Secret Societies of the Middle Ages - Thomas Keightly

A9. Sinan the Dai-Al-Kebir of Syria

Sinan the Dai-al-Kebir of Syria—Offers to become a Christian—His Ambassador murdered by the Templars—Cardinal de Vitry's Account of the Assassins—Murder of the Marquis of Montferrat—Defence of King Richard.

The person who had the chief direction of the affairs of the society in Syria in the time of Saladin was one of the most remarkable characters which appear in the history of the Assassins. His name was Rasheed-ed-deen (Orthodox in Religion) Sinan, the son of Suleiman of Basra. Like so many others of the impostors who have appeared from time to time in the east, he had the audacity to give himself out for an incarnation of the Divinity. No one ever saw him eat, drink, sleep, or even spit. His clothing was of coarse hair-cloth. From the rising to the setting of the sun he stood upon a lofty rock, preaching to the people, who received his words as those of a superior being. Unfortunately for his credit, his auditors at length discovered that he had a halt in his gait, caused by a wound which he received from a stone in the great earthquake of 1157. This did not accord with the popular idea of the perfection which should belong to the corporeal vehicle of Divinity. The credit of Sinan vanished at once, and those who had just been adoring the god now threatened to take the life of the impostor. Sinan lost not his self-possession; he calmly entreated them to be patient, descended from his rock, caused food to be brought, invited them to eat, and by the persuasive powers of his eloquence induced them to recognise him as their sole chief, and all unanimously swore obedience and fidelity to him.

The neglect of chronology by the oriental historians, or their European translators and followers, is frequently such that we are left in great uncertainty as to the exact time of particular events, and are thus unable to trace them to their real causes and occasions. The mention of the earthquake of 1157 would however seem to make it probable that it was about that time that Sinan put forward his claims to divinity; and as, at that very period, Hassan, the son of Keah Mohammed, was giving himself out for the promised imam, we may suppose that it was his example which stimulated Sinan to his bold attempt at obtaining independent dominion over the Syrian branch of the Ismailites.

Sinan was, like Hassan, a man of considerable learning. His works are held in high estimation by the remains of the sect of the Ismailites still lingering among the mountains of Syria. These works, we are told, consist of a chaotic mixture of mutilated passages of the Gospel and the Koran, of contradictory articles of belief, of hymns, prayers, sermons, and regulations, which are unintelligible even to those who receive and venerate them.

The sacred books of the Christians formed, as we see, a part of the studies of the Sheikh of Massyat, and, as it would appear, he thought he might derive some advantage from his acquaintance with them. The religio-military society of the Knights of the Temple, whose history we shall soon have to record, had possessions in the neighbourhood of those of the Assassins, and their superior power had enabled them, at what time is uncertain, to render the latter tributary. The tribute was the annual sum of 2,000 ducats, and Sinan, to whom probably all religions were alike, and who had unbounded power over the minds of his people, conceived the idea of releasing himself from it by professing the same religion with his neighbours. He accordingly sent, in the year 1172, one of his most prudent and eloquent ministers on a secret embassy to Amalric King of Jerusalem, offering, in the name of himself and his people, to embrace the Christian religion, and receive the rite of baptism, provided the king would engage to make the Templars renounce the tribute of 2,000 ducats, and agree to live with them henceforward as good neighbours and friends and brethren. Overjoyed at the prospect of making converts of such importance, the king readily assented to the desires of the Ismailite chief, and he at the same time assured the Templars that their house should not be a loser, as he would pay them 2,000 ducats annually out of his treasury. The brethren of the Temple made no objection to the arrangement: and after the Ismailite ambassador had been detained and treated honourably for some days by the king, he set out on his return, accompanied by a guide and escort sent by the king to conduct him as far as the borders of the Ismailite territory. They passed in safety through the country of Tripolis, and were now in the vicinity of the first castles of the Ismailites, when suddenly some Templars rushed forth from an ambush, and murdered the ambassador. The Templars were commanded by a knight named Walter du Mesnil, a one-eyed, daring, wicked man, but who, on this occasion, it would appear, acted by the orders of his superiors, who probably did not consider the royal promise good security for the 2,000 ducats; for, when Amalric, filled with indignation at the base and perfidious action, assembled his barons at Sidon to deliberate on what should be done, and by their advice sent two of their number to Ado de St. Amand, the Master of the Temple, to demand satisfaction for the iniquitous deed, the master contented himself by saying that he had imposed a penance on brother Du Mesnil, and had moreover directed him to proceed to Rome without delay, to know what farther the apostolic father would order him to do, and that, on this account he must, in the name of the pope, prohibit any violence against the aforesaid brother. The king, however, was not regardless of justice and of his own dignity. Shortly afterwards, when the master and several of the Templars were at Sidon, he assembled his council again, and, with their consent, sent and dragged Du Mesnil from the house of the Templars, and threw him into prison, where he would probably have expiated his crime but for the speedy death of the king. All hopes of the conversion of the Ismailites were now at an end.

