladin by Jonathan Phillips, as well as an article from History.com explaining “the Crusades” because I think I said in an episode a long time ago or maybe on Instagram that this is a part of history that I have not really learned about before but, you know, dabbing into this, I learned a lot. [laughs] You’re going to learn a lot of what I learned as well. 

So, the woman we’re talking about, Iṣmat ad-Dīn Khātūn, we don’t know her given name, this is like an honorific. It’s similar to when we did previous episodes on Muslim women, Hürrem Sultan or Sayyida al-Hurra, those are both honorific titles, not the actual given names that they have. So, her name means “purity of the faith” and then Khātūn means “lady” or “noblewoman.” So, Iṣmat ad-Dīn Khātūn. She’s also AKA sometimes Asimat and she was born sometime in the mid 12th century. 

I have a whole spreadsheet of all the people we’ve ever talked about on this podcast, and this is mostly for myself to be like, what time period are we looking at? Who else was around at this time? So, this is like 500 years after Fredegund and Brunhild. It’s toward the end of the life of Empress Matilda and about 200 years before Joanna of Naples. And those are the three closest people in time and date to her but also, they all have a connection to what her story includes Iṣmat’s which is “the Crusades.” The connection with Fredegund and Brunhild is that the crusaders were AKA the Franks, which Fredegund and Brunhild were part of the Frankish kingdoms. Empress Matilda’s grandson I want to say, grandsons, were some of the people out doing “the Crusades” and then Joanna of Naples later was Queen of Jerusalem. 

So, little backstory here, the goddamn Crusades. First of all, note, “the Crusades” – and I keep saying it like that because I’m putting it in air quotes because that’s not the term I necessarily think of it as but that’s what it’s known as to probably a lot of you. Anyway, so in the 11th century, when this all kind of started, western Europe – what we think of as modern-day England, France, Italy, Germany – was not very interesting to Islamic writers so the people living in and around the Levant area. They regarded their own culture, the Islamic culture, as much more sophisticated and advanced, which it was due to their progressive achievements in science and the arts. Muslims refer to Europeans as Franks, not because they were all from Fredegund and Brunhild’s land, but I think it’s kind of akin to Christopher Columbus… Was it Christopher Columbus? Or whoever referred to the Indigenous people of the Americas as “Indians,” it’s like somebody just kind of used that word and then everybody was like, “Great, that’s the word we’re going to use.” So, Islamic people just called Europeans “Franks,” that’s just the word they used. 

So, they saw the Franks, which are people from all these parts of Europe, they were seen as being really preoccupied with warfare and hunting and they had a melancholy temperament, a general proneness to savagery, they were also seen as filthy, unhygienic and treacherous and, you know what? They were. Myself, as a descendant of white European people, not wrong, this is not a wrong take. If you read the story of Fredegund and Brunhild, unhygienic and treacherous, yeah, they were constantly dying of dysentery, murdering each other. Correct. Correct, Islamic people of the past. 

So, there’s a writer named al-Masudi who in the 10th century wrote about the Franks. I’m going to put a quote here and this is just a read for the ages and myself as a white person, I see myself in this, and I respect this. [laughs] I respect this as a read. So:

The power of the sun is weak among them because of their distance from it. Cold and damp prevail in their regions with snow and ice follow one another in endless succession. Their colour is so excessively white that it passes from white to blue, their skin is thin and their flesh thick. Their eyes are also blue, matching the character of their colouring. Their hair is lank and reddish because the prevalence of damp mists. Their religious beliefs lack solidity, and this is because of the nature of cold and the lack of warmth. 

I’m going to say as a red-haired blue-eyed person with alarmingly pale skin, correct. That is… [chuckles] That is me. Anyway. So, we’ve got this very sophisticated, cultured region with Islamic rulers and we’ve got the Franks up in Europe just being the messes that we know from the Fredegund story. There’s also another group that I haven’t talked about which is the Byzantine Empire, which is like, I can’t explain everything today because I didn’t have time to learn it all myself but that’s another group and that’s more the eastern Europe. 

