Made popular by the famous video game series Assassin’s Creed, the Order of Assassins (on which the games are based) has a far darker and more mysterious history than many of the game’s fans would even believe. Few in number and geographically dispersed throughout the Middle East, this holy sect of Islamic extremists from the Middle Ages sought power and influence through acts of suicidal terrorism, murder, and assassination, which struck fear in the hearts of their enemies.
For more than a century and a half, from 1090 until 1256, they killed political, military, and religious figures, making their presence felt in the region, and ensuring their name would endure through the ages. What little we do have about them, however, comes mostly from their enemies and second or third-hand accounts. Nevertheless, we’ll try to take a look at some of their most horrifying acts.
10. A “Short” Backstory
The history of the Hashashin is strongly linked to the Islamic religion. After the Prophet Muhammad died in 632 AD, the Muslim world was divided into two groups: the numerically superior Sunnis, and the Shiites. The Shiites believed that only certain direct descendants of the Prophet’s cousin, Ali, were worthy to interpret God’s revelations and become imams, with supreme political and spiritual power over the whole Muslim community. The Sunnis, on the other hand, believed than any man could become an imam through diligent study and guidance from scholars, and accepted the leadership of Caliphs who were not descendants of Ali.
Over the years, the Shiites became further divided as disagreements arose over whom among Ali’s descendants was the divinely chosen one. During the mid-8th century, one Shiite sect chose Ismail bin Jafar, the seventh in the line of succession, to become the imam. These “Sevener,” or Ismaili Shiites, believed in radical egalitarianism which condemned the wealth and luxury enjoyed by the Abbasid caliphs who ruled over much of the Muslim world at the time. These predecessors of the Assassins were thus a minority within a minority, and dispersed over all the Middle East and Northern Africa. Moreover, they were considered heretical by the majority of Shiites, as well as the Sunnis, and were forced to develop into an underground and revolutionary sect. In order to spread their religion, they made use of secret missionaries known as da’is.
However, these few Seveners, led by one such da’is, Abdullah al-Mahdi Billah, were able to overthrow the local Sunni dynasty in what’s present-day Tunisia, and form the Fatimid caliphate in 910 AD. To its greatest extent, the Fatimids were able to encompass Northern Africa, Sicily, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and the Red Sea coast of Arabia. They made Cairo their capital and continued to make use of da’is in order to spread their Ismaili doctrine throughout the rest of the Muslim world. The Caliphate went into decline during the end of the 11th century and by 1171 AD, they were defeated and incorporated into the Abbasid Caliphate by Saladin. The Order of Assassins, founded in 1090, overlapped with the Fatimid Caliphate for almost a century, and outlasted it for another 85 years. They were, in a sense, the Ismaili resistance, though renegades to the Fatimids as well. Moreover, they were located well within enemy territory, an enclave within the Seljuk Empire and inhabiting mountainous areas, just south of the Caspian Sea, in what is now present-day Iran, as well as parts of Syria.
9. Hassan-i Sabbah – The Grandmaster
The Order of Assassins can attribute their existence to Hassan-i Sabbah, a Persian Nizari Ismaili missionary who founded the Nizari State in 1090. He was born sometime around 1034 into a family of “Twelver” Shiites. Up until his late teens, he studied this branch of Islam, as well as geometry, philosophy, astronomy, and mathematics, among other subjects. He then met a man, Amira Zarrab, who introduced him to Ismailism. Though reticent at first, over time, Hassan began seeing Zarrab as his mentor and declared his loyalty to the Seveners. After a severe illness that almost killed him, he decided to learn as much of “the truth” as possible and traveled to the Fatimid capital of Cairo. He spent some three years here, becoming a full-fledged da’is missionary.
