At the heart of the novel is an affecting love affair between the Sultan's favored wife, Jamila, and the beautiful Halima, a later addition to the harem.
The novel charts the rise of Saladin as Sultan of Egypt and Syria and follows him as he prepares, in alliance with his Jewish and Christian subjects, to take Jerusalem back from the Crusaders. It is a medieval story, but much of it will be cannily familiar to those who follow events in contemporary Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad. Betrayed hopes, disillusioned soldiers and unreliable alliances form the backdrop to The Book of Saladin.
This is the second of a planned quartet of historical novels depicting the confrontation between Islamic and Christian civilizations. The first, Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, recounted the story of the fall of Islam in Spain. It has been translated into several languages and was awarded the Archbishop San Clemente del Instituto Rosalia de Castro Prize for the Best Foreign Language Fiction published in Spain in 1994.
The Book of Saladin is the most historical of the three books, based on the rise and career of Salah al-Din. The novel's characters are a mix of real and imagined people: Saladin and his family were real people, as was Ibn Maymun, or Maimonides as we know him. Saladin's wives, his old retainer Shadhi and Ibn Yakub, the narrator, are all Ali's creations. Ali notes in his introduction that he has remained faithful to historical events, but has tried to imagine the players' inner lives.
The book is split into three sections, with each chapter given a descriptive title, much like old chronicles had. Ali begins with Saladin's rise to power as the conqueror of Fatimid Egypt. Though claiming universal leadership of the Muslim community, the caliph in Baghdad led only one of three Muslim dynasties at the time; the other two were the Umayyad dynasty established in Spain and the Fatimids in Egypt. The Fatimids, a Shi'i dynasty that founded Cairo and opposed the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad, were a major problem for the caliph. By destroying the Fatimids, Saladin not only strengthened the Abbasid caliphate (though he operated largely independently of the caliph), but also provided the Muslims with a southern approach to Palestine from which they could attack the Crusaders in Jerusalem.
In order not to panic the caliph, Saladin slowly consolidated his power in Cairo. He was eventually appointed sultan of Egypt and Syria, from which base he was able to lead his troops and retake Jerusalem in 1187. Bringing together troops from across the Muslim world, Saladin showed himself an expert planner and logistician. At the time of his death he, and not the caliph, was the most powerful ruler in the Muslim world. His descendents, following the Mongol sack of Baghdad in 1258, established the Ayyubid caliphate in Egypt, which was the major dynasty in Islam until the rise of the Ottomans.
The book opens with the narrator, Isaac ibn Yakub, sharing a light meal and deep conversation with his friend, Ibn Maymun. Their evening is interrupted by a knock at the door. Saladin-whom Ibn Yakub does not recognize-has come at this late hour with an astonishing request: that Ibn Yakub serve as his personal chronicler. Saladin does not trust his court chroniclers to record what he actually says and does; they are, he notes, known for their embellishments and for writing what they think will please the sultan.
Thus begins Ibn Yakub's