The Ayyubid dynasty came to power under the leadership of the Kurdish Zangid general Salah al-Din (r. 1169–93), known in Europe as Saladin. After repulsing a Crusader army that had reached the gates of Fatimid Cairo and occupying Egypt on behalf of the Zangids (1160s), Salah al-Din declared the Fatimid caliphate to be at its end, and established the Ayyubid sultanate (1171). Soon thereafter, Salah al-Din also gained control over Yemen (1174) and Syria (1180s). The conflict with the Crusaders continued throughout the Ayyubid period; Jerusalem was captured by the Muslims in 1187, then, following a failed treaty, ceded until 1244, when the city was retaken for good. The sultanate depended on mamluks (slave soldiers) for its military organization, yet the end of the dynasty was largely caused by Turkic mamluks themselves, who overthrew the last independent Ayyubid sultan in Egypt, Turan Shah (r. 1249–50), and founded the Mamluk sultanate (1250–1517).
In the arts, the Ayyubids are known especially for their works in inlaid metalwork and ceramics, particularly luster- and underglaze-painted wares. Some objects from this period, including a group of inlaid metalwork pieces, also have Christian scenes. Signatures of artists on refined and prized brass works inlaid with silver seem to indicate that the craftsmen were from Mosul (in present-day Iraq) and had fled from the approaching Mongol armies. In the case of ceramics produced in Syria, the influence of Seljuq Iran is prevalent. Among other arts, enameled glass rose to excellence in this period and carved wood was also esteemed by Ayyubid patrons. Techniques established and developed during this time formed the foundation of the arts in the Mamluk period.
The Ayyubids were also vigorous builders. Their generous patronage led to tremendous architectural activity in Egypt and especially in Syria, and their local courts revived the cities of Damascus and Aleppo. The outstanding secular architecture from this period includes the fortified citadels of Cairo (1187) and Aleppo (early thirteenth century). Meanwhile, the establishment of madrasas, higher institutions of religious learning, such as the Zahiriya (1219) in Aleppo and that of al-Salih Najm al-Din Ayyub (1243) in Cairo, exemplify the Ayyubid interest in Sunni education after the Shi’i interlude in the region under the Fatimids. Furthermore, the Madrasa al-Sahiba in Damascus (1233), built by Salah al-Din’s sister Rabia Khatun, as well as the Mausoleum of al-Salih Najm al-Din Ayyub (1250), commissioned by his wife Shajar al-Durr, reflects the importance of women as patrons of architecture under the Ayyubids. In terms of commemorative buildings and pious architectural initiatives, the Mausoleum of Imam al-Shafi’i (1211) and the Tomb of the Abbasid Caliphs (1242–43) in Cairo are especially noteworthy.