Murder and Political Drama in Medieval Syria and Egypt

By Steve Tibble

The Crusaders were tough – but they had no monopoly on political violence. Murders within Muslim hierarchies were relatively common too.

One such political murder took place in 1137. Shihab al-Din Mahmud, the lord of Damascus, wanted to dispose of one of his more irritating emirs. The opportunity for the hit came about when Bazwaj, the unfortunate emir in question, ‘visited him in the Rose Pavilion in his palace in the citadel. Now Shihab al-Din had detailed a party of the Armenian Shamsiya, who were members of his cortege, to deal with him and had given them instructions to kill him. When they were able to overpower him in the absence of his attendants, they killed him and carried him out wrapped in a cloak to the tomb built for his wife, and he was buried there.’


Shihab al-Din Mahmud did not have long to enjoy his success. ‘On the morning of [23 June, 1138]’, wrote the Damascene historian, Ibn al-Qalanisi, ‘there was made known the plot directed against Shihab al-Din…and his assassination while he was asleep in his bed during the preceding night, by the hands of his accursed slaves, Albaghash the Armenian, to whom he had shown special favour,…the eunuch Yusuf, whom he trusted to sleep by him, and al-Kwarkawi, the groom of the bed-chamber, who used to sleep in proximity to him…These three accursed malefactors used to sleep around his bed.’

The attack was almost too easy – ‘when they were assured that he was asleep, they attacked and killed him in his bed upon his couch. Another groom who was with them called out and they killed him too. They planned out their course of action, concealed their secret, and so got out of the citadel. When the assassination became known, a search was made for Albaghash, but he had fled and his house was plundered. The other two were seized and crucified on the wall over the Jabiya gate.’


The motivation behind the killing is not clear – other than revenge, it is difficult to see what the murderers hoped to gain. Perhaps there was a tangled backstory of jealousy or long-held grudges between the men. Or perhaps they felt Shihab was going to dispose of them as he had Bazwaj and many others, and they decided to get to him before he killed them.

Either way, their strangely Shakespearian approach (which followed the plot of Macbeth even as far as murdering the grooms) showed how difficult it was to protect oneself from servants, lovers and ostensible friends. They were also an isolated, febrile group, bound to the lord of Damascus perhaps by sex, perhaps by their very isolation. The Armenian Christian, the eunuch, and the groom – all men on the fringes of the society over which they wielded so much power and influence.

There was a need for security in the bedchamber, while a ruler slept – but if those men were suborned or disgruntled, it was extremely hard to defend oneself against them.

Mamluk depicted in a 15th-century Furusiyya manual

But although many of their predecessors were highly enthusiastic, it was the Mamluks who perfected the art of the ruthless palace coup. As slave-soldiers they were, rather like Shihab al-Din’s Armenian palace guards, men adrift from their families and countries – these were retainers who had (initially at least) very limited distractions in terms of local relationships. In theory this meant that they could focus on their masters’ wishes. But in practice it also meant that they had few ties of family loyalty to keep their personal ambitions in check. And, as highly trained warriors, once they had chosen to take a path of betrayal they also had the means to express their ambitions extremely forcefully.


This meant that regime change in the Muslim courts of the Middle East was often accompanied by murder. Luckily for us, if not for him, a Frankish prisoner of war was a bystander at one such coup in 1250 and survived to write a vivid and detailed first-hand account of what the transfer of power might look like from a Mamluk perspective.

John of Joinville had been captured whilst on crusade in Egypt with King Louis IX. Unluckily for both Joinville and for the victorious sultan, the vicious and very personal politics of the Mamluk regime chose this moment of triumph to erupt. A cabal of emirs decided to kill their leader while he was still in the relatively insecure environment of his campaign headquarters.

‘So it was,’ wrote Joinville, ‘that after they had eaten and the sultan was making his way to his chamber after having taken his leave of his emirs, one of the knights of the halqa [who were, disappointingly from the sultan’s perspective, his elite bodyguard], the man who carried the sultan’s sword, struck him with his own sword across the hand, between his four fingers, and split his hand open right up to his arm.’


