Secret Societies of the Middle Ages - Thomas Keightly

A6. Affairs of the Society in Persia

Keah Buzoorg Oomeid—They acquire the Castle of Banias, in Syria—Attempt to betray Damascus to the Crusaders—Murders committed during the reign of Keah Buzoorg.

Keah Buzoorg Oomeid trod faithfully in the footprints of his predecessor. He built the strong fortress of Maimoondees, and he made the enemies of the society feel that it was still animated by the spirit of Hassan Sabah. Sultan Sanjar, who, on account of the favourable terms on which he had made peace with the Assassins, was regarded by the rigidly orthodox as a secret follower of their doctrine, declared himself once more their open enemy, and sent an army to ravage Kirdkoh. These troops were defeated by those which Keah sent against them; but the following year Sanjar put to the sword a great number of the members of the sect. The dagger, as usual, retaliated. Mahmood, the successor of Sanjar, having first tried in vain the effect of arms, sent his grand falconer Berenkesh to Alamoot, to desire that an envoy might be sent to him to treat of peace. The Khojah (Master) Mohammed Nassihi accompanied Berenkesh back to court, and kissed the hand of the sultan, who spoke to him a few words about the peace; but as the Khojah was going out of the palace, he and his followers were fallen upon and massacred by the people.

When the sultan sent an ambassador to Alamoot to exculpate himself from the guilt of participation in this violation of the laws of nations, Keah made answer, "Go back to the sultan, and tell him, in my name, Mohammed Nassihi trusted to your perfidious assurances, and repaired to your court; if you speak truly, deliver up the murderers to justice; if not, expect my vengeance." On the refusal of the sultan to surrender the murderers, a corps of Assassins appeared at the gates of Casveen, slew 400 men, and led away 3,000 sheep, 200 horses, and 200 oxen. Next year the sultan took, and retained for a short time, the fortress of Alamoot; but a body of 2,000 men which he sent against Lamseer fled, without drawing a sword, when they heard that the Refeek (Companions) of the society were marching against them. Shortly afterwards the sultan died, and the Assassins made another incursion into the district of Casveen, where they carried off booty and prisoners.

The mountain chief would tolerate no rival near his throne. Hearing that one Aboo Hashem, a descendant of Ali, had arrogated to himself the dignity of imam in the province of Ghilan, which lies north of Kuhistan, and had issued letters calling on the people to acknowledge him, Keah wrote to him to desist from his pretensions. The self-appointed imam only replied by reviling the odious tenets of the Ismailites. The sheikh forthwith sent a body of his troops against him, took him prisoner, and, after trying him by a court-martial, committed him to the flames.

Though, as we have seen, the settlements of the Assassins were in the mountainous region of Irak, in the north-west of Persia, their power was of such a nature that no distance was a security against it. A Fedavee could speedily traverse the intervening regions to plant his dagger in the bosom of any prince or minister who had incurred the vengeance of the Sheikh-al-Jebal. Accordingly we find the shah (King) of Khaurism, between which and Irak lies the extensive province of Khorasan, coming to Sultan Massood, the successor of Mahmood, to concert with him a plan for the destruction of these formidable foes to princes. The shah of Khaurism had been formerly rather disposed to favour the Ismailites, but his eyes were now opened, and he was become their most inveterate enemy. Sultan Massood, we know not for what reason, bestowed on him the lands which Berenkesh, the grand falconer, had held of the sultan. Berenkesh, mortally offended at this unworthy treatment, retired, with his family, to the territory of the Ismailites, and sought the protection of Keah, whose open enemy he had hitherto been. Policy, or a regard to good faith and humanity, made the Assassin prince grant the protection which was required; and when the shah of Khaurism wrote, reminding Keah of his own former friendship, and the bitter hostility of Berenkesh, and requesting him, on that plea, to give up the fugitive, the sheikh replied, "The shah of Khaurism speaks true, but we will never give up our suppliants." Long and bloody enmity between the sheikh and the shah was the consequence of this refusal to violate the rights of hospitality.

