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Order of Assassins

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Rudkhan Castle in the Alborz mountain range, Iran
Formation1090 AD
Extinction1275 AD
TypeMilitary order
Official language
Parent organization
AffiliationsNizari Ismaili state

Assassins (Persian Ḥashashiyan, Arabic Ḥashīshiyya or Ḥashīshiyyīn, singular Ḥashīshī) were the Nizari Ismailis in the mountains of Persia and Syria between about 1090 to 1275. The name was not used by the Nizaris themselves, but was given to them by their opponents in Syria. Nizarism formed in the late 11th century after a split within Ismailism, a branch of Islam.

Based on texts from Alamut, their grand master Hassan-i Sabbah called his disciples Asāsiyyūn (أساسيون, meaning "people who are faithful to the foundation [of the faith]"), but some foreign travellers like Marco Polo[1] misunderstood the name as deriving from the term hashish.[2][3][4][5]

The Nizaris posed a strategic threat to Sunni Seljuq authority by capturing and inhabiting several mountain fortresses throughout Persia and later Syria, under the leadership of Hassan-i Sabbah. Asymmetric warfare, psychological warfare, and surgical strikes were often a tactic of the assassins, drawing their opponents into submission rather than risk killing them.[6]

While "Assassins" typically refers to the entire sect, only a group of acolytes known as the fida'i actually engaged in conflict. Lacking their own army, the Nizari relied on these warriors to carry out espionage and assassinations of key enemy figures, and over the course of 300 years they killed two caliphs, and many viziers, sultans, and Crusader leaders.[7]

During the rule of Imam Rukn-ud-Din Khurshah, the Nizari state declined internally, and was eventually destroyed as the Imam surrendered the castles to the invading Mongols. The Mongols destroyed and eliminated their Order. Mentions of Assassins were preserved within European sources – such as the writings of Marco Polo – where they are depicted as trained killers, responsible for the systematic elimination of opposing figures. The word "assassin" has been used ever since to describe a hired or professional killer, leading to the related term "assassination", which denotes any action involving murder of a high-profile target for political reasons.

The Nizari were acknowledged and feared by the Crusaders. The stories of the Assassins were further embellished by Marco Polo. European orientalist historians in the 19th century – such as Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall – also referred to the Nizari in their works and tended to write about the Nizari based on accounts by medieval Sunni Arab and Persian authors.

