Deadpool, Boba Fett, James Bond, Jason Bourne, Winter Soldier and Kill Bill... from the Assassin’s Creed video games to the John Wick series, professional assassins are vilified and valorized in equal measure. Why do some assassins earn our admiration, even affection, while others remain defamed and deviant in the popular imagination? This episode tells the story of the Hashshashin, as one Ismaili Shia sect became known when word of their purported use of hashish and opium circulated around the Mediterranean. Etymologists tell us that the work “assassin” is derived from “Hashshashin” because the group became so universally defamed for their targeted killings that their name became synonymous with political murder. This episode will sort through the most enduring legends of the Hashshashin, establish their accuracy, and demonstrate how the sensationalized stories of one medieval Ismaili sect shaped the “Western” consciousness forever.
Marissa: From their very beginning, the Hashshashin, or Order of Assassins, inspired fantastical stories. The tellers of these stories were consumed by the Shia Muslim order’s doctrinal secrecy, their militancy, the remoteness of their fortress Alamut, and above all, their unfeeling cruelty and blind loyalty to their leader. They carried out targeted killings with haunting efficiency, always by dagger, and in public places. The founder of the Hashshashin was called Hassan-i Sabbah, a former Seljuk bureaucrat whose rebellion earned him exile from the growing Seljuk empire. He was said to dose his mercenaries with hashish and opium in order to manipulate their behavior. In the 1830s, Austrian Orientalist Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall recounted one of the foundational moments of the Hashshashin in the first monograph ever written about the sect.
Averill: According to Hammer-Purgstall, Hassan had a way of using traumatic events to manipulate those around him. Upon being captured by his adversaries Hammer-Purgstall writes: “His enemies, and those who envied him, conveyed him with their own hands into a ship which was sailing to Africa; he was scarcely at sea when a violent gale lashed up the waves, and filled the whole crew, except Hassan, with terror; he, calm and raised above all fear, answered one of his fellow-passengers, who asked him the cause of such security, ‘Our Lord has promised me that no evil shall befall me.’ The sea becoming calm some minutes afterwards, the voyagers were filled with universal confidence, and from that moment became Hassan’s disciples and faithful partisans. Thus, to increase his credit, did he avail himself of accidents and natural occurrences as if he possessed the command of both. The coolness with which he confronted the perils of the swelling sea, gave him, with the apparent rule of the elements, real authority over the mind; in the dark night of the dungeon and the storm, he meditated black projects of ambition and revenge; in the midst of the crash of the falling tower, and the thunder and lightning, and billows of the storm, he laid the foundation of his union of Assassins, for the ruin of thrones, and the wreck of dynasties.”
Marissa: Legends of Hassan, his Assassins, and their fortress Alamut, have circulated around Eurasia and North Africa for centuries, mingling with documented facts and legitimate historical interpretations to create a complex narrative that was just as much fiction as it was history. Most history buffs have encountered the Hashshashin because of their dealings with the Knights Templar during the Crusades. Most ordinary people have encountered this history in an oblique way; the words assassin and assassination are derived from “Hashshashin,” a derogatory term used by their enemies to describe Hassan’s purportedly drugged-up, trained killers. This episode will use new and exciting work by historians of medieval Iran and Syria in order to parse out fact from fiction and arrive at an impartial understanding of the infamous and willfully misunderstood “Order of Assassins” or Hashshashin.
And I’m Averill.
Marissa: And we are your historians for this episode of Dig.
Averill: Before we slip into the shadows of this episode, we want to thank all of our Patreon supporters! We are over halfway to our goal of $300/month. When we hit that, we’ll be getting new recording equipment, woohoo! So thank you, to you generous souls who are already giving, and particularly our Auger and Excavator level patrons: a very special thanks to Colin, Peggy, Chris, Danielle, Maggie, and Lauren, who are fueling the engine of our podcasting machinery. Listener, if you are not yet a patron, you can be – just go to patreon.com/digpodcast to learn more.
