Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Assassins in Syria, c.1095-1162 C.E. A Chronology and Notes

The history of the Nizari sect of the Ismaili Shi'ia, better known in the West as "the Assassins." The Assassin Order first established itself on a territorial basis in Iran during the 1090's, but its missionary activities in Syria ultimately led it to seek a secure territory in that region as well. Principal sources are listed at the end of the second part.

The disorder in Syria in the late 11th century, and the existing presence there of extremist groups and the close proximity of the Fatimid frontier, all suggest that it should have proved a fertile ground for Ismaili missionary activity. Nevertheless, it took close to a half century before the Ismailis were able to securely establish themselves there, and this finally happened only after several disastrous false starts. Finally, in the middle third of the twelfth century, the Assassins established what amounted to their own principality in the area known today as the Jebel Ansariyya in Syria, which in medieval times was called the Jebel Bahra’. The situation of their enclave on the border between the Crusader states of the coast and the Moslem states of the interior meant that they played a significant if shifting role in the politics of the Levant for the last century of the Crusades.
1095: Tutush, the brother of the Seljuq Sultan Malik-Shah (d. 1094) and the Seljuq viceroy in Syria, is killed in battle in the civil wars following his brother’s death. His sons Ridwan and Duqaq succeed to his inheritance in Aleppo and Damascus respectively, but this event, together with the arrival of the Crusaders along the coast the following year, contributes to a fragmentation and breakdown of central authority in Syria. Still, it seems more likely that the area was first targeted by the Ismailis because there were already extremist sects in Syria that could have provided fertile recruiting areas for Ismaili ideas; the Druzes of Mount Lebanon, who were themselves a dissident Ismaili sect (one that worshiped the early eleventh-century Fatimid caliph Hisham II), and the Nusayris/Alawis, Twelver Shi’ias in the hill country east of Lattakia.

1103: The first Nizari Ismaili missionaries, under the leadership of al-Hakim al-Munajjim, the “physician-astrologer,” seem to have established themselves in Aleppo. Ridwan allowed them to practice their religion and to proselytize. The city had a large Twelver Shji’ia population. Ridwan himself was apparently largely indifferent to religious distinctions, and he recognized the ways in which the Ismailis might prove useful to him, since in conventional military forces he was weaker than his brother and rival in Damascus.

1103: The Assassins murder Janah al-Dawla, the ruler of Homs and the estranged father-in-law of Ridwan, in the cathedral mosque of the city at Friday prayers on May 1. His assailants were Persians, who disguised themselves as sufis, and fell on him at a signal from their sheikh. Several of Janah’s officers were killed as well, as were some of the assailants. Most of the Turks in Homs then fled to the apparently safer precincts of Baghdad. Al-Hakim apparently survived, but died a short time thereafter.

Al-Hakim was succeeded by Abu Tahir al-Sa’igh, “the goldsmith”. He continued his activities from Aleppo.

1106: The Ismailis in Syria subvert the castle of Afamiya [Apamea], in the Orontes valley and west of the Jabal al Summaq. This castle, which overlooked the surviving columns of the cardo of the Seleuco-Roman city, had belonged to Ridwan until 1096, when it fell into the hands of Khalaf ibn Mula’ib, a pro-Fatimid Shi’ite. He used the castle as a base for brigandage. Doubtless with Ridwan’s assent, Abu Tahir made contact with some local Ismailis who were adherents of the Nizari branch of the sect under the leadership of a judge named Abu’l-Fath. Having determined that they would lend their support, Al Hakim sent six men to Afamiya. They got hold of a Frankish horse, mule and accoutrements, with a shield and armor, and came to Afamiya, where they announced to Khalaf that they had killed a Frankish knight and now were come to enter his service. He greeted them warmly and installed them in a house in the citadel that abutted the outer wall. The men from Aleppo broke a hole in the wall and were then reinforced by their local allies. They killed Khalaf and seized his citadel on February 3, 1106. Abu Tahir then came from Aleppo and installed himself in the castle.
Soon, however, the Crusader prince Tancred of Aleppo launched a raid upon Afamiya. On this first occasion, he was content to levy tribute and then proceed on his way (suggesting that Khalaf may have paid tribute to him?), but then he returned in September, blockaded the castle, and forced it to surrender. Abu’l-Fath was put to death by torture, suggesting that he was viewed as a rebel by Tancred; Abu Tahir and his companions were allowed to ransom themselves and return to Aleppo.

