Taoist mythology, Lanna history, mythology, the nature of time and other considered ramblings

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Location: Chiangrai, Chiangrai, Thailand

Author of many self-published books, including several about Thailand and Chiang Rai, Joel Barlow lived in Bangkok 1964-65, attending 6th grade with the International School of Bangkok's only Thai teacher. He first visited ChiangRai in 1988, and moved there in 1998.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Assassins of the Old Man in the Mountain

Much as animals fight over territory, mates, food and “pecking order” precedence, humans struggle for status, for primacy, for position and priority. This extends through all ranks, occupations and forms of activity: we compete, often quite meaninglessly.
We even compete about being holy, or wise, or virtuous, despite that that competition undermines the thesis of individual superiority we endeavor to present. Even when we team up for “us versus them” we rank those among “us” and sometimes conspire to ostracize someone or some sub-group. Apparently this is quite natural, despite being fairly self-defeating.
Traditional Chinese had Taoists and Confucians; elsewhere in Asia Buddhists split between the Mahayana and Theravada (Hiragana). In Europe at first it was Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics, then arose Protestants and soon other Protestants. That’s simplistic, sure, but opposed camps are a common human phenomenon. Even Communists, psychologists and computer geeks (Microsoft vs Apple) do it. Competition and criticism can be very good things, but animosities can be lasting, deadly and intellectually blinding.
When we disparage Islamic folk, “terrorists” and the downtrodden and desperate, we foolishly fail to examine context. This is only normal, though, as we have been well trained, instructed and manipulated into thinking we know things we do not. Which is strange, as we DO learn about Santa Claus and his elves not really living at the North Pole - whether from science, common sense or older siblings. We’d do well to also learn that most history is propaganda, and most writers write what those who issue them checks prefer. None of us are as smart as we like to pretend, nor truly superior to those we look down on.
To illustrate, I’d like to examine here, in detail, the root legend behind our myth of Islamic terrorists (really just oppressed folk responding to desperate situations, as happened in South Vietnam under puppet regimes sponsored by the USA, with the “Shining Path” in Chile, Irish in their “Troubles” and many another non-Islamic situations).
The “Assassins” of “The Old Man in the Mountain” is fascinating in the way of a train wreck or disappeared jet-aircraft. It also helped form stereotypes based on little but conjecture, myth and slander, as readers patient enough to bear with me through a mass of detail will likely also come to clearly see.
As we shall find, what at first seems to be a single history is in fact a combining of three little more than tangential legends.

In the time of the Crusades, significant parts of Europe were controlled by Muslims, but it was Crusaders who first brought information picked up from them to the attention of yet-backwards Christian Europe. Much of that information proved useful, particularly as a basis for modern science. Some, though, was erroneous, and still clouds the judgment of many. The idea that Islamic religious fanatics gladly lay down their lives to gain entrance to a heaven of unbridled sexual hedonism is likely the most significant example of this. That mistaken belief may come as much from legends Marco Polo picked up in his far travels (between Italy and Turkey, maybe even far eastern Turkey) as from Crusaders, but it was Crusaders who first told the stories of the Old Man in the Mountain, which Polo (or someone using his name to present ideas of their own) later embellished, telling of a garden at his castle, “the largest and most beautiful that ever was seen, filled with every variety of fruit. In it were erected pavilions and palaces the most elegant that can be imagined… 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…”, plus of hashish as a training device (supplementing previous stories of suicides from high towers, enacted solely to make a point of followers’ willingness to do anything for their masters). The straight truth may not make quite as riveting, but when told as a companion to the many bold exaggerations, is more than just revealing and entertaining fun, it’s fairly amazing.
Perhaps the best place to start is with the story of Nizam, Omar Khayyam and Hasan al Sabah.
Abu Ali al-Hasan al-Tusi Nizam al-Mulk (or, or one might say, also known as, Qiwamu ad-Deen, Abu Ali al-Hasan bin Ali ibn Ishaaq at-Tusi, Nazamulmulk or Abu Ali al-Hasan al-Tusi Nizam al-Mulk, but best known now as Khwaja Nizam al-Mulk al-Tusi) was a Persian scholar who became ruler of the Seljuk Empire. Born about 1018 in Tus (now the Iranian city of Imam al-Ghazali), he was educated for administration. Despite early poverty, by diligence, perseverance and a strong persona, he gained remarkable success. When still young he entered into service to the foreign Seljuks; in the mid 1040s he became an adviser to a commander in Balkh (now in Afghanistan). He demonstrated his genius while serving as secretary to the Turkic prince and heir to the Seljuk throne who became Sultan Alp (or Alab) Arslan, who was then, as was the custom for Seljuk princes, ruling a portion of the empire so as to gain experience for running the entire empire. After brilliantly advising Alp Arslan, Nizam became vazir (prime minister), around 1054. By 1059 he was chief administrator of Khorasan province, then served as vazir to Arslan’s son, Malik Shah (ruled 1072 - ’92).
When Dar al-Islam (the Islamic world) went from Umayyad to Abbasid dynastic rule, Shi’ite attitudes were reinforced (Shi’as and Sunnis had split over differing concepts of appropriate leadership; Shia is a noun; Shiite can be either noun or adjective). The Umayyads failed in a costly attempt to take Constantinople, their economy weakened substantially, and the mercantile-oriented Abbasids carefully camouflaged themselves in religious tradition pleasing to discontented Shi’as. They promised that no ethnic group would have special status, killed all the noble Arab Umayyads they could (in a complete break with tradition), then when secure enough went on to kill Shia leaders. They moved the capital city to Iraq and modeled their new caliphate on pre-Islamic autocracy. Pomp and unapproachability became royal hallmarks, but the economy greatly improved. Life became peaceful, and among the elite was cultural renaissance.
Harun al-Rashid ruled, and Shias kept their doctrines and political beliefs to themselves. For the majority, there was Shariah law, but among the royal court and high government officials, Islamic principles weren’t particularly cultivated. A class of religious scholars, the ulama, emerged. By 900 CE, deep cracks in Islamic polity were obvious, with the end of homogeneity in clear sight. Spain became Umayyad again, espteric movements erupted (especially among the Shia but among Sufis – a Sunni sect – also). Ismaili Fatimids (with imams descended from Ali and the Prophet’s daughter Fatimah) formed breakaway caliphates in North Africa, Syria, parts of Arabia, and Palestine. In Iraq, Iran and Central Asia, Turkish army officers established independent states, many of them Shi’ite or at least with Shi’a leanings.
Vizier for 30 years, Nizam al-Mulk abolished taxes, made a new military system, built libraries and paid salaries for both teachers and students. One of the most illustrious ministers of the East, known for redressing wrongs that occurred under his government and showing great ability in organizational matters, he encouraged study of Islamic sciences and arts, and spent much money on seekers of knowledge. Still, he irritated Shi’ites by showing preference for fellow Sunnis, and to many seemed aloof and autocratic; thus he was subject to much ridiculing satire.
The Seljuks, a tribe of the Central Asian Kazakh Steppes, had been driven west by other tribes. They entered Anatolia soon after 1000CE, captured Baghdad in 1055, and soon completely overpowered the Abbasids. Islam seemed in decline, but again there was renaissance. Dar al-Islam was no longer politically united, but the egalitarian spirit of the Quran was revived. The Seljuks, Sunnis with a tendency towards Sufism, tended to be soldiers not much interested in the civil life of their subjects. Under Nizam al-Mulk (Nazamulmulk) an empire solidified. A split, however, between political power and the civil life of communities grew. Traveling Sufi masters became popular, and a backbone for re-emerging cohesion, which needed but the arrival of Crusaders. The Seljuks left to the Abbasid caliph his position as religious leader, leaving the caliphate some authority, while building a powerful empire centered on Persia. The first to invade all of Anatolia, with them Turkey became Islamic; they came to be seen as the restorers of Muslim unity under the Sunnite caliphate. Soon after 1060, their empire stretched from Yemen in the south to the Syr-Oxus basin in the east and Syria in the west, and included Mesopotamia, Palestine, and almost all of what’s now Iran. Like the Mongols who came after, they were great horsemen, Sunni Moslems who knew little of Islamic tradition, let alone literary heritage. They adopted much of Abbasid Persian culture, and somehow considered themselves as rightful heirs to all that had been conquered for Islam in Prophet Mohammed’s time.
Malik Shah’s empire controlled much of Arabia, Mesopotamia, and other areas near the Persian Gulf, and used a policy of utilizing diplomacy rather than military conquest. Nizam earned the title al-Wazir al-Kabir, meaning “The Great Minister;” (Nizam al-Mulk means “the order of state”, or “Minister of State”). A brilliant leader, modest and devoutly religious, exceptional at mathematics and eloquent in his writing, his work did much to smooth over a political gap between the Abbasids (the 2nd great Muslim empire, after the Umayyad caliphate) and the Seljuks, and also against their various rivals. A devout Sunni, Nizam founded a number of theological schools, the famous Nizamiyyah schools, which were named for him. He built a famous madrasa (university) in Baghdad named for him, the An-Nizamia, and several other schools (one in his hometown, another in Basra, others in cities you may not have heard of, Nisapur, Marw, Harat, Balkh and Isbahan). He also built and funded hospitals, and wrote a voluminous treatise, the Siyasatnameh (Book of Government, King’s Policies or Rules for Kings).
But his schools were Sunni oriented; the Shia Ismaelias accused him of being a tyrant, and rebelled. The principal sultana has been accused of instigating this, and of utilizing the aid of the Chamberlain, an enemy to Nizam. Perhaps he was impeached for having rashly declaring that his cap and ink-horn badges of office were connected by divine decree with the throne and diadem of the Sultan (Shah). At age 93, Nizam-Al-Mulk was overthrown, or, as some say, dismissed from office. Then, almost immediately after, he was murdered. The assassination might have been about a rivalry between two groups of religious jurists (Shafi’ites and Hanafites), or, perhaps it was ordered by Hassan al Sabah, who’d become a personal enemy of Nizam-Al-Mulk, and at odds with the state for at least 15 years (this also involved religious differences). You can decide for yourself, if you want, which seems most likely. Proof, one way or another, is unlikely now to be discovered.

