The Old Man of the Mountains

From A History of Secret Societies by Arkon Daraul (Citadel Press 1961/1989)
NOTE: in some texts the form "Hassan-i-Sabbah" is mentioned instead of Hasan-bin-Sabah used here.

NOTE2: "One little-nit-picky-tiny detail though, I am pretty certain (according to Crowley, and Michael Prawdin's 'History of the Mongol Empire') that the quote from Hassan bin Sabbah is

'Nothing is Forbidden, Everything is Permitted'
'Nothing is Real, Everything is Permitted'

it is a subtle difference, but so much is based upon subtlety." - Terezakis.

See also:

  • Hassan-i-Sabbah @ Wikipedia
  • The Secret Doctrines of the Assassins

    Two men in the year 1092 stood on the ramparts of a medieval castle - the Eagle's Nest - perched high upon the crags of the Persian mountains: the personal representative of the Emperor and the veiled figure who claimed to be the incarnation of God on earth. Hasan, son of Sabah, Sheikh of the Mountains and leader of the Assassins, spoke: "You see that devotee standing guard on yonder turret-top? Watch!"

    He made a signal. Instantly the white-robed figure threw up his hands in salutation, and cast himself two thousand feet into the foaming torrent which surrounded the fortress.

    "I have seventy thousand men - and women - throughout Asia, each one of them ready to do my bidding. Can your master, Malik Shah, say the same? And he asks me to surrender to his sovereignty! This is your answer. Go!"

    Such a scene may be worthy of the most exaggerated of horror films. And yet it took place in historical fact. The only quibble made by the chronicler of the time was that Hasan's devotees numbered "only about forty thousand." How this man Sabah came by his uncanny power, and how his devotees struck terror into the hearts of men from the Caspian to Egypt, is one of the most extraordinary of all tales of secret societies. Today, the sect of the Hashishin (druggers) still exists in the form of the Ismailis (Ishmaelites), whose undisputed chief, endowed by them with divine attributes, is the Aga Khan.

    Like many another secret cult, the Assassin organization was based upon an earlier association. In order to understand how they worked and what their objectives were, we must begin with these roots.

    It must be remembered that the followers of Islam in the seventh century A.D. split into two divisions: the orthodox, who regard Mohammed as the bringer of divine inspiration; and the Shiahs, who consider that Ali, his successor, the Fourth Imam (leader), was more important. It is with the Shiahs that we are concerned here.

    From the beginning of the split in the early days of Islam, the Shiahs relied for survival upon secrecy, organization and initiation. Although the minority party in Islam, they believed that they could overcome the majority (and eventually the whole world) by superior organization and power. To this end they started a number of societies which practised secret rites in which the personality of Ali was worshipped, and whose rank and file were trained to struggle above all for the accomplishment of world dominion.

    One of the most successful secret societies which the Shiahs founded was centred around the Abode of Learning in Cairo, which was the training-ground for fanatics who were conditioned by the most cunning methods to believe in a special divine mission. In order to do this, the original democratic Islamic ideas had to be overcome by skilled teachers, acting under the orders of the Caliph of the Fatimites, who ruled Egypt at that time.

    Members were enrolled, on the understanding that they were to receive hidden power and timeless wisdom which would enable them to become as important in life as some of the teachers. And the Caliph saw to it that the instructors were no ordinary men. The supreme judge was one of them; another was the commander-in-chief of the army; a third the minister of the Court. There was no lack of applicants. In any country where the highest officials of the realm formed a body of teachers, one would find the same thing.

    Classes were divided into study groups, some composed of men, others of women, collectively termed Assemblies of Wisdom. All lessons were carefully prepared, written down and submitted to the Caliph for his seal. At the end of the lecture all present kissed the seal: for did the Caliph not claim direct descent from Mohammed, through his son-in-law Ali and thence from Ismail, the seventh Imam? He was the embodiment of divinity, far more than any Tibetan lama ever was.

    The university, lavishly endowed and possessing the best manuscripts and scientific instruments available, received a grant of a quarter of a million gold pieces annually from the Caliph. Its external form was similar to the pattern of the ancient Arab universities, not much different from Oxford. But its real purpose was the complete transformation of the mind of the student.

