December 15, 1256 Last Stronghold of the Assassins

From religious figures to politicians and great generals, assassinations were preferably performed in broad daylight, in as public a manner as possible.  There was always a message.  It was important that everyone understand it.

For the Islamic world, the 11th century was a time of political instability. The Fatimid Caliphate, established in 909 and by this time headquartered in Cairo, was in sharp decline by 1090.  The Fatimids were destined to disappear within the next 100 years, eclipsed by the Abbasid Caliphate of An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, better known to anyone familiar with the story of Richard the Lionheart, as Saladin.

To the east lay the Great Seljuk Empire, the Turko-Persian, Sunni Muslim state established in 1037 and stretching from the former Sassanid domains of modern-day Iran and Iraq, to the Hindu Kush.  An “appanage” or “family federation” state, the Seljuk empire was itself in flux after a series of succession contests, and destined to disappear in 1194.

Into the gap stepped the “Old Man of the Mountain”, Hassan-i Sabbah, and his fanatically loyal, secret sect of “Nizari Ismaili” followers, the Assassins.

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The name derives from the Arabic “Hashashin”, meaning “those faithful to the foundation”.  Marco Polo reported a story that the old man of the mountain got such fervent loyalty from his young followers, by drugging and leading them to a “paradise” of earthly delights, to which only he could return them.  The story is probably apocryphal, there is little evidence that hashish was ever used by the Assassins’ sect.  Sabbah’s followers believed him to be divine.  A Prophet, personally selected by Allah.  The man didn’t need to drug his “Fida’i” (self-sacrificing agents).  He was infallible.  His every whim was obeyed, as the literal Word of God.

The mountain fortification of Alamut in northern Persia was probably impervious to defeat by military means, but not to the two-years long campaign of stealth and pretend friendship practiced by Sabbah and his followers.  In 1090, Alamut fell in a virtually bloodless takeover, becoming the headquarters of the Nizari Ismaili state.

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Alamut Castle

Why Sabbah would have founded such an order is unclear, if not in pursuit of his own personal and political goals.  By the time of the first Crusade, 1095-1099, he found himself pitted against rival Muslims and invading Christian forces, alike.

Sabbah would order the elimination of rivals, usually up close, with the dagger. From religious figures to politicians and great generals, assassinations were preferably performed in broad daylight, in as public a manner as possible.  There was always a message.  It was important that everyone understand it.

Though the “Fida’in” occupied the lowest rank of the order, great care was devoted to their education and training.  Possessed of all the physical prowess of youth, the individual assassin was also intelligent and well-read, highly trained in combat tactics, the art of disguise and the skills of the expert horseman.  All the necessary traits, for anyone who would penetrate enemy territory, insinuate himself into their ranks, and murder the victim who had learned to trust him.

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Lambesar castle in Northern Iran, second home of the Nizari Ismaili state

Sometimes, a credible threat of assassination was as effective as an actual killing.  When the new Seljuk Sultan Ahmad Sanjar rebuffed Hashashin diplomatic overtures in 1097, he awoke one morning to find a dagger stuck into the ground, next to his bed.  A messenger arrived sometime later from the old man of the mountain.  “Did I not wish the Sultan well” he said, “that the dagger which was struck in the hard ground would have been planted on your soft breast?”  The technique worked nicely.  For the rest of his days, Sanjar was happy to allow the Hashashin to collect tolls from travelers.  The Sultan even provided them with a pension, collected from the inhabitants of the lands they occupied.

Saladin himself awoke one morning, to find a note resting on his breast, along with a poisoned cake.  The message was clear.  Sultan of all Egypt and Syria though he was, Saladin made an alliance with the rebel sect.  There were no more attempts on his life.

It’s impossible to know how many of the hundreds of political assassinations of this period, were attributable to the followers of Hassan-i Sabbah.  Without a doubt, their fearsome reputation ascribed more political murder to the sect, than they were actually responsible for.  In the years during which it existed, the Assassins occupied scores of mountain redoubts, first in Persia and later in Syria.

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Nizam al Mulk is considered to be the first victim. assassinated on October 14, 1092

The Fida’in of Hassan-i Sabbah were some of the most feared killers of the middle ages.   Intimidating as they were, there came a time when the order of the Assassins tangled with someone even scarier than themselves.

The Grand Master dispatched his killers to Karakorum in the early 1250s, to murder the grandson of Genghis Khan, the Great Khan of the “Golden Horde”, Möngke.  It was a bad idea.

The Nestorian Christian ally of the Mongol Empire Kitbuqa Noyan, was ordered to destroy several Hashashin fortresses in 1253.  Möngke’s brother Hulagu rode out at the head of the largest Mongol army ever assembled in 1255, with no fewer than 1,000 Chinese engineer squads.  Their orders were to treat those who submitted with kindness, and to utterly destroy those who did not.

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Masyaf Castle, Syria

That he did. Rukn al-Dīn Khurshāh, fifth and final Imam who ruled at Alamut, submitted after four days of preliminary bombardment.  Mongol forces under the command of Hulagu Khan entered and destroyed the Hashshashin stronghold at Alamut Castle on December 15, 1256.  Hassan-i Sabbah and his seven successor Lords had built from scratch, a state which managed to survive for 166 years in a world of far more powerful adversaries.

Hulagu went on to subjugate the 5+ million Lurs people of western and southwestern Iran, the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad, the Ayyubid state of Damascus, and the Bahri Mamluke Sultanate of Egypt.  Mongol and Muslim accounts alike, agree that the Caliph of Baghdad was rolled up in a Persian rug, and the horsemen of Hulagu rode over him, because Mongols believed that the earth was offended if touched by royal blood.

