With the jugglery of deceit and the trickery of untruth, with guileful preparations and specious obfuscations, he laid the foundations of the fida’is, and he said: ‘Who of you will rid this state of the evil of Nizam al-Mulk Tusi?’ A man called Bu Tahir Arrani laid the hand of acceptance on his breast, and, following the path of error by which he hoped to attain the bliss of the world-to-come, on the night of Friday, the 12th of Ramadan of the year 485 [ …] he came in the guise of a Sufi to the litter of Nizam al-Mulk, who was being borne from the audience to the tent of his women, and struck him with a knife, and by that blow he suffered martyrdom.
These days, the word ‘assassin’ is common parlance, used to define any murderer of an important person or anyone hired in the role of professional killer, but originally the word came to the West via the Arabic language just before the time of the Crusades, when it was used to denote a secretive Islamic sect feared throughout that region for the many murders it committed. The Hashishim (also referred to as the Ismailis or the Assassins) were a group who became infamous for using murder as a political weapon. Unpitying, merciless and ruthlessly systematic in both the planning and execution of their crimes, this radical Islamic sect was, justifiably, one of the most feared organizations in the world at that time.
First mention of the group is believed to be in the report of an envoy who was sent to Egypt and Syria in 1175 by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa.
Note, that on the confines of Damascus, Antioch and Aleppo there is a certain race of Saracens in the mountains, who in their own vernacular are called Heyssessini […] This breed of men live without law; they eat swine’s flesh against the law of the Saracens, and make use of all women without distinction, including their mothers and sisters […] They have among them a Master, who strikes the greatest fear into all the Saracen princes both far and near, as well as the neighboring Christian lords. For he has the habit of killing them in an astonishing way.1
This ‘Master,’ who was best known by the sobriquet ‘The Old Man of the Mountain’ (a nickname which was passed down from one Assassin leader to the next), wielded tremendous power over his followers, engendering in them a fanatical devotion that admitted no other master.
The explorer Marco Polo, who traveled through this part of the world in 1273, made some interesting observations relating to the Old Man, observations that go some way towards explaining the hold he had over his followers. Polo described how the Old Man had established a ‘certain valley between two mountains to be enclosed, and had turned it into a garden, the largest and most beautiful that was ever seen, filled with every variety of fruit.’ Polo then goes on to explain how the Old Man required his followers to believe that this garden was actually Paradise. ‘Now,’ writes Polo, ‘no man was allowed to enter the Garden save those whom he intended to be his ASHISHIN.’ Once the Old Man had selected those he wished to enter, they were given a potion to drink after which they would fall asleep, then be carried into the garden. On waking in such beautiful surroundings the Old Man’s victims would immediately believe they were in Paradise. And here they would remain until he needed one of them to return to the outside world as an assassin. The chosen one would once again be given the sleeping potion, only this time he would be carried out of the garden and on awakening be given his instructions. ‘Go thou and slay So and So,’ wrote Marco Polo in imitation of how the Old Man spoke, ‘and when thou returnest my Angels shall bear thee into Paradise. And should’st thou die, nevertheless even so I shall send my Angels to carry thee back into Paradise.’2
Venetian traveler and explorer Marco Polo came across the cult of the Hashishim when traveling through the Middle East in 1273 – and wrote extensively about the ‘Old Man of the Mountain.’
Whether the above account is true or not (and many historians for a variety of reasons believe it is not), what it does illustrate is the extent to which the Hashishim had invaded public consciousness. By the twelfth century several commentators thought they detected the Hashishim’s hand behind all kinds of political murder, not just in Syria but also in Europe. In 1158, while Frederick Barbarossa was laying siege to Milan, one historian alleges that an ‘Assassin’ was caught in Barbarossa’s camp. In 1195 while the English King Richard I ‘Lionheart’ was sojourning at Chinon, it has been documented that at least fifteen Assassins were captured and later confessed to having been sent by the King of France to kill him. Numerous other accounts began to filter through and before long it became commonplace to accuse your enemy of being in league with the Old Man of the Mountain for the sole purpose of having you assassinated. The truth is that most European leaders of those times would not have needed any outside help to rid themselves of their enemies by murdering them, so the accusation was actually something of a goading insult.