At any rate, for 150 years (1090 – 1240) disillusioned and radical Ismailis rebelled, were violently suppressed, and cunningly defamed. Much of the derogatory slander against them became adopted by Crusaders for application to Islam in general, and endures even today, both as legend and, to many, as accepted truth.

Legend tells that Hasan al Sabah, Omar Khayyam and Nizam al Mulk became tight friends while studying together. They decided to cement their bond, and in a pact reminiscent of one called the Peach Garden Pact, told of at the start of the ancient Chinese classic The Three Kingdoms, the three swore that, since at least one of them was bound to attain wealth and power, “to whomsoever this fortune falls, he shall share it equally with the rest, and preserve no pre-eminence for himself.” In both stories, the three personalities, though, or however, were hardly compatible, and they fought, long and hard. The newer story of the three school-fellows is unlikely to have much truth, as Nizam was at least 12 years older than Hasan. Omar Khayyam may have been younger than Nizam, but was a decade older than Hasan. Although Hasan started his studies at an early age, and friends can have age differences, the difference is simply too great. Maybe they knew each other, though: it’s said that while Khayyam was reforming the calendar, Hassan became mace-bearer to Sultan Alp-Arselan, and that the enmity between Hasan and Nizam began soon after.
Their agreement, that if one should gain prominence, he’d help the other two to do likewise, meant that when Nizam became vizier, and so the most powerful of the three, he offered both friends positions of rank in the court. It’s significant that he’s now the least (by far) remembered - although it was perhaps he who had the most lasting impact. Omar’s calendar should have been more important - it’s better than the one commonly used now. Omar, not wanting responsibilities at court, asked only to be given the means to continue his studies indefinitely. Anyway, Omar, not wanting responsibilities at court, asked only for means to indefinitely continue his studies. So Nizam built him an observatory. Hassan, he appointed as the court’s Intelligence Chief, but, whether once a friend or not, Vizier Nizam al Mulk soon became vexed at Hassan’s ambition, and deviously undermined his too rapidly growing power. He pushed Hassan into agreeing to furnish records for the entire kingdom, allowing only 40 days preparation. Setting out to make his presentation, Hassan found the records tampered with; his report was ruined. Hassan was shamed before the court, and the Shah, furious, sentenced him to death. Omar Khayyám plead for clemency and got the sentence reduced to banishment. Or so one story goes; some say he was forced to flee after plotting to dispose Nizam as vizier. At any rate, he left Persia, at least for a while
Nizam was assassinated much later, in 1092. Some have said he was stabbed by a member of the Assassins (Hashshashin) disguised as a dervish. Others tell of a Sufi who pretended to hand Nizam al-Mulk a gift while he was being carried on his litter. As Nizam reached out to take the gift, the esoteric stabbed him in the chest. Nizam died from the wound, and his soldiers later killed the assassin. Another report says he was killed in secret by Malik Shah in an internal power struggle, and his murder avenged by the vizier’s loyal academics. It’s also been insinuated that Nizam al-Mulk was murdered from within the government at the orders of a governor, who didn’t live for more than a few months after Nizam’s assassination. The last words Nizam al-Mulk uttered were, purportedly, “Please do not kill my assassin because I have forgiven him. There is no god but Allah.”
Perhaps the top of the whoppers about Nizam is a tale that he was assassinated with Malik, after he prepared a debate between Sunni and Shi’a scholars on Malik’s orders. The debate resulted in both him and the Shah converting. This story was told by Nizam’s son-in-law Muqatil bin Atiyyah, who claimed to have attended the debate.
More likely than Shi’a ideology, it was revolts ended Malik Shah’s reign. The glorious years for the Seljuqs ended with Malik’s death; with sudden decline, the empire dissolved. The practice of dividing provinces among a deceased ruler’s sons led to numerous independent, unstable principalities, and internecine war. The last Persian Seljuq warriors died in battle in 1194; by 1200 Seljuk power was over except in Anatolia. For a short time a few emirs maintained small principalities in mountainous districts, but soon Mongols were galloping all over the region.
By the 1200s, Western writers were telling of Turchia (Turkey) instead of Anatolia. First came the Seljuqs, then other Turkic (Tatar or Tartar) tribes, including that of Osman Gozi, son of Ertugral. He and his Ghazi warriors soon became the Ottomans, with a new empire stretching from Yemen and the Crimea to Morocco. The rise of the quick-witted, flexible Ottomans in the early 1300s was as swift as that of Muslim Arabs had been. By the end of that century, they had a regular, standing army, the first professional paid army in Europe (they controlled Bulgaria) since the Romans.
The Mongols came and soon were gone, then Ottomans fought their way to power… To the Ottomans, those stories of a vizier and friends weren’t important. So, not history written by the victor, this. Who wanted it told? Who gained? Maybe just the listeners, and story-tellers. Maybe the stories got changed, made this way or that for the time, for the place, for whoever was listening, maybe even the mood of the one telling. Nizam would be as forgotten as the real Omar Khayyam (whose name seems to have been co-opted by a poet), were it not for his friend &/or enemy, Hassan.