Marissa: Just a note about terms. As will be made clear by the end of the episode, the epithets “Assassins” and “Hashshashin” are controversial. We used them in the opening because they trigger immediate recognition. The Hashshashin have been mythologized so extensively by Europeans that it revolutionized the way that people of European descent conceive of political murder. For the rest of the episode, we will refer to these historical peoples using the name they used to describe themselves; they were the Nizari. The Nizari were an Ismaili Shia sect who occupied a stronghold called Alamut in the mountains south of the Caspian Sea in the 11th and 12th centuries.
Averill: The Nizari were a sect of a sect of a sect. The major split in Islam (between Sunni and Shia) happened after the death of Muhammad the Prophet in the 630s CE. Today, 85% of Muslims in the world are Sunni, and 15% are Shia. In the 760s CE, the Shia encountered another succession crisis for the imamate. They split further into Ismailis and Twelvers based on which candidate they backed as the true Imam (spiritual leader). Medieval Islam was characterized by constant shifts and splinters of power that were both religious and political at the same time. A defining characteristic of Shia Islam is that everything is one; there is no conception of religion separate from state, or public separate from private. They are all part of an interlocking and unified whole. Religion is political and politics are religious. It is all part of the Islamic ummah (community).
Marissa: The center of Islamic power, the Abbasid Caliphate who had shared a common cause with Shia Muslims, turned against them. Many Shia who had lived in the traditional heartlands of Islam (Iran and Syria), migrated to North Africa where they established independent states. This sowed the seeds of Abbasid decline. By the 900s, The Abbasid Caliphate began to crumble, especially in the region of Iran. This led to the establishment of several regional successor states. Historians call this the “Iranian Intermezzo” because it marks a brief period of home rule in between Arab and Turkish domination.
During this Iranian Intermezzo, the Twelver Shias established the Buyid Confederacy. An Ismaili contingent established the Fatimid Caliphate in 909 CE from the Shia stronghold in North Africa. Under the Fatimids, Ismaili Shias achieved the one and only unification of the caliphate (temporal rule) and imamate (spiritual rule). So at the same time that Iranians are fending off imperial incursions by the Arab Abbasids and Seljuk Turks, Shias were resisting Sunni supremacy, and the Twelvers and Ismailis were competing for Shia ascendancy. There were both political and religious planes of conflict going on at once.
Averill: During this tumultuous century, the Fatimids conquered Egypt. They attempted to conquer Syria as well but struggled against the Seljuk Turks in order to do it. The Seljuks were capitalizing on Abbasid weakness, grabbing up territories that had emancipated themselves from Abbasid power. The Fatimids’ military and political successes against the Seljuks were limited. On the religious plane, however, the Fatimids were stronger each day. The Fatimids launched a Shia missionary program, called da’wa. Da’is (Shia proselytizers/propagandists) were sent to Iraq, Iran, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, and around the Maghreb (Mediterranean North Africa).
Though militarily and administratively weak, the Fatimids used da’wa to establish a network of Ismaili Shia cells across North Africa and the Middle East. Their wildly successful da’wa gave the Fatimids political legitimacy and the Ismailis religious authority. The da’is were an exclusive group. Their backgrounds were investigated, they took strict vows, and underwent extensive educational programs. They were, thus, highly effective. The Fatimid da’is remained powerful, especially in Iran and Syria, even as the Fatimid state apparatus began to deteriorate.
Marissa: Due to Turkish invasions, crusading Europeans, and growing Sunni influence, the Shia Fatimid Caliphate permanently declined after the 1040s CE. It was during this time of vulnerability that the Nizari became the primary force behind Ismaili power and influence. In the 1090s, the Ismailis suffered another succession crisis, causing the establishment of a new Ismaili sect called the Nizari. They differentiated themselves from other Ismailis because they maintained their allegiance to the Imam al-Nizar (an Imam professed to be illegitimate by other Ismailis.)
Averill: A disaffected and exiled former Seljuk administrator named Hassan-i Sabbah rose to prominence during the Nizari’s formation. (We introduced him at the top of the episode). Hassan had been appointed da’i to Daylam, a mountainous region within Iran that lay outside of Seljuk control. Knowing the Fatimids had effectively lost their empire, facing hostility from rival sects, and attacks by the imperial Seljuk Turks, the Nizaris sought to establish their own independent principality. In 1090, Hassan captured a Daylami fortress called Alamut.
