Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Assassins in Syria, c.1170-1326 C.E. A Chronology and Notes

1170's: The Syrian branch of the Order appears to have initially viewed the consolidation of the fragmented states of Syria and the old Fatimid Empire of Cairo into a single state by Salah al-din (Saladin) with great apprehension. They preferred that the Arab states of Syria remain fragmented, thereby allowing them to play their potential enemies off against each other and ensuring that their own power was more on a level with that of their individual enemies.

As one aspect of Sinan’s policy, in the early 1170's (1172-73?) he sent an embassy to King Amalric of Jerusalem, proposing an alliance against Nur ed-Din and requesting in return the remission of a tribute that the Knights Templars had imposed on a number of Assassin villages. Amalric was eager to explore these overtures further, and he sent the Assassin envoys back to their homes with gifts? and the promise of a Frankish embassy to follow soon after. As the Assassin envoys moved past Tripoli, a Templar knight, Walter of Mesnil, acting with the approval of his Grand Master, Odo of Saint-Armand, ambushed the embassy and killed all its members. When Odo refused to hand over Walter for judgment, Amalric hurried to Sidon, where the Grand Master and his Chapter were staying; he and his men forced their way into the Grand Master’s presence, seized Walter, and consigned him to prison at Tyre.

On May 15, 1174, Nur ed-Din died of a quinsey [whatever that is] at Damascus. His son, Malik as-Salih Ismail, was a boy of only eleven. As-Salih fled with his mother to Aleppo, Nur ed-Din’s capital, where they placed themselves under the protection of its governor Gumushtekin. The people of Damascus demanded that Saladin be summoned from Egypt. He set out with 700 picked horsemen, crossing Sinai and the rocky valleys of Transjordan beneath the Crusader castles at Shobak and Kerak. He reached Damascus on November 26. Soon thereafter, once additional forces arrived from Egypt, he marched north against Gumushtekin, for he sought the regency for himself. He entered Homs on December 9, leaving troops to invest the castle, and reached Aleppo and commenced a full-scale siege on December 30.

Saladin presented himself as a champion of Sunni orthodoxy, and on two occasions in the mid-1170's the Assassins attempted to kill him. The first attempt took place in December 1174 or January 1175, while Saladin was besieging Aleppo, which was held by Gumushtigin on behalf of the Zangid ruler of Mosul-Aleppo, at that time a mere child. Gumushtigin supposedly sent to Sinan and offered him lands and money if he would procure the assassination of Saladin. A number of Assassins penetrated the Ayyubid’s camp on a cold winter day, but they were recognized by the emir of Abu Qubasis, who ruled lands adjoining the Assassin principality. He apparently thought their presence suspect, but they slew him when he tried to question them. The Assassins then attempted to reach Saladin, but the alarm had been given and, although members of his entourage were killed, Saladin himself surviving unscathed. Saladin afterwards had to raise the siege of Aleppo on February 1 to return to deal with a Crusader attack against the force he had left besieging the citadel of Homs.

In May 1175, with the support of the Abbasid Caliph, Saladin threw off his vassalage to as-Salih. In March 1176, Saif ed-Din of Mosul, the nephew of Nur ed-Din and the cousin of as-Salih, crossed the Euphrates with a large army and rendezvoused with Gumustekin’s forces at Aleppo. On April 12, their army clashed with Saladin’s some twenty miles south of Aleppo, and after a hard-fought battle, was completely defeated. Saladin then moved to pick off various fortresses surrounding Aleppo, first those to the west on the road to the Euphrates and then Azaz, which commanded the road to the north.

5/22/1176: Second attempt on Saladin. While he was besieging the town of Azaz, some distance from Aleppo, several Assassins joined his army and distinguished themselves in the military operations. One day, while Saladin was inspecting his artillerymen and rewarding soldiers who had distinguished themselves for bravery, an Assassin sprang from the crowd and struck at him with a dagger, but the blow glanced from his steel helmet. Saladin threw him to the ground, where he was cut to pieces by others. A second and third Ismaili then emerged from the crowd and tried to kill him, but both were likewise struck down. A fourth Ismaili attempted to flee, but he was caught and killed. Several of his emirs were killed in the struggle. After this second attempt, Saladin adopted elaborate security precautions, such as sleeping in a wooden tower with a ladder that could be pulled up by its occupant and allowing no one who was unfamiliar to him to approach his person.