Hassan ibn Sabbā (Hasan-e Sabah, Hasan-i Sabbah, Hasan i-Sabah or Ibn al-Sabbah; born about 1030, in Reyy, near Tehran, or maybe in 1056; died 1124) - claimed by many to be the original “Old Man of the Mountain” – is said to have started an almost completely new leadership tradition, from which came legends of an extremely long-lived, deviously clever and murderous political manipulator who pulled the strings of many well-embedded, but nevertheless fanatical, puppet assassins.
That term, assassin, was first used by European Crusaders in the Near East, referring to Nizari Ismailis of Syria, whose Fatimid dynasty was the only viable Shi’ite (or Shi’a) rival to the Abbasid Sunni Caliph. The Fatimid Empire (909 to 1171 CE, rivals to the Abbasid Caliphs as leaders of the Muslim world and the original Shi’ite state), established by Mohammad’s daughter Fatima and his brother-in-law Ali, ruled much of North Africa, spanning the south Mediterranean across to the Levant area; its capital was Cairo. In the 12th century, Crusaders had numerous encounters with Syrian Nizaris, who reached their peak of power under Rashid al-Din Sinan (died 1193), their most famous leader (da‘i). I’ll make that a bit more clear shortly.
Crusaders and other Europeans, enchanted by highly exaggerated Crusader stories of daring-do by Nizari fida’is (self-sacrificing devotees), longed for more, and soon tales were told of people who’d selectively target, then eliminate, prominent enemies of their community - tales of underdogs revenging themselves on overlords. Nizari Ismailis became famous as Assassin followers of a mysterious “Old Man of the Mountain,” and truths and fictions about them got harder and harder to separate.
Marco Polo and his “Million” tall tales, which tens of thousands read in the early 1300s, increased the confusion. Skepticism regarding Marco Polo’s tales, well deserved and prevalent in his own time, has only recently revived. There’s no authoritative version of Marco Polo’s book; early manuscripts differ significantly. While Polo describes paper money (then non-existent in Europe), porcelain, salt production and coal burning (all things widely known of in Constantinople), he failed to mention the Great Wall, ideograms, calligraphy, chopsticks, foot-binding, tea, the Chinese male queue (pigtail) hair style, then prevalent, or the Shan and Lanna (T’ai Yai) principalities through which he’d have had to pass to reach Burma, which he claimed to have visited. He reported that, in the “province of Carajan [perhaps Nanchao, in the west part of modern Yunnan, on the edge of Shan State, Burma]… are found snakes and great serpents of such vast size as to strike fear into those who see them, and so hideous that the very account of them must excite the wonder of those to hear it… some of them are ten paces (about 30 feet) in length; some are more and some less, and the bigger ones are about ten palms in girth (ten spans girt - about 8 feet) of the body. At the fore part, near the head, they have two short legs, having three claws like those of a hawk or lion . The head is very big, and the eyes are bigger than a great forepenny loaf of bread, and very glaring. The jaws are wide enough to swallow a man whole, the teeth are large and sharp, and their whole appearance is so formidable, that neither man, nor any kind of animal can approach them without trembling in terror. Others are met with of a smaller size, being eight, six, or 5 paces long… In the day-time, by reason of great heat, they lurk in caverns, from whence, at night, they issue to seek their food, and whatever beast they meet with and can lay hold of, whether tiger, wolf, or any other, they devour…” (proof to some Christians that dinosaurs and humans existed contemporaneously, to me that Polo based much which he told on rumor, hearsay and gossip picked up far from its source). He also wrote of “p’eng” birds that ate elephants, and men with dog features. Herodotus also made some wild claims, but did nothing like claiming to introduce to the Mongols catapults (which they already had) and to have helped them capture Xaingyang (which they also already had). But his tales stirred the imagination, so were liked, and remain so.
His tale of Hasan and Almut goes: “The Old Man … caused a certain valley between two mountains to be enclosed, and had turned it into a garden, the largest and most beautiful that ever was seen, filled with every variety of fruit. 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 Old Man desired to make his people believe that this was actually Paradise… And sure enough the Saracens of those parts believed that it was Paradise!
“Now no man was allowed to enter the Garden save those whom he intended to be his Ashishin . There was a Fortress at the entrance to the Garden, strong enough to resist all the world, and there was no other way to get in. He kept at his Court a number of the youths of the country, from 12 to 20 years of age, such as had a taste for soldiering, and to these he used to tell tales about Paradise… Then he would introduce them into his garden, some four, or six, or ten at a time, having first made them drink a certain potion which cast them into a deep sleep, and then causing them to be lifted and carried in. So when they awoke, they found themselves in the Garden… when he wanted one of his Ashishin to send on any mission, he would cause that potion… to be given to one of the youths in the garden, and then had him carried into his Palace. So when the young man awoke, he found himself in the Castle, and no longer in that Paradise; whereat he was not over well pleased. He was then conducted to the Old Man's presence… The Prince would then ask whence he came, and he would reply that he came from Paradise! and that it was exactly such as Mahommet had described it in the Law. This of course gave the others who stood by, and who had not been admitted, the greatest desire to enter therein.
“So when the Old Man would have any Prince slain, he would say to such a youth: “Go thou and slay So and So; and when thou returnest my Angels shall bear thee into Paradise. And shouldst thou die, natheless even so will I send my Angels to carry thee back into Paradise.” So he caused them to believe; and thus there was no order of his that they would not affront any peril to execute, for the great desire they had to get back into that Paradise of his. And in this manner the Old One got his people to murder any one whom he desired to get rid of. Thus, too, the great dread that he inspired all Princes withal, made them become his tributaries in order that he might abide at peace and amity with them.
“Now it came to pass, in the year of Christ’s Incarnation, 1252, that Alaü, Lord of the Tartars of the Levant, heard tell of these great crimes of the Old Man, and resolved to make an end of him. So he took and sent one of his Barons with a great Army to that Castle, and they besieged it for three years, but they could not take it, so strong was it. And indeed if they had had food within it never would have been taken. But after being besieged those three years they ran short of victual, and were taken. The Old Man was put to death with all his men [and the Castle with its Garden of Paradise was leveled with the ground]. And since that time he has had no successor; and there was an end to all his villainies.”
The story was then widely current: an aspirant under the influence of bang awakens and upon seeing his chief enter, says, “O chief! Am I awake or am I dreaming?” To which the chief replies, “Thou must take heed that thou tell not the dream to any stranger. Know that Ali thy Lord hath vouchsafed to show thee the place destined for thee in Paradise…. Hesitate not a moment therefore in the service of the Imam who thus deigns to intimate his contentment with thee,” and so on. William de Nangis told of a Syrian Shaikh “much dreaded far and near, by both Saracens and Christians, because he so often caused princes of both classes indifferently to be murdered by his emissaries. For he used to bring up in his palace youths belonging to his territory, and had them taught a variety of languages, and above all things to fear their Lord and obey him unto death, which would thus become to them an entrance into the joys of Paradise. And whosoever of them thus perished in carrying out his Lord’s behests was worshipped as an angel.” A Chinese account, retold by Rémusat, goes: “The soldiers of this country (Mulahi) are veritable brigands. When they see a lusty youth, they tempt him with the hope of gain, and bring him to such a point that he will be ready to kill his father or his elder brother with his own hand. After he is enlisted, they intoxicate him, and carry him in that state into a secluded retreat, where he is charmed with delicious music and beautiful women. All his desires are satisfied for several days, and then (in sleep) he is transported back to his original position. When he awakes, they ask what he has seen. He is then informed that if he will become an Assassin, he will be rewarded with the same felicity. And with the texts and prayers that they teach him they heat him to such a pitch that whatever commission be given him he will brave death without regret in order to execute it.”
There’s little reason to believe that Polo visited Alamút, which was quite out of way from the road that he claimed to have followed, and although Hasan did have successors, several at that, Mongols had destroyed the castle before Polo’s journeys purportedly began.

One reason for the legend of the longevity of the “Old Man” is that it’s based on two people, one of whom died 70 years after the other. Benjamin of Tudela, who traveled a hundred years before Marco Polo, wrote of the Al-Hashshashin and their “Old Man of the Mountain” leader. Although William Burroughs and others have attributed this title to Hassan ibn Sabbah, it’s more likely to refer to a spiritual/political descendent who died about 70 years after Hassan, Rashid ad-Din as-Sinān. First was Hasan i-Sabbah, then Rashad Sinan. Sinan’s said to be the real “Old Man”, but his castle, Masyaf (or al-Kahf), stands on a platform only about 60 feet above its surrounding plane. Nearby are the An-Nusayriyah Mountains, of which he’s said to have been a “shaykh al-jabal” (Arabic for “mountain chief”), but the likelihood of mistranslation playing a part in the legend’s development can’t be discounted. Which is much the point here. Sinan’s story was confused with, then grafted onto, that of Hasan-e Sabah, much as Hasan’s was grafted onto that of Nizam al-Mulk.
Even now, narration about all this is difficult, as not just names, but other significant terminology relevant, indeed crucial, to explication of what might, or likely did not, occur, has no standardized spelling. And interpretations of much terminology vary too. Henry, Count of Champaign, purportedly visited Sinan’s Masyaf fortress, which was then taken by several writers to have been Hasan i-Sabah’s castle, Alamut. (Somewhat similarly, Omar Khayyam may never have written poetry - in a peculiar inversion of “intellectual property,” verses used mostly as quotations were attributed to him, perhaps because of his scholarly reputation. Contemporaries never commented on his verse, and not until two centuries after his death did a few quatrains appear under his name).

Shiites are followers of bloodline successors to the Prophet Mohammed and include only perhaps 10% of Muslims. Sunnis follow the lead of Mohammad’s closest and most trusted advisors. Shiites split into splinter groups including Twelvers (who believe that there are only 12 true Imam leaders, the 12th of whom has remained alive and in hiding for a millennia now) and the Ishmailis, who split into Seveners (only 7 Imams) and Nizaris (who currently identify the Agha Kahn as their Imam). It is, of course, more complicated than that, and no wonder that Crusaders, and Marco Polo, experienced confusions. Think how difficult it would be to explain Christian power-structuring to a Tibetan or Nepali!
It was Rashid al-Din Sinan whom Crusaders referred to as the “Old Man of the Mountain.” In Rashid Sinan’s time, Crusaders and other Europeans became enchanted by highly exaggerated stories of the daring behavior of Assassin followers of the mysterious “Old Man of the Mountain,” and truths and fictions about them got harder and harder to separate. That confusion of fact and fancy was increased by Marco Polo and his “Million” tall tales.
For over 150 years, from at least 1094 to 1256, Grandmasters of the Order of the Assassins and their agents apparently really did spread both terror and ideas, throughout the Middle East, although to somewhat questionable effect. The most straightforward (and plausible) explanation for the willingness of individual Assassins to offer themselves for suicidal missions is religious passion, commitment to community and fear for the demise of much of their sense of identity. That isn’t what caught people’s imagination, though. It was, rather, the brilliant cast for embellished stories: an inspired ascetic leader (Hassan i-Sabah, founder of the Order of Assassins); “Old Man of the Mountain” Rashid ad-Din as-Sinān (who commanded the Order’s Syrian branch during the most critical years of the Crusades); King Richard I “the Lion-heart”; the famed warrior Saladin (Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, “Righteousness of the Faith, Joseph, son of Job”, a.k.a. al-Malik al-Nasir Salah al-Din Yusuf I), nemesis of Richard the Lion-heart, vizier of the Fattimid Caliph, and commander of the Syrian troops in Egypt - who defeated the third European Crusade to the “Holy Land” and was also sometimes target, sometimes ally of the Assassins; Hülegü, grandson of Genghis Khan, who finally succeeded where the Seljuk Turks (recent invaders from southwest Asia, who conquered Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine, and most of Iran) failed - rooting out the Order of Assassins from its mountaintop fortresses and then ordering mass exterminations of its communicants; Knights Templar; and Marco Polo, whose tales led to so much of the lingering fascination that surrounds the Assassins… These, and others, made for a quite lasting fascination with the intrigue surrounding the origins of terrorism in religious and political rivalry.

