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The Assassins (from Arabic: حشّاشين Ḥashshāshīn) were a secret order of Nizari Ismailis, particularly those of Persia and Syria, that formed in the late 11th century. In time, the order began to pose a strong military threat to Sunni Seljuq authority within the Persian territories by capturing and inhabiting many mountain fortresses under the leadership of Hassan-i Sabbah.
The name "Assassin" is often said to derive from the Arabic Hashishin or "users of hashish", thought to have been originally derogatory and used by their adversaries during the Middle Ages. In actuality, the word is a misnomer for the Nizari Ismailis applied abusively to them by the Mustali Ismailis during the fall of the decaying Ismaili Fatimid Empire when the two streams separated from each other. In 1122 the Mustalian dynasty Fatimid caliph al-Amir referred to the Nizaris as the hashishiyya "without any explanation" and "without actually accusing them of using hashish, a product of hemp". There is a possibility that the term hashishiyya or hashishi or "users of hashish " in Muslim sources, was used metaphorically in its abusive sense (i.e. "social outcasts", "low-class rabble", etc.), while the literal interpretation of this term in referring to the Nizaris (as hashish consuming intoxicated assassins) may be rooted in the fantasies of medieval Westerners.
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 origins of the Assassins can be traced back to just before the First Crusade, around 1080. There has been much 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. Most sources dealing with the order's inner working 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.
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. It is still disputed whether Sabbah built the fortress himself or if it was already built at the time of his arrival. In either case, 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 working on religious works and 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 in 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'i" (self-sacrificing agent), in the known world.
It is, however, 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 the "Old Man of the Mountain" (Sabbah) 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. However, this story is disputed due to the fact that 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.
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. All Hashashin were trained in both the art of combat and in the study of religion, believing that they were on a jihad and were religious warriors.
Although the "Fida'yin" were the lowest rank in Sabbah's order and 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.
The Assassins were finally linked by the 19th century orientalist scholar Silvestre de Sacy to the Arabic 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.[Daftary 1] 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.[Daftary 2] Used figuratively, the term hashishi connoted meanings such as outcasts or rabble.[Daftary 3] 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.[Daftary 4] The origins of the word forgotten, across Europe the term Assassin had taken the meaning of "professional murderer".[Daftary 5] 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.[Daftary 6]
According to Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf:
Their contemporaries in the Muslim world would call them hash-ishiyun, "hashish-smokers"; some orientalists thought that this was the origin of the word "assassin", which in many European languages was more terrifying yet ... The truth is different. According to texts that have come down to us from Alamut, Hassan-i Sabbah liked to call his disciples Asasiyun, meaning people who are faithful to the Asās, meaning "foundation" of the faith. This is the word, misunderstood by foreign travellers, that seemed similar to "hashish".
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").
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.[Daftary 7] 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. They were unique in that civilians were never targeted. The assassinations were 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 favour of widespread bloodshed resulting from factional combat. Hashashin are also made to be adept in furusiyya, or the Islamic warrior code, where they are trained in combat, disguises, and equestrianism. Codes of conducts 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.[Wasserman 1]
For about two centuries, the hashashin specialized in assassinating their religious and political enemies.[Wasserman 2] These killings were often conducted in full view of the public and often in broad daylight, so as to instill terror in their foes. Assassinations were primarily carried out with a dagger, which was sometimes tipped with poison. Due to being immensely outnumbered in enemy territory, the hashashin tended to specialize in covert operations. Hashashin would often assimilate themselves in the towns and regions of their targets and, over time, stealthily insert themselves into strategic positions. They did not always kill their targets, however, preferring at times to try threatening an enemy into submission. This could sometimes be accomplished with a dagger and a threatening note placed on an enemy's pillow. The assassin group was indeed feared enough that these threats were sometimes taken seriously, as in the case when Saladin, the Muslim Sultan of Egypt and Syria, made an alliance with the rebel sect to avoid more attempts on his life. In the heat of battle however, under no circumstances did they commit suicide unless completely necessary, preferring to be killed by their captors.
