Turban-Clad Resistance

On Friday 17 February 1111, the qÁÃÐ Ibn al-KhashÁb burst into the sultan’s mosque in Baghdad accompanied by a large group of Aleppans, among them a Hashemite sharÐf (a descendant of the Prophet) and a number of Sufi ascetics, imÁms, and merchants. Ibn al-QalÁnisi describes what happened next.

They forced the preacher to descend from the pulpit, which they smashed. They then began to cry out, to bewail the evils that had befallen Islam because of the Franj, who were killing men and enslaving women and children. Since they were preventing the faithful from saying their prayers, the officials present made various promises, in the name of the sultan, in an effort to pacify them: armies would be sent to defend Islam against the Franj and all the infidels.

But these fine words were not enough to soothe the rebels. The following Friday, they restaged their demonstration, this time in the mosque of the caliph. When guards tried to bar their way, they quickly thrust them aside, smashed the wooden minbar, which was adorned with carved arabesques and verses of the Koran, and hurled insults at the prince of the faithful himself. Baghdad was plunged into the greatest confusion.

At the same moment, relates the Damascene chronicler in a disingenuously naive tone, the princess, sister of Sultan MuÎammad and wife of the caliph, arrived in Baghdad from Isfahan with a magnificent retinue: there were precious stones, sumptuous robes, all sorts of saddlery and beasts of burden, servants, slaves of both sexes, attendants, and many other things that would defy estimation and enumeration. Her arrival coincided with the scenes described above. The joy and security of the royal arrival were disrupted. The caliph al-MustaÛhir BillÁh manifested considerable discontent. He wanted to prosecute those responsible for the incident, and to punish them severely. But the sultan prevented him from doing so, pardoned the actions of these people, and ordered the emirs and military officers to return to their provinces to prepare a jihÁd against the infidels, the enemies of God.

If the worthy al-MustaÛhir was thus moved to anger, it was not only because of the disagreeable effects of the turmoil on his young wife, but also because of the terrifying slogan that had been shouted so deafeningly in the streets of the capital: ÝThe king of the RÙm is a better Muslim than the prince of the faithful!’ For he was well aware that this was no gratuitous accusation. The demonstrators, led by Ibn al-KhashÁb, were alluding to a message received a few weeks earlier by the caliph’s dÐwÁn. It came from the emperor Alexius Comnenus and insistently called upon the Muslims to unite with the RÙm to struggle against the Franj and expel them from our lands.

If the powerful master of Constantinople and the humble qÁÃÐ of Aleppo seemed to have made common cause in their initiatives in Baghdad, it was because they both felt that they had been humiliated by the same man: Tancred. When Byzantine ambassadors were sent to remind Tancred that the knights of the West had promised to restore Antioch to the basileus and that thirteen years after the fall of the city they had yet to do so, the Ýmir’ of the Franks had insolently shown them the door. As for the Aleppans, Tancred had recently imposed a particularly discreditable treaty upon them: they were to pay him an annual tribute of twenty thousand dinars, hand over two important fortresses in the immediate vicinity of their city, and give him, as a gift and sign of allegiance, their ten finest horses. RiÃwÁn, fearful as ever, dared not refuse. But the streets of his capital had been seething ever since the terms of the treaty had been revealed.

It had always been the custom in Aleppo for people to gather in small groups to hold lively discussions of the dangers threatening them at critical moments in their history. The notables would get together in the great mosque, sitting cross-legged on the red carpets, sometimes in the courtyard, in the shade of the minaret that overlooked the ochre-coloured houses of the city. The merchants would meet during the day, along the old colonnaded avenue built by the Romans, which ran across Aleppo from west to east, from the Gate of Antioch to the forbidden quarter of the citadel, where the sullen RiÃwÁn resided. This major artery had long been closed to wagons and processions. The roadway had been taken over by hundreds of little booths in which cloth, amber, trinkets, dates, pistachio nuts, and condiments were amassed. The avenue and its neighbouring alleyways were covered with a wooden ceiling to protect passers-by from sun and rain; at the intersections, it rose up into high stucco domes. At the corners of the alleys, especially those leading to the souks of the makers of straw mats, the blacksmiths, and the sellers of wood for heating, the Aleppans would gossip before the many low-class eating houses. Amidst a persistent odour of boiling oil, grilled meat, and spices, these places offered meals at moderate prices: chunks of grilled mutton, doughnuts, lentils. Families of modest means would buy their food ready-made in the souks; only the rich cooked at home. Not far from the food stalls, the characteristic tinkle of the sharabsellers could be heard; these cold drinks of concentrated fruit the Franj would later borrow from the Arabs in liquid and frozen forms, calling them Ýsirops’ and Ýsorbets’.

In the afternoon people of all walks of life would meet in the ÎammÁm, or public bath, that special meeting place where one cleansed oneself before the sunset prayer. As night fell, the citizens would desert the centre of Aleppo to return to their own quarters, away from drunken soldiers. There too, news and rumours would circulate, passed on by men and women alike, and ideas would wend their way through the city. Anger, enthusiasm, discouragement would daily stir this hive, which had buzzed in just this way for more than three millennia.

Ibn al-KhashÁb was the most respected man in the quarters of Aleppo. Born of a family of rich wood-merchants, he played a primordial role in the administration of the city. As a ShiÝi qÁÃÐ he enjoyed great religious and moral authority; he was responsible for resolving disputes involving the people and property of his community, the largest in Aleppo. In addition, he was a ra’Ðs, or chief of the city, which made him simultaneously provost of the merchants, representative of the interests of the population before the king, and commandant of the urban militia.

