This article was written by Scott Cianciosi, one of our shiny new Damn Interesting writers!
The nobleman awoke on a sunny spring morning. Feeling uncomfortable, he shifted himself, only to notice an extra weight on his pillow. Groggily, he opened his eyes. The glint of a blade stared back at him, its handle leaving an indentation in the pillow’s surface. Horrified, he rushed to his guards to question them about the previous night. Confused, they assured him that nothing of note had happened. Further investigation found that the windows were securely fastened, and there were no signs of forced entry. Just as he was ready to tear the room apart, the nobleman noticed something. Tucked under his pillow was a note that simply stated, “You have been warned.”
Such an encounter may sound like bad fantasy fiction, but this was a very real fear of the rich and powerful during the first few centuries of the second millennium. Hundreds of nobles, merchants, scholars, and generals received these notes, usually delivered when the recipient was at his most vulnerable. Only the lucky ones were given the courtesy of a note, since the shadowy organization that delivered them often left their targets dead rather than merely terrified. The story of the Hashshashin, or Assassins, is cloaked in mystery, and much of the truth about them was long ago lost to war and time. Their influence, however, changed the course of history and spawned the very word we use today to describe calculated, politically-motivated murder.
The Hashshashin were formed by Hassan-i-Sabah, a follower of the Isma’ili sect of Shi’ite Islam. Hassan left his home in Cairo over a succession dispute between two heirs to the Fatimid Caliphate. After choosing the wrong heir to support, Hassan found himself escaping to Persia after spending a short period in a political prison. Determined to avenge himself upon the Fatimids while also wiping out his traditional Sunni enemies, Hassan sought and found the ideal stronghold: the fortress of Alamut, also known as “The Eagle’s Nest.” Located northwest of Tehran, just south of the Caspian Sea, Alamut was an imposing sight. Nestled atop a 2,100m mountain with only one near-vertical approach to the fortress, the Eagle’s Nest was nearly impregnable.
Hassan immediately began to gather supporters among the people near his fortress. Using lessons he gained from Cairo’s influential Abode of Learning, Hassan turned his followers into willing servants, ready to die at his beck and call. As he gained control of fortresses all over Persia, his organization grew into a “nation within a nation,” pulling strings and exerting political influence throughout the Middle East. While the Hashshashin’s aims seemed to change from year to year, one thing always remained paramount among them: keeping their enemies balanced. As long as their enemies- the Crusaders, Fatimids, and Sunnis – continued fighting each other, the Assassins could do as they pleased. Like all Shi’ites, Hassan understood that if his mainstream Islamic brothers ran out of external enemies to fight, his people would be next on the chopping block. So the Assassins spent more than a hundred years making sure they were never anyone’s greatest threat.
Only conjecture and myth remain to explain the origins of the Assassins’ name. Some theories link the name to the drug hashish, supposedly taken before battle or as initiation into the cult. A more probable competing theory is that the name is derived from the name of their leader Hassan-i-Sabah, since “Hashshashin” literally means “followers of Hassan.” The name itself was a derogatory term used by Europeans to describe the supposedly hashish-using sect. The term “assassin” most likely comes from a pet name Hassan had for his followers: Assassiyun, or “people who are faithful to the foundation of the faith.” The Assassins preferred to call themselves fedayeen. The word, Arabic for “one who is ready to sacrifice themselves for a cause,” was co-opted by groups in Palestine, Armenia, Iraq and Iran for their own organizations during numerous conflicts in the 20th century.
There are a myriad of theories as to how the Assassins actually trained their members. Some travelers posit that the members were drugged to simulate a death-like experience, and awoke in a garden surrounded by an abundance of fine food and beautiful servants. Given a taste of “heaven,” they gladly fought and died for their leader from that day forward. Another theory is that the members were taken at a young age and raised in the heavenly garden. At a certain age they were cast out, and given the ultimatum that if they disobeyed their master they would never be allowed to return. Unfortunately, most of these theories can’t be corroborated by any hard facts. These theories are further discredited by the fact that someone under the influence of hashish would not have possessed the mental capacities to carry out a calculated murder effectively. Many myths about the Assassins are derived from the writings of Marco Polo, who supposedly visited Alamut in 1273. This is quite extraordinary, as the stronghold was destroyed almost two decades earlier.
A common story about the product of Assassin training has been told in many different ways, but it always follows the same basic premise:
Two men in the year 1092 stood on the ramparts of a medieval castle – the Eagle’s Nest – perched high upon the crags of the Persian mountains: the personal representative of the Emperor and the veiled figure who claimed to be the incarnation of God on earth. Hasan, son of Sabah, Sheikh of the Mountains and leader of the Assassins, spoke: “You see that devotee standing guard on yonder turret-top? Watch!”
He made a signal. Instantly the white-robed figure threw up his hands in salutation, and cast himself two thousand feet into the foaming torrent which surrounded the fortress.
“I have seventy thousand men – and women – throughout Asia, each one of them ready to do my bidding. Can your master, Malik Shah, say the same? And he asks me to surrender to his sovereignty! This is your answer. Go!”