Some people are not to be trifled with.

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December 12, 1985 Arrow Air Flight 1285

The CASB minority report stated that the accident could have been caused by an onboard explosion of unknown origin prior to impact, and later testified before a US Congressional committee, that it was impossible for a thin layer of ice to bring down the aircraft.

The McDonnell Douglas DC-8 departed Cairo, Egypt at 20:35 Greenwich Mean Time on Wednesday, December 11, 1985. The flight was the first of three legs, scheduled for refueling stops in Cologne and Gander International Airport, then on to a final destination at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, home of the “Screaming Eagles” of the United States Army 101st Airborne Division.

This was Arrow Air Flight 1285, an international charter flight returning with 248 military personnel, following a six-month deployment in the Sinai, part of a Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) peacekeeping mission, overseeing terms of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

Passengers departed the aircraft while refueling in Newfoundland, as the flight engineer conducted his external inspection. Then came the new air crew of eight, after which passengers re-boarded the aircraft. Arrow Air Flight 1285 achieved flight velocity at 10:15 on December 12, 167 KIAS (“Knots-Indicated Air Speed”) and accelerating.

There was no way to know. 256 passengers and crew, had only seconds to live.

Airspeed reached 172 KIAS and then began to drop, the aircraft crossing the Trans-Canada Highway some 900-feet from the runway and beginning to descend. Witnesses on the highway below reported seeing a bright light, emanating from inside of the aircraft. Seconds later, flight 1285 crashed some 3,500-feet from departure, breaking apart and striking an unoccupied building near Gander lake, before bursting into flames.

Of the 248 servicemen, all but twelve were members of 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), mostly from the 3d Battalion, 502nd Infantry.  Eleven others were from other Forces Command units.  One was an agent with the Criminal Investigations Command (CID).  It was the deadliest accident to occur on Canadian soil, the United States Army’s single deadliest air crash in peacetime.  There were no survivors.

Hours later, an anonymous caller phoned a French news agency in Beirut, claiming responsibility for the crash on behalf of Islamic Jihad, a wing of Ḥizbu ‘llāh, (literally “Party of Allah” or “Party of God”) a Shi’a Islamist political party and militant group based in Lebanon. According to United Press International “Hours after the crash the Islamic Jihad – a Shiite Muslim extremist group – claimed it destroyed the plane to prove [its] ability to strike at the Americans anywhere.”

Canadian and Pentagon government authorities dismissed the claim.

The nine-member Canadian Aviation Safety Board (CASB) investigated the crash and issued a report, over the signature of five members:

“The Canadian Aviation Safety Board was unable to determine the exact sequence of events which led to this accident. The Board believes, however, that the weight of evidence supports the conclusion that, shortly after lift-off, the aircraft experienced an increase in drag and reduction in lift which resulted in a stall at low altitude from which recovery was not possible. The most probable cause of the stall was determined to be ice contamination on the leading edge and upper surface of the wing. Other possible factors such as a loss of thrust from the number four engine and inappropriate take-off reference speeds may have compounded the effects of the contamination”.

The report went on to criticize the antiquated foil-tape Flight Data Recorder as inadequate, as well as a non-functioning cockpit-area microphone.  No one would ever know what flight 1285 sounded like, in those final seconds.

The CASB minority report stated that the accident could have been caused by an onboard explosion of unknown origin prior to impact, and later testified before a US Congressional committee, that it was impossible for a thin layer of ice to bring down the aircraft.

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Memorial service at Dover AFB, December 6, 1985

There were changes in de-icing procedures, but little confidence in the CASB’s official report.  The Canadian government disbanded the board five years later, replacing it with an independent, multi-modal investigative agency – the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.

A memorial was erected at the crash site overlooking Gander Lake, a “Silent Witness”, designed by Kentucky artist, Steve Shields.  A stone memorial was erected at Fort Campbell, the Gander Memorial bearing the names of the 248, slain.  The scar on the ground is easily seen from the ground as well as from satellite, and remains there, to this day.

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Feature image, top of page:  “Silent Witness” by Kentucky artist Steve Shields. Arrow Air Flight 1285 memorial at Gander Lake, with a DC-8 taking off in the background. H/T wikipedia

Afterward

Canadian teenager Janice Johnson wanted to find a way to honor the fallen from flight 1285. “I wanted these Families to know that we as Canadians cared.

Johnson (now Nikkel) came up with $20 earned from babysitting, and a letter to the Toronto Star.  Nikkel’s letter sparked an international campaign, resulting in 256 Canadian sugar maple trees in 1986, a living memorial to the fallen soldiers and crew, of flight 1285.

What a Canadian could have told you and Kentucky had to learn the hard way, is that 20-ft. spacing isn’t enough room, for a grove of sugar maples.

Thirty-two years later, the Gander Memorial grove is crowded and tangled and, sadly, no longer viable. The old memorial closed this year, to be replaced in April 2019, if the schedule holds. You can read about it in the Fort Campbell Courier, if you’d like to know more.

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December 3, 1979 Iranian Revolution

If you want a fun read sometime, download the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Khomeini is personally named in the document. Three times.

Ruhollah Mousavi, the name translates as “inspired of God”, was born in the Iranian village of Khomein, on September 24, 1902. Born into a family of Shi’ite religious scholars, Mousavi was raised by his mother and aunt after his father was murdered while the boy was still an infant. The mother and the aunt died in a cholera outbreak when he was 16. After that, the boy was raised by his brother, Seyed Mourteza.

The family claimed to be directly descended from Muhammad, and both brothers were avid religious scholars, attaining the status of Ayatollah: Shi’ite scholars of the highest knowledge.

