Knives in the Night Part 2: The History of the Secret Order of Assassins
A Day at the Market It is unusually hot this day. You regret having had to go out but you needed to discuss a few matters with the local merchants. You are a local dignitary walking through the market with your two guards. They advised you against going through such a highly-populated area but you dismissed it as nonsense. The local populace needs to see their officials and interact with them. Two scholars whom you’ve met with recently approach you. They are in the city studying under one of your advisers and would like to consult on a few things. They smile as they approach and you wave them over as you dismiss your guards.
Discussions go well enough with laughter in between. The guards have fallen back to grant you and your guests some semblance of privacy in the middle of this noisy market. You briefly glance at children that were running past you when you feel something unfamiliar on your left side. You glance down and see a dagger held by one of your new-found friends. The other one comes close and sticks another dagger into your belly. another stab goes into your chest. You fall over. You do not hear the guards shouting or the screams of your attackers as they are stabbed and slashed in turn by scimitars. You only see your blood flowing like water on the ground before glancing up at the noonday sun. It is unusually hot this day. You regret having had to go out…
Gauging the Enemy
Before he was banished from Cairo, Hassan-i Sabbah, future founder of the Secret Order of the Assassins was jailed there. The collapse of a minaret of the jail was taken to be an omen in his favor and he was released and thus exiled. Over the following years, Hassan traveled the Muslim lands spreading the word of the Nizarists. In 1081, he returned to his native Isfahan. At this time the Seljuk Turks have taken over the Abbasid Caliphate and launched a persecution of Ismaili believers.
Hassan spent nine years gauging the military strength of their conquerors. He took into account his faction’s strengths and those of the Seljuks. He knew that he could never amass the wealth of their enemies. Pitched battles would never be the answer as well since his people were outnumbered by the enemy. As such, he formulates a strategy that will prove to be effective for the Assassins for decades.
First, he needed a safe and defensible staging ground for his forces. He focused on areas that would prove difficult for the Sunni establishment to hold. Alamut was the answer.
Alamut is a Persian word that means "eagle's nest". A legend says that an ancient king wanted to make a castle in the region and so he released an eagle. The eagle landed in the spot where Alamut was located.
The fortress dominates a narrow ridge on top of a high rock. Its approach is a closed valley 30 or so miles long and 3 miles wide at the broadest. It can only be reached by a steep path. Nothing can be more appropriate for Hassan’s needs.
Taking the Eagle’s Nest
As it was currently occupied, Hassan needed to take control of Alamut. He began his plan of taking This operation was neatly summarized In the book The Assassins by Bernard Lewis. It goes: The seizure of Alamut was carefully prepared. From Damghan, Hasan had sent da'is to work in the villages around Alamut... Some of the people in Alamut were converted by the da'i and they sought to convert the Alid also. He pretended to be one over but afterward contrived to send down all the converts and then closed the gates of the Castle saying that it belonged to the Sultan. After much discussion he readmitted them and after that, they refused to go down at his bidding With his followers now installed in the castle, Hassan left Qazvin for the neighborhood of Alamut where he stayed for some time in concealment. Then on Wednesday 4 September 1090, he was abroad secretly into the Castle for a while he remained in the castle in disguise, but in due course his identity became known. The former owner realized what had happened, but could do nothing to stop or change it. Hassan allowed him to leave, and, according to a story related by the Persian chroniclers, gave him a draft for 3000 gold dinars, in payment for his castle.
From then on, Hassan would not go down from his mountain fortress until his death 35 years later. It is from Alamut that Hassan-I Sabbah would establish the Order of Assassins.
At this point, Seljuk leaders Sultan Malik-Shah and vizier Nizam al-Mulk took action to end this heretical movement. They launched several and ultimately unsuccessful attacks against Alamut. Hassan and his followers have in turn set their eyes on acquiring similar defensible positions. Shortly after establishing their headquarters, the Naziri Ismaili sect captured Lambsar Castle. This would be the largest of their fortresses and thus confirmed their power in northern Persia. The castle was taken under the command of Kiya Buzurg Ummid who would later become Sabbah's successor. In 1092, the Sultan died. It is widely believed that he was the first victim of the Nizari Assassins but the evidence for this is thin. With their leaders gone, the Seljuk occupiers fell into civil war. Nizam al-Mulk was a different matter. There is a story described by Edward FitzGerald in his translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, which, although widely believed to be false is an example of how mysterious the Ol Man of the Mountain was. The story goes that there was a pact is formed between Nizam al-Mulk (at that time known as Abdul Khassem) and his friends, Omar Khayyam and Hassan-i-Sabbah. This pact included an agreement that if one should rise to power, that person would help the other two to do likewise.
Nizam was the first to achieve this when he was appointed vizier to Sultan Alp Arslan. In order to fulfill his part of the bargain, a pact he offered both friends positions of rank. Omar refused the offer, asking instead to be given the means to continue his studies indefinitely. Nizam complied decided to accept the appointment offered to him but was forced to flee after plotting to dispose of Nizam as vizier. This was before Hassan came upon Alamut, from where he established the Assassins.
In the book we referred to earlier in this series by Bernard Lewis, he disputes this tale as unlikely since Hassan-i Sabbah died in 1124 and Omar Khayyam in 1123 at the earliest. The three were not of similar ages and were probably not students together.
Nevertheless, in 1092, Nizam al-Mulk a powerful vizier died via assassination. He was the first notable target of the Assassins. Upon hearing of his Nizam’s passing, Sabbah was reputed to have remarked: "the killing of this devil is the beginning of bliss".
Although assassination was not a new invention, the Nizari utilized and build their entire political and military strategies on it. Their secret order had five levels which consisted of the Grand Headmaster – Hassan himself, the great propagandists, normal propagandists, the companions, and the adherents. The adherents were the assassins themselves. They were also called fi’dai or “those willing to sacrifice”. The fi’dai were mostly young and able-bodied in order to carry out their missions. They were made to be cold-blooded and cunning. They were not only highly trained in assassination but in other aspects as well. An assassination would take months even years. Being well-read and familiar with the target and his environment would allow the assassin to get closer to his mark even building friendships and relationships with their victims before they strike. On top of this, Assassins were also highly trained in the use of disguises. They could be anyone.
The fi’dai were revered for their bravery and courage. This was largely because the missions they were sent on were nothing but suicidal.
One would have to ask, apart from their religious beliefs, why would anyone want to take on such a deadly task? One possible answer is the legend surrounding the Garden of Delights.
In the next chapter, we will discuss this legendary garden, the expansion of the order as well the effect on their organization by an even greater force.
We here at CentrAsia Tours love history the same way we love guiding our visitors through the many wonders of Central Asia. Book with us today!