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Intro It was not uncommon for political and military leaders of the Seljuk Turks, during the 11th and 12th Centuries CE, to wake up to a surprise: a dagger, firmly planted on the floor next to their bed. Despite the fortress walls, the bolted doors and the armed guards, somebody had entered their bedroom and left a note – do as you are told, or the next time the dagger will be planted into your chest. But sometimes, no warning was given. The merciless blade would find its way into the heart, or the throat, of its target. Intimidation and targeted killings of high profile victims became their hallmark tactics, in a protracted and often desperate fight against a powerful invader. They became known as the Assassins, the loyal followers and guardians to the founder and leader of their movement: Hasan Sabbah. A foreword Hasan and his followers emerged in a confusing and murky period of political, ethnic and religious strife in Persia and the Middle East. A period in which different Muslim factions fought each other and against the European Crusaders. No wonder then, that the history emerging from that period is shrouded in myth, legend and propaganda. Who were exactly the Assassins and what was their agenda? What was their relationship with the Knights Templar? Who was the mysterious Old Man of the Mountain? Today, I will try to clear these, and other questions by narrating Hasan’s life. But first: how did the Assassin’s legend start in Europe? Legend of the Assassins One of the first written accounts about the Assassins comes from a French priest and historian living in Syria, William of Tyre . In the early 1180s, William wrote: “In the province of Tyre . . . is a certain people who have ten castles and surrounding lands and we have often heard that there are sixty thousands of them or more. . . . Both we and the Saracens call them Assassins, but I don’t know where the name comes from ” But Europeans would have to wait until 1298 to learn more about this mysterious Order. That’s when Rustichello da Pisa published The Travels of Marco Polo . [Roo-ste-ke-law. ‘Ste’ as in Steve, ‘ke’ as in Kent] The Venetian traveller describes a land called ‘Mulehet’ where an Old Man of the Mountain used to live. The Man had built the largest and most beautiful garden of the world, “Three canals streamed there: one for water, one for honey, one for wine. In the garden there lived boys and maidens, the most handsome in the world …” In the garden were admitted only those whom the Old Man wanted to turn into his Assassins. He drugged them with opium and upon waking up in the garden, he let them believe that they were experiencing a vision of Heaven. The next time they woke up, The Old Man had brought them back to the ‘real world’. Longing to return to that Heaven, these young men were manipulated to become Assassins on behalf of the Old Man. Only death as a martyr for their cause would grant them a return to that Garden of Delights. Marco Polo claims that it was for that reason that the Assassins were such effective killers, and the Old Man was so feared that rulers in Asia would pay him a regular tribute. The alternative being death, of course. Polo’s account concludes by narrating how in 1265 the Lord of the Tatars, Alau, tired of this wickedness, laid siege to the Old Man’s fortress for three years, before starving out the Man of the Mountain and all his Assassins. But how much of Marco Polo’s account is the truth and how much legend? Or even slander circulated by enemies? We’ll find out now: enter Hasan Sabbah. Hasan the Student Hasan Sabbah was born in the year 1050 in Qom, modern day Iran. Qom, was and still, considered as one of the holiest cities in Shi’a Islam and the leading centre for Muslim scholarship in Persia. His father, Ali bin Muhammad bin Ja‘far al-Sabbah al-Himyari, was originally Yemeni and belonged to the Twelver tradition of Shi’a Islam. After Hasan’s birth, the Sabbah family settled down in Ray, where the young Hasan received his early religious education in accordance to his father’s creed. But before I continue, allow me to clarify some religious terms. For example, what is the difference between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims? These two factions share many spiritual beliefs and religious practices, as their schism was political in nature. After the death of Mohammad in 632 his adviser Abu Bakr became the first Caliph, or ‘successor of the Prophet’, tasked with leading the Islamic nation. But his leadership was challenged by the followers of Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law. This faction originated the Shi’a sect, who believe that the leadership of the Islamic nation belongs to the direct descendants of the Prophet. On the other hand, Sunni Muslims believe that the leadership of the community is not a birthright: it can, and it must be earned. The Twelver tradition is the mainstream belief amongst Shi’as . It is called Twelver in reference to the Twelve successors of Mohammad, the last of which, Muhammad ibn Hasan al-Mahdī, is yet to return to become mankind’s saviour. The city of Ray, where young Hasan lived, was at the centre of another Shi’a current, the Ismailis. They derive their name from their allegiance to Ismail, the eldest son of Imam Jafar as Sadiq. Ismailis are the second largest denomination within Shi’a Islam, and what differentiates them from other Shi’a currents is that they have a living, hereditary Imam. In Ray, Hasan was introduced to the Ismaili doctrine by two prominent da’is, or missionaries: Amira Zarrab and Abu Nasr Sarraj. Following these studies, at the age of seventeen, Hasan converted to Ismailism and took an oath of allegiance to the Ismaili imam of the time, the Fatimid Caliph: al-Mustansir. The Fatimid Dynasty ruled the most powerful Muslim state of the era, from their capital in Cairo. Despite their power, Fatimids were under constant threat from the Seljuk Turks. The Seljuks were another powerful dynasty, originating from Central Asia. From there, they had swept through Persia and the Middle East, establishing a Sunni Sultanate. Our newly converted Ismaili student, Hasan, at aged 22 had ventured in those territories, managing to impress Abd al-Malik Ibn Attash, who was the chief Isma‘ili da‘i in the Seljuk Sultanate – so much so that he got a job as a missionary, too. In this delicate role, Hasan first travelled to the secret Persian Ismaili headquarters in Isfahan, Persia, deep into Seljuk territory. He then went to Cairo and Alexandria to perfect his education. During his Egyptian period, Hasan clashed with some big shots in the Ismaili organisation. One in particular: the Vizier (or chief minister) to the Fatimid court, al-Afdal. The conflict revolved around succession to the Caliphate, and by extension to the Imamate: in other words, who would be the next leader of the Ismailis? The current caliph, Al-Mustansir, had appointed as future successor his eldest son the Imam Nizar. On the other hand, Vizier al-Afdal was lobbying to install Nizar’s younger brother Musta’li. Who happened to be his son-in-law, by the way. Hasan had provided his support to Nizar – which made him an enemy to the powerful Vizier. The outcome of this whole intrigue? First of all, a further schism within Islam, with Nizari Ismaili now rivalling Musta’li Ismailis Second outcome – Hasan was exiled by Al-Afdal and he returned to Persia in June 1081. But by now he had become the most prominent da’i for the nascent Nizari community. Hasan, the strategist Over the following years Hasan travelled across Persia, spreading the word of the Nizaris. During this period, he increased his following and started drawing his plans to get rid of the Seljuk occupation of his land. But what had motivated Hasan Sabbah in revolting against the Seljuks? He actually had three different sets of reasons: From a religious perspective, the ardently Sunni Seljuks did not hide their hostility against Shi’as of all sects, and the Nizaris and Ismailis may have feared for their own religious freedom. Politically, Hassan had still an allegiance to the Egyptian Fatimids, despite his exile. The Seljuk Turks by the 1070s had stretched as far as the Sinai, threatening to uproot the Caliphate. And nationally, Hasan’s revolt could have been an expression of the Persians’ resentment over the alien rule of the Seljuk Turks. I am pretty sure that Hasan had never read Sun-Tzu, yet the strategy he formulated was ‘pure Art of War’: He frankly assessed the weaknesses of his faction and the ones of the Seljuks. The Nizari were heavily outnumbered, while Seljuk leaders were scattered around the vast Persian territory. How could he multiply the effectiveness of his forces? How could he deal severe blows to the occupiers without staging pitch battles on a dispersive territory? His answer was to quickly occupy the High Ground and establish a series of impregnable mountain strongholds, from which to launch targeted killings of political and military top brass all around the Country. The Assassin Creed was beginning to take shape. Hasan, the resistance leader By 1087 Hasan had concentrated his efforts for recruiting a resistance movement around the Daylam region, a traditional Shi’a stronghold. By September 1090 he had taken control of the region and has seized the fortress of Alamut - “The Teaching of the Eagle” - located in the central Elburz Mountains of the Rudbar region. He did so by cunning and peaceful means, converting in secret, one by one, the soldiers of the local garrison. Hasan made the fortress impregnable and made it self-sufficient by improving the cultivation and irrigation systems of the Alamut valley. He also established an important library, holding a vast collection of manuscripts and scientific instruments. After firmly establishing himself at Alamut, Hasan extended his influence in the region by winning more converts and expanding his network of fortresses in Rudbar. In 1091, Hasan sent one of his followers, da‘i Husayn Qa’ini to Quhistan, near the border with modern day Afghanistan. Husayn was successful in starting a popular uprising among local Shi’as seeking independence from the Seljuks. This allowed the Nizaris to gain control of several towns in Quhistan. In less than two years after the capture of Alamut, Hasan Sabbah had founded an independent territorial state for the Nizari Isma‘ilis in the midst of the Seljuk sultanate. The conflict intensifies The Persian Shia population of course saw the Seljuk Turks as invaders and oppressors. Sunni sources beg to