I want to start this episode with a confession – when I say the Mongols brought our tale of the Persian Assassins to an end, in a sense they absolutely did. After the Mongols established the Ilkhanate, the Assassins ceased to be a powerful and shadowy force in the area. However the Cult of Hassan-i Sabbah survived – just quietly living their lives in the background. When Western academics arrived in Northern Persia in the 1810s they found the cult still in existence, centuries on from their last killings. In 1818 a young man named Hasan Ali Shah, who claimed ancestry back to the Prophet Muhammad and his wife Fatima was the sect’s leader. The Shah of Iran had recently granted him the title the Aga Khan.
In 1838, rather unusually for Assassins at this stage, he led a failed revolt against the Shah and had to flee to Bombay, India. His story is convoluted – he gets involved on the British side of the first Anglo-Afghan war among other awful incidents. What is pertinent to this story however is while in India the Aga Khan tried to tax the Indian Ismaili – who flat out refused to pay him a rupee. They acknowledged their religion had come from his organisation, but they had long separated from the Persian Assassins, and owed him nothing. When this dispute came before the British run courts in the second half of the nineteenth century it was a shock to Western world in general the Assassins survived the Mongol hordes, and had spread so far.
Speaking of spreading outside their boundaries – The first Ismaili missionaries crossed into Syria in Hassan-i Sabbah’s time – from the 1090s. Their experience was quite different from the Persians.
For one, they found both a wide range of older beliefs still in existence, in the many isolated villages – this country was a potential goldmine for them. The first complication was the country was in the middle of a conflict with several armies of Turkish invaders. These Turks first come in from lands East of the Oxus river around 1064, and being very new recruits to Islam, held both very narrow and very ardent views on the religion. This marked them out as dangerous foes to the unorthodox Ismaili. By the mid 1090s the earlier, Seljuk rulers were fragmented. Their Sultan, a man named Tutush I, was killed in battle in 1095, and two of his sons formed rival states.
The second complication was the European crusaders. The reasons the Europeans invaded are slightly more complex than my following explanation, but the major impetus was an escalation in fighting between the Byzantine Empire – the large, thriving empire in modern day Turkey which was once the Eastern wing of the Roman Empire, and the Seljuks. Both Turks and Seljuks were recent converts to Islam who arrived in the region from Transoxiana. In 1071 the Byzantines and Seljuks fought at the Battle of Manzikert. The Byzantines lost badly to the Seljuks. The far more agile Seljuk archers rode at them in waves, hitting then running till the Byzantine army wore down. One legend from this battle tells of a group in the centre of the battlefield, mostly comprised of the elite Varangian Guard, were one of the last to fall. One bloodied, mud-caked man was captured and brought before Alp Arslan, the Seljuk leader.
It turned out the man was Byzantine emperor Romanos IV. Alp Arslan threw the emperor to the ground, putting his boot on the man’s neck.
“What would you do if I were brought to you as a prisoner?” He asked.
Romanos replied he might kill the warlord, or perhaps march him through the streets of Constantinople for his subjects to jeer at.
Arslan replied his punishment would be considerably worse – he’d forgive the emperor and send him home.
He, of course ransomed the Emperor back to the Byzantines for a crippling sum of money – you get nothing for free. When Romanos was returned, he discovered just how right Arslan was. An angry junta in the court quickly deposed Romanos, blinded him and sent him off to live the rest of his life in a monastery.
His successor (one removed), Alexios Komnenos was spooked enough by the rapid Seljuk encroachment on their land, he wrote to the Pope to ask for help. In 1095 Pope Urban II kicked off the first of the crusades to the Holy Land. By 1097 the soldiers of the First Crusade had beaten the Seljuks at Nicaea, then swept clean through the Levant – establishing four Christian city states – Edessa, Antioch, Tripoli and Jerusalem. While this led to utter disarray among various Turkic, Shi’a and Sunni groups, a large number of Syrian locals gravitated towards the Ismaili – who they saw as their best hope against the invaders.
Also quite different, the Ismaili were largely performing without a safety net until 1131. It took them close to half a century to capture a mountain fortress, and were far more vulnerable to counter-attack than their Persian counterparts.
But oh did they assassinate.
Take for example the 1st May 1103 killing of Janah al-Dawla, ruler of Homs. A group of assassins ambushed him while praying in the mosque. A massive brawl broke out in which several of the ruler’s bodyguards and the assassins were stabbed to death. Or the attack on the Citadel of Afamiya. At the time the fortress was occupied by a warlord named Khalaf ibn Mula’ib. One day in 1106 six men showed up at the entrance with a horse, Frankish shield and armour. They claimed they had come across a crusader knight on their travels and murdered him. They were now here to pay tribute to the warlord, to gift him these belongings. They were welcomed in. In the following days they murdered the warlord and temporarily took over the citadel. As with many attempts to hold down a fortress in these early days, they were outnumbered and eventually lost the fortress.
