Ismaili Mission in Syria

Salamia, the city of Syria had been an original plant for Ismaili mission since pre-Fatimid period. During the Fatimid Caliphate, the Ismaili mission remained active in Syria. Later on, the Syrian Ismailis accepted the Imamate of al-Nizar during Alamut rule. Al-Hakim al-Munajjim Asad bin Kassim al-Ajami, the physician astrologer was the first Nizari dai to have come from Alamut to Aleppo. Bernard Lewis writes in "A History of the Crusades" (ed. Kenneth M. Setton, London, 1st vol., p. 111) that, "The leaders (chief dais) as far as they are known to us were all Persians, sent from Alamut and operating under the orders of al-Hasan ibn-as-Sabbah and his successors."

Al-Munajjim was able to generate his friendship with the Seljuq ruler Ridwan bin Tutus, who allowed the propagation of the Nizari Ismailis in Aleppo. A few years earlier in 490/1097, the Fatimid vizir al-Afdal had sent a messenger to Ridwan with lavish gifts and an offer to provision, equip, and enlarge his army if he would change allegiance from the Sunnite Abbasid caliph in Baghdad to the Shiite Fatimid caliph of Egypt. Robert W. Crawford writes in "Ridwan the Maligned" (London, 1960, p. 138) that, "Ridwan accepted in principle and the khutba was changed in Aleppo on Friday, August 18, 1097, and was read in the name of al-Musta'li of Egypt followed by the names of al-Afdal and Ridwan." He however recognised the suzerainty of the Fatimids only for four weeks. Soon afterwards, he permitted the Nizari Ismaili dais to use Aleppo as base for their activities, and also helped them to build a mission house (darul dawa). In sum, Ridwan had not scrupled to proclaim Fatimid allegiance for a short time when it suited him. In the lax religious atmosphere of the time, he had no hesitation in supporting the Ismailis when it seemed expedient. Another tradition relates that dai al-Munajjim had embraced Ismailism in Aleppo, where he recited the khutba of the Imams of Alamut. He however died in 496/1103.

The next dai in succession was Abu Tahir al-Saigh, the goldsmith; who had been deputed from Alamut in the time of dai al-Munajjim. He also cemented close ties with Ridwan, and helped him during the Crusades. He captured the fort of Afamiya in south of Aleppo on 24th Jamada I, 499/February 3, 1106, whose Arab chief, Khalaf bin Mulaib al-Ashhabi (1089-1106) had seized the town from Ridwan on 8th Zilkada, 489/October 28, 1096. Afamiya was the first Nizari Ismaili stronghold in Syria, but was short-lived. In 500/1106, a certain Musbih bin Mulaib urged Tancred (d. 506/1112), the Frankish prince of Antioch, to seize the fort of Afamiya. Tancred had already occupied the surrounding districts, therefore, he marched thither, encamped before the town and blockaded it. He lifted his initial siege in return of a tribute from the Ismailis. Tancred returned and forced Afamiya to surrender on 13th Muharram, 500/September 14, 1106. Abu Tahir and a number of his associates managed to ransom themselves from captivity and returned to Aleppo. This was most probably the first encounter between the Ismailis of Syria and the Crusaders. In 504/1110, the Ismailis lost Kafarlatha to Tancred, in the Jabal as-Summaq. In Aleppo, Abu Tahir was in search of suitable stronghold. In 505/1111, Mawdud, the Seljuq ruler of Mosul came with his army to fight the Crusaders, Ridwan closed the gates of Aleppo, and the armed groups of the Ismailis rallied to Ridwan's side. Ridwan however, seems to have retracted from his pro-Ismaili position in his final years. In 505/1111, an unsuccessful attempt on the life of a certain Abu Harb Isa bin Zaid, a wealthy merchant and the enemy of the Ismailis from Transoxiana, led to a popular outburst against the Ismailis, which Ridwan was obliged to condone. Ridwan died in 507/1113, and was succeeded by his 16 years son, Alp Arslan. He was yet immature, and became a tool of the enemies of the Ismailis. The fortune of the Ismailis ran on reverse side. He massacred the Ismailis, in which dai Abu Tahir and his son, dai Ismail, brother of al-Munajjim and some 200 Ismailis were killed. Thus, the early period of the Ismaili activities in Syria badly suffered due to the failure to secure a firm foothold in the country. Very soon, they won large converts in Jabal as-Summaq, the Jazr and the territory of the Banu Ulaym, between Shayzar and Sarmin. They however retained their influence and procured friendly relations with Najamuddin Ilghazi, the Artuqid ruler of Mardin and Mayyafariqin, who also occupied Aleppo in 512/1118. In 514/1120, the Ismailis became capable in demanding a small castle, Qalat al-Sharif from Ilghazi. He, unwilling to cede it to him and afraid to refuse, resorted to the subterfuge of having it hastily demolished, and then pretending to have ordered this just previously. The Ismaili influence in Aleppo seems to have ceased in 517/1124, when Balak, the nephew of Ilghazi, arrested the local sub-ordinate dais of the new chief dai, Bahram. He also caused the expulsion of the Ismailis, and sold their properties.

The upper part of Mesopotamia, known as al-Jazirah was a big province, divided into three districts, viz. Diyar Rabiah, Diyar Mudar and Diyar Bakr (diyar pl. of dar means habitation). Amid (the Amida of the Roman) on the upper course of Tigris was the chief city of Dayar Bakr, where many Ismailis resided. In 518/1124, the inhabitants of Amid in Diyar Bakr launched massacres of the Ismailis and devastated their properties.