Nevertheless, the Hashishim continued to arouse Western curiosity and in 1697 a man by the name of Bartholomé de Herbelot wrote a book called the Bibliothèque orientale (The Oriental Library) which contained almost all the information then available on the history, religion and literature of this region. The Assassins, so de Herbelot concluded, were an offshoot of the Ismailis (who were themselves an offshoot of the Shi’a, whose quarrel with the Sunnis was, and still is when one looks at modern-day Iraq, the main religious schism in Islam).
Another major study – though from a considerably later date – was by the Arabic scholar Silvestre de Sacy, who posed the theory that the Hashishim were so called due to their liberal intake of hashish; however, this theory was later discredited as the Ismailis never make mention of this drug in their texts. It is also believed that hashishi – a local Syrian word – was a term of abuse given to the sect to describe their unsociable behavior, rather than a reference to any drug. Indeed, so ‘unsociable’ was the Hashishim’s behavior that it is thought the original Old Man of the Mountain – a man by the name of Hasani Sabbah – didn’t leave his mountain retreat for well over thirty-five years.
Sabbah was born in the city of Qumm, around the middle of the eleventh century, but while he was still a young boy his father moved the entire family to Rayy (nowadays known as Tehran), where Sabbah began his first serious attempt at religious education.
From the days of my boyhood, from the age of seven, I felt a love for the various branches of learning, and wished to become a religious scholar; until the age of seventeen I was a seeker and searcher for knowledge, but kept to the Twelver faith of my fathers.3
It appears that Sabbah visited Egypt for a period of approximately three years, staying first in Cairo and afterwards in Alexandria. It was during this time, however, that he turned away from his former faith due to a split within the religion. On his deathbed the Caliph of Cairo, al-Mustansir, had appointed his son, Nizar, to succeed him, but after he passed away a decision was made whereby Nizar’s brother, a man by the name of al Musta’li, was made Caliph instead. This caused huge disturbances among the population, with many people choosing not to recognize al Musta’li.
The dissenting group proclaimed their allegiance to the by-passed Caliph Nizar, and it is for this reason that members of the sect which became known to history as The Assassins were first known as the Nizari Isma’ilis.4
Hasan-i Sabbah aligned himself with this latter sect, a decision which later saw him deported from Egypt to North Africa. But the ship he was traveling on ran into difficulties, although he was rescued and taken to Syria. From here Sabbah traveled throughout Persia, also visiting Iran and Kurdistan. His main interest, however, lay in northern Persia in the Shi’ite stronghold of Daylam. This was a place that in the words of Bernard Lewis ‘jealously [guarded] its independence against the Caliphs of Baghdad and other Sunni rulers.’5
As someone who himself shunned the Caliphs, Hasan-i Sabbah fitted in well with his new surroundings and made every effort to put into practice the ‘new’ preaching of the Nizari Ismailis, traveling extensively throughout the region until, three or four years later, he decided he needed a permanent base for his teachings. He chose a mountain hideaway which would be inaccessible to his enemies, but from where he could continue his fight not only against the Caliphs, but also against his true enemy, the Seljuq Empire.
In the eleventh century, the Islamic world suffered a series of major invasions, the most serious by the Seljuq Turks, who eventually established a new empire that stretched from Central Asia right through to the Mediterranean. It seemed that the Seljuq were invincible. No one attacked them, no one challenged them. Their military power was second to none, and the only form of dissent came from the Ismailis and in particular from Hasan-i Sabbah who, over the years, fashioned himself into the Seljuq’s worst nightmare.
When Sabbah first decided to establish a mountain stronghold, the only place he knew of where all the criteria he demanded existed, was the castle of Alamut. Built more than 6,000 feet above sea level on a narrow ridge in the heart of the Elburz Mountains, dominating a sheltered valley that stretched for approximately thirty miles, Alamut was the perfect location. The building is rumored to have been constructed by a former King of Daylam who, while out on a hunting expedition one day, let loose an eagle that alighted on a rock high in the mountains. Seeing how well positioned the location was, the king immediately ordered a castle be built on the site, thereafter naming it Aluh Almut, which in translation means ‘Eagle’s teaching’. It was rebuilt in 860 by yet another king, but when Sabbah decided the castle was to be his, he overthrew the building’s old incumbent and established himself as the new master of Alamut.
