Assassins

This is intended as a revision of my post of 4.12.

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One of our goals on this trip is to connect related places in different countries, and so we visited the Assassin castles of Misyaf in Syria and Alamut in Iran.

Misyaf Castle, near Hama, Syria

Alamut Castle, near Qazvin, Iran

In order to understand the origin of the Assassins, it is helpful to go back to the beginning of Islam. After the death of Mohammed in 632 AD, there arose a dispute as to who should succeed his role as the (religious and political) head of the Islamic world. One faction supported Ali, cousin and son-in-law of Mohammed, while others supported Abu Bakr. Abu Bakr was elected the first caliph (or successor to Mohammed), followed in relatively quick succession by Umar, Uthman, and then finally Ali. Showing the contentiousness of the power struggles at the time, Umar, Uthman and Ali each met his end by murder. Some blamed the death of Uthman on the Ali faction (now known as Shiites), while the Shiites blamed the death of Ali on the others (now known as Sunnis). Following the death of Ali, the Sunni Umayyad dynasty, based in Damascus, took over the caliphate. During this period, the conflict between the majority Sunnis and the minority Shiites deepened, especially after the Umayyads killed Ali’s son Hussein, much of his family and many of his followers, in a battle near Karbala in now Iraq.

While the Shiites have been out of the majority and power in most of the Islamic world since, there have been significant times and areas when they came into control. One of the most important areas was and remains Iran, where (Twelver) Shiites form a majority. [Cf. my post of 5.20 for an introduction to Iranian Shia Islam.] Another was the Cairo-based (Sevener Shia or Ismaili) Fatimid caliphate, named after Fatima, daughter of Mohammed and wife of Ali, which ruled much of North Africa, Egypt and nearby lands from 910-1171. [The Twelver and Sevener Shias had split earlier due to a dispute on the identity of the seventh Imam–post on Sevener Shias likely to come.]

Around 1090, the Fatimids suffered from their own succession problem. The losing faction refused to accept the new Fatimid ruler in Cairo and formed a somewhat radical rebel group in now Iran, known to us as the Assassins. The founder of the Assassins, Hassan Sabbah, established a base at Alamut in northern Iran and led his group into repeated conflict with the prevailing Sunni Muslim hierarchy. A second group of Assassins became established in now Syria, and was particularly active under the leadership of Rashid al-Din Sinan, who based himself at Misyaf Castle starting in 1140. It is believed that there may have been a third group of Assassins in now Iraq.

As you may know, the word “assassin,” which we use now to describe professional killers, derives from the Assassins, who are called Assassins because it was rumored that they took hashish before embarking on their missions. And much like the contemporary English meaning of the word and its derivative, assassination, the missions of the Assassins, their method of operation, was murder: the strategic killing or attempted killing of Sunni Muslim leaders, including those of the Seljuk Turks of Anatolia and Crusader-foe Saladin. The Assassins would work by embedding an operative, sometimes over the course of years, in order to murder, or assassinate, a prominent leader or otherwise powerful or influential person.

Saladin’s greatest success, prior to his defeat of the Crusaders at the Battle of Hattin in 1187, was the conquest of Egypt from the Fatimid caliphate in 1171. After terminating Fatimid rule, Saladin wanted to consolidate his (Sunni) control over the region, including by wiping out the Assassins in now Syria. In 1176, Saladin sieged the castle of Misyaf. According to legend, Saladin woke up one morning during the siege to find on his bed a dagger or poisoned cakes and a threatening note, depending on the story you believe, making clear that the Assassins had infiltrated his camp and could murder him at their will. The siege was called off.

The Assassins of now Iran met their end in 1256, when Hulagu, Genghiz Khan’s grandson, sucessfully sieged Alamut [cf. post of 5.27 on Hulagu and the Ilkhanids]. The Syrian branch would persist until 1273, when it was defeated by the Mamlukes.