As King of Persia (Iran) since the 1920s, Rezā Shāh Pahlavi weakened the powers of religious leaders and pushed for a more secularized country.  Pahlavi’s reign was largely a force for modernization, but was often despotic, and failure to modernize a large peasant population did much to pave the way for Iranian Revolution.

608shahMohammad Reza Pahlavi came to power in 1941, following the Commonwealth/Soviet invasion of the Empire of Iran which forced the abdication of his father.

The years following WW2 saw a “growing nationalist mobilization against foreign domination” across the Middle East. In Iran, increasingly politicized Shiʿite “Islamic Fundamentalist” sentiment took the form of the Fadā’iyān-e Islam, literally “Self-Sacrificers of Islam”, an activist organization founded by theology student Navvab Safavi and dedicated to “purifying” Islam through the assassinations of leading intellectual and political leaders.

Prime Minister Haj Ali Razmara was assassinated by Fadā’iyān-e Islam radicals in 1951, the organization’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Abol-Qassem Kashani becoming Speaker of the National Parliament.

In the early ’50’s, secular Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh enjoyed an alliance of convenience with the hard-liner Kashani, mentor to the future Ayatollah Khomeini, at the same time seeking to blunt the political power of the Shah, believing that the Persian King should “reign, but not rule” in the manner of the constitutional monarchies of Europe.

In 1901, Mozzafar al-Din Shah Qajar, King of Persia, granted a 60-year petroleum search concession to British investor William Knox D’Arcy for £20,000, equivalent to $166 million in 2016. By the WW2 period, support was building for state control of foreign-owned oil assets, many believing such policies to be the way forward to greater wealth and self-determination. Mossadegh attempted to negotiate a 50/50 split of oil profits, but the British controlled Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) balked.

Contrary to the American position at that time, the UK government began plans to undermine and overthrow the Iranian government.

AIOC refusal to submit to audit of its books led to the “Nationalization Crisis” of 1951, and the near-unanimous vote in the majlis to nationalize Iranian oil assets. Foreign oil executives were expelled from the country, the British government enforcing an Iranian oil embargo while Prime Minister Mossadegh talked of a “cruel and imperialistic country” stealing from a “needy and naked people.”

With the United States fighting a war in Korea, the American government was deeply entrenched in a cold war mindset. Mossadegh had lost the support of Islamist hardliners by this time, for his failure to move the nation toward sharia-based theocratic government.

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“A communist newspaper’s office equipment is burned in the streets of Tehran on August 19, 1953, during the pro-Shah riots that swept through the nation’s capital”. H/T CNN

The communist-supporting Tudeh party began to infiltrate the Iranian military, persuading American Secretary of State John Foster Dulles that the Iranian government was “falling” to the Soviet Union.

Before long, economic and political isolation severely weakened the Mossadegh government, as the American government switched sides on the question of Iranian overthrow. Two UK/US-backed coup attempts followed in 1953, along with the temporary expulsion of the Shah. The government was done for good that August. Mohammad Mossadegh was sentenced to death but the sentence was never carried out.  He spent the rest of his life under house arrest and died in Tehran, in 1967.

Ayatollah Khomeini had formed very different views by this time from those of his teachers, concerning the separation of church and state. Khomeini dedicated himself to teaching, cultivating a group of dedicated students who would one day become his staunchest supporters. By the time of JFK’s election to the Presidency, Shi’ite Iranians regarded Khomeini as “Marja-e Taqlid”. A person to be imitated.

Khomeini gained prominence in 1962, opposing a law which would remove the requirement that elected officials be sworn in on the Qu’ran. In 1963, he gave a speech suggesting the Shah could leave if he didn’t like the political direction of the country, a speech which earned him a stay in prison.

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Khomeini was arrested again in 1964, after pronouncing his belief that Jews would take over Iran, and that the US considered all Iranians to be little more than slaves. Khomeini was deported to Turkey, later taking up residence in Iraq because Turkish law prevented him from wearing the traditional clothes of a Shi’ite cleric and scholar.

During his years in exile, Khomeini developed his ideas on the structure of an Islamic state, which he called “Velayat-e faqeeh”. He would lecture on his religious theories, videotapes of which were smuggled into Iran and sold at bazaars, making Khomeini the leader of Iranian opposition to the Shah’s government.

Military force had to be called out in 1975, to dispel crowds at a religious school in Qom. Khomeini declared it the beginning of “Freedom and liberation from the bonds of imperialism”. By this time Khomeini was too hot to handle even for the Iraqis, and he moved to Paris. It was only a few short months before his triumphant return.

Thousands were killed in riots and demonstrations throughout 1978, which the Shah first tried to quell, and later to embrace. “As Shah of Iran as well as an Iranian citizen”, Pahlavi said on November 5, “I cannot but approve your revolution”.

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It was too little, too late. Weeks later the Shāhanshāh, the “King of Kings”, left his country for good.

Khomeini re-entered Iran in February, as the Shah went from country to country, looking for a place to stay. With the now-former King of Kings suffering from a form of non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, President Jimmy Carter reluctantly allowed the Shah into the US for surgery.

Pahlavi left for Panama less than two weeks later, as “Grand Ayatollah” Khomeini denounced what he saw as an American plot. Student followers of the Ayatollah stormed the American embassy on November 4 and seized 90 hostages. 13 women and Americans of African ancestry were later released as was Richard Queen, a white man sick with Multiple Sclerosis. The remaining 52 hostages would be 444 days in captivity, paraded before television cameras in blindfolds as Khomeini denounced “The Great Satan”.

