[Review] The Ismaili Assassins: A History of Medieval Murder by James Waterson

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The Ismaili Assassins were an underground group of political killers who were ready to kill Christians and Muslims alike with complete disregard for their own lives. These devoted murderers were under the powerful control of a grand master who used assassination as part of a grand strategic vision that embraced Egypt, the Levant and Persia and even reached the court of the Mongol Khans in far away Qaraqorum.The Assassins were meticulous in their killing. They often slayed their victims in public, thereby cultivating their terrifying reputation. They assumed disguises and their weapon of choice was a dagger. The dagger was blessed by the grand master and killing with it was a holy and sanctified act – poison or other methods of murder were forbidden to the followers of the sect.Surviving a mission was considered a deep dishonour and mothers rejoiced when they heard that their Assassin sons had died having completed their deadly acts.Their formidable reputation spread far and wide. In 1253, the Mongol chiefs were so fearful of them that they massacred and enslaved the Assassins’ women and children in an attempt to liquidate the sect. The English monarch, Edward I, was nearly dispatched by their blades and Richard the Lionheart’s reputation was sullied by his association with the Assassins’ murder of Conrad of Montferrat. The Ismaili Assassins explores the origins, actions and legacy of this notorious sect. Enriched with eyewitness accounts from Islamic and Western sources, this important book unlocks the history of the Crusades and the early Islamic period, giving the reader entry into a historical epoch that is thrilling and pertinent.

Anyone who knows me knows that I adore the Assassins Creed game franchise – the fictional stories of how the Assassins fought against the Templars gripped me from the very first game – set during the crusades, you play as Altair ibn l’Ahad and fight against the Templar menace, whilst in the modern day you are Desmond Miles, a man forced to relive his ancestors memories. Suffice to say this sparked an interest in the real history behind the assassin sect, so when the fantastic people at Pen and Sword/Frontline books offered to send me a review copy of this book, I jumped at the chance. It is only the second book I have read on the history of the Assassins and let me tell you, it’s made me hungry for more.

The first thing that struck me about this book was Waterson’s simple prose – something that is very much needed with such a heavy topic. Waterson weaves the tale of the assassins right from their very beginnings seamlessly, and it makes it an absolute joy to read. I was also very pleased to see footnotes within this work. These days, many popular history books have little in the way of citations so this was a really pleasing thing to see. With such a subject, one needs to be able to see where quotations from both primary and secondary sources have come from.

Waterson covers a huge expanse of time in his biography of the secretive sect of killers, starting with the origins of Islam and the controversy around who was to succeed Muhammad (pbuh) after his death. We see the rise of the assassins then and read about their suicidal acts – their usual method was to get up close and personal with a dagger, and if they were to die in the attempt then so much the better. They believed it would bring honour upon them and their brothers. And as one reads these tales of brutal assassinations, one can’t help but compare them to the awful modern day suicide bombers in the middle east – one wonders (although the author does seem somewhat loath to say such a thing) if the actions of the Ismaili assassins serve as a blueprint for such modern day horrors.

It must be noted that this book covers centuries of history in not a huge amount of pages and therefore serves as more of an introduction to an incredibly vast and complicated subject. However the author does a fantastic job of explaining the complex history of this mysterious sect of people and bringing their world to the fore. I honestly could not put this book down and it really has made me hungry for more information on these mysterious, violent people and the mindset behind what they did.

A huge thank you to Pen & Sword/Frontline books for providing me with a review copy of this book. The Ismaili Assassins can be found on Amazon and in all good book stores.

[Review] The Templars: The Rise and Fall of God’s Holy Warriors by Dan Jones

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The Knights Templar were the wealthiest, most powerful – and most secretive – of the military orders that flourished in the crusading era. Their story – encompassing as it does the greatest international conflict of the Middle Ages, a network of international finance, a swift rise in wealth and influence followed by a bloody and humiliating fall – has left a comet’s tail of mystery that continues to fascinate and inspire historians, novelists and conspiracy theorists.

The Crusades and in particular, the Templars, are subjects that have long fascinated me however are not subjects that I have ever really invested all that much time into reading about. I’ve read a few books here and there, have visited Templar sites both here in England and over in Portugal – but when I found out that Dan Jones was writing a book on the powerful Templar order, I got ever so excited. Having read Jones’ previous work on The Plantagenets and Wars of the Roses, I opened this book knowing that he is an exceptional historian, able to grip his reader from the first word right through to the last.  It’s rare these days that I will find a popular historian whose words will capture me from the get go, especially on a subject that I have little knowledge on. However, Jones’ work did not disappoint – I went in with high hopes and came out wanting to share this book with everyone who has even a tiny interest in history.

Jones tells the story of the Templars from their humble beginnings in the early 1100’s through to their dramatic downfall in 1314. At first glance the book can be quite off putting simply due to its size – and there is a hell of a lot of information in those pages. However Jones’ narrative takes the huge amount of information and makes it simple, telling the story of this military order in a way that will grip those who already have knowledge of this period and those who, like me, go in with very little knowledge. It truly is an excellent achievement on Jones’ part – there aren’t many historians who can present such a complicated history and make it 100% accessible.

I found it particularly interesting to see how the Templars and their influence spread. They started out as a poor brotherhood of bodyguards, protecting pilgrims as they made their way to sites in the Holy Land. We then see how they turned into an elite fighting force in an effort to take the Holy Land back from the ‘infidel’ – they spread into Spain, Portugal, England etc. In short, the Templars were practically everywhere. Having been to Templar sites in Portugal, I gave a little squeak when I saw a particular Portuguese castle mentioned – but then there are sites in England, Spain etc which just goes to show how wide-spread this military order actually was. It was also interesting to see how the Templars became prominent bankers – this was something I had absolutely no idea about. They were, in short, the first global bank even before the establishment of banks by families such as the Medici over in Italy.

The downfall of this order came swiftly and Jones presents their end in a manner that had me feeling rather emotional. On Friday 13th October 1307 hundreds of Templars were arrested on the order of King Phillip IV – they were accused of practically every crime under the sun including heresy and sodomy. Brothers were tortured and false confessions were extracted from the brothers. It was all false but Philip wanted the Templars gone and it was his machinations that brought about their awful end. Some brothers were allowed free after their admissions, others were allowed into other military orders whilst a few faced the stake and were burned to death for their ‘heresy’. Their end came because of a King who wanted everything that the Templars had and he forced the Pope to do his bidding. As you read the chapters about these events you can’t help but despise the King and the Pope, especially when you read about the death of the very last Master of the Temple Jacques de Molay (spelt James of Molay in the book). The aging Master was kept prisoner for years, forced to confess to something that wasn’t true and continuously questioned when it was obvious that the poor man was losing his mind. In the end when he went back on his confession and raved about his innocence, he was sentenced as a relapsed heretic and burned at the stake on a little island in the middle of the River Seine. Just before the flames took over his body and ended his life, Molay cursed those who had destroyed the Templar order stating “God will avenge our death”

This book was an absolute joy to read and, in my opinion, is the best of Jones’ work to date – a detailed work that tells the full story of an order who have gone down in history as both an elite fighting force of noble knights AND evil heretics. I highly recommend this work to anyone with even the smallest interest in Crusader and Templar history. One thing’s for sure, it’s made me want to read more.

Check out my interview with Dan Jones.

The Templars is available on Amazon.