Disease Detective Unravels Mystery of What Killed Sultan Saladin

Portrait of Saladin, sultan of Egypt and Syria, circa 1185.

(CN) – A researcher may have discovered the cause of death of one of the most prominent figures of the 12th century, potentially resolving a centuries-long mystery.

Often considered the most famous Kurd ever, Saladin was the sultan of a massive area that encompassed modern-day Egypt, Syria, portions of Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and other regions of North Africa. He successfully battled the invading Crusaders and conquered multiple kingdoms.

And yet, despite his prolific reign and continued fame in the Middle East, the cause of Saladin’s death has eluded experts.

Saladin fell ill in 1193. After two weeks, he was dead at the age of 56. Some have speculated that fever was a prominent symptom of his affliction.

After closely analyzing an array of evidence about the sultan’s condition, parasitic disorders expert Stephen J. Gluckman has developed a diagnosis which he will present Friday at the 25th annual Historical Clinicopathological Conference at the University of Maryland.

Gluckman theorizes that typhoid – a bacterial disease common in the area Saladin controlled – most likely caused the sultan’s death.

“Practicing medicine over the centuries required a great deal of thought and imagination,” said Gluckman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. “The question of what happened to Saladin is a fascinating puzzle.”

Renowned for his generous treatment of enemies, Saladin is also famous for destroying King Guy’s army at the Horns of Hattin in 1187 and reclaiming Jerusalem for Islam after Christian crusaders controlled it for nearly a century.

Typhoid is a potentially deadly disease that is communicated by contaminated food and water. Symptoms include high fever, headaches, weakness stomach pain and loss of appetite.

While treatable with modern antibiotics, typhoid remains common in most parts of the non-industrialized world. The disease infects about 22 million people worldwide a year, killing 200,000.

Roughly 300 people develop typhoid fever in the United States each year, mostly after traveling to affected regions abroad.


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