141027153923-01-iran-hostage-crisis-restricted-super-169The Iranian constitution of 1906 was supplanted by popular referendum on this day in 1979, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was proclaimed rahbar-e mo’azzam-e irān, Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution.

The US attempted a rescue on April 24, 1980. “Operation Eagle Claw” ended in collision between aircraft and the death of eight American servicemen, an Iranian civilian, and the destruction of two aircraft.

Aside from some of the most dismal economic conditions in American history, the Iranian hostage crisis did more than anything else to doom the Carter Presidency, to a single term.

Iranian revolutionaries wanted the Shah to stand trial for atrocities committed by his secret police, the SAVAK, but the Islamic Republic of Iran would easily match the worst of the Shah’s reign when it came to brutality.

2000px-Flag_of_Iran_in_map.svg_Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is gone now, but his influence is very much alive. If you want a fun read sometime, download the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Khomeini is personally named in the document. Three times.

There is a quote, attributed to the Ayatollah, which says “We do not worship Iran, we worship Allah. For patriotism is another name for paganism. I say let this land burn. I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world”.

A 2007 article in The Economist calls the authenticity of this quote into question, noting that the Mullahs like to build up bank accounts in Dubai and Switzerland, behavior hardly consistent with such an apocalyptic world view.

The American State Department designated the Islamic Republic of Iran a state sponsor of terrorism in 1984, a classification which holds, to this day.  As the previous administration saw fit to fly three planeloads of cash on pallets into the Islamic Republic for a total of $1.3 Billion, it would be nice to settle the authenticity question on that Khomeini quote, once and for all.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

October 7, 1571 Lepanto

Cross met Crescent this day in 1571 near the Greek island of Lepanto.  It’s been called “The battle that saved the Christian west”.

Following the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Empire was massively expanded under Sultan Selim I, “Selim the Grim”. 1516 – ’17 saw a 70% expansion of Ottoman landmass, with the subjugation of large swaths of the Arabian peninsula, historic Syria, the eastern Mediterranean and Egypt.

Suleiman_featuredSelim’s son and successor would become the tenth and longest-ruling Ottoman Sultan in 1520, until his death in 1566. He was “Süleiman the Magnificent”, a man who, at his height, ruled over some fifteen to twenty million, at a time when the entire world contained fewer than 500 million

By 1522, Süleiman had managed to expand his rule to Serbia, placing the Ottoman Empire in direct conflict with the Habsburg monarchy, early predecessor to what we remember from WW1, as the Austro-Hungarian empire.

The Catholic states of Europe were plunged into a morass of their own at this time, wracked by the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation, and by a series of wars for hegemony, over the formerly-independent city-states of the Italian peninsula. The “Italian wars” of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries pitted no fewer than eight separate Christian alliances against one another, between forces of the Valois and Habsburg monarchies, the Holy Roman Empire and various Italian republics. In time, republican Venice was alone in retaining her independence, aside from minor city-states such as Lucca and San Marino.

Venice attempted to check Ottoman expansion into the eastern Mediterranean until 1540 when, exhausted and despairing of support, signed a humiliating capitulation to the Sultan.

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Roxelana, the harem slave who rose to be “Queen” of the Ottoman Empire

This, the second such conflict between Venice and the Ottomans, left the republic without her former buffer territories in Greece and the Serbo-Croatian possessions of Dalmatia.

Hurrem Sultan, better known as “Roxelana”, was probably kidnapped from the Polish principality of Ruthenia, and sold into the slave markets of Istanbul, given by the Valide Sultan (legal mother of the Sultan and chief consort to Selim I), to her son Süleiman.  Roxelana is unique in Ottoman history, rising from Harem slave and Sultan’s concubine, to Süleiman’s legal wife and “Queen of the Ottoman Empire.” It was she who began a 130-year period of female influence over the male line known as the “Sultanate of Women” when, though born to slavery, the wives and mothers of the Sultan wielded extraordinary political power over affairs of Empire.

She was instrumental in driving the unlikely ascension of her son Selim II to the Sultanate, following the death of her son Mehmed from smallpox, and the murders of his half-brother Mustafa and his brother Bayezid, engineered between himself and his father.

The eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus was a major overseas possession of the Venetian republic and, surrounded by Ottoman territory, had long been “in the wolf’s mouth”. The Turkish invasion force of 350-400 ships arrived on July 1, 1570, carrying between 80,000 – 150,000 men. First capturing the coastal cities of Paphos, Limassol and Larnaca, the Ottoman force marched inland to lay siege to Nicosia, the largest city on the island. The siege would last forty days, resulting in the death of some 20,000 residents and the looting of every church, public building and palace, in the city.

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By Mid-September, the Ottoman cavalry arrived outside the last Venetian stronghold on Cyprus, the east coast port city of Famagusta.

At this point, Famagusta’s defenders numbered fewer than 9,000 men with 90 guns, pitted against an invading force swelled by this time to over 250,000 with 1,500 cannon. The defense of Famagusta would hold out for eleven months, led by the Venetian lawyer and military commander, Marcantonio Bragadin. By the following August, five major assaults had cost the lives of some 52,000 invaders, including the first-born son of the Turkish commander, Lala Kara Mustafa Pasha. Bragadin’s command was reduced to 900 sick, starving and injured defenders who, like local civilians, begged him to surrender.

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Walled citadel of Famagusta, in North Cypress

According to the customs of the time, negotiation before a city’s defenses were successfully breached allowed for terms of surrender, whereas all lives and property were forfeit, in a city taken by storm. Terms of safe passage were agreed upon, yet, on presentation of the city, Bragadin was seized by Lala Mustafa Pasha, his ears and nose cut off, and thrown into a cell. A massacre followed in which every Christian left alive in the city, was killed.  Bragadin was skinned alive in the public square and the stuffed with straw, reinvested with his military insignia, and sent with the heads of his officers to Istanbul, as a gift to Sultan Selim II.