    Students had to pass through nine degrees of initiation. In the first, the teachers threw their pupils into a state of doubt about all conventional ideas, religious and political. They used false analogy and every other device of argument to make the aspirant believe that what he had been taught by his previous mentors was prejudiced and capable of being challenged. The effect of this according to the Arab historian, Makrizi, was to cause him to lean upon the personality of the teachers, as the only possible source of the proper interpretation of facts. At the same time, the teachers hinted continually that formal knowledge was merely the cloak for hidden, inner and powerful truth, whose secret would be imparted when the youth was ready to receive it. This 'confusion technique' was carried out until the student reached the stage where he was prepared to swear a vow of blind allegiance to one or other of his teachers.

    This oath, together with certain secret signs, was administered in due course, and the candidate awarded the first degree of initiation. The second degree took the form of initiation into the fact that the Imams (successors of Mohammed) were the true and only sources of secret knowledge and power. Imams inspired the teachers. Therefore the student was to acknowledge every saying and act of his appointed guides as blessed and divinely inspired. In the third degree, the esoteric names of the Seven Imams were revealed, and the secret words by which they could be conjured and by which the powers inherent in the very repetition of their names could be liberated and used for the individual especially in the service of the sect.

    In the fourth degree, the succession of the Seven Mystical Law-givers and magical personalities was given to the learner. These were characterized as Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed and Ismail. There were seven mystical 'helpers': Seth, Shem, Ishmael, Aaron, Simon, Ali, and Mohammed, the son of Ismail. This last was dead, but he had a mysterious deputy, who was the Lord of the Time: authorized to give his instructions to the People of Truth, as the Ismails called themselves. This hidden figure gave the Caliph the power to pretend that he was acting under even higher instructions.

    The fifth degree named twelve apostles under the seven prophets, whose names and functions and magical powers were described. In this degree the power to influence others by means of personal concentration was supposed to be taught. One writer claims that this was done merely by the repetition, for a period of three years to train the mind, of the magical word AK-ZABT-I.

    To obtain the sixth degree involved instruction in the methods of analytical and destructive argument, in which the postulant had to pass a stiff examination. The seventh degree brought revelation of the Great Secret: that all humanity and all creation were one and every single thing was part of the whole, which included the creative and destructive power. But, as an Ismaili, the individual could make use of the power which was ready to be awakened within him, and overcome those who knew nothing of the immense potential of the rest of humanity. This power came through the aid of mysterious power called the Lord of the Time.

    To qualify for the eighth degree, the aspirant had to believe that all religion, philosophy and the like were fraudulent. All that mattered was the individual, who could attain fulfilment only through servitude to the greatest developed power - the Imam. The ninth and last degree brought the revelation of the secret that there was no such thing as belief: all that mattered was action. And the only possessor of the reasons for carrying out any action was the chief of the sect.

    As a secret society, the organization of the Ismailis as outlined above was undoubtedly powerful and seemed likely to produce a large number of devotees who would blindly obey the orders of whomever was in control of the edifice. But, as with other bodies of this kind, there were severe limitations from the point of view of effectiveness.

    Perhaps the phase of revolt or subversion planned by the society did not in the end get under way; perhaps it was not intended to work by any other means than training the individual. Be that as it may, its real success extended abroad only (in 1058) to Baghdad, where a member gained temporary control of Baghdad and coined money in the Egyptian Caliph's name. This sultan was slain by the Turks, who now entered the picture, and the Cairo headquarters was also threatened . By 1123, the society was closed down by the Vizier Afdal. The rise of Turkish power seemed to have discouraged the expansionist Cairo sect so strongly that they almost faded out, and little is heard of them after that date.

    It was left to Hasan, son of Sabah, the Old Man of the Mountains, to perfect the system of the ailing secret society, and found an organization which endured for nearly another thousand years.