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.[Willey 1] 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.[Willey 2] 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.[Daftary 8] So inflated had this association grown that, in the work of orientalist scholars such as Bernard Lewis, the Ismailis were equated to the politically active fida'is and thus regarded as a radical and heretical sect known as the Assassins.
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.[Willey 3] 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 supporters from intense persecution to safe haven in Yathrib (Medina). 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.[Wasserman 3] Likewise, during the revolt against the Seljuqs, several fortresses served as spaces of refuge for the Ismailis.
In their peak, much 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 hashashin performed their assassination in full view of the public, often in broad daylight, gave them the reputation assigned to them.[Wasserman 4]
Psychological warfare, and attacking the enemy's psyche was another often employed tactics of the hashashin, who would sometimes attempt to draw their opponent to submission rather than risking to kill it.
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 tax collected from the lands they owned, gave them grants and licenses, and even allowed them to collect tolls from travelers.[Wasserman 5]
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.
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: Ibn Battuta reported in the 14th century their fixed rate of pay per murder. In exchange, they were allowed to exist. Eventually, they resorted to the act of Taqq'iya (dissimulation), hiding their true identities until their Imams would awaken them. Although the order had officially been destroyed, individual members of the Assassins may have continued operating well into the 14th century, accepting private contracts. It is estimated that at most, the last true Assassin probably died in the early 15th century.
According to the historian Yaqut al-Hamawi, the Böszörmény, (Izmaleita or Ismaili/Nizari) denomination of the Muslims who lived in the Kingdom of Hungary in the 10–13th 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 a symbol in the Assassin's order.
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. Misinformation from the Crusader accounts and the works of anti-Ismaili historians have contributed to the tales of fida'is being fed with hashish as part of their training. Whether fida'is were actually trained or dispatched by Nizari leaders is unconfirmed, but scholars including Vladimir Ivanov purport that the assassination of key figures including Saljuq vizier Nizam al-Mulk likely provided encouraging impetus to others in the community who sought to secure the Nizaris from political aggression. 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.
The tales of the fida'is ' training collected from anti-Ismaili historians and orientalists writers were confounded and compiled in Marco Polo's account, in which he described a "secret garden of paradise".[Daftary 9] After being drugged, the Ismaili devotees were said 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. 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.[Daftary 10]
Another one of Hassan's recorded methods includes hashashin appear to have been 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 give all their full hearts to the cause. After the trick was played, Hassan had the man killed and his head placed on a stake to cement the deception.[Daftary 11]
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 could defeat the Hashshashin, as its army was 10 times larger. Rashid replied that his army was indeed 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. The man did. Surprised, the count had only to recognize that Hasan had the strongest army, because they did everything at his command, and Rashid further gained the count's respect.
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.[Daftary 12]
In recent years, Peter Willey has provided interesting evidence 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.[Willey 4] 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 of 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.[Willey 5] Having destroyed a number of texts of 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.
These legends feature in certain works of fiction, including Vladimir Bartol's 1938 novel Alamut, and Simon Acland's First Crusade novels The Waste Land and The Flowers of Evil. In the latter, the author suggests that the origin of the name Assassin is the Turkish word hashhash meaning opium, partly on the basis that this drug is more suitable for producing the effects suggested in the legends than hashish.
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. From then on, the Ismailis maintained limited autonomy over those former strongholds as loyal subjects of the Mamluks.
The Hashashin were part of Medieval culture, and were either demonized or romanticized. Hashashin appeared frequently in the art and literature of the Middle Ages, sometimes illustrated as one of the knight's archenemies and a quintessential villain during the crusades.
By the thirteenth century, the word Assassin, in variant forms, had already passed into European usage in this general sense of 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).
Assassins appear in many role-playing games and video games, especially 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 to defeat an opponent without exposing the assassin to counterattack. The Assassin's Creed video game series portrays a heavily fictionalised Ḥashshāshīn order, which has expanded beyond its Levantine confines and is depicted to have existed throughout recorded history (along with their arch-nemeses, the Knights Templar). Both orders are presented as fundamentally philosophical, rather than religious, in nature, and expressly said to predate the faiths their real-life counterparts arose from, thus allowing for the expansion of their respective "histories" before and after their factual time-frames.
English translation in F. Daftary, The Assassin Legends, 136–188.