It is on this occasion that the Archbishop of Tyre gives an account of what he had been able to learn respecting the Assassins. As what we have previously related of them has been exclusively drawn from eastern sources, it will not be useless to insert in this place the accounts of them given by the Cardinal de Vitry, who has followed and enlarged the sketch of the archbishop.

"In the province of Phoenicia, near the borders of the Antaradensian town which is now called Tortosa, dwells a certain people, shut in on all sides by rocks and mountains, who have ten castles, very strong and impregnable, by reason of the narrow ways and inaccessible rocks, with their suburbs and the valleys, which are most fruitful in all species of fruits and corn, and most delightful for their amenity. The number of these men, who are called Assassins, is said to exceed 40,000. They set a captain over themselves, not by hereditary succession, but by the prerogative of merit, whom they call the Old Man (Veterem seu Senem), not so much on account of his advanced age as for his pre-eminence in prudence and dignity. The first and principal abbot of this unhappy religion of theirs, and the place where they had their origin and whence they came to Syria, is in the very remote parts of the east, near the city of Bagdad and the parts of the province of Persia. These people, who do not divide the hoof, nor make a difference between what is sacred and what is profane, believe that all obedience indifferently shown by them towards their superior is meritorious for eternal life. Hence they are bound to their master, whom they call the Old Man, with such a bond of subjection and obedience that there is nothing so difficult or so dangerous that they would fear to undertake, or which they would not perform with a cheerful mind and ardent will, at the command of their lord. The Old Man, their lord, causes boys of this people to be brought up in secret and delightful places, and having had them diligently trained and instructed in the different kinds of languages, sends them to various provinces with daggers, and orders them to slay the great men of the Christians, as well as of the Saracens, either because he is at enmity with them for some cause or other, or at the request of his friends, or even for the lucre of a large sum of money which has been given him, promising them, for the execution of this command, that they shall have far greater delights, and without end, in paradise, after death, than even those amidst which they had been reared. If they chance to die in this act of obedience they are regarded as martyrs by their companions, and being placed by that people among their saints, are held in the greatest reverence. Their parents are enriched with many gifts by the master, who is called the Old Man, and if they were slaves they are let go free ever after. Whence these wretched and misguided youths, who are sent from the convent (conventu) of the aforesaid brethren to different parts of the world, undertake their deadly legation with such joy and delight, and perform it with such diligence and solicitude, transforming themselves in various ways, and assuming the manners and dress of other nations, sometimes concealing themselves under the appearance of merchants, at other times under that of priests and monks, and in an infinity of other modes, that there is hardly any person in the whole world so cautious as to be able to guard against their machinations. They disdain to plot against an inferior person. The great men to whom they are hostile either redeem themselves by a large sum of money, or, going armed and attended by a body of guards, pass their life in suspicion and in dread of death. They kept the law of Mahomet and his institutions diligently and straitly beyond all other Saracens till the times of a certain master of theirs, who, being endowed with natural genius, and exercised in the study of different writings, began with all diligence to read and examine the law of the Christians and the Gospels of Christ, admiring the virtue of the miracles, and the sanctity of the doctrine. From a comparison with these he began to abominate the frivolous and irrational doctrine of Mahomet, and at length, when he knew the truth, he studied to recall his subjects by degrees from the rites of the cursed law. Wherefore he exhorted and commanded them that they should drink wine in moderation and eat the flesh of swine. At length, after many discourses and serious admonitions of their teacher, they all with one consent agreed to renounce the perfidy of Mahomet, and, by receiving the grace of baptism, to become Christians."

