He was born into a Kurdish family at Tikrit on the river Tigris. After an initial military education under the command of the Seljuk statesman and soldier Shirkuh, Saladin defended Egypt against the Crusaders and abolished the Fatimid caliphate in 1171. He took power in Egypt with the title of sultan, though many Seljuks refused to serve under a Kurd. His position was tenuous at first, as no one expected him to last long in Egypt where there had been many changes of government in previous years due to a long line of underage caliphs. As the leader of a foreign army from Syria, he also had no control over the Egyptian army, which was led by the now otherwise powerless caliph.
With his brothers, Saladin turned Egypt essentially into a vassal state of his own family, against the wishes of Nur ad-Din who had sent Shirkuh and Saladin to Egypt in the first place. He also restored Sunnism in Egypt.
On two occasions, in 1171 and 1173, Saladin retreated from an invasion of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. These had been launched by Nur ad-Din, and Saladin hoped that the kingdom would remain intact as a buffer state between Egypt and Syria, until Saladin could gain control of Syria as well. Both Nur ad-Din and Saladin were planning a war against each other when Nur ad-Din died in 1174. Saladin then marched on Damascus, and was welcomed into the city. Aleppo and Mosul, on the other hand, the two other largest cities that Nur ad-Din had ruled, were never taken, but Saladin managed to impose his influence and authority on them in 1176 and 1186 respectively. While besieging Aleppo on May 22, 1176 the "Assassins" attempted to murder him.
While Saladin consolidated his power in Syria, he generally left the Crusader kingdom alone, although he was usually victorious when he met the Crusaders in battle. One such victory came at the Ford of Jacob's Daughters in 1179. However, the Crusaders repeatedly provoked him. Raynald of Chatillon, in particular, harassed Muslim trading and pilgrimage routes, and threatened to attack Mecca with a fleet on the Red Sea. In July of 1187, Saladin invaded the Kingdom of Jerusalem and annihilated the Crusader army at the Battle of Hattin. Saladin captured and executed Raynald; he also captured King Guy. He then recaptured Jerusalem on October 2, 1187, after 88 years of Crusader rule. Soon he had taken back every Crusader city except Tyre.
Hattin and the fall of Jerusalem prompted the Third Crusade. This Crusade took back Acre, and Saladin was defeated by King Richard I of England at the Battle of Arsuf in 1191. Saladin's relationship with Richard was one of mutual respect as well as military rivalry. When Richard was wounded, Saladin even offered the services of his personal physician; at Arsuf, when Richard lost his horse, Saladin sent him two replacements. There were even plans to marry Richard's sister to Saladin's brother. The two came to an agreement over Jerusalem in 1192, whereby it would remain in Muslim hands but would be open to Christian pilgrimages.
Despite his fierce opposition to the Christian powerss, Saladin achieved a great reputation in Europe as a chivalrous knight, so much so that there existed by the 14th century an epic poem about his exploits, and Dante included him among the virtuous pagan souls in Limbo.
The name Salah ad Din means "Light of the Faith" or "Righteousness of the Faith", and through the ages Saladin has been an inspiration for Muslims in many respects. A province centered around Tikrit in modern Iraq, Salah ad Din, is named after Saladin.