The Syrian branch of the society begins at this time to attract rather more attention than that of Persia, chiefly on account of its connexion with the Crusaders, who had succeeded in establishing an empire extending from the frontiers of Egypt to those of Armenia. A Persian Ismailite, named Behram of Astrabad, who is said to have commenced his career by the murder of his own father, gained the confidence of the vizir of the prince of Damascus, who gave him the castle of Banias, or Panias (the ancient Balanea), for the use of the society. This place, which became the nucleus of the power of the Assassins in Syria, lies in a fertile, well-watered plain, about 4,000 paces from the sea. The valley whence the numerous streams which fructify it issue is called the Wadi-al-Jinn (Valley of Demons), "a place," observes Hammer, whom no casual coincidence escapes, "from its very name worthy of becoming a settlement of the Assassins." From Banias they extended their power over the neighbouring castles and fortresses, until, twelve years afterwards, the seat of dominion was transferred thence to Massyat.

Behram fell shortly afterwards in an engagement against the people of the valley of Taim, the brother of whose chief had perished by the daggers of the Assassins. His successor was Ismail, a Persian, who continued the bond of amity with the vizir of Damascus, whither he sent, by way of resident, a man named, rather inappropriately as it would appear, Aboo-'l-Wefa (Father of Fidelity). This man so won the favour of the vizir and prince that he was appointed to the office of Hakem, or supreme judge; and having thus acquired power and influence, he immediately turned his thoughts to the best mode of employing them for the advantage of the society, an object always near the heart of a true Ismailite. A place of strength on the sea-coast would, he conceived, be of the utmost importance to them; so he fixed his eyes upon Tyre, and fell upon the following expedient to obtain possession of it.

The Franks had been now upwards of thirty years established in the East. Their daring and enthusiastic valour was at once the dread and the admiration of their Mussulman foes, and feats almost surpassing the fables of the romances of chivalry had been performed by their gallant warriors. These were the auxiliaries to whom Aboo-'l-Wefa directed his attention; for we are to observe that as yet the fanatic spirit had not united all the Moslems in enmity against the followers of the Cross, and the princes of Aleppo, Damascus, and the other districts of Syria, had been more than once in alliance with the Christian realms of Jerusalem and Antioch. Aboo-'l-Wefa sent therefore and concluded a secret treaty with Baldwin II., king of Jerusalem, in which he engaged, if the Christian warriors would secretly march and appear before Damascus on a Friday, when the emir and his officers would be at the mosk, to give them possession of the gates of the town. The king was in return to put Tyre into the hands of the Ismailites.

The Christian army was assembled; all the barons of the kingdom appeared in arms; the king in person led the host; the newly-formed military order of the Templars displayed for the first time in the field their striped banner Beauseant, afterwards so well known in many a bloody fray. Prince Bernard of Antioch, Count Pontius of Tripolis, the brave Joscelin of Edessa, led their knights and footmen to share in the capture of the wealthy city of Damascus. The mountains which environ Lake Tiberias were left behind, and the host joyfully emerged into the plain watered by the streams Abana and Pharpar. But here defeat awaited them. Taj-al-Molook (Diadem of Kings) Boozi, the emir of Damascus, had in time discovered the plot of his hakem. He had put him and the vizir to death, and had ordered a general massacre of the Ismailites in the city. The Christian army was now at a place named Marj Safar, and the footmen had begun to plunder the villages for food, when a small body of gallant Damascene warriors rushed from the town and fell upon them. The defenceless Christians sank beneath their blows, incapable of resistance. The rest of the army advanced to aid or avenge their brethren, when suddenly the sky became overcast, thick darkness enveloped all objects, the thunder roared, the lightning flashed, the rain poured down in torrents, and, by a rapid transition, peculiar to Eastern climates, the rain and waters turned into snow and ice, and augmented the horrors of the day. The superstitious and conscience-stricken Crusaders viewed in this awful phenomenon the immediate agency of heaven, and deemed it to be sent as a punishment for their sins; and, recollecting that on that very spot but four years before King Baldwin had gained, with a handful of men, a victory over an army of the Damascenes, they were plunged into grief and humiliation. The only advantage which they derived from this expedition was the acquisition of the castle of Banias, which the Ismailite governor put into their hands, that under their protection he might escape the fate of his brethren.

Banias was given up to the Christians in the same year in which Alamoot was taken by the Seljookian sultan, and thus the power of the Assassins seemed to be almost gone. But it had in it a conservative principle, and, hydra-like, it grew by its wounds. Alamoot was speedily recovered, and three years afterwards Banias was once more the seat of a Dai-al-Kebir. At the same time the dagger raged with unwonted fury against all of whom the society stood in apprehension, and the annals of the reign of Keah Buzoorg Oomeid furnish a list of illustrious victims.