Pope Pius had tried since 1566, to put together a “Holy League” to oppose the Ottoman invasion.   Marcantonio Bragadin was betrayed in the end and put to death.  Yet, the heroic defense against impossible odds of September 17, 1570 to August 5, 1571, bought a coalition of Catholic maritime states, time in which to defend themselves.

Cross met Crescent this day in 1571 near the Greek island of Lepanto.  It’s been called “The battle that saved the Christian west”.  The Europeans were outnumbered, with 212 ships and as many as 40,000 soldiers and oarsmen, compared with a Muslim force numbering 278 vessels, and as many as 50,000 soldiers and oarsmen.

The Ottoman empire had not lost a major naval battle, since the 14th century.

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What the Holy League lacked in numbers however, was made up in equipment, and experience.  The Christians possessed 1,815 guns, to fewer than half than number for the Ottoman fleet.

Ten thousand would be lost to the Christian side, compared with four times that number, for the adversary.  the Ottoman fleet was crushed over five hours of combat, losing 200 ships burned, sunk or captured, compared with 17 for the Europeans.

The Spanish novel Don Quixote has been translated into more languages than any book in western history, save for the holy bible.  Author Miguel de Cervantes participated in the battle at the age of 23, receiving three gunshot wounds and losing his left hand.

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Cervantes

While the European victory at Lepanto put a halt to Muslim expansion in the western Mediterranean, zero lost territory was regained while the Sultan solidified his control, over the east. The Ottoman fleet was rebuilt within six months, including some of the largest capital ships, then in existence.

Grand Vizier Mehmed Sokullu, Chief Minister to Sultan Selim II went so far as to taunt the Venetian emissary Marcantonio Barbaro, that the Christian triumph amounted to little:

“You come to see how we bear our misfortune. But I would have you know the difference between your loss and ours. In wresting Cyprus from you, we deprived you of an arm; in defeating our fleet, you have only shaved our beard. An arm when cut off cannot grow again; but a shorn beard will grow all the better for the razor”.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

September 7, 1191 Crusade

Richard Lion-heart no longer had the strength to challenge Saladin for Jerusalem.  Saladin, for his part, had serious morale problems, after repeated defeats at the hands of the Crusaders.

The Islamic Conquests began in the 7th century on the Arabian Peninsula. In the first 100 years of its existence, Islam established the largest pre-modern empire up to that time, stretching from the borders of China in the east, through India and Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, Egypt, Sicily to the Iberian Peninsula (Spain), in the west.

The Sasanid Empire in what is now Iran ceased to exist under the Muslim conquest, as did much of Byzantium, seat of the Roman Empire in the east. Europe itself narrowly escaped subjugation when Charles “The Hammer” Martel defeated the army of Abdul Rahman al Qafiqi at Poitiers (Tours) in October, 732.

islam-territoryEstimates suggest that the second of four major Caliphates, that of the Umayyad based in Damascus, Syria, was over 5 million square miles, larger than any modern state with the sole exception of the Russian Federation.

The First of the Christian Crusades was launched by Pope Urban II on November 27, 1095, in response to an appeal from Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, who was requesting help in defending Constantinople against the invading Seljuq Turks.

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Such a request was nothing new.  The Reconquista in Spain had not yet reached the mid-point of its 781-year effort to overthrow Muslim rule, and European knights traveled to Spain on a regular basis to assist in the effort.

Once in Anatolia (modern day Turkey), the ancillary goal of freeing the holy city of Jerusalem itself and the Holy Land soon became the principal objective, as Jerusalem had by then been under Islamic rule for 461 years. Jerusalem was recaptured on July 15, 1099, following a siege of six weeks.

The County of Edessa was the first Crusader state to be created, and the first to go, falling in 1144 and leading to the second crusade. Mostly notable for its failures, the one major success of the second crusade was when it stopped on the way to the Holy Land, helping a much smaller Portuguese army overthrow Muslim rule in Lisbon. Two kings then marched two separate armies across Europe into Anatolia, only to be soundly defeated by the Turks.

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A Kurdish leader arose at this time to become Sultan, founding a dynasty which would last for eighty-nine years. His name was Salāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb, better known as Saladin, a Sunni Muslim who rose to greatness in a Shi’ite world.

Saladin.jpgNo less a figure than Dante Alighieri counted Saladin a “virtuous pagan,” ranking among the likes of Hector, Aeneas, and Caesar.

While Christian leaders in the Middle East fell to squabbling among themselves, Saladin united Syria, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Yemen and parts of North Africa under the Ayyūbid dynasty.

A crusader army some 20,000 strong was caught out in the open in the desert heat of Summer, near a pair of extinct volcanoes called the “Horns of Hattin”.  Parched with thirst, exhausted and demoralized, Muslim armies under Saladin captured or killed the vast majority of these Crusader forces on July 4, 1187, putting an end to Christian military power in the Middle East and opening the way to the recapture of every Crusader state, save one. Jerusalem itself fell on October 2.

Pope Urban III is said to have collapsed and died, upon hearing the news.