1113: The Syrian Ismailis murder Mawdud, the Seljuq emir of Mosul, who had led an army to Syria to assist the local princes against the Christians. Ridwan had not viewed his approach as welcome, and had shut the gates of Aleppo against him.
(December 10) Ridwan dies. His son Alp Arslan initially continues his policy of tolerance for the Ismailis, but popular sentiment in Aleppo was running against them. Two years before, there had been at least a rudimentary pogrom against the Ismailis after they attempted to assassinate a wealthy Persian in town who had spoken out against them. Now, the Seljuq Great Sultan Muhammad sent a letter to Alp Arslan warning him against the Ismailis and calling upon him to destroy them. Whether directly or indirectly as a result of this communication, Ibn Badi’, a popular leader and commander of the city militia, persuaded Alp Arslan that they time had come to take strong measures against this troublesome and potentially dangerous element. “He arrested Abu Tahir the goldsmith and killed him, and he killed Isma’il the da’i, and the brother of the physician-astrologer, and the leaders of this sect in Aleppo. He arrested about 200 of them, and imprisoned some of them and confiscated their property. Some were interceded for, some released, some thrown from the top of the citadel, some killed. Some of them escaped, and scattered throughout the land.”

(Spring) A force of some 100 Ismailis from Afamiya, Sarmin and other nearby places are able to seize the castle of Shayzar while its lord and most of his men are away. Soon thereafter, however, they are defeated and destroyed in a counterattack.

1114ff. Bahram of Asterabad, a Persian, is appointed the successor of Abu Tahir. For years, he lives a clandestine existence, “in extreme concealment and secrecy, so that he moved from city to city and castle to castle without anyone being aware of his identity.” Over time, however, he becomes acceptable to the ruler of Damascus and is able to carry out his activities more openly.

1119: Ibn Badi’, the anti-Ismaili popular leader in Aleppo, is expelled from the city and flees towards Mardin. The Ismailis ambush him and his two sons at a ford across the Euphrates and kill all three of them. [Von Hammer reports that two Assassins attacked Badi’ and his sons; they killed Badi and one of his sons, and wounded another; two of Badi’s sons then killed these two men; but another Assassin then attacked and gave the coup de grace to the son who was already wounded.]

Bahram appears in Damascus openly, with a letter of recommendation from Il-Ghazi, the ruler of Aleppo. Tughtigin of Damascus cedes him the castle of Banyas, and also grants him an imposing residence in the city to serve as a mission-house or headquarters for the Syrian branch of the Order.

1125: The Assassins kill Ibn al-Khasab, a respected qadi of Aleppo.

1126: By this time, the Turkish ruler of Damascus, Tughtigin, had accepted the Ismailis into an open alliance. Ismaili fighters from Homs joined his troops in a campaign against the Crusaders in January, suggesting that Ismailis were openly accepted in that city as well. There are suggestions, however, that the Ismailis’ main supporter was Tughtigin’s vizier, al-Mazdagani, and that Tughtigin merely sought to use them for tactical purposes.

1127: Bahram rebuilds and strengthens the castle of Banyas. But he is killed while leading a raid in the Wadi al-Taym near Baalbek. Afterwards, according to one story, Bahram’s head , hand and ring were taken by one of the locals to Cairo and presented to the caliph al-Amir, who gave the bearer financial rewards and a robe of honor. Bahram is then succeeded by another Persian, Isma’il.