The first of these was the celebrated Aksunkur, Prince of Mossul, a warrior equally dreaded by the Christians and by the Assassins. As this prince, on his return from Maarra Mesrin, where the Moslem and Christian hosts had parted without venturing to engage, entered the mosk at Mossul to perform his devotions, he was attacked at the moment when he was about to take his usual seat by eight assassins, disguised as dervishes. Three of them fell beneath the blows of the valiant emir, but ere his people could come to his aid he had received his death-wound and expired. The remainder of the murderers became victims to the vengeance of the people; one youth only escaped. The Arabian historian, Kemal-ed-Deen, relates on this occasion a curious trait of the fanaticism and Spartan spirit which animated the members of the sect of the Ismailites. When the mother of the youth above-mentioned heard that the formidable Aksunkur had been slain, she painted her face and put on her gayest raiment and ornaments, rejoicing that her son had been found worthy to die the glorious death of a martyr in the cause of the Imam. But when she saw him return alive and unscathed, she cut off her hair and blackened her countenance, and would not be comforted.

In the following year (1127) fell Moin-ed-deen, the vizir of Sultan Sanjar. In this case the Assassin had engaged himself as a groom in the service of the vizir. As Moin-ed-deen went one day into the stable to look at his horses the Assassin appeared before him, stripped, and holding one of the horses by the bridle. As the vizir, unsuspicious of danger, came near where he was, the false groom made the horse rear, and, under the pretence of soothing and pacifying the restive animal, he took out a small dagger which he had concealed in the horse's mane, and plunged it into the bosom of the vizir.

The slaughter of the Ismailites by the Prince of Damascus was not forgotten, and two years afterwards he received two dagger wounds, one of which proved mortal. Their vengeance was not appeased by his blood, and his son and successor, Shems-al-Molook (Sun of Kings), perished by a conspiracy with the guilt of which the Assassins were charged. In the catalogue of the victims of this period appear also the names of the Judges of the East and of the West, of the Mufti of Casveen, of the Reis of Isfahan, and the Reis of Tebreez.

The East has been at all times prolific of crime; human life is not there held to be of the value at which it is estimated in Europe; and the dagger and poison are freely employed to remove objects of apprehension, to put obstacles out of the way of ambition, or to satiate the thirst of vengeance. We are not, therefore, lightly to give credit to every charge made against the Assassins, and to believe them guilty of murders from which they had no advantage to derive. Thus, when at this time the Fatimite Khalif Amir bi-ahkami-llah (Commander of the observance of the laws of God) fell by the hands of murderers, the probability is that he was not a victim to the vengeance of the Ismailite society, whom he had never injured, but rather to that of the family of the powerful vizir Afdal, who had been assassinated some time before by the khalif's order, as we have every reason to suppose.

With a greater show of reason may the murder of Mostarshed, the Khalif of Bagdad, be imputed to the policy of the mountain chief. The Seljookian princes, the predecessors of Massood, had been satisfied to exercise all real power in the empire which had once obeyed the house of Abbas, leaving to that feeble Shadow of God upon Earth the unsubstantial privilege of having the coin of the realm struck and prayers offered on Friday in the mosk in his name. But Massood arrogated even these rights to himself, and the helpless successor of the Prophet was obliged to submit to the indignity which he could not prevent. At length some discontented military chiefs passed with their troops over to the khalif, and persuaded him that by one bold effort he might overthrow the might of the Turkish sultan, and recover all his rights. The khalif listened to their arguments, and, placing himself at the head of an army, marched against Sultan Massood. But fortune proved adverse to him. At the first shock the greater part of the troops of Bagdad abandoned him, and he remained a captive in the hands of the sultan, who brought him with him a prisoner to Maragha. Here a treaty was concluded between them, and the khalif bound himself not to go any more outside of the walls of Bagdad, and annually to pay a sum of money. This treaty appears to have been displeasing to the Assassins; and, watching their opportunity, when Massood was gone to meet the ambassadors of Sultan Sanjar, a party of them fell upon and massacred the khalif and his train. The lifeless body of the Commander of the Faithful was mangled by them in the most scandalous manner.

After a blood-stained reign of fourteen years and three days Keah Buzoorg Oomeid died. Departing from the maxims of Hassan Sabah, who it is probable wished to imitate the conduct of the Prophet, and leave the supreme dignity elective, he appointed his own son, Keah Mohammed, to be his successor, induced either by paternal partiality, or believing him to be the person best qualified for the office.