Anyway, November 1095, “The Pope called upon western Christians to take up arms,” like their swords, “to aid the Byzantines in their war against Muslim countries in order to capture these lands.” So, these lands in the Levant, which were places where Bible stuff happened. The Bible took place in a lot of these areas, Jesus was there, and a lot of these places were at that time under Muslim control. So, the Christians in Europe were like, “Great, let’s do this,” this is “the Crusades.” They were a major thing at the time to the Europeans as European history went on, it was a thing people talked about and remembered as this major thing. 

What I appreciate about this, and I got a lot– I told you my references. There’s this book The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf and as a person who hadn’t read about the Crusades before, I really learned a lot of things from that book and from his point of view, which is basically, this was the thing that was important to the Franks and to the Islamic world, they’re just like, okay. It was sort of more battles among many battles because like anywhere on Earth, the episode about Malintzin if you will recall, Hernán Cortés and the Spanish came to Mexico and they kind of came in and they were one more group of people like, the Nahua people that were living in that region had all different factions and groups and alliances already so the Spanish came and they were just one more group. It wasn’t like all the Indigenous people of Mexico were all together because they were all at war with each other because as I said before, as long as there’s been people, they’ve been fighting over land. 

So, all these Muslim countries weren’t like, “Yay, we’re all the Muslim countries, and we’re all great!” No, they had different alliances and stuff against each other as well. So, then the crusaders came, and the writer Jonathan Phillips wrote that “Most Muslims saw the Crusades as just another invasion among many in their history.” If we look at contemporary accounts written by Islamic people, like during the time of the Crusades, they didn’t recognize any religious and military motive for the crusaders who were simply viewed as arriving from nowhere before wreaking havoc on Muslims.” The fact that the Pope sent them on this religious crusade and the Muslims, the Islamic people themselves didn’t realize that there was, or recognize the religious significance shows how this wasn’t really about religion… In my perspective. 

So, I mean just to be clear, the crusaders were just like every, all the ships of white people coming over to the Americas or doing colonization anywhere, they were just shitty people. And a lot of them, there’s this stereotype that it was the younger sons of families because the older sons had to stay behind to be kings or inherit the land and the younger sons were just kind of bored, so this was just a little fun thing for them to do. Some of the stuff I read was like, “It wasn’t just that.” but also, I feel like it kind of was just that. Anyway, there were all these different groups of crusaders, and they also weren’t united with each other, there were different factions within factions. There was one group led by a guy called Count Emicho which was especially heinous, a case for the SVU squad, under his group of crusaders carried out a series of massacres of Jewish people in various towns, drawing widespread outrage. So, when you’re like, you’re too murderous for even the crusaders, this is like a Catalina de Erauso moment of like, “Look at your life, look at your choices.” Anyway, this caused a major crisis in Jewish-Christian relations. 

So, this first bunch of crusaders, their big focus was Jerusalem, the city, they wanted to claim the city for themselves, for Western Christians because of its connection with the story of Jesus. I want to say that I was raised Christian, but I haven’t interacted with that vibe in a very long time, and I don’t know what happened in what cities but apparently, Jerusalem is the city where he was crucified, resurrected, and ascended so important to Christian people. Other stuff happened in Jerusalem to other religions but I’m just saying, for the Crusaders, this is what their connection to it was. They headed down and in 1099, the Crusaders captured Jerusalem and pretty quickly, more quickly than expected, because they came in with all these messy ass tactics, they massacred almost all of the Muslim and Jewish inhabitants of Jerusalem and then they proclaimed this the capital of the kingdom of Jerusalem. 

They elected a guy called Godfrey of Bouillon, the Godfrey of Soup Cubes, was elected lord of Jerusalem but then he died. Then they offered the lordship to his brother Baldwin, a shockingly 21st-century-sounding name in the middle of this story from a thousand years ago. Anyway, so on Christmas day, in the Basilica of Bethlehem, he became the new, I think it’s king, I think he’s called King Baldwin of Jerusalem. Anyway, the crusaders were like, “We did what we wanted so now we’re done, and we’ll go back home now, I guess,” which is what a lot of them did but because it went so well, the Christian authorities, which I think means the Pope, were like, “That went well, let’s do Crusades 2.0. Let’s do some more Crusades.” 

