It says something about Batman that one of his most powerful foes is a man who is centuries old, has spent almost as long training himself to perfection, and is still bested by Batman. Ra’s al Ghul is probably tied with Joker as Batman’s arch-enemy, Batman and Ra’s face off time and again with the fate of the world and family hanging in the balance. How does one get to live so long and what guides you to become the man that is the Demon’s Head? Let’s find out.
Several centuries ago (somewhere between 450 to 700 years; he lost count after the Plagues) a man was born to a tribe of nomads somewhere in the Arabian Peninsula. This man grew to have a desire for the sciences and left his tribe for a city so that he could become a scholar, physician, and husband. He fell in love with a woman named Sora, married her, and the two were very happy.
The man found a Lazarus Pit, a pool of chemicals that could revive the dead, cure all wounds, and grant long life. He rescued the Sultan’s son from dying by dipping him into the pit. Learning of the pit’s side effect, temporary madness in the healed, the already sociopathic son of the Sultan murdered Sora. The Sultan could not accept that the murder was his son’s doing, and has her husband punished for it with physical torture, and the mental torture of being caged with the corpse of his wife.
The man was rescued by the son of one of his former patients; he had eased her passing and the son knew he must repay that kindness. Returning to his tribe he pleaded with his uncle, the head of the tribe, to help him seek vengeance. With his old tribe in tow, the man infected the Sultan’s son with illness, knowing the Sultan would seek his aide. Killing Sultan and son, the man led the tribe in destroying the city and all within. The man then took on the name Ra’s al Ghul, the “Demon’s Head” in Arabic.
Ra’s al Ghul led his tribe for centuries (his uncle and the son of his patient would all partake in the Lazarus Pit along with Ra’s), seeking more Lazarus Pits, fighting in wars, and accumulating wealth. As humanity began to enter the industrial age, Ra’s became sickened by humanity’s desire to destroy the natural world to gain power. Ra’s then began his path as an eco-terrorist as the world began to create more and more machinery at the cost of the planet.
Ra’s combat training, knowledge, and wealth that he had gained over centuries allowed him to easily create an organization, The Demon, to help him begin his machinations in culling the herd of humanity to save the world his own way. He killed the boy who rescued him so long ago for committing the crime of documenting their history. Ra’s loathed the nostalgia that came with their near-immortality. His uncle disappeared with the records the boy had made. Now in charge of a shadow organization, Ra’s began creating sub-orders to maintain control in different areas. The League of Assassin’s became his weapon against any who opposed him.
Eventually the vigilante known as the Batman caught his eye. Setting up an elaborate test, he traveled with the detective to see if he was a worthy Adam in his new Eden. Ra’s had had several children over the years, and his most recent daughter, Talia, proved to be quite capable as the Eve in her father’s new world. When Batman was able to best all of Ra’s tests, including Ra’s himself, Ra’s knew he’d chosen the perfect subject. Batman turned him down, and became one of his greatest enemies.
Ra’s and Batman fought for many years on and off again. Realizing that Batman would never join him, he sought a new Adam and found it in Bane. He attempted to poison all of Gotham with the aid of Talia and Bane, but Batman bested them all, and seeing his new heir fail at defeating his old heir, he forsook Bane.
To get revenge on Batman, Ra’s collected the corpses of his parents and threatened to revive them with the Lazarus Pit’s powers. This was a distraction for Batman so that Ra’s could enact Batman’s in-case-of-emergency attacks to stop his fellow Justice League members in case they went rogue. Nearly killing the League, Ra’s was stopped, but his goal of creating distrust towards Batman was successful.
When Talia left her father’s side, Ra’s blamed Batman and decided to try and ruin his own relationship with his son, Dick Grayson. He failed and left them to have a romantic fling with the superhero Black Canary; he even gave her access to a Lazarus Pit, granting her back her Canary Cry super scream that she had lost before.
One of Ra’s elder daughters, Nyssa Raatko, sought vengeance against her father for leaving her to die in a Nazi concentration camp. She was able to brainwash her sister Talia into aiding her, and the two were able to kill Ra’s. As Ra’s died, he admitted this was all part of his plan for his daughters to inherit his duty to cull humanity.
You can’t keep a good immortal down, and a man called the White Ghost appeared to Talia and her son (Batman’s child) Damian to aid them. This turned out to be a trick, as the White Ghost sought to resurrect Ra’s through the body of his grandson. Ra’s was not truly dead, but had had his consciousness transferred to another body. He’s like Spock and Voldemort rolled into one, this guy. Radiation poisoning required that he leave this new dying body for Damian’s. What with Batman having major issues with criminals seeking to mess with the lives of children, this didn’t work out for Ra’s.
In the hidden temple city of Nanda Parbat, the battle for Damian ended with Batman and his allies (Nightwing, Robin, Talia, Alfred, the monks of Nanda Parbat) facing of against Ra’s and his forces. The White Ghost appeared again to reveal he was one of Ra’s sons, and offered his life for Ra’s to be fully returned to this world. Ra’s returned, but was still fought out of Nanda Parbat.
Rejuvenated, Ra’s set up his organization within Gotham City to mock Batman. This was probably the worst thing to do to a man called the world’s greatest detective, as Batman found Ra’s and defeated him. To be rid of Ra’s, Batman created a false identity for him in Arkham Asylum as a patient, and had him drugged to the point of being nearly catatonic. This was also probably the worst thing to do to a man known to survive forever, Ra’s was eventually able to escape during a missed dosage.
During the time that Bruce Wayne was believed dead, Ra’s could not accept that his enemy was truly gone. He teamed up with the third Robin, Tim Drake, now going by Red Robin as Ra’s grandson had taken up the mantle of Robin while Dick Grayson had become Batman. The two traveled the globe and realized that Bruce Wayne was not killed, but sent back in time and was fighting his way back to the present. (Yes, this happened and Batman was a caveman, pirate, and a pilgrim.) While working with Tim, Ra’s planned to destroy the Bat-family financially, and then entirely while Batman was away. Tim was able to thwart his plans and keep the family safe from all of Ra’s attempts. Ra’s realized that Tim might be the perfect heir to his new world, which Tim naturally declined. So Ra’s kicked him out a skyscraper window, but still believes him to be a suitable heir, Tim was fine, by the way.
As of current continuity, Ra’s is being held captive by his daughter Talia as she is in control of the organization Leviathan. He sees a serious flaw in her plan to destroy all that Batman stands for, and waits to see events play out. When you are a near-immortal man, patience isn’t just a virtue, it’s a way of life.