Saturday, February 14, 2009

Prester John and the Assassins

In 1145, Otto of Freising wrote that in the previous year Hugh, bishop of Jabala in Syria, came as an emissary of Prince Raymond of Antioch to the court of Pope Eugene III in Viterbo to call for the Second Crusade.

He told Otto, in the pope's presence, that Prester John had routed the brother monarchs of the "Medes and Persia" and captured the city of Ecbatana "not many years ago."

Scholars have generally attributed Hugh's news to the victory of the Karakhitai empire over the Great Seljuk Sultan Sanjar near Samarkand.

However, this interpretation has also been rightly criticized on various grounds. First, the Karakhitai victory occurred a good thousand miles away, as the crow flies, from Ectabana, which is identified as the modern Hamadan in northwest Iran. Hamadan was never in any danger from the Karakhitai. Also, Hugh's account does not mention the victories in the areas where the fighting actually took place between Sultan Sanjar and the Karakhitai.

Sultan Sanjar's brothers were dead by 1141 when the battle with the Karakhitai occurred, so there was no question of any brother monarchs. P. Bruun has rightly suggested that the brother monarchs mentioned by Hugh must have been the Hamadan Seljuk Sultan Mas'ud and his brother Sultan Da'ud.

Mas'ud became sultan in Hamadan and ruled most of the territory of the ancient Medes.

In 1143, the Assassins killed Sultan Da'ud and defeated Mas'ud's army at Lamasar and other areas in the Rudbar. They also assassinated the qadis of Hamadan, Tiflis and Quhistan.

Bishop Hugh may have been referring to these victories, although they would have occurred just the year before his visit. Possibly Sultan Mas'ud after his defeat may have even temporarily withdrawn from Hamadan allowing the Assassins to claim a brief hold over the city. Certainly the Assassin victories come much closer geographically to Bishop Hugh's relation even if the event occurred more recently than suggested by Otto's account.

Assassins and Sayabiga

Now previously in this blog it was suggested that there was a link between the Assassins and the Sayabiga, who would have originated from Zabag. This latter kingdom, according again to the theory laid out here, was the actual realm of "Prester John" as known during this period.

The Assassins belonged to the Nizari sect of the Isma'ili branch of Shi'a Islam. The Isma'ilis had apparently adopted many "dervish" elements that are thought to have come from the East and have been linked by some with the Zutt and Sayabiga peoples who were present in the region when Muslims overthrew the Sassanian empire.

Interestingly, one etymology for the word "assassin" comes from "al-sasani." Farhad Daftary mentions a saying in Tripoli, not far from former Assassin strongholds, that suggests such an origin. However, "sasani" here refers not to the Sassanian rulers but to the Banu Sasan, the Islamic underworld.

The Sasan here is the ancient one, the son of Bahman, who was forced to raise sheep after his father bequeathed his kingdom to his sister. From that point onward, sasan became a word denoting beggars, street entertainers, con-artists and the like.

As noted earlier in this blog, the Banu Sasan had their own jargon that contained words believed to be of "dervish" origin and which have also been linked to the Zutt and Sayabiga. Thus, the same types of spiritual and cultural undercurrents can be found in both among the Isma'ilis, and thus the Nizari Assassins, and the Banu Sasan.

In the One Thousand and One Nights, we hear that one of the main characters, Shariyar, is called "King of Kings of the Banu Sasan, the Isles of India and of China." The term "king of the isles of India" was often used to describe the Mihraj, the ruler of Zabag, who was not of course also the ruler of China. However, if we look at the latter dominion as literary exaggeration, the link of the "King of the Banu Sasan" with the "King of the Isles of India" could be explained by the presence of the Sayabiga as an important element of the Banu Sasan.

In this regard we can also take the text of John Mandeville, whether such a person existed or not, as evidence of a confirming tradition. Mandeville states that the "Old Man of the Mountain," the European term for the ruler of the Assassins was under the "lordship of Prester John." Bruun notes that a German text of this period, latter than that of Otto, calls Prester John the "King of Armenia and India" with Armenia located in the ancient region of the Medes.

Silence of texts

Besides the possible origin of the word "assassin" and the curious account of the Arabian Nights, one might wonder why no Isma'ili or Sunni texts mention a relationship between the Nizaris and the Mihraj.

However, according to the position taken in this blog, the silence is not that problematic. The King of Zabag (Mihraj), known in Europe as Prester John, became involved in the region to protect his interests on the old sea trade routes from Sunni Muslim expansion.

The Shi'ite Nizari Assassins were natural enemies of the Sunnis as were the Christians. The Mihraj then would have naturally desired to acquire these two as allies to help curb Sunni expansion.

As this included bringing on another crusade, it was natural that any such conspiracy be kept secret by the Nizaris. Even though there was no love loss between Sunni and Shi'a, it still may have been viewed as unacceptable to openly cooperate with "infidels" against fellow Muslims.