    Who was Hasan? He was the son of a Shiah (Ali-worshipper) in Khorasam, a most bigoted man, who claimed that his ancestors were Arabs, from Kufa. This assumption was probably due to the fact that such a lineage bolstered up claims to religious importance, then as now, among Moslems. The people of the neighbourhood, many of them also Shiahs, stated very decisively that this Ali was a Persian, and so were his forebears. It is generally thought that this is the truer version. As the Governor of the Province was an orthodox Moslem, Ali spared no efforts to assume the same guise. This is considered to be completely permissible - the Doctrine of Intelligent Dissimulation. As there was some doubt as to his reliability in the religious sense, he retired into a monastic retreat, and sent his son Hasan to an orthodox school. This school was no ordinary one. It was the circle of disciples presided over by the redoubtable Imam Muwafiq, about whom it was said that every individual who enrolled under him eventually rose to great power.

    It was here that Hasan met Omar Khayyám, the tentmaker-poet and astronomer, later to be the poet laureate of Persia. Another of his schoolmates was Nizam-ul-Mulk, who rose from peasanthood to become prime minister. These three made a pact, according to Nizam's autobiography, where whichever rose to high office first would help the others.

    Nizam, the courtier, became Vizier to Alp-Arslan the Turkish sultan of Persia, in accordance with his vow, and secured him a pension, which gave him a life of ease and indulgence in his beloved Nishapur, where many of his Rubá'iát poems were written. Meanwhile Hasan remained in obscurity, wandering through the Middle East, waiting for his chance to attain the power of which he had dreamed. Arslan the Lion died, and was succeeded by Malik Shah. Suddenly, Hasan presented himself to Nizam, demanding to be given a place at court. Delighted to fulfil his childhood vow, the vizier obtained him a favoured place, and relates what transpired thus in his autobiography:

    "I had him made minister by my strong and extravagant recommendations. Like his father, however, he proved to be a fraud, hypocrite and a self-seeking villain. He was so clever at dissimulation that he appeared to be pious when he was not, and before long he had somehow completely captured the mind of the Shah."

    Malik Shah was young, and Hasan was trained in the Shiah art of winning people over by apparent honesty. But Nizam was still the most important man in the realm, with an impressive record of honest dealing and achievements. Hasan decided to eliminate him.

    The king had asked in that year, 1078, for a complete accounting of the revenue and expenditure of the empire, and Nizam told him that this would take over a year. Hasan, on the other hand, claimed that the whole work could be done in forty days, and offered to prove it. The task was assigned to him. And the accounts were prepared in the specified time. Something went wrong at this point. The balance of historical opinion holds that Nizam struck back at the last moment, saying "By Allah, this man will destroy us all unless he is rendered harmless, though I cannot kill my playmate." Whatever the truth may be, it seems that Nizam managed to have such disparities introduced into the final calligraphic version of the accounts that when Hasan started to read them they appeared so absurd that the Shah, in fury, ordered him to be exiled. As he had claimed to have written the accounts in his own hand, Hasan could not justify their incredible deficiencies.

    Hasan had friends in Isfahan, where he immediately fled. There survives a record of what he said there, which sheds interesting light upon what was in his mind. One of these friends. Abu-al-Fazal, notes that Hasan, after reciting the bitteer tale of his downfall, shouted these words, in a state of uncontrollable rage: "If I had two, just two, devotees who would stand by me, then I would cause the downfall of that Turk and that peasant."

    Fazal concluded that Hasan had taken leave of his senses, and tried to get him out of this ugly mood. Hasan took umbrage, and insisted that he was working on a plan, and that he would have his revenge. He set off for Egypt, there to mature his plans.

    Fazal was himself later to become a devotee of the Assassin chief, and Hasan, two decades later, reminded him of that day in Isfahan: "Here I am at Alamut, Master of all I survey: and more. The Sultan and the peasant Vizier are dead. Have I not kept my vow? Was I the madman you thought me to be? I found my two devotees, who were necessary to my plans."

    Hasan himself takes up the story of how his fortunes fared after the flight from Persia. He had been brought up in the secret doctrines of Ismailism, and recognized the possibilities of power inherent in such a system. He knew that in Cairo there was a powerful nucleus of the society. And, if we are to believe the words of Fazal, he already had a plan whereby he could turn their followers into disciplined, devoted fanatics, willing to die for a leader. What was this plan? He had decided that it was not enough to promise paradise, fulfilment, eternal joy to people. He would actually show it to them; show it in the form of an artificial paradise, where houris played and fountains gushed sweet-scented waters, where every sensual wish was granted amid beautiful flowers and gilded pavilions. And this is what he eventually did.

