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

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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 their political opponents. But they were so effective at it that the murder of a political leader is known as an “assassination” today. It didn’t matter how powerful or famous or presumably well-protected somebody was—if the Assassins targeted him, either for death or merely a stern warning (which got to be quite effective after the Assassins had built up 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. 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 members of the Assassin order killed the then-King of Jerusalem, Conrad of Montferrat.

Perhaps a little background is in order here. The Assassin order formed in the late 11th century as an offshot of Ismaʿili Shiʿism. 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. He eventually settled on a castle in Alamut, in northern Iran. Hassan’s departure from Egypt was 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 in favor of his brother, al-Mustaʿli (d. 1101), Hassan and his followers 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 is frequently speculated to 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 Jerusalem army at the Battle of Hattin in 1187. Tyre was in 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, apparently.

Conrad refused to hand 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, after both Conrad and Guy were (uncooperatively, one assumes) had laid siege to the Muslim-held city of 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’s sister, Isabella, who was happily married to 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’s death, so a group of Crusader nobles got her happy marriage annulled—against her wishes—so that she could marry Conrad instead, in November 1190. Conrad was now king, according to the same principle by which Guy had claimed the throne. But Guy was still there, and still claiming to be king himself.

Adding greatly to this internal 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 too 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, though, everybody managed to reach a compromise, whereby Guy would remain king, but had to acknowledge Conrad as his heir.

What sounds like a pretty unstable arrangement collapsed in April 1192, when Jerusalem’s nobles up and 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 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 walking back to his house in Tyre, 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. It’s possible the Assassins were acting on their own accord, but speculation has invariably run to potential clients. The most likely scenario, and certainly the theory 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 and said the Assassins had killed Conrad for their own reasons. The thing is, Sinan was most likely dead when this letter was written.

There are other suspects—Isabella’s first husband, Humphrey, or maybe Saladin—but most suspicion still falls on Richard. Regardless, Richard and the Crusader nobles coped with their grief by forcing Isabella into yet another arranged marriage. In this case, she was wed to Count Henry II of Champagne, who was nephew to both Richard and to Philip of France. He thereby became King Henry I of Jerusalem, though he seems never to have assumed that title. Henry fell out of a window (no, really) and died in 1197, at which point Isabella married again, this time to Guy’s brother Amalric. The actual crown of Cyprus and the pretend crown of Jerusalem were thus briefly united before splitting apart again after Amalric’s death in 1205. It was Isabella’s daughter with Conrad, Marie of Montferrat, who succeeded her as Queen of Jerusalem.