We may, from this account, perceive that the Crusaders had a tolerably clear idea of the nature and constitution of the society of the Assassins. The Cardinal de Vitry plainly describes them as forming a religion, that is, an order under an abbot; and perhaps the resemblance which Hammer traces between them and the Templars, which we shall notice when we come to speak of this last society, is not quite so fanciful as it might at first sight appear. It is curious, too, to observe that the Christians also believed that the Sheikh-al-Jebal had some mode of inspiring the Fedavee with a contempt of life and an aspiration after the joys of paradise.

The dagger had not been unsheathed against the Christian princes since, forty-two years before (1149), Raymond, the young Count of Tripolis, was murdered as he knelt at his devotions, and the altar was sprinkled with his blood. A more illustrious victim was now to bleed; and, as the question of who was the real author of his death forms a curious historical problem, we shall here discuss it at some length.

Conrad Marquis of Montferrat, a name celebrated in the history of the third crusade, had just been named King of Jerusalem by Richard Lion-heart King of England. In the latter end of the month of April 1192 the marquis, being at Tyre, went to dine with the Bishop of Beauvais. One writer says that, the marchioness having stayed too long in the bath, and the marquis being averse to dining alone, he mounted his horse and rode to dine with the Bishop; but, finding that that prelate had already finished his meal, he was returning home to his palace. As he passed through a narrow street, and was come near the toll-house, two Assassins, having watched their opportunity, approached him. The one presented a petition, and, while he was engaged reading it, both struck him with their daggers, crying, "Thou shalt be neither marquis nor king." One of them was cut down instantly, the other sought refuge in a neighbouring church, and, according to an Arabian historian, when the wounded marquis was brought into the same church, he rushed on him anew, and completed his crime. Others relate that the marquis was carried home to his palace, where he lived long enough to receive the holy sacrament and to give his last instructions to his wife. The two accounts, we may perceive, are by no means repugnant.

These Assassins, who were both youths, had been for some time—six months it is said—in Tyre, watching for an opportunity to perform the commission which had been given them. They had feigned a conversion from Islam, or, as some say, had assumed the habit of monks, in order to win the confidence of the marquis, and thus procure more ready access to him. One of them, we are told, had even entered his service, and the other that of Balian of Ibelin.

The question now comes, at whose instigation was the murder committed? Here we find several both oriental and occidental witnesses disposed to lay the guilt on Richard, King of England, those writers who were his own subjects indignantly repelling the accusation, and some indifferent witnesses testifying in his favour. Previous to examining these witnesses we must state that king Richard was at enmity with Philip Augustus, King of France; that though he had given the crown of Jerusalem to the Marquis of Montferrat, there was little kind feeling between them, and they had been enemies; and, finally, that the history of the English monarch exhibits no traits of such a generous chivalrous disposition as should put him beyond suspicion of being concerned in an assassination.