Marissa: Alamut became a base for decades of Nizari revolt. Historian Marshall Hodgson writes that the “pattern of the Nizari revolt eased almost imperceptibly into one of a permanent Nizari state with a fixed, though scattered, territory.” The Fatimid da’wa had made Iran a very fertile place for a radical Ismaili sect. The Nizari maintained very strict doctrines yet their message was attractive to Shias who resented Sunni supremacy as well as Iranian and Syrian peoples who resented Seljuk Turk occupation. Under Hassan, the Nizari continued the da’wa started by the Fatimids. Hassan was sending Nizari da’is to areas, such as Syria, where the Fatimids and Seljuks laid waste to ancestral homelands in their bids for territory. There, Nizari doctrine, framed as “the new preaching,” found eager ears. The Nizari drew Shia support from areas that had been influenced by the Fatimid da’wa.
Averill: During this time of missionary and political expansion, the Nizari abandoned the ailing Fatimid state and mounted an armed revolt against Seljuk Turk incursions. For many, the Nizari represented a legitimate Shia challenge to Sunni orthodoxy. To Iranians and increasingly Syrians, the Nizari were their best hope at resisting (Sunni) Turkish authority. Under Hassan, the Nizari conquered small but strategic fortresses in remote Iran and Syria. Nizari fortresses were regularly attacked by the Seljuk Turks who interpreted their radical religious philosophy, their decentralized structure, and their martial prowess as a terrorist threat. The Seljuks found the Nizari’s mountainous citadels impossible to penetrate.
Since they were small in numbers and surrounded on all sides by hostile combatants (whether they be Sunni, Arab, Turkic, or rival Shia groups) the Nizari operated using targeted kills, ominous threats, and incessantly shifting alliances. At first, these tactics resembled those used by small, hostile Muslim factions for centuries. Political murder was nothing new. But over time, the Nizari refined these tactics and made them central to their political strategies. Historian Farhad Daftary writes that even though political murder was an old strategy, the Nizari “did assign a major political role to the policy of assassination, which they utilized rather openly in a spectacular and intimidating fashion.”
Marissa: They often used sinister, mafia-like warnings to inspire fear and uncertainty in their enemies. One medieval travelogue describes a (likely fictionalized) encounter between the Nizari and Saint Louis IX of France. According to the travelogue, an envoy of Nizari fida’is bullied Saint Louis by proffering a case of daggers and provocatively displaying a shroud (or winding sheet) to intimidate him. Though this story may be aprocraphal, this aspect of Nizari strategy is well-documented. Having few resources and many enemies, the Nizari used the threat of assasination just as effectively as they used the actual material threat of death against their enemies. And it worked. In the 1250s, on the eve of the Mongol invasion of Iran, Muslim factions were still expressing their fear of Nizari assassinations. The chief Qadi of Qazvin, for example, appeared before the Mongol Khan in chain mail. When asked why he was wearing the suit, he told the Khan that he wore it at all times under his clothes to protect him from the looming threat of Nizari assassination. The Mongols turned away all Ismaili embassies and instituted special precautions to guard the Khan against attacks by Nizari fida’is. When the Mongols invaded Iran in 1256, their top priority was neutralizing the Nizari threat.
Averill: This was all done under a cloak of secrecy. The Nizari kept their doctrines and their strategies confidential. Hassan deployed fida’is (dedicated personnel trained to infiltrate enemy leadership.) This specially trained group came to represent Nizari political strategy to the outside world. Even so, in Iran, the fida’is were never an organized group. In Syria, the Nizari fida’is formed a corps of dedicated insurgents, which is perhaps where we get the idea that the Nizari were a secret order of assassins. In Nizari communities, there were also novices, who were young devotees new to the order but there was also a general population of lay people. Not all Nizaris were fida’is. Those who were, trained at Alamut, or some satellite fortress, and then were deposited into the households of important politicians all over the region. The Nizari fida’is’ were talented at deception. For example, a vizier in service to the Seljuks named Qiwam was exposed as a secret Ismaili. He successfully won the allegiance of the Sultan’s son, Mahmud. Qiwam used this influence to secure the retreat of the Sultan’s army, led by a commander named Shirgir, from Alamut. Once Mahmud succeeded his father, Qiwam secured revenge against Commander Shirgir by convincing the new Sultan that Shirgir was a traitor. He was imprisoned and put to death by Mahmud. Nizari fida’is often inveigled their way into the confidences of important dignitaries in order to execute a political murder commissioned by Hassan or his successors. This secrecy prompted rumor and conjecture among their enemies. At the same time, the fallout of their targeted killings triggered resentment and hostility that shaped those rumors.
