Hittin, Israel (1187 AD)
The Battle of Hattin was one of the most important battles of the Middle Ages and the decisive turning point of the Crusades. It was the greatest victory of the greatest Muslim military commander of all time, Saladin, and marked the beginning of the end of the Christian Crusader kingdoms. It was particularly embarrassing defeat for the Christians, notably because they carried the True Cross before them into battle (which was subsequently lost). The Battle of Hattin was immortalized in the film Kingdom of Heaven, which gave a particularly unflattering view of the Crusader army and their king.
In 1099, the armies of the First Crusade made an alliance with the Byzantine Empire and, taking advantage of a chaotic political situation in the Middle East, swept down upon the Holy Land and conquered Jerusalem. For the next seven decades the Crusaders won a nearly unbroken string of victories, conquering more towns and cities and expanding the territory of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.
However, in the 1170s a mighty military political leader, Saladin, rose up to unite the Muslims and launch a massive, coordinated counter-offensive against the Christians. He spent the better part of a decade fighting rival tribes and squashing civil war before he was able to turn his attention to the Crusaders. At first fighting was sporadic, with on-again off-again truces with the Christian King Baldwin IV. However, the death of Baldwin in 1185 led to the outbreak of full hostilities.
The war came to a head in 1187, when the armies of Saladin took the strategic city of Tiberias on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. The new Crusader king, Guy de Lusignan, led an army out from Jerusalem to drive the Saracens back into Syria. However, the taking of Tiberias was a trap, and the Crusaders fell for the bait. Outmaneuvered by Saladin, the Crusaders arrived at the battlefield having had no access to water for days.
The battle went terribly for the Crusaders. Outnumbered, they found themselves in bad shape from the outset. The Muslims sent a force to cut off the Christian retreat, as well as their only route to water. The Crusaders attempted to break out of the trap, to no avail, and the army was routed with very high casualties. This left Jerusalem completely exposed, and the Holy City fell shortly thereafter. Afterwards, the Crusaders never again regained the initiative, and lost all of their remaining possessions within a century.
The Battle of Hattin was arguably the most important battle to take place in what is now Israel during the Crusader period. Because it involved Christians fighting Muslims, the battlefield is not one of the more important battle sites to the current government. It is therefore not well marked or commemorated. However, the field is well preserved, with the hills known as the Horns of Hattin prominent local landmarks, and is very accessible to popular tourism areas.
The Hattin Battlefield is located just outside the modern-day city of Hittin, a few miles west of Tiberias, approximately eighty miles north of Jerusalem. The field is an open site, and there is no cost of admission. Web: www.goisrael.com (official tourism website of Israel).