    Hasan chose a hidden valley for the site of his paradise, described by Marco Polo, who passed this way in 1271:

    "In a beautiful valley, enclosed between two lofty mountains, he had formed a luxurious garden stored with every delicious fruit and every fragrant shrub that could be procured. Palaces of various sizes and forms were erected in different parts of the grounds, ornamented with works of gold, with paintings and with furniture of rich silks. By means of small conduits contained in these buildings, streams of wine, milk, honey and some of pure water were seen to flow in every direction. The inhabitants of these places were elegant and beautiful damsels, accomplished in the arts of singing, playing upon all sorts of musical instruments, dancing, and especially those of dalliance and amorous allurement. Clothed in rich dresses, they were seen continually sporting and amusing themselves in the garden and pavilions, their female guardians being confined within doors and never allowed to appear. The object which the chief had in view in forming a garden of this fascinating kind was this: that Mahomet having promised to those who should obey his will the enjoyments of Paradise, where every species of sensual gratification should be found, in the society of beautiful nymphs, he was desirous of it being understood by his followers that he also was a prophet and a compeer of Mahomet, and had the power of admitting to Paradise such as he should choose to favour. In order that none without his licence should find their way into this delicious valley, he caused a strong and inexpungable castle to be erected at the opening to it, through which the entry was by a secret passage."

    Hasan began to attract young men from the surrounding countryside, between the ages of twelve and twenty: particularly those whom he marked out as possible material for the production of killers. Every day he held court, a reception at which he spoke of the delights of Paradise... "and at certain times he caused draughts of soporific nature to be administered to ten or a dozen youths, and when half dead with sleep he had them conveyed to the several palaces and apartments of the garden. Upon awakening from this state of lethargy their senses were struck by all the delightful objects, and each perceiving himself surrounded by lovely damsels, singing, playing, and attracting his regards by the most fascinating caresses, serving him also with delicious viands and exquisite wines, until, intoxicated with excess and enjoyment, amidst actual rivers of milk and wine, he believed himself assuredly in Paradise, and felt an unwillingness to relinquish its delights. When four or five days had thus been passed, they were thrown once more into a state of somnolency, and carried out of the garden. Upon being carried to his presence, and questioned by him as to where they had been, their answer was 'in Paradise, through the favour of your highness'; and then, before the whole court who listened to them with eager astonishment and curiosity, they gave a circumstantial account of the scenes to which they had been witnesses. The chief thereupon addressing them said: 'We have the assurance of our Prophet that he who defends his Lord shall inherit Paradise, and if you show yourselves to be devoted to the obedience of my orders, that happy lot awaits you'."

    Suicide was at first attempted by some; but the survivors were early told that only death in the obedience of Hasan's orders could give the Key to Paradise. In the eleventh century it was not only credulous Persian peasants who would have believed such things were true. Even among more sophisticated people the reality of the gardens and houris of paradise were completely accepted. True, a good many Sufis preached that the garden was allegorical - but that still left more than a few people who believed that they could trust the evidence of their senses.

    The ancient Art of Imposture, by Abdel-Rahman of Damascus, gives away another trick of Hasan's. He had a deep, narrow pit sunk into the floor of his audience-chamber. One of his disciples stood in this, in such a way that his head and neck alone were visible above the floor. Around the neck was placed a circular dish in two pieces which fitted together, with a hole in the middle. This gave the impression that there was a severed head on a metal plate standing on the floor. In order to make the scene more plausible (if that is the word) Hasan had some fresh blood poured around the head, on the plate.

    Now certain recruits were brought in. "Tell them," commanded the chief, "what thou hast seen." The disciple then described the delights of Paradise. "You have seen the head of a man who died, whom you al knew. I have reanimated him to speak with his own tongue."

