Historically, the Assassins, or 'Hashashin', as they are known in their land of origin, were a mysterious sect of the Shi’ite Nizari Ismailis in Persia, founded by Hassan-i Sabbah (also known as the "Old Man of the Mountain"). The stories and myths surrounding them constituted fertile ground for both the Occidental and Oriental imagination that produced numerous legends.
In time, they acquired mythical status among Orientalists, and became shrouded in ambiguity and imbued with magical qualities by Western historians. Such was their power over Western thought that their name outlasted them, making its way into the modern English lexicon. Meanwhile, the Sunni majority resorted to exploiting them as scapegoats for the defamation of Shi’ites, referring to the Assassins as a minority of 'infidels'.
The Assassins were believed to be a sect of trained killers, active between the 11th and 13th centuries CE, as a religious-political group operating against the Fatimid and Abbasid empires. They were known for their mountain fortresses, which they successfully turned into closed military zones. They had many enemies, from among the Arabs and the Crusaders, earning a reputation for cutthroat brutality, as well as the enmity of major influential forces.
In parallel with the smear campaign that was waged against them, the Assassins were also assigned mystical characteristics by those whose fascination they had captured. On the one hand, a Sunni campaign was led against them, marked by works such as the renowned Persian theologian Imam al-Ghazali’s Faḍāʼiḥ al-bāṭinīyah, in which he sought to discredit what he perceived as 'myths and superstitions'; the medieval Persian historian Al-Juweni, as well as later Orientalists, including voyagers such as Marco Polo, and most notably in recent times, Bernard Lewis, who separately, coined their own myths about the group.
Stories of the Assassins
There are various references to the Assassins throughout history, though questions have been raised over the credibility of most. Several important studies of their accounts emerged, like the compiled references by Farhad Daftary, head of the London-based Institute of Ismaili Studies, in his book The Assassin Legends: Myths of the Isma’ilis.
Yet, it is curious that the majority of the studies rely on the accounts of Western voyagers and Crusaders. The accounts written by their contemporaries, whether Muslim, Christian, Arab, or Persian, significantly contradict those in later Western references, with the core difference that the majority of these contemporary accounts were motivated by religious or political purposes.
During a voyage, Marco Polo described one of their fortresses (likely the Alamut Castle, their stronghold), which Bernard Lewis reviews in his book The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam. Marco Polo stated that the fortress was filled with fruit, beautiful women and boys, and all manner of pleasures, describing it as a paradise. He further claims that their leader, the Old Man of the Mountain, had convinced his followers that they are in the promised land prophesied by Muhammad. According to Polo’s account, a group of fedayeen or assassins broke in to try to reap the spoils of this paradise; however, the Old Man of the Mountain turned them away, but not before entrancing them with 'a mysterious substance'.
Who were the members of the mysterious medieval Shi'ite order dubbed the Assassins, and how did they shape history?
For centuries, the Assassins mystified, fascinated, and terrorized Orientalists, claiming vast power over their imaginations.
The Old Man of the Mountain purportedly chose from among children and young men, to raise in this paradise then utilize in assassination missions, promising them that they could return to this version of paradise once they had accomplished their missions. Marco Polo’s account, however, has been contested, not simply due to the unrealistic descriptions of the fortress, but because he had not yet been born by the time Alamut Castle was destroyed in 1256.
Performing their resistance in the form of "assassinations," earned them great fame and notoriety, particularly for the assassination of the de facto King of Jerusalem at the time, the marquis Conrad of Montferrat, in 1192.
Yet, more importantly, they were known for the repeated attempted assassinations of Saladin, as detailed in Bernard Lewis’ account, which was rendered by French-Lebanese author Amin Maalouf, in his novel Samarkand. The leader of the Assassins sent a messenger to speak to Saladin, who would later discover, upon vacating the hall to speak to the messenger, that his two personal bodyguards were Assassins themselves.
In another tale pertaining to their notoriety, it was said that Hassan-i Sabbah ordered one of the Assassins to jump from a high wall from the fortress into the abyss, as evidence of their disposability and loyalty to him. This could very much be a fabrication that gained resonance in the collective imaginations.
The Etymology of the Assassins
In the understanding of many, the etymology of word Assassins/Hashashin comes from the word hashish, based on the understanding that they consumed the substance to accomplish their missions, and to maintain the illusion of paradise. However, these interpretations have no historical or factual basis; rather, much of the documentation in Arabic from that era disputes such theories. The word Hashashin is only mentioned twice, in a context that does not denote the meaning we perceive today. Rather, this title emerged with the Orientalist view of the sect, which in conflating narratives and linguistic references gave the word Assassins new implications, that since began to appear in European languages in the 14th century, specifically in describing the trained killers in the sect.
Other interpretations arose, such as the claims that the etymology of the word was from ‘Hassassin’, from Hassan-i Sabbah’s name. However, such theories have no factual bases either. Rather, Daftary posits that the word Hashashin was used to describe the rabble masses or the socially ostracized non-believers, and as such was used to describe the Nizaris by those who accused them of apostasy.
Elements of the Imagination
The Assassins and their stories and myths emerged due to a number of factors that together have defined the sect’s historical presence. On the one hand, there are the mystical qualities associated with hashish, as well as the fantasies involving visions of paradise, while political factors also have played a role in the process. However, it was mostly the work of imaginings which developed and shaped their narrative over centuries.
It at once nurtured and sustained the Orient as constructed in the West, the land of magic and wonders, but also the land of pure horror and revenge.