Regarded as one of the most fearful of all secret societies, the Hashashin, the Assassins, seemed capable of penetrating any security, of striking down any victim regardless of the body of men who might guard him. They moved as if they were deadly shadows and struck with a fury that shattered the nerves and the resolve of their most stalwart foes. The very name of the secret society of killers has given the English language the words "assassin," one who kills for fanatical or monetary reasons; "assassinate," the act of killing suddenly and treacherously; and "assassination," the murder of a prominent person. The original appellation for the society, the Hashashin, is derived from the Arabic "hashish," a name for Indian hemp (cannabis sativa), and the accusation was made by European Crusaders and others that the Assassins made liberal use of the narcotic effects of hashish to achieve their fierce courage and to eliminate their fear of death.
Most of the early members of the secret society were followers of the Nizari branch of the Isma Iliyya sect of Shiite Muslims and were located primarily in Syria and Persia. In 1090, Hasan ibn Sabbah (1034-1124) seized the mountain citadel of Alamaut in northern Persia and made it his "Eagles' Nest," a center where he, as grand master, could live in relative safety and direct his forces throughout Asia. Hasan became known as the "old man of the mountains," and he set about creating a fanatical organization composed of devotees, known as fedayeen, who did whatever he commanded with blind obedience.
Hasan frequently bought boys from poverty-stricken parents and reared them in the camps where he had gathered young men to be trained as suicide commandos, leading them step by step to higher levels of combat proficiency. At the same time that he was shaping his men into fierce warriors, he also indoctrinated them spiritually, convincing them that as they advanced under his tutelage they would come closer to the sacred and ultimate mystery that only he could reveal. Hasan told them confidentially that the conventional teachings of Islam had misled them. Paradise could not be attained by following the preachings of Muhammad (c. 570–632), but only by complete obedience to Hasan Ibn Sabah, who was the true Incarnation of God on Earth.
Most sources citing the history of the Assassins state that in order to be certain that no doubts remained among the initiates that he was deity made flesh, Hasan supplied them with generous amounts of the drug hashish, then hypnotically guided them to the lavish gardens of heaven where they were allowed to witness the beauty of the afterlife. When the youths regained full consciousness, they were convinced that they had been allowed a glimpse of their future dwelling place in paradise. Although such stories have been widely circulated since the Crusades in the eleventh century, other sources have recently stated that such accusations of heavy drug use among the Assassins only reflected the fact that their contemporaries despised them as members of a minority and unfairly associated the sect with one of the more detestable vices of the time.
Whether or not Hasan ibn Sabbah's cruelty and ruthlessness has been exaggerated by time, one persistent illustration survives to depict the lengths to which he would go to gain dominance over his men. According to the account, on one occasion when Hasan sought to impress a group of young men to become his obedient fedayeen, he dug a hole in front of his throne deep enough to allow only a man's head to remain visible. Next, he commanded a fedayeen to lower himself into the hole and to place a tray with an opening in it around his neck. Once the hole was covered with a colorful rug and the loose dirt brushed aside, it appeared as though Hasan had decapitated a man and placed his head upon a tray. To make the illusion all the more convincing, he poured fresh blood around the supposed detached head of his assistant.
When an aide brought the potential recruits before his throne, Hasan informed them sternly that as God on Earth he had many fearful and wondrous powers. He would cause the decapitated head on the tray before them to speak to them of the glories in paradise that awaited those warriors who died in battle.
At this point, the loyal fedayeen with his head on the tray opened his eyes and testified to the marvels that his soul had witnessed in the hereafter. After the new men had been duly impressed and had sworn their allegiance to Hasan, they walked away speaking in hushed tones of the glory of serving God on Earth. And once the illusion had accomplished its desired end, Hasan had the fedayeen who had so ably assisted him decapitated and his head stuck on a pole so that all could see that he was truly quite dead.
Although the Hashashin came to be feared by Christian Crusaders, kings, princes, sheikhs, and sultans, their membership probably never numbered more than 2,000 fedayeen at any one time. Because Hasan had indoctrinated his warriors to the belief that death in the pursuit of orders guaranteed an immediate transference to paradise, they fought with a fury untouched by the normal fear of dying in combat. Masters of disguise and of many languages and dialects, the Assassins might one day appear as simple peasants working around a castle wall and the next emerge as highly capable warriors springing on their victims from the shadows. The Assassins inveigled themselves into the services of all the surrounding rulers, posing as loyal soldiers or servants, but always awaiting the bidding of their grand master to strike if ordered to do so. A powerful sultan who defied the orders of Hasan might suddenly find himself attacked by Assassins who for many years had been regarded as trusted servants but had only been hiding in his service until such time as the grand master ordered his assassination. As the power of Hasan's secret society became known throughout the East, a monarch never knew which of his seemingly faithful retinue was really an Assassin only awaiting orders to murder him.
Between 1090 and 1256, there were eight grand masters who ruled the society of Assassins. In 1256 and 1258, the Mongols virtually destroyed the sect in Iran and in Syria. Although the Assassins scattered throughout the East and into Europe, in 1272, the Mamluk Sultan Baybars brought about their downfall as an organized sect.
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Howarth, Stephen. The Knights Templar. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1993.