But Ibn al-KhashÁb’s activities went beyond the already wide competence of his official functions. Ever since the arrival of the Franj, he had, through his numerous coterie, encouraged a patriotic and pietistic current of public opinion that demanded a firmer attitude against the invaders. He was not afraid to tell King RiÃwÁn what he thought of his conciliatory, even servile, policy. When Tancred obliged the Seljuk monarch to affix a cross to the minaret of the great mosque, the qÁÃÐ organized a riot and had the crucifix transferred to the Sainte Helène Cathedral. Since then, RiÃwÁn had avoided any conflict with the irascible qÁÃÐ. Entrenched in the citadel with his harem and bodyguard, with his own mosque, his own source of water, and his grassy race-course, the Turkish king preferred to spare the sensibilities of his subjects. So long as his own authority was not challenged, he tolerated public opinion.

In 1111, however, Ibn al-KhashÁb turned up at the citadel to tell RiÃwÁn once again of the citizens’ extreme discontent. The faithful, he explained, were scandalized at having to pay tribute to infidels implanted in the land of Islam, and the merchants’ businesses had been in peril ever since the intolerable prince of Antioch had seized control of all the routes from Aleppo to the Mediterranean, for he was holding caravans to ransom. Since the city could no longer defend itself with its own resources, the qÁÃÐproposed that a delegation of Sunni and ShiÝi notables, merchants and men of religion, be sent to Baghdad to seek the aid of Sultan MuÎammad. RiÃwÁn had no desire to involve his Seljuk cousin in the affairs of his kingdom. He still preferred to deal with Tancred. But in view of the futility of all missions hitherto dispatched to the ÝAbbasid capital, he felt that the least risky course of action would be to accede to his subjects’ request.

In this he was mistaken. Against all expectations, the Baghdad demonstrations of February 1111 produced just the effect sought by Ibn al-KhashÁb. The sultan, who had just been informed of the fall of Saida and the treaty imposed on the Aleppans, felt growing unease at the ambitions of the Franj. Yielding to Ibn al-KhashÁb’s entreaties, he ordered the latest in the line of governors of Mosul, the emir MawdÙd, to march without delay at the head of a powerful army and to rescue Aleppo. When Ibn al-KhashÁb returned to Aleppo and informed RiÃwÁn of the success of his mission, the king pretended to rejoice, while praying that nothing would come of it. He even informed his cousin of his eagerness to participate in the jihÁd at his side. But in July, when he was told that the sultan’s troops were actually approaching the city, he could no longer conceal his consternation. He ordered the gates of the city to be barricaded, arrested Ibn al-KhashÁb and his major supporters, and imprisoned them in the citadel. The Turkish soldiers were ordered to patrol the residential quarters day and night to prevent any contact between the populace and the Ýenemy’. The sequel of events was to justify RiÃwÁn’s volte-face, at least in part. Deprived of the supplies the king was supposed to procure for them, the sultan’s troops took their revenge by savagely plundering the environs of Aleppo. Then, following dissension between MawdÙd and the other emirs, the army disintegrated without fighting a single battle.

MawdÙd returned to Syria two years later, under orders from the sultan to assemble all the Muslim princes, except RiÃwÁn, against the Franj. Since Aleppo was off limits to him, he quite naturally established his general headquarters in Damascus, that other great city, in preparation for a large-scale offensive against the Kingdom of Jerusalem. His host, the atabeg Tughtigin, pretended to be thrilled by the honour that the sultan’s envoy had thus bestowed upon him, but in fact he was as terrified as RiÃwÁn had been. He feared that MawdÙd sought only to take over his capital, and resented the emir’s every deed as a threat to his own future.

On 2 October 1113, the Damascene chronicler tells us, the emir MawdÙd left his camp, situated near the Gate of Iron, one of the eight entrances to the city. He walked, as he did every day, to the Umayyad mosque, in the company of the lame atabeg.

When the prayer was over and MawdÙd had performed several supplementary devotions, they both departed, Tughtigin walking ahead out of respect for the emir. They were surrounded by soldiers, guards, and militiamen bearing arms of all varieties; the slender sabres, sharp épées, scimitars, and unsheathed daggers gave an impression of thick undergrowth. All around them, crowds pressed forward to admire their arsenal and their magnificence. When they reached the courtyard of the mosque, a man emerged from the crowd and approached the emir MawdÙd as if to pray God on his behalf and to ask ạlms of him. Suddenly he seized the belt of his mantle and struck him twice with his dagger, just above the navel. The atabeg Tughtigin took a few steps backwards, and his companions quickly surrounded him. As for MawdÙd, who never lost his head, he walked as far as the north gate of the mosque and then collapsed. A surgeon was summoned and managed to suture some of the wounds, but the emir died several hours later, may God have mercy upon him!

Who killed the governor of Mosul on the very eve of his offensive against the Franj? Tughtigin lost no time in accusing RiÃwÁn and his friends of the Assassins sect. But most contemporaries believed that no one but the master of Damascus himself could have armed the killer. According to Ibn al-AthÐr, King Baldwin was so shocked by the murder that he sent Tughtigin a particularly contemptuous message: A nation that kills its leader in the house of its God deserves to be annihilated. As for Sultan MuÎammad, he howled with rage when he learned of the death of his lieutenant. He considered the heinous crime a personal insult, and he decided to bring all the Syrian leaders into line once and for all, those of Aleppo as well as those of Damascus. He raised an army of several tens of thousands of soldiers commanded by the best officers of the Seljuk clan and curtly ordered all the Muslim princes to join it in its sacred duty of waging jihÁd against the Franj.

When the sultan’s powerful expedition arrived in central Syria in the spring of 1115, a great surprise awaited it. Baldwin of Jerusalem and Tughtigin of Damascus stood side by side, supported not only by their own troops but also by those of Antioch, Aleppo, and Tripoli. The princes of Syria, Muslims and Franj alike, felt equally threatened by the sultan, and they had decided to join forces. Within several months, the Seljuk army was forced shamefully to withdraw. MuÎammad swore that never again would he concern himself with the Frankish problem. He kept his word.