Within days of his election, Pope Henry VIII called for a third Crusade.  King Henry II of England and King Philip II of France were at war at this time, but that was set aside and the pair began preparations to reconquer the Holy Land.  An extremely unpopular tax of 10% on all revenues and movable goods was imposed by the Church, and enforced under pains of imprisonment or excommunication. This “Saladin Tithe” raised 100,000 marks of silver:  about 800,000 ounces.

third-crusade-1189-91The aging Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick I “Barbarossa” (Red Beard), was the first to go, taking up the cross at Mainz Cathedral in March, 1188. Emperor Frederick drowned crossing the Saleph River in Asia Minor in June 1190, after which most of his army of 100,000 returned to Germany.

Henry II of England died in the meantime, leaving his son Richard I “Coeur de Lion” (Lion-heart) to lead the crusade with Philip in the summer of 1190.

Richard took time to conquer Sicily on the way to the Holy Lands, where King Tancred I was holding Richard’s sister Queen Joan, prisoner. He reached Cyprus that May, there pausing long enough to marry Berengaria of Navarre, thus alienating his alliance with the French King, who considered Richard betrothed to his half-sister, Alys.

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Richard “Lion-Heart”

Richard landed near Acre in June 1191 to find the city under Muslim occupation, and under siege by the forces of Guy de Lusignan, himself held under siege by the armies of Saladin.

The fall of Acre that July led to a number of meetings between Richard and Saladin’s brother Al-Adil, from which nothing resulted. The Crusaders lost all patience by August, believing Saladin to be dragging his feet, and decapitated 2,700 Muslim prisoners in full view of his army.  Saladin retaliated by murdering every Christian captive under his control.

If the Crusaders were to retake the holy city of Jerusalem, they first had to take and hold the strategically important port city of Jaffa, some 75 distant.

Richard’s personal courage and skill as a commander was on full display on the march south.  Ever mindful of the disaster at Hattin, Richard understood the need for water and the danger of heat exhaustion. The 10,000 infantry and 1,200 heavy cavalry of the Crusader army moved only in the cool hours of the early morning, the crossbowmen of the infantry corps on the landward side, with the allied fleet to their right providing resupply and succor for the wounded.

The hit & run tactics of Muslim archers were near-constant, the rearguard of the Knights Hospitaller forced to walk backward, to engage the adversary.  Any spaces in the line were quickly filled by Arab horsemen, who finished the stragglers with sword or with mace.  The Kurdish historian and eyewitness Baha al-Din ibn Shaddad described heavily armored knights on the march to Jaffa, seemingly unhurt despite multiple arrows, sticking out of their backs. The power of the Christian crossbow was another matter, striking down Arab horses and riders, with ease

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Richard Coeur de Lion on his way to Jerusalem

Harassing attacks gave way to pitched battle this day in 1191 near the ancient fortified city of Arsuf, proving Richard’s personal courage and skill as a commander, while putting a dent in Saladin’s reputation as the invincible warrior King.

The Latin history of the third crusade Itinerarium Regis Ricardi “There the king, the fierce, the extraordinary king, cut down the Turks in every direction, and none could escape the force of his arm, for wherever he turned, brandishing his sword, he carved a wide path for himself: and as he advanced and gave repeated strokes with his sword, cutting them down like a reaper with his sickle, the rest, warned by the sight of the dying, gave him more ample space, for the corpses of the dead Turks which lay on the face of the earth extended over half a mile.”

Two times Crusader armies came within sight of Jerusalem, never suspecting that, within the city, “Saracen” morale was so low that the city could have been theirs for the taking. Meanwhile, factions within the Crusader armies fell to bickering, with half wanting to push on to Jerusalem, the other wanting to attack Saladin’s base of power, in Mamluk Egypt.

In time, the Crusader and the Sultan came to hold a degree of respect for one another. Legend has it that, at one point in the fighting around Jaffa, Saladin even sent Richard a fresh horse, after one was killed beneath him. The pair even discussed marrying Joan off to Saladin’s brother, Al-Adil, with themselves becoming co-rulers in Jerusalem. The plan might’ve worked, too, until the Roman Church got wind and threatened excommunication if Richard carried it out.

I have not been able to learn what Joan herself, thought of the match.

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Time finally ran out for Richard and Saladin, both. The Christian army was decimated by disease. Fierce quarrels between German, English (Angevin) and French contingents threatened to break up the Crusader army.  Richard himself was gravely ill, near despair of ever regaining his health. On top of that, his little brother John was plotting against him, with the connivance of the French King Philip.

Richard Lion-heart no longer had the strength to challenge Saladin for Jerusalem.  Saladin, for his part, had serious morale problems, after repeated defeats at the hands of the Crusaders.

With Saladin’s brother Saif adDin acting as intermediary, the King and the Sultan concluded the Treaty of Jaffa in 1192. The fortifications at Ascalon were to be dismantled, in exchange for which Christians would continue to hold the coast from Jaffa to Tyre. Jerusalem would remain in Muslim hands, while unarmed Christian pilgrims and traders would be guaranteed free passage to visit the Holy Sepulcher of the Lord in peace, without the exaction of tribute or tax. Further, Christian traders were permitted the possession objects for sale throughout the land, thus permitting such traders right of free commerce.

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Sultan Salāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb died of a fever the following March, and was buried in the garden outside the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.  Saladin’s kingdom and the Crusader states would remain at peace, for a period of three years.

Seven centuries later, German Emperor Wilhelm II donated a new marble sarcophagus, to the tomb of the Sultan who had reclaimed Jerusalem from the Crusaders.

Foul weather drove King Richard I ashore near Venice, where he was captured by Duke Leopold of Austria and handed over to German Emperor Henry VI and held for ransom. This time, the tithe would amount to 25%, raising about 1.2 million ounces of silver, and forever answering any questions as to what might constitute a “King’s Ransom”.

A bolt from a crossbow left Richard Coeur de Lion mortally wounded on April 6, 1199, while besieging the castle of Châlus, in central France. He was 41.

