A Goblet Full of Scorpions: Situating NATHAN THE WISE


NATHAN THE WISE is set in Jerusalem between the end of the third crusade and just before the death of the great sultan Saladin (1190-1193).  Just prior to this time,  Muqaddasi would write, “Jerusalem is the most illustrious of cities.  Still Jerusalem has some disadvantages.  Thus it is reported, ‘Jerusalem is a golden goblet full of Scorpions.'”  It would be Saladin who would liberate Jerusalem from the Franj  and usher in a period of peace for the city consider my many to be the “Holy of Holies.” An astrologer had predicted that Saladin would lose an eye if he ever entered the Holy City, to which Saladin allegedly responded, “To take it I am ready to lose both eyes!”

After two years of intensive warfare between Richard the Lionhearted and Saladin, Richard asked for a meeting with Saladin to discuss terms for peace.  Saladin responded, “Kings meet only after the conclusion of an accord.  In any event, I do not understand your language, and you are ignorant of mine, and we therefore need a translator in whom we both have confidence. Let this man, then, act as a messenger between us.  When we arrive at an understanding, we will meet and friendship will prevail between us.”

Author Amin Maalouf in his masterful THE CRUSADES THROUGH ARAB EYES, tells us what followed:

“Negotiations dragged on for another year.  Entrenched in Jerusalem, Saladin let the time pass.  His peace proposals were simple:  each side would keep what it had; the Franj, if they wished, could come unarmed to make their pilgrimages to the holy city, which, however would remain in Muslim hands…At the beginning of September of 1192 a five year peace was signed.  The Franj retained the coastal zone from Tyre to Jaffa but recognized Saladin’s authority over the rest of the country, including Jerusalem.  The Western warriors, who had been granted safe conduct by the sultan, rushed to the holy city to pray at the tomb of Christ.  Saladin courteously received the most important of them, even inviting them to share his meals and reassuring them of his firm desire to uphold freedom of worship.  But Richard refused to go.  He would not enter as a guest a city that he had sworn to storm as a conqueror.  A month after the conclusion of peace, he left the East without ever having seen either the holy Sepulcher or Saladin.

In spite of this success, Saladin felt bruised, even somewhat diminished.  He bore scant resemblance to the charismatic hero of Hittin.  Physically he was not well.  His health had never been excellent, and for years he had to consult court physicians regularly… He was particularly attached to the services of a prestigious Jewish Arab tabib, Musa Ibn Maymun, better known as Maimonides… Saladin spent his last days peacefully among his relatives.  Baha al-Din never left his side and affectionately jotted down each one of his acts.  On Thursday February 1193, al-Din joined the sultan in the garden of his palace:

‘The sultan was seated in the shade, surrounded by the youngest of his children.  He asked who was waiting for him inside. ‘Frankish messengers, he was told, ‘as well as a group of emirs and notable.’  He had the Franj summoned.  When they came before him, he was dangling one of his small sons on his knees.  When the child looked upon the Franj, with their clean shaven faces, their cropped hair, and their curious clothing, he was frightened and began to cry.  The sultan apologized to the Franj and halted the interview without listening to what they wanted to tell him … He moved with great effort and was always begging people’s pardon.”

Simon Sebag Montefior writes, in his magisterial history JERUSALEM, of these last days:

“After welcoming the hajj caravan from Mecca, he was struck down by a fever.  His doctors bled him, but he grew worse.  When he asked for warm water, it was too cold.  ‘Heaven above!’ He exclaimed.  ‘Is nobody able to get the water just right?’  At the dawn on 3 March 1193, he died listening to recitations of the Koran.   ‘I and others would have given our lives for him,” said Ibn Shaddad who reflected, ‘Then these years and their players passed away/ As though they all had been merely dreams.”