Saladin and the Templars


IN 1171, AS THE FATIMID CALIPH AL-ADID lay dying, Saladin ordered prayers to be said in the mosques of Cairo, but not for the last of Egypt’s Shia rulers; instead they were for Nur al-Din’s puppet, the Sunni caliph in Baghdad. Al-Adid was the last Arab ruler in the Middle East; the once imperial Arabs were now everywhere governed by Turks.

Saladin was a Turkified Kurd; he was born in Tikrit, in northern Iraq, where his father, Ayyub, was appointed governor by the Seljuk sultan. Both Ayyub and his brother Shirkuh had cut themselves off from their Kurdish environment and wholeheartedly served as generals under Zengi and Nur al-Din. Ayyub had been put in charge of the citadel of Baalbek by Zengi and was later involved in the surrender of Damascus to Nur al-Din. Saladin grew up in Baalbek and Damascus, where, apart from studying the Koran, he is said to have learned by heart the Hamasa of Abu Tammam, an anthology of Arabic poetry conveying the values and attitudes of the heroic age of the tribes when they first poured out of the Arabian peninsula and conquered Persia, the Middle East and Egypt.

But although Saladin knew Arabic, his language of command was Turkish. His army, like those of Zengi and Nur al-Din, included Kurds but was overwhelmingly Turkish; his personal bodyguard was an elite corps of Turkish Mameluke slave soldiers. On occasion he used mercenaries of other ethnic groups, and these sometimes included Arab Bedouins,1 but that was the extent of local recruitment. As The Cambridge History of Islam explains, Saladin’s army ‘was as alien as the Turkish, Berber, Sudanese and other forces of his predecessors. Himself a Kurd, he established a regime and an army of the Turkish type, along the lines laid down by the Seljuks and atabegs in the East.’2 In capturing Egypt, and in all his wars against the Muslims of Syria and the Franks of Outremer, Saladin was not a liberator; like the Seljuks and like Zengi and Nur al-Din, he was an alien leading an alien army of conquest and occupation.


Tolerance and Intolerance

AFTER THE DEATH of the Fatimid caliph Al-Adid, Saladin continued in the office of vizier, supposedly ruling Egypt on behalf of Nur al-Din, but in effect ruling Egypt for himself. To consolidate his position, he began constructing the Citadel of Cairo and extended the city walls, measures taken to protect himself against his overlord, who suspected that Saladin was slipping from his control, as well as against a possible invasion by the Franks and not least against the local population; in 1169 an uprising of Nubian soldiers had been joined by both Egyptian emirs and common people, and in 1172 there was widespread rioting in Cairo against the abusive Turks. ‘When a Turk saw an Egyptian he took his clothes’, wrote Ibn Abi Tayy, a chronicler from Aleppo, adding ‘things went so far that any Turk who liked a house would drive out its owner and settle there.’1 Saladin drove the Nubian soldiery of the Fatimid army into Upper Egypt and then sent his older brother Turanshah against them. The Nubians were Christians, as were the majority of Egyptians, and to intimidate the native population and deny the Nubians succour or refuge along the upper Nile, Turanshah tortured clergymen and destroyed the Christians’ livestock, taking a religious satisfaction in killing large numbers of pigs, and destroyed churches and monasteries, among them the monastery of St Simeon at Aswan, built in the seventh century, just before the Arab invasion, and one of the most beautiful in Egypt. An attempt at another uprising in 1174 was poised to receive help from Amalric and a fleet from the Norman kingdom of Sicily sailing off Alexandria, but Saladin discovered the plot and crucified the leaders, and the venture collapsed. Crucifixion was also Saladin’s punishment for his own soldiers if they disobeyed him.