While the Muslim princes were thus offering fresh evidence of their utter irresponsibility, two Arab cities demonstrated, in the space of a few months, that it was nevertheless still possible to resist the foreign occupation. With the surrender of Saida in December 1110 the Franj were masters of the entire littoral, the sÁÎil, from Sinai in the south to Ýthe land of the son of the Armenian’, north of Antioch. With the exception, however, of two coastal enclaves: Ascalon and Tyre. Encouraged by his successive victories, Baldwin decided to settle their fate without delay. The Ascalon region was noted for the cultivation of reddish onions, called Ýascalonians’, a word the Franj distorted into échalote (shallot). But its real importance was military, for it served as the assembly point for Egyptian troops during every attempted expedition against the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

In 1111 Baldwin paraded his army before the walls of the city. Shams al-KhalÐfa (ÝSun of the Caliphate’), the Fatimid governor of Ascalon—more inclined to commerce than to war, was Ibn al-QalÁnisi’s judgement of him—was terrified by the Occidentals’ show of force. Without offering any resistance whatsoever, he agreed to pay them a tribute of seven thousand dinars. The Palestinian population of the city, humiliated by this unexpected capitulation, sent emissaries to Cairo to ask that the governor be removed. Upon learning this, and fearing that the vizier al-AfÃal meant to chastise him for his cowardice, Shams al-KhalÐfa tried to ward off that eventuality by expelling the Egyptian functionaries and placing himself squarely under the protection of the Franj. Baldwin sent him three hundred men, who took charge of the citadel of Ascalon.

Though scandalized, the inhabitants did not lose heart. Secret meetings were held in the mosques. Plots were hatched, until one day in July 1111, as Shams al-KhalÐfa was leaving the grounds of his residence on horseback, a group of conspirators attacked him, riddling his body with dagger-strokes. That was the signal for revolt. Armed citizens, joined by Berber soldiers of the governor’s guard, threw themselves against the citadel. The Frankish warriors were hunted down in the towers and along the walls. None of Baldwin’s three hundred men survived. The city was to escape domination by the Franj for another forty years.

Seeking revenge for his humiliation at the hands of the Ascalon rebels, Baldwin turned against Tyre, the ancient Phoenician city from which Prince Cadmus, brother of Europa (who was to give her name to the continent of the Franj), had set out to spread thealphabet throughout the Mediterranean. The impressive walls of Tyre still recalled its glorious history. The city was surrounded on three sides by the sea, and only a narrow coastal road built by Alexander the Great linked it to the mainland. Reputed to be impregnable, in 1111 it was home to a large number of refugees from the recently occupied territories. Their role in the defence of the city was primordial, as Ibn al-QalÁnisi, whose account is clearly based on first-hand testimony, reports.

The Franj had erected a mobile tower to which they affixed a battering-ram of redoubtable force. The walls were shaken, some of the stones crumbled, and the besieged found themselves on the brink of disaster. It was then that a sailor from Tripoli, who was acquainted with metallurgy and had some experience in the affairs of war, undertook to manufacture iron grapnels designed to grip the battering-ram from the top and sides, by means of ropes held by the defenders. The latter then pulled so vigorously that the wooden tower was wrenched off balance. On several occasions, the Franj had to break their own battering-ram to prevent the tower from collapsing.

Renewing their attempts, the attackers succeeded in drawing their tower near the walls and fortifications, which they then proceeded to hammer with a new battering-ram sixty cubits long, whose head was a chunk of cast iron weighing more than twenty pounds. But the Tripolitanian sailor did not give up.

With the aid of several skilfully installed joists, the Damascene chronicler continues, he had jars of excrement and rubbish raised high and poured over the Franj. Choked by the odours enveloping them, the latter could no longer handle their battering-ram properly. The sailor then had grape baskets and large straw trunks filled with oil, bitumen, firewood, resin, and the bark of reeds. After setting them on fire, he tilted them onto the Franj tower. The top of the tower burst into flames, and as the Franj hurried to extinguish the blaze with vinegar and water, the Tripolitanian quickly hurled other baskets filled with boiling oil to feed the flames. Fire now swept through the whole upper part of the tower and spread little by little to the lower levels, feeding on the wood of which the structure was made.

Unable to bring the fire under control, the attackers finally evacuated the tower and fled. The defenders took advantage of the situation to make a sortie, seizing a large number of abandoned weapons.

When they saw this, Ibn al-QalÁnisi concludes triumphantly, the Franj lost heart and beat a retreat, after setting fire to the barracks they had erected in their camp.

It was the twelfth of April 1112. After 132 days of siege, the population of Tyre had inflicted a stinging defeat on the Franj.

After the Baghdad riots, the Ascalon insurrection, and the resistance in Tyre, a wind of revolt began to surge through the region. A growing number of Arabs felt an equally intense hatred for the invaders and for the majority of the Muslim leaders, whom they accused of negligence or even treason. In Aleppo more than elsewhere, this attitude soon went beyond a mere change of mood. Under the leadership of the qÁÃÐ Ibn al-KhashÁb, the citizens decided to take their fate into their own hands. They chose their own leaders and forced them to carry out the policy they wanted.

Admittedly, many defeats, many disappointments, were yet to come. The expansion of the Franj was not over, and their arrogance knew no bounds. But from this point on, a ground swell would slowly rise, beginning in the streets of Aleppo. Little by little it would inundate the Arab East, eventually carrying to power just, courageous, and devoted men who would be capable of reconquering the lost territory.

Before that, however, Aleppo was to pass through the most erratic period of its long history. At the end of November 1113 Ibn al-KhashÁb learned that RiÃwÁn lay seriously ill at his palace in the citadel. He gathered his friends together and told them to prepare for action. The king died on 10 December. As soon as the news was known, groups of armed militiamen fanned through the quarters of the city, occupied the major buildings, and seized many of RiÃwÁn’s supporters, notably the adherents of the Assassins sect, who were immediately put to death for their collaboration with the Frankish enemy.