While there, however, he got on the Vizier’s (political advisor to the Caliph) bad side, who, it was said, had it out for him. In any case, the Caliph al-Mustansir informed Sabbah that he chose his eldest son, Nizar as his successor. But on the Caliph’s death, the Vizier claimed that al-Mustansir had switched his successor to Nizar’s younger brother, who was also more compliant to the Vizier’s wishes. Nizar fled to Alexandria and was proclaimed as imam there. Hassan was jailed by the Vizier, but after one of the jail’s minarets collapsed, it was taken as a divine sign, and he was exiled to North Africa. But on his way there, his ship was wrecked and he survived, reaching Syria instead. He settled in the region of Daylam, in what is now northern Iran.
As a supporter of Nizar, Hassan-i Sabbah had thus repudiated the Fatimid Caliphate and was now looking for his own base of operations to support the imam. In 1088, he found it, located high in the Persian mountains. The fortress of Alamut was perfect as a remote and inaccessible stronghold from which he would launch an open revolt against the surrounding Seljuk Empire, as well as all those who did not recognize the rule of Nizar. He was able to take Alamut without bloodshed by first converting the surrounding settlements to his side, as well as many of the soldiers garrisoned inside. Over the following 35 years, he would spend inside the fortress studying, praying and directing the activities of the da’is. During his lifetime, he would acquire another 20 such castles spread throughout mountainous areas in Iran and Syria, and would form the mysterious Order of Assassins, who would act on his behalf, bringing the small and vastly military-inferior Nizari State on equal footing with the surrounding and overwhelming Seljuk Empire.
8. The Fidaiyn, aka Assassins
From within the fortress of Alamult, Hassan-i Sabbah was able to lead the Nizar State from a seemingly insignificant and isolated state, to a true force to be reckoned with. And he achieved this by making use of asymmetric warfare and assassination. Even the most powerful and best guarded figures at the time weren’t safe from these chameleon-like agents. Any political, military, or religious leader who would pose a threat to this little state would become a target, and would be killed when least expected; more often than not, in a public place. These assassins were known as fidaiyn, or a person who risks his life voluntarily, from the Arabic word for “sacrifice.”
However, the word “assassin” also comes from the Arabic Hashashin which translates to “users of hashish.” Legends have it that these fidaiyn were brought to Alamut from a very young age and were raised in a splendid garden, all the while being drugged with hashish. Whenever Hassan visited the garden, he was introduced as a divine emissary to the young boys. At some point during their education, they were deprived of the drug and thrown into prison. They were then told that Hassan could bring them out and allow them to return to “Heaven” (the castle garden), but only if they follow his orders to the letter; orders which included murder and self-sacrifice.
These stories reached Europe via Marco Polo and the Crusaders. Most likely, however, this term of Hashashin was used in a derogatory manner by their enemies, making them out to look like drugged killers bent on senseless murder and mischief. The term even survived to the 1930s with common Egyptian usage, referring to “noisy or riotous.” A more likely origin for the name comes from the Grandmaster himself, who is believed to have called his agents Asasiyun, referring to those who are faithful to the Asas, “foundation” of the faith. But whatever the case may be the actions and precision of these assassins point to the fact that they were very well trained; something which the over-consumption of hashish would have hindered.
7. Nizam al-Mulk – The First Target for Assassination
With the conquest of Alamut in 1090, and the emergence of the Nizari State within the borders of the Seljuk Empire, the Sultan and his Vizier, Nizam al-Mulk, no longer saw the Ismailis as a nuisance, but a possible threat. The Vizier had been paying close attention to Hassan-i Sabbah and his activities in the Daylam region since 1088, and became the fiercest opponent to the Ismailists. Under Nizam al-Mulk’s advice, Malik Shah, the Seljuk sultan, dispatched a military force to take over Alamut. This campaign failed, and the Vizier was targeted for assassination.