Meanwhile, although Saladin continued the fiction that he was Nur al-Din’s vassal in Egypt, tensions between the two men continued to grow – but then suddenly came the news in May 1174 that Nur al-Din had died. His realm, extending over Mesopotamia and Syria, immediately disintegrated. Nur al-Din’s son, facing plots against his life, fled Damascus for Aleppo, where a Turkish eunuch, acting ostensibly as the boy’s guardian, put himself in charge; Nur al-Din’s nephew seized Mosul and made himself independent; while Damascus itself took advantage of its sudden freedom to agree a truce with Jerusalem. Saladin’s response was to declare himself sultan in Egypt and then rush to take Damascus, but when he advanced north to take Homs, Hama and Aleppo, he was resisted by the local emirs, who called on the Assassins to murder Saladin. The emirs were not impressed by Saladin’s propaganda of jihad, which he now deployed; in their eyes he was simply one of them, motivated by self-interest and a lust for power. Saladin’s reply, after capturing Homs, was, ‘Our move was not made in order to snatch a kingdom for ourselves but to set up the standard of jihad. These men had become enemies, preventing the accomplishment of our purpose with regard to this war.’2 In other words, Saladin justified his wars against his fellow Muslims because they were content to live in peace with Outremer. The attempted assassination had failed, but early in 1175 Saladin abandoned his attack on Aleppo and withdrew from northern Syria, thankful to be alive and to have taken Hama and Homs and to hold Damascus and Cairo.

In theory Islam was a single religious community, the umma, a theocracy guided by the successor to the Prophet, the caliph. In reality almost since the inception of Islam the faith had been divided; there was no single umma, nor a single overarching caliphate. Instead, organisation was provided by clan or family dynasties, but dynastic legitimacy depended on identification with some fundamental aspect of Islam. Zengi showed the way when he declared jihad and his son Nur al-Din followed suit; now Saladin, who was filling the most important positions in Egypt with members of his family, also needed his religious justification and, like his predecessors, took up the banner of Holy War against his fellow Muslims.

Returning to Egypt, Saladin continued as he had done since the death of the caliph al-Adid with his programme of extirpating the Ismaili faith, which had taken root during the two centuries of Fatimid rule. The great Azhar mosque founded by the Fatimids was closed down and left to ruin, and the preaching of Ismailism, a dualistic form of Shia Islam, was everywhere proscribed. In its place Saladin worked hard to impose Sunni orthodoxy on Egypt’s Muslims. As an orthodox but esoteric alternative to Ismailism, Saladin encouraged Sufism and built khanqahs – that is, Sufi hostels – and he also introduced madrasas, theological colleges that promoted the acceptable version of the faith. Numerous khanqahs and madrasas were built throughout Cairo and Egypt in Saladin’s effort to combat and suppress what he regarded as the Ismaili heresy. Just as Zengi had cleansed Aleppo of Shia and Nur al-Din had done the same for Damascus, so Saladin repeated the lesson in Cairo.

Saladin’s drive to orthodox conformity also had its effect on Egypt’s Christians, who were still a majority of the population,3 and also on its Jews. Notwithstanding the persecutions of al-Hakim, Jews and Christians held positions of high responsibility under the Fatimids; now, with the dismantling of the old regime, they were increasingly marginalised and beaten down.

In comparison with Saladin’s Sunni regime in Cairo, Outremer was a remarkably tolerant place. At Gaza, for example, which was ruinous when Baldwin III gave it to the Templars in 1149, and where they rebuilt the fortress and brought the city back to life, the bishop was Greek Orthodox. The Templars were directly subject to the pope and might have been expected to want a Latin bishop, especially as Gaza stood at the kingdom of Jerusalem’s southern frontier with Egypt and the city’s security and loyalty were paramount. Yet even though Gaza was resettled by Franks as much as by native Orthodox Christians, the Templars were content to have an Orthodox bishop instead of a Frank. Possibly the Templars preferred this arrangement rather than risk friction with a cleric of their own church; the Templars valued their autonomy and did not always get on with the Latin church authorities in Outremer, as illustrated by the annoyance shown towards them by the chronicler and archbishop William of Tyre. But in fact, autonomy was a pattern in Outremer; religious and ethnic groups were left to their own devices to a very high degree. As Michael the Syrian, the late twelfth-century Jacobite patriarch of Antioch, said, ‘The Franks never raised any difficulty about matters of faith, or tried to reach an agreed statement of belief among Christians ethnically and linguistically separated. They regarded as Christian anybody who venerated the Cross, without further inquiry.’4