Another notable assassination – In 1113 the Persians sent the emir of Mosul to Syria with an army. They were there to fight against the Crusaders. The Assassins finished the emir off with their usual efficiency. Several other murders and attempts to secure a castle continued, at one point a ruler even knocking down an old castle to stop them from taking it. In 1124 the sect were successfully expelled from Aleppo. They continued on, in the shadows. In 1126, they killed a governor of Mosul. There is a story from that particular murder that a gang of eight Assassins carried out the deed. Seven were killed on the spot – and, unusually – one escaped. Days later that Assassin returned to his home village to find his hometown celebrating the kill – and him, as a martyr. His overjoyed grandmother was suddenly ashen at his return. Sinking into a deep depression she disowned the young man.
In 1129 the Assassins successfully knifed another vizier, this time in Damascus – but this time a militia rose up, slaughtering thousands of Syrian Ismaili in retaliation. By 1131, however, they finally got a couple of toeholds by way of fortresses in the Harim mountains. While the Assassins were not in open conflict with the Crusaders – some Muslim writers even suggested the two forces were in allegiance with one another – they did profit from Crusaders being driven out of a handful of fortresses by the Turks. As soon as no one was looking, they swooped in. They spent the next two decades consolidating their power in the mountain regions.
While one Assassin leader did ally with a Crusader, Raymond of Antioch, there were only two assassinations from this time. A revenge attack on a Muslim leader for the massacre of 1129, and in 1151 the murder of a Crusader, Count Raymond of Tripoli.
In 1162, Rashid al-Din, a man later known as The Old Man of the Mountain, arrived in Syria via Alamut Castle. Just a young man of around 30, he was an up and coming star in the organisation. He was the son of a wealthy family from Basra who had trained in alchemy, and had been radicalised into the sect. The Hasan who briefly convinced the Persian Ismaili the end of the world was coming, so it’s fine to pray facing away from Mecca, with a glass of wine and minstrels serenading you, sent him. Rashid was in charge when Hasan ordered the sect to renounce Islamic law. Though Syrian records are hazy, it appears he fell in line with Persia on this.
In these years the ruler of Aleppo sent an army after the Ismaili, who withstood the attack. It is from around this time that a legend arose of a garden of earthly delights behind their fortifications – where young men are brainwashed into martyrdom. Following this attack, Rashid put a lot of time and effort into making all their fortresses unbreakable – while building new castles throughout the mountains. Rashid al-Din became such a well loved, and capable leader that Assassins were actually sent from Alamut Castle to murder him, for fear he would usurp their authority.
In the meantime, much of the Islamic Near East was coalescing behind a Sunni Kurdish general who came to be known as Saladin. He would rise from general to Sultan of a sprawling empire which took in parts of North Africa, Mesopotamia, Syria, Egypt and Yemen. Of his many victories, he led an army of 40,000 Muslims against a Crusader army of a similar size at the Battle of Hattin (1187). The Crusader army was exterminated to all but a handful of men; while Saladin’s forces lost but a handful of archers. This is to say the man was a respected leader and a more than formidable general. In a sense it was inevitable he would come into conflict with the Assassins.
In 1181, Saladin wrote to the caliph of Mosul. He accused the caliph of underhanded behaviour in using Assassin forces against the Crusaders. His concern was not one iota for the Crusaders, but the rest of Islam as he feared the caliph was planning an attack on his empire. This was probably in truth a pretence to attack Mosul and bring the city under his sway. It also revealed a hidden animosity towards the cult. His animosity was not unfounded.
In December 1174, while Saladin’s army was besieging the city of Aleppo, a letter was sent from the city to The Old Man of the Mountain. If they assassinated Saladin, the ruler of Aleppo would shower land and money down upon them. Soon after, a team of assassins breached Saladin’s camp and may have gotten away with the murder but for an emir who recognised the men. The Assassins struck down the emir, getting into a fight where many people, including themselves, were stabbed to death. Saladin survived the attempt on his life. Assassins tried again on 22nd May 1176. In this case a group of assassins, disguised as soldiers, got to the General – stabbing him several times. Saladin was wearing armour under his clothes and only received a handful of minor cuts. Several men were killed, however, while subduing the killers.
These assaults unnerved the General, who made it a point of never letting someone he did not personally know, come within striking distance of him ever again.
Saladin did lead an army against the Assassins in 1176, but had to call off the siege, due to an attack by Frankish crusaders elsewhere. After this point, for all his rhetoric, Saladin chose to tolerate the Assassins.