The qÁÃÐ’s aim was not to seize power himself but to make an impression on the new king, Alp Arslan, the son of RiÃwÁn, so as to induce him to follow a policy different from that of his father. At first this young man of sixteen, who stuttered so badly that he was nicknamed Ýthe Mute’, seemed to endorse the militant stance of Ibn al-KhashÁb. With unconcealed delight, he had all RiÃwÁn’s collaborators arrested and beheaded forthwith. The qÁÃÐ became uneasy. He urged the young monarch not to subject the city to a bloodbath but simply to punish the traitors so as to set an example. But Alp Arslan paid him no heed. He executed two of his own brothers, several officers, a few servants, and in general anyone to whom he took a dislike. Little by little, the citizenry realized the horrible truth: the king was mad! The best available source dealing with this period is the chronicle by KamÁl al-DÐn, an Aleppan author-diplomat, written a century after the events but based on the testimony of contemporaries.

One day, he recounts, Alp Arslan assembled some emirs and notables and took them to visit a sort of cellar dug into the citadel. Once they were inside, he asked them, ÝWhat would you say if I had all your heads cut off right here?’

ÝWe are slaves subject to your majesty’s orders’, answered one of the unfortunates, pretending to consider the threat a good joke.

And it was thus, in fact, that they escaped death.

It was not long before the demented young king was being given a wide berth. Only one man still dared to approach him, his eunuch Lu'lu', ÝPearls’. But finally he too began to fear for his life. In September 1114 he killed his sleeping master and installed another of RiÃwÁn’s sons, aged six, on the throne.

Aleppo was sinking deeper into anarchy day by day. While uncontrollable groups of slaves and soldiers cut one another to pieces in the citadel, armed citizens patrolled the streets of the city to protect themselves against marauders. During this initial period, the Franj of Antioch did not seek to take advantage of the chaos paralysing Aleppo. Tancred had died a year before RiÃwÁn, and his successor Sir Roger, whom KamÁl al-DÐn calls Sirjal, lacked sufficient self-assurance to engage in action of any real scope. But the respite was of brief duration. In 1116 Roger of Antioch, now sure of his control over all the routes to Aleppo, occupied the major fortresses ringing the city one after another. In the absence of any resistance, he even managed to impose a tax on every Muslim pilgrim leaving for Mecca.

In April 1117 the eunuch Lu'lu' was assassinated. According to KamÁl al-DÐn, the soldiers of his escort had hatched a plot against him. While he was walking east of the city one day, they suddenly drew their bows, crying, ÝAfter the hare! After the hare!’, to make him believe that they were hunting that animal. In fact, it was Lu'lu' himself who was riddled with arrows. After his death, power passed to another slave, who, unable to assert his authority, asked Roger to come to his aid. The subsequent chaos was indescribable. While the Franj prepared to lay siege to the city, the military officers continued to fight among themselves for control of the citadel. Ibn al-KhashÁb also decided to act without delay. He assembled the principal notables of the city to propose a plan of action whose consequences were to be weighty. As a border town, he explained, Aleppo ought to be in the vanguard of the jihÁd against the Franj. It should therefore offer its government to a powerful emir, perhaps even the sultan himself, and should never again allow itself to be governed by a local kinglet who placed his personal interests above those of Islam. The qÁÃÐ’s proposal was approved, though not without some reluctance, for the Aleppans were jealously attached to their particularism. The major candidates were then reviewed. The sultan? He refused to have anything further to do with Syria. Tughtigin? He was the only Syrian prince with some degree of personal strength, but the Aleppans would never accept a Damascene. Ibn al-KhashÁb then proposed the Turkish emir Ilghazi, governor of Mardin in Mesopotamia. True, his conduct had not always been exemplary. Two years earlier, he had supported the Islamo-Frankish alliance against the sultan, and he was known for his frequent drunkenness. When he drank wine, Ibn al-QalÁnisi tells us, Ilghazi would remain in a state of hebetude for days on end, not even rousing himself sufficiently to issue an order or directive. But a long search indeed would be required to find a sober military man. On the other hand, Ibn al-KhashÁb argued, Ilghazi was a courageous fighter, his family had governed Jerusalem for quite some time, and his brother Sokman had won the victory of ÍarrÁn against the Franj. A majority finally rallied to this view, and Ilghazi was invited to come to Aleppo. The qÁÃÐ himself opened the city gates to him during the summer of 1118. The emir’s first act was to marry the daughter of King RiÃwÁn, a gesture that symbolized the union between the city and its new master and simultaneously asserted the latter’s legitimacy. Ilghazi then called his troops to arms.

Twenty years after the beginning of the invasion, the capital of northern Syria for the first time had a commander who really wanted to fight. The result was stunning. On Saturday 28 June 1119 the army of the new ruler of Aleppo confronted the forces of Antioch on the plain of Sarmada, midway between the two cities. A khamsÐn, a hot, dry and sand-laden wind, was blowing in the eyes of the combatants. KamÁl al-DÐn describes the scene.

Ilghazi made his emirs swear that they would fight bravely, that they would hold their positions, that they would not retreat, and that they would give their lives for the jihÁd. The Muslims were then deployed in small waves, and managed to take up night-time positions alongside Sir Roger’s troops. At daybreak the Franj suddenly saw the Muslim banners approach, surrounding them on all sides. The qÁÃÐ Ibn al-KhashÁb advanced astride his mare, and gestured with one hand, urging our forces into battle. Seeing him, one of the soldiers shouted contemptuously, ÝHave we come all the way from our home country to follow a turban?’ But the qÁÃÐ marched toward the troops, moved through their ranks, and addressed them, trying to rouse their energy and lift their spirits, delivering a harangue so eloquent that men wept with emotion and felt great admiration for him. Then they charged. Arrows flew like a cloud of locusts.

The army of Antioch was decimated. Sir Roger himself was found among the bodies, his head cleaved to the nose.