Once Sabbah entered the building, he never again returned down the rock on which the castle was built. Instead, he led an abstemious life, studying, preaching and looking after the affairs of his ‘kingdom’ which, for the main part, meant winning over new converts to his cause and gaining possession of more castles. He also sent out missionaries to help him accomplish both aims. The historian Juvaynie wrote:
Hasan exerted every effort to capture the places adjacent to Alamut or that vicinity. Where possible he won them over by the tricks of his propaganda while such places as were unaffected by his blandishments he seized with slaughter, ravishment, pillage, bloodshed, and war. He took such castles as he could and wherever he found a suitable rock he built a castle upon it.6
This illustration from the fifteenth-century manuscript Travels of Marco Polo shows the Old Man of the Mountain issuing his deadly orders to his followers.
So successful was Hasan-i Sabbah, that his operatives even began spreading their religious propaganda in areas loyal to the Sunnis and the Seljuq. It was Sabbah’s operatives who first drew blood in a Seljuq-controlled area of Rayy. Eighteen Ismaili agents, who had gathered together to conduct prayers, were placed under arrest by local guards. They were questioned, after which they were released. The group then went on to try to convert a muezzin, but this man refused to accept their religious teachings and, fearing that he might report them to the authorities, the group killed him. Hearing about the death, the Vizier of the area, Nizam al-Mulk, gave an order that the group’s ringleader be arrested and executed – an order that was swiftly carried out. This was the first of many subsequent crack-downs on the Ismailis by the Seljuqs, but rather than shy away from future conflict, the Ismailis, under Sabbah’s leadership continued to fight back, and were soon employing the art of assassination to aid them in their task.
Their first chosen victim was said to be the Vizier himself, Nizam al-Mulk, and the man chosen to carry out his murder was Bu Tahir Arrani.
[…] on the night of Friday, the 12th of Ramadan of the year 485 [October 16, 1092], in the district of Nihavand at the stage of Sahna, he came in the guise of a Sufi to the litter of Nizam al-Mulk, who was being borne from the audience-place to the tent of his women, and struck him with a knife, and by that blow he [Arrani] suffered martyrdom.’7
Nizam al-Mulk’s assassination was only the first in a long line of political killings that then erupted. No one was safe: princes, kings, generals, viziers, governors, divines – anyone who professed to disagree with the Ismailis and their teachings was considered an enemy and became a legitimate target. The Ismailis considered themselves an elite killing force, striking down all those who opposed them. Their victims, on the other hand, regarded the Ismailis as nothing more than ‘criminal fanatics,’ men who were willing to break the law and commit murder to get their own way.
As a group, the Ismailis (or Hashishim or Assassins) became a very powerful secret society, replete with all the paraphernalia one would expect of such a group. They had their own system of oaths and a highly pronounced hierarchy, organized into rigid sub-groups based upon each member’s initiation into the secrets of the society. The organization of the sect as a whole was known as da’wa, which in translation means ‘mission’, with those involved in the da’wa referred to as da’is or ‘missionaries’. These da’iswere then sub-divided and graded by rank, the highest echelons of which consisted of teachers and preachers. Beneath these came the mustajibs, who made up the lowest rank of initiates, but above everyone came the hujja or senior da’ i, whose role was basically that of an elder.
It was murder, however, rather than any form of religious practice, that was the Assassins’ foremost claim to fame and it is no exaggeration to say that the Ismailis were probably the first group of people in history truly to transform the act of murder into an ideology – one that was largely focussed against those Muslim rulers who would not tolerate their extreme unorthodoxy. The Ismailis planned their murders in meticulous detail, all the while trying to eliminate the possibility of killing anyone who wasn’t a ‘legitimate’ target. Typically, they would approach their victims while dressed in disguise so as not to alert suspicion. Their weapon of choice was the dagger because this was easily hidden in clothing and, if used correctly, allowed for the swift dispatch of the victim. Indeed, the use of a dagger – as opposed to poison or strangulation, which for certain murders would have been either easier or safer – seems to have been of the utmost importance to the Assassins. They viewed their killings not only as acts of extreme piety, but also as sacramental rituals.
