When European crusaders arrived in the Holy Land in the 12th - 13th centuries to fight the Saracens (meaning at this time, the Islamic forces united under Salah al-Din), they heard tales of an enemy that even the mighty "Saladin" feared. The "hashashin" were said to be able to enter any camp or castle and slay any man, no matter how wellguarded. Their leader, the Old Man of the Mountain, occupied a secret fortress stronger than any in the world, and his faithful would infiltrate the retinues of princes as servants and soldiers, living out these roles for years before receiving his order to strike. They had no fear of their own death, believing that their actions assured them a place in Paradise.
Medieval illustration of the
assasination of the Count of Jaffa
The stories were true, but there was a lot more to it. In the 11th century, the assassins were a sect of the Ismali Shia Muslims, whose leader lost a battle for succession to the throne of Egypt, along with his life. His followers resorted to covert tactics to survive. In 1090, they took the castle of Alamut, "the Eagle's Nest" on the borders on modernday Iran, by converting the inhabitants to their particular brand of faith. This castle was built atop an isolated mesa rising from a desert plain and, having a huge cistern and only one entrance, vastly difficult to take by force. Their leader at this time was Hassan-i-Sabbah, and the title "hashashin" may simply mean "follower of Hassan". Although it is also close to the Arabic for "user of hashish" or opium, there is little evidence to support this interpretation, although thanks to Marco Polo, who recorded the legend in his Travels of 1298, that is how it is generally understood. "The Sheikh was called in their language Alaodin. He had had made in a valley between two mountains the biggest and most beautiful garden that was ever seen... and he gave his men to understand that this garden was Paradise... He used to put some of these youths in this Paradise, four at a time, or ten or twenty, according as he wished. And this is how he did it. He would give them draughts that sent them to sleep on the spot. Then he had them taken and put in the garden, where they wakened. When they awoke... they believed they were really in Paradise. And when he desired emissaries to send on some mission of murder, he would administer the drug to as many as he pleased; and while they slept he had them carried into his palace... Then, in order to bring about the death of the lord or other man which he desired, he would take some of these Assassins of his and send them wherever he might wish, telling them he was minded to dispatch them to Paradise: they were to go accordingly and kill such and such a man; if they died on their mission, they would go there all the sooner."
Over the next two hundred years, the assassins took control of other castles such as Masyaf in Syria. To defend their strongholds, they used the techniques for which they became legendary. It is said that when Salah al-Din besieged Masyaf, he awoke one morning in his tent to find a poisoned cake lying upon his chest, together with a note reading "you are in our grip." The siege was lifted shortly thereafter. The assassins were not adverse to taking paid commissions either, and Richard the Lionheart is rumoured to have hired them to kill the politically inconvenient King of Jerusalem, Conrad de Montferrat.
In 1256, the armies of Monke Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, reached Alamut after cutting a swathe of devastation through the Islamic world. The assassins refused to surrender, believing their castle impregnable. But, depending on the source, the Mongols either starved them out over the course of three years or built catapults on the surrounding mountains and pounded them into submission within five days. Masyaf surrendered in 1260 but the assassins survived as professional killers in the service of the Mamluk sultans (Salah al-Din's eventual successors) until the 15th century. Their name, of course, survives to this day.
Castles and Churches of the Crusading Kingdom, T. S. R. Boase, Oxford University
Press, London, 1967
The Assassins, Edward Burman, Crucible, Great Britain, 1987
The Travels, Marco Polo & Rusticello of Pisa, trans. Ronald Latham, Penguin, 1974 (1958)
The Monks of War, Desmond Seward, Penguin, 1995 (1972)
History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea, William of Tyre, trans. Emily A. Babcock & A. C. Krey, Octagon Books, New York, 1976 (1941)
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