Word of the victory reached Aleppo just as the Muslims, all in rows, were coming to the end of the midday prayer in the great mosque. A great clamour was heard from the west, but no fighter entered the city before the afternoon prayer.

Aleppo spent days celebrating its victory. There was singing and drinking, sheep were slaughtered, people wandered about looking at the crossed banners, helmets, and coats of mail brought back by the troops, or watching some poor prisoner being decapitated—the rich ones were ransomed. People listened as improvised poems in honour of Ilghazi were recited in the city squares: After God, it is you whom we trust. For years the Aleppans had lived in terror of Bohemond, Tancred, and then Roger of Antioch, and many had come to expect that they, like their brothers in Tripoli, would some day inevitably be forced to choose between death and exile. After the Sarmada victory, they felt as though life had begun anew. Ilghazi’s exploit aroused enthusiasm throughout the Arab world.Never in past years has such a triumph been bestowed upon Islam, exclaimed Ibn al-QalÁnisi.

These exaggerated words reflect the extremely low morale that had prevailed on the eve of Ilghazi’s victory. The arrogance of the Franj had indeed come to border on the absurd. At the beginning of March 1118 King Baldwin had sought to invade Egypt with exactly 216 knights and 400 foot-soldiers. He crossed Sinai at the head of his meagre forces, occupied the city of al-FaramÁ’ without meeting any resistance, and went as far as the banks of the Nile, where he bathed, notes Ibn al-AthÐr mockingly. He would have gone further had he not suddenly been taken ill. Carried back to Palestine as quickly as possible, he died en route, at al-ÝArÐsh in north-east Sinai. Despite Baldwin’s death, al-AfÃal would never recover from this fresh humiliation. Rapidly losing control of the situation, he was assassinated three years later in a Cairo street. As for the king of the Franj, he was replaced by his cousin, Baldwin II of Edessa.

The Sarmada victory, coming so soon after the spectacular raid across Sinai, seemed like revenge, and a number of optimists thought it signalled the beginning of the reconquest. They expected Ilghazi to march on Antioch without delay, for the city now had neither prince nor army. Indeed, the Franj themselves were preparing for a siege. Their first decision was to disarm the Syrian, Armenian, and Greek Christians of the city and to forbid them to leave their homes, for the Franj feared that they would ally with theAleppans. Tension was running high between the Occidentals and their Oriental coreligionists, who complained that the former were contemptuous of their rites and had confined them to subordinate roles in their own city. But the precautions taken by the Franj proved unnecessary. Ilghazi did not even dream of pressing his advantage. Wallowing in drunkenness, he refused to leave the former residence of RiÃwÁn, where he seemed intent on celebrating his victory without end. So much fermented liquor did he consume that he was seized by a violent attack of fever. It took him twenty days to recover, just in time to be told that the army of Jerusalem, under the command of the new King Baldwin II, had that moment arrived in Antioch.

His health ruined by alcohol, Ilghazi died three years later, never having managed to exploit his success. The Aleppans were grateful to him for saving their city from the Frankish danger, but they were hardly distressed at his death, for they were already turning their attention to his successor, an exceptional man whose name was on everyone’s lips: Balak. He was Ilghazi’s nephew, but a man of quite another stamp. Within a few months he would become the adored hero of the Arab world, his exploits celebrated in the mosques and public squares.

In September 1122, through a brilliant manoeuvre, Balak succeeded in capturing Joscelin, who had replaced Baldwin II as count of Edessa. According to Ibn al-AthÐr, he wrapped him in a camel skin, had it sewn shut, and then, rejecting all offers of ransom, locked him in a fortress. Following the death of Roger of Antioch, a second Frankish state had now lost its leader. The king of Jerusalem, uneasy at these developments, decided to go north himself. Some knights of Edessa led him to the place where Joscelin had been seized, a swampy area alongside the Euphrates. After a quick reconnoitre, Baldwin II ordered the tents pitched for the night. The next day he rose early to take part in his favourite sport, falconry, which he had learned from Oriental princes. Suddenly Balak and his men, who had approached noiselessly, surrounded the camp. The king of Jerusalem threw down his arms. He, in turn, was taken into captivity.

In June 1123 Balak made a triumphant entrance into Aleppo, his prestige vastly inflated as a result of all these exploits. Following in Ilghazi’s footsteps, his first act was to marry the daughter of RiÃwÁn. Then, without suffering a single setback, he swiftly and systematically reconquered the Frankish possessions around the city. The military skill of this forty-year-old Turkish emir, his spirit of determination, his rejection of any compromise with the Franj, his sobriety, and finally, the roll of honour of his successive victories, were in sharp contrast to the disconcerting mediocrity of the other Muslim princes.

One city in particular saw him as its providential saviour: Tyre, to which the Franj had again laid siege despite the capture of their king. The defenders’ position proved far more delicate than it had been during their victorious resistance twelve years earlier, for this time the Occidentals had control of the seas. An impressive Venetian squadron comprising more than a hundred and twenty vessels had appeared off the Palestinian coast in the spring of 1123. The Egyptian fleet, lying at anchor in Ascalon, was taken by surprise and destroyed. In February 1124, after signing an agreement with Jerusalem on the division of the booty, the Venetians blockaded the port of Tyre, while the Frankish army pitched its camp to the east of the city. The outlook for the defenders was not encouraging. The Tyrians, of course, fought on obstinately. One night, for example, a group of accomplished swimmers slid up to a Venetian ship guarding the entrance to the port and managed to draw it to the city, where it was disarmed and destroyed. But despite such stunning operations, the chances of success were minimal. The debacle of the Fatimid fleet made any rescue from the sea impossible. Moreover, it was becoming difficult to supply the city with drinking water. Tyre—and this was its major weakness—had no source within its walls. In peacetime, water was brought in from outside through pipelines. In time of war, the city relied on its cisterns and on intensive provisioning by small boats. But the tight Venetian blockade made this impossible. If the vice was not loosened, the city would be forced to capitulate within a few months.