It’s been claimed that one of Hassan’s sons was accused of murder, the other of drunkenness, that he consequently had both executed, and banished someone else from Alamut for playing the flute. Much lore about the Assassins comes from Marco Polo and his supposed visit to Syrian fortress of Alamut in 1273 (a visit obviously fictional since that stronghold wasn’t in Syria, and had been destroyed by the Mongols in 1256). Not only did Polo fail to discuss fireworks, kites, flooding, starvation, Taoism, Confucianism and so many other captivating features of life in China, but contemporary Chinese records show no trace at all of anyone who could have been him. From what’s known of Chinese xenophobia and hatred of “barbarians” it’s highly unlikely that Kublai Khan sent him on fact-finding missions to distant parts of the empire (despite assertions that many foreigners were in the employ of the Mongol rulers). The Mongols, despite not trusting their Chinese subjects, still had to use Chinese civil servants; many historians now assume much of Polo’s account of travels came from things he picked up from Turkic merchants - he may have learned the Coman dialect of Turkish… but there’s no evidence he ever picked up any Chinese, or Mongolian). What use could he have possibly been on an excursion to Burma?
Polo’s tellings were little more than recollections of hearsay. He mentions a bridge a half-mile long where others found nothing longer than 90 years, tells of elephants carrying wood towers with 12 to 16 armed men, of great horses where there were only ponies, of riding two and a half days downhill into Burma where he saw towers “10 paces in height”, one made of gold and another of silver… he repeats stories after purportedly changing locations (including ones told long before by Strabo and Eusebius), confuses Bengal with Pegu (Burma), goes on and on about sexual libertinism and how common precious things were (especially gold; one tribe has removable gold teeth, justified by some commentators as misperception of betel chewing)… and travels from Burma (“Mien”) to places entirely unidentifiable (but as usual, with plenty of gold, except in the case of “Fungal” which had paper money), and presents insuperable difficulties with “suspension of disbelief” in many fashions, including the amazingly brief narration of his return to China from “Mien”.

The Mongols came and soon were gone, and then Ottomans fought their way to power… To the Ottomans, the stories of an old vizier and exotic friends weren’t important. So, not history written by the victor, this. Who wanted it told? Who gained? Maybe just the listeners, and story-tellers. Maybe the stories got changed, made this way or that for the time, the place, who’s ears, maybe even the mood of the one telling
Sure, stories had varied to suit the occasion for telling, when books were still quite rare, and story-telling highly valued as quality entertainment. And perhaps, really, that’s all these stories are. Still…
As Scheherazade, the Arabian Night’s narrator, asks, “What is this tale, compared to the one I will tell you tomorrow night, if you but spare me and let me live?”

Perhaps we can accept that Hassan ibn Sabbah, the original “Old Man of the Mountain,” started a new leadership tradition involving insertion into places of trust among enemies, well-trained spies who were also potential assassins, but much detail remains to be examined.
That term, assassin, first used by European Crusaders in the Near East, referred to Nizari Ismailis of Syria, whose Fatimid dynasty was the only viable Shi’ite (or Shi’a) rival to the extensive Abbasid Sunni Caliph. The Fatimid Empire conquered Egypt in 909 but was overthrown by Saladin in 1171. During its time rivaling to the Abbasid Caliphs as leaders of the Muslim world (and the original Shi’ite, or Shia, state), established by Mohammad’s daughter Fatima and his brother-in-law Ali, it ruled much of North Africa, spanning the south Mediterranean across to the Levant area; its capital was Cairo. In the 12th century, Crusaders many times came against Syrian Nizaris, who reached a peak of power under their most famous leader (da‘i), Rashid al-Din Sinan (died 1193). It was he whom Crusaders referred to as the “Old Man of the Mountain.” In Rashid Sinan’s time, Crusaders and many other Europeans became enchanted by highly exaggerated stories of the daring behavior of Nizari fida’is (self-sacrificing devotees), people believed to selectively target, then eliminate, their community’s more prominent enemies. As Nizari Ismailis became increasingly famous for being Assassin followers of the mysterious “Old Man of the Mountain,” truths and fictions about them got harder and harder to separate…
The Ismailis split into Nizaris and Mustalis when Nizar (not to be confused with Nizam al-Mulk), heretofore heir apparent, left for Alexandria, rallied military support, was defeated, and then, most interested historians accept, executed. The split obstinately remained, as Nizar’s supporters, Nizari or Nizariyya, continued largely under leadership by Hassan-i Sabbah, as a kind of minority within a minority, a secret Fatimid cult hidden within enemy lands (the Abbasid Caliphate of the Sunni Seljuk Empire). Persecuted as infidels by the dominant Sunni sect, the Nizaris are believed to have sent dedicated agents to infiltrate important positions, and to have eventually eliminated prominent Sunni leaders (“impious usurpers”) so as to maintain power in their tiny communities.
Early on, Hassan Sabbah was interested in metaphysical matters; by age 17 he was respected as an Islamic scholar, and friends with Omar Khayyám, Persian court astrologer (and possibly poet). Hassan studied Isamili thought but didn’t convert until overcome by an almost fatal illness. He feared dying without knowing the Imam of his time (an Imam, head of a mosque, leads prayer during Islamic gatherings; Shi’as believe them to be chosen by God and infallible, perfect examples who must be dutifully followed by the faithful). Later Hassan became one of the most influential Da’is in Ismaili history. Some say he as essential to the survival of what today Islam’s largest sub-group. He rose to the position of the Persian court’s Intelligence Chief, but Nizam al-Mulk (“Minister of State”), vexed by Hassan’s ambition, as told above, deviously undermine his power. Omar Khayyám arranged for banishment instead of death, and Hassan went to Azerbaijan, then on to Turkey, where in a heated discussion he irritated local priests enough to again get thrown out of town. This was in 1076.
Traveling through Iraq, Damascus, Syria and Palestine, after two years he reached Cairo, the newly built Ismaili capital, where he stayed 3 years, until late in 1081, receiving extensive instruction and training at the “Abode of Learning” (or House of Wisdom, a center of initiation for Sufi occult tradition). He came to ardently believe in both community service and the need for enlightened leadership, but his preaching upset Army Chief Badr al-Jamali, who imprisoned him. A minaret at the jail collapsed, though, which was taken as an omen. Hassan was released, but again deported. The ship on which he left hit a violent storm; Hassan stood calmly on deck declaring he couldn’t possibly die until he’d fulfilled his mission. The ship wrecked, but Hassan was rescued and taken to Syria. He returned to Persia, and resolved to travel throughout the country, preaching the while. In the north, at the south-end of the Caspian Sea, by the Alborz (or Elborz) Mountains, in the region of Daylam (a province of the Seljuk Empire), he found a fiercely independent Shi’ite (Shi’a) people; the mountains, which rise to a over 6000 meters (at volcanic Mount Damavand), make a natural barrier between the Caspian Sea and the vast plateau of Central Iran; although not distant from Tehran as the crow flies (nor from his purported hometown), even now the area remains remote. Hassan expended special effort on his proselytizing there, and gained followers. Before age 50 he’d become Chief of the Nizayri Ismailite (Ismailyyah) sect; subsequently he sent personally trained missionaries out to the rest of the region. His purported nemesis, Nizam al-Mulk, is said to have ordered soldiers to capture him, and then become the first victim of the consequent sect of assassins.
Deep in those mountains, Hassan noticed (in 1088) the castle of Alamut (a name said to come from a phrase meaning either “The Place of the Eagle’s Teaching” or “Eagles Nest” - from a story about its founding), in the Rudbar area. Built about 865, on a lonely ridge 6000 feet above the Caspian Sea (2163 meters above sea level), it protected a valley of five by fifty kilometers. Accessible only by a single, steep pathway, the fortress was an ideal headquarters. Marco Polo described it as at the head of a rich valley with an enormous beautiful garden full of pavilions and palaces, fruit trees of every kind and flowing brooks of wine, milk and honey as well as water (no tea - all of that was still in China, and quite unknown to Marco Polo), but no evidence of those pavilions and palaces has been found.
Hassan planned to use Alamut as a base from which to conduct his campaign for support of Nizar, son of the Ishmaili caliph; to take the fortress, he employed a strategy that took at least two years. His followers secretly preached to villagers throughout the valley, and were invited to the castle as guests. When they’d converted enough servants to feel they had sufficient support, Hassan was smuggled in. He converted more of the castle’s staff. By the time the castle’s rulers realized they were no longer in control, it was too late; they were given generous compensation, then shown out and away.
Alamut became the capital of a federation, and home of its rulers - styled “The Lords of Alamut” - until its destruction. There, Hasan-e Sabbah and his heirs trained agents called Fedayeen, who covertly infiltrated enemy positions, and sometimes remained undercover years - reputedly, even decades. When Nizari civilians faced pogroms, or their forts imminent attack, Fedayeen used their Janna fighting style, subterfuge and trust they’d earned over time to attack and kill crucial individuals. It’s also said that a highly important target could awake one morning to find a Hashshashin dagger lying on his pillow, perhaps with a note to warn that he was not safe anywhere, that even his most trusted servants could include assassins, and that whatever course of action brought him into conflict with the Hashshashin would have stop, if he wanted to live. Apocryphal or not, the story gave the Nizaris power.
Cherries, hazelnuts and apples are grown in Alamut valley now, but it’s hardly clear that the abundance fabled was possible; the area is limited agriculturally, and locals, who speak a distinct dialect due to isolation, live primarily on bread, dried fruit, milk products and a little rice.
Juwayni, a Mongol courtier who surveyed the Alamut castle just before the Mongol invasion, reported on its elaborate storage facilities and famed astronomical facilities and library, but made no mention of gardens or anything relating to hashish. There is no sound evidence in favor of those derogatory legends. Ruins of the castle remain, and we know names of its rulers, but most of the rest is just stories some people merely wanted, for whatever reasons, to believe.
At any rate, in 1090 Hassan took control of the fortress, which he called the Abode of Fortune. Another name given by Nizayri Muslims was al-Assas: ‘The Foundation’. It became the base for extended operations, with its members infamous as al-Assassin. The most famous Islamic terrorist organizations of the Middle Ages, this Nizari Ismailiyun Shiite politico-religious sect was based on a central idea: that of faithfulness to the Imam (a figure of absolute spiritual authority, divinely appointed, illumined by Primeval Light and preserved from sin), who was above even holy texts. Hassan developed a system of oaths and initiations, with a graded hierarchy of rank and knowledge of secret “sacred mysteries”… Members referred to one another as comrade (rafig), and held absolute confidence in God’s approval of their mission. Their values included sharing of one’s own knowledge or skills, especially in legal, medical, and vocational expertise, volunteer work in running community spaces, and encouraging growth of a wider community. The community, hardly just an Islamic mystery cult, spread throughout Persia and Syria. Some claim they were called Hashshashin, and from that the terms assassin and hashish were derived. More likely, they were “Assasseen” (Arabic for ‘guardians’, as in “guardians of the secrets”). Details of the story vary.
However much of the legend of the Assassins is false, a core is true: they killed – at least occasionally, once a decade or so. Maybe twice that, but most likely even less… they certainly made for a convenient scapegoat, so it’s impossible to be certain. Civilians were never targeted, and Seljuqs and Crusaders also employed assassination as to dispose of enemies, but during the Nizari Ishmali period at Alamut, almost any murder of political significance in Islamic lands was attributed to Ismaili terrorism. Famous victims are said include two caliphs of Baghdad, a Seljuk sultan, a Caliph of Egypt and his vizier, the Qadi of Isfahan, two princes of Azerbaijan, Sanjár Shah of Persia’s Wazir Moyin-uddin, a Christian Patriarch of Jerusalem, a ruler of Damascus and one of Homs, the Fatimad vizier al-Afdal, ibn al-Khashshab of Aleppo, il-Bursuqi of Mosul, Crusader King Conrad of Montferrat, Crusader Count Raymond of Tripoli, Philip of Montfort, Raymond II of Tripoli and almost, both King Edward of England (wounded by a poisoned assassin dagger while still prince, in 1271) and Saladin himself. Then, mysteriously, with successor Imams still safe in their mountain fastness, the dramatic killings inexplicably stopped, with little to no reason offered by historians.
Conrad, “the greatest devil of all the Franks”, became king of Jerusalem in 1191, appointed by Richard the Lion-Hearted (against Richard’s will and much to his consternation). But Conrad was never crowned. When Richard had departed, one story goes, three monks entered Conrad’s campsite while repeatedly making the sign of the cross. As soon as they were within reach of Conrad, they drew daggers from beneath their cloaks and slashed him to death. They didn’t attempt to escape - simply dropped their weapons when done. Guards grabbed them, and subsequently, they were flayed then roasted alive. Alternately, two hashsahshin attacked Conrad while he was walking home one evening. Guards immediately killed one and captured the other, who claimed Richard was behind the assassination. Later, Richard requested that Rashid al-Din Sinan vindicate him, indicating that Alamut wasn’t involved, although that too has gotten changed and confused in various re-tellings.
According to Marco Polo, the assassins were drug addicts, boys captured by the Grand Master then addicted through progressively larger doses of hashish. Totally dependent both on him and hashish, they’d do anything for his favor (and for hashish), and came to be known as hashishin. But religious fanatics generally don’t need drugs; hashshash, an Arabic word for hashish user, comes from hashish, and meant first dry herbage, fodder, and then hemp. It well antedates Hassan Sabbah and his cult, which in all likelihood had no involvement with hemp, hash or sativa at all, except to become recipient of a derogative name, due to their extremities of belief and action. A ‘disreputable people’ sense of the term has survived into modern times, with the common Egyptian usage of the term Hashasheen in the 1930s meaning ‘noisy or riotous’.