There is a story which may explain this sudden tolerance. The tale has it Saladin also sent a letter to the Old Man of the Mountain, only to receive one in return. Saladin received the messenger, having him checked for knives. The messenger then stated he was to give the message to Saladin alone. The Sultan waived away most of his entourage except for two well-trusted guards, stating “Give your message”.
“I have been ordered to deliver it only in private” the messenger insisted.
The Sultan doubled down, stating if he wished, he should deliver Rashid al-Din’s reply, otherwise leave.
“I regard these men as my own sons” he stated of his bodyguards.
The messenger turned to the guards, and asked “If I ordered you in the name of my master to kill this Sultan, would you do so?” Both men drew their swords, replying in the affirmative.
The messenger left, alongside the two bodyguards.
Of course in the following years, assassinations of powerful rulers continued in Syria, especially the powers that be in Aleppo.
And that time they killed a crusader king – The Marquis Conrad of Montferrat, King of Jerusalem, mentioned in part one of this series. Two Assassins disguised themselves as Christian monks, became friendly with the Bishop, and from there the King – and just bided their time till the opportunity presented itself, on 28th April 1192. Contrary to popular legend it appears – if Saladin’s chroniclers are to go by – both Assassins were captured alive, and under questioning broke, admitting they committed the murder on behalf of England’s King Richard the Lionheart. He wanted his nephew and protege Henry II of Champagne on the throne. As it turned out he did get his way, when Henry married Conrad’s widow and took the position. Other Islamic historians have claimed at this stage Saladin was friendly with The Assassins – and that he ordered the murder. Whatever the case, the assassination cleared Conrad, the most belligerent of the crusaders, off the battlefield. This left an opening for Richard and Saladin to sign a peace treaty soon after. This treaty recognised the lands of the Assassins – henceforth not to be attacked by either side.
And this was how the Assassins of Syria achieved respectability – at least until the Mamluks disbanded them.
There is one final tale I wish to tell, in this rather episodic Tale of History and Imagination.
The Kipchaks were a tribe of nomadic Steppe people, coming from somewhere close to the Mongols. In the 1220s they got on the bad side of the Mongols, then fled to Eastern Europe hoping to find sanctuary. Some rulers, like King Bela IV of Hungary, did take in Kipchaks, and faced off against the Mongol hordes as a consequence. One can imagine how those defences played out against the near unstoppable power of a Mongol army. One tribe known as the Barli fled to Bulgaria. The Mongols pursued, retrieving thousands of Kipchaks, then selling them through the Crimean slave markets. In that haul, a giant, broad-faced young man we would come to know as Baybars.
Baybars, then around 24 years of age, passed to the household of a powerful Egyptian. In 1247, his master got on the wrong side of the Egyptian Sultan, who had the master executed. He personally confiscated all his belongings, including his gigantic slave. In 1254, this largely Steppe born slave population – Mamluks by their terminology – gained freedom when given small state. They then proceeded to overthrow the Egyptian Sultan. Baybars took on the name we known him by now – meaning Great Panther, and the leadership of the nation. Mamluks would still be in charge of Egypt in the late 1790s when Napoleon Bonaparte landed there.
The Mamluks came into conflict with the Assassins in the 1260s, after having taken control of Syria, and done the near impossible – They defeated the Mongols in battle at Ain Jalut in September that year. The Assassins accepted their authority and began paying a cash tribute to them. Baybars decided, however, they could not be allowed their independence. He saw them as a dangerous complication in his plan to unite the Near East, and eject the Mongols and Crusaders. In 1270 he deposed the Assassin chief, Najm al-Din, putting one of his own men in charge of the sect. Of course the sect sent Assassins to kill the Sultan. in 1271 two men tried, and failed, and were arrested. Najm al Din and his son Shams al-Din were arrested and taken to Cairo where the Sultan could keep a closer eye on them. The Assassins – no longer independent – continued for some years in the service of Baybars and his successors. Several high ranking crusaders were stabbed to death by unobtrusive men, who had simply blended into their courtly surroundings – till unexpectedly, clinically, they struck.
By the Thirteenth Century the assassinations ended, and the Assassins sect faded into obscurity.
Hey readers, I’m taking a month to prepare the next run of episodes – we’re not likely to hit anything quite this episodic again till the end of the year – when I hope to cover one of the most wicked individuals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I’ve got a couple of well…. Odd blog posts to drop in the following month, quite frankly. Anyone up for some magic talismans and pro wrestling tales in June?
Listeners, I’ve got a couple of ‘from the vaults’ blog posts I’ve recorded.
In July we’ll jump into some tales – blog and podcast alike – of ghosts, mysterious disappearances, volley guns, pirates, range wars, man eaters and – well, we’ll come to those Emus. Congratulations Australia, I approve of your new Prime Minister.