[Runciman suggests that Saladin was attacked while resting in his tent (citing Beha ed-Din and Ibn al-Athir).]
Azaz capitulated one month later, on June 29. Saladin then came to terms with as-Salih and his cousins, resulting in a treaty on July 29th.

8/1176: Saladin advances against the Assassin principality and lays siege to Masyaf. Eventually, however, he withdraws without taking the fortress. According to two sources, Saladin’s uncle, the prince of Hama, successfully mediated between the two contending parties; it is not clear whether his intercession was originally invoked by the Assassins or by Saladin: the two sources disagree. Another sources suggests that Saladin’s need to withdraw was prompted by a Frankish attack on the Biqa’ Valley. At any rate, some accomodation does seem to have been reached, and thereafter the evidence suggests that Saladin and the Assassins enjoyed cordial co-operative relations (as we shall see, there is some suggestion that the Assassins may have carried out the murder of Conrad of Montferrat at Saladin’s behest).

[Runciman reports that Saladin was spooked by waking “to find on his bed some hot cakes of a type that only the Assassins baked, and with them a poisoned dagger and a piece of paper on which a threatening verse was written,” but this sounds like a fable (especially the part about the poisoned dagger).]

8/31/1177: Shihab al-Din ibn al-Ajami, the vizier of the Zangid al-Malik al-Salih in Aleppo and the former vizier of Nur al-Din ibn Zangi. This murder was attributed by contemporary Syrian historians to the machinations of Gumushtigin, governor of Aleppo, who supposedly forged al-Malik al-Salih’s signature to a letter asking him to have Sihib al-Din done away with. Some of the Assasins involved in this attempt were taken alive, and under interrogation confessed that they were only carrying out the orders of al-Malik himself. (Or this may have been a story concocted by the Assassins to foment discord and mistrust within the Zangid regime, similar to the claim that Richard the Lion-Hearted was behind the assassination of Conrad of Montferrat.) In any case, Gumushtigin fell not long afterwards.

1179-80: In 1179-80, al-Malik seized the town/castle of al-Hajira from the Assassins. They responded by sending incendiaries to set fire to the marketplace in Aleppo. They successfully carried out this mission and escaped, suggesting that they still had sympathizers on whom they could rely in the city.
1192:(April 29) Assassination of Conrad of Montferrat – perhaps the most historically significant of all the Assassins’ murders. The Assassins were taken alive, and they seem to have claimed under interrogation that they acted at the behest of Richard the Lion-Hearted – but this could well have been a bit of disinformation intended to spread discord within the Crusader ranks. The Zangid historian Ibn al-Athir names Saladin as the instigator, and specifies the sum of money paid for the work. (There was also a story that the murder was a private act of revenge arising out of Conrad’s unwillingness to pay restitution for an Assassin cargo seized by westerners off the Levantine coast.)

(April) Richard the Lion-Hearted was approaching the time he must return to England. He had reached the basis for a settlement with the Moslems, and now called a council of the knights and barons of the Crusader kingdom, to whom he offered the choice of Guy of Lusignan or Marquis Conrad of Montferrat as king. When the council voted for Conrad, he sent a mission led by his nephew, Henry of Champagne, to Tyre to notify the Marquis. Henry arrived there on April 20. Plans were made that his coronation should take place within a few days at Acre, after which he would join the Crusader combined forces in their camp at Ascalon.
But it was not to be. On the afternoon of Tuesday, April 28, 1192, the Marquis’s wife, the Princess Isabella, took longer than expected in her bath and thereby delayed his dinner. The Marquis decided to dine instead with an old friend who lived nearby, the Bishop of Beauvais. On his arrival, however, he found that the Bishop had already finished his own meal. The Bishop pressed him to stay and protested that he could have additional food prepared, but Conrad declined to put his staff to such trouble. He set out to return to his own quarters. As he passed around a corner, two men approached him, and one produced a letter or appeal for him to read. As he stopped to examine it, the other man stabbed him. Accounts of the further details of what transpired are confused: one account claims that he was carried to a nearby church, where, unseen, one of the Assassins had already fled for refuge, and this man now managed to deliver the coup de grace. In any case, Conrad died shortly thereafter.