Legends grew until fact and fiction mingled; Hassan was said to be an alchemist, to have banned music, to have only left his room at Alamut twice after arriving there, and to control events all over the world, by supernatural means as well as intimidation.

Maybe Hassan Sabbah DID develop an extensive instructional curriculum for his followers, conditioning them through cunning methods to believe they had a special divine mission. Maybe exercises were used to transcend (get the student to abandon) normal cultural programming, the idea being that by transcending (abandoning) dogma and fixed beliefs, a person can apprehend core reality. Acolytes were purportedly trained in discipline, dexterity, and the use of psychology. In addition to inculcating willingness and patience to await gratification delayed until after death, Hassan encouraged willingness and ability not only to sublimate, but to gain trust and then betray it, for the sake of a cause and belief system which they must almost entirely forswear for most of this life (in anticipation of the next), after training - much as undercover cops, ‘intelligence’ operatives and diplomatic agents learn to do. Disciples were to accept ends as justifying means, that this life is merely a test of the spirit, and that sacrifice is the ultimate testimony of both love and faith. A sense of reward was to be found in discovering how a will subservient to the Imam leader could be much stronger than other wills. Expertise in misdirection (in which a spectator’s attention is directed to focus on some specific pre-determined point while something else goes on), prestidigitation (sleight of hand), knife-throwing, ventriloquism (voice throwing), utilization of scientific principles and mechanical devices, languages, etiquette, sophistry (including numerologic psycho-babble), and a variety of mnemonic feats (to develop as accurate, ordered and practically automatic memory as possible - for assisting in gaining entry to important palaces, assuring ability to bypass well-trained guards and then gain enough trust to kill or at least threaten) was fostered. Japanning of metals, and the making and administration of salves, were also taught - but book-learning wasn’t. Perhaps some were taught to befriend travelers whom they would subsequently kill; perhaps some were trained to endure torture. Some were said to become accomplished stranglers, others to have been able to recite epic poetry from memory. As happens with habitual hashish users. Clearly, stories about them grew in the telling.
When ready, Hassan sent his acolytes out in all directions, as missionaries with a directive for territorial expansion. They were to take castles by means either of propaganda or force, and build new ones… where life, as at Alamut, was to be characterized by extreme asceticism and severity. The ‘Da’i’ missionaries weren’t to convert students in the typical sense, for their mental and spiritual well-being; but should the student desire it sufficiently, and the Da’i could bring him to God by making him recognize the stature and light of the Imam, that was allowed. The point was instead to foster influence – saving of souls was mostly relegated to status as a subsequent possibility.
Hassan, perhaps never equaled or paralleled as a charismatic revolutionary, by the sheer gravity of his conviction, it was said, could pierce the hardest and most orthodox of hearts, to win them to his side. He organized, conditioned and led a fearless group of political killers who assassinated many scholars and rulers. After reputation for successful murders was achieved, non-lethal warnings were sometimes given, in which a target might wake to find a dagger and a note saying, “This dagger could just as easily been stuck in your heart.”
Why power as useful as that, if actually achieved, would have been subsequently abandoned is open to conjecture. Maybe the Mongols who sacked Alamut killed them all without any comprehension that they were destroying a potentially valuable tool they’d have enjoyed the possession of. Maybe they thought they didn’t need it. Maybe it was pure myth. We don’t know.