Of the writers who charge king Richard with the murder it is to be observed that the only ones that are contemporary are the Arabian historians. The following passage is quoted from the History of Jerusalem and Hebron, by Hammer, who regards it as quite decisive of the guilt of the English king:—"The marquis went, on the 13th of the month Rebi-al-Ewal, to visit the Bishop of Tyre. As he was going out he was attacked by two Assassins, who slew him with their daggers. When taken and stretched on the rack, they confessed that they had been employed by the King of England. They died under the torture." Boha-ed-deen, the friend and biographer of Saladin, writes to the same effect. It is therefore evident that, at the time, it was reported that the marquis had been murdered by persons employed by the King of England; and Vinisauf and the other English writers assure us that the French party and the friends of the murdered marquis endeavoured to throw the odium of the deed on king Richard. As that mode of getting rid of an enemy was far too familiar in the east, it was natural enough that the Arabian writers should adopt the report without much inquiry. This consideration alone ought very much to invalidate their testimony. Some German chroniclers also, following the reports which were industriously spread to the disadvantage of the English king at the time he was a prisoner in Austria, did not hesitate to accuse him of the murder of the marquis; but, as has been justly observed, these, as well as the preceding, were either partial or at a distance.

In opposition to these assertions, we have the unanimous testimony of all the English writers, such as Vinisauf (the companion and historian of king Richard's crusade), Hoveden, Brompton, William of Newbridge. The Syrian bishop, Aboo-'l-Faraj, mentions the report of the Assassin who was put to the rack having laid the guilt on king Richard, but adds that the truth came afterwards to light. Hugo Plagon, a judicious and impartial writer, so far from imputing the death of the marquis to king Richard, assigns the cause which moved the Assassin prince to order the death of the marquis, namely, the same which we shall presently see stated in the letter ascribed to the Old Man of the Mountain. Rigord, who wrote the history of Philip Augustus, does not by any means impute the murder of the marquis to king Richard, though he says that while Philip was at Pontoise letters were brought to him from beyond sea, warning him to be on his guard, as Assassins (Arsacidae) had been sent, at the suggestion and command of the King of England, to kill him, "for at that time they had slain the king's kinsman, the marquis." Philip, in real, but more probably feigned alarm, immediately surrounded his person with a guard of serjeants-at-mace. The Arabic historian, Ebn-el-Athir, the friend of Saladin, says that the sultan had agreed with the Old Man of the Mountain, for a sum of 10,000 pieces of gold, to deliver him of both king Richard and the marquis, but that Sinan, not thinking it to be for his interest to relieve the sultan of the English king, had taken the money and only put the marquis out of the way. This narrative is wholly improbable, for treachery was surely no part of the character of Saladin; but it serves to prove the impartiality which is so justly ascribed to the Arabic writers in general. The testimony of Abulfeda is as follows: "And in it (the year of the Hejra 588, or A.D. 1192,) was slain the Marquis, Lord of Soor (or Tyre); may God, whose name be exalted, curse him! A Batinee, or Assassin (in one copy Batinees), who had entered Soor in the disguise of a monk, slew him."

We thus see that the evidence in favour of the King of England greatly preponderates, not a single writer who was on the spot laying the murder to his charge; on the contrary, those who had the best means of being informed treated the imputation with contempt, as a base calumny devised by the French party. But there is a still more illustrious witness in his behalf, if the testimony ascribed to him be genuine—the Old Man of the Mountain himself. Brompton gives two letters purporting to have been written by this personage, the one to the Duke of Austria, the other to the princes and people of Europe in general. The latter is also given by William of Newbridge, with some variation. Both have been admitted by Rymer into his Foedera. Gibbon, who seems to have known only the last, pronounces it to be an "absurd and palpable forgery." Hammer, whose arguments we shall presently consider, undertakes to demonstrate that these epistles are forgeries. Raumer, more prudently, only says that this last is not genuine in its present form.

The following are translations of these documents:—

"The Old Man of the Mountain to Limpold, Duke of Austria, greeting. Since several kings and princes beyond sea accuse Richard, King of England, and lord, of the death of the marquis, I swear by the God who reigneth for ever, and by the law which we hold, that he had no guilt in his death; for the cause of the death of the marquis was as follows.