Marissa: Historians are able to trace where some of these rumors originated. For example, there is no evidence that Hassan or his successors systematically dosed their assassins with hashish or opium. Historians believe that this myth was manufactured by the Nizari’s Sunni enemies or rival Shia sects. They suspect this because the hashish myth draws on one of Islam’s most important prohibitions: the use of intoxicants. Spreading propaganda about the Nizari’s substance use made them an illegitimate sect, heretics, in the eyes of their Muslim rivals. Moreover, it discredited Nizari doctrine because it offered an alternate explanation for why this small Ismaili spin-off was able to attract supporters all across the Middle East and inspire the loyalty they needed to carry out what was essentially suicide missions (public targeted kills almost always ended in the death of the assassin). Rather than their compelling doctrine, the “new preaching,” and a righteous cause, the Nizari were, according to their enemies, motivated by their unholy addiction to drugs. One 13th-century Persian historian wrote that the Nizari were not only rebels but apostates, “ as vile as dogs… accursed… [with] evil machinations and unclean beliefs.”
Averill: Though several aspects of Hashshashin mythology were initiated by their Muslim rivals, its most enduring aspects were proliferated later in European Christendom. The Nizaris’ denunciation by the Sunni establishment provided Christian observers with what William Brenner calls “a clear caricature that they could feed into any number of narratives, a process that persisted over centuries.” Though the story of the Nizari began in Iran, most English-speakers known about the Order of Assassins by way of their Syrian branch. The Syrian Nizari provoked the ire of both the Sunni Muslim establishment and the Seljuk Empire when they used the outbreak of the First Crusade in 1095 as an opportunity to strengthen their tenuous position. Syrian Nizaris struck controversial alliances with European Crusaders against their Muslim rivals and imperial adversaries. The fortunes of 11th- and 12th-century Nizari were shaped by the sequence of armed conflicts we now call The Crusades.
After their successful seizure of Jerusalem in the 1090s, Frankish Crusaders established four crusader states: the Kingdom of Jerusalem, Edessa, Antioch, and Tripoli. The First Crusade also brought what William Brenner calls “the roving military orders” to the crusader states. These roving military orders included the Knights Hospitaller and the Knights Templar. The Knights Hospitaller and Knights Templar were military orders, yes, but instead of owing their fealty to a secular lord, these knights were loyal to God. They theoretically took monastic vows and vows of poverty. In reality, they were relatively well funded by donations and the rents they drew from their landholdings in continental Europe.
Marissa: Because of the complex landscape caused by the Crusader conflict, the Syrian Nizaris were initially much less successful than their Iranian brethren. Alliances shifted quickly in the Crusader states. They established agreements with Christians and Muslims, Shia and Sunni, Europeans and Arabs. They occasionally deployed fida’is to carry out targeted kills but, more so than the Iranian Nizari, they were vulnerable to massacres when alliances shifted. The uniqueness of their circumstances necessitated that they establish a local base of operations so they became increasingly autonomous from their Iranian foundations.
The Syrian Nizari came into their own in the 1100s (their golden era occuring after the period of Iranian Nizari decline). In the 1100s, they came to dominate the Jabal Bahra region of northwestern Syria. The first Frankish victim of the Syrian Nizari was Raymond II, Count of Tripoli. The Count and two of his knights were stabbed to death by Nizari fida’is at the southern gate of the city in March 1152. The Nizari never revealed their motivation for targeting Raymond II. His assassination, however, triggered non-sect-specific massacres of Muslims by Frankish crusaders. Perhaps as restitution, or perhaps as a way of guaranteeing an end to massacres of Syrian Muslims, the Nizari were forced to pay an annual tribute of 2,000 gold pieces to the Knights Templar.