Ruins of Alamut

Column capital at Misyaf, evidence of earlier fortifications at the site

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Excerpt from Marco Polo on the Hassan Sabbah and the Fortress of Alamut:

The Old Man was called in their language ALOADIN. He had caused a certain valley between two mountains to be enclosed, and had turned it into a garden, the largest and most beautiful that ever was seen, filled with every variety of fruit. In it were erected pavilions and palaces the most elegant that can be imagined, all covered with gilding and exquisite painting. And there were runnels too, flowing freely with wine and milk and honey and water; and numbers of ladies and of the most beautiful damsels in the world, who could play on all manner of instruments, and sung most sweetly, and danced in a manner that it was charming to behold. For the Old Man desired to make his people believe that this was actually Paradise. So he had fashioned it after the description that Mahommet gave of his Paradise, to wit, that it should be a beautiful garden running with conduits of wine and milk and honey and water, and full of lovely women for the delectation of all its inmates. And sure enough the Saracens of those parts believed that it _was_ Paradise!

Now no man was allowed to enter the Garden save those whom he intended to be his ASHISHIN. There was a Fortress at the entrance to the Garden, strong enough to resist all the world, and there was no other way to get in. He kept at his Court a number of the youths of the country, from 12 to 20 years of age, such as had a taste for soldiering, and to these he used to tell tales about Paradise, just as Mahommet had been wont to do, and they believed in him just as the Saracens believe in Mahommet. Then he would introduce them into his garden, some four, or six, or ten at a time, having first made them drink a certain potion which cast them into a deep sleep, and then causing them to be lifted and carried in. So when they awoke, they found themselves in the Garden.

When therefore they awoke, and found themselves in a place so charming, they deemed that it was Paradise in very truth. And the ladies and damsels dallied with them to their hearts’ content, so that they had what young men would have; and with their own good will they never would have quitted the place.

Now this Prince whom we call the Old One kept his Court in grand and noble style, and made those simple hill-folks about him believe firmly that he was a great Prophet. And when he wanted one of his _Ashishin_ to send on any mission, he would cause that potion whereof I spoke to be given to one of the youths in the garden, and then had him carried into his Palace. So
when the young man awoke, he found himself in the Castle, and no longer in that Paradise; whereat he was not over well pleased. He was then conducted to the Old Man’s presence, and bowed before him with great veneration as believing himself to be in the presence of a true Prophet. The Prince would then ask whence he came, and he would reply that he came from Paradise! and that it was exactly such as Mahommet had described it in the Law. This of course gave the others who stood by, and who had not been admitted, the greatest desire to enter therein.

So when the Old Man would have any Prince slain, he would say to such a youth: “Go thou and slay So and So; and when thou returnest my Angels shall bear thee into Paradise. And shouldst thou die, natheless even so will I send my Angels to carry thee back into Paradise.” So he caused them to believe; and thus there was no order of his that they would not affront any peril to execute, for the great desire they had to get back into that Paradise of his. And in this manner the Old One got his people to murder any one whom he desired to get rid of. Thus, too, the great dread that he inspired all Princes withal, made them become his tributaries in order that he might abide at peace and amity with them.

6 thoughts on “Assassins

  1. Your post is much more readable than the book, but should anyone be interested in learning more, Bernard Lewis’ Assassins offers a scholarly review of the subject.

  2. I enjoyed your article, it was very well written. It is a shame that I will never be able visit this place that has always intruiged me. Maybe one day it will be safe for Americans to travel there and I can see it.

  3. Hi,

    Just read your post on the subject of the assasins and the history of where the name was derived from and the nature of these individuals from the excerpt you so kindly provided us with.

    I would however like to update some facts to your readers regarding the term that is so abjectly applied so often to the inhabitants of these forts during the relevant periods.

    It is widely considered by many scholars today that the use of the word assasin derived from hashashin or takers of hashish (opium)has unfairly been applied to these inhabitants by Marco Polo.
    It is believed that he came across such tales on his travels not by personal experience but rather hearing tales from his guides and companions many of whom belonged to a different sub-section of Islam in oppposition to the rule of the Shias present there.

    I hope the above makes the situation clearer to your readers and presents and even sided view on the subject under consideration.

  4. Amirali, thank you so much for your comment. I had been meaning to revise this post, or at least append a comment, but had not gotten to it yet. As you point out, Marco Polo’s version of the story is hardly considered reliable, as with many of his accounts, and there is really little reason to believe it. For those who are interested, this book would probably be an interesting read (and one I should check out myself):

    http://www.iis.ac.uk/view_article.asp?ContentID=100539

  5. Mr Paul, why you have not revised this post, even if you believe that Marco polo's version of story is not reliable enough rather Dr. Farhad Daftary in "The Assassin Legends: Myths of the Isma‘ilis" has provided with more reliable facts.

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