One of the two attackers seems to have been cut down by others with Conrad almost immediately; the other was captured and put to torture. It is unclear what the other man said. He may have confessed that they were Assassins sent by the Old man of the Mountain, who was aggrieved that Conrad (or others in Tyre) had committed an act of piracy against a ship carrying a rich cargo that was the property of the Order, and moreover had drowned its crew (this is Runciman’s version). But others suggest that the remaining Assassin may have implicated King Richard, thereby casting out disinformation that would spread discord within the Crusader ranks. I find this more plausible: Saladin was still alive at this time, and he was shrewd enough to have sponsored such a maneuver. The Bishop of Beauvais, for one, accepted this suggestion. This may have resulted from antipathy towards Richard that arose from being a long-time ally of Conrad’s; or it may have been because he was privy to the results of the torture session.
(August?) Richard the Lion-Hearted concludes a truce with Saladin at which, on Saldin’s instructions, the Assassin territory is included as well.

1192-93 or 1193-94: Death of Sinan. He is replaced as head of the Syrian mission by a Persian named Nasr.
1213: Raymond, son of Bohemond IV of Antioch, is killed in a church in Tortosa. His father marches against Khawabi. The Moslems of Aleppo send an army to the Assassins’ aid, which is repulsed; they are then relieved by a second Moslem army marching from Damascus, which indicates that they were now generally in good standing with their Sunni Moslem neighbors.

Majd al-Din, the chief da’i of the Syrian mission, receives envoys from the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, who brings gifts worth almost 80,000 dinars.

12??: The Assassins in Syria themselves become tributary to the Knights Hospitallers.

1250: The Assassins exchange gifts with St. Louis (King Louis IX of France) during his lengthy stay in Acre.

1252: King Louis IX (Saint Louis) of France reaches an alliance with the Assassins after he returns to Acre upon being ransomed after the disastrous battle of Damietta (Runciman, III, 277-80). The Assassins first sent a haughty embassy that demanded to be paid for their neutrality, but then sent a much more humble embassy with many fine gifts and the request for a close alliance. Louis then sent an Arabic-speaking aide, Yves the Breton, to arrange the treaty. Yves was received at Maysaf and allowed the review the Assassins’ library there, where he was fascinated by an apocryphal sermon addressed by Christ to Saint Peter. This treaty seems to have included a treaty of mutual defense, and it may have been around this time that the Assassins were released from their tribute to the Hospitallers.

Sultan Baybars, the Mameluke sultan of Egypt, demands that the Assassins pay him a portion of the tribute they received as protection money from others. Eventually, he arrogates to himself the right to choose their chief da’is. Von Hammer’s early monograph on the Ismailis indicates that Baibars made the abolition of the Assassins’s tribute a condition of a treaty he concluded with the Hospitallers in 1265, and that they then voluntarily remitted the same amount to him. That this was not entirely voluntary is shown by the fact that Najm al-Din requested a reduction of their tribute to Baibars several years later, and this request seems to have prompted his downfall.

1270: Sultan Baybars deposes the elderly chief da’i Najm al-Din and appoints in his place his more compliant son-in-law Sarim al-Din Mubarak, the commandant of the fortress of Alika. But he orders the new chief to surrender Masyaf to him. Sarim nevertheless obtains possession of Masyaf through a trick; Von Hammer reports that he possessed himself of Masyaf “partly by strategem, partly by the massacre of a number of the inhbitants.” Later, however, Sarim al-Din seems to have rebelled against Baibars, driving his governor out of Masyaf, but then was not able to hold it and he retreated to his own citadel of Alika. The prince of Hama led his forces against Alika, took the citadel, and captured, Sarim al-Din, who was sent to Cairo as a prisoner, where he soon died, possibly poisoned. Baybars then restored Najm al-Din to rule jointly with his other son, Sahms al-Din, but this dispensation did not last for long.

In February or March 1271, Baybars arrested two Assassins who had been sent to murder him; he then demanded that Najm and Shams al-Din surrender themselves and their castles. Shams launched a short-lived resistance. In May and June 1271 Baybars’ forces moved against the Assassin principality, seizing Ulayqa and Rusafga. Khawabi fell before the end of the year, and the remaining Assassin castles fell by 1273.