This spirit of tolerance in Outremer was in spite of the Great Schism of 1054 between the Eastern and Western Churches, which in any case was never a formal rupture and was brought about more by a personal clash between two high ecclesiastics of Rome and Constantinople. Nor had it been like this during the early centuries of Christianity, when successive Church councils agreed the theological positions that became the orthodoxy of Rome and Constantinople and denounced as heresies the variations of Christian belief practiced by the Jacobites and Nestorians in Syria and Palestine and by the Copts in Egypt. But now in Outremer pragmatism, co-operation and toleration came to the fore, and both individuals and whole sections of society found ways of working together.

Sometimes, however, East and West encountered one another in unsettling ways, as at the village of Bethany, just over the Mount of Olives from Jerusalem. Bethany was a famous pilgrimage centre already at the time of Constantine because of its associations with Lazarus, whom Jesus, according to the Gospel of John 11:38–44, raised from the dead. Jesus often stayed at the house of Lazarus and knew his sisters Mary and Martha; Simon the Leper lived in Bethany too, and in his house Jesus was anointed (Mark 14:3). To Bethany, Jesus returned after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Mark 11:11), and near Bethany he ascended into heaven (Luke 24:50). Egeria, who travelled from Gaul, or perhaps from Galicia in the northern Iberian peninsula, visited the tomb of Lazarus in 410 on the seventh Saturday of Lent and described the scene. ‘Just on one o’clock everyone arrives at the Lazarium, which is Bethany [. . .] by the time they arrive there, so many people have collected that they fill not only the Lazarium itself, but all the fields around.’5 At the end of the service the start of Easter was announced.

In 1143 Queen Melisende and her husband, King Fulk, rebuilt the old church at Bethany and rededicated it to Sts Mary and Martha, and they also built the church of St Lazarus above the tomb; and most splendidly they built a Benedictine convent here, also dedicated to Sts Mary and Martha, endowed it with large estates near Jericho and fortified it with a great stone tower. Not long afterwards Ioveta, the youngest sister of Melisende, was elected abbess, making her at the age of twenty-four the head of one of the richest convents in the kingdom of Jerusalem and one of the most famous in the world.

Much of Bethany’s potency for Western pilgrims was its association with Mary Magdalene, who according to tradition had fled Palestine after the crucifixion and lived and died in France. Her relics were brought to the great abbey church of St Mary Magdalene at Vézelay in Burgundy, where Bernard of Clairvaux had launched the Second Crusade.

Mary Magdalene’s appearances in the Gospels are brief but telling. She is present at the most important moments of the Jesus story – his death and his resurrection. At the crucifixion of Jesus his disciples have gone into fearful hiding, but Mary Magdalene is at both the Cross and the tomb, and it is she who carries the news to the disbelieving disciples that Jesus has risen (Matthew 27:56, 28:1; Mark 15:40; John 19:25, 20:1). The heirs of this great story of life and death and resurrection were the nuns of Bethany. Western pilgrims arriving at Bethany had the satisfaction of entering the very landscape of the drama that led to the salvation of mankind. Pilgrims knew this to be true because it had been part of the tradition of the Roman Church since the time of Pope Gregory the Great, whose Homily XXXIII, in 591, stated that Mary Magdalene, from whom Jesus had cast out demons (Luke 8:2–3), was not only the Mary who was the disciple of Jesus who witnessed his crucifixion and visited the empty tomb, but was also the anonymous woman caught in adultery and brought before Jesus by the Pharisees (John 8:3–12). Mary Magdalene, said the pope, was ‘she whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary’, and whom ‘we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices?’ Mary Magdalene, the pope made clear, had been a prostitute who had previously used the oils she applied to Jesus ‘to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts’.6 To which the Venerable Bede added in the next century that the sinful woman whom Jesus healed of demonic possession was one and the same as the sister of Martha and Lazarus with whom Jesus was staying in Bethany when he raised Lazarus from the dead and who also poured precious ointments over Jesus’ feet and then washed them with her hair (Matthew 26:6; Mark 14:3; Luke 10:39; John 12:3) – which in turn associated Mary Magdalene with the unnamed woman who poured oil over Jesus’ head in the house of Simon the Leper in Bethany. The density of associations made Bethany a prime pilgrimage site, confirmed by the naming of the church and the abbey after St Martha and after St Mary Magdalene.

