It’s one of the great unsolved mysteries of the Crusades. What looks like an unprovoked attack by the Knights Templar on a group of Assassins who had been talking peace terms with the crusader King of Jerusalem. What led the Templars to this course of action?
The story unfolds in the 1160s. Jerusalem had been in crusader hands since 1099 and a string of Christian states had been formed encompassing such cities as Antioch, Tripoli and Gaza. There was both a constant fear of attack by the Muslim caliphate but also a curious if uneasy co-existence with the enemy.
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When King Baldwin III of Jerusalem suddenly and unexpectedly died, it was said that the Muslim governor of Aleppo – Nur ed-Din – publicly grieved for the young man. His brother, Amalric, took the kingdom as there were no children to inherit and set about planning an attack on Egypt. The Fatimid rulers of that country were divided and weakened and Amalric calculated that if he didn’t try and seize the Nile with its huge bread basket, then Nur ed-Din would certainly have a go. Either the crusaders or the Turks would rule in Egypt.
Amalric’s subsequent campaign in Egypt relied on Templar support and it didn’t go well. While Amalric was occupied in the Nile delta, Nur ed-Din attacked Antioch to the north. The ruler of that crusader domain, Bohemond III, was lured into a familiar Saracen retreat and then attack trap, which killed many Templars. The experience of Amalric’s activities in Egypt and Bohemond in Antioch made the Templars think that in future they might rely on their own knowledge of battlefield tactics instead of the more impetuous Latin princes.
The Templars were able to act with some independence as the Papal bull Omne Datum Optimum meant they answered only to the Pope and not to any king or prince. However, somebody must have failed to give a copy of that document to Amalric because when he discovered a band of twelve Templar knights who had decided to abandon a castle in TransJordan to Nur ed-Din rather than face heavy losses, he hanged all of them. This completely poisoned relations between Amalric and the Templar Grand Master, Bertrand of Blanquefort.
So when Amalric announced he wanted to have another go at Egypt, the Templars stayed put – even though the Hospitallers, rivals to the Templars, agreed to go. This bad atmosphere continued into 1173 when Amalric began talks with the leader of the notorious Assassins, a messianic group based in Syria. They were fanatical Ismailis who attacked Christians and Sunni Muslims alike, taking out senior figures whenever the opportunity presented itself. But they were shy of attacking the Templars – and maybe rightly understood these knights were made of sterner stuff.
Assassins paying tribute to the Templars
Instead – and incredible as it might seem – the Assassins paid the Templars an annual tribute of 2,000 Bezants (high value coins) to be left alone by the knights! In the 1160s, Sinan – leader of the Assassins and known as the Old Man of the Mountain – announced that the end of the world and the resurrection of the flesh had arrived. This was heretical to Christians and Muslims but led the Assassins into a constant orgy – by all accounts – where hedonism ruled.
Breaking off from one of these orgies, Sinan sent out feelers to Amalric saying that he was up for converting to Christianity. The king of Jerusalem was overjoyed and guaranteed safe passage to an envoy from Sinan to visit him. But en route, a group of Templar knights attacked the messenger from Sinan sending the traveling party of Assassins scurrying back to their leader.
Amalric was incandescent with rage. It was bad enough that the Templars were acting in an increasingly independent spirit but to attack the Assassins when they were offering to convert to Christ seemed outrageous and nonsensical. He ordered the arrest of the Templar who had led the attack, Walter de Mesnil.
The Templar Grand Master was noticeably circumspect about the whole incident though it’s hard to believe Walter acted in isolation like some kind of rogue Templar – most analysts believe he must have been ordered to undertake the attack.
The chronicler William of Tyre, who despised the Templars, wrote very cattily that the order was just worried about losing its 2,000 Bezants a year if peace were made with the Assassins. Walter Mapp scribbled that the Templars didn’t want peace – because it would destroy their whole reason for being. The order craved war and destruction, he wrote.
Maybe the Templars understood the Assassins better
But others have been kinder. It just might be that the Templars understood the Assassins better than Amalric. They knew that the crafty Sinan was up to no good. He was an unscrupulous murderer who had dipped his hands in Muslim and Christian blood. When Amalric died, he was succeeded by Raymond III. His father had been slain by the Assassins and so all talks were Sinan were abandoned.
Nevertheless, down the years the opinions on the Templar attack on the Assassins have remained divided. Was it naked self interest or the advancement of the crusades that lay behind their act?