Today in Middle Eastern history: Conrad I of Jerusalem is (literally) assassinated (1192)

Our “Today in History” posts are always free, but if you want to support the newsletter and get the full Foreign Exchanges experience you know what you have to do:

The leaders of the medieval Islamic spiritual order known as the Assassins were certainly not the first people to come up with the idea of murdering one’s political opponents. But the reason why the murder of a political leader is known as an “assassination” today is because these guys were very, very good at it. It didn’t matter how powerful or famous or presumably well-protected somebody was—if the Assassins targeted him, either for death or a stern warning (the warnings became pretty effective once they’d done a few murders and gotten a reputation), then they rarely failed to get to him.

The Assassin order’s first well-known victim was Nizam al-Mulk (d. 1092), the very powerful vizier of the Seljuq Empire, whom they managed to kill in broad daylight as he was being carried on a litter, surrounded by servants and bodyguards. That kind of thing gets noticed. Many of the Assassins’ operations were carried out in such circumstances (in daylight, in public), which added to their mystique. Later, even the mighty Saladin was “convinced” to go easy on the Assassins when one of their number left scones and a poisoned dagger on his bed one night, along with a note explaining that the next time the Assassins returned, they wouldn’t bring baked goods. This was in 1176, which was about 16 years before the Assassins killed the then-King of Jerusalem, Conrad of Montferrat.

Perhaps a little background is in order here. The Assassins were a Shiʿa order of the Ismaʿili school, which formed in the late 11th century. The Ismaʿili Fatimid Caliphate had taken power in North Africa, Egypt, and Syria in the 10th century. Sometime in the 1080s the Fatimids had themselves a schism, a common occurrence for Shiʿa groups throughout history, over a conflict within their court. The order’s’ founder, a devoted Ismaʿili missionary named Hassan-i Sabbah, got on the wrong side of Fatimid Caliph al-Mustansir’s (d. 1094) powerful military commander, the Armenian general Badr al-Jamali (d. 1094), and so he left Cairo and headed off to the east to find a place to call his own, eventually settling on a castle in Alamut, in northern Iran. Hassan’s departure from Egypt was no doubt hastened by his open support for al-Mustansir’s eldest son, Nizar (d. 1097). When Badr al-Jamali arranged to have Nizar passed over in the line of succession by his brother, al-Mustaʿli (d. 1101)—Nizar objected and was later killed for his trouble—Hassan’s movement took up Nizar’s cause. In addition to “the Assassins,” they’re also known as Nizari Ismaʿilis for this reason.

Hassan had relatively few followers, but they were intensely loyal and willing to take on assignments of great danger. As the legend has it, this is because they were constantly high on hashish—hence the name hashishiyun, which may have been the root of the word asasiyun, and hence of “Assassin.” But the hash legend seems to have been concocted by writers with anti-Assassin leanings who were trying to discredit the order, and there’s good reason to believe that, etymologically, the word asasiyun actually has nothing to do with hashishiyun. Because the order was so small, and dispersed among a number of castles dotted across Iran and west into Syria, their military training emphasized defensive tactics and opportunistic, targeted strikes at specific enemies—i.e., assassinations.

Of course, there are two sides to any assassination, the assassins and the assassinated, so we should talk a little here about the doomed Conrad of Montferrat.


Hi, Conrad! (portrait by 19th century French painter François-Édouard Picot, via Wikimedia Commons)

Conrad showed up in the Crusader-held city of Tyre in the aftermath of Saladin’s victory over the main Jerusalem army at the Battle of Hattin in 1187. Tyre was in real danger of falling to Saladin’s advancing army when Conrad arrived, organized its defense, and shepherded it through two subsequent sieges. Conrad had no legal claim on Tyre, but after he led the charge that broke Saladin’s second siege, who was going to tell the city’s savior that he had to go? Nobody, that’s who.

Conrad then refused to turn Tyre over to Guy of Lusignan (d. 1194), the titular King of Jerusalem (though he’d lost Jerusalem by this point). Conrad’s contention, and he had a point, was the Guy never should have been King of Jerusalem in the first place. Guy’s claim on the title rested upon his marriage to King Baldwin IV’s (d. 1185) sister, Sybilla, but Baldwin’s wish was that he be succeeded by his child nephew (Sybilla’s son from a previous marriage), Baldwin V, and then (if Baldwin V died young, which he did in 1186) by a king chosen by the great monarchs of Europe (the kings of England and France and the Holy Roman Emperor). Baldwin IV laid out this succession plan specifically to keep Guy off the throne, and as Guy later amply proved that he was not up to the job (read up on Hattin), you can see why Baldwin felt the way he did.

Sybilla died in 1190, while both Conrad and Guy were (uncooperatively, one assumes) besieging Acre, and in theory Guy’s claim to the throne died with her. But of course Guy wasn’t going to meekly abandon his title, and anyway there wasn’t another contender for the crown. Yet.

Sybilla had a sister, Isabella, who was happily married to a man, Humphrey IV of Toron (d. 1198), who had no interest in being king. He’d been offered the crown in Guy’s stead when Baldwin V died, and promptly offered his allegiance to Guy. But Isabella was the only member of the old royal family left after Sybilla died, so a group of Crusader nobles got her happy marriage annulled—against her wishes mind you—so that she could marry Conrad instead, in November 1190. Conrad was now, legally, king. But Guy was still there, and still claiming to be king himself.

Adding greatly to the new conflict was the fact that those great European monarchs were all heading to the Holy Land on what today we call the Third Crusade, and they had no consensus as to who should be king. Lusignan was under English sovereignty, making Guy of Lusignan a vassal of Richard I of England. Montferrat, on the other hand, was under French sovereignty, making Conrad of Montferrat a vassal of Philip IV of France. Naturally each king preferred to see his own vassal on the Jerusalem throne. Miraculously, everybody managed to reach a compromise, whereby Guy would remain king, for now, with Conrad as his heir.

What sounds like a pretty unstable arrangement collapsed in April 1192, when Jerusalem’s nobles elected Conrad king. This wasn’t a complete surprise—Guy was a dolt, and after Hattin everybody knew it—but it was a little surprising insofar as it went entirely against the wishes of Richard, who was the most powerful man in the Holy Land at this point. Richard bought the crown of Cyprus from the Knights Templar as a consolation prize for Guy. Now enter the Assassins. On April 28, while returning home, Conrad was attacked and murdered by two men (one of whom was himself killed in the process) who turned out to be Assassins. He’d been king for all of four days and hadn’t even been formally crowned.

The lingering question—lingering to this very day in fact—is why the Assassins attacked Conrad. The most likely answer, certainly the one that got the most credence at the time, is that they were hired by Richard. Supposedly, the Assassin who survived the attack confessed as much, though this was undoubtedly under torture so it’s unreliable at best. Later, when Richard was arrested by Leopold V of Austria while on his way home after the crusade, one of Leopold’s charges was that Richard had been responsible for Conrad’s murder. But Richard was able to produce a letter from the Assassins’ leader, Rashid al-Din Sinan, that cleared him of this charge. The only complication here is that Sinan was most likely dead by the time the letter was written. There are other suspects—Isabella’s first husband, Humphrey, or maybe Saladin, though Saladin purportedly got along pretty well with Conrad—but the smart money is still on Richard. He’s further incriminated by the fact that Isabella was quickly married off to his nephew, Henry II of Champagne, who then became Henry I of Jerusalem (though he never took the title of king).