Despite the agony of his wound, the ‘young and agile sultan fled…[and] the members of the halqa, who were 500 men on horseback, tore down the sultan’s pavilions and laid siege to him.’ The treacherous guards sensed that they were on the cusp of receiving the kind of attractive bonus that invariably accompanied violent regime change such as this.

The sultan’s death as depicted in a European manuscript – Bibliothèque nationale de France MS Français 5716 fol. 128

They ‘launched Greek fire at him, and the tower, made of fir poles and cotton cloth, was set alight quickly…When the sultan saw this he came down at great speed and made off in flight towards the river along the path…The men of the halqa had hacked through onto the path with their swords, and as the sultan passed him on his way to the river one of them struck him a spear blow in his side. The sultan fled for the river, trailing the spear behind him. His assailants came down to the water and swam out to kill him in the river, quite close to the galley where we were. One of the knights…slit him open with his sword, and pulled the heart from his chest’.

While this unpleasantness was going on, chaos reigned. The murderers made all the Frankish prisoners of war kneel down to be beheaded – but this was either a form of intimidation, or they just changed their minds. The Crusaders were eventually trussed up and thrown into the hold of one of their galleys.

‘We stayed there,’ wrote Joinville, prosaically enough for what must have been a traumatic experience, ‘in a miserable condition all that night; we were lying so close together that my feet were touching the good Count Peter of Brittany and his were right next to my face.’ The smell of Count Peter’s feet, bad though they have been, was clearly more palatable to recall than the possibility (almost probability) of their imminent execution.


Strangely, although disposing of a losing general (rather than a successful one) would intuitively seem to make much more sense, this same sequence of events was repeated in a similarly victorious Muslim army a few decades later. Perhaps the heady nature of victory meant that security was looser. Or perhaps the smell of blood in the air just sharpened the senses to the possibilities of ambition and opportunity.

Either way, in the aftermath of the siege of Acre in 1291, the final major blood-letting of the eastern crusades, al-Ashraf Khalil, the victorious Sultan who had just conquered the last major Frankish stronghold, met a similarly lacklustre fate. Within two years of his historic victory, he was killed by his own lieutenants. One of his trusted emirs ‘hacked him so that he cut him in two’. The Sultan’s family was evidently not a close one, as the first wound was inflicted by ‘Baydara, who was his uncle’.

The killing rarely stopped, even when regime change had been successfully effected, however. The business of public death continued to be a popular act of social communication, a display of power, of displeasure or caprice.

Saladin’s supposed chivalry and ‘humanity’ is an interesting case in point. These were bloodthirsty times, and societies steeped in a nomadic heritage were particularly disinhibited with regard to the shedding of blood. Saladin’s propagandist, Beha ad-Din, wrote that ‘forty-five Franks taken at Beirut were brought before Saladin.’ Cheerily, he wrote that one of Saladin’s ‘small sons asked his permission to kill one of the prisoners, but he refused.’

Saladin was praised for his humanity in making this decision, but his explanation was telling. ‘One does not accustom children to shedding blood loss lightly,’ he said, ‘when they are still incapable of distinguishing a Muslim from an infidel.’ Saladin was thus against his sons murdering prisoners of war, not because it was inherently wrong for children to become murderers, but only because he felt it might encourage them to kill indiscriminately, rather than just focusing on killing non-Muslims.

Blood was a powerful medium for political communication.

Want to learn more about crime during the Crusades? Check out Steve Tibble’s new book Crusader Criminals: The Knights Who Went Rogue in the Holy Land.

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Dr Steve Tibble is a graduate of Jesus College, Cambridge and London University. He is an Honorary Research Associate at Royal Holloway College, University of London. Steve is a leading authority on warfare and violence in the crusading era.

You can check out Steve’s other books: Templars: The Knights Who Made BritainThe Crusader Armies and The Crusader Strategy