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Assassins of Persia

Among the world’s most famous secret societies, the Assassins also known as the Hashshashin emerged out in the late eleventh century CE, were a secret brotherhood based in the impenetrable mountain fortress of Alamut and led by a charismatic Svengali-figure, Sheikh Hasan-i Sabbah. The name ‘Assassins’, believed to derive either from the name of their leader or from their alleged drug use (called the Hashish), was a derogatory one given the sect by its enemies. They called themselves the ad-dawa al-jadida, ‘the new doctrine’. They were told if they wished to return to paradise, they must swear absolute obedience to Hasan and carry out assassinations at his command. Under the influence of more hashish, the brainwashed acolytes became deadly killing machines, who could be directed at the sect’s enemies. They feared no danger when they were dispatched to kill targets chosen by their leader and they did play a major role in shaping the politics and power balance of the medieval world through terror and assassination. During their sinister reign they destabilised Persia, governed parts of Syria and performed contract killings for the crusaders.

Hasan i-Sabbah
Their origins lie in the turbulent and complex history of Islamic schisms, since they were a branch of the Isma’ili Shiite Fatimids. The Fatimids were a dynasty of Shiite Muslims who claimed descent from Fatima, daughter of the Prophet, and therefore considered themselves to be rightful rulers of the Islamic Empire, rather than the Sunni Abbasid caliphate. The Fatimids started off in Yemen, but were constituted as a kind of secret society themselves. Their modus operandi was to send missionaries to lands outside their rule, where they would practise their faith in secret and seek to convert leading citizens, such as generals and rulers, and so take control (although they also made free use of armies, invasion and other more usual forms of conquest). By the 11th century their influence had spread as far afield as Spain, Sicily and Sardinia, and a Fatimid dynasty ruled large parts of North Africa and the Near East from Cairo.

The Assassins were a particularly fervent group of Fatimid missionaries, their founder, Hassan-i-Sabah, came from a Persian Shiite family but converted to the Ismaili sect after a long period of spiritual doubt. In 1078 he went to Cairo, then the center of Ismaili activity, and sought permission from the Caliph to spread the Ismaili faith in Persia. The Caliph agreed, but required that Hassan pledge to support the claim of the Caliph’s eldest son Nizar to the Caliphate. From this pledge came the formal name of Hassan’s order, the Nizaris.

In the years that followed, Hassan wandered Persia, teaching the Ismaili faith and winning converts. In 1090 he seized control of the fortress at Alamut, high in the northern mountains of Iran, and made it his center of operations. (According to Marco Polo, who visited Alamut in 1271, the stronghold included fabulous gardens, occupied by lovely women whom the reigning cult leaders used to good advantage.) From this impregnable base they developed their ideology and their power, becoming the Assassins of legend. For the Assassins, targeted murder of high-ranking members of inimical branches of Islam became a religious duty and a means of spreading their political and religious influence. There is no real evidence that they used drugs or brainwashing techniques, but they are believed to have gone about their sinister business with grim efficiency. Individuals or small cells of Assassins would infiltrate the hometown of the target and live there quietly for some time, disguised as tradesmen or religious ascetics. Observing the target carefully over time they would build up a picture of his movements and choose the right moment to strike. Usually they would carry out the assassination in public, often in the mosque during Friday prayers. The Assassins preferred to use a dagger, at close range, to minimise the chances of escape for the target. However, they took care not to injure anyone else and did not allow suicide, preferring to be killed by the victim’s guards.

Hassan imposed a strict hierarchy on his followers. Members of the lowest rank of the order, who carried out assassinations, had the title of fidai or devotee. According to medieval accounts, Hassan reinforced the loyalty of his followers with a clever trick. After completing a course of martial arts training, each fidai was given wine drugged with hashish, and taken into a hidden garden full of fruit trees, modeled on the paradise described in the Quran, where wine flowed in streams among gilded pavilions and lovely women provided every sensual delight. The fidai stayed there for a few days, until another dose of drugged wine returned him to his ordinary life. Convinced that Hassan had literally transported them to Paradise and back, the fidais readily risked their lives for him in the belief that death simply meant a one-way trip back to the garden.