Averill: Though the assasination of Raymond II led to a period of vulnerability for the Syrian Nizari, they consolidated their power in Syria the following decade under the leadership of Rashid al-Din Sinan. Sinan had been trained at Alamut and was sent by the then-Imam of the Iraninan Nizari (Hassan II) to Syria as chief da’i of Basra. There, Sinan fortified the Nizari fortresses, resolved internal disputes, systematized relations with the crusader states, and reorganized the fida’is into a corps of insurgents. Sinan’s leadership coincided with the temporary autonomy of the Syrian Nizari from Alamut. After Sinan’s death, Alamut re-established control over the Syrian branch of Nizari until the Mongols captured Alamut in 1256 and the Syrian Nizari submitted to the Mamluks in 1273.
Christian chroniclers of the Crusades employed what Farhad Daftary calls “imaginative ignorance” in their portrayal of the Nizari. They combined a negative, pre-existing view of Islam and maintained ignorance of the sectarian divisions that shaped the Nizari world view. William Brenner puts it nicely, “Western interpretations of the Nizaris that continue to this day were forged during this time, including distortions of their rituals, leadership, and very name.” The most influential of these chroniclers was Marco Polo. In his travelogue, Marco Polo created the mythical “Old Man of the Mountain” who was purportedly the Nizari leader. He combined the remoteness of Alamut with preconceived notions about the Garden of Paradise in Islamic doctrine.
Marissa: He wrote of a Nizari fortress, “In it were erected pavilions and palaces the most elegant that can be imagined, all covered with gilding and exquisite painting. And there were runnels too, flowing freely with wine and milk and honey and water; and numbers of ladies, and of the most beautiful damsels in the world, who could play on all manner of instruments, and sung most sweetly, and danced in a manner that it was charming to behold… for the delectation of all its inmates… For the Old Man desired to make his people believe that this was actually Paradise…. No man was allowed to enter the Garden save those whom he intended to be his Ashishin.”
“The Old Man of the Mountain” was used by medieval chroniclers to refer to both Hassan (the first Iranian Nizari leader) and Sinan (the Syrian Nizari leader) who was born seven years after Hassan’s death. Even more strikingly, their rules were initiated in entirely different centuries and occurred over 1,000 miles apart. Still, the two men are often combined into one sinister “Old Man of the Mountains.” The Marco Polo example demonstrates how the mythology of the Nizari was part of a larger process of identity formation that was happening as a result of Christendom’s encounter with the Islamic world more generally. During the Crusades, the mythology of the Nizari Assassins was proffered to magnify the “Saracen” threat to Christendom.
Averill: This is a complicated phenomenon, really. Because in some cases, Christian chroniclers portrayed “Saracens” or “Mohammedans” in a positive light. Salah al-Din (often Anglicized to Saladin) was admired and praised for his “knightly” qualities by much of Christendom. There was even a widespread rumor that Salah al-Din had secretly been knighted. Brilliant historians have sought to explain these contradictions for decades. Some suggest that Christian chroniclers borrowed the negative views of the Nizari from their Sunni enemies who labeled them as deviant Muslims. Others suggest that it is one thing to admire a single, Muslim figure, and another to depict a Muslim collective. William Brenner, for example, argues that Christendom dismissed the Nizari as a homogenous, menacing force. They never attempted to humanize any Nizaris as they did with Salah al-Din.
Marissa: In fact, chroniclers dehumanized them by emphasizing their indoctrination, fanaticism and blind obedience to their leader. Their purported use of hashish aided in this goal, rendering the fida’is as mindless zombies, brainwashed by drugs and sex, and motivated to kill by a psychopathic cult-leader, the “Old Man of the Mountain.” The Old Man of the Mountain character appeared many times in the following centuries in learned circles. Francis Bacon, in his Advertisement Touching a Holy War, compared the Anabaptists to the infamous Nizari, citing their blind obedience to their rulers and secret doctrine in direct disobedience to law. According to Bacon, such a group was “an engine built against human society.”