Legends as to the tactics used to indoctrinate new members into Hassan Sabbah’s organization abound: future assassins were purportedly subjected to rites similar to those of other mystery cults, in which the subject was given to believe that he was in imminent danger of death. But a special twist was that they were drugged - to simulate ‘dying’ - only one or two inductees at a time. The chosen were supposedly taken by night to a secret garden furnished with all the delights promised in the Qur’an (Koran) to the faithful upon reaching paradise; they awoke in a garden flowing with hashish-laced wine served by beautiful, scantily clad women. A sumptuous feast was provided by virgins who’d minister to their every want. After being allowed to savor this sensual paradise for a day or two, they were again drugged, this time to awaken in a prison, cave or squalid hovel. There, Hassan would explain that God had given them a preview of Paradise, then describe back exactly what each had been up to while in the secret garden. The inductee, convinced that Hassan was a representative of Allah, and that all of his orders should be followed, would now do so even to death. So successful was this method of conditioning and indoctrination, it’s said, that Hassan once astounded a visiting amir he wanted to impress by sending for one of his men and ordering him to kill himself. The man immediately did. In legend, Hassan preached that “flesh is stronger than steel,” before ordering acolytes to commit suicide as a demonstration of his power: one follower reportedly slit his own throat; another leapt from the battlements of Alamut. As to how the virgins were convinced to offer themselves up to the initates, that is never discussed.
Some accounts of the indoctrinations attest that future assassins were brought to Alamut at a young age and raised to maturity in the aforementioned paradisiacal gardens, perhaps kept drugged with hashish; as in the previous version, Hassan occupied this garden as a divine emissary. At a certain point (when their initiation could be said to have begun) the drug was withdrawn; they were flung into a dungeon, and informed that, if they wished to return to the paradise they’d so enjoyed, it could only be from Hassan’s direction. They must follow his instructions exactly, up to and including murder and self-sacrifice.
However it was arranged, when an Assassin was sent out by Ibn al-Sabba to carry out a mission, the Assassin was so convinced that he’d be rewarded in paradise, that he’d never waiver in dedication or hesitate to kill, despite that it would mean death at the hands of bodyguards, immediately afterward. It was a pinnacle of brainwashing: but not far, really, from what soldiers are trained to do.
Some Assassins were said to have waited in place for orders to kill, for decades. They were meticulous in killing only targeted individuals, seeking to do so without loss of other lives, while careful to cultivate their terrifying reputation by doing the slaying in public. They practiced a fighting style called Janna, which incorporates striking techniques, grappling and low kicks. They might or might not use a disguise, but always a dagger; they rejected poison, bows and other weapons - which might allow the attacker, or even the victim, to escape. Under no circumstances did they commit suicide, preferring to be killed by their captors. Saladin (some say it was Nizam al-Mulk) attempted to maintain good relations with the sect after awakening to find a poisoned cake on his chest, with a note saying “You are in our power”. Another account tells of a letter sent to Saladin’s maternal uncle, vowing death to the entire royal line. Saladin seems to have heeded their warning, and desisted, but that may have been due to a negotiated trade-off, or a variety of other factors (including Crusader attacks).

The Ismaili sect grew from elements of Gnosticism, Neoplatonism and Hindu thought, chiefly in its concept of the Imam. Nizaris made many changes in Ismailite doctrine, the most significant (at least from the point of view of the outside world) being the adoption of terrorism as a sacred religious duty, and reliance for survival on intimidation through the assassination of prominent leaders by self-sacrificing devotees (fida’is), often in spectacular fashion, so as to be the more memorable. Perhaps more important to the Ismailis themselves was a doctrinal focus based on a concept of humanity’s need for divinely inspired, authoritative teaching (ta’lim, basic in much Shi’ite thought). Hassan-i Sabbah developed arguments about the inadequacy of human reason in gaining knowledge of God, and claimed that only the Ismaili Imam was a true, divinely guided, teacher. Isma’ili theology, simplified (perhaps preposterously), involves belief that all humanity, indeed all creation, are one, a part of a whole, all with creative and destructive power. An Isma’ili individual could make use of that power, once awakened within him, to overcome those who knew nothing of the immense potential of humanity. Only the individual, who can attain fulfillment solely through servitude to the Imam, is important - the rest being but an illusory backdrop to test the soul. There’s not really any such thing as belief, only action, and the only possessor of reasons for carrying out any action is the Imam (Imam). This denial of rationalism demands absolute faith and obedience (at core, not very different from Catholicism or a variety of other sects).

The 8th Fatimid Caliph and Isma’ili Imam, Ma’ad al-Mustansir Billah, took ill in 1094, and his vizier, Al-Afdal, seized power. He appointed the Caliph’s younger son Ahmed (re-named Al-Musta’ali) as Caliph, instead of the old Caliph’s designated first son, Nizar. Nizar’s son al-Hadr fled to Alamut, where Hassan-i-Sabbah welcomed him. This wasn’t publically announced; the lineage was hidden until a few Imams later, which has raised suspicions that the story is apocryphal, despite how much it helps to explain.
Driven from Egypt, Nizar’s supporters, persecuted as infidels by the dominant Sunni sect, established a number of fortified settlements in present day Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, came under the sway of charismatic Hassan i Sabbah, then sent dedicated suicide murderers to eliminate prominent Sunni leaders whom they considered “impious usurpers.”
Whatever the truth of that, Isma’ilis in Persia broke off relations with the Cairo dynasty and proclaimed allegiance to by-passed Caliph Nizar. Enemies called them Hashshashin, apparently meaning demented fanatics. However it may be, the Isma’ilis DID establish a lasting, secretive underground movement.
The Sunni Seljuk Turks allowed Shi’ites to remain as religious leaders; the Nizaris held local power in northeast Persia until they, and the Abbasids and Seljuqs, all fell to the Mongols. After the destruction of Alamut by Hülegü in 1256, many members of the Nizari Isma’ili sect are thought to have fled to Afghanistan, the Himalayas and above all Sind… several had traveled to India as early as the 11th century.
Although roots of the Ismaili Nizari Assassin sect extend back to the 8th century CE, the foundation of the Assassins is usually marked as 1090, when Hassan established Alamut in the Daylam Mountains south of the Caspian Sea. Hassan gained support from Fatimid Shi’a in Persia, Iraq, and within the Fatimid Empire’s heart (in Egypt and the rest of North Africa, among a small underground following). By breaking with the Fatimids, Hassan and followers became increasingly isolated. Already outnumbered and endangered (especially by their residence in enemy territory), danger was central to their existence. Perhaps Grand Master Hassan set up an extensive network of terrorist strongholds, trained efficient assassins, and only thereby survived.
The story goes, that preachers called dais first won over villages of the surrounding area. Reaching Quhistan in the southeast, they overthrew Turks who had taken control of Alamut; other Turks then besieged it, but it proved as impregnable as Hassan had known it would be. It was clear he hadn’t the numbers for military victory, so he adopted another tactic: to strike down enemies one by one, making use of totally obedient disciples.
Determined to build a utopia, the Nizari used a strategy of gradually extending territorial control and then gaining strategically important fortresses, particularly mountain ones, by covertly converting to Isma’ili Shi’ism more and more locals living around them, then taking control, much as they had Alamut. They established a kind of dis-continuous state with several fortified settlement “islands” in present-day Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Alamut was established as an effective stronghold in 1090, before the succession schism, but all that’s really positive about it is its location (in the Daylam Province of the Seljuq Empire, south of the Caspian Sea in the Elburz Mountains).
The order’s principal cells, thereafter, were situated, as far as possible, in similarly impregnable mountain strongholds, from which agents disguised as peddlers or itinerant tailors could gain trust and influence among urban artisans, and eventually even achieve positions of great trust in high places due to the disciplined skills achieved during their Nizari training. Often able to win the confidence of highly placed women and their children, through use of novelties of dress and toys, and to thus slowly reach positions where important people became vulnerable, they wielded secret power.
With Alamut his, Hassan is said to have devoted his time to study of mathematics, astronomy and alchemy, while translating, praying, fasting, and directing both the propagation of the Da’wa Nizayri doctrine and a ruthless campaign against the overlords of other sects - in Persia, Iraq and Syria. Extremely strict and disciplined, finding solace in austerity, frugality and a pious life of prayer and devotion, he led an ascetic existence, and imposed a harsh puritanical regime at Alamut, and meanwhile writing cogent theological treatises which stressed in particular the need to accept absolute authority in matters of religious faith.
Strangely, the Assassin Nizaris may have sometimes allied with the Crusaders against the Sunnis; in 1238 they sent an embassy to Europe, seeking help resisting the Mongols.
Accounts of the Elder Chief Shaykh “Old Man in the Mountain” (either Hassan or Rashid al-Din Sinan) amusing or terrorizing visitors to his castle by ordering several young men to jump off a cliff - to demonstrate that they would obey his slightest whim - and other stories came first from Crusaders returning from the Levant not long before Polo’s book was presented. Many of these Crusaders had real experience of Nizaris and their local Syrian leader Rashid ad-Din Sinan; Latin sources from the crusader states use the name Vetulus de Montanis, derived from the Arabic title Shaykh al Jabal, meaning prince or elder of the mountain, or mountain chief, which was mistranslated by crusaders as “Old Man of the Mountain.” Rashid came to Alamut as a youth, and was trained there. Hassan II, with whom he was close, sent him to Syria in 1162, but when Hassan II died, his son Muhammad II developed enmity with Rashid, perhaps over power, and is said to have send fida’is out to kill him. The attempts failed, and Rashid eventually controlled several districts, including Jabal as-Summaq, Ma’arrat Masrin and Sarmin. In his fortress of Masyaf, in the An-Nusayriyah Mountains of northern Syria, he soon ruled almost independently of Alamut, and apparently interacted with both Crusaders and Saladin. A story tells that one night Saladin’s soldiers found Rashid and his personal guard wandering the mountains, but failed to attack him - because the soldiers were held back by some mystical power (they claimed). Saladin suffered terrible dreams and one night Saladin awoke to find freshly baked hotcakes, the type only the Assassins made, and a poisoned dagger next to his bed. It was in Rashid’s time (1163-1193) that Crusaders became enchanted by highly exaggerated stories of the daring behavior of the Nizari fida’is (like of the recognizably idiosyncratic hotcakes).
The use of intoxicants is never mentioned in contemporary Ismaili sources, nor from rival Sunnis and Shi’a, despite their suffering from the assassination acts of that rival sect. Hasan-e Sabah and his successor Grand Masters may have commanded an army of assassins who spread terror among the people in Iran and Iraq, through a corps of devoted terrorists, spies and other agents in enemy camps and cities, who killed many generals and statesmen, including several caliphs, but Hassan-i Sabbah seems to have been particularly harsh with users of intoxicants; he felt intoxicants undermined the strict discipline required for the Nizari to survive – even to the extent of making a public example of a son (some say two sons) by executing him (or them) for drinking alcohol, which he believed set a bad example for a community facing insurmountable odds. It’s been suggested that assassin simply means followers of Hassan-i Sabbah, and that Hassan-i Sabbah liked to call his disciples Assassiyun, meaning people who are faithful to the Asaas, meaning “foundation” of the faith, or base, as in base of resistance; “assassin” derives from “asaas”, and the US Justice Department, in inventing the term Al-Qaeda (in the mid-nineties), may have had this meaning in mind, as Al-Qaead also means a base.

