Secret societies are mysterious enough, but sometimes they go beyond merely enigmatic, spooky organizations and gather a dark reputation as being a lethal force to be reckoned with, reaching out to deal death to those who oppose them. Such is the story of a shadowy secret order of assassins which was formed in ancient Persia and which kept the region under the grip of terror for over a century. Always lurking in the shadows, they could be anyone, and they were always ready to pounce, patiently waiting for word from their master to bloom outwards from the darkness and shadows to deliver death at a moment’s notice. Let us delve into some of the murky history of one of the most secretive and lethal secret orders of the ancient world and indeed history as a whole.
The road to the formation of one of the most terrifying secret societies the world would ever know began in Egypt in the first millennium AD, which was then under the control of the Ismaili sect of Shiite Islam, which had long been a small minority group within the religion, who followed Ismail bin Jafar, an iman who was not recognized by the larger Shiite group, and practiced a faith marked by radical egalitarianism and shunning of the luxury in which the ruling Sunni Abbasid caliphs enjoyed. At the time, the Ismaili sect had long been despised and persecuted by both the Sunnis and other Shiites alike, and they were considered to be revolutionary heretics. Mostly scattered and powerless, this sect had lived on the fringes of Islam for years, secretly preaching their ideology through missionaries known as da’is. It was one of these da’is by the name of Ubayd Allah who would launch a successful revolt to overthrow the local Sunni dynasty of what is now Tunisia and subsequently start the Fatimid caliphate in 910 AD, which quickly went on to conquer Egypt, Palestine, the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and parts of Syriainto, from which they spread their brand of theology.
It was in the base of Ismaili operations that Hassan-i Sabbah was born between 1040 and 1050, and converted to the Ismaili sect as a young man. Charismatic, intelligent, and intense, Hassan quickly rose in prominence within the Ismaili community and garnered a reputation in western Persia as being a firebrand missionary, known for his fierce intelligence, debating skills, fanatical fervor, hot temper, and toughness. It was these qualities that would land him in trouble at times, as he was known to have intense religious arguments with his instructors and he was even arrested at one point to spend a stint in a political prison after offending the local Chief of the Army, Badr al-Jamalī. He was subsequently kicked out of Cairo, where he had received advanced instruction in the ways of missionary work. Nevertheless, despite his exile from Cairo, Hassan went on to be one of Ismaili’s most valued missionaries, carrying out his work all over Persia.
At the time, the Ismailis were somewhat in decline, which was brought about by internal disputes among its leaders, a schism in ideologies, with the group gradually dividing into the Mustali Ismailis and the Nizari Ismailis due to conflict over who should be the heir to the caliphate, and an increasing loss of territory to the intruding Sunni Abbasid caliphs. In his zealous drive to spread the word of his Ismaili sect, Hassan went about trying to create a stronghold, a base of operations from which he and his followers could continue their dangerous work and raise the prominence of their doctrine throughout the region in safety. After traversing the land looking for a suitable location, Sabbah found it in the mountains of northern Persia near the Shah River in the form of an impressive citadel by the name of Alamut, which was perched atop soaring cliffs high above a valley floor, making it virtually inaccessible to enemies. Easily defendable, with a clear view for miles over the landscape below, it was seen as the perfect spot from which to launch their operation.
However, there was a problem. First of all, Alamut belonged to the the Seljuk Empire, who obviously were not just going to give it to them. Second, Hassan and his men were badly outnumbered, and considering that Alamut was well-defended and difficult to reach they had no chance at all of taking it by force. Most would have realized the futility of trying to gain the citadel, but for Hassan these were merely minor annoyances, and he went about an elaborate campaign to just go ahead and steal it anyway. The first step to this plan involved sending out missionaries into the surrounding areas in order to fan out and win over converts from the local populace, especially village leaders and other people of prominence. The next step was more daring, with Sabbah and his men actually secretly infiltrating the citadel and converting members of the defending garrison.
The commander of the fort began to suspect something suspicious was going on, but he was powerless to do anything about it because by that time most of the garrison and the local populace had already converted to the Ismaili cause and now followed Hassan. Outnumbered and outmaneuvered, the commander had no choice but to surrender the fort, and thus after nearly two years of patiently enacting his plan, Hassan had gained his prize without bloodshed or violence. The account of the taking of Alamut has often been romanticized. One popular legend concerning the acquisition of Alamut is that Hassan offered the owner of the fort 3,000 dinars for an amount of land that could fill a buffalo hide. The owner accepted, thinking that this would turn him over a tidy profit, after which Hassan cut a buffalo hide into long, thin strips which he then linked together around the perimeter of the fort before paying the promised money and sending the outsmarted owner on his way.
