Knives in the Night Part 3: The Legacy of the Secret Order of Assassins
Updated: Jun 1
The Falling Scroll
It was a long day. As a vizier in Baghdad, you had a lot of things to do and had to meet with many people. One particular topic of interest was about a man named Hassan-I Sabbah, a Shi’a heretic and his disciples in the North. You’ve made plans with military leaders to exterminate these enemies but that is a discussion meant for another day. Tonight, you only wish to go to your harem and indulge the night way.
As you get on your litter, you notice a dervish walking toward you. You wave for him to come over wanting, wishing for a blessing as you go on your way. The Sufi holy man approaches and you notice a scroll in his hand. It drops as and your eyes follow it to the ground; a clean scroll from the looks of it - such a curious object.
Then you feel it. It was quick and you barely even noticed it - something solid stabbing through your neck then, darkness.
The Garden of Delights and other Legends
How is it that men can become so eager to die for a cause? Some would argue that there are causes worth dying for. Whether politically or religiously motivated, one would have to wonder how a person can be driven by another to go such extreme actions.
Hassan-I Sabbah had a garden or so the legend says.
The Garden of Delights was alluded to in the reports of Marco Polo. Again, this is most likely untrue as Sabbah died in 1124 and his successor Rashid ad-Din Sinan, who was also frequently known as the "Old Man of the Mountain", died in 1192. Marco Polo was not born until around 1254. In this account, he heard of a man who lived atop a mountain who would drug his young followers with hashish or opium then lead them to a garden filled with beautiful young women as well as food and drink reserved for the heavens. When the follower wakes up after their activities in the garden, Hassan would claim that only he had the means to allow for their return to that piece of heaven. Believing this claim, the fi’dai felt fully committed to his cause and willing to carry out his requests. Another legend connected to the first one states that Hassan usually set up a trick to make it appear as if he had decapitated one of his fi’dai’s and the "dead" head lay at the foot of his throne. In truth, the man was buried up to his neck covered with blood. He invited the new fi’dai to converse with the “decapitated” head. The supposed talking head would tell the Assassin about paradise after death if they gave all their hearts to the Nizari Ismaili cause. After the trick was played, Hassan had the “decapitated” man killed for real and his head placed on a stake in order to cement the deception. A well-known legend tells how Count Henry II of Champagne, visited with Grand Master Rashid ad-Din Sinan at al-Kahf, the successor of Hassan. The count made a claim that because his army was 10 times larger, he had the most powerful army and that he could defeat the Hashshashin, Rashid replied that his army was instead the most powerful, then told one of his men to jump off from the top of the castle. The man did so. Surprised, the count immediately recognized that Rashid's army was indeed the strongest because it did everything he commanded.
Passing the Torch
In 1124 at the age of 70, Hassan-I Sabbah, the founder of the Secret Order of the Assassins and leader of the Nizari Ismaili Army fell ill and died. In the 35 years of living Alamut, he never left once. He also has his two sons executed. The first named Muhammad was found guilty of drinking wine and the second, named Ustad, was the suspect in the death of one of Hassan’s loyal lieutenants. Before he died, Hassan appointed a successor, Kiya Buzurg Ummid, and a council that would guide him in the role. Despite many of the Nizari enclaves being far-removed, they still took their orders from their capital in Alamut. Hassan together with his successors ordered the death of a total of 75 tactical targets. They always set their sights on high profile targets – those whose deaths would cause the most impact in their enemy organizations At this point, this Nizari Ismaili sect has already expanded in Syria. Years later, Rashid al-Din Sinan, had been sent there by Hassan II. It is he who would be famously known as the Old Man of the Mountain. He is the character that is featured as the main antagonist of the first Assassin’s Creed games under the name Al Mualim. It was also Sinan who found himself in direct opposition with the Sultan Saladin. One night, Saladin's guards noticed a spark glowing down the hill of Masyaf and then vanishing among the Ayyubid tents. Saladin awoke from his sleep to find a figure leaving his tent. He immediately observed that the lamps in his tent were displaced and beside his bed laid hot scones of the shape peculiar to the Assassins with a note at the top pinned by a poisoned dagger. The note threatened that Saladin would be killed if he did not withdraw from his siege. Saladin gave a loud cry, exclaiming that Sinan himself was the figure that left the tent.
