The year before Pope Urban II called for the first Crusade in Clermont, Egypt experienced two important deaths that led to another split in the Shi’ite world.
Caliph al-Mustansir ruled for sixty years in Cairo, starting when he was only an infant. His reign was the longest among Muslim rulers, but he controlled only Egypt, rather than an empire. And during his years, Egypt fell on very hard times. Between 1065 and 1072, the Nile had seven years of low water, creating poverty and famine. Berber nomad raids made things worse. Country towns were abandoned as survivors of famine, plague and raid moved closer to each other.
The Caliph’s treasury was drained to pay Turkish mercenaries, who finally rebelled and looted the palace and libraries in 1069. The Caliph went into hiding and sent a message to the only man he thought could save him: an Armenian general named Badr al-Jamali, who was on the Fatimid front lines in Syria, trying to hold back the Turks. Badr led Armenian troops into Cairo, retaking the city in 1074. He became the Vizier, ruler in all but title. For twenty years, Egypt became stable.
In 1094, both Badr and al-Mustansir died. Badr died first, and provided for his son al-Afdal to succeed him as Vizier. When the Caliph died just months later, al-Afdal seized the moment. The Caliph’s younger son was his brother-in-law, under his personal sway. He placed the young man on the throne, proclaiming him Caliph al-Musta’li. He got all of the nobles to swear allegiance.
Nizar, the older son, had been the designated heir. He fled to Alexandria, where some anti-Badr factions lived. Alexandria proclaimed him Caliph and Imam in 1095. (Archeologists have found a single gold dinar minted for the occasion, with his name on it.) The usual story: a few battles later, Nizar was captured then executed in Cairo.
But this proved to be one of those defining moments in history, when millions of believers throughout Egypt, Syria and Persia refused to countenance what had been done through military strength. Hasan Sabah, chief Ismaili da’i in Persia, immediately announced their support of Nizar’s rights as true Imam. Sabah cut diplomatic ties with Cairo and founded a small Nizari Ismaili state based in mountain strongholds.
All of this was still happening when Pope Urban II was calling for a European invasion of Turkish strongholds in Damascus, Aleppo, Antioch and Jerusalem. It isn’t likely that Europeans were paying any attention to the palace coup in Cairo, if they had a reliable source of news at all.
The Muslim Empire was now divided into at least five distinct sects/kingdoms: the Puritanical al-Moravids of North Africa and Spain; the Vizier-ruled Fatimid rump state in Egypt; the Turkish-Arab Sunni chaos between Jerusalem and Baghdad; the strange mountain Druze sect of Lebanon; and last, the Nizari mountain sect led by Hasan Sabah in Alamut, the Eagle’s Nest, in Persia.