Asad ad-Dīn Shīrkūh bin Shādhī (in Arabic: أسد الدين شيركوه بن شاذي), also known as Shirkuh, Shêrkoh, or Shêrko (meaning “lion of the mountains” in Kurdish) (died 22 February 1169) was a Kurdish military commander, and uncle of Saladin. His military and diplomatic efforts in Egypt were a key factor in establishing the Ayyubid family in that country.
Shirkuh is a Persian and Kurdish name which literally means “the lion (of the) mountain”. Shirkuh is also the name of several villages in modern day Iran. His Arabic honorific Asad ad-Din similarly means “the lion of faith”. In Latin, his name was rendered as “Siraconus”; William of Tyre, referring to the expedition of 1163, describes him as:
an able and energetic warrior, eager for glory and of wide experience in military affairs. Generous far beyond the resources of his patrimony, Shirkuh was beloved by his followers because of this munificence. He was small of stature, very stout and fat and already advanced in years. Though of lowly origin, he had become rich and risen by merit from his humble estate to the rank of prince. He was afflicted with cataract in one eye. He was a man of great endurance under hardships, one who bore hunger and thirst with an equanimity quite unusual for that time of life.
Origins and earlier career
He was originally from a Kurdish village in Armenia near the town of Dvin. He was the son of Shadhi ibn Marwan, a Kurdish ruler, and the brother of Najm ad-Din Ayyub, the ancestor of the Ayyubid dynasty. The family was closely connected to the Shaddadid dynasty, and when the last Shaddadid was deposed in Dvin in 1130, Shahdi moved the family first to Baghdad and then to Tikrit, where he was appointed governor by the regional administrator Bihruz. Ayyub succeeded his father as governor of Tikrit when Shahdi died soon after. When Shirkuh killed a Christian with whom he was quarrelling in Tikrit in 1138, the brothers were exiled (Shirkuh’s nephew Yusuf, later known as Saladin, was supposedly born the night they left). They joined Nur ad-Din Zengi’s army, and Shirkuh served under Nur ad-Din Zengi who succeeded Zengi in Mosul. Shirkuh was later given Homs, ar-Rahba and other appandages by Nur ad Din Zengi as his vassal. Ayyub served as governor of Baalbek and later Damascus, and the two brothers negotiated the surrender of Damascus to Nur ad-Din in 1154.
In 1163 Nur ad-Din was asked by Shawar to intervene in Egypt in a dispute between him and Dirgham over the Fatimid vizierate. Nur ad-Din sent Shirkuh, and this was to be the first of three ventures Shirkuh made into Egypt, nominally on Nur ad-Din’s behalf. On this first occasion, his nephew Saladin accompanied him as an advisor. Shawar was restored and Dirgham was killed, but after quarrelling with Shirkuh, Shawar allied with Amalric I of Jerusalem, who marched into Egypt in 1164 and besieged Shirkuh at Bilbeis (see Crusader invasion of Egypt). In response Nur ad-Din attacked the Crusader states and almost captured the Principality of Antioch.
Shirkuh was invited back into Egypt by the Fatimid Caliph Al-‘Āḍid in 1167, to help defeat the Crusaders who were attacking Cairo. Shawar once again allied with Amalric, who besieged Shirkuh in Alexandria until he agreed to leave; however, a Crusader garrison remained in Egypt and Amalric allied with the Byzantine Empire, planning to conquer it entirely. To destroy the garrison, Shawar switched alliances, from Amalric to Shirkuh. The Muslims fought a pitched battle with the Crusaders, who did not have the resources to conquer Egypt and were forced to retreat.
Shirkuh and his associates enjoyed widespread support among the civil elite In Egypt for religious reasons. Although the Fatimid rulers were Shiite, the majority of people remained Sunni Muslims. In January 1169 Shirkuh entered Cairo and had the untrustworthy Shawar executed. When he reached Cairo with his armies he was welcomed by the Fatimid Caliph Al-‘Āḍid and treated with great honour. He accepted the office of vizier, but died two months later on March 22; as Baha ad-Din ibn Shaddad describes, “it was the case that Asad ad-Din was a great eater, excessively given to partaking of rich meats. He suffered many bouts of indigestion and from quinsy, from which he would recover after putting up with great discomfort. He was taken severely ill, afflicted with a serious quinsy, which killed him on 22 Jumada II 564 [22 February 1169].”
He was succeeded as vizier by his nephew Saladin, who had served with him on his campaigns in Egypt. Saladin eventually succeeded Nur ad-Din as well, uniting Egypt and Syria, which enabled him to almost completely drive out the crusaders from Syria and Palestine. A number of historians have offered the view that Shirkuh’s death was an important factor in allowing Saladin to consolidate his position as Sultan and as undisputed head of the Ayyubid family.
Although Nur ad-Din Zengi took back the domain of Homs on Shirkuh’s death, in 1193 Saladin gave Homs to Shirkuh’s son Muhammad ibn Shirkuh and his descendants continued to rule in Homs thereafter until the death in 1263 of his last descendant the emir, Al-Ashraf Musa, Emir of Homs. After this Homs was ruled directly as part of the Mamluk empire.