But pilgrims arriving in Outremer met Jacobites and Greek Orthodox Christians who told them the story was not like that at all. All these various Marys and unnamed women were quite separate people and, apart from Mary, sister of Lazarus, and the unnamed woman at the house of Simon the Leper, had no association with Bethany. John of Würzburg was one Western pilgrim who encountered these conflicting stories when he reached Bethany and Jerusalem, and he went away entirely confused. ‘If anyone wishes to know more about these things, let him come himself, and ask the more intelligent subjects of this land the sequence and truth of this story. As for me, I have not found quite enough to explain it in any of the Scriptures.’7

So unsettling was this confusion to pilgrims that Gerard of Nazareth, a Benedictine monk who was bishop of Latakia, on the Syrian coast, determined to put the matter straight. In his treatise written in the 1160s against the tradition of the Eastern churches he reasserted the position of the Church at Rome that Mary Magdalene was the same person as the other Marys mentioned in the Gospels, and in particular she was the same woman as Mary, the sister of Martha. This was not a trivial issue of misidentification; great matters were at stake. Most obviously, if Mary Magdalene could no longer be associated with Bethany, then much of the appeal of its abbey would be lost and it would face financial collapse. Even worse, pilgrimages could expose people to rival views and undermine the traditions of the Roman Church – and undermine its authority in the East. If the Latin Church could get Mary Magdalene wrong, its interpretations of the Bible were open to doubt, as were the bases for so many of its rituals and practices, not to mention its arguments that had led to the Great Schism or were used to claim primacy for Rome. What authority, what ascendancy, would the Latins have left to them in the East?

Heresies have been born from less and been visited with fierce correction. But not in Outremer, where Gerard framed his argument mildly: ‘There is no greatly pernicious error in this, and one can believe one or another without grave danger. But it is good, if possible, to hold to what is more truthful, not only this but in all controversy.’8

Behind this atmosphere of toleration was the reality that Eastern Christians felt closer ties to their fellow Christians from the West than to either the Muslim Arabs or the Turks. By the twelfth century most of the local population spoke Arabic but were not yet culturally arabised; Greek, Armenian and Syriac all survived not only as liturgical languages but also in day-to-day use. Moreover the Turks and their Kurdish allies generally did not speak Arabic, or Syriac, Armenian or Greek, whereas the Franks, who shared a common faith with the local population, also made an effort to learn the local languages. But probably the biggest factor that encouraged the Franks and the native inhabitants of Outremer to get along was that they shared a common enemy – the Turks.9 Nor was it only Christians for whom the Turks were the enemy; they were the enemy for most Muslims too.

Ibn Jubayr, a Spanish Muslim who had been on a pilgrimage to Mecca, wrote of his journey through Outremer in 1184 as he travelled between Damascus and Acre.