So, the second Crusade began in 1147, which is about 50 years later. This Crusade went badly for the Franks due to the Islamic kingdoms being more prepared and knowing what was up. One of the people who was extremely successful in this and a very powerful military commander who made the Franks not do well was Iṣmat’s dad. So, let’s talk about her and him and who they were. 

So, today’s main character, Iṣmat ad-Dīn Khātūn was one of three daughters of Mu’in ad-Din Unur, who was the regent of Damascus which was a city then which is basically where it still is now in modern-day Syria. Damascus, fun fact, if you watched Forged in Fire the TV show about people doing blacksmithing, Canister Damascus is a method they use sometimes. But also, that’s where I first heard the word. But the city of Damascus, and I don’t know its connection to Canister Damascus, blacksmiths, let me know. Anyway, the old city of Damascus is considered to be among the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. They did excavations on the outskirts of the city which showed that it was inhabited as early as 10,000 BCE. 10,000 BCE, that’s earlier than anyone we have ever talked about on this podcast, I am fairly confident but let me double check. Yeah, even Nefertiti, the longest-ago person we’ve ever talked about, that was like 1300 BCE. When I talk about these are some of the oldest civilizations it’s like, the oldest civilizations, full stop. The archaeology findings there are incredible. 

Anyway, her dad, Iṣmat’s dad, was probably originally from what we would think of today as modern-day Armenia or Turkey where he was taken kind of in a Hürrem Sultan type thing if you’ve heard that episode. We did this podcast before where people would be taken from there and then they would be enslaved. The way that men were enslaved sometimes was as mercenaries, so they were put in the army but then you, kind of, there was a structure where you could move up in the army, even though you entered it being against your will, enslaved. Anyway, that’s what happened to him. He was really good at being army guy, he was a really good military leader, so he was assigned the position of regent of Damascus. 

And so, one of his colleagues was a man named Nur ad-Din who ruled one of the nearby Syrian provinces and they were sort of like, I don’t want to say frenemies, but they were like, let’s be in an alliance but let’s be suspicious of each other and ready for one of the other ones to do something fishy. It was Iṣmat’s dad’s policy to remain on friendly terms with his neighbours whenever possible whether they were Christian or Muslim. So, these guys were like, okay with each other. So, they negotiated an alliance in 1147. I think I said that’s the year that the Second Crusade started. So, coincidence or that’s why? Anyway, in this alliance, this formalized alliance with Nur ad-Din, who is this frenemy, it was arranged that we would marry Iṣmat ad-Dīn Khātūn, today’s main character. And so, like so many marriages in history and that we talk about on this podcast, it was really just a way to formalize, we actually fuck with each other, sorry not literally. We’re two places and we’re so committed to working together that we have become a family together. 

The majority of sources claim that Nur ad-Din and Iṣmat ad-Dīn Khātūn’s marriage was strictly paperwork only, in the sense of, like, they probably never even met each other, let alone consummated this marriage. So, this was very much paperwork only, I feel like they lived in different cities their whole lives, which, his life is going to end pretty soon. So, this is where we don’t know, was she a child at this time when this marriage was arranged? We don’t know her age, basically. So, she’s married but kind of not really, asterisk. So, she remained home because she was not in the same city as her husband. Did she know that this paperwork had been signed? Unclear. 

Anyway, so her husband and her dad went out on military campaigns together against the Franks. At one point, Nur ad-Din, her husband, and I just like to highlight this, this is quite a thing to do, he “marched all the way to the coast and expressed his dominance of Syria by symbolically bathing in the Mediterranean,” which is high drama, it’s camp, I love it. And so her husband Nur ad-Din, his “dream was to unite the various Muslim forces between the Euphrates and the Nile to make a common front against the crusaders.” But like I said before, all these places that have been around for like 10,000 years, there’s a lot of people who work together, people who don’t like working together so it’s quite a challenge to get them all to team up together. But Nur ad-Din, convincing person, managed to unite the major cities of Mosul and Aleppo, which are both still cities today, under his rule. So, the third prong of this, the part that he needed to have under his rule as well to be one united thing was Damascus, which is the place that Iṣmat’s dad was the regent of. 