With Alamut secured, Hassan knew that it was only a matter of time before the Seljuks would come to take it back, and indeed an enraged Seljuk emir came rampaging through the valley in revenge, destroying towns, razing crops, and brutally slaughtering any Ismailis he could find, but Alamut proved to be just as impenetrable as Hassan had hoped, repelling the attack and sending the emir home in frustrated defeat. In the aftermath of this attack, with many of the crops and homes in the valley lying in smoking ruin, Hassan launched a campaign to increase his presence and capture other fortified positions within the region, sometimes through tact or propaganda and at other times through force, until he had created practically his own miniature state. As the Ismaili presence in the region spread, the Seljuks began to realize the threat they posed and decided on a more powerful response. Two armies were dispatched to the region to squash the Ismailis and Alamut was held under siege, yet Hassan in his impregnable fortress was able to ultimately thwart all such aggression. It was at around this time that he would turn to a new way to fight his enemies, and which would lead to the formation of his order of assassins.
It came to Hassan’s attention that one of his worst enemies, a Vizier Nizam al-Mulk, was traveling from the Seljuk capital of Isfahan to the Abbasid caliph’s residence in Baghdad along with the Sultan Malik Shah. Hassan then sent one of his most trusted assistants, a young man named Bu-Tahir, to infiltrate the entourage dressed as a Sufi mystic and armed with a concealed dagger. On the morning of October of 1092, when Nizam had just finished having breakfast with the Sultan and was on his way back to his tent, the disguised Bu-Tahir approached with a paper in his hand, claiming it was a petition that he wanted the vizier to look at. When Nizam reached out for it, Bu-Tahir grabbed him and fatally stabbed him through the heart before being promptly subdued and killed by the vizier’s men. Although this operation had left its agent dead, it had fulfilled its purpose and had a powerful psychological effect on the Seljuks, and indeed any others who would oppose Hassan. The Ismailis had shown that they had the ability and the determination and fearlessness to silently reach out and deal death as they pleased, despite their inferior numbers and relatively small territory.
Encouraged by the success of this first assassination, Hassan went about forging an elite group of individuals who could be called upon to undertake similar missions. Recruits for this new group were gathered from among Hassan’s own men, as well as the surrounding villages. The most prized traits in these potential recruits were resourcefulness, intelligence, ruthlessness, fearlessness, and religious zeal. In some cases, it is said that young boys were recruited, who could be more completely indoctrinated and trained in the ways of death. The recruits were trained in the use of various weapons, hand-to-hand combat, stealth, disguise, intelligence gathering, and psychological warfare, but the most important training they received was the the intense ideological commitment and fanaticism which was fostered within them through constant bombardment of propaganda and religiously fired up speeches. Hassan sought to make them totally obedient to him and the cause, going to great lengths to convince them that he was their one true savior, and that only by dying under his servitude would they achieve heavenly bliss.
At the end of all of this training, ideally the recruit would have been transformed into a stealthy, deadly killer who was disciplined, fanatical, totally committed to his cause, not afraid to die, and ready to follow any orders given without question. Such newly forged human weapons of war were called the fidaiyn, which roughly translates to “sacrifice,” or more to the point “those who risk their lives voluntarily,” and which is typically spelled today as fedayeen. This group of assassins would then go on to be called the Hashashin, which means “followers of Hassan,” and is the word from which the English word “assassin” likely originates.
Since much of the history of how this group was really trained is lost or has been tainted and clouded by the biased observations of the Crusaders, European explorers, and most notably the accounts of Marco Polo, which are probably mixed with some amount of fanciful fiction, there have been many legends that have sprung up about their training methods. For instance, it was said that the assassin recruit would be tricked into thinking they had died, only to wake up in a luxurious, opulent garden, which they would think was heaven. There Hassan would be waiting for them and the recruit would think he was some divine entity with the power to send them back to the land of the living, thus cementing their loyalty. Other stories explain that young boys spent all of their time in this garden, living in luxury until they were cast out and told that if they did not obey their master they would never return. In another tale, Hassan was said to have lowered a man into a hole in the ground with only his head showing, which was then surrounded with blood to make it seem as if he had been decapitated. The recruits were then shown the head and Hassan would appear to make the “head” speak and move, thereby proving in their minds that their master had great powers. To make it seem even more convincing, when the recruits left the room, Hassan supposedly had the cooperative person actually killed and decapitated, his head paraded about on a pole in order to show that he was really dead. It was also said that the assassins constantly smoked hashish, which you most likely know as marijuana, in order to take the edge off, make them more easily manipulated, and increase fearlessness. In fact, it is this tale that has given rise to the idea that the name Hashashin actually comes from the Arabic word hashishi, meaning “hashish users,” although this would have been very against the Muslim tradition of eschewing intoxicants. It is uncertain just how much truth any of these stories hold, but it shows how much power the Hashashin had to fire up the imagination.