Richard was destined to be succeeded by his brother John, after all. John became such an unpopular King that his Nobles and their French and Scots allies forced him to sign the “Great Charter of the Liberties”, the Magna Carta, at a place called Runnymede.

Magna-Carta-signing

Nearly 600 years later, the document would influence early government in the thirteen American colonies and the formation of our own Constitutional Republic, but that must be a story for another day.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

 

June 17, 1462 Son of the Dragon

In a time and place remembered for near-cartoonish levels of violence, Vlad Țepeș stands out for extraordinary cruelty.

Count Dracula, favorite of Halloween costume shoppers from time immemorial, has been with us since the 1897 publication of Bram Stoker’s novel, of the same name.  Stoker’s working titles for the manuscript were “The Un-dead”, and “Count Wampyr”. He nearly kept one of them too, until stumbling into the real-life story of Vlad Țepeș (TSE·pesh), a Wallachian Prince and front-line warrior, against the Jihad of his day.

In modern Romanian, “Dracul” means “the Devil”. In the old language, it meant “the Dragon”, the word “Dracula” (Drăculea) translating as “Son of the Dragon”.

166-vlad-tepes_246_9379154c5086651cL.jpgStoker wrote in his notes, “in Wallachian language means DEVIL”. In a time and place remembered for near-cartoonish levels of violence, Vlad Țepeș stands out for his extraordinary cruelty. There are tales of Țepeș disemboweling his own mistress. That he collected the noses of vanquished adversaries.  Some 24,000 of them. That he dined among forests of victims, spitted on poles. That he even impaled the donkeys they rode in on.

In 1436, Vlad II became voivode (prince) of Wallachia, a region in modern-day Romania situated between the Lower Danube river and the Carpathian Mountains.  The sobriquet “Dracul” came from membership in the “Order of the Dragon” (literally “Society of the Dragonists”), a monarchical chivalric order founded by Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund in 1408, and dedicated to stopping the Ottoman advance into Europe.

A crossroads between East and West, the region was scene to frequent bloodshed, as Ottoman forces pushed westward into Europe, and Christian forces pushed back..

A weakened political position left Vlad II no choice but to pay homage to Ottoman Sultan Murad II, in the form of an annual Jizya (tax on non-Muslims) and a contribution of 500 Wallachian boys to serve as Janissaries in the elite slave army of the Ottoman Empire.

Vlad was taken hostage by the Sultan in 1442, along with his two younger sons, Vlad III and Radu.  The terms of the boys’ captivity were relatively mild by the standards of the time and both became skilled horsemen and warriors. Radu went over to the Turkish side, but Vlad hated captivity, developing an incandescent hate for his captors which would last all his life.

Following the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Sultan Mehmed II set his sights on the invasion of all Europe.

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Fall of Constantinople

The younger Vlad gained the Wallachian throne three years later and immediately stopped all tribute to Sultan Mehmed II, by now risen to 10,000 ducats per year, and 1,000 boys.  When a group of visiting Ottoman envoys declined to remove their turbans in Vlad’s court, the Prince ordered the turbans nailed to their skulls.

Vlad now consolidated power as his reputation for savagery, grew.  According to stories circulated after his death, hundreds of disloyal boyars (nobles) and their allies met their end, impaled on spikes.

Mehmed II, conqueror of Constantinople, now amassed power of his own, setting his sights on campaigns against Anatolia, the Greek Empire of Trebizond and the White Sheep Turkomans of Uzun Hasan.   Throughout this period, Romanian control of the Danube remained a thorn in his side.

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Danube River

Pope Pius II declared a new Crusade against the Ottoman in 1460, but Vlad Țepeș was the only European leader to show any enthusiasm.  The Hungarian General and Ţepeş’ only ally Mihály Szilágyi was captured by the Turks, his men tortured to death and Szilágyi himself sawed in half.

Țepeș invaded the Ottoman Empire the following year.  In a letter to Hungarian king Matthias Corvinus dated February 11, 1462, Țepeș wrote:  I have killed peasants men and women, old and young, who lived at Oblucitza and Novoselo, where the Danube flows into the sea, up to Rahova, which is located near Chilia, from the lower Danube up to such places as Samovit and Ghighen. We killed 23,884 Turks without counting those whom we burned in homes or the Turks whose heads were cut by our soldiers…Thus, your highness, you must know that I have broken the peace with him (Sultan Mehmed II).

The Sultan invaded Wallachia at the head of a massive army, only to find a “forest of the impaled”.  The Byzantine Greek historian Laonikos Chalkokondyles writes: “The sultan’s army entered into the area of the impalements, which was seventeen long and seven stades wide”.

To give a sense of scale to such a horror, a “stade” derives from the Greek “stadeon” – the dimensions of an ancient sports arena.

Vlad DraculaOutnumbered five-to-one, Ţepeş employed a scorched earth policy, poisoning the waters, diverting small rivers to create marshes and digging traps covered with timber and leaves. He would send sick people among the Turks, suffering lethal diseases such as leprosy, tuberculosis and bubonic plague.

From his years in captivity, Ţepeş understood Ottoman language and customs as well as the Turks themselves.  Fearless, he would disguise himself as a Turk and freely walk about their encampments, gaining valuable intelligence on the Sultan’s organization.

On this day in 1462, the Son of the Dragon launched a night attack on the Ottoman camp near the capital city of Târgoviște, in an effort to assassinate Mehmed himself.  Knowing that the Sultan forbade his men from leaving their tents at night, a force of some 7,000 to 10,000 horsemen fell on Mehmed’s camp three hours after sunset.  The skirmish lasted all that night until 4 the next morning, killing untold numbers of Turks, their horses and camels.  Ţepeş himself aimed for the Sultan’s tent, but mistook it for that of two grand viziers, Ishak Pasha and Mahmud Pasha.

