Between the end of the Rashidun Caliphate and the modern day, there has been no greater Islamic political figure than Saladin Yusuf ibn Ayyub. Saladin, one of the most gifted and respected leaders and military commanders in history, rallied the Islamic world in one of its darkest hours to a tremendous strategic victory over the combined Christian armies of Europe. He went on to reunite much of the Islamic Empire under the banner of the Ayyubid dynasty, and his subsequent reign is remembered as one of Islam’s golden ages. When he died, he was buried at his own request in a relatively modest mausoleum in the garden of the Umayyad Mosque. To this day Saladin’s tomb remains one of the most beloved gravesites in the entire Islamic world. Saladin’s Mausoleum is part of the Ancient City of Damascus UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Saladin was born into a prominent Kurdish family, and his father and uncle were prominent leaders in northern Syria and Mesopotamia. His public career began in the city of Damascus, where he proved to be highly proficient in many subjects. According to legend, Saladin had originally intended to pursue a religious career. But the Islamic world was rife with problems. The caliphate was fragmenting, and threatening to disintegrate altogether. Worse, at least from a Muslim point of view, Christian armies from Europe had occupied Palestine and large stretches of territory in the Eastern Mediterranean, including the Holy City of Jerusalem.
Saladin’s theological career was cut short in his twenties, when his uncle recruited him to help lead a military expedition against a rebellion in Egypt. For five years he fought against rebels and Crusaders alike, and in 1169 AD Saladin was appointed vizier of the province. Because of the political and military influence he had garnered, Saladin was constantly faced with the diplomatic intrigues of the fractious Islamic world. But he rose above them, focusing his energies instead on the Christian kingdoms. In the two years after his appointment as vizier, Saladin scored major military victories against the Crusaders at Damietta, Gaza and other places.
After his appointment as vizier, Saladin spent nearly two decades using every means at his disposal to reunify the Islamic caliphate, all the while keeping up military pressure against the Crusaders. By 1186 he had defeated most of his enemies, in many cases making peace with them, and had acquired huge amounts of territory in Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia and the Arabian Peninsula. He then turned his full attention against the Crusaders. The decisive clash took place at the Battle of Hattin in 1187, one of the greatest and most pivotal battles of the Middle Ages. It was a resounding victory for Saladin and the Muslims, and paved the way for the conquest of Jerusalem a few months later.
By this point in his career, Saladin was effectively caliph in all but name, and the most powerful ruler the Muslim world had seen since the early days of the Abbasids. He was beloved by Muslims everywhere and highly respected even by his enemies. Saladin spent most of the rest of his life purging the Holy Land of Crusader strongholds, and yet was highly respected among the Christians. His chivalric relationship with the English King Richard I was legendary. When he died in 1193, virtually all of his personal wealth had been distributed to the poor. By his own request he was buried in a simple grave in the shadow of the Umayyad Mosque. The tomb of this great warrior-king is probably the most popular Sunni Muslim burial site in the world outside of Mecca and Medina, and even many non-Muslims visit the sacred place to pay their respects.
The Mausoleum of Saladin is indeed relatively small, just as the humble caliph would have wished it. It stands in a garden on the north side of the Masjid Umayyad, and in fact it could easily be mistaken for an annex of the great mosque. The unassuming entrance to the compound from the street is marked only by a simple sign which identifies the great hero who is buried within. The exterior of the shrine consists of simple brick and whitewashed walls, its most distinguishing feature being a simple brown onion dome.
The interior of the Mausoleum is small and elegant in its simplicity. The room is adorned with pictures, tributes and the like. The tomb of Saladin itself, shrouded in gold-trimmed cloth, dominates the center of the chamber. Nevertheless for all of its simplicity, and perhaps because of it, the mausoleum is one of the most beloved places in Damascus. Saladin is also commemorated by a magnificent statue which stands a few blocks away in front of the Citadel.
The compound of the Mausoleum of Saladin is adjacent to the north side of the Masjid Umayyad on the northern side of the Old City of Damascus. It usually maintains similar hours to the mosque, and admission to the Masjid Umayyad can include a visit to the tomb. Web: Not currently available due to ongoing problems in the region.
Damascus is absolutely packed with fantastic Islamic sites. There are dozens of major mosques within the city, three of which are worth mentioning. In addition to the Masjid Umayyad, there is the Masjid Sayyidah Zainab and the Masjid Sayyidah Ruqayya, where a granddaughter and great granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad are buried, respectively; the Ottoman-era Masjid Taqiyyeh As-Suleimaniyyeh, the second largest in the city. Damascus also boasts many major historically important tombs, including the Gravesite of Abu Ubaidah ibn Al-Jarrah in the suburb of Jabiyah; Bilal the first muezzin in the Bab Al-Saghir Cemetery; and the Tomb of Baybars, located in the library of the Madrassa Ar-Zahiriyya. Other interesting Islamic sites in the city are the Citadel of Damascus and the Azem Palace.