In 1092 the Assassins claimed their first victim, Nizam al- Mulk, vizier for one of the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad. In 1094, two years after the Caliph died and Nizar’s claim to the succession failed, Hassan was strong enough to become an independent force, seizing additional mountain strongholds as far west as Syria and using these to extend his reach through the Middle East. Soon afterwards they made alliance with Ridwan, the ruler of Aleppo, in Syria, and for two decades became de facto rulers of the area. After Ridwan’s death, however, his successor Ibn al-Khashab drove them out of the area and thus made their list, meeting a sticky end at the point of an Assassin’s dagger in 1123.

The following year Hasan-i Sabbah died, but the sect continued to grow in strength through the early 12th century. His first two successors pursued his policies and made the Assassins a name to be feared throughout the Muslim world. The fourth head of the order, Hassan II, pursued a different course. After becoming Sheik of the order in 1162, he proclaimed himself the Mahdi, the prophet whose arrival marked the coming of the millennium, and abandoned Islam for a religion of his own invention centered on the teaching that “nothing is true, and everything is permissible.” After four years, he was murdered by his brother-in-law, but Hassan II’s troubled rule allowed the head of the Syrian branch of the Assassins, Rashid ad-Din Sinan known by his legendary title, ‘the Old Man of the Mountains’, to break free of Alamut’s control.

Syria at that time was divided between the Crusader kingdoms to the south and a Sunni Muslim kingdom centered on Aleppo in the north, and Sinan played these off against each other to maintain his own independence. By the late 12th century the Assassins in Syria had established

good relations with the Christian crusaders in the Levant, and in 1173 they briefly considered converting to Christianity, probably in order to benefit from favourable tax laws. However, Christians in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, jealous of their taxexempt status, objected, and negotiators sent by the Assassins were murdered. Relations were nevertheless maintained, and

in the Assassins the crusaders found a valuable ally against the Saracen king, Saladin. When the great Arab general Saladin (Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi, 1138–93) took power in Aleppo, Sinan responded by ordering his death, but by this time Arab rulers had begun to learn Assassin ways and in 1175 Sinan’s agents failed twice.

In 1192 the Assassins became embroiled in the complex politics of the crusader kingdoms. Someone – historical speculation points to Richard I (the Lionheart) of England – hired them to polish off Conrad of Montferrat, king of Jerusalem. Conrad was a rival of Richard’s vassal Guy of Lusignan for the throne of Jerusalem.With support from Philip II of France and Leopold of Austria, Conrad replaced Guy as king in April 1192. His reign was short. On 28April he was returning from dinner at the house of a friend when he was set upon by two Assassins and stabbed to death. The sect continued to exert its sinister influence over Middle and Near Eastern politics until the mid-13th century.

After Sinan’s time, the Assassins moved away from their sectarian roots and became an organization of hired knives who killed for money. Like the rest of the Arab world, they were fatally unprepared for the arrival of the Mongol armies in the middle of the thirteenth century. Weakened in part by the depredations of the Assassins, the Abbasid caliphate was in no position to resist the marauding Mongol hordes. Hulagu Khan, grandson of Genghis and brother of Kublai, was dispatched to conquer Persia and crush the Assassins. In 1256 he arrived at the gates of Alamut with the largest Mongol army ever assembled, but was not called upon to test the fortress’s supposedly impregnable defences because the Assassin sheikh promptly surrendered in the misguided hope of receiving mercy. Hulagu razed the fortress to the ground, and by 1265 the last remaining Assassin strongholds in Syria fell to another invading army under the Mameluke sultan, Baybars I.

After nearly 200 years of secret influence the Assassins were finished as a power in the region, but the Nizari Isma’ilis lived on, eventually breaking up into several groups, some of which still exist today. The most prominent of these are the Qäsim-Shâhîs, or Khojas, best known through their leader, the Aga Khan, last descendent of the fearsome Assassin sheikhs.

Secret History by Joel Levy;
The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies by John Michael Greer;
The Encyclopedia of Conspiracies and Conspiracy Theories by Michael Newton

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