Abu Tahir was succeeded by another Iranian dai, Bahram for Syria, who made Damascus as an Ismaili centre in place of Aleppo in 520/1126. He kept his mission activities privily from beginning, and created friendship with the chief of Damascus, Zahiruddin Atabeg Tughtigin and his vizir Abu Ali Tahir bin Sa'd al-Mazdaqani. He also started the dawa in Aleppo, and made close contact with the new governor, Ilghazi. Damascus was threatened by the Franks in 520/1126 and was in need of reinforcements. There were no better fighters than the Ismailis, hence Tughtigin engaged them during the Crusades. Ibn Qalanisi (d. 555/1160) writes in "Tarikh-i Dimashq" (tr. H.A.R. Gibb, London, 1932, p. 179) that, "He (Bahram) lived in extreme concealment and secrecy, and continually disguised himself, so that he moved from city to city and castle to castle without anyone being aware of his identity, until he appeared in Damascus." Thus, after restoration of peace, Bahram entered Damascus along with the credentials of Najamuddin Ilghazi. He was received with honour and given protection, and soon acquired a position of power in the city. He also sought to obtain a castle which he could fortify as a stronghold, and Tughtigin ceded him the frontier fortress of Baniyas. Even in the city itself the Ismailis received a building to use as a "house of propaganda" (dar al-dawa). When he had established himself in Baniyas, he rebuilt and fortified the castle, and embarked on a course of his mission in the surrounding region. He dispatched his dais in all directions, who attracted a great multitude of the people. The Wadi al-Taym, in the region of Hasbayya to the north of Baniyas and on the western side of Mount Hermon, offered a fertile milieu for the promulgation of Ismailism. Inhabited thickly by Druzes and Nusairis, this region attracted the attention of Bahram. In 522/1128, he set out from Baniyas with Ismaili forces to take possession of Wadi al-Taym. He however had to face the challenge of Dahhak bin Jandal, the head of Wadi al-Taym; who engaged him in a fierce battle and caused the death of Bahram in 522/1128.

The next who followed Bahram was dai Ismail (d. 524/1129) in Syria, who pursued the same course and retained the possession of the fort of Baniyas. He also maintained close relation with Tughtigin, who died at the end of 522/1128. Abu Sa'id Buri, the son and successor of Tughtigin, known as Taj al-Mulk and Majd ad-din was however the bitterest foe of the Ismailis, and had ordered for their massacre on 17th Ramdan, 523/September 4, 1129. The number of the Ismailis executed in this outbreak is put at 6,000 by Ibn Athir (d. 630/1234), 10,000 by Ibn Jawzi (d. 597/1200), and 20,000 by the author of "Bustan al-Jami." Ismail surrendered the fortress of Baniyas to the Franks, who were advancing on Damascus, and fled with his associates to the Frankish regions. Fearing reprisals, Buri never left the palace unless mailed and with a heavy guards. Buri became the victim of the two Ismaili fidais, who came from Alamut and secretly joined the team of his guards and struck him with a sword on 5th Jamada II, 525/May 7, 1131 at the gate of his palace in the citadel of Damascus. Wounded in neck and hip, Buri lingered on and died a year later in 526/1132. Ismail also died in 524/1130 in exile among the Franks.

The above details suggest that the Nizari Ismailis used to be the victims of their enemies from time to time in Syria. Despite the repressions and debacles, the Ismailis' fortune continued to rise in Syria during the turbulent years. After the last massacre of Buri, they however did not loose courage, but failed to recover their position in Damascus. In sum, the endeavour to win strongholds falls into three main campaigns. The first, conducted from Aleppo and directed by Abu Tahir, was concentrated on Jabal as-Summaq and ended with the death of Abu Tahir in 507/1113. The second, conducted from Damascus by Bahram and Ismail, was aimed at Baniyas and the Wadi al- Taym, and ended in failure in 524/1130. The third, conducted from an unknown base by a number of chiefs between 527/1132 and 546/1151, in winning a group of strongholds in the Jabal al-Bahra. In 527/1132-3, the fort of Qadmus in Jabal Bahra was purchased from Saiful Mulk bin Amrun. Soon afterwards, Musa bin Saiful Mulk sold Kahf to the Ismailis. In 531/1136, the Frankish occupants of the fortress of Khariba were driven out by the local Ismailis. In 535/1140 the most important stronghold of Masiyaf came to their hands, by killing Sunqur, who occupied it on behalf of the Banu Munqidh of Shayzar.

Masiyaf is a town of central Syria on the eastern side of the Jabal al-Nusairia, situated at 33 miles to the east of Baniyas and 28 miles to the east of Hammah. The pronunciation and orthography of the name varies between the form, Masyad, Masyaf, Mayat, Masyath, Masyab, Masyah and Messiat. The stronghold of Masiyaf lies to the north-east of the settlement, at the foot of the Jabal al-Bahra. It was an Arab citadel, perched on a rocky limestone block. Like an impregnable fort of Alamut, Masiyaf was atop a projecting, almost perpendicular rock. It was the chief among the Ismaili castles, a veritable eagle's nest, perched on a scarcely accessible peak, and commanding a desolate ravine.

The leadership of Ismaili dawa at length came to the potential hand of Rashiduddin Sinan, during whose time the Ismailism spread by leaps and bounds throughout its length and breath, and we shall revert to this subject later.

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