At around this time, her dad died of dysentery, and he was buried in a university he had founded. And I mention that just because sometimes I forget how old the concept of a university is. Anyway, so her brother took over as regent of Damascus, but this is the same sort of thing we often see where somebody is a strong ruler and then their useless son becomes regent and is not good. So, her brother was soon overthrown by her husband, awkward, Nur ad-Din but now he had Damascus. So, from this point on, all of Syria was united under the authority of Nur ad-Din. 

And then King Baldwin of Jerusalem, I don’t know if it’s the same King Baldwin. Now it says it’s King Baldwin III so two more Baldwins, [laughs] like, Alec Baldwin has all those children. So, King Baldwin III of Jerusalem died and out of respect for such a formidable opponent, Iṣmat’s husband Nur ad-Din refrained from attacking. You know what? Good on him. So, there’s a chronicler who is from the Franks who is named William of Tyre and he reported Nur ad-Din said, “We should sympathize with their grief and in pity spare them because they have lost a prince such as the rest of the world does not possess today.” Cool of him. So, Nur ad-Din just kept bringing together more of these Muslim territories, conquering more places including Egypt and then he believed, “You know what? Job done.” He’d accomplished his goal of uniting the Muslim states. But then he was seized by a fever due to complications from what sounds like tonsilitis. He died aged 56 in 1174 in Damascus leaving Iṣmat ad-Dīn Khātūn a widow, for a man she had never met. 

So, he died and then unlike how he was like, “This is cool, Baldwin died, I won’t attack,” Baldwin’s successor, King Amalric of Jerusalem was like, “He just died then I’ll attack!” So, he decided to besiege the city of Banias where Iṣmat seems to have been living at the time. So, a bit about Banias. This is a site, it’s kind of cliffs, kind of mountains in the Levant called Golan Heights. So, at this point, this was one of these extremely old cultures, not 10,000 years old but 1,000 years but Banias the city had been lived in for 1,000 years. The ruins are actually still there. The ancient city was mentioned in the Bible when it was AKA Caesarea Philippi and so the significance of this to Christian people is this is the place where Jesus confirmed Peter’s confession that Jesus was the Messiah. This location was abandoned and destroyed in 1967 as part of the Six-Day War, which is a thing you can google if you’d like to learn more about that. We’re focusing on much centuries earlier than that, but just to show how long this city was around for. 

The site today is a place of pilgrimage for Christians and presumably was at this time too for all of these Jesus-related reasons and that’s why Amalric wanted to take over. But Iṣmat ad-Dīn Khātūn was like, “Try me, bitch.” She didn’t say “bitch” she was just like, “Try me.” A geographer called Ibn Jubayr, who was a traveller and poet from al-Andalus – remember, that’s kind of modern-day Spain – he described Banias the city and why it was important and what it was like at that time. 

This city is a frontier fortress of the Muslims. It is small but has a castle, round which, under the walls flows a stream. This stream flows out from the town by one of the gates and turns a mill… Commanding the town is the fortress, called Hunin, which lies 3 leagues distant from Banias. 

Our correspondent William of Tyre who, note, in general, not a fan of Muslims, not a fan of women, not a fan of Muslim women but wrote really good things about Iṣmat which is how you know she’s pretty cool, to impress even him. He wrote that Iṣmat, “With courage beyond that of most women, send a message to this king demanding that he abandon the siege and grant them a temporary peace. She promised to pay a large sum of money in return.” So, this is Iṣmat negotiating. Amalric is trying to take over this place, Banias, and Iṣmat is like, “How about diplomacy?” So, Amalric, “in the hope of extorting a larger bribe at first pretended to spurn her plea and continued the siege.” So, for about 15 days, he continued, this is William of Tyre writing: 

With vigour and zeal and caused his foe great trouble with his siege engines and in various other ways. Finally, he perceived that the ability of the Turks to resist was steadily increasing and began to realize, he had no chance of success. Meanwhile, Iṣmat’s envoys kept insistently demanding peace. He finally decided to accept the proffered money and on the release of 220 captive Christian knights in addition, he raised the siege with the intention of undertaking greater projects later. 