In some incarnations of the story, he’s speaking to a fellow Muslim; in others, he’s proving a point to a visiting Crusader. Most involve the disciple throwing himself off of something to an excessively gory death, but some simply state that the man “kills himself” when the command is given.
Eschewing weapons that allowed possible escape, the Hashshashin preferred to kill up close, with a dagger, and preferably in public. Many targets were assassinated inside a mosque during Friday prayer. Like the modern terrorist, much of the mystique of the Assassins was the fear they instilled in their enemies, and their seemingly endless pursuit of their marks. By murdering in public, they assured the story would travel quickly. It mattered little that the assassin himself, exposed and vulnerable after the attack, usually died at the hands of nearby guards; his mission was accomplished and his place in heaven sealed.
The attacks themselves took many forms. Sometimes the strike came quickly, other times it involved years of work and ingratiation into the mark’s good graces. Assassins posed as pilgrims, converts, dervishes or almost any other cover that would allow them to get into close proximity to their victim. Often the most prudent course of action was to call a truce with the Assassins rather than risk being stabbed in the back by an old friend, a servant or a guard. This was Hassan’s bargaining chip, and the reason his group continued to flourish long after he was no longer their earthly leader.
The list of successful murders that can be attributed to the Assassins is long and storied. They range from local political leaders all the way up to Caliphs and Crusader Kings. At least two of Baghdad’s caliphs were murdered by the group, as well as countless attacks on their fellow Shi’ites in Cairo. They were often faulted for having worked, sometimes closely, with the Crusaders. There was even a period when the Assassins almost converted wholesale to Christianity. However, this did not mean the Crusaders themselves were off limits. Prince Edward, later King Edward I of England, was wounded by a poisoned Assassin dagger in 1271. It is also said that the Knights Hospitaller arranged for a Hashshashin blade to eliminate the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Albert Avogadro, in 1214.
One well-known assassination is the murder of Conrad of Montferrat. An apparently polarizing character, Conrad has been cast as the villain by some, and as a dashing hero by just as many others. It’s understood that he almost singlehandedly stopped Saladin from taking the Christian stronghold of Tyre and was a rallying force for the Crusaders in one of their darkest periods. Unfortunately for him, he also had many powerful enemies among his Catholic brethren.
After being unexpectedly elected King of Jerusalem, Conrad awaited his coronation in April of 1192. Six months earlier, two Assassins disguised as monks had gained employment with some important residents of Tyre, where Conrad had been living since he helped save the city. Finally seeing their chance to strike, the two men stabbed Conrad as he walked home from a friend’s house. Accounts differ on what happened afterwards. One account says that Conrad died soon after the initial attack, as his wounds were mortal. Another account states that only one of the monks attacked him and was killed by guards. The other Assassin, after hearing that Conrad was injured but still alive, managed to get close enough to him to finish the job. It’s also said that the two men dispatched to murder Conrad had allowed themselves to be baptized as Christians in order to allay suspicion and allow them more intimate contact with their mark. While it has never been proven who actually ordered Conrad’s death, almost all accounts point to a Christian source. Multiple prominent Crusaders are among the list of suspects, paramount among them Richard the Lionheart.
Even Saladin, the great Muslim general, had a brush with the Assassins. Livid over two previous attempts on his life, Saladin prepared to besiege the fortress at the Hashshashin’s main Syrian stronghold of Masyaf. However, at some point during the siege, Saladin abruptly called for negotiations with the murderous sect. Reaching an agreement, Saladin packed up his army and left, never to confront the Assassins again. No one is sure exactly what transpired between the two groups to cause such a sudden change of heart. Some say Saladin awoke one morning to a poisoned cake laying on his chest with a note attached saying, “You are in our power.” Other stories suggest his entire family was threatened with eradication.
The subtlety, strategy and intellectual dexterity with which Hassan and his successors ruled the Assassins is almost mind-boggling in its complexity. However, when juggling politics as delicately and deftly as the Assassins had, for as long as they had, a mistake was inevitable. That mistake came midway through the 13th century. Jagati, a son of Genghis Khan and the ruler of some parts of Persia, had forbidden many rituals involving prayer and the slaughtering of animals. This greatly offended the Isma’ilis and, by association, the Hashshashin. Soon thereafter, assassins from Alamut eliminated Jagati. By 1256, the fortress was in ruins, razed to the ground by the Mongol general Hulega in an act of brutal retribution. The fortress, along with its priceless library, was completely destroyed.
The remaining Hashshashin scattered all over Asia. The Isma’ilis headed to India, Afghanistan, and the Himalayas, among other places. Even today, Isma’ili followers number in the millions and their leader, Prince Karim El Husseni, also known as Aga Khan IV, can supposedly trace his lineage all the way back to Muhammed and his
brother cousin Ali. The Isma’ilis of today are, mercifully, much different from their Crusades-era brethren.
While they were still a considerably powerful group for some time afterwards, the destruction of Alamut heralded the end of the Assassin golden age. Although the Hashshashin never regained their once-formidable level of political power, the Assassins left a lasting mark upon history, language and culture that is evident even to this day.