        We left Tibnin [Toron, within the kingdom of Jerusalem] by a road running past farms where Muslims live who do very well under the Franks – may Allah preserve us from such temptation! The regulations imposed on them are the handing over of half of the grain crop at the time of harvest and the payment of a poll tax of one dinar and seven qirats, together with a light duty on their fruit trees. The Muslims own their own houses and rule themselves in their own way. This is the way the farms and big villages are organised in Frankish territory. Many Muslims are sorely tempted to settle here when they see the far from comfortable conditions in which their brethren live in the districts under Muslim rule. Unfortunately for the Muslims they have always reason for complaint about the injustices of their chiefs in the lands governed by their coreligionists, whereas they can have nothing but praise for the conduct of the Franks, whose justice they can always rely on.10

Clearly Muslim farmers had not been dispossessed of their lands by the Franks, while the tax and payment in kind were in line with amounts paid by Christian farmers too. In fact, Muslims were better off than Christians, who in addition to the payments due to their overlords were required to pay a tithe to the churches from which Muslims were exempt.

Ibn Jubayr’s account is all the more striking as he was otherwise resolutely opposed to the Franks. But he could not deny the respect with which the Franks treated his fellow Muslims, as when he approached Acre and found Muslims entrusted with the local administration. ‘On the same Monday, we alighted at a farmstead a parasang distant from Acre. Its headman is a Muslim, appointed by the Franks to oversee the Muslim workers in it. He gave generous hospitality to all members of the caravan.’11 In Acre itself he discovered that although two mosques had been converted to churches, Muslims were nevertheless free to use them as meeting places and to pray in them, facing towards Mecca. There was nothing unusual about this; Usamah ibn Munqidh had mentioned the hospitality he received from the Templars, who welcomed him to pray in their chapel within what had been the Aqsa mosque on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.

Although Ibn Jubayr, a Sunni Muslim himself, was full of praise for Saladin’s Sunni regime in Cairo, he admitted that the majority of Muslims in Outremer and Syria were heterodox in their beliefs. ‘Dissident Muslim elements, comprising Shiites, Ismailites and Nusayriyah [Alawites] [. . .] according to Ibn Jubayr, outnumbered the Sunnites’, and also there were the Druze, an historical offshoot of the Ismailis who had separated themselves from Islam altogether, none of whom welcomed the prospect of being forced by Saladin into the Sunni mould and who therefore allied themselves as necessary with the Franks.12

The Ismailis, Alawites and Druze were all dualists: that is, they believed that the universe contains both good and evil because God himself is made up of good and evil. They saw evil not as the absence of good but as part of the essence of both the world and its creator, who in turn may have been an emanation of an ultimate and unknowable God. Dualism was deeply rooted in the East and penetrated Islam via Mani, a third-century Persian, who drew on Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Babylonian Mandaeism and Christianity. In fact the term ‘Manichaean’, the name some medieval French chroniclers gave to the Cathars, was used by the Byzantines to describe the dualist ideas of Mani. But the Ismailis, Alawis and Druze went beyond religious belief; they were also initiatory secret societies with political aims tending towards the apocalyptic. In rejecting Islamic orthodoxy, which teaches that God is the sole principle and is good, their enemy were the Sunnis, who under Zengi, Nur al-Din and now Saladin were determined to eradicate them; the stronghold of dualist resistance was the less accessible regions of the East, particularly the coastal mountains.

As it happens, the battle between Muslim dualists and Sunni Islam began just as the Cathars first made their appearance in France, in the 1140s. There were similarities between the two. The origins of Cathar dualism lay in the East, where it can be traced back to the Christian Gnostics, who flourished in the second and third centuries AD all round the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean, in Egypt, Syria and Palestine, and perhaps also in Asia Minor and Greece. Gnosis is Greek for ‘knowledge’, and the Gnostics believed that salvation lay in their understanding of the true nature of creation. They believed that there were two worlds: the material world of evil and decay that had been made by an evil demiurge, the enemy of man; and the world of light where the primal God resides. Mankind inhabits a catastrophe not of God’s making, but the Gnostics said they knew the secret of salvation. At the moment of the cosmic blunder, sparks of the divine light, like slivers of shattered glass, became embedded in a portion of humankind. These people were the elect, and the Gnostic aim was to lead them back to God. The crucifixion and the resurrection had no place in Gnostic belief; instead, the role of Jesus was to descend from the primal God and impart to his disciples the secret tradition of the gnosis.