Hassan sent a single agent, a young man by the name of Bu-Tahir, in an attempt to dispose of this threat. In 1092, while being carried in a litter from the sultan’s audience chamber to his own harem, Nizam al-Mulk was approached by a Sufi holy man holding a petition in hand. The Vizier took the petition, and while he was looking it over, the holy man pulled out a dagger and plunged it deep in Nizam al-Mulk’s heart, killing him instantly. Whether Bu-Tahir tried to escape or not is unknown, but he was nevertheless killed by the Vizier’s guards. On receiving the news of al-Mulk’s murder, Hassan said: “The killing of this devil is the beginning of bliss.” This assassination marked the beginning in a long series of murders which put the Nizari State on the map, and for a new balance of power between them and their many enemies.
6. Fakhr al-Mulk – Like Father, Like Son
As you can imagine, the murder of Nizam al-Mulk didn’t go over well with his family, and the friction between the two parties only grew. Nizam’s eldest son, Fakhr al-Mulk, took his place. But during one evening, after he left the palace on his way to the harem, he encountered a crying petitioner saying: “The Muslims have all departed. There is no one left to investigate the grievance or take the hand of a troubled man.” Fakhr al-Mulk then called him over and out of pity, decided to take a look at the petition this man was holding in his hands. And just like his father before him, while he was reading the petition, the seemingly trouble man pulled out a knife and killed him.
The assassin was quickly captured and was put to torture. However, he held strong and instead implicated several of the sultan’s men, instead of his own comrades, saying that they were the ones who made him kill the Vizier. The assassin, along with the wrongly accused men, was executed. This stands to show that the assassins, even when they were captured, they didn’t break their vows to the Ismaili faith or to the Grandmaster. Moreover, he was able to do further damage to their enemies by wrongly accusing the sultan’s courtiers.
Furthermore, Fakhr al-Mulk’s younger brother became Vizier after his brother’s death and he, too, was a target for the assassins. But the attempt on his life failed, even though he was severely wounded. One of the fida’i was captured, but unlike the previous captured assassin, this one was given large amounts of wine, after which he revealed the location and identity of his companions.
5. Ahmadil ibn Ibrahim al-Kurdi – Lord of Maragha
Though many assassinations were performed on Viziers, they were not the only targets. One such example is Ahmadil ibn Ibrahim al-Kurdi, the Emir of Maragha. While in Damascus, the Emir was approached, like the others above, by a weeping petitioner, asking Ahmadil to give it to the sultan. And while the Emir was leaning to take the petition, the man pulled out a knife and tried to strike him. (Given the trend in these assassination attempts, we’re guessing you’re going to be awfully wary the next time someone asks you to sign a petition.) Ahmadil was able to dodge the blow and grab the dagger from the assassin. A second assassin attacked, successfully stabbing him, though not fatally. The guards then quickly dispatched of the two men and everyone began to calm down.
However, as this was happening, a third assassin approached the group and killed the Emir. What happened to this third assassin we don’t know, though it’s safe to say that he, too, was killed by the guards. Historical records say that people were astonished that, even though his two comrades were killed, the third assassin struck, knowing full well that he’ll be killed also.
4. Kamal al-Mulk Abu Talib al-Sumayrami – Vizier to the Seljuk Empire
On May 9, 1122, Vizier Kamal al-Mulk Abu Talib al-Sumayrami was leaving Baghdad alongside Sultan Mahmud, accompanied by a procession of foot soldiers and cavalry units. But after passing through a market within the city, they entered a narrow passageway flanked on both sides by thorn bushes. The envoy had to thin out a bit because of this, at which point al-Sumayrami was attacked by an assassin, jumping at him from the thickets. His dagger, however, missed the Vizier and hit his mule instead. This was the moment when all the soldiers noticed the attempted murder and chased the would-be assassin to the Tigris River.
Left alone, the Vizier was then attacked by another assassin who stabbed him in his side, dragged him from the mule, striking him continuously with the knife. When his soldiers were returning, they were assaulted by two other assassins, who then ran away, delaying their arrival. When they did finally come back, they found the Vizier with his throat slit “like a sheep” and with over 30 stab wounds all over his body. It is said that al-Sumayrami was a tyrannical ruler who frequently extorted money from merchants and shop-keepers. Upon his death, however, the sultan canceled the taxes imposed by the Vizier. The assassins were later captured and killed.
