May 22, 1176 Assassin

Sabbah would order the elimination of rivals, usually up close, with the dagger.  From religious figures to politicians and generals, assassinations were preferably performed in broad daylight, in as public a manner as possible. It was important that no one miss the intended message.

For the Islamic world, the 11th century was a time of political instability.  The Fatimid Caliphate, claiming to descend from Fatima, daughter of Muhammad, was established in 909.  By this time quartered in Cairo, the Ismaili Shia caliphate was in sharp decline by 1090, 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 Lionheart, as Saladin.sm_1c5fec69910767eb2024ea4a2f868b96To 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, destined to disappear altogether 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.1_Nq3vtxWf1nYQJt2zT4gn7wThe 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 bring them back. 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, personally selected by Allah. The man didn’t need to drug his “Fida’i” (self-sacrificing agents).  He was infallible in their eyes, his every whim to be 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.alamut-castleWhy 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, the Old Man of the Mountain 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 generals, assassinations were preferably performed in broad daylight, in as public a manner as possible. It was important that no one miss the intended message.

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 unsuspecting victim who had come to trust him.ASSASSINSSometimes, a credible threat of assassination did as much 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 tactic worked nicely. For the rest of his days, Sanjar was happy to allow the Hashashin to collect tolls from travelers in his realm. The Sultan even provided them with a pension, collected from the inhabitants of the lands they occupied.

The great Saladin himself was not safe from these people.  The Muslim military leader awoke on this day in 1176 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 would be no more such attempts on his life.the-crusades-22-638Conrad of Montferrat was elected King of Jerusalem in 1192, though he would never be crowned. Stabbed at least twice by a pair of Hashashin on April 28, on the way home, the Kurdish historian and biographer wrote “[T]he Frankish marquis, the ruler of Tyre, and the greatest devil of all the Franks, Conrad of Montferrat — God damn him! — was killed.”

In the 200+ years of its existence, the Assassins occupied scores of mountain redoubts, though Alamut would remain its principle quarters.

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.

The Fida’in of Hassan-i Sabbah were some of the most feared killers of the middle ages. Scary as they were, there came a time when the Order of the Assassins tangled with someone far scarier, than even themselves.Al_Gazi_the_assassin_by_hunqwertThe Grand Master of the Assassins 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 seen 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 opposed them.

That they 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, 1256.591db11cb4831eaddd0ec6b0858997b1-baghdad-islamHulagu 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, whereupon the horsemen of Hulagu rode over him.  Mongols believed that the earth was offended if touched by royal blood.

Some guys are not to be trifled with.

September 2, 1192 Sultan and Crusader

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 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.

Estimates suggest that the Caliphate was over 5 million square miles, larger than any modern-day state with the sole exception of the Russian Federation.

Muslim Conquests, 632-750
Muslim Conquests, 632-750

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 Constantinople against the invading Seljuq Turks.

Such a request wasn’t 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 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.

first_crusade_route_map
Route Map of the First Crusade

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.

Saladin
Saladin

A Kurdish leader arose to become Sultan at this time, 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.

No less a figure than Dante Alighieri counted Saladin a “virtuous pagan,” in the ranks 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. Saladin’s annihilation of a crusader army at Hattin on July 4, 1187 opened the way to the recapture of every Crusader state but one.  Jerusalem itself fell on October 2.

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

King Henry II of England and King Philip II of France were at war at the time, but ended that and began preparations for a third crusade with the exhortations of Pope Henry VIII. 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_route_map
Route Map of the Third Crusade

The 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.

Loewenherz_LondonPortraet
Richard I, “Lion-heart”

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 to be betrothed to his own half-sister, Alys.

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.

Richard became ill at one point during the battle for Acre, it’s said that he picked off guards on the city walls with a crossbow, as he was being carried off on a stretcher.

The fall of Acre 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 view of Saladin’s army.  This number included women and children.  Saladin responded by murdering every Christian captive, under his control.

Dominique-Louis-FeÌ-reÌ-ol Papety - The Siege of Acre ca_ 1840
The Siege of Acre, by Dominique-Louis-FeÌ-reÌ-ol Papety – ca 1840

Richard took the strategically important city of Jaffa, control over which was necessary if the Crusaders were to hold the coast and retake Jerusalem. The Crusader victory at Arsuf would prove Richard’s personal courage and skill as a commander, at the same time putting a dent in Saladin’s reputation as the invincible warrior King.

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

crusade, 3

Time finally ran out for Richard and Saladin, both. The Christian army was decimated by disease.  Fierce quarrels between German, English 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 own 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 on this day 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 any tribute or tax.  Further, Christian traders were permitted the possession objects for sale throughout the land, thus permitting such traders right of free commerce.

Crusades

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, Syria.  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 be 25%, raising about 1.2 million ounces of silver, and forever answering any questions as to what might constitute a “King’s Ransom”.

Magna Carta
King John signing the Magna Carta, June 15, 1215

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.

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.