Like the Gnostics, the Ismailis believed that man possesses slivers of the divine spark which, given possession of the secret knowledge, can reunite man with the unknown God. The Ismailis claimed to possess this knowledge. And at the opposite end of the Mediterranean, especially in Languedoc, which was a major source of Templar income and recruits, the Cathars likewise claimed knowledge of this divine secret.

During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Languedoc, in southern France, was the centre of a rich and complex religious life in which Jews, Catholics and communities of Arian, Waldensian and Manichaean heretics lived side by side. The Arians were the survival of that 900-year-old heresy that began in Alexandria and tended towards undermining the divinity of Jesus Christ, while the Waldensians were a new twelfth-century movement that espoused poverty, called for the distribution of property to the poor, rejected the authority of the clergy and claimed that anyone could preach, saying their literal reading of the Bible was all that was needed for salvation. According to the thirteenth-century chronicler and Cistercian monk Peter of les Vaux-de-Cernay, the Waldensians ‘were evil men, but very much less perverted than other heretics; they agreed with us in many matters, and differed in some’.13 The ‘other heretics’ were the Manichaeans, also known as Cathars, meaning ‘pure’. The Templars partly owed their great expansion in Languedoc to the support of the nobility, with whom they were in close alliance, the combination of nobles’ land and Templar capital allowing the establishment of new communities and the development of previously uncultivated territories. Some of these Templar patrons were renowned Cathar supporters.

After Catharism appeared in southern France towards the middle of the twelfth century, its adherents quickly became numerous and well organised, electing bishops, collecting funds and distributing money to the poor. But they could not accept that if there was only one God, and if God was the creator, and if God was good, that there should be suffering, illness and death in his world.

The Cathars’ solution to this problem of evil in the world was to say that there were really two creators and two worlds. The Cathars were dualists in that they believed in a good and an evil principle. The former was the creator of the invisible and spiritual universe; this was the celestial Christ, and his bride was Mary Magdalene. The latter was the creator of our material world; this was the terrestrial pseudo-Christ, for whom Mary Magdalene was not a wife but his concubine.14

All matter was evil because it was the creation of the false, terrestrial Christ, but the ideal of renouncing the world was impractical for everyone, and so while most Cathars lived outwardly normal lives, pledging to renounce the evil world only on their deathbeds, a few lived the strict life of the perfecti.

Because human and animal procreation perpetuated matter, the perfecti abstained from eggs, milk, meat and women. But both ordinary Cathars and the perfecti actively shared in their belief that the true Christ was not part of this world of evil. As the celestial Christ, he was not born of the Virgin Mary, nor had he human flesh, nor had he risen from the dead; salvation did not lie in his death and resurrection, which were merely a simulation; instead, redemption would be gained by following Jesus’ teachings.

By 1200 the Cathar heresy had become so widespread that the papacy was alarmed. Pope Innocent III said that the Cathars were worse than the Saracens, for not only did Catharism challenge the Church but by condemning procreation it also threatened the very survival of the human race. In 1209 a crusade was launched against them – called the Albigensian Crusade, as so many Cathars lived around Albi – and an inquisition was introduced. In that year the core of Cathar resistance withdrew to the castle of Montségur atop a great domed hill in the eastern Pyrenees, where they withstood assaults and sieges until capitulating in 1244. Some two hundred still refused to abjure their errors; they were bound together within a stockade below the castle and were set ablaze on a huge funeral pyre.