So, I mean, this is why I wanted to talk about Iṣmat ad-Dīn Khātūn. All this stuff is happening, she was born when the Crusades were happening, her dad was a big guy in the Crusades, she was married to this main crusader, well I guess anti-crusader. Anyway, she was living among all this war, and she was so clever. The diplomacy, the peacefulness of this. This is kind of the role that women have in a lot of cultures and societies where they’re seen as the peacemakers or the peacekeepers and she really demonstrated how that can be such a powerful thing to do. He was trying to siege and through diplomacy she got him to call off the siege, not leading an army, just using her “soft skills.” 

So, from this anecdote, we can glean some things about what she was like. She was noble, she was courageous, certainly, she was determined and also, on the way back after giving up the siege, she got to keep Banias, King Amalric fell ill from dysentery which turned into a fever. William of Tyre wrote about how he died, which is, “After suffering intolerably from the fever for several days, he ordered physicians of the Greek, Syrian, and other nations noted for skill in diseases to be called and insisted that they give him some purgative remedy.” But they couldn’t fix this, and he died. 

So, Nur ad-Din’s former general, so this is her husband– No, her husband died, then the siege, then Amalric died, so her dead husband’s former general was a guy named Saladin who had by now taken over Egypt and he claimed that he… Because remember that Nur ad-Din had taken Damascus as one of his last places, so Saladin was like, “Great, I’m his successor so now I’ll be in charge of Damascus.” And he did exactly what Nur ad-Din had done, and he legitimized his claim by marrying Iṣmat ad-Dīn Khātūn in 1176. So, like, for the exact same reason just showing “We’re going to combine these families, I am family to this place now because I just married her, the other guy did the exact same thing.” These two actually met each other. 

And just to make this all a little complicated, a little bit, or not complicated but just sort of like, okay. So, Iṣmat ad-Dīn’s marriage with Saladin was proclaimed to be her first marriage. To be fair, she didn’t meet the first husband. This was publicly proclaimed as the first marriage and people didn’t know about her marriage with Nur ad-Din until he had died. So, it’s all just kind of, was that even a marriage? Unclear. Anyway, so this is a quote from the book Queens of Jerusalem by Katherine Pangonis. 

Iṣmat ad-Dīn Khātūn was married to the two greatest warlords of the medieval Muslim Middle East. She was the companion and confidante of two of the most impressive and powerful men of her generation and must have had a unique understanding of the two leaders who shaped the fate of Islam in the Levant. She’s a figure of great historical significance despite the lack of information available about her personality, her appearance, and her life.

So, this is like, the main thing we know about her was how she used diplomacy to call off the siege but we’re going to read between the lines and talk a little bit more about her second husband, kind of her first husband, Saladin because one of the things we know is that he wrote to her every day when they were apart so he was very fond of her, clearly. And who was this guy, Saladin? 

So, full name, Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, commonly known as Saladin. He was born around 1137 and was probably therefore of similar age to Iṣmat, probably. He was from a Kurdish family born in Tikrit, present-day Iraq. So, we know his personal name was Yusuf. Salah ad-Din AKA Saladin is his honorific, it means “righteousness of the faith.” So, he wasn’t enslaved to begin with, he was from a military family and he kind of went up in the ranks of the military just by being good at it. This is where I’m going to not be going into the details of all the battles but know there were several and he did very well in them. By mid 1175, he was proclaimed sultan of Egypt and Syria and he was so successful he was a frequent target by some people called the Assassins. 