differ, pointing to the fact that Seljuks tried to extend a friendly hand to the locals. Their Sultan Malik Shah, for example, had appointed as his Vizier a Persian: Abu Ali Hassan bin Ali bin Ishaq, better known as Nizam al-Mulk, which translates as “the Order of the Country”. According to legend, Hasan and Nizam had been classmates and friends in their youth. After becoming Vizier, Nizam had helped his old friend by securing him a post at the court of Malik Shah. But soon their rivalry erupted and Nizam had conspired to have Hasan exiled. This legend would make Hasan’s mission one of personal revenge against his childhood friend who had betrayed him. As romantic as this story sounds, Nizam was 32 years older than Hasan, and there wasn’t any chance they could have been school mates. So, what happened next was purely politically motivated. In 1092, Nizam launched a Seljuk counter-attack against the Nizaris in Alamut and Quhistan, but Hasan’s strategy proved effective. His small garrisons atop the easily defendable mountain strongholds were able to repel attack after attack. During the siege of Alamut, Hasan was able to extract to safety his wife and daughters to another Ismaili community. He never brought them back, starting a tradition of not allowing women into the fortress. Hasan’s next move was to go on the offensive. Lacking the numbers for a full-on military campaign, Hassan relied on his next favourite tactic: a targeted killing intended to decapitate Seljuk leadership. Hasan picked the fidai or ‘faithful’ who would carry out the mission: Bu Tahir Arrani. Disguised as a sufi, a Muslim mystic, the fidai approached the litter in which his target was travelling. Swift and silent, his dagger left its sheath and plunged itself into Arrani’s target: Nizam Al-Mulk. The vizier died on the spot. The same fate befell Tahir Arrani. He and the other fidais serenely accepted the fact that their missions would be, most likely, suicidal. The fidai was immediately cut down by Nizam’s bodyguards. This was the first high profile assassination carried out by the faithful soldiers of the Nizari army. Hasan and his two immediate successors ordered a total of 75 tactical killings, always aimed at high profile targets and never on civilians. The occupiers would often retaliate with massacres among Ismaili communities, followed by further surgical strikes on Hasan’s orders. Unsurprisingly, the actions of the fidais earned them the hatred of the Seljuks and of large part of the Sunni community. They painted them as radical extremist, proto-terrorists, and at the same time as dissolute drug addicts. This is the time when the Nizari Fidais became known as Hashishin or Assassins, the users of Hashish. Assassins? Let’s pause for a moment. Did the Assassins, or Hashishins actually smoke hashish? In reality, they never used that word to describe themselves. Their correct description would be ‘Fidais of the Nizari Ismaili Army’. The name was stuck on them by Marco Polo and William of Tyre, who had heard it from the enemies of the Nizari in Syria. It is true that soldiers across time and space have made use of recreational and prescription drugs to get themselves in the right state for battle. But here is a question for you: if you were Hasan would you really trust a stoner with a delicate mission involving climbing castle walls, picking locks, evading guards and stabbing a high-profile enemy? And how about the munchies? Sure, the stoner’s best friend, the kebab was invented by Turk soldiers … but not until 1377! So, it is not disputed that the word Assassin actually comes from Hashish, but it is now accepted that these highly skilled and trained warriors were not on drugs. They simply found themselves stuck with a slur, thrown on them by their numerous enemies. And it did not help that the slur was a strong sounding word ASSASSIN which was quickly adopted by popular European poets in the 13th and 14th Century – one for all: Dante Alighieri, author of the Divine Comedy. But enough with Whistler’s word of the day, let’s get down to business to defeat the Turks. Nizari Expansion Shortly after the assassination of Nizam Al-Mulk, the Seljuk Sultan Malik Shah also died. The causes remain mysterious, maybe they were natural. Or maybe he was poisoned. As a result, the Sultanate was plunged into chaos and a civil war between Malik’s eldest son Berkyaruq and his brother Sanjar, supported by their half-brother Muhammad Tapar. The state was further fractured by the emergence of independent warlords. Taking advantage of the disorder Hasan consolidated and extended his power seizing more strategically located fortresses, extending as far as Damghan, 500 km to the East of the Alamut headquarters, or even further to Khuzestan, 1000 km to the south. Hasan was unstoppable. During this period, he consolidated his reputation as an austere and ascetic leader. In a short span of time, we don’t know exactly when, he had both is sons executed: Muhammad was guilty of drinking wine, while Ustad was a suspect in the death of Hasan’s loyal lieutenant Husayn Qaini. The Nizari leader personally turned inwards, but politically sought expansion. It is said that he never again left his castle, but in the early years of the XIIth century, Hasan began sending his da‘is from Alamut into Syria. Here the Nizaris resumed their practice of establishing mountain strongholds. The most important one was the Masyaf fortress. Years later, Masyaf would be under the command of Rashīd ad-Dīn. He achieved fame due to his numerous attempts to assassinate Saladin. And it was he, not Hasan, who gave rise to the legend of the Old Man of the Mountain. And it was them, the Syrian Assassins, who would first make contact with the Templars. The Assassins and the Knights Templar I will take a quick detour now to cover the relationship between these two groups, even if out of scope of Hasan’s life. A certain media franchise has painted these two organisations as mortal rivals through the ages and across continents. These two factions had much in common, though, if you think about it. Both were a corps of elite warriors, motivated by both a political and a religious drive, both would be at some point slandered and accused as heretic by powerful enemies. The tension between Assassins and Templars in the Levant, or the Holy Land, never escalated into a full clash. There were some hostilities, but the two sometimes were allies, as the Syrian Nizari were more interested in fighting other Muslim enemies, rather than the Christians. Form 1152, they interacted almost like mob cartels with assigned territories, wary of stepping too much on each other’s toes. In that year, the fidais had claimed one of their few Christian victims, Count Raymond of Tripoli. In reparation, the Templars in Lebanon demanded a tribute of two thousand bezants a year. Sounds almost like ‘protection money’. In another occasion, it was the Syrian Assassins who demanded protection money from none other than King Louis IX of France, while he was visiting Acre, in modern day Israel. If the King paid, the Old Man of the Mountain would let him live. Grand master Joinville of the Templars intervened and sent the envoy back home, empty handed, but with a non-aggression pact between the King and the Old Man. But enough with ‘Whistler’s ruined video game series of the day’, let’s get back to Hasan, shall we? Religious leadership In 1097 the Imam Nizar, spiritual leader to Hasan and his men, was killed in Cairo. His rival the Vizier Al-Afdal had him buried alive between two walls. When the news reached Hasan, he sent for Nizar’s young son to be rescued from Cairo and be brought to safety to Alamut. Until now Hasan Sabbah had been the political and military leader of the Nizari in Persia. From now on, in the absence of a manifest imam, he would serve also as the religious leader of the whole Nizari community. In the last years of the XIth Century Hasan launched an offensive closed to the heart of the Seljuk Sultanate. The objective was the fortress of Shahdiz, closed to the capital Isfahan. His agent for the operation was Ahmad bin Attash, the son of Hasan’s first teacher after he had become an Ismaili. But Ahmad did not use the dagger, only his faith. One by one, he had converted the children, then the soldiers of the garrison. By 1100 Ahmad and the Nizaris had successfully infiltrated and occupied the castle. The road to Isfahan was open … … but eventually the Nizari did not achieve victory, at least not a total one. In the meanwhile, the warring Seljuk brothers Berkyaruq, Sanjar and Muhammad Tapar had agreed to a truce, in order to combat Hasan. The newly united Seljuks fought back and secured Isfahan. The Nizari retaliated with more assassinations, which were followed by massacres of Nizari civilians. In 1105 Tapar became Sultan. Four years later, he launched a second siege of Alamut, eager to close the Nizari nuisance once and for all. At the head of his army was Ahmad Al-Mulk, the son of the Vizier Nizam assassinated in 1092. But, once again, Alamut held on. By assault, or by attrition, Alamut would not fall. Stalemate The ongoing war had reached a stalemate. By the time of Muhammad Tapar’s death in 1118 the Nizaris were still successfully defending important, albeit scattered territories, which amounted to an independent Nizari state. But a total victory and conquest of Persia from the hands of the Seljuks was out of question. In these years of stalemate Hasan withdrew even more from the outside world, spending most of his time inside his personal quarters at Alamut, reading books, committing the teachings of his doctrine to writing and administering the affairs of his realm. In 1124, aged 74, Hasan sensed that he was reaching the end of his life. He summoned Kia Buzurg-Umid, a trusted lieutenant from the Lamasar fortress, and designated him as his successor in Alamut. Hasan Sabbah died, after a brief illness, on the 12th of June 1124 and was buried near Alamut, the fortress that had been his home and the symbol of his power for so many years. The Nizari fidais – or Assassins if you like – continued to harass the Seljuks and other foes in Persia for the following one hundred years. Nizari worshipers regularly visited Hasan’s mausoleum, until a new, unstoppable enemy swept through central Asia and Persia: the Mongols. In 1256 they laid the final siege to Alamut. The proud fortress, the “Teaching of the Eagle”, eventually fell and was demolished. The Assassins remained active in Syria, but their legend had come to an end in the place that had been their first home.