When they were finally sent into the field, the Hashashin, or Assassins, were extremely bold, preferring to attack targets in very public areas with a lot of bystanders, such as mosques or city streets, in order to strengthen the psychological impact of their strikes, cultivate their sinister reputation, and sow terror, although they went through great lengths to ensure that no innocent person was harmed. In fact, it was very important to them that innocents be spared and that there be no killing of those not specifically targeted. This habit of killing where many could witness the act ensured that word of mouth spread quickly and further showed everyone that the Hashashin could be anywhere at anytime. Killings were meticulous and almost always carried out with a close quarter weapon such as a dagger, and they avoided any weapons which would allow the victim to possibly escape, such as bows or poisons. This was all done with complete lack of fear, and although the Assassin would try to escape if they could, they were not afraid to die at the hands of their enemy, although they would never commit suicide.
Assassinations were not always such straightforward affairs. Sometimes the Assassin would spend years learning the language and culture of the place they wished to infiltrate and getting close to their intended target, penetrating the inner circle and getting through the veil of security. To this end, they were masters of deceit and disguise, using whatever costume or cover they had to in order to patiently and inexorably get within striking distance. Blending in with their enemy, they could be peasants working the fields, soldiers, or loyal trusted servants. They could be anybody. The fact that the Hashashin were not afraid to die and that indeed, considering their high profile targets, were most certainly ensured of it, also added to the terror they invoked. It drove home the fact that there was no escape, and that anyone targeted for assassination was doomed no matter what they did.
On many occasions, the Hashashin did not kill at all, but rather relied on psychological warfare, with which they were well versed. One example of this was to infiltrate the quarters of a person of prominence and leave a dagger upon their pillow, usually with a message such as “You have been warned,” “You are in our grip,” or something menacing to that effect, leaving the potential victim terrified. These sorts of terror tactics were so effective that they allowed the Hashashin to exert influence on political figures or people of prominence without having to rely upon violence at all. In other cases, an assassination would be intentionally botched, with the victim being allowed to escape an attack with just a few injuries, making them very aware that they could be killed at any time and keeping them in the constant grip of fear, sometimes with them resorting to wearing armor under their clothes or keeping bodyguards to watch over them 24 hours a day. Even then, it was never apparent where an attack might come from, and since no one knew who could be an Assassin, since even a bodyguard or trusted advisor or servant could be one, there was a good amount of paranoia. For even the most well-protected and powerful rulers, no one ever knew just which one their faithful entourage might be an Assassin waiting for word to strike.
These terror tactics were remarkably effective, and often just a mere mention of the Hashashin was enough to keep many in line, to keep them submissive without these shadowy assassins having to do anything at all. In many cases, it became easier to just bend to their demands or forms truces with Hassan rather than face the possibility of an attack at any time. This constant threat of assassination and never-ending state of fear instilled in his enemies had a potent deterrent effect, and became a powerful bargaining chip for Hassan, allowing him to wield far more clout against far larger, more formidable enemies than his inferior numbers and relative low military might would suggest. It also ensured that far fewer lives were risked or lost than conventional military action.
The list of victims targeted by the Hashashin included religious leaders, emirs, sharifs, caliphs, high ranking political or military leaders, and just about anyone else who was a potential threat to Hassan or his Ismaili faith, but this list was always changing depending on his agenda. Even the the great Muslim general Saladin faced several attempts on his life by the Hashashin. During the Crusades, the Hashashin had a tenuous relationship with the Crusaders, sometimes working for them and sometimes targeting them, whatever best aided them in maintaining the balance of power or suited their interests. In fact, some of the most famous Hashashin targets came about at this time. One well-known assassination by the Hashashin at this time was that of the Crusader military commander from northern Italy, Conrad of Montferrat, who had been elected King of Jerusalem in April of 1192. Two Hashashin disguised as monks spent 6 months getting close to him, going so far as to convert to Christianity in order to allay any suspicions, before cutting him down as he walked home from a friend’s house escorted by two knights. It has often been speculated that these Assassins had been working for one of his many Christian enemies, such as Richard the Lionheart and Henry of Champagne. Another famous assassination attempt by the Hashashin was that of Edward I of England, who was wounded by a dagger in an ultimately unsuccessful bid to end his life in 1271.
