In 1295 Marco Polo returned to Europe. Amongst the many remarkable stories of his adventures, the legend of the Assassins is perhaps the most extraordinary.
A fanatical order
Whilst travelling east, following the silk road to China, Polo met local people who told him a most incredible story. The story went that in the Syrian mountains, in a remote valley, lived an obscure order of assassins, led by the mysterious Old Man of the Mountains. Hidden away in their valley, they dwelt in a paradise of luxurious gardens and magnificent palaces. However, outsiders could not gain access to this secretive realm since a great fortress guarded the only access.
The assassins regularly smoked hashish, which provided them with such visions of paradise that they were willing to fight fanatically for their Grand Master. So, if a neighbouring ruler were to offend the Old Man, he would send out his assassins to kill them. These drug-crazed killers would pursue their missions with terrifying ferocity, systematically hunting down and slaying any enemy their lord commanded. Because of their reputation for taking hashish, they were known as ‘Hashashin’ – from which we derive the term ‘assassin’.
From this remarkable tale the legend of the Assassins was born. No one can deny the power of Polo’s story. The Assassins today are, if anything, even more iconic and notorious than they became in medieval times. Indeed, an entire blockbuster franchise of video games is based on the legend.
But what was the reality behind this ‘assassin’s creed’? What was the truth behind Polo’s fantastic tales?
Or was it, after all, no more than a myth?
The Travels of Marco Polo
‘The Travels of Marco Polo’ was a travelogue written by Rustichello da Pisa based on the stories Marco Polo told him. The book was probably written around 1298 and based on Polo’s account of his journeys between 1271 and 1295.
They caused an immediate sensation on publication. Some wondered if his remarkable tales of the court of Kublai Khan and assassins were entirely believable. Were they exaggerations? Had Polo even travelled as far as China at all? Had he perhaps invented the whole story?
These are questions that people have been asking ever since. However, these days, the consensus is that Polo’s stories are based around a core of truth.
Only someone with first hand knowledge of the place at that time could have provided the details Polo gives about China. For example, his accounts of salt production there tally with contemporary Chinese records.
However, whilst there is little doubt that he made the journey he claimed, an open question remains as regards the embellishment or exaggeration of his stories. In the case of his tale of the Assassins, all we know is that he claimed to have heard this story from local people in the Middle East (presumably other Muslims). We don’t really know exactly who these people were or whether they themselves embellished their accounts.
Fortunately, however, we know that the Old Man of the Mountain was a real person. We also know that the people who Polo referred to were a real people. And we know this, not from just from European accounts, but also from Islamic ones.
So, who were the Assassins?
The Islamic accounts of the people westerners called the ‘Assassins’, but who are properly called Ismalis, provides us with a different and more complete picture from Polo’s dramatic tales. And the people who emerge from these historical records are far more fascinating than anything we find in Polo’s account.
The Ismalis were, and still are, a sect within Shia Islam. They differ from the majority of Shi’ite Muslims in that they accept Isma’il ibn Ja’far as the appointed successor of Ja’far al-Sadiq. For the Ismalis, Isma’il was the sixth of a total of seven Imams (whereas mainstream Shia Islam identifies twelve Imams of which Isma’il is not one).
The Ismalis did not start out as some obscure mountain sect of assassins however. In the medieval Islamic world, the Ismalis wielded considerable power for a time. Indeed, the Ismali Fatimid Caliphate ruled most of the Arab world from 969 CE and 1171 CE.
The Fatimids made their capital in Cairo and are probably most closely associated with Egypt. However, they also maintained a strong traditional powerbase in Syria, where many Ismali Muslims lived.
During its heyday the Fatimid world flourished both culturally and economically. So wealthy were the Fatimids that one Persian visitor was astonished by the sheer magnificence of Cairo in 1047 CE.
“I saw such personal wealth there, that were I to describe it, the people of Persia would never believe it.”Nasir-I Khusraw, Safarnama
But the splendour of the Fatimids was not to last.