Artistic rendering of Hassan-i Sabbah.
Artistic rendering of Hassan-i Sabbah.

The origins of the Assassins can be traced back to just before the First Crusade, around 1094 in Alamut, north of modern Iran, during a crisis of succession to the Fatimid caliphate.[8] There has been great difficulty finding out much information about the origins of the Assassins because most early sources are written by enemies of the order, are based on legends, or both.[citation needed] Most sources dealing with the order's inner workings were destroyed with the capture of Alamut, the Assassins' headquarters, by the Mongols in 1256. However, it is possible to trace the beginnings of the cult back to its first Grandmaster, Hassan-i Sabbah (1050s–1124).

A passionate devotee of Isma'ili beliefs, Hassan-i Sabbah was well-liked throughout Cairo, Syria and most of the Middle East by other Isma'ili, which led to a number of people becoming his followers. Using his fame and popularity, Sabbah founded the Order of the Assassins. While his motives for founding this order are ultimately unknown, it was said to be all for his own political and personal gain and to also exact vengeance on his enemies. Because of the unrest in the Holy Land caused by the Crusades, Hassan-i Sabbah found himself not only fighting for power with other Muslims, but also with the invading Christian forces.[9]

After creating the Order, Sabbah searched for a location that would be fit for a sturdy headquarters and decided on the fortress at Alamut in what is now northwestern Iran. The Alamut castle was built by the Justanid ruler, Wahsudan b. Marzuban, a follower of zaydism, around 865 AD.[10] Sabbah adapted the fortress to suit his needs not only for defense from hostile forces, but also for indoctrination of his followers. After laying claim to the fortress at Alamut, Sabbah began expanding his influence outwards to nearby towns and districts, using his agents to gain political favour and to intimidate the local populations.

Spending most of his days at Alamut producing religious works and developing doctrines for his Order, Sabbah would never leave his fortress again in his lifetime. He had established a secret society of deadly assassins, which was built on a hierarchical structure. Below Sabbah, the Grand Headmaster of the Order, were those known as "Greater Propagandists", followed by the normal "Propagandists", the Rafiqs ("Companions"), and the Lasiqs ("Adherents"). It was the Lasiqs who were trained to become some of the most feared assassins, or as they were called, "Fida'in" (self-sacrificing agents).[11]

However, it is unknown how Hassan-i-Sabbah was able to get his "Fida'in" to perform with such fervent loyalty. One theory, possibly the best known but also the most criticized, comes from the reports of Marco Polo during his travels to the Orient. He recounts a story he heard of a man who would drug his young followers with hashish, lead them to a "paradise", and then claim that only he had the means to allow for their return. Perceiving that Sabbah was either a prophet or magician, his disciples, believing that only he could return them to "paradise", were fully committed to his cause and willing to carry out his every request.[12] However, this story is disputed[by whom?] because Sabbah died in 1124 and Sinan, who is frequently known as the "Old Man of the Mountain", died in 1192, whereas Marco Polo was not born until around 1254.[13][14]

With his new weapons, Sabbah began to order assassinations, ranging from politicians to great generals. Assassins would rarely attack ordinary citizens though, and tended not to be hostile towards them.

Although the "Fida'yin" were the lowest rank in Sabbah's order and were only used as expendable pawns to do the Grandmaster's bidding, much time and many resources were put into training them. The Assassins were generally young in age, giving them the physical strength and stamina which would be required to carry out these murders. However, physical prowess was not the only trait that was required to be a "Fida'i". To get to their targets, the Assassins had to be patient, cold, and calculating. They were generally intelligent and well-read because they were required to possess not only knowledge about their enemy, but his or her culture and their native language. They were trained by their masters to disguise themselves and sneak into enemy territory to perform the assassinations, instead of simply attacking their target outright.[11]


The word "ASAS" in Arabic means principle. The "Asāsiyyūn" (plural, literary Arabic, official texts, proper form) were, as defined in Arabic, people of principle. The term "assassin" likely has roots in "hashshāshīn" (hashish smokers or users), a mispronunciation of the original Asāsiyyūn, but not a mispronunciation of "Assasiyeen" (pronounced "Asāsiyyeen", the plural of Asasi). Originally referring to the methods of political control exercised by the Assasiyuun, one can see how it became "assassin" in several languages to describe similar activities anywhere.