    Later, the head was tracherously severed in real earnest, and stuck for some time somewhere that the faithful would see it. The effect of this conjuring trick plus murder increased the enthusiasm for martyrdom to the required degree.

    There are many documented instances of the recklessness of the fidayeen (devotees) of the Ismailis, one witness being a Westerner who was treated a century later to a similar spectacle to that which had appalled the envoy of Malik Shah. Henry, Count of Champagne, reports that he was travelling in 1194 through Ismaili territory. The chief sent some persons to salute him and beg that, on his return he would stop at and partake of the hospitality of the castle. The Count accepted the invitation. As he returned, the Dai-el-Kebir (Great Missionary) advanced to meet him, showed him every mark of honour, and let him view his castle and fortresses. Having passed through several, they came at length to one of the towers which rose to an exceeding height. On each tower stood two sentinels clad in white. 'These,' said the Chief, pointing to them, 'obey me far better than the subjects of our Christians obey their lords;' and at a given signal two of them flung themselves down, and were dashed to pieces. 'If you wish,' said he to the astonished Count, 'all my white ones shall do the same.' The benevolent Count shrank from the proposal, and candidly avowed that no Christian prince could presume to look for such obedience from his subjects. When he was departing, with many valuable presents, the Chief said to him meaningly, 'By means of these trusty servants I get rid of the enemies of our society.'

    Further details of the mentality of Hasan are given in what is supposed to be an autobiographical account of his early days: and it probably is in fact such, because the method of his conversion does seem to follow the pattern which has been observed in fanatics, of whatever religious or political persuasion.

    He was, he says, reared in the belief of the divine right of the Imams, by his father. He early met an Ismaili missionary (Emir Dhareb) with whom he argued strenuously against the Emir's particular form of creed. Then, some time later, he went through a bout of severe illness, in which he feared to die, and began to think that the Ismaili doctrine might really be the road to redemption and Paradise. If he died unconverted, he might be damned. Thus it was that as soon as he recovered he sought out another Ismaili propagandist, Abu Najam, and then others. Eventually he went to Egypt, to study the creed at its headquarters.

    He was received with honour by the Caliph, due to his former position at the Court of Malik Shah. in order to increase their own importance, the high officials of the Court made a good deal of public play of the significance of the new convert; but this fact seemed in the end to help Hasan more than it did them. He entered into political intrigue and was arrested, then confined in a fortress. No sooner had he entered the prison than a minaret collapsed, and in some unexplained way this was interpreted as an omen that Hasan was in reality a divinely protected person. The Caliph, hurriedly making Hasan a number of valuable gifts, had him put aboard a ship sailing for north-west Africa. This gave him the funds which he was to use for setting up his 'paradise' - and also, through some quirk of fate, the disciples whom he sought.

    A tremendous storm blew up, terrifying the captain, crew and passengers alike. Prayers were held, and Hasan was asked to join. He refused. "The storm is my doing; how can I pray that it abate?" he asked. "I have indicated the displeasure of the Almighty. If we sink, I shall not die, for I am immortal. If you want to be saved, believe in me, and I shall subdue the winds.'

    At first the offer was not accepted. Presently, however, when the ship seemed on the point of capsizing, the desperate passengers came to him and swore eternal allegiance. Hasan was still calm; and continued so until the storm abated. The ship was then driven on to the sea-coast of Syria, where Hasan disembarked, together with two of the merchant passengers, who became his first real disciples.

    Hasan was not yet ready for the fulfilment of his destiny as he saw it. For the time being, he was travelling under the guise of a missionary of the Caliph in Cairo. From Aleppo he went to Baghdad, seeking a headquarters where he should be safe from interference and where he yet could become powerful enough to expand. Into Persia the road led him, travelling through the country, making converts to his ideas, which were still apparently strongly based upon the secret doctrines of the Egyptian Ismailis. Everywhere he created a really devoted disciple (fidayi) he bade him stay and try to enlarge the circle of his followers. These circles became hatching-grounds for the production of 'self-sacrificers', the initiates who were drawn from the ranks of the most promising ordinary converts. Thus it was that miniature training centers, modelled upon the Abode of Learning, were in being within a very few months of his return to his homeland.