The Fall of the Fatimids
By the late C12th the last of the Fatimid Caliphs, Al-Adin found himself increasingly challenged by the growing influence of his Sunni Muslim Vizier – Saladin. By the late 1160s Saladin purged many of his political enemies and established an increasingly dominant influence over the government of the Caliphate.
When Al-Adin died in 1171 (ironically enough, he was quite likely assassinated), Saladin declared the Fatimid Caliphate over. In its place Saladin established the new Ayyubid Caliphate, a Caliphate based on the majority Sunni Islamic faith. With the Fatimids gone, the Ismalis found themselves a religious minority in an Islamic world ruled by a Sunni Caliph.
Even before this time, life had been far from easy for the Ismalis living in Iran and Syria.
At the end of the C11th a group of Ismalis owing allegiance to Imam Nizar established a kingdom in Iran under the leadership of Hasan-i Sabbah. These people became known as the Nazari Ismalis and would soon establish themselves as a significant power in Iran and Syria.
The community was far from secure. Invasions of Turks and later of crusaders posed a real threat. The crusaders saw all Muslims as heathen enemies but the Turks, despite being Muslims themselves, were no less hostile to the Ismalis. The Turks were Sunni and regarded the Ismalis as a heretical sect that needed to be at least contained and at best actively repressed. Caught between these aggressive rival powers, the Nazari had their work cut out to ensure the survival of their communities.
The Nazari lacked the numbers to seriously challenge either the Turks or the crusaders. Instead, where they could, they entered temporary alliances and truces to avoid confrontation, such as with the Turkish lord Ridwan of Aleppo. But sometimes conflict was unavoidable. In 1110 they lost Kafarlatha to the crusaders. Worse came in 1113 when Ridwan died, to be succeeded by Alp Aslan who took a far more hostile stance towards the Nazari. Aleppo suddenly became unsafe as Aslan massacred and imprisoned some 200 Ismalis and confiscated their property. By 1124 the Ismali community had been expelled from Aleppo entirely and forced to seek refuge elsewhere, particularly in Damascus.
However, in 1129, the rulers of Damascus also turned on them. Another massacre and mass confiscation of property followed. Again, the Ismalis were forced to flee. It must have seemed like nowhere would be safe.
Eventually, the Islamis turned to Jabal al-Bahra, a coastal mountain range in north-western Syria, for security. Throughout the 1130s they set about building up small communities based in a network of fortresses throughout this region. By 1141 they had gained control of the major fortress of Masyaf, which would serve as their principal stronghold in the area and the primary base for their leadership in Syria.
Over the next thirty years the Ismalis consolidated their hold over this part of the world, adding to their network of mountain fortresses and avoiding any disastrous confrontations with their Turkish and Christian neighbours.
Over time the threat from their Christian neighbours came increasingly from the military orders rather than from the Kingdom of Jerusalem. In 1142 the Knight Hospitallers established themselves in the fortress of the Crac des Chevaliers, right on the southern end of the Jabal al-Bahra. Relations with the Hospitallers and Templars would be tense, frequently erupting into minor conflicts.
Then, in 1162, a young man arrived in the Syrian mountain community of Kahf where he would quickly establish himself as a popular and able local leader. At the time he was just one of many Ismali community leaders. But history would come to remember him as the Old Man of the Mountain.
Rashid al-Din Sinan
Rashid al-Din Sinan was born in a village near Basra in southern Iraq. There he grew up to become a schoolteacher and adopted the Ismali faith. Later, following an argument with his brothers, he travelled to Alamut to study under Imam Hasan II. He showed a particular interest in philosophy and other works from the Fatimid Islamic period. It seems the imam was impressed enough with his young protégé to appoint him to a leadership position in Kahf in 1162. From that point on Sinan did not look back.
It was not long before Sinan had assumed the leadership of the Syrian Nazari community. He worked hard to bolster community defences whilst endeavouring to foster peaceful relations with his powerful neighbours where possible. However, Sinan was all too aware of the growing power and influence of Saladin. When the Fatimids fell in 1171 and the Sunni Ayyubid Caliphate was born, it was clear that the Ismalis would be entering a new and dangerous period in their history.