The Assassins were finally linked by the 19th-century orientalist scholar Silvestre de Sacy to the Arabic word hashish using their variant names assassin and assissini in the 19th century. Citing the example of one of the first written applications of the Arabic term hashish to the Ismailis by 13th-century historian Abu Shama, de Sacy demonstrated its connection to the name given to the Ismailis throughout Western scholarship.[15] The first known usage of the term hashishi has been traced back to 1122 when the Fatimid caliph al-Āmir employed it in derogatory reference to the Syrian Nizaris.[15] Used figuratively, the term hashishi connoted meanings such as outcasts or rabble.[15] Without actually accusing the group of using the hashish drug, the Caliph used the term in a pejorative manner. This label was quickly adopted by anti-Ismaili historians and applied to the Ismailis of Syria and Persia. The spread of the term was further facilitated through military encounters between the Nizaris and the Crusaders, whose chroniclers adopted the term and disseminated it across Europe.

During the medieval period, Western scholarship on the Ismailis contributed to the popular view of the community as a radical sect of assassins, believed to be trained for the precise murder of their adversaries. By the 14th century, European scholarship on the topic had not advanced much beyond the work and tales from the Crusaders.[15] The origins of the word forgotten, across Europe the term Assassin had taken the meaning of "professional murderer".[15] In 1603, the first Western publication on the topic of the Assassins was authored by a court official for King Henry IV of France and was mainly based on the narratives of Marco Polo from his visits to the Near East. While he assembled the accounts of many Western travellers, the author failed to explain the etymology of the term Assassin.[16]

According to the Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf, based on texts from Alamut, Hassan-i Sabbah tended to call his disciples Asāsīyūn (أساسيون, meaning "people who are faithful to the foundation [of the faith]"), and derivation from the term hashish is a misunderstanding by foreign travelers.[17]

Another modern author, Edward Burman, states that:

Many scholars have argued, and demonstrated convincingly, that the attribution of the epithet "hashish eaters" or "hashish takers" is a misnomer derived from enemies of the Isma'ilis and was never used by Muslim chroniclers or sources. It was therefore used in a pejorative sense of "enemies" or "disreputable people". This sense of the term survived into modern times with the common Egyptian usage of the term Hashasheen in the 1930s to mean simply "noisy or riotous". It is unlikely that the austere Hassan-i Sabbah indulged personally in drug taking ... there is no mention of that drug hashish in connection with the Persian Assassins – especially in the library of Alamut ("the secret archives").[2]

The name "Assassin" is often said to derive from the Arabic word Hashishin or "users of hashish",[3] was originally applied to the Nizari Ismaelis by the rival Mustali Ismailis during the fall of the Ismaili Fatimid Empire and the separation of the two Ismaili streams,[4] there is little evidence hashish was used to motivate the assassins, contrary to the beliefs of their medieval enemies.[5] It is possible that the term hashishiyya or hashishi in Arabic sources was used metaphorically in its abusive sense relating to use of hashish, which due to its effects on the mind state, is outlawed in Islam. Modern versions of this word include Mahashish used in the same derogatory sense, albeit less offensive nowadays, as the use of the substance is more widespread.[citation needed]

Idries Shah, a sufi scholar using Arkon Daraul as a pen name, described them as 'druggers' that used hashish "in stupefying candidates for the ephemeral visit to paradise".[18]

The Sunni Muslims also used the term mulhid to refer to the Assassins, which is also recorded by the traveller William of Rubruck as mulidet.[19]

Military tactics

"They call him Shaykh-al-Hashishin. He is their Elder, and upon his command all of the men of the mountain come out or go in ... they are believers of the word of their elder and everyone everywhere fears them, because they even kill kings."

Benjamin of Tudela

Remains of the Alamut castle in Qazvin, Iran
Remains of the Alamut castle in Qazvin, Iran

In pursuit of their religious and political goals, the Ismailis adopted various military strategies popular in the Middle Ages. One such method was that of assassination, the selective elimination of prominent rival figures. The murders of political adversaries were usually carried out in public spaces, creating resounding intimidation for other possible enemies.[20] Throughout history, many groups have resorted to assassination as a means of achieving political ends. In the Ismaili context, these assignments were performed by fida'is (devotees) of the Ismaili mission. The assassinations were committed against those whose elimination would most greatly reduce aggression against the Ismailis and, in particular, against those who had perpetrated massacres against the community. A single assassination was usually employed in contrast with the widespread bloodshed which generally resulted from factional combat. Hashashin are also said to be adept in furusiyya, or the Islamic warrior code, where they are trained in combat, disguises, and equestrianism.[citation needed] Codes of conduct are followed, and the hashashin are taught in the art of war, linguistics, and strategies. Hashashin never allowed their women to be at their fortresses during military campaigns, both for protection and secrecy. This is a tradition first made by Hassan when he sent his wife and daughters to Girdkuh when a famine was created during the Seljuk siege of Alamut.[21] For about two centuries, the hashashin specialized in assassinating their religious and political enemies.[21]

Rashid ad-Din Sinan the Grand Master of the Assassins at Masyaf successfully kept Saladin off his territory.
Rashid ad-Din Sinan the Grand Master of the Assassins at Masyaf successfully kept Saladin off his territory.