There are other explicative stories: the Grand Masters encouraged followers to plant medical herbs for export; the organization became a major exporter of medicine, with their biggest market in Syria, which earned them the name ‘Hashashin’, meaning medicine-men. That hashish was used for suicide candidates who were castrated; they voluntarily underwent this maiming as they believed sexual temptation the biggest obstacle to success in their missions. When infiltrating, these eunuchs could dress as women, no longer growing facial hair.
Potential assassins were given lengthy training, then expected to travel to, and remain productively in, their place of advantage, a long time, even over 20 years, before carrying out orders to assassinate the individual to whom they cultivated proximity… but at the time, people in their 40s were considered old. That these Assassins could be expected to remain strong so long does indicate some special understandings, perhaps nutritional, perhaps yogic, or perhaps just social, in that some paved the way for others. They were, clearly, supermen.
The Seljuk Empire was able to prevent neither the rise of the Assassins, nor its murder of Vizier Nizam al-Mulk in 1092, during Ramadan. After Nizam had given audience to supplicants, he was being carried towards the tent of his womenfolk when a man in Sufi garb came forward, requesting to approach the litter. He pulled a knife from his clothes, drove it into Nizam’s heart, then was killed by guards. Upon hearing of this, Hassan is reputed to have chuckled with elation and said, “The killing of this devil is the beginning of bliss.” In subsequent decades, anyone who spoke openly against Nizari doctrine – prince, general, governor or religious leader – was felt to be under threat. One victim was stabbed while kneeling for prayers at a mosque! Many in authority took to wearing armor under robes of office.

But the stories about Nizam have problems, the numbers don’t add up: he wasn’t 93 in 1092 (that’d have been about 1111 CE, when Hassan had been at Alamut about 21 years, certainly long enough to have trained assassins. But in 1092? He’d have had 2 years - hardly enough time to arrange for the trained virgins, let alone brainwashed assassins. Hassan would have been between 36 and 62 years old, but if just 12 years younger than Nizam, about 80… it’s a problem. And would Persia’s “Intelligence Chief” go on to become a student, with the attitudes and proclivities of a young man? It seems as if two stories (again) were grafted together…

The Seljuk Turks took all of Iran, Mesopotamia and Syria, including Palestine, but the Assassins outlasted them. Seljuq influence in Persia ended in 1194, as the area split into independent rival principalities; by 1200 Seljuk power had ended everywhere except in Anatolia. But the Nizari cause failed too – a younger brother got the throne upon the old Caliph of Cairo’s death, and Nizar and sons were killed.
When Hassan died (1124), he was succeeded as lord of Alamuut and Grand Master of the Nizari community by his assistant Buzurgummid. On August 8, 1164 Buzurgummid’s grandson, Hasan ‘ala Dhikrihi Al-Salam, proclaimed the law of Islam abrogated, through a resurrection (qiyamah) which he called a manifestation of the unveiled truth in the imam, actualizing paradise for those faithful capable of grasping it, while condemning opponents to a hell of spiritual nonexistence. Two years later Hasan was murdered by a brother-in-law who objected to that abolition of the Islamic law. Then Hasan’s son Muhammad (1166–1210) further elaborated the qiyamah doctrine: instead of being just spiritually identical with the Iman, Muhammad maintained that he was Imam by physical descent (perhaps citing a son of Nizar who was NOT killed, but escaped to Alamut). Muhammad’s son Jalal Al-Din Hasan (1210–1221) repudiated the qiyamah doctrine and proclaimed adherence to Sunni Islam. He publicly cursed his predecessors as infidels, ordered his subjects to follow Sunni law, and invited Sunni scholars to instruct them. While leadership remained a crucial fundamental, its transfer wasn’t just problematic, but the root of crucial Islamic schisms. Divisive selection disputes, an essential component of any democracy, remain anathema under Islamic rule – elections in Iran are not for Ayatollah (those whose levels of insight and expertise in Islamic law have become worthy of being a models of emulation can reach the highest level in Iranian Shī’ism, Grand Ayatollah). Even with Saddam Hussein, the importance of strong, mostly unquestioned, leadership was central, involving acceptance as maturity and signifying respect for training and achievement. But apparently leadership can sometimes go underground.
By the early 12th century the Assassins had extended their activities to Syria, where they found a favorable climate for terrorist amid support from the local Shi’ite minority. After a period of preparation, the Assassins seized some castles in the An-Nusayriyah Mountains, the most important of which was Masyaf. Here, the Syrian Grand Master, Rashid ad-Din as-Sinān, ruled with much independence from headquarters at Alamut. Rashīd and his successor chiefs were known as the shaykh al-jabal (Arabic: “mountain chief”), which became mistranslated by European Crusaders as the “Old Man of the Mountain.” The successful life-extension techniques written about by William Burroughs to explain the “Old” hardly need be taken as gospel, as even he later admitted. Like other enthusiasts on the subject, he was mostly just enthralled by a vision of power.
According to Rashid’s autobiography, of which only fragments survive, he came to Alamut as a youth, and received Hashshashin training. In 1162, the sect’s leader Hassan II sent him to Syria, where he proclaimed Qiyamah, which in Nizari terminology meant the time of the Qa’im and removal of Islamic law. His power grew until he controlled several districts of northern Syria, including Jabal as-Summaq, Ma’arrat Masrin and Sarmin. In some religious texts, Rashid Al-Din Sinan is celebrated as a popular hero assigned a cosmic rank usually reserved for the Imam, but he was never really top dog.
Sultan Saladin, who ruled over Egypt and Syria and defeated the Crusaders, was Rashid’s main enemy. Saladin eluded assassination attempts ordered by Rashid twice. He destroyed many Nizari possessions, and in 1176, laid siege to Masyaf. But he soon lifted the siege. Legend has it that his soldiers found the Old Man of the Mountain and personal guard wandering about one night, but couldn’t attack him because they were held back by some mystical power. Saladin then had terrible dreams and one night awoke to find the idiosyncratic freshly baked hotcakes (made only by Assassins but somehow still recognizable) next to his bed, and a poisoned dagger by his pillow. Saladin lifted his siege, quickly reached a new understanding with Hassan, granted independence to the Hasshashin principality and so survived.
Rashid died in 1192, ‘93 or ’94, and was succeeded by men appointed from Alamut, which then undertook closer supervision over Masyaf.