Another fundamental feature of the Assassins’ art was that under no circumstances would they commit suicide, preferring instead to be killed by the enemy. Indeed, survival was not generally an option where an Assassin was concerned, for no self-respecting Hashishim would either wish, let alone expect, to carry on living after he had murdered his target.
Hasan-i Sabbah laid down all the above rules and regulations according to his own creed and the Hashishim saw many successes under his rule. By May 1124, however, the Old Man of the Mountain lay seriously ill. Knowing the end was near, he chose an heir from among his loyal followers, a man by the name of Buzurgumid. The appointment came not a moment too soon, for on May 23, 1124, Hasan-i Sabbah died. It was the end of a remarkable era, for Sabbah had been a man of tremendous talent. Writing about him shortly after his death, one biographer described him as being learned not only in arithmetic, astronomy and geometry but also in magic, while another historian points out Sabbah’s unique asceticism, which in its most concrete form meant that during his thirty-five-year tenure of Alamut, nobody was permitted to drink or keep drink on the premises.
But since Hasan-i Sabbah was dead, what of his successor Buzurgumid? Had he enough strength to prevent all that his predecessor had built up from being vanquished by the Seljuq? The answer came two years after Sabbah’s death when, in 1126, the Seljuq launched a full-scale offensive against the Ismailis. Two major successes were achieved: the conquest of an Ismaili-held village called Tarz where the entire population was executed, and another raid, this time on a village called Turaythith, where, again, many of the civilian population were killed.
Naturally, the Ismailis did not wait long to exact their revenge. In true Hashishim style, Buzurgumid sent two of his most skilled men to seek employment as grooms in the house of the local Seljuq vizier. This task accomplished, on March 16,1127, when the Vizier summoned the two grooms to help him choose a couple of Arab horses to be sent as a gift to the Sultan, he was deftly assassinated. During Buzurgumid’s tenure as leader of the Ismailis, although he did not order as many killings as Hasani Sabbah had done, the list of victims was considerable. Bernard Lewis, in his book The Assassins, mentions a handful of such cases including ‘[…] a prefect of Isfahan, a governor of Maragha […], a prefect of Tabriz, and a mufti of Qazvin.’8
Buzurgumid’s reign as leader of the Ismailis continued until his death on February 9, 1138, at which point he was succeeded by his son, Muhammad who swiftly put into practice all he had learnt from his father in the art of killing. His first victim was the ex-Caliph al-Rashid, who was in Isfahan in Persia suffering from a minor illness when Muhammad’s men found and assassinated him on June 6, 1138. After his death, it is said that celebrations were held at Alamut to mark the new Ismaili leader’s first so-called ‘victory’.
Fourteen assassinations then followed al-Rashid’s, with one of the most notable victims being the Seljuq Sultan Da’ud, who was murdered by four Syrian assassins in Tabriz (north-western Persia) in 1143. But if a tally of fourteen seems large, in comparison with the number of assassinations committed during Hasan-i Sabbah’s reign it was paltry. A shift had occurred or, to be more precise, over the years the Ismailis appear to have lost some of their religious fervour. Instead, they began to concentrate on more mundane matters such as cattle rustling and border disputes. Yet there were still some among them who longed for a return to the ‘good old days’, the days when Hasan-i Sabbah had ruled and when religious matters had inspired them to commit bold deeds. This group began to congregate around a new leader, Muhammad’s son, Hasan, but it wasn’t until Muhammad’s death in 1162 that Hasan eventually took over and began to reinvigorate his followers.