"One of our brethren was coming in a ship from Satelia (Salteleya) to our parts, and a tempest chancing to drive him to Tyre the marquis had him taken and slain, and seized a large sum of money which he had with him. But we sent our messengers to the marquis, requiring him to restore to us the money of our brother, and to satisfy us respecting the death of our brother, which he laid upon Reginald, the Lord of Sidon, and we exerted ourselves through our friends till we knew of a truth that it was he himself who had had him put to death, and had seized his money.

"And again we sent to him another of our messengers, named Eurisus, whom he was minded to fling into the sea; but our friends made him depart with speed out of Tyre, and he came to us quickly and told us these things. From that very hour we were desirous to slay the marquis; then also we sent two brethren to Tyre, who slew him openly, and as it were before all the people of Tyre.

"This, then, was the cause of the death of the marquis; and we say to you in truth that the lord Richard, King of England, had no guilt in this death of the marquis, and these who on account of this have done evil to the lord King of England have done it unjustly and without cause.

"Know for certain that we kill no man in this world for any hire or money, unless he has first done us evil.

"And know that we have executed these letters in our house at our castle of Messiat, in the middle of September. In the year from Alexander M. D. & V."

"The Old Man of the Mountain to the princes of Europe and all the Christian people, greeting.

"We would not that the innocence of any one should suffer by reason of what we have done, since we never do evil to any innocent and guiltless person; but those who have transgressed against us we do not, with God to aid, long suffer to rejoice in the injuries done to our simplicity.

"We therefore signify to the whole of you, testifying by him through whom we hope to be saved, that that Marquis of Montferrat was slain by no machination of the King of England, but he justly perished, by our will and command, by our satellites, for that act in which he transgressed against us, and which, when admonished, he had neglected to amend. For it is our custom first to admonish those who have acted injuriously in anything to us or our friends to give us satisfaction, which if they despise, we take care to take vengeance with severity by our ministers, who obey us with such devotion that they do not doubt but that they shall be gloriously rewarded by God if they die in executing our command.

"We have also heard that it is bruited about of that king that he has induced us, as being less upright and consistent (minus integros et constantes), to send some of our people to plot against the King of France, which, beyond doubt, is a false fiction, and of the vainest suspicion, when neither he, God is witness, has hitherto attempted anything against us, nor would we, in respect to our honour, permit any undeserved evil to be planned against any man. Farewell."

We will not undertake to maintain the genuineness of these two epistles, but we may be permitted to point out the futility of some of the objections made to them. Hammer pronounces the first of them to be an undoubted forgery because it commences with swearing by the law, and ends by being dated from the era of the Seleucides. Both, he says, were equally strange to the Ismailites, who precisely at this time had begun to trample the law under foot, and had abandoned the Hejra, the only era known in Mohammedan countries, for a new one commencing with the reign of Hassan II. He further sees, in the circumstance of a letter from the Old Man of the Mountain (Sheikh-al-Jebal) being dated from Massyat, a proof of the ignorance of the Crusaders respecting the true head and seat of the Ismailite power. These objections are regarded by Wilken as conclusive. They will, however, lose much of their force if we bear in mind that the letters are manifestly translations, and that the chief of Massyat at that time was Sinan, who some years before had offered to become a Christian, and who does not seem at all to have adopted the innovations of Hassan the Illuminator. Sinan might easily have been induced by the friends of the King of England, one of the most steady of whom was Henry of Champagne, who succeeded Conrad of Montferrat in the kingdom, to write those letters in his justification, and it is very probable that the translations were made in Syria, where the Arabic language was of course better understood than in Europe, and sent either alone or with the originals. The translator might have rendered the title which Sinan gave himself by Senex de Monte, which would be better understood in the west, and he may also have given the corresponding year of the era of the Seleucides (the one in use among the Syrian Christians) for the year of the Hejra used by the Ismailite chief, or indeed Sinan may have employed that era himself. In this case there would remain little to object to the genuineness of the letter to the Duke of Austria. Hammer regards the expression our simplicity (simplicitas nostra) as being conclusive against the genuineness of the second letter. We must confess that we can see no force in the objection. Sinan might wish to represent himself as a very plain, simple, innocent sort of person. It might further be doubted if a European forger would venture to represent the prince of the Assassins—the formidable Old Man of the Mountain—in such a respectable light as he appears in these two epistles.