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The Battle With Torches by Romanian painter Theodor Aman. It depicts the The Night Attack of Târgovişte,

Mehmed II “The Conqueror” survived the Night Attack at Târgovişte.  In the end, the Romanian principalities had little with which to oppose the overwhelming force of the Ottoman Empire. Vlad III Țepeș would twice be deposed only to regain the throne but never able to defeat his vastly more powerful adversary.

“Vlad the Impaler” was exiled to Hungary where he spent much of his time, in prison.  He died fighting against the Ottomans in December 1476 or January 1477, his body cut into pieces and his head delivered to the Sultan.  Drăculea is buried in an unknown grave, stories of his cruelty told and retold in Russian, German and a hundred other languages.  Five hundred years later, the Son of the Dragon is remembered as the un-dead vampire, Count Dracula.

 

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

May 15, 1718 Rapid Fire

The lightly armed merchant vessel of the 18th century was ill equipped to oppose the swarming attack of a hundred or more pirates.  Enter history’s first, machine gun.

A story comes to us from the Revolution, of a battle near Boonesborough, Kentucky. A British officer dared to poke his head out from behind a tree. A split-second later he was dead, a lead ball in his head. It was a near-miraculous shot for the day, nearly 250-yards distant from the shooter. The man with the rifle was Daniel Boone.  The weapon was his famous Kentucky long rife.

It was a good thing that the man could shoot that weapon, because it took about a minute to load, aim and fire.  The smooth-bore weapons of the age were a little quicker. A skilled shooter could could get off 3 rounds per minute, but aimed fire was all but impossible at any kind of distance.

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Kentucky Long Rifle

Military tactics on land evolved toward massed firepower.  When large groups of men fired at one another, something was going to get hit.  Defending yourself at sea, was another matter.

Long before the revolt in Great Britain’s American colony, European navies abandoned oar-powered vessels in favor of sailing ships carrying tons of powerful cannon.  Not so the corsairs of the North African coast.

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Ottoman privateer Murat Reis, the Elder

 

The “Barbary pirates” of the Ottoman provinces of Algeria, Tunisia & Tripolitania and the independent sultanate of Morocco favored small, fast galleys, powered by combinations of sail and oar and carrying a hundred or more fighting men armed with flintlock, axe and cutlass.

Barbary navies never formed battle fleets, and would flee at the sight of European frigates.  These people were looking for lightly armed merchantmen.  They came to take hostages for the Arab slave markets.

The Arab slave trade was never racialized in the way of trans-Atlantic, chattel slavery.  Black Africans and white Europeans alike, were fair game.  Some historians assert that as many as 17 million entered the Arab slave markets, from Western Asia, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, Southeast Africa and Europe.

It was the enslaved mercenary armies of the Ayyubid dynasty of Egypt and Syria, the Mamālīk (singular Mamlūk), who expelled the last Christian armies from the Levant in 1302, ending the era of the Crusades. For five-hundred years, elite slave armies called “Janissaries” formed the bulwark of Ottoman power from southeastern Europe to western Asia and north Africa.

Ohio State University history Professor Robert Davis estimates that Barbary corsairs captured as many as 1 – 1¼ million Europeans between the 16th and 19th centuries alone, kidnapped from seaside villages along the Mediterranean coast, England, and as far away as the Netherlands, Ireland and Iceland. Some 700 Americans were held in conditions of slavery in North Africa, between the period of the American Revolution and the War of 1812.

The lightly armed merchant vessel of the 18th century was ill equipped to oppose the swarming attack of a hundred or more pirates.  Enter history’s first machine gun.

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The “Puckle Gun”, patented this day in 1718

James Puckle (1667–1724) was a British inventor, barrister and author. The Puckle Gun, also called the “defence gun”, was a tripod-mounted, single-barreled flintlock fitted with a revolving cylinder.  At a time when a trained shooter could load and fire no more than three times per minute, James Puckle’s weapon was capable of  nine.

The Puckle gun was intended for naval use, to prevent the boarding of ships at sea.  There were two variations, the first intended for use against Christian adversaries.  This one fired round balls. The second version was considered to be the more lethal of the two and fired square bullets, intended for use against Muslim Turks. According to the patent, square bullets would persuade the Turks of the “benefits of Christian civilization”. The weapon could also fire shot, with each discharge containing up to sixteen musket balls.

Among investors, there was little interest in the Puckle Gun, and the weapon never gained wide acceptance. Before the era of mass production,  gunsmiths had trouble reliably producing its small, complicated parts. One newspaper quipped that the gun “only wounded those who hold shares therein”.

In time, humankind would become much more adept at killing itself. Dr. Richard Gatling invented his multi-barrel, crank fired “Gatling Gun” in 1861, writing that his creation would reduce the size of armies and so reduce the number of deaths by combat and disease. With a rate of fire of up to 900 rounds per minute in the .30 caliber model, Gatling’s gun was popular from the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 to the Anglo-Zulu war of two years later, and the “Rough Riders” assault up San Juan Hill.

American-British inventor Hiram Maxim invented the first true “machine gun” in 1884, by harnessing  the weapon’s recoil.  The Hiram gun was a favorite of colonial wars from 1886–1914, and variants entered the trenches of WW1.

It would take about a hot minute with the search engine of your choice, to realize that the practice of Muslim slavery, primarily (though not exclusively) at the expense of black Africans, continues to this day.