The Templars played no part in the Albigensian Crusade, which was bound to attack some of their own patrons, who were likewise patrons of the Cathars. Nor has it been shown that the Templars were infected by the Cathar heresy. But like the Ismailis and other Shia offshoots in the East, the charge of heresy was soon used against the Cathars for political reasons; just as Zengi, Nur al-Din and Saladin waged jihad against heterodox Muslims in order to advance their own dynastic interests, so the kings of France put their military muscle into the Albigensian Crusade and rewarded themselves by annexing Languedoc to the French crown. And in this political sense the fates of the Templars and the Cathars would be intertwined. From their inception the Templars had been protected by the pope; no church or secular authority could act against them without the pope’s approval. But the machinery of the inquisition that had been used against the Cathars did not die with their destruction; instead it was resurrected and manipulated for secular purposes by King Philip IV in 1307, when he arrested the entire Templar network of France at dawn on Friday 13 October on charges of heresy and blasphemy.

As the Sunni Turks under Zengi and Nur al-Din imposed themselves more completely on Syria, the Ismailis withdrew into that region of the coastal mountains, the Jebel al-Sariya, girded by the great Templar and Hospitaller strongholds of Tortosa, Chastel Blanc, Margat and Krak des Chevaliers, where the movement assumed its militant and murderous form known as the Assassins. From such strongholds as al-Ullayqa, Qadmus, Qalaat al-Kahf and especially Masyaf, the headquarters of the Assassins’ leader, the Sheikh al-Jebel, the Old Man of the Mountain, they employed a strategy of assassination to influence and control anyone, mostly Sunni Muslims but sometimes also Christians, who might threaten their independence.

The Assassins’ method of recruitment was famously described by Marco Polo, who in the latter part of the thirteenth century encountered a branch at Alamut in Persia. Referring to them as Malahida, meaning ‘deviators’ or ‘heretics’, as they were called in Persia, he said they used drugs (including hashish, from which the word ‘assassin’ derives) to convince novices destined to become self-destructive feddayin, ‘the self-sacrificers’, that they had entered a garden of delights where fountains flowed with milk, honey and wine, and where houris, those maidens of Paradise, were likewise on tap. Brought back to their normal state, the initiates were told that they had indeed visited Paradise, which would certainly be forever theirs provided they gave absolute obedience to the commands of the Assassins’ imam.

A later account, published in 1307 by the Venetian historian Marino Sanudo, relates that when Count Henry of Champagne was on a visit to the Assassins he saw two young men dressed in white sitting at the top of a high tower. When asked by the Assassin leader whether he had any subjects as obedient as his own, the count had no time to reply before a sign was given to the two, who immediately leapt from the tower to their deaths. Their willingness to sacrifice their lives made the feddayins’ attacks that much more disturbing; their mission was to sow fear of the sect and at the same time weaken the resolve of their enemies by the murder of key figures. The Assassins infiltrated the ranks of their adversaries, and when they had won their victim’s trust they would kill him, always using a knife. These were suicide attacks, for apparently by design they themselves perished in carrying out their orders. The killers were unlikely to have dosed themselves beforehand on hashish, however, as its effect would have made them almost useless.

Among the Assassins’ rare Christian victims were Raymond II, count of Tripoli, in 1152; Conrad of Montferrat, king of Jerusalem, in 1192; and another Raymond, heir to the thrones of Antioch and Tripoli, who in 1213 was stabbed to death outside the door of the Cathedral of Our Lady at Tortosa. But the Assassins’ most famous attempt was against Saladin in 1176. As the champion of Sunni orthodoxy, he had already overthrown the Ismaili Fatimids in Egypt and was now at war with independent Muslims throughout the East. He entered the Jebel al-Sariya to lay siege to Masyaf, but his soldiers reported mysterious powers about, while Saladin was disturbed by terrible dreams. One night he awoke suddenly to find on his bed some hot cakes of a type that only the Assassins baked and with them a poisoned dagger and a threatening verse. Convinced that Rashid al-Din Sinan, the Old Man of the Mountain, had himself entered his tent, Saladin’s nerves gave way. He sent a message to Sinan asking for forgiveness and promised not to pursue his campaign against the Assassins provided he was granted safe conduct. Saladin was pardoned and hastened back to Cairo.