The power of the Hashshashin came to an end as Hülegü (Haleku) Khan, grandson of Genghis, captured their castles one by one. On December 15, 1256 Alamuut fell. In February 1258, Hülegü’s soldiers sacked Baghdad and executed the Abbasid Caliph al-Mustasim and his sons, ending the Caliphate; so some say the main result of the activities of the Assassins was the end of the Caliphate, but a more realistic view is that the Assassins had little impact on the Mongols, who would have arrived and conquered anyway. In 1256 Al-Din Muhammad’s son and successor Khurshah surrendered Alamut to Mongol conquerors, and was killed soon afterward. The Nizari state thus destroyed, Persian Ismaili communities were decimated by massacres. Their Syrian castles were gradually subjugated by Mamluk Sultan Baybars I (ruler of Egypt and Syria 1260 to 1277, noted for military campaigns against both Mongols and Crusaders), then placed under Mamlūk governors; all Assassin political power ended in 1273, and the sect stagnated. Thereafter the Imams lived mostly in concealment, and there’s considerable uncertainty about their names, number, and sequence. Some were associated with the Ni’matullahi Sufi order (in Persia conditions after the fall of Alamut encouraged Imams and their followers to adopt Sufi forms of religious life; Sufi ideas and terminology had already influenced the qiyamah and late Alamut doctrine; Ismaili ideas were often camouflaged in Sufi poetry, the now Imams became revered as Sufi saints).
Despite Hassan’s lack of enduring success, his splinter group still exists - called Shia Imami Isma’ili Muslims, currently led by Prince Shah Karim Al-Husayni, the Aga Khan IV, their 49th Imam (resident in Mumbai, India; a successful businessman and horse-breeder). Ismaili groups still live in small pockets in parts of the Middle East (Syria and Iran), central and South Asia (Pakistan and India), and even Africa. The largest group is in India and Pakistan, where they’re known as Khojas (and give allegiance to the Aga Khan). Soviet scholars have pin-pointed small Isma’ili communities in central Asia, well isolated by treacherous terrain, but information on them is but scant.
The family of the Imam Aga Khan claims descent from Ismail (Ismael, first son of Abraham, by Hagar or Agar, Sarah’s maid, and purported ancestor of a number of Bedouin peoples of southern Palestine; also legendary ancestor of Muhammad). The last known Imam of line following Hasan ibn Sabbah was Amir Muhammad Baqir, with whom his Syrian Ismaili followers lost contact about 1796. After searching in vain for a descendant, one section of the Syrian community changed allegiance to the Aga Khan line, in 1887. Iman Aga Khan (Karim Khan) succeeded his grandfather in 1957; in an 1886 court judgment, Khojas became officially recognized (by the British) as part of the wider Nizari Ismaili community (Khoja is a caste distinction carried over from the Hindu background of the group; some are Sunnis or Hindus; some Nizari Ismailis share the same beliefs, practices, and even language with the Khojas, but due to their birth are not of the caste). One tradition relates that a missionary known as Nu(r) Satagut, which means literally ‘teacher of true light’ traveled to north-western India sometime between 1160 and 1242 and converted the Khojas. According to another legend, the Nizari faith was brought by Shams Al-Din, whose father is said to have been sent as a Da-i from Alamut; Shams Al-Din is credited with the conversion of Khojas in the late 14th century CE, and said to have laid the foundation of their communal organization, still found in lower Sind, Cutch, Gujarat, Bombay, East and South Africa, Arabia, Sri Lanka, Yemen (in the Haraz Mountains), and also Burma. Other Nizari communities, in the Pakistani mountains of Chitral, Gilgit, and Hunza, parts of Afghanistan, and Chinese Turkistan (Yarkand and Kashgar), have varied organization, religious practices, and observance of shari’ah rules.
Imam Aga Khan (Karim Khan) succeeded his grandfather in 1957 (he was then 20). He’s one of the world’s ten richest royals, with about a billion US$ net worth. He’s unique among the richest royals as he doesn’t preside over any geographic territory. He founded the Aga Khan Development Group, one of the largest private development networks in the world, and has about 15 million followers. Neither he nor his predecessors for centuries have been accused of plotting assassinations.
So, Nizaris live on, but not their assassins, which begs a question like that old cherry, ‘When did you stop beating your wife?’ Did a useful survival skill simply fall away? Some Nizari influence lives on, but no hard evidence of a School of Assassins has come to light, despite extensive US sponsored water-boarding. Perhaps Hülegü’s men destroyed it, wittingly or unwittingly, or perhaps the whole thing was never more than legend. Sometimes one needs no real secret to pretend to one, nor much real power behind a threat, to make it scary.
There may not even have been any assassins, but whether there were or not, they were not hashish users.
But it may be secret societies, for instance the Knights Templar, Knights of Malta, Rosicrusians, Thule Society, Freemasons, Skull and Bones, the Bohemian Club, and Hellfire Club, who are the most significant recipients of influence from Hassan’s efforts, and the resulting cult. From the Isma’ilis the Crusaders borrowed the conception which led to the formation of many secret societies, religious and secular, in Europe. Catholic orders including the Templars and Hospitallers, the Dominicans (Order of Friars Preachers, founded 1215), the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), Franciscans and Opus Dei (Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei, founded 1928), all have roots which can be traced to either Cairo’s “Abode of Learning” or to Alamut. The Knights Templar especially, with their system of grand masters, grand priors and religious devotees, and their degrees of initiation, showed strong correspondence to the Nizaris. All of these may be experiencing the twilight of their day, if not veritable night, but evidence of conspiracy behind assassinations persists. We would do well to remember that peoples’ tales of other people have motivation, and are hardly necessarily true. When Crusaders met Sunnis, they may well have been told exaggerated stories of Shi’ites, not only for the disparagement involved, but in attempt to instill fear. And the instillation of fear may well be a more useful political tool than any other any “Old Man in the Mountain” ever developed.

Muslims, by the way, have far, far less propensity for violence than do European-descent Protestants, who show a decided inclination to lie about that (whether misleading statistics and poll-survey results are accepted as lies or not). And isn't the purpose of those lies to incite violence?

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Blogger Vivaious Vanessa said...

The Old Man of the Mountain has been constant fuel for imaginations for nearly a millennium and it might be a little late to separate myth and legend from reality, but this article performs the definitive archeological survey of the remains and extracts the substance from the detritus. Excellent work, Joel. The best I've ever seen on this subject.

5:55 AM  
Blogger Mythorelics said...

Reading “Destiny Disrupted” by Tamim Ansary (2009) I find cause for a few additions.

Islam’s Prophet Mohammad preached need for community (umma) of equals who helped the weak, meek and poor, sacrificed for justice and served the greater good. Eventually though, his early enemies the business elite (leading opportunists) of Mecca usurped his new religion and established an upper class supported largely by conquest. Instead of focusing on building a righteous community, khalifa (caliph) leaders, once humble ‘deputies,’ became despots with succession by primogeniture for Arab leaders of a political empire. Persians, IndoEuropeans rather than Semitic, were second rate under this Umayyad Empire; brotherhood and equality didn’t extend to them as they refused to become Arabized. Eventually Persian former aristocrats overthrew arrogant Arab nouveau aristocrats and founded the Abbasid Empire, with everything pretty much the same except for increased pretense of top leadership having blood relationship to Mohammad. Absurd, what with them being Persian, but hey, under them the economy continued to explode with vigor, so why complain? Meanwhile, blood relatives of Mohammad’s adopted son, cousin and eventual brief successor Ali were captured and killed. Art and other aspects of what we like to think of as civilized culture, however, flowered into the world’s biggest empire and the Golden Age of Islam (9th century CE), centered at Baghdad, the first city of over a million occupants (and 10,000 bathhouses). No longer did a Caliph bother to be seen by most other important people, let alone the ‘insignificant’… and no longer was worldly indulgence much of a religious issue. No longer was Islam particularly distinct from other religions, although soon it became the most sexist.

In 969 CE Shi’i warriors from Tunisia seized control of Egypt, declared themselves true khalifas descended from Mohammad through his daughter Fatima, and built a new capital, Qahim (Cairo). By 1000 CE it was the biggest, and becoming the richest, of cities. Ansary explains, “In the late eleventh century the Isma’ilis… branched into two. The minority was a revolutionary offshoot angered by the wealth and pomp of the now-mighty Fatimid Khalifate and dedicated to leveling rich and poor, empowering the meek, and generally getting the Islamic project back on course.” Hassan Sabbah started as a recruiter for them, He sent trained followers (Fedayeen “sacrificers”) “to assassinate carefully targeted figures chosen for the shock their death would spark.” “By 1095 CE, the dream of a universal community had failed at the political level.” “And then the catastrophes began.”
A few agricultural innovations changed everything in Europe, the wealthy acquired means to travel and visited “Holy Lands” where newly arrived Seljuk Turks harassed and humiliated them. Anger and envy grew, as did threats to Constantinople, and thus perhaps to Europe. Second and third sons found a new calling: Crusades!

As Muslims would not unite, Crusaders achieved their goal, for a while. Virtually no Muslims survived their surrender of Jerusalem; Christians of eastern persuasions were exiled, and Crusaders began to quarrel among themselves, much as Muslims had. “Assassins and Crusaders had the same set of enemies so, inevitably, they become defacto allies.” Maybe so, maybe no – it’s unclear just when the anti-Islamic propaganda value of Assassins became clear to Europeans. It most certainly did, though, and that most certainly affected the history that has come down to us.

4:43 AM  

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