3. Qasim al-Dawla Aqsunqur al-Bursuqi – Lord of Aleppo
Qasim al-Dawla Aqsunqur al-Bursuqi was known to be a pious man, never missing prayers. One night he had a dream in which a pack of dogs began dragging him down to the ground. He was able to kill one of them, but the others managed to subdue him. His friends and advisors, after hearing of his dream, asked him not to go the mosque that day on account of his prophetic dream. He refused, saying that he never once missed prayer in his life, and he would not do so that day either.
As usual, he was praying in the first row within the mosque of Mosul when 10 assassins sprang on him with knives. He was able to wound several of them, but their overwhelming numbers finally overpowered him, and he was killed. It is not known what happened to the murderers after the assassination took place. The prophetic dream in the story, however, is a sign of who actually wrote the testimony and how one-sided they were. By talking about a dream, they were trying to make out the victim as a martyr in face of a “pack of evil dogs.”
2. Two Caliphs and a Prince
The assassins were known for their high-profile marks, in order to establish an equal political footing with their overwhelming enemies. Two such targets were caliphs, father and son, Al-Mustarshid and Ar-Rashid. The death of the father draws its roots to his conflicts with the Seljuk Turks. When Caliph al-Mustarshid rebelled against rebelled against Sultan Mas’ud of the Seljuk Empire, he was betrayed by his men and captured. While under the sultan’s control, it is said that some 17 assassins infiltrated the military camp and entered the tent where the caliph was held, murdering him in cold blood, cutting off his nose and ears in the process. Some speculate that such an attack would have been next to impossible to execute without the sultan knowing about it. After all, where were the guards stationed outside Al-Mustarshid’s tent when he was killed? It is also possible that there were no assassins at all, and the caliph may have been murdered by Sultan Mas’ud directly.
Unsurprisingly, Al-Mustarshid’s son, Ar-Rashid, blamed the Seljuks for his father’s death and was waging war against them. Not one year after his father was assassinated, he too would fall under the blade of the Ismaili fidaiyn. The exact details of his murder are unknown. But we do know, however, that while on military campaign in 1138 and recovering from an illness, he was approached by a band of assassins who killed him as he was about to take a siesta. Later, Prince Da’ud was also similarly killed by four Syrian assassins in Tabriz, in 1143. All three assassinations could not have been executed without the help of the Seljuk Sultans. This situation begs the question of whether the many Seljuk Viziers assassinated over the years were done with similar assistance from the sultans.
1. Conrad of Montferrat – King of Jerusalem
One of the biggest assassinations performed by these Persian Hashashin, at least from a European perspective, was Conrad of Montferrat. The thing is, nobody is really sure what happened, and blame was passed around, even back in 1192, from Richard the Lionheart, to Saladin, and even to Rashid ad-Din Sinan, the “Old Man of the Mountain,” leader of the Syrian Assassins. Conrad was an Italian nobleman who gained fame as a military commander after successfully defending Tyre from Saladin in 1187. Thanks to some clever political maneuvering, Conrad was married to Queen Isabella of Jerusalem, even though both were already married to other people. But even before he was crowned as king, and while he was walking through the city streets, he was attacked by two Hashashin dressed up as Christian monks, and killed.
The most obvious suspect for the crime was Conrad’s cousin and rival, Richard the Lionheart. On his return to Europe from the Crusades, he was even arrested under charges of murder. Luckily (or not, depending on perspective), a letter addressed to Leopold, Duke of Austria, arrived just in time, seemingly from the “Old Man” leader of the assassins. This letter absolved Richard from the murder, claiming that the assassination was ordered by Rashid ad-Din Sinan himself, on the premise that Conrad insulted the leader of the assassins by seizing a ship that originally belonged to him. Whether the assassins were working as Sinan said in that letter, or if it was just a clever ploy to turn the tides in Richard’s favor, we will never know for sure. The whole thing will most likely remain a mystery for the ages.