Previously in this blog it was also suggested that Prester John attempted to work partly through the Knights Templar in reaching Christian Europe. The Templars likewise would wisely have to conceal any relationship that would have involved cooperating with the Assassins, for which they were in fact often under suspicion.

Prester John, the Isma'ilis and Templars all stood to benefit by curbing Sunni expansionism, but the latter two also needed to work secretly.

Islamic merchant ships headed eastward normally sailed from Basra stopping at the port of Daybul in the Sind (modern coastal Pakistan) before venturing on to other parts of India, Southeast Asia and China. The Sind is an important area because of its connection with both the Zutt and Sayabiga. The Fatimid had established an Isma'ili presence in the Sind in 883, which has lasted to this day.

Bernard Lewis has suggested that the Fatimid Isma'ili intended on monopolizing the eastern sea trade by diverting shipping from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea. He states that the Fatimids had sent agents to attempt gaining control of the coasts of Baluchistan and Sind for this purpose. Although they did not appear to win over the actual coastlines, a Fatimid Isma'ili principality was established in Upper Sind with its capital at Multan. Ibn Hawqal mentions that Baluchis of Kirman and Sijistan also had accepted the Isma'ili faith. Prester John may have offered the Isma'ili an opportunity to realize their dream of trade dominance at a time when the Fatimid empire had been reduced to the confines of Egypt and when the Nizaris were under heavy persecution.

Now as suggested earlier in this blog, Prester John would have been a patron of Nestorian Christianity along with other religions, and he had no qualms in representing himself as a "Christian king" especially as this also suited his mundane ambitions. A Metropolian of Dabag, the Nestorian name for Zabag, had been established since at least 410 CE.

Possibly Prester John's Christian overtures through Sayabiga-Assassin agents may account for the curious testimony of both William, Archbishop of Tyre (c. 1130 – 1185) and Jacques de Vitry, Bishop of Acre. (c. 1160/70 – 1240 or 1244). Both had claimed that the chief of the Assassins had converted to Christianity. Daftary believes this confusion may have arose from the authors' misunderstanding of the doctrine of qiyama, which relieved believers from the tenets of shari'a law. However, another explanation is that the two clergymen were aware of Templar dealings with the Assassins and had assumed or been led to believe in the latter's conversion.

Now it is worth noting that Raymond of Antioch, who sent Bishop Hugh as his emissary to the Pope, had granted the Amanus Mountains in his territory to the Knights Templar, and John Kinnamos records Templars fighting for Raymond when he was attacked by Byzantine emperor John Comnenus. Raymond apparently was not much liked by his enemies as Nur ed-din had his skull, after the prince was killed in battle, covered with silver and sent as a present to Baghdad's Sunni caliph. Sayabiga families had been previously specifically relocated to Antioch with their water buffaloes to help curb the lion population problem.

Wolfram von Eschenbach directly connects Prester John and the Templars in his historical romance possibly obtaining his information at the Angevin archives, which he claimed to have researched. The Angevins, of course, were heavily-involved both in Jerusalem and directly with the Templars. Albericus of Tres-Fontaines records that in 1165 envoys of Prester John brought letters to the courts of both the Byzantine and Holy Roman emperors. In 1177, Pope Alexander III writes in Indorum regi sacerdotum santissimo of a letter brought to him by his physician Philippus who had encountered emissaries of Prester John while traveling somewhere in the "East." In these letters, Prester John actually claims to have Templars in his service, although he criticizes them or those unfaithful among them who have allied themselves with the Muslims.

There are Frenchmen among you, of your lineage and from our retinue, who hold with the Saracens. You confide in them and trust in them that they should and will help you, but they are false and treacherous...may you be brave and of great courage and, pray, do not forget to put to death those treacherous Templars.

We might view Prester John's disclaimer of the Templars "who hold with the Saracens" as a strategic deception to avoid any appearance of his own connection with the Nizaris.

So to sum up, the Sayabiga had established themselves on the coasts of the Persian Gulf in pre-Islamic times and after the Muslim conquest converted to Shi'a Islam. Many found work as mercenaries while some others drifted into the underworld groups known as the Banu Sasan. Still others later became associated with the Nizaris. These Sayabiga likely still communicated with their former homeland of Zabag via the maritime spice routes.

As the fortunes of the Fatimid Isma'ili empire waned seriously in the late 11th century, the Sayabiga may have helped initiate contact with the Zabag empire and its king. The latter kingdom had already been involved in making alliances with China and India-Tibet as sea changes were occurring along the old maritime trade corridors.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Daftary, Farhad. The Ismāʻı̄lı̄s: Their History and Doctrines, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Howarth, Stephen. The Knights Templar, New York: Dorset Press, 1991.

Maclean, Derryl N. Religion and Society in Arab Sind, Monographs and theoretical studies in sociology and anthropology in honour of Nels Anderson, publication 25. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1989.


"the Dude" said...

OT, but possibly of interest, ancient Shang bronze 4ka