1128: Tughtigin dies. His vizier al-Mazdagani continues to direct the government under the reign of his son Buri (also known as Taj al-Muluk), but there seems to have been an anti-Ismaili reaction that was gathering strength in the city. Buri allies himself with the city prefect, Mufarrij ibn al-Hasan ibn al-Sufi, and the military governor or commander, Yusuf ibn Firuz, in plotting a coup against the vizier. This occurs on September 4, 1129. The vizier is murdered as he sits in council in the Rose Pavilion at Damscus, and his severed head is tossed onto the ash heap outside the Iron Gate (al-Qalanisi, at 191-92). With his protection gone, the city militia and the urban mob then commence an anti-Ismaili pogrom. By the following morning, “the quarters and streets of the city were cleared of the heretics and the dogs were yelping and quarrelling over their limbs and corpses.” [the Damascus chronicle of Ibn al-Qalanisi] The number of Ismailis slain was variously put at 6,000, 10,000, or as high as 20,000.
Isma’il concludes that his isolated position in Banyas between enemies in the valleys of Lebanon and in Damascus is untenable. He surrenders the castle to the Franks and himself dies of dysentery in Frankish territory the following year.

1131: Buri thereafter lived under a sword of Damocles. He wore armor constantly and surrounded himself with armed guards, but it took less than two years before two Persians, who had pretended to be Turkish soldiers and had entered his service, managed to attack and wound him (May 7, 1131). The two assailants were cut to pieces by his guards, but Buri himself died of the long-term effects of his wounds the following year.
Ibn al-Qalanisi (Damascus Chronicle at 202-04) provides the details. The Assassins sent “two simpletons from Khurasan” to kill him. These two “simpletons” nevertheless successfully disguised themselves as Turks, and upon their arrival in Damascus made their way to some acquaintances of theirs among the Turks in the city, whose good offices allowed them to secure places in the atabeg’s bodyguard. They watched for an opportunity to strike down Taj al-Muluk and on May 7, 1131, as he was returning on horseback from the baths and reached the gate of his palace in the citadel of Damascus, the members of his bodyguard peeled away to go their own residences. The two fida’i then attacked him with their swords. One inflicted a glancing wound on his neck, and the second managed to stab him in the thigh. Taj al-Muluk managed to escape inside his palace, and the two Assassins were hacked to pieces by his bodyguard. The wound at his neck healed, but the wound in his thigh became a running sore. For a time it seemed he was improving, but in the end he died from this wound.

1132-41: The Ismailis begin to gradually establish themselves in the Jabal Bahra, to the southwest and acros the Orontes, in the hills overlooking Tortosa, from the area of their initial activity in the Jabal al-Summaq twenty years earlier. In 1132-33 the Moslem lord of al-Kahf sells to the Ismailis the fortress of Qadmus on the Masyaf/Baniyas road, which he had recently recovered from the Franks but perhaps lacked the strength to hold; it became their principal headquarters in the mountains. A few years later, his son ceded al-Kahf to the Ismailis during the course of a struggle with his cousins for the inheritance of his father’s patrimony. In 1136-37 a group of Assassins managed to overwhelm the Frankish garrison of Khariba. Masyaf, which was to become the capital of the Ismaili principality, was captured in 1140-41 from the Bana Munqidh princes of Shaizar; it was more exposed than the other castles. Four other castles – Khawabi, Rusafa, Qulay’a, and Maniqa were also obtained during this period to roudn out the Ismailis’ mountain stronghold, which they would hold without serious problems for another 130+ years.

Dahhak ibn Jandal, the popular leader of the people in the Wadi al-Taym who had defeated and killed Bahram in 1128, is assassinated by the Ismailis.

- Hodgson (Cambridge History of Iran at 467) suggests that Rasid al-Din Sinan had been a companion-in-arms of Hasan II and may have been sent to the Syrian community to introduce his doctrine of qiyama (resurrection). However, he seems to have interpreted the doctrine very much in his own way, if he applied it at all, and he apparently operated throughout his career with little reference to instructions from Muhammad II.

1152: The Syrian Ismailis begin paying an annual tribute of 2,000 bezants to the Templars. According to William of Tyre, at some point the Master of the Syrian division of the order sent an envoy to King Amalric I of Jerusalem, offering that his people would all convert to Christianity if they were excused the further payment of the tribute. Amalric accepted the offer, even expressing a willingness to recompense the Templars from out of his own treasury, but the Assassin envoy was murdered by the Templars on his way back from Jerusalem.