Since they expected nothing from their usual protectors the Egyptians, the defenders turned to the hero of the hour, Balak. The emir was then laying siege to a fortress called Manbij in the Aleppo region, where one of his vassals had rebelled. When the appeal from Tyre reached him, he immediately decided, according to KamÁl al-DÐn, to turn over command of the siege to one of his lieutenants and to go to Tyre’s rescue himself. On 6 May 1124 he made a last tour of inspection before setting out.

Helmeted and with his shield on his arm, the chronicler of Aleppo continues, Balak approached the fortress of Manbij to choose the site for the placement of his mangonels. As he was giving his orders, an arrow shot from the ramparts struck him under the left clavicle. He wrenched the shaft out himself and, spitting in the air in contempt, murmured, ÝThat blow will be fatal for all the Muslims.’ Then he fell dead.

Balak was right. When news of his death reached Tyre, the inhabitants lost heart. They now saw no course open to them but to negotiate the terms of their surrender. On 7 July 1124, Ibn al-QalÁnisi relates, they filed out of Tyre between the two ranks of soldiers, without being molested by the Franj. All soldiers and civilians left the city, in which only the infirm remained. Some of the exiles went to Damascus, while the others scattered through the countryside.

Although a bloodbath was thereby averted, the admirable resistance of Tyre nevertheless ended in humiliation.

The people of Tyre were not alone in suffering the consequences of Balak’s death. In Aleppo power fell to Timurtash, the son of Ilghazi, a young man of nineteen who, according to Ibn al-AthÐr, was interested only in having fun and was eager to leave Aleppo for his native city, Mardin, because he felt that there had been too many wars with the Franj in Syria. Not content merely to abandon his capital, the inept Timurtash hastened to release the king of Jerusalem in exchange for a ransom of twenty thousand dinars. He presented him with robes of honour, a gold helmet, and ornamented ankle boots, and even gave him back the horse he had been riding on the day of his capture. Princely behaviour no doubt, but completely irresponsible, since several weeks after his release, Baldwin II arrived at the gates of Aleppo with the firm intention of seizing it.

The defence of the city devolved entirely upon Ibn al-KhashÁb, who had only a few hundred armed men. When he saw thousands of enemy fighters deployed around his city, the qÁÃÐ dispatched a messenger to Ilghazi’s son. The emissary risked his life slipping through enemy lines by night. Upon his arrival in Mardin, he repaired to the emir’s dÐwÁn and insistently implored him not to abandon Aleppo. But Timurtash, as impudent as he was cowardly, found the messenger’s complaints annoying, and ordered him thrown into prison.

Ibn al-KhashÁb then turned to another potential saviour, al-Borsoki, an old Turkish officer who had just been named governor of Mosul. Renowned not only for his rectitude and religious zeal, but also for his political skill and ambition, al-Borsoki quickly accepted the qÁÃÐ’s invitation and set out forthwith. His arrival at the besieged city in January 1125 surprised the Franj, who fled, abandoning their tents. Ibn al-KhashÁb rushed out to meet al-Borsoki, urging him to pursue the fleeing Franj, but the emir was weary from his long ride, and more important, was impatient to visit his new possession. Like Ilghazi five years earlier, he dared not press his advantage, and thus allowed the enemy time to recover their wits. Nevertheless, his intervention assumed great significance, because the union of Aleppo and Mosul in 1125 became the nucleus of a powerful state that would soon be able to respond successfully to the arrogance of the Franj.

We now know that the astonishing perspicacity and tenacity of Ibn al-KhashÁb not only saved the city from occupation, but also contributed more than anything else to preparing the way for the great leaders of the jihÁd against the invaders. But the qÁÃÐwould not live to see these events. One day in the summer of 1125, as he was leaving the great mosque of Aleppo after the midday prayer, a man disguised as an ascetic leapt upon him and sunk a dagger into his chest. It was an act of revenge by the Assassins. Ibn al-KhashÁb had been the sect’s most intransigent opponent, had spilled buckets of its adherents’ blood, and had never repented of his actions. He must have known that some day he would pay with his life. For a third of a century, no enemy of the Assassins had ever managed to elude them.

This sect, the most terrifying ever seen, had been founded in 1090 by a man of immense culture, a devotee of poetry profoundly interested in the latest advances of science. Íasan Ibn al-ÑabbÁÎ was born around 1048 in the city of Rayy, close by the site where the town of Tehran would be founded a few dozen years later. Was he really, as legend claims, an inseparable companion of the young poet Omar Khayyam, himself a devotee of mathematics and astronomy? It is not known with certainty. On the other hand, the circumstances that led this brilliant man to dedicate his life to organizing his sect are known in detail.

At the time of Íasan’s birth, the ShiÝi doctrine, to which he adhered, was dominant in Muslim Asia. Syria belonged to the Fatimids of Egypt, and another ShiÝi dynasty, the Buwayhids, controlled Persia and dictated orders at will to the ÝAbbasid caliph in Baghdad itself. During Íasan’s youth, however, the situation was radically reversed. The Seljuks, upholders of Sunni orthodoxy, took control of the entire region. ShiÝism, triumphant only a short time before, was now only a barely tolerated, often persecuted, doctrine.

Íasan, who grew up in a milieu of religious Persians, was indignant at this state of affairs. Towards 1071 he decided to settle in Egypt, the last bastion of ShiÝism. But what he discovered in the land of the Nile was hardly cause for elation. The aged Fatimid caliph al-MustanÒir was even more of a puppet than his ÝAbbasid rival. He no longer dared even to leave his palace without the permission of his Armenian vizier, Badr al-JamÁlÐ, the father and predecessor of al-AfÃal. In Cairo Íasan met many religious fundamentalists who shared his apprehension and sought, like him, to reform the ShiÝi caliphate and to take revenge on the Seljuks.