Sinan actually sent fi’dais for Saladin twice. Once after invading the Ayyubid ruler’s military encampment and the other during his siege of Azaz. A compromise was eventually reached between the two factions. There were plenty of times that the order would be in contact with forces from the west. The first instance where they caused the death of a westerner and a Christian at that was with Raymond II, the Count of Tripoli who died in 1152. According to William of Tyre, marital relations between Raymond and his wife Hodierna were strained. This prompted the latter’s sister Melisende to arbitrate between the two while she was in Tripoli. Hodenia eventually decided to leave for Jerusalem. Raymond, along with two of his knights, rode with them for a short distance, and on their way back to Tripoli, they were ambushed and killed by a group of fi’dai. It is interesting to note that the Knights Templar, in reparation for Raymond’s death demanded a yearly tribute of two thousand bezants. This would not mark the end of the dealings between the two factions. A story goes that while King Louis the IX of France was visiting Acre, this would have been after 1250 after his release from Egyptian captivity. The Old Man of the Mountain sent an envoy demanding tribute. If he complied, the Old Man would allow him to leave. Grandmaster Joinville of the Templars intervened and while there is no evidence of him providing the requested tribute, he sent back the envoy with a non-aggression pact between Louis and Sinan. Another famous Christian victim was Conrad of Monferrat – he was Philip Augustus’ candidate for the leadership of Jerusalem. Richard the Lionheart was in direct opposition to Phillip ever since the beginning of the Third Crusade. It may have been this that caused the Assassins to take notice of Conrad.
On 28 April 1192 around noon, the crusader lord had finished lunch with the Bishop of Beauvais. They were walking with their guards when they were approached by two Christian monks whom he had become familiar with. A conversation began and everything seemed normal and so the guards relaxed. It was at this time that the monks pulled out daggers and started stabbing Conrad. He died soon after.
Now it may not have been Richard the Lionheart who funded the assassination but it Is undeniable that the monks were fi’dai sent by Sinan. This act only strengthened the Syrian Nizari’s reputation especially in western eyes as a shadowy reputation of killers who would not stop at anything to get to their target.
Rashid al-din Sinan died in Masyaf in 1193. The 13th century was rolling in and along with it the end of the Ismaili dominance in both Persia and Syria. There was a stronger, much larger force coming from the east. It was to be the second-largest empire the world had ever seen. The Mongols would conquer and rule Eastern Europe and parts of Central Europe to the Sea of Japan, extending northward into parts of the Arctic; eastward and southward into the Indian subcontinent, Mainland Southeast Asia and the Iranian Plateau; and westward as far as the Levant and the Carpathian Mountains. The assassins did not stand a chance. They were eradicated by the Mongols with their fortresses falling one by one. Alamut, the Eagle’s Nest, fell in 1256 followed by Lambsar in 1257, and Masyaf in 1260. The Assassins tried to recaptured Alamut 1275 and held onto it for a few months but they were dispersed by their new conquerors and their political power was lost forever.
The last known victim of the Assassins was Philip of Montfort, lord of Tyre. Philip helped negotiate a truce following the capture of Damietta by Louis IX and had lost the castle at Toron to a rival general and a Sultan of Egypt named Baibars. Despite his advanced age, Philip was murdered by Baibars' Assassins in 1270 After they were annihilated, what little of the order that remained were scattered all over Asia going as far as India. Members still operated somewhat independently for another century. In the 14th-century, traveler and scholar ibn Battuta noted that Assassins were charging a fixed rate of pay per murder, with the Assassin’s children getting the fee if he did not survive the attack.
It is interesting to note that there are no other recorded instances of Assassin activity after the late 13th century. This may prove to be evidence of their effectiveness despite the lack of a central government like what they had in their golden age.
Despite the destruction of the Assassins themselves, their belief in Nizari Ismailism survives to this day. They are currently led by Aga Khan IV with an estimated 15 million believers but they do not share the same militant views as the Assassins.
They may be gone but their name lives on. The term Assassin once meant as a derogatory slur against their religious order now refers to a highly specialized and cold-hearted killer lurking in the shadow whether for political, economic, or religious reasons.
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