Averill: Gradually after the dissolution of the Syrian Nizari fida’is corps, the strategy of political murder was reframed as un-Christian, a move that cemented the association of political murder with Islam (despite the very obvious universality of the practice.) At the First Council of Lyon in 1245, a papal bull was issued to excommunicate Frederick II, King of Sicily and Jerusalem. The document justifies the excommunication thusly, “… there are people who with a terrible unhumanity and loathsome cruelty thirst for the death of others and cause them to be killed by assassins… especially since some persons of high standing, fearing to be killed in such a way, are forced to beg for their own safety from the master of these assassins, and thus so to speak to redeem their life in a way that is an insult to Christian dignity.”
Marissa: Over time, the term assassin began to be used in a generic way, detached from any direct reference to the Nizari. The first generic reference to assassins that historians have found is in Dante’s Divine Comedy where one of the characters confined to hell was the “treacherous assassin.” Still, some European scholars tied the strategy of assasination to the Nizari specifically. Voltaire, for example, identified assassination as a crime similar to poisoning, an act “most cowardly and deserving of punishment.” In his bid to discredit fanaticism of all kinds, Voltaire called the Nizari “wretched little people of the mountains.” He wrote that fanatics were ruled by “rascals, who put the dagger into their hands. They resemble that old man of the mountain who, it is said, made imbeciles taste the joys of paradise.”
Averill: Though their representations incorporated myth as well as fact, the Enlightenment philosophes’ interest in conspiracy, secret orders, and political murder sparked scholarship on the Nizari. Hammer-Purgstall’s semi-fictionalized history, part of which we quoted at the top of the show, was written in the 18-teens amidst several other volumes authored by other orientalists. Hammer-Purgstall’s account remained the dominant historical narrative of the Nizari for over a century. From the 1930s on, historians were able to uncover inconsistencies in nineteenth-century Orientalists’ histories. Since the 1970s, historians such as Farhad Daftary, William Brenner, and Marshall Hodgson have worked to accurately portray Nizari history and to thoughtfully trace the origins of the myths that clouded our understanding of them for nearly a millennium. The narrative of the Nizari presented here drew heavily on their painstaking work.
Marissa: There was, and still is, some orientalism and general racism that colors European and American understandings of the Nizari Assassins. Today the Nizari are regarded as the most numerous and influential Shia sect. In the 1840s, the Nizari were exiled from their ancestral headquarters in Iran and relocated to Mumbai, and then to Europe and Africa. The Nizari are known for their progressive reforms concerning women’s rights. I give you this brief genealogy of the Nizari to make it clear that the medieval Nizari are no more similar to their contemporary counterparts than medieval, Crusading Christendom is to modern Europe.
Pop history has yet to take note. Most recently, in the field of Terrorism studies, semi-fictional narratives of the Nizari have been used to construct a genealogy of Islamic terrorism. They draw though-lines from today’s Islamic fundamentalism to the Nizari’s radical sect of Shia Islam, from today’s international terrorist cells to the Nizari’s status as subversive dissidents, and from today’s suicide bombings to the Nizari ’s high-profile, public killings, which they knew would most probably end in their deaths.
Averill: The similarities are compelling but they rely on sensationalized anecdotes and the (entirely imaginary) binary that differentiates an exotic and fanatical East from a rational and pragmatic West. This despite the fact that white assassins of European descent are glorified in popular culture: high end hit men, mafiosos, Brutus (who killed Julius Caesar), the Black Widow, etc
Marissa: The infamous legacy of the Hashshashin can be attributed to their isolation, their unblemished military record, and the fact that they provoked the ire of many enemies through complex political machinations. But our misconceptions of Hashish- smoking, fanatical, cloaked assassin, brainwashed by a charismatic leader and dispatched into the courts of crusader states to topple Christendom- those popular allusions problematize how we define terrorism. Consider the question of what characteristics must a group have in order to be labeled terrorists. Right now it seems like religion, skin color, and ethnicity remain good indicators of whether someone will be labeled a terrorist, more than their tactics.
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