Monday 5 September 2011

Lets talk about the Assassins

Immortalized as heroes in games such as the historical fiction Assassin's Creed series, villanized by the media in cases such as the assassination of US President Abraham Lincoln by the infamous John Wilkes Booth. This post isn't about the actual history of assassinations ; there have been many assassinations in history and to list them all would be a pain! Instead , this post will explore a certain group of people who have designated themselves as assassins. In this post, we'll be talking about the Hashashins ( or الحشاشين‎ as its called in Arabic).

The medieval assassins of the Middle East were called Hashashins [some say it means that they used Hashish, a lot while others speculate it has another meaning, namely claiming it means ''foundation' of the faith'']. The assassins had existed in the Middle East for almost 200 years (since 1090 to the 1260s).
Remains of Masyaf castle.

They mainly lived in the Persian and Syrian mountains, usually in mountain forts and castles.

A famous example (and the one most talked about) is the castle of Masyaf in present-day Syria which served as the base of operations for the Syrian branch of the Assassins.

The assassins were Ismailis (a Shia sect in Islam), as was their founder Hassan Sabbah (c1050-1124AD)

It is not known why he had originally established the Order of the Assassins, but most historians agree it was originally intended to serve his interests to gain political power in the region (at a time of intense competition with not only neighboring Muslim nations but the incoming Crusaders).
The remains of the fortress of Alamut

After creating the Order in 1082 AD, Sabbah designated the mountain fortress of Alamut (1), in the north-west mountainous region of present-day Iran, as his base of operations and proceeded to laying claim and influence to the nearby towns and villages.

Sabbah himself was thought to have never left his fortress ever again since (hence earning the title Old Man of the Mountain), he had devised the order to be created in an hierarchical format. Below Sabbah, the Grand Headmaster of the Order, were those known as “Greater Propagandists”, followed by the normal "Propagandists", the Rafiqs ("Companions"), and the Lasiqs ("Adherents"). It was the Lasiqs who were trained to become some of the most feared assassins, or as they were called, "Fida’i" (self-sacrificing agent), in the known world.(2)
A portrait of Hasan Sabbah

The Fidai were believed to have been the ones who were on Hashish.They were usually young as well, so as to have stamina and greater physical strength.

Soon, Sabbah had ordered his order of Assassins to assassinate prominent politicians and generals of all types and areas.

For an Assassin to get to their targets, the Assassins had to be patient, cold, and calculating. They were generally intelligent and well read because they were required to possess not only knowledge about their enemy, but his or her culture and their native language.
Masyaf territory (in white)

They were trained by their masters to disguise themselves, sneak in to enemy territory and perform the assassinations instead of simply attacking their target outright.

To say that the Assassins fought for the Muslims in the Crusades is not a correct way of defining it.Rather, the Assassins were mercenaries, they assassinated generals and politicians on either side of the Crusaders or the Saracens whenever given a contract to do so.

This ideology, somewhat new to the time, led to the Order of the Hashishins to be labeled a terrorist organization (one of the earliest ever). Indeed, here is a history of the turbulent years lead by Hassan:

  1. 1092: The famous Seljuq vizier Nizam al-Mulk was murdered by an Assassin in Baghdad. He becomes their first victim.
  2. 1094: The Abbasid Caliph Al-Muqtadi dies, and Hassan does not recognize the new caliph, al-Mustazhir. He and his followers transferred their allegiance to his brother Nizar. The followers of Hassan soon even came at odds with the caliph in Baghdad too.
  3. 1113: Following the death of Aleppo's ruler, Ridwan, the Assassins are driven out of the city by the troops of Ibn al-Khashab.
  4. 1110's: The Assassins in Syria change their strategy, and start undercover work and build cells in all cities around the region.
  5. 1123: Ibn al-Khashab is killed by an Assassin.
  6. 1124: Hassan dies in Alamut but the organization still lives. — The leading qadi (Judge) Abu Saad al-Harawi is killed by an Assassin.
But it does not stop there:

1126 November 26: Emir Porsuki of Aleppo and Mosul is killed by an Assassin .

12th century: The Assassins extend their activities into Syria, where they could get much support from the local Shi'i minority as the Seljuq sultanate had captured this territory.
This was how an assassination happens. You STAB!

The Assassins capture a group of castles in the Nusayriyya Mountains (modern Syria). The most important of these castles was the Masyaf, from which the "The Old Man of Mountain", Rashideddin Sinan ruled practically independent from the main leaders of the Assassins.

1173: The Assassins of Syria enter negotiations with Amalric I, King of Jerusalem, with the aim of converting to Christianity.
But as the Assassins by now were numerous and often worked as peasants, they paid high taxes to local Christian landlords, that Christian peasants were exempted from. Their conversion was opposed by the landlords, and this year the Assassin negotiators were murdered by Christian knights. After this, there was no more talk of conversion.

1175: Rashideddin's men make two attempts on the life of Saladin, the leader of the Ayyubids. The second time, the Assassin came so close that wounds were inflicted upon Saladin.

1192: Conrad of Montferrat, King of Jerusalem, is stabbed to death by Assassins before his coronation.

1256: Alamut fortress falls to the Mongols under the leadership of Hülegü. Before this happened, several other fortresses had been captured, and finally Alamut was weak and with little support.

1257: The Mongol warlord Hülegü attacks and destroys the fortress at Alamut. The Assassin library is fully razed, hence destroying a crucial source of information about the Assassins.

Around 1265: The Assassin strongholds in Syria fall to the Mamluk sultan Baybars.

Ultimately, the Order of the Assassins was finally crushed and destroyed during the horrific Mongol Invasion of Khwarizm.

They were specifically targeted by the Mongols after a failed assassination attempt on the Möngke Khan, where Mongol records say hundreds of assassins had attacked his palace.
A portrait of Möngke Khan

Because of that act, the Order of the Assassins was wiped out in the following months by 1256 AD.
(Indeed, decrees existed that "called for the eradication of the Ismailis" by Shams ad Din, the chief judge of Qasvin).

Alamut was captured in December, 1256 and the last grandmaster of the Assassins,  Grand Master Imam Rukn al-Din Khurshah, was executed.

The Syrian branch continued to operate but under Mamluk supervision.

But for all it matters, the Order of the Assassins was finally crushed.

 References and Further Reading:

(1)- Daftary, Farhad. The Ismailis: their history and doctrines (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990),

(2) - Nowell, Charles E. (1947). "The Old Man of the Mountain".
(3) - The Secret Order of Assassins 

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