Updated: Sep 21, 2018
In 1214, on the Feast Day of Exaltation of the Holy Cross, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem was assassinated during a procession in Acre. The assassin was a disgruntled former master of a hospital in Piedmont, who the patriarch had earlier removed from office for immorality. In the early morning of 17 January 1369, the king of Cyprus, Peter I, was assassinated as he was dressing. Two knights, Philip of Ibelin and Henry of Jubail, burst into his chamber. With one arm in the sleeve of his jacket, the king was helpless as the two men struck him with their knives. The bailiff of the court, who Peter had earlier threatened with execution (the king had been in a perhaps understandable fit of rage because there was no oil for his asparagus!),* carried out the coup de grace, decapitating the dead king and shouting: “You meant to cut off my head, and now I have cut off yours, and all that you threatened has fallen on you." To add insult to injury, a Turcopole who was not even part of the plot but did not wish to find himself on the wrong side, cut off the king’s privates, adding the telling remark: “It is this that cost you your life (always a good line).
These are just two examples of assassinations by disgruntled men, and the lesson we might learn from all this is that people in high places should be very careful about whom they offend - a lesson which might be true for everyone in any time. But of course history is full of examples where there were other motives for assassination than being offended.
During a pleasant walk on a sunny day in 1963, someone spoke to my American born mother, and from her reaction I realised that something significant and terrible had happened. Like many others of my generation, that November day was the first time that I encountered the word "assassination". It was a word, which, with all its heavy baggage, would return rather too frequently over the coming years.
The source of the word is the Persian حشاشين (Hashshashin), the name of a radical, medieval Muslim sect, the Nizārī Ismailis, a mysterious breakaway order of Shia Islam that was established in the late eleventh century and set up its headquarters in isolated mountain fortresses in Persia. By the twelfth century its Syrian branch, centred at the castle of Masyaf, was led by Rāšid ad-Dīn Sinān, known as the Old Man of the Mountain.
In the 1995 BBC documentary, Crusades, in attempting to illustrate the unqualified subservience of these Assassins to their leader, Terry Jones made a comparison with a wonderfully asinine Monty Python sketch about the Queen's Own Kamikaze Highlander Regiment. When ordered to do so, these kilted imbeciles happily jumped to their deaths from the battlements of Edinburgh Castle, just as their officer was being questioned as to how many men there were in the regiment, his answer being progressively fewer. But the delightful, brazen idiocy of the Monty Python sketch is a world away from the incomprehensible acquiescence of members of the Ismaili sect, which seems closer to the suicide terror we are all painfully acquainted with today, the chief difference being that the modern suicide bomber is motivated by a deviation of religious teachings, whereas the Assassins were hired killers of Christians and Muslims alike.
*This wonderful detail is noted in George Hill, A History of Cyprus, vol. 2, Cambridge, 1948, p. 366, n. 3.