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History of Assassins |

History of Assassins is drawn from Chapter Three, beginning on page 76, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

The Assassin cult, motivated by hashish and visions of heavenly virgins, became the killers of choice for both Muslims and Christians who needed a reliable exterminator

History of Assassins - History’s hardwired hit men

History of Assassins - History’s hardwired hit men
This nineteenth-century lithograph by Gustave Doré envisions the attempted assassination of England’s King Edward I. The Muslim sect of the Hashshashin was so feared that Christians and Muslims alike made treaties with them to protect their leaders from certain death. The “Assassins,” as they were known in English, gave virtually every western language a word for political murder.

In 1175 the great sultan Saladin set out to subdue the dissident Islamic sects of Syria–and one sect in particular, known as the Hashshashin. Three dagger-wielding servants of the cult suddenly appeared among his bodyguards. All three were killed immediately, but the close call unnerved Saladin and gave him nightmares. Though he increased his guards, within a year the sect again infiltrated his camp, this time wounding him so badly that only the chain mail under his turban saved him.

That persuaded him. He agreed to stop all his attacks on the Hashshashin if they promised not to kill him. They concurred and complied. But the incident was instructive. It meant that one of the most powerful rulers in the world had surrendered to a terrorist society.

During the previous eighty years the Hashshashin had established their reputation as the most determined hit men ever known, and their name, pronounced in the West “Assassin,” gave every western language a word for political murder. But in the case of Saladin, the Assassins were content to stop short of actually killing him because his fear was enough. It had removed his threat to their ultimate goal: revolution.

The Assassins’ signature was selective high-profile murder, but like all terrorists, their broad aim was societal change. They attracted Shi‘ite Muslims frustrated by the domination of the Seljuk Turks, who were Sunnis. Led by a grand master who claimed divine inspiration, they saw themselves as paving the way for a yet-to-be-revealed successor to Muhammad, called the “hidden imam.”

Following the motto “Believe nothing and dare all,” the Assassins became a critical third force in the Christian-Muslim struggle. Their selective murders helped the Christians establish some of the crusader states. By Saladin’s rise in the 1160s, the Assassins had already liquidated some seventy-five heavily guarded Islamic officials, mainly sultans, viziers, and military commanders, always by dagger, often as a public spectacle in broad daylight.

The unquestioning obedience and fanatical devotion of the disciple to the leader made these grandstand executions possible, with each executioner assured a martyr’s reward in paradise. Stories abound of the unswerving submission to the sect’s founder, Hassan ibn al-Sabah. In one, for example, an emissary arrives at Hassan’s mountain fortress to demand that he take a vow of fealty to the reigning sultan. Turning to a white-robed disciple, Hassan commands, “Kill yourself.” Instantly the man plunges a dagger into his own heart. Then Hassan points to a guard high on the castle wall. “Jump!” he orders, and the man leaps to his death. “That’s my answer to your master,” he tells the emissary, and as a postscript, the sultan is shortly stabbed to death.

Hassan had begun as a servant of the Seljuk sultan but quarreled with the sultan’s vizier and military commander and was arrested and exiled. By then he had become disenchanted with fellow Ismaili Shi‘ites in Cairo. All of Islam’s previous luminaries were irrelevant to “true religion,” he decided, which was wholly a matter of “feeling,” not externals.

He became an itinerant missionary, discovered his astounding ability to influence people, both men and women, of all ages–like the frightened sailors so amazed at his serenity on a storm-tossed ship that they joined his cult, or the disaffected Shi‘ite Muslims southwest of the Caspian Sea, where he spent years recruiting followers with visions of a new and better Islam. Estimates of his following run from forty to seventy thousand. Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, in his history of the sect, puts it at forty thousand in the 1090s, with only a very few pledged to commit murder. These, known as the fedayeen (faithful), were given a foretaste of their eternal happiness with opium and hashish in a garden where beautiful young women beckoned their lust. (The Arabic word hashshashin means “consumer of hashish,” although there are other interpretations.)

In 1190 Hassan commandeered a mighty fortress called Alamut (Eagle’s Nest) on a six-hundred-foot cliff in a remote mountain valley southwest of the Caspian and never left it. As his following grew, the Assassins captured over one hundred other castles, many of which, like Alamut, included the indispensable garden of paradise.

The sect’s record of political murder began with the Seljuk vizier who had caused Hassan’s exile, then went on to include the sultan himself. A long list of designated victims followed. The Seljuks launched four major sieges against Alamut, one of three years’ duration, but all failed. By the time Hassan died in 1124, the sect was established as a terrorist state without boundaries. The process for choosing successive grand masters was murky, but dedication to the mission of wreaking divine disruption never changed.

Between 1106 and 1174 crusaders and Assassins repeatedly struck alliances against their mutual enemy, the Seljuks. The Christians suppressed any qualms over partnering with known murderers, while the Assassins believed their eventual (though largely undefined) version of Islam would trump all rival powers, including Christendom. Cooperative efforts with Christians diminished after an alliance was made between Syrian Assassins and the Kurdish Saladin. But by 1228 the emperor Frederick II was again negotiating with them, and in 1230 the Hospitallers allied with them against Christian Prince Bohemond IV of Antioch (whose subsequent complaint prompted the pope to demand an end to alliances with these people). Nevertheless, in 1250 the French king Louis IX tried to make a deal, and for years both the Templars and Hospitallers collected tribute from the sect.

After Hassan, the most notorious Assassin leader was Sinan, Syrian chief from 1162 to 1192, who was feared even by kings in Europe as “the Old Man of the Mountain.” Renowned as a clairvoyant, astrologer, alchemist, and healer, he compared himself to Jesus. No one ever saw him eat or drink. He was a figure of legend, half-truth, and perpetual propaganda. One story tells how he used psychokinesis to prevent people from being crushed by rocks, another how he telepathically immobilized Saladin’s attackers until his troops could escape.

It was said that he needed no bodyguards, traveled perpetually from fort to fort to keep the cult close-knit and alert, and insisted on traditional Islamic morality and ritual. He was also a ruthless and a skilled trickster. It was told how he amazed disciples by conversing about paradise with the severed head of an alleged martyr. The man was in fact standing below the floor with his head protruding through it. After his audience left, as a reward for a convincing performance, Sinan drew his scimitar and decapitated the actor. For more than a decade he promoted alliance with the crusaders because his fighting energies were aimed at hostile Shi‘ites and Sunnis, but eventually he deemed Saladin’s goodwill more useful and switched sides.

Sinan engaged in a brief war with the Alamut-based Assassins after their grand master mutinied against the sect’s religious conventions, announcing that all of the traditional prayers they had been saying, all the rituals and moral strictures they had observed were useless. Instead, the faithful were instructed to demonstrate their contempt for these pathetic traditions and respect for the grand master’s divinely inspired inner feelings by following him into a life of debauchery, filled with promiscuity, orgies, and drunkenness.

Both Hassan II, who launched this bizarre regime, and his son Muhammad II, who continued it, were murdered. Their successors changed course and returned the order to standard Shi‘ite practice in 1210. The Assassins were effectively destroyed in Persia when the Mongols took Alamut and the rest of the region’s strongholds in 1258 (see chapter 9). They disappeared in Syria after the Fatimid sultan Baibars drove out the Mongols, then captured all the Syrian strongholds in the early 1270s. By one account, they still exist but under different names in Yemen, India, and Iran.

This is the end of the History of Assassins category article drawn from Chapter Three, beginning on page 76, of Volume Seven, A Glorious Disaster. To continue reading more about History of Assassins from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at