By Adam Ali
When Usama ibn Munqidh came to Cairo in 1144, he was hoping to restart a promising career as a military officer. Instead, he would find himself in the middle of a series of plots, intrigues, betrayals, murders, and street battles that would tear apart the capital of Egypt.
When Usama ibn Munqidh, the Syrian warrior, poet and nobleman, entered Cairo with his family he had already experienced many changes of fortune. He had lost his birthright, the lordship of Shayzar, and was forced into exile in 1131. He took up service defending Homs when it was besieged by Zangi. When the city fell, Usama was captured and was enlisted into Zangi’s army, but he lost this position for disobeying his superior. He then entered the service of the Burids, the petty Turkish dynasty ruling Damascus. He successfully served as a diplomat for his new masters negotiating an alliance with the neighboring Crusader states during 1140-1143. However, by 1144 Usama was expelled from Damascus for his role in stirring up internal political intrigues. Being an experienced military commander and politician the Fatimids, under the caliph al-Hafiz, welcomed him and his retinue.
Upon his arrival in Cairo, al-Hafiz took Usama into his service lavishing him with favors, gifts, comfortable living quarters, and a stipend. He lived in luxury for several years without incident until the caliph was on his deathbed in 1149. At this point dissent arose among the ranks of the black African soldiers and two factions faced off against one another in Cairo. The first group composed of the Rayhaniyya regiment and some of the royal guard and the other the Juyushiyya, Iskandaraniyya, and Farahiyya regiments. The sick caliph could do nothing to reconcile the two groups who fought a bloody battle in the streets of Cairo in which the Rayhaniyya were defeated. Over 1,000 of them were killed and their corpses blocked Cairo’s central market. Throughout these events, Usama and his men remained fully armed and alert, but did not partake in the fighting.
The caliph died two days later, his teenage son, al-Zafir, was enthroned by the elderly Ibn Masal (the power behind the throne), who then assumed the position of vizier. Ibn al-Sallar, the governor of Alexandria, opposed this seizure of power in Cairo, gathered an army and marched on Cairo. Ibn Masal marched out against him. However, many of the officers defected to Ibn al-Sallar. With the caliph’s blessing and financial backing Ibn Masal left Cairo and mustered a force composed of Berbers, Bedouins, Africans, and Egyptians to resist Ibn al-Sallar’s advance. Meanwhile, Ibn al-Sallar had arrived in Cairo and Usama decided to enter into his service. After some preliminary skirmishes with Ibn Masal’s Berbers, they advanced against Ibn Masal’s main force and on February 15, 1150, they fought a battle at Dalas in which Ibn Masal and 17,000 of his followers were killed. His head was carried back to Cairo, and the caliph had no choice but to invest Ibn al-Sallar as his vizier.
Al-Zafir, who secretly resented and hated Ibn al-Sallar, plotted to have him killed. The conspiracy included a group of palace guards and others whom the caliph bribed. They assembled in a home near Ibn al-Sallar’s residence, which they planned to attack at midnight when his men had either gone to sleep or dispersed for the night. However, the conspiracy was betrayed and Ibn al-Sallar sent two groups of men to ambush the conspirators. The house was stormed and most of the caliph’s men were killed. Some managed to escape through a back door that had been neglected by the attackers. Throughout the night and the next day, a citywide hunt ensued and dozens of conspirators found hiding in houses and stables were dragged out to the street and massacred.
Ibn al-Sallar’s policies as vizier were focused on waging war on the Franks in the Levant, who threatened the Fatimid foothold in Palestine. Despite failing to secure an alliance with Nur al-Din, Zangi’s son and the new power in Syria, Ibn al-Sallar sent an army, commanded by his stepson, Abbas, to fight the Franks in 1153. Abbas was also accompanied by his son Nasr during this campaign. Nasr remained with the army only for a few days and then returned to Cairo. Thinking that Nasr returned to avoid the hardship of military life, Ibn al-Sallar commanded him to return to the frontlines. However, in reality Nasr was a part of the caliph’s new conspiracy to kill the vizier. That same night Nasr and six of the caliph’s bodyguards entered Ibn al-Sallar’s private chambers. Nasr had access to the palace because Ibn al-Sallar’s wife was his grandmother. They attacked Ibn al-Sallar while he slept and cut off his head. When word of the murder spread, Ibn al-Sallar’s guards and mamluks, numbering 1,000, took to the streets and started fighting Nasr and the caliph’s supporters. The battle only stopped when Ibn al-Sallar’s head was brought out on a pike. Abbas returned to Cairo and assumed the position of vizier and his son became a close friend and confidant of the caliph, al-Zafir.
Ibn al-Sallar’s death did not end the mistrust and strife in the Fatimid court which now brewed between Abbas, Nasr, and al-Zafir. There were especially deep seated suspicions between the father and son: Abbas and Nasr. Al-Zafir sought to capitalize on this mistrust and to use his companion to rid himself of another powerful vizier. Al-Zafir plied Nasr with money and expensive gifts for days and promised him the vizierate if he killed his father. Throughout the exchanges between Nasr and the caliph, Usama was residing with Nasr, who eventually opened up to him about the plot and asked for his support. Usama convinced him otherwise and Nasr revealed the conspiracy to his father and they, in turn, planned a counter-plot. Nasr invited the caliph to his home one evening, as he had often done in the past. The caliph arrived unaccompanied save for one servant who never left his side. He walked straight into a trap and was murdered by Nasr and a group of his retainers and his body was thrown into a well.
The next morning, Abbas went to the palace to conduct business as usual, but the caliph was missing. When no one could find al-Zafir, Abbas commanded that his infant son be brought out and proclaimed caliph. He also spread the word that it was the caliph’s brothers who had murdered al-Zafir. Three young princes were then butchered in cold blood by Abbas, Nasr and their henchmen. Usama was among the hundreds who witnessed these events and described it as one of the most disquieting days of his life.
After these bloody events, al-Zafir’s sisters sent a letter to the governor of Upper Egypt, Ibn Ruzzik, begging him to ride to Cairo and to depose Abbas and Nasr. Ibn Ruzzik gathered an army and marched north. Abbas and Nasr also mobilized the Egyptian army, but it turned on them and a battle ensued between Abbas’s personal retainers, including Usama, and the army. After a hard day of fighting Abbas emerged victorious and drove the army out of Cairo and reestablished order. However, he saw that his position was not tenable for long and decided to flee to Syria and to ally himself with Nur al-Din. Abbas, Nasr, and Usama gathered their followers, families, and belongings and attempted to depart from Cairo, but were attacked by elements of the army and some of the amirs still residing in Cairo. Their baggage train was plundered as were their houses and then they were expelled from the city. The journey to Syria was fraught with danger and involved a series running battles with both hostile Bedouin tribes and Franks that only Usama and his men survived.
You can read Usama ibn Munqidh’s own account of his life and the world he saw around him in The Book of Contemplation: Islam and the Crusades.
Adam Ali is a lecturer at the University of Toronto