The Old Man of the Mountain
Sinan decided that the best policy was to attempt to ensure peaceful relations with his Christian neighbours. If this could be achieved at least the Nazari Ismalis would not need to risk fighting both the Ayyubids and the Christians at the same time. With this end in mind, he sent emissaries to King Almaric I of Jerusalem.
His approaches to the King enjoyed some success, no doubt because Almaric was also concerned about the rising power of Saladin. However, the Templars at the time took a more belligerent attitude and ambushed and killed Sinan’s ambassadors on their return journey. Although Almaric punished the Templars, he died shortly afterwards, ending any chance of a permanent rapprochement.
It was during these negotiations that Sinan came to the attention of Christian writers who gave him his iconic name – the Old Man of the Mountain. In fact, Sinan was not that old at the time (only around 39-43 years old).
Later in 1174, Saladin assumed full leadership the Caliphate following the death of his former mentor Nur al-Din. Saladin now set about consolidating his influence over the Muslim world in preparation for a confrontation with the crusaders. The Nazari Ismalis were amongst those that needed to be brought to heel.
Things looked ominous when Saladin invaded Nazari territory and laid siege to their main stronghold at Masyaf. However, Sinan was able to negotiate an accommodation with Saladin via an intermediary. Sinan had somehow managed to come to agreeable terms with the Sunni warlord. It would secure the Ismali holdings in Jabal al-Bahra for several decades to come.
Sinan would go on to continue leading his community until his death in 1193.
The Nazari would continue to exist as semi-independent communities for several decades after Sinan’s death. However, the C13th would bring turmoil and change to the region that even the hardy Ismalis could not resist.
Mongol invasion brought chaos to the Middle East. Alamut, the historic Iranian centre of Ismali culture, fell to Hugulu’s Mongol army in 1256. Over the next few years the Mongol horde overran much of Iran and Iraq. Bagdad fell in 1258 and by 1260 Aleppo and Damascus in Syria met the same fate. The Nazari were next and when Masyaf fell to the Mongol onslaught later in 1260, it looked like the end was near.
However, a reprieve came when the Mameluke army from Egypt inflicted a crushing defeat on the Mongols at Ayn Jalut in Palestine. They successfully drove back the Mongal tide, led by the energetic and able Baibars.
The Fall of the Nazari
However, Baibars would prove to be no saviour for the Nazari. Over the next few years he would successfully drive back the Mongols and break the power of what remained of the crusader states. He was now the undisputed master of the Muslim world.
In time Baibars turned his attention to bringing the independent Nazari strongholds under his control. One by one they were all forced to accept the inevitable. By 1273 the last Nazari stronghold surrendered to Baibars’ Mameluke army.
The Ismali Nazari state was finished. However, the Ismali communities themselves did not disappear. They continued, first as subjects of the Mameluke Empire and later of the Ottomans. They may have lost their independence but not their cultural identity.
At this point we might ask – what does any of this have to do with an order of assassins?
In 1092 Nizram Al-Mulk, the Vizier of the Seljuk Sultanate, was stabbed to death by an assassin on the road between Bagdad and Isfahan. The allegation was that he had been assassinated on the orders of Hasan-i Sabbah, the Nazari leader at this time. But who was al-Mulk and why would the Sabbah want him dead?
The Seljuk regime of the late C11th was Sunni and regarded the Ismalis as heretics. By the 1080s there was open war between the Seljuks and the Ismalis in Iran and northern Syria. Nizam al-Mulk was actively engaged in planning military campaigns against the Nazari and had ordered Sabbah’s arrest, which made him an obvious target for assassination.
However, the practice of assassination does not prove the existence of an ‘order of assassins’ of the kind Marco Polo describes. Many medieval leaders (both Christian and Muslim) resorted to assassination at different times.