This is just, side note, I can’t not tell you about this. So, in this time and starting a couple of hundred years before this time, in the mountains of this region, there was a group of people, and order of people you might say, and their whole deal was being spies/murderers, basically. So, over the course of nearly 300 years, they killed hundreds of people. The modern term “assassination” is stemming from the tactics used by the Assassins. That’s the name of their group and now it describes the kind of stuff they did but that was also the name of their group, it’s an Arabic word. So, I have, in the past, in a silly way, claimed that Fredegund invented assassination. So, she did introduce the concept to medieval Francia, literally this group, the Assassins literally invented… assassins. And the Western world was introduced to the concept of assassins by the works of Marco Polo who is a person, not just a game to play. Marco Polo was a Venetian guy who lived 100 years after all this stuff happened. Anyway, the Assassins like Fredegund, their preferred method of killing was by dagger, nerve poison, or arrows. And they kept trying to kill Saladin and he kept outsmarting them and that makes me like him even better and also them. 

So, then we get 1186. Iṣmat ad-Dīn Khātūn died during a plague epidemic, so maybe of plague. She might have also died from maybe tuberculosis, some sort of illness-based thing. Saladin was off at this time on a military campaign, writing her letters every day as he always did when they were apart. He was actually recovering from his own lengthy illness at the same time. Maybe plague also? I don’t know. Anyway, this is where we learn by reading between the lines a few more things about Iṣmat. So, his advisors knew that once he learned that she had died, he would be so affected that it might affect his own recovery from illness, so they concealed the news from him for three months that she was dead. So, he continued to write her long letters every day and then they had to go through and sensor the letters being sent to him in case somebody mentioned that she was dead because they just didn’t want him to know. 

This is the sort of thing where… She was clearly so important to him, and they knew that she was so important to him, the fact that they hid her death, we don’t know a lot about her, but we know a lot about him and we know that she was clearly so important to him. He was involved with other women as well, but he was not writing any of them letters every day, so she seems to be the woman most cherished by him. It seems pretty certain that they did not have any children. I feel like how often were they even in the same city? It was a letter-based relationship. He did have children with some of his other partners. One of his children was a daughter named Munisa’h Khatun and some people think maybe that was Iṣmat’s daughter but probably was not. 

A year after Iṣmat died, Saladin led his army in the Battle of Hattin, in which he defeated the crusaders, and he re-established Muslim military dominance in this region. And then he died in 1191 in Damascus. “In his possession at the time of his death was only one piece of gold and 40 pieces of silver.” So, even though he was really successful and was the sultan of all these areas, he had given away his great wealth to his poor subjects, leaving nothing to pay for his funeral. He was buried in a mausoleum in the garden outside the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria, which is going to be a whole thing let me tell you, in a second. 

So, despite the religious differences and the fact that they were always at war with each other, Saladin was respected by the Christians including Richard the Lionheart, who was the son of Eleanor of Aquitaine who is played by Anthony Hopkins in the movie, The Lion in Winter. He is also the main king in Disney’s Robinhood movie, his brother Prince John is the one who sucks his thumb. Anyway, Richard the Lionheart, famous crusader. 

Richard once praised Saladin as a great prince, saying he was without doubt the greatest and most powerful leader in the Islamic world. Saladin, in turn, stated there was not a more honourable Christian lord than Richard. Saladin and Richard sent each other many gifts as tokens of respect but never met face to face. 

As a result of the crusades, which went on for hundreds of years. So first, all these people were coming down from Europe to the Levant and there weren’t roads so it really built up more infrastructure so people could go back and forth which affected trade. Roads improved, the cultures had more to do with each other. There’s a whole thing I’ve been reading recently about how there’s a pattern that you see often on Christmas sweaters and things, it’s like an 8-pointed star. I always thought it was a snowflake but it’s actually a motif from Palestinian artwork and craftspersonship and the reason that this symbol, it’s called the star of Bethlehem, came to Europe and now it’s so omnipresent in Christmas sweaters is because of this, from this Crusades era, just these artistic motifs and stuff moved around, people were exposed to other cultures. This also resulted in an increase in shipbuilding, the manufacturing of various supplies. This ongoing hundreds of years of on-off wars had other effects as well, culturally. 

Okay, Saladin’s tomb. 1898, hundreds of years later. Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany who was the grandson of Queen Victoria, note he’s the eldest of her 42 grandchildren, she had a lot of children, he donated a new marble sarcophagus to Saladin’s mausoleum. I read that and was like, why would he do that? As I mentioned before, the Crusades were not a big thing at the time they were happening, it was just kind of like, “Okay, these guys come and there are wars sometimes.” But in terms of Arabic and Turkish history, it was described in one book as a “Small blip on a very large radar screen”. So, this changed. Saladin himself was not a super big hero for hundreds and hundreds of years because the Crusades were not really a big deal in Islamic history. 