But there is another account of the death of the Marquis of Montferrat, which is probably much better known to the generality of readers than any of the preceding ones. The far-famed author of "Waverley" has, in his romantic tale of the "Talisman," made Conrad to be wounded and vanquished in the lists by the son of the King of Scotland, the champion of king Richard, and afterwards slain by the dagger, not of the Assassins, but of his confederate in villany the Master of the Temple, to prevent his making confession of their common guilt!

Yielding to none in rational admiration of the genius of Sir W. Scott, we cannot avoid expressing a wish that he had ceased to write when he had exhausted that rich field of national feelings and manners with which he was alone familiar, and from which he drew the exquisite delineations of "Waverley" and its Scottish brethren. All his later works, no doubt, exhibit occasional scenes far beyond the power of any of his imitators; but when his muse quits her native soil, she takes leave of nature, truth, and simplicity. Even the genius of a Scott is inadequate to painting manners he never witnessed, scenery he never beheld.

The tale of the "Talisman" is a flagrant instance. Topography, chronology, historic truth, oriental manners, and individual character, are all treated with a most magnanimous neglect, indeed, even, we might say, with contempt; for, careless, from "security to please," as the author is known to have been, his vagaries must sometimes have proceeded from mere wilfulness and caprice. It would, we apprehend, perplex our oriental travellers and geographers to point out the site of the fountain named the Diamond of the Desert, not far from the Dead Sea, and yet lying half-way between the camp of the Saracens and that of the Crusaders, which last, we are told, lay between Acre and Ascalon, that is, on the sea-coast, or to show the interminable sandy desert which stretches between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean. As to historic truth, we may boldly say that there is hardly a single circumstance of the romance in strict accordance with history; and as to the truth of individual character, what are we to say to the grave, serious, religious Saladin, but the very year before his death, being in the flower of his age, rambling alone through the desert, like an errant knight, singing hymns to the Devil, and coming disguised as a physician to the Christian camp, to cure the malady of the English monarch, whom he never, in reality, did or would see? We might enumerate many additional instances of the violation of every kind of unity and propriety in this single tale.

Let not any deem it superfluous thus to point out the errors of an illustrious writer. The impressions made by his splendid pages on the youthful mind are permanent and ineffaceable, and, if not corrected, may lead to errors of a graver kind. The "Talisman" moreover affects a delusive show of truth and accuracy; for, in a note in one part of it, the author (ironically, no doubt) affects to correct the historians on a point of history. The natural inference, then, is that he has himself made profound researches, and adhered to truth; and we accordingly find another novelist, in what he terms a history of chivalry, declaring the "Talisman" to be a faithful picture of the manners of the age. Sir W. Scott, however, has himself informed us, in the preface to "Ivanhoe," of his secret for describing the manners of the times of Richard Coeur de Lion. With the chronicles of the time he joined that of Froissart, so rich in splendid pictures of chivalric life. Few readers of these romances perhaps are aware that this was the same in kind, though not in degree, as if, in his tales of the days of Elizabeth and James I., he had had recourse to the manner-painting pages of Henry Fielding; for the distance in point of time between the reign of Richard I. and that of Richard II., in which last Froissart wrote, is as great as that between the reigns of Elizabeth and George II.; and, in both, manners underwent a proportional change. But we are in the habit of regarding the middle ages as one single period of unvarying manners and institutions, and we are too apt to fancy that the descriptions of Froissart and his successors are equally applicable to all parts of it.