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Born in 1137 or 1138 in Mesopotamia, Yussuf ibn Ayub became known after his death as Salah al-Din (meaning The Righteousness of the Faith), in mark of the role he had played in the Muslim world of his day.

He spent 10 years in study in Damascus at the court of the Syrian ruler Nur al-Din, and accompanied his uncle, Shirkuh, a lieutenant of Nur al-Din in campaigns in Egypt. Shirkuh became visier in Egypt and upon his death in 1169 he was succeeded by Yussuf. By 1171 he was in full control of the country, and in 1174, when Nur ad-Din died, he declared himself Sultan and took over Damascus. Combining the Egyptian and Syrian arms of Islam, he attacked the Outremer and in 1187 he defeated their combined armies at the Battle of Hattin, leading to the fall of Jerusalem, which passed permanently into Muslim control.

It was against Saladin that the Third Crusade was launched, led by Richard I of England and in 1192, having failed to displace Saladin, Richard signed a treaty with him.

Saladin was renowned, even among his enemies, as a generous, chivalrous and honourable man. When he died in 1193 it was found that he had given almost every penny of his wealth to the poor, leaving not even enough for his own funeral.