The first instance of murder in the effort to establish a Nizari Ismaili state in Persia is widely considered to be the killing of Seljuq vizier, Nizam al-Mulk.[22] Carried out by a man dressed as a Sufi whose identity remains unclear, the vizier's murder in a Seljuq court is distinctive of exactly the type of visibility for which missions of the fida'is have been significantly exaggerated.[23] While the Seljuqs and Crusaders both employed murder as a military means of disposing of factional enemies, during the Alamut period almost any murder of political significance in the Islamic lands was attributed to the Ismailis.[20] So inflated had this association grown that, in the work of orientalist scholars such as Bernard Lewis, the Ismailis were equated with the politically active fida'is and thus were regarded as a radical and heretical sect known as the Assassins.[24]

The military approach of the Nizari Ismaili state was largely a defensive one, with strategically chosen sites that appeared to avoid confrontation wherever possible without the loss of life.[25] But the defining characteristic of the Nizari Ismaili state was that it was scattered geographically throughout Persia and Syria. The Alamut castle therefore was only one of a nexus of strongholds throughout the regions where Ismailis could retreat to safety if necessary. West of Alamut in the Shahrud Valley, the major fortress of Lamasar served as just one example of such a retreat. In the context of their political uprising, the various spaces of Ismaili military presence took on the name dar al-hijra (دار الهجرة; land of migration, place of refuge). The notion of the dar al-hijra originates from the time of Muhammad, who migrated with his followers from persecution to a safe haven in Yathrib (Medina).[26] In this way, the Fatimids found their dar al-hijra in North Africa. From 1101 to 1118, attacks and sieges were made on the fortresses, conducted by combined forces of Seljuk, Berkyaruq, and Sanjar. Although with the cost of lives and the capture and execution of assassin dai Ahmad ibn Hattash, the hashashin managed to hold their ground and repel the attacks until the Mongol invasion.[27] Likewise, during the revolt against the Seljuqs, several fortresses served as spaces of refuge for the Ismailis.


14th-century painting of the successful assassination of Nizam al-Mulk, vizier of the Seljuq Empire, by an Assassin. It is often considered their most significant assassination.
14th-century painting of the successful assassination of Nizam al-Mulk, vizier of the Seljuq Empire, by an Assassin. It is often considered their most significant assassination.

At their peak, many of the assassinations of the day were often attributed to the hashashin. Even though the Crusaders and the other factions employed personal assassins, the fact that the hashashin performed their assassinations in full view of the public, often in broad daylight, gave them a distinct reputation.[28]

Psychological warfare, and attacking the enemy's psyche was another often employed tactic of the hashashin, who would sometimes attempt to draw their opponents into submission rather than risk killing them.[6]

During the Seljuk invasion after the death of Muhammad Tapar, a new Seljuk sultan emerged with the coronation of Tapar's son Sanjar. When Sanjar rebuffed the hashashin ambassadors who were sent by Hassan for peace negotiations, Hassan sent his hashashin to the sultan. Sanjar woke up one morning with a dagger stuck in the ground beside his bed. Alarmed, he kept the matter a secret. A messenger from Hassan arrived and stated, "Did I not wish the sultan well that the dagger which was struck in the hard ground would have been planted on your soft breast". For the next several decades there ensued a ceasefire between the Nizaris and the Seljuk. Sanjar himself pensioned the hashashin on taxes collected from the lands they owned, gave them grants and licenses, and even allowed them to collect tolls from travelers.[29]

Downfall and aftermath

View of Alamut besieged. The last Grand Master of the Assassins at Alamut Imam Rukn al-Din Khurshah (1255–1256) was executed by Hulagu Khan after a devastating siege
View of Alamut besieged. The last Grand Master of the Assassins at Alamut Imam Rukn al-Din Khurshah (1255–1256) was executed by Hulagu Khan after a devastating siege

The Assassins were eradicated by the Mongol Empire during the well-documented invasion of Khwarizm. They probably dispatched their assassins to kill Möngke Khan. Thus, a decree was handed over to the Mongol commander Kitbuqa who began to assault several Hashashin fortresses in 1253 before Hulagu's advance in 1256. The Mongols besieged Alamut on December 15, 1256. The Assassins recaptured and held Alamut for a few months in 1275, but they were crushed and their political power was lost forever.[citation needed]

The Syrian branch of the Assassins was taken over by the Mamluk Sultan Baibars in 1273. The Mamluks continued to use the services of the remaining Assassins: in the 14th century Ibn Battuta reported their fixed rate of pay per murder. In exchange, they were allowed to exist.

According to the historian Yaqut al-Hamawi, the Böszörmény, (Izmaleita or Ismaili/Nizari) denomination of Muslims who lived in the Kingdom of Hungary from the 10th to the 13th centuries, were employed as mercenaries by the kings of Hungary. However, following the establishment of the Christian Kingdom of Hungary, their community was vanquished by the end of the 13th century due to the Inquisitions ordered by the Catholic Church during the reign of Coloman, King of Hungary. It is said that the Assassins are the ancestors of those given the surname Hajaly, derived from the word "hajal", a rare species of bird found in the mountains of Syria near Masyaf. The hajal (bird) was often used as a symbol of the Assassin's order.[citation needed]

Legends and folklore

The legends of the Assassins had much to do with the training and instruction of Nizari fida'is, famed for their public missions during which they often gave their lives to eliminate adversaries. Historians have contributed to the tales of fida'is being fed with hashish as part of their training.[30] Whether fida'is were actually trained or dispatched by Nizari leaders is unconfirmed, but scholars including Vladimir Ivanov purport that the assassinations of key figures including Saljuq vizier Nizam al-Mulk likely provided encouraging impetus to others in the community who sought to secure the Nizaris protection from political aggression.[30] Originally, a "local and popular term" first applied to the Ismailis of Syria, the label was orally transmitted to Western historians and thus found itself in their histories of the Nizaris.[26]

The tales of the fida'is' training collected from anti-Ismaili historians and orientalist writers were compounded and compiled in Marco Polo's account, in which he described a "secret garden of paradise".[31] After being drugged, the Ismaili devotees were said to be taken to a paradise-like garden filled with attractive young maidens and beautiful plants in which these fida'is would awaken. Here, they were told by an "old" man that they were witnessing their place in Paradise and that should they wish to return to this garden permanently, they must serve the Nizari cause.[26] So went the tale of the "Old Man in the Mountain", assembled by Marco Polo and accepted by Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, an 18th-century Austrian orientalist writer responsible for much of the spread of this legend. Until the 1930s, von Hammer's retelling of the Assassin legends served as the standard account of the Nizaris across Europe.[31]