Two years after he was crowned leader, in the middle of the fasting month that is Ramadan, Hasan announced the dawning of a new Millennium. There are several accounts of this momentous occasion – first and foremost within texts belonging to the sect themselves, which describe the event in detail down to the color (white, red, yellow and green) of the banners that were erected around the pulpit from which Hasan spoke. The positioning of the pulpit itself (facing west) was also of great significance, meaning that Hasan’s entire congregation had to stand with their backs towards Mecca. Hasan then entered the scene dressed in white robes, with a white turban on his head. Standing in the pulpit, he spoke to the crowd and declared that from this moment forward they were free from the rules of Holy Law. He declared himself their spiritual leader or ‘Living Proof’ who must be obeyed in all religious and worldly matters. Hasan’s message was that of the Imam – ‘His word is our word’.9 Directly after this address, Hasan then declared that everyone should join him in a banquet, thus breaking Ramadan. This, together with the congregation standing with their backs to Mecca, symbolized, for them, nothing less than, for them, an end to Shari’a law.
Most Ismailis celebrated and embraced the new era; however, there were still a few who refused to break with tradition and dispense with the old ways. Hasan dealt with them severely.
Hasan maintained, both by implication and by clear declaration, that just as in the time of the Law if a man did not obey and worship but followed the rule of the Resurrection that obedience and worship are spiritual, he was punished and stoned and put to death, so now in the time of the Resurrection if a man complied with the letter of the Law and persisted in physical worship and rites, it was obligatory that he be chastised and stoned and put to death.10
Yet, although Hasan’s proposals were radical, ironically, given that he had just declared himself the closest thing there was to the hidden Imam, shortly after his declaration at Alamut he was killed by his brother-in-law, who had refused to relinquish the old ways.
If at this point the Ismailis were undergoing turbulent times, it was in the last years of the eleventh century that they succeeded in setting a firm hold in Syria where they converted a Seljuq prince of Aleppo called Ridwan ibn-Tutush. By the mid-twelfth century they had also succeeded in capturing the hill fortress of Masyad as well as several other citadels in northern Syria, including al-Qadmus and al-Kahf. But it was at Masyad that one of the most famous Assassin leaders resided – Rashid-al-Din Sinan.
As a young boy, Sinan had been educated at Alamut alongside Hasan who, on taking over from his father Muhammad, ordered Sinan to go into Syria and spread the word throughout that region. This Sinan did to great effect, although perhaps his most notorious action during the period was the assassination of the Marquis Conrad of Montferrat, King of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem in Tyre, who was taking part in the Third Crusade. The two assassins whom Sinan chose for the job are said to have disguised themselves as Christian monks and inveigled their way into the confidence of the Marquis before stabbing him to death. Sinan appears to have instilled in his followers an extraordinary degree of devotion. This account by the German chronicler Arnold of Lübeck illustrates the power he wielded over his acolytes:
This Old Man has by his witchcraft so bemused the men of his country, that they neither worship nor believe in any God but himself. Likewise he entices them in a strange manner with such hopes and with promises of such pleasures with eternal enjoyment, that they prefer rather to die than to live. Many of them even, when standing on a high wall, will jump off at his nod or command, and, shattering their skulls, die a miserable death. The most blessed, so he affirms, are those who shed the blood of men and in revenge for such deeds themselves suffer death. When, therefore, any of them have chosen to die in this way, murdering someone by craft and then themselves dying so blessedly in revenge for him, he himself hands them knives which are, so to speak, consecrated to this affair, and then intoxicates them with such a potion that they are plunged into ecstasy and oblivion, displays to them by his magic certain fantastic dreams, full of pleasures and delights, or rather of trumpery, and promises them eternal possession of these things in reward for such deeds.11
As well as killing those whom he saw as politically opposed to his point of view, Sinan (and those who followed in his footsteps) also discovered a means of turning their evil reputation as ruthless killers to another advantage, that of exacting large pay-outs from their adversaries. One contemporary source has it that the Emperor Frederick II (the Holy Roman Emperor and German King as well as the King of Jerusalem from 1229–50), who had traveled to Palestine on a Crusade, brought with him a whole bevy of servants carrying gifts worth over 80,000 dinars to give to the Assassins. Ironically, this new-found method of financing their organization also spelt the beginning of the end of their cult, for as the Crusades continued over a long period of time, it was only natural that more and more information about the Assassins gradually became available. A small handful of Europeans even began to meet up with a few of their number, to discuss their religion and their politics, to the point that the Templars and the Knights Hospitaller (an order first founded in the eleventh century and originally dedicated to providing sick-bays for Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem, but later to become a military order as well) even managed to establish some sort of influence over them. Eventually these orders were to demand an annual tribute from the Assassins, rather than the other way round.