A movement soon took shape, headed by NizÁr, the older son of the caliph. The Fatimid heir, as pious as he was courageous, had no intention of abandoning himself to the pleasures of the court, nor of acting as a puppet in the hands of some vizier. When his elderly father died, which could not now be long, he meant to succeed him and, with the aid of Íasan and his friends, to inaugurate a new golden age for the ShiÝis. A detailed plan was prepared, of which Íasan was the principal architect. The Persian militant would return to the heart of the Seljuk empire to pave the way for the reconquest that NizÁr would most assuredly undertake upon his accession to power.

Íasan succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, but by methods very different from those imagined by the virtuous NizÁr. In 1090 he took the fortress of AlamÙt by surprise. This bastion, the Ýeagle’s nest’, was situated in a practically inaccessible region of the Albruz Mountains near the Caspian Sea. Once he commanded this inviolable sanctuary, Íasan set about establishing a politico-religious organization whose effectiveness and spirit of discipline would be unequalled in all history.

All members, from novices to the grand master, were ranked according to their level of knowledge, reliability and courage. They underwent intensive courses of indoctrination as well as physical training. Íasan’s favourite technique for sowing terror among his enemies was murder. The members of the sect were sent individually—or more rarely, in small groups of two or three—on assignments to kill some chosen personality. They generally disguised themselves as merchants or ascetics and moved around in the city where the crime was to be perpetrated, familiarizing themselves with the habits of their victims. Then, once their plan was ready, they struck. Although the preparation was always conducted in the utmost secrecy, the execution had to take place in public, indeed before the largest possible crowd. That was why the preferred site was a mosque, the favourite day Friday, generally at noon. For Íasan, murder was not merely a means of disposing of an enemy, but was intended primarily as a twofold lesson for the public: first, the punishment of the victim and, second, the heroic sacrifice of the executioner, who was called fidÁ'Ð (plural: fidÁ'Ðn, or fedayeen), or Ýsuicide commando’, because he was almost always cut down on the spot.

The serenity with which the members of the sect accepted their own death led their contemporaries to believe that they were drugged with hashish, which is why they were called ÎashashÙn, or ÎashÐshÐn, a word that was distorted into ÝAssassin’ and soon incorporated into many languages as a common noun. The hypothesis is plausible, but like everything else to do with this sect, it is difficult to separate legend from reality. Did Íasan encourage the adherents to drug themselves so that they had a sense of being in paradise for a short time, which would thus encourage them to seek martyrdom? Or, more prosaically, was he trying to accustom them to a narcotic in order to keep them dependent on him? Was he simply urging them towards a state of euphoria so that they would not falter at the moment of the murder? Or did he instead rely on their blind faith? Whatever the answer, merely to list the hypotheses is to pay tribute to the exceptional organizer Íasan must have been.

Indeed, his success was stunning. The first murder, committed in 1092, two years after the sect was founded, was an epic unto itself. The Seljuks were at the apogee of their power. The pillar of their empire, the man who over thirty years had created a state out of the lands conquered by the Turkish warriors, the architect of the renaissance of Sunni power and of the struggle against ShiÝism, was an old vizier whose name itself evoked his deeds: NiÛÁm al-Mulk, or ÝOrder of the Realm’. On 14 October 1092 one of Íasan’s adherents killed him with a sword-stroke. When NiÛÁm al-Mulk was assassinated, Ibn al-AthÐr wrote, the state disintegrated. Indeed, the Seljuk empire never recovered its unity. Its history would now be punctuated not by further conquests, but by interminable wars of succession. ÝMission accomplished’, Íasan may well have told his comrades in Egypt. The read was now open to a Fatimid reconquest: it was up to NiÛÁr. In Cairo, however, the insurrection had run aground. al-AfÃal, who inherited the vizierate from his father in 1094, mercilessly crushed the associates of NizÁr, who was himself buried alive.

Íasan thus found himself in an unforeseen situation. He had not renounced his goal of reviving the ShiÝi caliphate, but he knew that it would take time. He therefore modified his strategy. While continuing to undermine official Islam and its religious and political representatives, he also tried to find a place where he could establish an autonomous fiefdom. What country offered better prospects for such a project than Syria, carved up as it was into a multitude of minuscule rival states? The sect had only to establish a base, to play one city against another, one emir against his brother, and it would survive until the Fatimid caliphate emerged from its torpor.

Íasan sent a Persian preacher into Syria, an enigmatic physician-astrologer’ who settled in Aleppo and managed to win the confidence of RiÃwÁn. Adherents began to converge on the city, to preach their doctrine, to form cells. To preserve the friendship of the Seljuk king, they agreed to do some small favours for him, in particular to assassinate some of his political opponents. Upon the death of the Ýphysician-astrologer’ in 1103, the sect immediately sent RiÃwÁn a new Persian adviser, AbÙ ÓÁhir, a goldsmith. His influence soon became more overwhelming than that of his predecessor. RiÃwÁn fell completely under his spell, and according to KamÁl al-DÐn, no Aleppan could obtain the slightest favour from the monarch or settle any administrative problem without dealingwith one of the innumerable members of the sect scattered through the king’s entourage.

But the Assassins were hated precisely because of their power. Ibn al-KhashÁb in particular relentlessly demanded an end to their activities. He detested them not only for the way they bought and sold influence, but also and above all for their alleged sympathy for the Western invaders. However paradoxical it may seem, the accusation was justified. When the Franj arrived, the Assassins, who had barely begun to settle in Syria, were called BÁÔinis, Ýthose who adhere to a faith other than that which they profess in public’. The appellation suggested that the adherents were Muslims only in appearance. The ShiÝis, like Ibn al-KhashÁb, had no sympathy for the disciples of Íasan because of their break with the Fatimid caliphate, which, however weak, remained the formal protector of the ShiÝis of the Arab world.