Another one of Hassan's recorded methods includes causing the hashashin to be vilified by their contemporaries. One story goes that Hassan al-Sabah set up a trick to make it appear as if he had decapitated one of his hashashin and the "dead" hashashin's head lay at the foot of his throne. It was actually one of his men buried up to his neck covered with blood. He invited his hashashin to speak to it. He said that he used special powers to allow it to communicate. The supposed talking head would tell the hashashin about paradise after death if they gave all their hearts to the cause. After the trick was played, Hassan had the man killed and his head placed on a stake in order to cement the deception.[32]

A well-known legend tells how Count Henry of Champagne, returning from Armenia, spoke with Grand Master Rashid ad-Din Sinan at al-Kahf. The count claimed to have the most powerful army and at any moment he claimed he could defeat the Hashshashin, because his army was 10 times larger. Rashid replied that his army was instead the most powerful, and to prove it he told one of his men to jump off from the top of the castle in which they were staying. The man did. Surprised, the count immediately recognized that Rashid's army was indeed the strongest, because it did everything at his command, and Rashid further gained the count's respect.[33]

Modern works on the Nizaris have elucidated their history and, in doing so, dispelled popular histories from the past as mere legends. In 1933, under the direction of the Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III, the Islamic Research Association was developed. Historian Vladimir Ivanov was central to both this institution and the 1946 Ismaili Society of Bombay. Cataloguing a number of Ismaili texts, Ivanov provided the ground for great strides in modern Ismaili scholarship.[32]

In recent years, Peter Willey has provided interesting evidence that goes against the Assassin folklore of earlier scholars. Drawing on its established esoteric doctrine, Willey asserts that the Ismaili understanding of Paradise is a deeply symbolic one. While the Qur'anic description of Heaven includes natural imagery, Willey argues that no Nizari fida'i would seriously believe that he was witnessing Paradise simply by awakening in a beauteous garden.[34] The Nizaris' symbolic interpretation of the Qur'anic description of Paradise serves as evidence against the possibility of such an exotic garden used as motivation for the devotees to carry out their armed missions. Furthermore, Willey points out that a courtier of Hulagu Khan, Juvayni, surveyed the Alamut castle just before the Mongol invasion. In his reports about the fortress, there are elaborate descriptions of sophisticated storage facilities and the famous Alamut library. However, even this anti-Ismaili historian makes no mention of the gardens on the Alamut grounds.[34] Having destroyed a number of texts in the library's collection, deemed by Juvayni to be heretical, it would be expected that he would pay significant attention to the Nizari gardens, particularly if they were the site of drug use and temptation. Having not once mentioned such gardens, Willey concludes that there is no sound evidence in favour of these legends.

Fortresses in Syria

Map of the Crusader states, showing the area controlled by the Assassins around Masyaf, slightly above the center, in white.
Map of the Crusader states, showing the area controlled by the Assassins around Masyaf, slightly above the center, in white.

During the mid-12th century the Assassins captured or acquired several fortresses in the Nusayriyah Mountain Range in coastal Syria, including Masyaf, Rusafa, al-Kahf, al-Qadmus, Khawabi, Sarmin, Quliya, Ulayqa, Maniqa, Abu Qubays and Jabal al-Summaq. For the most part, the Assassins maintained full control over these fortresses until 1270–73 when the Mamluk sultan Baibars annexed them. Most were dismantled afterwards, while those at Masyaf and Ulayqa were later rebuilt.[35] From then on, the Ismailis maintained limited autonomy over those former strongholds as loyal subjects of the Mamluks.[36]

In popular culture

The Hashashin were part of Medieval culture, and they were either demonized or romanticized. The Hashashin appeared frequently in the art and literature of the Middle Ages, sometimes illustrated as one of the knight's archenemies and as a quintessential villain during the crusades.[37]

The word Assassin, in variant forms, had already passed into European usage in this general sense as a term for a hired professional murderer. The Florentine chronicler Giovanni Villani, who died in 1348, tells how the lord of Lucca sent 'his assassins' (i suoi assassini) to Pisa to kill a troublesome enemy there. Even earlier, Dante, in a passing reference in the 19th canto of the Inferno, speaks of 'the treacherous assassin' (lo perfido assassin); his fourteenth-century commentator Francesco da Buti, explaining a term which for some readers at the time may still have been strange and obscure, remarks: 'Assassino è colui che uccide altrui per danari' (An assassin is one who kills others for money).[38]

The most widespread awareness of the Assassins in modern Europe, and their incorporation into the Romantic tradition, was created by Austrian historian and Orientalist Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall though his 1818 book, Die Geschichte der Assassinen aus morgenländischen Quellen[39] (translated into English in 1835 as The History of the Assassins[40]). This work was the standard one on the history of the Assassins in the West until the 1930s.

The Assassins appear in many role-playing games and video games, especially in massively multiplayer online games. The assassin character class is a common feature of many such games, usually specializing in single combat and stealth skills, often combined in order to defeat an opponent without exposing the assassin to counter-attack.

  • The Exile series of action role-playing games revolves around a time-traveling Syrian Assassin who assassinates various religious historical figures and modern world leaders.[41][42]
  • The Assassin's Creed video game series portrays a heavily fictionalized Ḥashshāshīn order, which has expanded beyond its Levantine confines and is depicted to have existed throughout recorded history (along with their nemesis, the Knights Templar).[43] Both orders are presented as fundamentally philosophical, rather than as religious, in nature, and are expressly said to predate the faiths that their real-life counterparts arose from, thus allowing for the expansion of their respective "histories" both before and after their factual time-frames. However, Assassin's Creed draws much of its content from historical facts, and even incorporates as the creed itself the purported last words from Hassan i Sabbah: "Nothing is true; everything is permitted" (though the sources for that quote are largely unreliable). The series has since developed into a franchise, comprising novels, comic books, and a film.
  • In the Sword of Islam DLC for Paradox Interactive's grand strategy game Crusader Kings II, the Hashashin are a holy order associated with Shi'a Islam. Once established, Shi'ite rulers may hire the Hashashin to fight against non-Shi'a realms, and can potentially vassalize them. The Monks and Mystics DLC expands their role, making the Assassins a unique secret society that Shi'a characters may join.
  • In the Netflix series Marco Polo, the emperor Kublai Khan is attacked by a group of assassins, which is said to be the work of the Hashshashin who are led by the Old Man of the Mountain according to the Taoist Monk, Hundred Eyes, in the King's court. The Old Man of the Mountain is then pursued by Marco Polo and Byamba. The show shows how the Old Man leads Marco Polo into a hallucination state.[44]
  • Louis L'Amour, in his book The Walking Drum, used the assassins and the stronghold of Alamut as the location of his main character's enslaved father. Mathurin Kerbouchard, who initially seeks his father in the 12th century Moor-controlled Spain, then throughout Europe, must ultimately travel to the Stronghold of Alamut in order to rescue Jean Kerbouchard.[45]
  • The Faceless men, a guild of assassins in the book series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin and in the TV series Game of Thrones are inspired by the Order of Assassins[46]
  • The Fate franchise of visual novels features the sect quite prominently with Hassan-i-sabbah, also known as the "Old Man of the Mountain" (山の翁, Yama no Okina), being a pseudonym of 19 wraiths able to be summoned into the assassin class. Their Noble Phantasm is called Zabaniya (Japanese: ザバニヤ), from Arabic (Az-zabānīya: الزبانية), named after the 19 angels that guard hell in the Islamic faith. In both Fate/Zero and Fate/stay night: Heaven's Feel, 'Assassin' is a character (servant of Kotomine Kirei and Matō Zouken respectively) that portrays a leder of Hashashins. Hassan-i Sabbah himself features in Fate/Grand Order.

