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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
[TA11]I am painfully cringing at this shameless plug, but I believe this is what the audience is expecting, and this seemed like a good place to include it. No worries, I will dismantle it later.
Fun fact: Dante uses the concept of the assassin as an allegory for love and lust, describing how a lover will submit to the object of his/her desire like the assassin obeys to the will of the Old Man of the Mountain