The Ilkhan and the Fall of Alamut, 1256

Between 1251 and 1254, Mongol armies subdued the Goryeo Kingdom of Korea, though not without drama. Under military pressure, the Korean king sent them a hostage who was supposedly his son, but it turned out to be a stepson not of the royal blood. This was apparently a deliberate deception, an attempt to cheat the system. Möngke Khan was furious; he held the entire court responsible and ordered the land to be razed. The Goryeo court fled to islands, reasoning that Mongols didn’t sail. But Mongols could order and pay Koreans to sail ships for them. Now with naval experience, the Mongols finally retreated with the actual crown prince as hostage and the land thoroughly cowed (that is, burnt, starved, destroyed). The Korean kingdom served Mongol officials after that.

China’s inland Dali Kingdom in modern Yunnan Province was next on the list. Möngke’s brother Kublai conquered the capital city of Dali then sent a column south, where there was another route through Vietnam to get at the Song Dynasty. The Song Dynasty should have fallen to Genghis Khan long ago, by Mongol reasoning; but it had retreated south, leaving only North China open. Vietnam was uncooperative, so it was conquered; Hanoi was sacked and occupied. But as before, the climate of Vietnam was terrible for Mongol health. The Tran dynasty accepted Mongol overlordship and paid tribute, so all of the Mongols but a few unlucky tribute officials left behind could race north to the dry, cool air again. (Kublai had wisely gone no farther south than Dali.)

After a few years, Möngke Khan was looking for a conquest zone that was not tropical, and apparently his eastern limits had been reached for now (Japan was out of their range). To the west, he’d received the submission of western Armenia and Antioch, the Sultanate of Rum, and the Emirs of Aleppo and Mosul, almost without lifting a finger. The last Mongol invasion had made it amply clear to these rulers that it was much, much better to be an ally of the Mongols than a lone, proud, hold-out waiting for the siege to arrive.

In 1255, following the great census, Möngke named his brother Hulegu as Ilkhan of this southwestern region. This Vice-Khanship wasn’t defined by borders but by its dynastic range. It was defined as being for the family of Hulegu; they were allowed to make it much larger as long as they didn’t encroach on the lands of Batu’s lineage based in Sarai or Kublai’s lineage in China. The Ilkhanate included Afghanistan, Iran, Armenia, Georgia, Pakistan, and India, really as much as Hulegu wished to conquer before he’d get done in by the climate.

Hulegu had a special mandate to subdue remaining Muslim states. This meant the Lur people of coastal Iran, the Nizaris of Iran and Iraq’s mountains, and the Caliph of Baghdad. Everyone else had been conquered or had submitted. And so the Third Mongol World War began.

We’ve talked about the Nizaris before; they were Persians converted by missionaries from Ismaili Egypt. Their Ismaili belief system conflated the spiritual ruler, the Imam, with the political leader, the Caliph. They rejected all Fatimid Caliphs after a certain point and believed that their leadership continued the true Imam line. As such, they were perpetually at war with both Baghdad and Cairo. They put a lot of effort into building a state in eastern Iran, but they couldn’t maintain rule over a contiguous region. Instead, they had about 50 castles, in cities or on mountains, but the Sunni Turks controlled (taxed) the land between. I suppose Nizari towns carried their taxes secretly to Alamut, the Eagle’s Nest, dodging other patrols.

With the 25th Imam, Nizari strategy had suddenly changed. The 24th Imam had married a Sunni wife who raised her son to disbelieve in his own divine appointment. So this 25th one, Jalaluddin Hasan, burned the Nizari holy books at Alamut and cursed his ancestors. In exchange, he received the official blessing of Baghdad as Emir. Was he sincere? Or was it a survival strategy of taqqiyah? If he wasn’t sincere, he sure burned a lot of books for nothing. But in any case, it meant that during the years of Mongol invasions, the Nizari fortresses were at least at peace with Baghdad, not weakened by in-house Muslim fighting too. So far, they survived.

The turncoat Imam Hassan III died in 1221, probably poisoned. His son inherited the Imamship in spite of his father’s teaching; he was a child, but with a strong vizier who set about to reverse the Sunni-ization. Sunni teachers, the Imam’s widows, and some of his other relatives all met the axe. But a general alliance with Baghdad persisted; in 1238, the Nizaris and Abbasids joined in sending an embassy to the western Christians, to see if they could form an alliance against the Mongols. It didn’t work out. Then in 1246, the Imam and Caliph traveled to the installation of Güyük Khan in Karakorum, hoping to be seen as peaceful neighboring rulers who were kind of submitting the the Mongols but not actually sending tribute.

The Mongols had many cities in the region by Möngke’s time, and those local rulers all complained about the Nizaris. The Nizaris were again openly Ismaili Shi’ites, which the Turks did not like; they were perpetual rebels in strongholds that could never quite be conquered. Hulegu Ilkhan agreed to clean out the Nizaris for them.

I’ve read various accounts of what happened; some stories like to say that the Mongols came in there and really got the job done, unlike the Mama’s boys who had tried before. It seems more likely that the Ismaili network was terribly weak already. The Imam who restored its Shi’ite theology had, sadly, turned out to be crazy. He was assassinated (how ironic! the chief assassin assassinated by assasins) and his son found himself the new ruler of Alamut just as Hulegu sent word to surrender. Imam Rukn ad Din saw no alternative, so he agreed.

There was a tragic misunderstanding then, apparently. Rukn ad Din ordered his men to start dismantling the towers and walls of Alamut and another key fortress, but Hulegu was a nomad who still didn’t quite “get” this whole stone walls business. He thought Rukn ad Din was stalling, so he ordered siege weapons to move in. Catapults surrounded the Eagle’s Nest and began to bombard. Rukn ad Din could only wave the white flag again, seeking safety for his family. He sent out word to the other Nizari fortresses that it was all over.

And just like that, the great Assassin Kingdom adventure was over. It had begun far away in Cairo, when Nizar’s supporters believed they had a chance to prove the rightness of their cause. In the short run, they had many successes by inventing the “suicide bomber” (knifer) strategy we’re so familiar with today. They didn’t have sufficient foundation for the type of state that has territory and an army, though. But after Rukn ad Din saved his family’s life, his lineage survived and with it, the Ismaili Nizari faith. He gave up secular rule but retained spiritual prestige. Today, Nizarism is an association with adherents all over the world. They are still “ruled” by an Imam who now uses the Tatar-Mongol term Agha Khan. The Imams have directed their followers to be very peaceful and focus on charitable projects. They don’t like to be associated with nothing but assassins, and they are offended by the notion that their killers ever needed hashish to work up courage.


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