Shadows in The Caliphate: A Brief History of the Assassins

Collective memory does not hold the Middle-Ages in high regard. Instead, it is remembered as a bloody era featuring deadly Crusades, the Inquisition’s brutal (original, though) torture practices, and empires regularly changing hands much to the discontent of medieval townspeople. This epoch was, indeed, a shadow theatre.

As soon as the 11th century, several secret societies flourished across medieval Europe. Chivalry orders such as the Templars – whose fate was to involve a gruesome curse and a legendary treasure – were amongst the key players longing for the capture of the Holy Land of Jerusalem. But other shadowy factions were given birth without the Pope’s blessing.

Counquest_of_Jeusalem_(1099)
Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, 1099, by Emile Signol (1847).

At the time, the immense Persian Empire was not a unified, joint force aimed at the invading Crusaders. It featured internal splits, especially religious divisions between Shia and Sunni Muslims – a dispute, unfortunately, still unsolved to this day. Given that the Sunni Seljuqs mastered most of the Syrian and Persian territory in the late-11th century – from the Persian Gulf to the Karakoram mountain range that today lies at the border of India and Pakistan – most followers of the Shia doctrines felt directly threatened by the rising power of the occupying forces.

As a result, a dissident group known as the Nizari Ismailis founded in 1072 its own secret order to resist Seljuq authority: the « hachichiyyin » – or, as they would become widely known, the Assassins – who settled into mountain strongholds scattered across Persia and Iran. Led by a mysterious man named Hasan ibn al-Sabbah, they trained themselves the arts of fighting and concealing themselves, were taught foreign languages and horseback riding, and soon became masters in disguise and deceit. Given their drop in numbers compared to the Seljuqs’ massive army, they learnt to be discreet and quiet, to walk with catlike stealth and lurk in the shadows. That was to become their best asset.

Hashshashins picture
It has been long believed that the word assassin derived from the Arabic word Hashishin, “hashish user” – an enduring misinterpretation reinforced by the accounts of Marco Polo’s journeys, in which the explorer reported drug use by the Ismailis. However, it is far more likely that its origin comes from the term Asayun, “people of principle”. (Artwork via AncientOrigins)

The Assassins’ discretion enabled them to perform surgical strikes, most of the time in the form of targeted killings (something that hardly ever occurred at the time, although Crusaders and Seljuqs probably made good use of it too). The assassinations were committed by believers known as fedayin, often in broad daylight and public places in order to catch everybody’s attention so that no viziers, caliphs or ever sultans would feel safe. A fedayin could infiltrate the court of an enemy sovereign for months, go unnoticed until a good opportunity would present itself, and only then eliminate his target in a blade’s silvery flash.

In addition to the element of surprise that was the Assassin’s trademark, their stealth guaranteed them to induce terror or chaos in the minds of their enemies – a foretaste of psychological warfare, a less-brutal-hence-rather-uncommon-tactic at the time. A famous story highlights the dexterity of a fedayin who crept into a Seljuq’s sultan stronghold at nighttime, right under his bodyguards’ noses. On the next day, the awakening sultan noticed in horror a dagger stuck up at the foot of his bed. He vividly remembered having sent off, the day before, two Ismaili missionaries willing to negotiate an end to hostilities; was it the motive behind this terrifying intrusion? A letter written by Hasan ibn-al Sabbah soon confirmed the sovereign’s fears: “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.” Needless to say that a truce was immediately concluded between the Nizari Ismailis and the Seljuq leader…

1280px-Iran_-_Qazvin_-_Alamout_Castle_View
The Castle of Alamut (northern Iran) has been the Assassins’ headquarters for decades. From that fortress were sent on secret missions dozens of fedayin, ordered by a mysterious master nicknamed “the Old Man of the Mountain”. Plus, that place is possibly one of the warning beacons of Gondor. (Photo: Alireza Javaheri via Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0)

Myths and legends also surround the Assassins’ epic in the Persian Empire, and contribute to deepen the grey zones historians hope to shed light upon. It is said for instance that during a meeting between Count Henri II of Champagne and Rashid ad-Din Sinan – the latter became the Assassins Grandmaster at the turn of the 12th century – both leaders bragged about operating the most powerful army. To cut the argument short, Sinan ordered one Assassin to throw himself from the top of the castle – which he did, proving the flabbergasted count the faithfulness of his Nizari subjects.

 

Hassan sends his assassins to death
“See how faithful my subjects are? Let’s have another one stab himself while jumping from the top of a cliff into a river swarming with crocodiles. What? I’m proving a point.” (Photo via BigThink)

Could such a secret, effective and tenacious sect have overpowered the Seljuq authority and eventually spanned the entire world? The assumptions promoted by modern, pop-cultural versions of the « hachichiyyin » could have proved true, were it not for the mistake of an Uzbek leader who got a pack of Mongol merchants executed in 1218. Genghis Khan himself sought revenge, launching in East Asia one of the most devastating invasions in world history.

Entrenched into their mountain strongholds, the Assassins starved while the Mongolian hordes washing over Persia extended their empire (up to 24 million square meters in 1268, two and a half times the surface of the US). Their mysterious society finally disappeared three centuries following its birth, at the end of the 13th century. Alamut was besieged, and nearly all its occupiers were captured or killed by the Mongols, who also – classic invader move – set the castle’s library on fire. Hence the lack of documentation about the Assassins’ origins, practices and beliefs…

 

 


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