“Assassins” (Arab. Hashīshiyya) is a pejorative term applied to the Nizārīs, a sect of the Ismā‘īlī branch of Shī‘a Islam in the Middle Ages. In 1094 the Nizārīs broke away from the main body of the Ismā‘īlīs in Egypt in the course of a dispute between two rivals for the succession to the Fātimid caliphate, al-Musta‘lī and Nizār. Although al-Musta‘lī was invested as caliph in Cairo, Hasanal-Sabbāh, an Ismā‘īlī anti-Saljûq agitator in Persia, declared his support for the cause of Nizār, who had disappeared under mysterious circumstances. In the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries the Nizārīs enjoyed considerable support in the great towns of the Syrian interior and made determined attempts to take control in Damascus and Aleppo.
The Assassins frequently resorted to political murder in the furtherance of their aims; indeed, the English word assassin derives from the Arabic term hashīshiyya. It was once thought that theHashīshiyya were so called by their enemies either because their leader, “the Old Man of the Mountains,” used drugs (hashish) to delude his followers into believing that they were being given a foretaste of Paradise in his garden or because the Assassins resorted to taking drugs in order to steel themselves to perform their bloody acts. However, on balance it seems more probable that those who called them Hashīshiyya meant more vaguely to insinuate that the Assassins were the sort of low-life riffraff who might take drugs; in this period hashish-taking tended to be confined to city slums.
By the 1130s the Assassins’ attempts to take control in the Syrian cities could be seen to have failed, and they withdrew to a mountainous part of northwestern Syria, where they took possession of a group of fortresses in the Jabal Bahra region: Masyaf, al-Kahf, Qadmus, Khariba, Khawabi, Rusafa, Qulay‘a, and Maniqua. Masyaf was the headquarters of the Syrian Assassins. In 1126 they were given the town of Banyas by Tughtigin, atabeg of Damascus, but they held it for only a few years, an Assassin attempt to seize power in Damascus having failed in the meantime. Although the Assassins also harbored the ambition to take control of Shaizar, several of their attacks on the place were unsuccessful; they held it only briefly in 1157 after an earthquake had leveled its walls. In 1090 the radical Ismā‘īlī preacher Hasan al-Sabbāh had established himself at Alamut, a strong fortress in the northwestern Persian province of Daylam, and a few years later, when the succession dispute broke out in Cairo, he declared his support for the Nizārī line.
From their bases in Syria and Persia the leaders of the Assassins masterminded a program of political murders. The impressive list of their victims included Sunnī, Shī‘ite, and Frankish leaders. They included Nizām al-Mulk, the Saljûq vizier (1092); Janāh al-Dawla, emir of Homs (1103); the Fātimid vizier al-Afdal (1121); al-Bursuqī, governor of Mosul and Aleppo (1126); the ‘Abbāsid caliphal-Mansûr ibn al-Mustarshid (1135); and Count Raymond II of Tripoli (1152). The assassination of Raymond and other Franks notwithstanding, in general Assassin outrages and the divisions they caused worked to the advantage of the Frankish principalities. They posed a major threat to Saladin, and in 1174 a couple of Assassins reached the sultan’s tent before being struck down. In 1176 Assassins made another attempt on Saladin’s life. He launched an abortive siege of Masyaf before reluctantly coming to terms with Sinān, the leader of the Syrian Assassins.
In 1192, for reasons that remain mysterious, Assassins struck down Conrad of Montferrat in Tyre (mod. Soûr, Lebanon). It is conceivable that they acted at the behest of Henry of Champagne. In 1194 the latter visited al-Kahf in order to confirm the alliance between what was left of the kingdom of Jerusalem and the sect. Other thirteenth-century assassinations include the deaths of Raymond, son of Prince Bohemund III of Antioch, in 1213, and Philip of Montfort, in 1270, at the behest of the sultan Baybars, and the wounding of Prince Edward of England in 1272. Joinville provided the most vivid account of the Syrian Assassins in the thirteenth century, as he related a visit of Brother Yves the Breton as an emissary of King Louis IX of France in 1252 to their leader, known to the westerners as the “Old Man of the Mountains” (the term Old Man is a literal translation of the Arabic shaykh). According to Yves, when the Old Man of the Mountains went out riding, he was preceded by a man bearing an axe, to the haft of which many knives were attached, and the bearer of the axe would cry out, “Turn out of the way of him who bears in his hands the death of kings!” [Joinville and Villehardouin, Chronicles of the Crusades, trans. Margaret R. B. Shaw (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963), p. 280].
During the thirteenth century the Assassins paid tribute to both the Hospitallers and the Templars in northern Syria. According to Joinville, this was because the masters of those orders did not fear assassination, for the Nizārīs knew they would be replaced by masters just as good. It is more likely that the tributary relationship reflected the strength on the ground of the orders based in Margat (mod. Marqab, Syria) and Tortosa (mod. Tartûs, Syria). In a series of campaigns from 1265 to 1271, the Mamlûk sultan Baybars captured the Assassin castles and made the sect his tributaries. He and his successors also employed them as a kind of state assassination bureau, using them, among other things, to attack enemies in the Mongol Ilkhanate of Persia. However, after the fourteenth century this practice seems to have been discontinued, and one hears little of what had become a remote, rustic group of villages inhabited by harmless sectarians.
The end of the Assassins in Persia happened earlier. They were unwise enough to challenge the growing power of the Mongols, and in 1256 the general Hülegü was dispatched by the great Mongol khan Mongke in Qaraqorum to capture Alamut and the other Assassin castles nearby. The grand master Rukn al-Dīn surrendered to safe conduct but was subsequently put to death. Alamut had been a major center of Isma‘īlī learning and the place possessed an impressive library of esoterica, which the Persian historian Juvayni inspected on Hülegü’s orders. Although the Nizārī Ismā‘īlīs were quite widely feared and detested throughout the Muslim world, they survive today in India and elsewhere as a respectable and prosperous community whose leader is the Agha Khan.
The folklore of the Assassins in Western literature is at least as interesting as their real history. Writers like Marco Polo, John Mandeville, and Felix Fabri produced the most fantastical stories about a paradise of drugs and houris in a mountain fastness presided over by the sinister Old Man of the Mountains. Their stories in turn inspired poetry and romances produced in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.