The book is, first, a conventional biography, superbly researched and enormously entertaining. That by itself would make this one of the outstanding books of the year. But Phillips also addresses that enduring adoration of Saladin by offering an analysis of cultural memory. The topic of memory is popular among historians at present, but their treatment of it is often so laden with arcane jargon and theory that it becomes incomprehensible. Phillips, in contrast, is clear, concise and illuminating, shedding light on animosities in the Middle East today.
... learned and engaging ... there are two Saladins, the 12th-century ruler and the equally historical subsequent political and literary invention. Not the least virtue of The Life and Legend of the Sultan Saladin is Mr. Phillips’s wide-ranging scrutiny of both. Saladin’s achievements as a Kurdish mercenary captain who founded an empire are startling on any scale—the result of skill and luck, as well as the fluid political and social setting of the 12th-century Near East, which Mr. Phillips captures well ... Mr. Phillips has fruitfully extended the range of Arabic source material to create a rounded portrait of Saladin’s world, often sketched in sharp, unexpected detail ... his speculations on Saladin’s psychological and physical state in his exhausting final years are finely judged, drawing on biographies by the sultan’s intimates. The taxing bodily burdens of life as politician, administrator, ruler and warrior come across well, and the picture is lent immediacy by Mr. Phillips’s own travels in the region ... Mr. Phillips draws in the reader with vivid accounts of people, places and events, relying on apt quotation from primary sources of scenic descriptions and direct speech. Yet the unwary might miss a central difficulty: Much of the biographical material about Saladin was composed after his success by apologists following formal patterns to create an image of an ideal prince, or was written many generations later. More generally, it is a bit odd that a third of Mr. Phillips’s biography is dedicated to the climactic confrontation with the Franks and crusaders between 1187 and 1192—well-trodden territory in which Mr. Phillips can excavate little new. This account also underplays the important effects within the Islamic world of Saladin’s suppression of the Shiite Fatimids ... Whatever the truth behind this image-making, Saladin’s was a truly astonishing career, one to which Mr. Phillips does justice.
... superb, highly readable and definitive ... [Phillips] has the rare gift of writing scholarly history for a popular audience, and he is in fine form here, weaving together evidence from Arabic and Latin chroniclers, archaeological digs and medieval poets with modern sources including Middle Eastern theatre, cinema and propaganda ... Phillips’s narrative of Saladin’s career is vivid and judicious, punctuated by set pieces that charge along like battle scenes from Game of Thrones .