Ascent to power
He was born in Acre, the son of Badr al-Jamali, an Armenian mamluk who became Muslim. Badr was vizier for the Fatimids in Cairo from 1074 until his death in 1094, when al-Afdal succeeded him. Caliph Ma'ad al-Mustansir Billah died soon afterwards, and al-Afdal appointed as caliph al-Musta'li, a child, instead of al-Mustali's much older brother Nizar. Nizar revolted and was defeated in 1095; his supporters, led by Hassan-i-Sabah, fled east, where Hassan established the Ismaili community, sometimes erroneously called the Hashshashin, or Assassins.
At this time Fatimid power in Palestine had been reduced by the arrival of the Seljuk Turks. In 1097 he captured Tyre from the Seljuks, and in 1098 he took Jerusalem, expelling its Ortoqid governor Ilghazi in place of a Fatimid. Al-Afdal restored most of Palestine to Fatimid control, at least temporarily.
Conflict with the Crusaders
Al-Afdal misunderstood the Crusaders as Byzantine mercenaries; this misperception caused al-Afdal to conclude that the crusaders would make for natural allies, as each were enemies of the Seljuk Turks. Fatimid overtures for an alliance with the crusaders were rebuffed, and the crusaders continued southward from Antioch to capture Jerusalem from Fatimid control in 1099.
When it became apparent that the Crusaders would not rest until they had control of the city, al-Afdal marched out from Cairo, but was too late to rescue Jerusalem, which fell on July 15, 1099. On August 12, the Crusaders under Godfrey of Bouillon surprised al-Afdal at the Battle of Ascalon and completely defeated him. Al-Afdal would reassert Fatimid control of Ascalon, as the Crusaders did not attempt to retain it, and utilize it as a staging ground for later attacks on the crusader states.
Al-Afdal marched out every year to attack the nascent Kingdom of Jerusalem, and in 1105 attempted to ally with Damascus against them, but was defeated at the Battle of Ramla. Al-Afdal and his army enjoyed success only so long as no European fleet interfered, but they gradually lost control of their coastal strongholds; in 1109 Tripoli was lost, despite the fleet and supplies sent by al-Afdal, and the city became the centre of an important Crusader county. In 1110 the governor of Ascalon, Shams al-Khilafa, rebelled against al-Afdal with the intent of handing over the city to Jerusalem (for a large price). Al-Khilafa's Berber troops assassinated him and sent his head to al-Afdal. The Crusaders later took Tyre and Acre as well, and remained in Jerusalem until the arrival of Saladin decades later.
Legacy and death
Al-Afdal also introduced tax (iqta) reform in Egypt, which remained in place until Saladin took over Egypt. Al-Afdal was nicknamed Jalal al-Islam ("glory of Islam") and Nasir al-Din ("Protector of the Faith"). Ibn al-Qalanisi describes him as "a firm believer in the doctrines of Sunnah, upright in conduct, a lover of justice towards both troops and civil population, judicious in counsel and plan, ambitious and resolute, of penetrating knowledge and exquisite tact, of generous nature, accurate in his intuitions, and possessing a sense of justice which preserved him from wrongdoing and led him to shun all tyrannical methods." (This may indicate that Afdal was, unlike the majority of the Egyptian elite, a Sunni Muslim, but it may just refer to his virtues.)
He was murdered during Eid ul-Adha in 1121; according to Ibn al-Qalanisi, "it was asserted that the Batinis (Hashshashin) were responsible for his assassination, but this statement is not true. On the contrary it is an empty pretence and an insubstantial calumny." The real cause was the growing boldness of the caliph al-Amir Bi-Ahkamillah, who had succeeded al-Musta'li in 1101, and his resentment of al-Afdal's control. Ibn al-Qalanisi states that "all eyes wept and all hearts sorrowed for him; time did not produce his like after him, and after his loss the government fell into disrepute." He was succeeded as vizier by Al-Ma'mun.
- War and society in the eastern Mediterranean, 7th-15th centuries By Yaacov Lev, pg.122
- Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades, vol. I: The First Crusade and the Foundation of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Cambridge University Press, 1951.
- Kenneth Setton, ed. A History of the Crusades, vol. I. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1958 (available online).
- William of Tyre. A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea. Edited and translated by E. A. Babcock and A. C. Krey. Columbia University Press, 1943.
- The Damascus Chronicle of the Crusades: Extracted and Translated from the Chronicle of Ibn al-Qalanisi. H.A.R. Gibb, London, 1932.