Saladin, a Muslim warrior, sultan of Egypt, and the most formidable opponent of the Crusaders, captivated the popular imagination of the Middles Ages. Saladin was born in Mesopotamia, and was of Kurdish descent. As vizier of Egypt, he overthrew the unpopular Fatimid caliphate and established himself as the country's first Ayyubid sultan in 1174. He greatly expanded his territories, gathering under his control all the Muslim territories of northern Mesopotamia, Palestine and Egypt, thereby clashing with the Crusaders. With a large force, Saladin destroyed the Crusader armies in the 1187 battle of Hattin, which paved the way for his almost uncontested capture of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The Third Crusade of 1189, an enormity of Christian effort, was called together to regain those territories. The immense forces assembled during this crusade, including the armies of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, Phillip II Augustus (il Bornio) of France and Richard I the Lion-hearted of England, proved to be futile. Saladin triumphed over the Crusaders, leaving the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem with only a thin strip of coastline. Saladin died in 1193 from the exertions of warfare.
The reputation of Saladin as a virtuous, generous, and humane leader, gallant and valorous in war, is reflected in chivalric romance and other narrative of the period. Dante assigns Saladin a place of honor in Limbo, among the heroes of Troy and Rome (Inf. IV.129). Boccaccio's depiction of the Muslim king is unequivocally flattering, owing in part perhaps to a similar treatment in the anonymous Novellino. In Decameron (I.3 and X.9) he plays a central role; in the latter tale, Boccaccio describes Saladin, whose hospitality to Messer Torello was unparalleled, as a man of "courteous deeds and sterling worth."
(R.P./N.S.) Gabrielli, Francesco. s.v. Saladino. Vol. 4.Enciclopedia dantesca, Roma: Istituto della Enciclopedia italiana, 1970-78. pp. 1072-1073; Toynbee, P. Dictionary of Proper Names and Notable Matters in the Works of Dante. Oxford: Clarendon, 1968. pp. 477-478.