Von Hammer indicates the following sequence of events:
(1) Najm al-Din’s other son, Shams al-Din, was kept a hostage at the Mameluke court to ensure his father’s fidelity.
(2) On falling under Baibars’ suspicion, Majm al-Din came to court, and offered to surrender all the Assassins’ remaining strongholds; he was asked to do so, and Shams al-Din went to Kehef, but was unable to accomplish this.
(3) Shams al-Din requested that he might be given the fortress of Kolaia, if all the rest would yield; Baibars agreed, but the inhabitants of Kehef refused to yield.
(4) Baibars then laid siege of Kehef. Shams al-Din went forth to speak with him again, and was honorably received at his camp near Homs, but then Baibars heard that the inhabitants of Kehef had sent Assassins into his camp to kill him and his principal emirs. Baibars then caused Shams al-Din and all his suite to be arrested and sent back to Egypt.
(5) From this point, some of the castles (Khawabi, Sarmin) seem to have surrendered; others (Kolaia certainly, and possibly Menifa and Kadmus fell to siege or assault). The last to surrender was Kehef, which was eventually starved out.
There are some suggestions that the Mamelukes may have used the Assassins’ daggers as a foreign policy weapon of their own for a time, accounting for the the murder of Philip of Montfort in Tyre in 1270 and the wounding of Prince Edward of England in 1271 or 1272.
1270: Sultan Baibars is said by Runciman (III, 333) to have arranged the assassination of Philip of Montfort (the castle in the northern Galilee?), who was one of the most important and formidable of the remaining barons of Outremer. The Assassins were supposedly grateful to the Sultan for having freed them from payment of tribute to the Hospitallers, and they also resented the Westerner’s attempts to negotiate an alliance with the Mongol Ilkhans of Persia, who were responsioble for the destruction of the Persian cousins. The Assassins sent one of their agents to Tyre, where he pretended to be a Christian convert. On Sunday, August 17, 1270, he penetrated into a chapel where Philip and his son John were praying and managed to mortally wound the father before he was captured. Runciman says that his death was a heavy blow to Outremer.

1271: Najm ad-Din, the Grand Master of the Ismailites, is said to be part of Sultan Baibars’ army at the siege of Krak des Chevaliers from February 21-April 7.
1272: Edward I, Prince of Wales and later King of England, while on a crusade to the Levant, was attacked and wounded at Acre by a Syrian who was called an Assassin. This person may or may not have been affiliated with the Order, which by that time was under the thumb of Sultan Baibars. Runciman (III, 338) gives the following details. Prince Edward had arrived in Acre in May 1271 with a small army. He hoped to make an alliance with the Mongols and for the next year undertook small operations when he was able, but he soon came to realize that he could accomplish little without a larger army from Europe. On May 22, 1272, the Prince and the authorities at Acre reached a concluded a truce with Bairbars that guaranteed the Kingdom’s current frontiers for another ten years and ten months. However, fearing lest Edward carry out his intention of returning with a larger army, Baibars loosed an Assassin on him. The man, disguised as a native Christian, penetrated into his apartments and stabbed him with a poisoned dagger on June 16, 1272. He was ill for some months – the Sultan sent him congratulations on his survival -- and then sailed from Acre on September 22, 1272. When he returned home to England, he discovered that he was king, and was never able to return.

1326: According to Von Hammer (206ff.), the Circassian Mameluke sultans of Cairo were still using Assassins from Masyaf as instruments of their policy against the Il-Khans of Persia and their subordinate emirs. In this year the Sultan Mohammed, Baibars’ son, is said to have sent thirty Assassins from Maysaf to Persia to assassinate Qara Sonqor, the emir of Tabriz, but at least three attempts failed. They did manage to execute the governor of Baghdad at the same time. However, it is clear that these Assassins were acting for gold, not out of reliugious commitment; they sought to escape after their violent acts, and this may have undermined their effectiveness. Von Hammer reports that Qara Sonqor used Ismailites in his pay to search out the Assassins who had come to Tabriz to kill him.

Bernard Lewis, The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam (1967)
J. A. Boyle, ed., The Cambridge History of Iran: Volume V - The Seljuq & Mongol Periods (1968)
Ibn al-Qalanisi, The Damascus Chronicle of the Crusades (2002)
Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades: Volume II (The Kingdom of Jerusalem) (1952) and Volume III (The Kingdom of Acre) (1954)
Joseph Von Hammer, The History of the Assassins (1835)


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