But the Crusades were such a big deal to the West, so Wilhelm is the grandson of Queen Victoria. I’m sure in England they’ve talked a lot about the Crusades, and she was from Germany, right? Her husband was from Germany. So anyway, it was all really built up to Western European people, so he was really into it, and he thought Saladin sounded like this great hero. In fact, the first Arabic language history of the Crusades wasn’t published until 1899, coincidentally the same year that Wilhelm was on a tour of the Middle East, and he was a fan of this whole thing so he wanted to see that tomb and what he found shocked him. “A neglected, crumbling, and forgotten wooden tomb tucked away in the small outbuilding of a garden beside the great mosque of Damascus.” And I wonder if the tomb was really modest because he didn’t have money and Saladin was kind of a humble person. Anyway, Wilhelm had been raised on romantic tales like Sir Walter Scott’s The Talisman which was an 1825 tale of the Crusades, and he basically worshipped the concept of Saladin. So, he paid for a new mausoleum out of his own pocket, which was a “beautiful marble tomb in the medieval style with scroll work that has a Byzantine flourish. On a bronze wreath, he inscribed ‘From one great emperor to another.’” 

So, what was he even doing there? Why was the Kaiser of Germany in the Levant? So, this was actually a second tour of that region which was meant to strengthen friendly relations between Turkey and Germany. Why were they doing that? because the Berlin to Baghdad railway was being prepared and Germany was really focusing on these cultures working better together. The Ottoman Empire is what I’m calling Turkey, the books I read have various names for various places. So, the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire would eventually be plunged both into World War I on the same side, which was the side that lost World War I which effectively ended all of these empires entirely, which is a story for another day. World War I, not a thing I will probably be talking about on this podcast very often but anyway. Saladin, his body was never moved into this stone sarcophagus which was instead been placed next to the old one in today’s refurbished shrine. So, the mausoleum now open to visitors has the two sarcophagi, the marble on one side and the original wooden one on the other side. Iṣmat ad-Dīn Khātūn, do not know where she was buried. 

But yeah, that’s this little bonus episode. I just really wanted to bring some attention to this region of the world and the rich, rich, rich, rich history that it has and the strength of this Muslim woman, the power of diplomacy and peacefulness. I just thought it was a story that I really wanted to share given everything going on in that region of the world right now. 

As I said in the beginning, there are a ton of links in the show notes of podcasts to listen to, books to read, organizations you can support, and I hope you’re all doing really well. And yeah, this is a bonus episode, I won’t get into all the reminders of all the things, I just want to let you all know that I’m thinking about you. I know there are listeners all over the world who are affected by what is going on right now and I’m thinking about you, my heart is with you. Until next time, keep your pants on and your tits out. 


Vulgar History is hosted, written, and researched by Ann Foster and edited by Cristina Lumague.

Transcribed by Aveline Malek at TheWordary.com


Call for de-escalation and ceasefire (for US people)

Email your US rep to demand a ceasefire

Template for UK people to email your MP

Take action to call for a ceasefire (for US, UK, Canada, and international people)

Booklist to learn more about the history of the Levant

Donate to MSF (Doctors Without Borders)

Donate to World Central Kitchen

Donate to PCRF (the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund)

Podcasts mentioned:

The History of the Crusades

The Islamic History Podcast

PreOccupation: A Not-So-Brief History of Palestine

Head On History

Historias Unknown




The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf

Queens of Jerusalem: The women who dared to rule by Katherine Pangonis

The Life and Legend of the Sultan Saladin by Jonathan Phillips


Saladin episode of You’re Dead To Me podcast

Support Vulgar History on Patreon



Vulgar History is an affiliate of Bookshop.org, which means that a small percentage of any books you click through and purchase will come back to Vulgar History as a commission. Use this link to shop there and support Vulgar History.