The one effective organisation against the Assassins was the Templars. Being an undying corporate body, the Templars could not be intimidated by the death of one of their members. The Assassins themselves admitted that they never killed a Grand Master because they knew that someone equally good would be put in his place.

In their hatred of the Sunni, the Assassins sometimes found themselves in alliance with the Christians, and even under trying circumstances they were tolerated by the Frankish states and the Templars. After the Assassins murdered Raymond II, the count of Tripoli, in 1152 – for no reason that anyone could figure out, unless they had been hired by Raymond’s wife – the Templars threatened to go after the Assassins, who readily agreed to pay an annual tribute of 2,000 gold bezants. The Assassins and the Christians shared a common enemy, and it was in their interest to keep the peace with one another.

But on one significant occasion the Templars’ distrust of the Assassins led them to oppose the policy of King Amalric of Jerusalem, who had entered into talks with the Old Man of the Mountain. The Ismailis had always seen their leaders as the embodiment of emanations flowing from the unknowable God, but in 1164, in an apocalyptic moment, Rashid al-Din Sinan openly renounced Islam and declared that the resurrection had arrived. The contemporary Syrian chronicler Kamal al-Din described scenes of wild frenzy in the Jebel al-Sariya, where ‘men and women mingled in drinking sessions, no man abstained from his sister or daughter, the women wore men’s clothes, and one of them declared that Sinan was God’.15 In fact, the divine status accorded to the Old Man of the Mountain was general according to the Spanish Muslim traveller Ibn Jubayr, who wrote that all his followers treated him as God.

It was nine years after these events, in 1173, that Amalric attempted to negotiate an alliance with Sinan, one of its conditions being that the Assassins would convert to Christianity while in return the Templars would forego their tribute. But as Sinan’s envoy was returning from Jerusalem to Masyaf, bearing a safe-conduct from Amalric, he was ambushed and killed by some Templar knights. Only with the greatest difficulty was Amalric able to persuade Sinan that the attack was not of his doing. Meanwhile he accused the Templars of treason and of bringing the kingdom to the ‘point of irrevocable ruin’16 by destroying the chance of an advantageous alliance. The chronicler William of Tyre implied that the murder was prompted by a financial motive, for peace would have meant an end to the tribute paid by the Assassins to the Templars. Another chronicler, Walter Map, wrote that the Templars killed the envoy ‘so that peace and harmony would not come about’ – in other words, war justified the existence of the Templars, who feared the outbreak of peace. Neither the patriarch nor the king, continued Map, could exact revenge on the Templars because ‘Rome imposes captivity by the purse in all places; the king could not because he is smaller than their little finger’.17

The argument of Templar greed is typical of William of Tyre, and also it was wrong because Amalric was prepared to compensate the order from his own resources. However, the Templars were probably concerned that the king was being duped, for they understood that whatever religion the Assassins professed, it would be no more than an outer garment, just as Islam had been an outer garment, as the Assassins saw this world as mere illusion, and despite any conversion to Christianity their inner and secret beliefs would remain. The Templars controlled important castles adjacent to the Assassin enclave, castles that also controlled the passes to the yet more dangerous Sunni-held interior, and to have let their guard down on the word of such a sect would have been grossly irresponsible and would have cost the Templars their credibility in the West.

In the event, negotiations were never resumed; the next year, 1174, the able Amalric died of dysentery at the age of thirty-eight; he was succeeded by his young son Baldwin IV, who suffered from leprosy. Raymond III, count of Tripoli, was made regent, and as his own father had been murdered by the Assassins he shared the Templars’ distrust, although the Assassins had been an important ally against the Sunnis. The Franks were now reaping the consequences of their failure to take Egypt, as they had earlier failed to take Damascus, and in Saladin they faced a single enemy who for the first time controlled both Cairo and Damascus and was determined to destroy all forms of Islam other than his own and then destroy Outremer as well.

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