In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ayyubids

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • General Overviews
  • Crusaders and Mongols
  • Saladin and His Political Forebears
  • Egypt after Saladin
  • Principalities in Syria, the Jazira, and Yemen
  • Administrative and Military Institutions
  • Non-Muslim Communities

Islamic Studies Ayyubids
Stephen R. Humphreys
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 May 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0049


The Ayyubids were a dynasty that ruled Egypt, Syria-Palestine, parts of northern Mesopotamia (the Jazira) and Yemen between 1169 and 1260. Their rise to power began with two Kurdish brothers (Ayyub and Shirkuh), who migrated to Iraq c. 1130. They became high-ranking officers under the Atabeg Zengi of Mosul and his son Nur al-Din Mahmud. As commander of the expeditionary force dispatched to Egypt by Nur al-Din in 1168, Shirkuh seized control of the country but died early in 1169, and power passed to his brother Ayyub’s son, Salah al-Din Yusuf (Saladin). Through astute diplomacy and relentless military campaigns against his Muslim rivals throughout the 1170s and 1180s, Saladin absorbed and even substantially extended the Syro-Jaziran empire left by Nur al-Din on his death in 1174. Though intensely controversial, this struggle gave Saladin the resources he needed to withstand his confrontation with the Crusaders between 1187 and 1192—only one part of his long career, but the part that has given him his glittering reputation both in the Islamic world and the West. Saladin conferred on his dominions the characteristic structure they would retain down to the end of Ayyubid rule—a structure that reflected the practices of the Seljukid and Zengid milieu in which he had been trained. In the 1180s he assigned Egypt and the major towns in Syria and the Jazira to one or another of his kinsmen as autonomous hereditary principalities. His carefully calculated arrangements collapsed in the strife following his death in 1193, but his brother and successor al-`Adil (1198–1218) largely replicated them in assigning the key principalities to his own sons. The outlines of this system remained in place, albeit increasingly attenuated, down to the crisis of the late 1240s. Until that time, the Ayyubid realms did not form a centralized empire; on the contrary, they were a loose-knit coalition of hereditary principalities bound together by a combination of strategic calculation and family ties—that is, descent from common ancestors and complex marriage alliances. Ayyubid politics primarily revolved around the rivalries and tensions created by this confederative framework, but they were also profoundly shaped by the international milieu—the Crusades; European maritime dominance in the eastern Mediterranean; and the Mongol invasion of Iran, Iraq, and Syria in 1254–1260. Ayyubid history must always be situated within the powerful geopolitical, societal, and cultural forces that transformed the Muslim world—indeed, all of Eurasia—during the 12th and 13th centuries.

Reference Works

Each work in this section contains a concise and generally up-to-date overview of Ayyubid history, with somewhat contrasting perspectives and emphases (see General Overviews). More importantly, these works lay out the broader Eurasian context that is so crucial in interpreting Ayyubid policies, institutions, and practices. They also have thematic chapters tracing the socioeconomic structures and long-term processes that shaped the societies ruled by the Ayyubids, though these chapters are usually quite broad and general. Finally, each provides a detailed and relatively up-to-date bibliography. The oldest and most traditional in approach is Setton 1962–1989, but it gives a very comprehensive presentation of the Crusade movement. Almost every dimension of Ayyubid society and politics is addressed in some Encyclopaedia of Islam entry. Finally, the current state of scholarship is represented in Abulafia 1999, Fierro 2010, Garcin 1995–2000, Luscombe and Riley-Smith 2004, and Petry 1998; the individual contributions to these volumes reflect a wide, even disparate, range of theoretical perspectives and methodologies.

  • Abulafia, David, ed. The New Cambridge Medieval History. Vol. 5, c. 1198–c. 1300. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521362894

    Important for the European and Mediterranean context of Ayyubid history. Heavily focused on western and central Europe, but with numerous chapters on Muslim states and the expansion of European commerce and political power in the eastern Mediterranean basin.

  • Encyclopaedia of Islam. Edited by H. A. R. Gill. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1960–2005.

    An indispensable research tool for every aspect of Islamic society and culture. The earlier entries are inevitably dated but remain useful. The articles are entered according to the relevant “Islamic” language—for example, Halab instead of Aleppo—but this problem is mitigated by the index volumes. The third edition, now in progress but not far advanced, is also available in print and online.

  • Fierro, María Isabel, ed. The New Cambridge History of Islam. Vol. 2, The Western Islamic World: Eleventh to Eighteenth Centuries. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    The six volumes in this set entirely supplant the original Cambridge History of Islam (1970). Beyond the chapters dealing specifically with the Ayyubids and their times, this volume presents detailed and up-to-date surveys of events and political, social, and economic processes across the world of Islam.

  • Garcin, Jean-Claude, ed. États, sociétés et cultures du monde musulman médiévale, Xe-XVe siècle. 3 vols. Nouvelle Clio. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1995–2000.

    An excellent cross-section of recent French scholarship. Volume 1 deals with political history, Volume 2 with administrative and social structures, and Volume 3 with broad thematic problems. An extremely important resource, with extended bibliographical essays for each chapter.

  • Luscombe, David, and Jonathan Riley-Smith, eds. The New Cambridge Medieval History. Vol. 4, c. 1024–c. 1198. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    As with Abulafia 1999, this is heavily focused on western and central Europe, but with important chapters on Muslim states and European political and economic expansion in the Mediterranean basin.

  • Petry, Carl F., ed. The Cambridge History of Egypt: Islamic Egypt, 640–1517. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521471374

    Syria was usually the focal point of Ayyubid politics, but Egypt was by far the largest and wealthiest principality within the confederation. This volume provides the best one-volume introduction to the vast literature on medieval Egypt and hence to the world in which Ayyubid rule took shape.

  • Setton, Kenneth M., ed. A History of the Crusades. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1962–1989.

    Six volumes from 1962–1989. Beyond the obvious significance of the Crusades for the Ayyubid period (see also Crusaders and Mongols), Volumes 1 and 2 contain important chapters—a bit dated but still valuable—on the Seljukids and Mongols (Cahen) and on Saladin and his predecessors and successor (Gibb).

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