In 1228 the English historian, Matthew of Paris, reported that a delegation of Muslims had arrived in Europe seeking advice and help from both the English and French, because of the imminent threat of a Mongol invasion of Syria from the east. This really was the end for the Syrian Assassins, who were not only facing this Mongol invasion, but were also being squeezed hard by the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt, Baybars. Baybars was himself under threat from the Mongols as well as the Christian Franks, and was not prepared to tolerate the presence of a highly dangerous clique of heretics within Syria’s midst. Assigning all the Assassins’ lands and property to one of his generals, he further diminished their power by collecting taxes from them and confiscating all the gifts of money they received from the various princes in the region. All of this weakened the Assassins considerably, and it is said that in March 1271 Baybars arrested two Assassins who had been sent to murder him. After being questioned the two suspects were released, but only after two Ismaili leaders had relinquished hold of their castles. Humiliated, broken, vanquished, by the thirteenth century all mention of the Assassins disappears and any small pockets of Ismailism that survived probably did so for only a very short time, never again to achieve the kind of political importance they had once so enjoyed.
Before the Ismailis, many other sects whose main purpose was dissent from mainstream thinking existed, but according to several commentators on the period, none were as effective or as systematic in the use of terror as the Assassins. In fact, it is safe to say that this group of fanatics were the world’s first terrorists. Hasan-i Sabbah knew this instinctively. Without stating it openly, he realized that preaching alone could not combat Sunni Islam or the armies of the Seljuq. Only by forming small, self-disciplined units of trained killers could he hope to have any effect on those forces whose manpower and weaponry far outstripped his own. And, with a handful of notable exceptions, including the murder of the Marquis Conrad of Montferrat, the Assassins’ victims were almost entirely made up of Sunni Muslims – the ruling elite. It was their strong hold over the region – political, military and religious – that so incensed and angered the Ismailis, for they rarely targeted the Shi’ites and they barely posed any threat to the native Christians, Jews or, contrary to what is commonly assumed, to the Crusaders either.
Lacking the manpower and weaponry to wage all-out war, the Hashishim were not, as is often assumed, any real threat to the Crusaders, unlike the Saracen warriors depicted in this illustration from the thirteenth-century French manuscript Chroniques de Saint-Denis.
But perhaps the most significant point to be made about these, the earliest of terrorists, is that they failed utterly in their dream of overthrowing the existing order. For decades they caused ripples of fear throughout the regions they targeted, but Chroniques de Saint-Denis. ultimately they did not succeed in gaining control of even one major city. They possessed several significant castles and the land thereabouts, but in reality these were no more than ‘petty principalities’.
Although the Ismailis eventually faded away, the same cannot be said for the manner in which they operated. History has proved only too well that their revolutionary tactics have trickled down through the centuries, finding countless converts along the way. One only has to look towards the Middle East and the suicide bombings that occur there, or to the Twin Towers attack in New York on September 11, 2001, to notice the striking resemblance between those terrorist activities committed in medieval times and those committed today. The absolute secrecy of the terrorist cell, the complete dedication of the assassin to his cause in return for guaranteed entry into Paradise, the calculated implementation of terror – the parallels are numerous. The medieval Assassins and terrorists operating today do, however, show one marked difference. Whereas Hasan-i Sabbah and his successors targeted the leaders of the existing order – that is to say Sunni generals, ministers, monarchs and religious functionaries – they went to great lengths not to involve or harm any civilians. Their counterparts today appear not to care whom they kill, be they men, women or children, Christian, Muslim or Jew, black or white.
There is one last parallel that might still be drawn between the two groups. It could be argued that Osama bin Laden, the world’s most wanted terrorist is, in a very real way, our present-day Old Man of the Mountain. After all, who can forget the video footage of bin Laden addressing (and threatening) the world from his mountain hideaway somewhere in Afghanistan? Let us hope that, like Hasan-i Sabbah, he fails to realize his dreams.