Detested and persecuted by all Muslims, the Assassins were not displeased at the arrival of a Christian army that was inflicting one defeat after another on both the Seljuks and al-AfÃal, the murderer of NizÁr. There is no doubt that RiÃwÁn’s outrageously conciliatory attitude toward the Occidentals was due in large part to the counsel of the BÁÔinis.

As far as Ibn al-KhashÁb was concerned, the connivance between the Assassins and the Franj amounted to treason. He acted accordingly. During the massacres that followed RiÃwÁn’s death at the end of 1113, the BÁÔinis were tracked down street by street and house by house. Some were lynched by mobs, others leapt to their death from the ramparts of the city walls. Nearly two hundred members of the sect perished in this manner, among them AbÙ ÓÁhir the goldsmith. Nevertheless, Ibn al-QalÁnisi reports thatseveral managed to flee and sought refuge among the Franj or dispersed in the countryside.

Even though Ibn al-KhashÁb had thus deprived the Assassins of their major bastion in Syria, their astonishing career had only just begun. Drawing lessons from their failure, the sect altered its tactics. Íasan’s new envoy to Syria, a Persian propagandist by the name of Bahram, decided to call a temporary halt to all spectacular actions and to return to careful and discreet organization and infiltration.

Bahram, the Damascene chronicler relates, lived in the greatest secrecy and seclusion, changing his dress and appearance so cleverly that he moved through the cities and strongholds without anyone suspecting his identity.

Within a few weeks, he had organized a network powerful enough to contemplate emerging from clandestinity. He found an excellent protector in RiÃwÁn’s replacement.

One day, says Ibn al-QalÁnisi, Bahram arrived in Damascus, where the atabeg Tughtigin received him quite correctly, as a precaution against his misdeeds and those of his gang. He was shown great respect and assured of vigilant protection. The second-ranking personality of the Syrian metropolis, the vizier ÓÁhir al-MazdaghÁni, came to an understanding with Bahram, although he did not belong to the sect, and helped him to plant the snares of his malfeasance wherever he willed.

In fact, despite the death of Íasan Ibn al-ÑabbÁÎ in his AlamÙt retreat in 1124, there was a sharp recrudescence of the activity of the Assassins. The murder of Ibn al-KhashÁb was not an isolated act. A year later, another Ýturbaned resister’ of the first importance fell under their blows. All the chroniclers relate his assassination with the utmost solemnity, for the man who, in August 1099, had led the first manifestation of popular outrage against the Frankish invasion had become one of the Muslim world’s leading religious authorities. It was announced from Iraq that the qÁÃÐ of qÁÃÐs of Baghdad, the splendour of Islam, AbÙ ÒaÝad al-Íarawi, had been attacked by BÁÔinis in the great mosque of HamadÁn. They had stabbed him to death and fled immediately, leaving no clue or trace behind them. So great was the fear they inspired that no one dared pursue them. The crime aroused great indignation in Damascus, where al-Íarawi had lived for many years. The activities of the Assassins were by now provoking mounting hostility, especially in religious circles. The best of the faithful were furious, but they held their tongue, because the BÁÔinis had begun killing those who resisted them and supporting those who approved their aberrations. No one dared to criticize them publicly, neither emir, nor vizier, nor sultan.

This terror was understandable. On 26 November 1126 al-Borsoki himself, the powerful master of Aleppo and Mosul, suffered the terrible vengeance of the Assassins.

And yet, wrote Ibn al-QalÁnisi in astonishment, the emir had been on his guard. He wore a coat of mail that could not be penetrated by sabre or knife-blade, and he was always surrounded by soldiers armed to the teeth. But there is no escape from fate. Al-Borsoki had gone, as usual, to the great mosque of Mosul to say his Friday prayers. The scoundrels were there, dressed as Sufis, praying in a corner without arousing any suspicion. Suddenly they leapt upon him and struck him several blows, though without piercing his coat of mail. When the Bặtinis saw that the daggers had not harmed the emir, one of them cried: ÝStrike high, at his head!’ They struck him in the throat and knife thrusts rained down upon him. Al-Borsoki died a martyr, and his murderers were put to death.

Never had the threat represented by the Assassins been so serious. They were no longer simply pests, but had become a plague torturing the Arab world at a time when all its energies were required to confront the Frankish occupation. Moreover, the skein of killings was not yet fully unravelled. A few months after the death of al-Borsoki, his son, who had just succeeded him, was in turn assassinated. Four rival emirs then contended for power in Aleppo, and Ibn al-KhashÁb was no longer on the scene to maintain a minimum of cohesion. In autumn 1127, as the city sank into anarchy, the Franj reappeared at the walls. Antioch had a new prince, the young son of the great Bohemond, a huge blond man of eighteen who had just arrived from his homeland to take possession of the familial heritage. He bore his father’s first name and also possessed his impetuous character. The Aleppans lost no time in paying tribute to him, and the most defeatist already saw him as the future conqueror of their city.

The situation in Damascus was no less tragic. The atabeg Tughtigin, ageing and sick, no longer exercised the slightest control over the Assassins. They had their own armed militia, the city administration was in their hands, and the vizier al-MazdaghÁni, who was devoted to them body and soul, had established close contacts with Jerusalem. For his part, Baldwin II made no secret of his intention to crown his career by taking the Syrian metropolis. Only the presence of the aged Tughtigin seemed still to prevent the Assassins from handing the city over to the Franj. But the reprieve was to be brief. By early 1128 the atabeg was visibly wasting away and could no longer rise from his bed. Plots were being hatched at his bedside. He finally expired on 12 February, after designating his son BÙri as his successor. The Damascenes were convinced that the fall of their city was now only a matter of time.

Discussing this critical period of Arab history a century later, Ibn al-AthÐr would write with good reason:

With the death of Tughtigin, the last man capable of confronting the Franj was gone. The latter then seemed in a position to occupy all of Syria. But God in his infinite kindness took pity on the Muslims.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!