The Hashashin would operate in the region and keep all of the Middle East in the grip of fear for over 125 years, under the guidance of a total of 8 grand masters. Their reign of fear was all encompassing, but all things must come to an end. Towards the beginning of the 13th century, a terrifying new power was sweeping across the land, the armies of the Mongols, under their ferocious leader Genghis Kahn, against whom the Hashashin would ultimately prove to be powerless. At first, the Hashashin had little to worry about. Although the Mongol armies were laying waste to vast swaths of central Asia between 1219 and 1223, the Hashashin remained relatively unaffected, with the Mongols’ attention focused elsewhere. However, Genghis Khan’s grandson, Mongke Khan, began to set his sights on invading Islamic territory and hoped to eventually conquer Baghdad. When the Hashashin learned of this new threat, they made an attempt to assassinate Mongke by sending a team of assassins to pose as citizens offering submission and surrender to the warlord before killing him. Things did not go according to plan. The team was turned away by the suspicious guards and the assassination was a failure. It was with this close call, in addition to word spreading to the Mongols of the deadly threat posed by the Hashashin, that they became more interested in wiping this shadowy, lethal group out. Mongke ordered his brother, Hülegü Khan, to go to Alamut and decisively destroy the Hashashin sect once and for all. In early 1256, the Mongols came at the Hashashin in their Alamut fortress with all of their might, and they were smashed under such a relentless force. The Hashashin grandmaster at the time, a Khur-Shah, who was considered to be rather weak willed compared to his predecessors, desperately tried to negotiate with the invading Mongols, offering his surrender in exchange for mercy, but the enemy did not honor this bargain and slaughtered the grandmaster in the wilds. They then went about hunting down and killing any Assassins or indeed any Ismailis they could find in a ruthless orgy of blood. The remaining Hashashin were scattered all over Asia, including India, Afghanistan, and the Himalayas, and their age ended.
In the ensuing madness, the stronghold of the Hashashin, Alamut, was razed to the ground and its vast libraries and records totally destroyed, leaving us with an incomplete picture of their history and practices. Indeed when looking at the saga of the Hashashin order of assassins, its history is murky, muddied by the accounts of the Crusaders, who were largely ignorant of Muslim culture and prone to exaggeration and romanticization of the order, as well as unreliable accounts by explorers such as Marco Polo, which were exaggerated and colored to the point where it is difficult to disentangle fact from fiction. Their history remains shadowy, cloaked in legend, myths, misinformation, and misunderstanding. The dramatic notion of an outnumbered secret society of assassins causing their more powerful enemies to cower before their might with the threat of stealthy agents of death certainly lends itself to exaggeration and legend, and when looking at their history, the lack of any solid information certainly makes it difficult to get a clear picture of the reality of this shadowy group. It is easy to get caught up in the swashbuckling cinematic quality of it all. In modern times, this romantic, dramatized view of the Hashashinin can still be seen in popular culture, such as in the popular video game Assassin’s Creed.
Yet for all of the misinformation and gaps in our knowledge of the Hashashin and their ways, they most certainly did exist. Perhaps the Hashashin’s legacy in the modern world can best be seen in the turmoil it faces. After all, they were the first pioneers of using terror tactics, insidious psychological warfare, the use of cells embedded within their enemies ready to strike, and suicide attacks, which can all still be seen in terrorist organizations such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and al Qaeda, although the Hashashin would have no doubt frowned upon the blatant imperiling of innocent bystanders that seems to be common practice today. The Hashashin have also proved to be the potential inspiration behind various other secret cults and societies, having a pronounced impact on how we see these secretive groups and how they operate. Author West Moore said of this in his book Disinformation:
During the Crusades, the Hashshashins fought both for and against the Crusaders, whichever suited their agenda. As a result, the Crusaders brought back to Europe the Assassins’ system, which would be passed down and mimicked by numerous secret societies in the West. The Templars, the Society of Jesus, Priory de Sion, the Freemasons, the Rosicrucians, etc. all owe their organizational efficiency to Hasan.
We may never have a full, clear picture of this mysterious order of assassins. The Hashashin remain just as shadowy in death as they were in life, with their myth and legend overshadowing any truths that we are able to glean from them. Now they are just a dark, romanticized footnote in history, but in their day the Hashashin were one of the most secretive, ingenious, and deadly secret orders in the world, their mere presence enough to shift the balance of power and change history, the potential for death to come for anyone at any time enough to influence politics and mold ancient Persia. They remain a fascinating account of a secret society that not only thrived, but was a powerful transforming force of history.