1152: Assassination of Raymond I, Count of Tripoli.

1162-1194: The Syrian division of the Order is under the leadership of Rashid-uddin, also known as Sinan, the “Old Man of the Mountain.” The contemporary Syrian historian Kamal al-Din met Sinan and recorded a lengthy account of his early years and activities as a da’i in the Ismaili faith.

According to Kamal al-Din, Sinan originally came from a village near Basra, where he later represented his father as having been one of the local notables. He converted to the faith, and perhaps for this reason, subsequently had a dispute with his brothers which ended in Sinan either being expelled or departing voluntarily from his native village, going forth “without provision or a mount.” He made his way to Alamut, where he was received by Kiya Muhammad, who accepted him into his own family. Sinan was schooled with Kiya Muhammad’s sons Hasan and Husayn, and in all things Kiya Muhammad “gave me exactly the same treatment as he gave them,in those things that are needful for the support, education, and clothing of children.”

When Hasan succeeded his father, he ordered Sinan to go to Syria. His account of his journey there gives some sense of the difficulty of the line of communications between the Assassin mission in Syria and their home base in the mountains of Dailam:
“. . . [O]nly rarely did I approach any town. [Hasan] had given me orders and letters. I entered Mosul and halted at the mosque of the carpenters and stayed there, and then I went on, not entering any town, until I reached Raqqa. I had a letter to one of our companions there. I delivered it to him, and he gave me provisions and hired me a mount as far as Aleppo. There I met another companion and delivered him another letter, and he too hired me a mount and sent me on to Kahf. My orders were to stay in this fortress, and I stayed there until Shaykh Abu Muhammad, the head of the Mission, died in the mountain. He was succeeded by Khwaja Ali bin Mas’ud, without appointment [from Alamut] but with the agreement of some of the company. Then the chief Abu Mansur, the nephew of Shaykh Abu Muhammad, and the chief Fahd conspired and sent someone to stab him to death as he was leaving his bath. The leadership remained consultative among them, and the murderers were arrested and imprisoned. Then the command came from Alamut to execute the murderer and release the chief Fahd. With it came a message, and an order to read out to the company.”
[This is an odd account insofar as it suggests that Sinan did not actually step forward to assume command of the Ismailis in Syria for years after he arrived there. Lewis indicates (111) that a legendary biography of Sinan gives his period of waiting at al-Kahf as seven years. But if Sinan had waited seven years, Hasan would already have been dead. This account is also interesting as it suggests that the control of the Syrian mission by the Alamut authorities was always something less than absolute.] [Runciman puts the start of Sinan’s rule at Jabal Bahra in 1169.]

With regard to the doctrine of the Resurrection (qiyama) proclaimed by Hasan II and continued by his son, it reached Syria in some form, but it is far from clear that Sinan actually endorsed it. According to the Syrian historian Kamal al-Din, around 1176-77, “the people of the Jabal al-Summaq gave way to iniquity and debauchery, and called themselves ‘the Pure.’” The ruler of Aleppo sent an army against them, and they withdrew into the recesses of the hills and fortified themselves. Sinan, after making an inquiry into what had occurred, disclaimed responsibility; persuaded the ruler of Aleppo to withdraw; and then, according to the chronicler, himself attacked and destroyed the millenarialists.

We are told that Sinan consolidated the Assassin principality in the Jabal Bahra by rebuilding and strengthening the fortresses of Rusafa and Khawabi, and capturing and fortifying Ulayqa. One Arab chronicler relates that the Grand Master of the Order at Alamut sent emissaries on a number of occasions to kill him, but these attempts were never successful. Some surviving fragments of documents associated with his rule also suggest that he ultimately threw off the overlordship of Alamut (or, like some of his predecessors, found its authority very tenuous), because these documents make no reference to the Order’s Persian chiefs, treating Sinan himself as the supreme leader.


No comments:

Post a Comment