    During his travels, a trusted lieutenant - one Hussein Kahini - reported that the Iraki district where the fortress of Alamut was situated seemed to be an ideal place for proselytism. Most of the ordinary people of that place, in fact, had been persuaded into the Ismaili way of thinking. The only obstacle was the Governor - Ali Mahdi - who looked upon the Caliph of Baghdad as his spiritual and temporal lord. The first converts were expelled from the country. Before many months, however, there were so many Ismailis among the populace that the Governor was compelled to allow them to return. Hasan, though, he would not brook. The prospective owner of Alamut decided to try a trick. He offered the Governor three thousand pieces of gold for "the amount of land which could be encompassed by the hide of an ox". When Mahdi agreed to such a sale, Hasan produced a skin, cut it into the thinnest possible thongs, and joined them together to form a string which encompassed the castle of Alamut. Although the Governor refused to honour any such bargain, Hasan produced an order from a very highly placed official of the Seljuk rulers, ordering that the fortress be handed over to Hasan for three thousand gold pieces. It turned out that this official was himself a secret follower of the Sheikh of the Mountain.

    The year was A.D. 1090. Hasan was now ready for the next part of his plan. He attacked and routed the troops of the Emir who had been placed in the governorship of the Province, and welded the people of the surrounding districts into a firm band of diligent and trustworthy workers and soldiers, answerable to him alone. Within two years the Vizier Nizam-ul-Mulk had been stabbed to the heart by an assassin sent by Hasan, and the Emperor Malik Shah, who dared to send troops against him, died in grave suspicion of poison. Hasan's revenge upon his class-fellow was to make him the very first target of his reign of terror. With the king's death, the whole realm was split up into warring factions. For long the Assassins alone retained their cohesion. In under a decade they had made themselves masters of all Persian Irak, and of many forts throughout the empire. This they did by forays, direct attack, the poisoned dagger, and in any other manner which seemed expedient. The orthodox religious leaders pronounced one interdict after another against their doctrines; all to no effect.

    By now the entire loyalty of the Ismailis under him had been transferred from the Caliph to the personality of the Sheikh of the Mountain, who became the terror of every prince in that part of Asia, the Crusader chiefs included. "Despite and despising fatigues, dangers and tortures the Assassins joyfully gave their lives whenever it pleased the great master, who required them either to protect himself or to carry out his mandates of death. The victim having been pointed out, the faithful, clothed in a white tunic with a red sash, the colours of innocence and blood, went on their mission withouth being deterred by distance or danger. Having found the person they sought, they awaited the favourable moment for slaying him, and their daggers seldom missed their aim."

    Richard the Lionheart was at one time accused of having asked the 'Lord of the Mountain' to have Conrad of Montferrat killed; a plot which was carried out thus: "Two assassins allowed themselves to be baptized and placing themselves beside him, seemed intent only on praying. But the favourable opportunity presented itself; they stabbed him and one took refuge in the church. But hearing that the prince had been carried off still alive, he again forced himself into Montferrat's presence, and stabbed him a second time; and then expired, without a complaint, amidst refined tortures." The Order of the Assassins had perfected their method of securing the loyalty of human beings to an extent and on a scale which has seldom been paralleled.

    The Assassins carried on the battle on two fronts. They fought whichever side in the Crusades served their purposes. At the same time they continued the struggle against the Persians. The son and successor of Nizam-al-Mulk was laid low by an Assassin dagger. The Sultan, who had succeeded his father Malik Shah and gained power over most of his territories was marching against them. One morning, however, he awoke with an Assassin weapon stuck neatly into the ground near his head. Within it was a note, warning him to call off the proposed siege of Alamut. He came to terms with the Assassins, powerful ruler though he undoubtedly was. They had what amounted to a free hand, in exchange for a pact by which they promised to reduce their military power.

    Hasan lived for thirty-four years after his acquisition of Alamut. On only two occasions since then had he even left his room: yet he ruled an invisible empire as great and as fearsome as any man before - or since. He seemed to realize that death was almost upon him, and calmly began to make plans for the perpetual continuance of the Order of the Assassins.

    The Latter Days of the Assassins

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