See also


  1. ^ Komroff, Manuel (April 16, 2013). The Travels of Marco Polo. Read Books Ltd. ISBN 9781446545997.
  2. ^ a b Burman, Edward (1987). The Assassins – Holy Killers of Islam. Wellingborough: Crucible. p.70.
  3. ^ a b Lewis, Bernard (1967), The Assassins: a Radical Sect of Islam, pp 30-31, Oxford University Press
  4. ^ a b Daftary, Farhad (1990). The Ismailis: Their history and doctrines. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. Page 12.
  5. ^ a b Daftary, Farhad (1990). The Ismailis: Their history and doctrines. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. Page 13. quote=[p.13]"the tale of how the Nizari chiefs secretly administered hashish to the fadaeen in order to control and motivate them has been accepted by many scholars since Arnold of Lueback. But the fact remains that neither the Isma'ili texts which have come to light in modern times nor any serious ..." [p.353] "However, contrary to the medieval legends fabricated by uninformed writers and the enemies of the sect, there is no evidence that hashish was used in any way for motivating the fidaeen who displayed an intensive groups sentiment and solidarity."
  6. ^ a b Lane-Poole, Stanley (1906). Saladin and the Fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Heroes of the Nations. London: G. P. Putnam's Sons.
  7. ^ Acosta, Benjamin (2012). "Assassins". In Stanton, Andrea L.; Ramsamy, Edward (eds.). Cultural Sociology of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa: An Encyclopedia. Sage. p. 21. Retrieved October 13, 2015.
  8. ^ Eddé, Anne-Marie (2003). Vauchez, André (ed.). "Assassins". Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages. Oxford. ISBN 9780227679319. Missing or empty |url= (help)
  9. ^ Lockhart, Laurence (1930). Hasan-i-Sabbah and the Assassins. London: University of London.
  10. ^ Daftary, Farhad (September 20, 2007). The Isma'ilis: Their History and Doctrines. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781139465786.
  11. ^ a b Nowell, Charles E. (1947). "The Old Man of the Mountain". Speculum. 22 (4).
  12. ^ Frampton, John (1929). The Most Noble and Famous Travels of Marco Polo.
  13. ^ Italiani nel sistema solare di Michele T. Mazzucato
  14. ^ Many sources state "around 1254"; Britannica 2002, p. 571 states, "born in or around 1254".
  15. ^ a b c d e Daftary 1998, p. 14
  16. ^ Daftary 1998, p. 15
  17. ^ Maalouf, Amin (1998). Samarkand. New York: Interlink Publishing Group.
  18. ^ Daraul, Arkon (1961). A History of Secret Societies. Citadel Press. p. 13, p. 29.
  19. ^
  20. ^ a b Daftary 1998, p. 129
  21. ^ a b Wasserman, p. 102
  22. ^ Willey, p. 29
  23. ^ Willey p. 29
  24. ^ Lewis, Bernard (2003). The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam. Phoenix. ISBN 978-1-84212-451-2. Retrieved September 15, 2010.
  25. ^ Willey, p. 58
  26. ^ a b c Hodgson, Marshall G. S. (2005). The Secret Order of Assassins: The Struggle of the Early Nizârî Ismâʻîlîs Against the Islamic World. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 978-0-8122-1916-6. Retrieved September 15, 2010.
  27. ^ Wasserman, p. 104
  28. ^ Wasserman, p. 109
  29. ^ Wasserman, p. 105
  30. ^ a b Ivanov, Vladimir (1960). Alamut and Lamasar: two mediaeval Ismaili strongholds in Iran, an archaeological study. Tehran, Iran: Ismaili Society. p. 21. Retrieved September 15, 2010.
  31. ^ a b Daftary 1998, p. 16
  32. ^ a b Daftary 1998, p. 17
  33. ^ The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam, p. 25
  34. ^ a b Willey, p. 55
  35. ^ Raphael, 2011, p. 106.
  36. ^ Daftary, 2007, p. 402.
  37. ^ The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam p.18
  38. ^ The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam p.20
  39. ^ Stuttgart und Tübingen, 1818
  40. ^ London, 1835; translated by O. C. Wood
  41. ^ Szczepaniak, John (April 11, 2009). "Hardcore Gaming 101: Exile / XZR". Hardcore Gaming 101. Retrieved August 10, 2009.
  42. ^ Leo Chan, Sunsoft scores Telenet Japan franchises, Neoseeker, December 10, 2009
  43. ^ The History of Assassin's Creed by IGN
  44. ^ "Marco Polo" Hashshashin (TV Episode 2014) - Plot Summary - IMDb
  45. ^ L'Amour, Louis (1984). The walking drum. Toronto: Bantam Books. ISBN 9780553249231. OCLC 12268583.
  46. ^ Sokol, Tony (June 29, 2018). "The real history of game of thrones the faceless men".


Further reading

External links

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