LUCKY GARVIN: Terror and The Unknown History of Masada

Lucky Garvin

“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” Shakespeare knew whereof he spoke, especially in the case of Saladin.

Saladin first united many Persians in the Twelfth Century, then became their leader. Few were richer than he; none more fearsome. Tradition holds he could summon as many as a million men-at-arms when needed, a talent he employed oft-times in his contests against the Christians in the Crusades.

Yet he lived under a veil of fear occasioned by a group known as the ‘Assassins,’ a group of religious fanatics which is felt to have originated in Persia and Syria in 1080. They would strike and kill their targets in broad daylight, often in crowds, then vanish.

As the following story will convey, the Assassins were ahead of their time in terms of methodology; stratagems which, in a very real sense, made this relatively small group of murderers cast a very large and dread shadow. They were well aware of the dictum that a terrorist is only as powerful as the fear he creates; and they created a lot of it.

By way of example: Saladin was approached while in his camp by an emissary of Sabbah, leader of the terrorists. The emissary said his message was for Saladin’s ears alone. Saladin however, perhaps fearing an attempt on his life, dismissed all his group save two bodyguards, one on each side of him. He had known each of them for years, and respected the pair “as I would my own sons.”

The emissary smiled and said, “And if I were to order them to kill you?”

Saladin heard the soft scrape of metal upon metal, and turned to see both guards, their swords half drawn, looking menacingly down at him. The emissary waved a hand of dismissal and the swords slid back into place. But by then Saladin knew the worst: he could trust no one in his army. The two ‘sons’ had been set into Saladin’s army as youths – part of a sleeper cell – some years ago.

Although reliable history becomes a bit sketchy here, the Assassins were, for the most part, defeated and eradicated by the Mongols. Nevertheless, a few escaped to Masada.

I am fascinated by what facts are often excised by reputedly ‘historical’ documentaries. I had long ago learned of the redoubt of Masada, a tall, isolated mesa not far from Jerusalem, once a palace and “getaway” for the Roman Herod.

A group of Jews had barricaded themselves there against the Romans. But, as they were the last holdouts, the Romans wished to exterminate this threat. They surrounded the mesa, and using a natural, graded escarpment to the village, the Romans build a road uphill to Masada’s gate, bought up siege engines, and that was that.

When the Romans breeched Masada’s last defense, they found that the hundreds of Jews there [with three exceptions: a woman and two children] had killed each other to avoid the certain atrocities the Romans were famous for.

That’s the story I had been told time and again. But recently, certain interesting facts were added to the story which had been, God knoweth not why, previously edited.

In the story above, ‘Terror,’ we learned that the Assassins had been largely defeated by the Mongols, but one group escaped. They were known as the ‘Sicarii.’ Operating in Jerusalem, they continued striking fear into the hearts of enemies, and as Muslims felt to be too friendly and accommodating to their Roman masters.

However, a fateful decision was made by the Sicarii. They now targeted anyone – regardless of creed or religious affiliation – who did not precisely interpret and adhere to the Islamic faith as they thought it should be. In other words, in deeds, beliefs, dress, and ritual, one had to be in lock-step with the Sicarii, or you were marked for an infidel’s death. [This does have a familiar ring, doesn’t it?]

Needless to say, this set most of the citizens of Jerusalem on a collision course with the assassins, and the Sacarii were forced out of the city.

The Sicarii fled to, and made a fortress out of Masada. From there, they continued to raid, rob and murder those who lived nearby. This didn’t go down well with their neighbors. So it wasn’t merely the Romans who wanted them dealt with, other Muslims did as well.

A final note: Masada was surrounded by Romans who forced enslaved Jews to build that large approach [so the Roman engineered the huge ramp, but it was the prisoners who actually built it; a fact left out of earlier narratives.]

So now we know the rest of the story.

Lucky Garvin