No doubt some Ismali soldiers were highly devoted to their cause. These were a people who had experienced persecution and who, for much of their history, were surrounded by more powerful, hostile neighbours. Such adversity breeds a fervent desire to fight for survival.
There is no doubt that Rashid al-Din Sinan’s ability to keep his people safe in such turbulent times inspired fanatical devotion. This was noted by the contemporary Christian writer William of Tyre:
“Their subjection and obedience to him [Sinan] is such that they regard nothing as too harsh or difficult and eagerly undertake even the most dangerous tasks at his command. … if there happens to be a prince who has incurred the hatred or distrust of this people, the chief places a dagger in the hand of one or several of his followers; those thus designated hasten away at once, regardless of the consequences of the deed or the probability of personal escape.”William of Tyre, A history of deeds done beyond the sea
William makes no mention of the use of hashish or of the existence of any order of trained assassins. Instead, according to William, Sinan’s followers were motivated purely from a sense of personal loyalty to him.
The term ‘hashishin’ literally implies people who are users of hashish. However, it was used at the time by Arabs as a pejorative term, applied generally to lower class rabble or to people of dubious morality. As the Nazari Ismalis were a non-conforming religious minority, it is unsurprising that other Muslims would have held a low opinion of them. Many regarded the Ismalis as dangerous heretics and actively persecuted them as such.
It is therefore quite likely that Marco Polo’s sources may well have been members of a hostile Islamic group that held the Ismalis in contempt. The term ‘assassin’ takes on a very different meaning in this context.
Such pejorative views of the Ismalis found their way into western culture and were further amplified by the natural human tendency to over dramatize.
The fact that the Nazari lived in far-flung, fortified mountain communities made them appear remote and mysterious. The crusaders labelling Sinan ‘the Old Man of the Mountains’ added a further air of mystery to their reputation. Perhaps it is not entirely surprising that myths concerning a paradise like garden, hidden deep within the mountains also attached themselves to the Old Man.
However, there is no evidence that any particularly spectacular gardens were maintained at any of the Nazari mountain strongholds. If anything, these fortresses were very spartan places for the most part.
The historian Juwayni described the Ismali stronghold of Alamut after its fall to the Mongols in the mid C13th. He makes no mention of any gardens, even though he provides a detailed description of some of Alamut’s more impressive features, such as its library and storage facilities. Juwayni, however, found many of the texts in the Alamut library to be heretical and had them burnt. This further underlines the fact that non-Ismali sources (whether Christian or Muslim) cannot be trusted to provide us with an objective view of these people.
Who were the Assassins?
The people we refer to in popular western culture as ‘assassins’ were clearly far more than just ‘assassins’. They were the Nazari Ismalis. Whilst they used assassination as a weapon against their enemies, they were not so different in this respect from many other medieval states. We must remember that that they were almost always fighting enemies at a numerical disadvantage. This, in itself, makes it more likely that they would have needed to resort to subterfuge and assassination rather than brute force.
The Nazari were indeed led by an ‘Old Man of the Mountains’ but he was far more than just a leader of an assassin’s guild. He was the leader of a beleaguered people, surrounded by enemies, simply trying to preserve their culture and their way of life.
Sinan’s people were not devoted to him because they were fired up by hashish or because they had received some esoteric training in the martial arts of assassination. Neither were they acting because they had become captivated by visions of a paradise garden.
The Nazari were devoted to leaders like Sinan because he offered them hope. Hope that their community, their faith, and their way of life could, against all the odds, have a future.
References & further reading
A history of deeds done beyond the sea, William of Tyre (translation)
The Ismailis and their Role in the History of Medieval Syria and the Near East – Farhad Daftary and Azim Nanji, Institute of Ismali studies
Wikipedia – Order of Assassins
The Old Man of the Mountain – unknown Lebanese artist (wiki commons)
Drawing of the Fatimid caliph Al-Adid – unknown artist (wiki commons)
Photo of Masayaf – Charles Damas (wiki commons)
The Mongol Lord Hugulu and his army – Sayf al-Vâhidî (wiki commons)