The Latter Days of the Assassins

From A History of Secret Societies by Arkon Daraul (Citadel Press 1961/1989)

The ruler of one the most terrifying organizations the world has ever known was without a lineal successor. He had had both of his sons killed: one for carrying out an unauthorized murder, the other for drinking wine; certainly a case of "do as I say, not as I do". He called his two most trusted lieutenants from the strongholds which they maintained on his behalf: Kia Buzurg-Umid (Kia of Great Promise) and Abu-Ali of Qaswin. Kia was to inherit the spiritual and mystical aspect, while Abu-Ali attended to the military and administrative affairs of the Order. It is said that Hasan bin Sabah died almost immediately afterwards, in 1124, at ninety years of age; having given the world a new word; assassin. 'Assasseen' in Arabic signifies 'guardians', and some commentators have considered this to be the true origin of the word: 'guardians of the secrets".

The Organization of the Order, under Hasan, called for Missionaries (Dayes), Friends (Rafiq) who were disciples, and Fidavis, devotees. The last group had been added by Hasan to the Ismaili original, and these were the trained killers. Fidavis wore white, with a girdle, cap or boots of red. In addition to careful coaching in where and when to place the dagger in the victim's bosom, they were trained in such things as languages, the dress and manners of monks, merchants and soldiers, any of whom they were ready to impersonate in carrying out their missions. The chief was known as Sayedna (Our Prince, Leader), and popularly (because of the mountain stronghold of Alamut), as the Sheikh of the Mountain. This is the figure referred to in Crusaders' writings as 'Sydney', or 'Senex de Monte', the first word being a literal translation of the word 'Pir': Persian for Ancient, or Sage. There were three Great Missionaries, who ruled three territories. After the Friends and Fidavis came the Laziks, aspirants who were being trained for membership of the society, but were as yet uninitiated.

Hasan reduced the original number of degrees of initiation from nine to the mystical number of seven. A similar number of regulations formed the rules of the Order. This, in fact, comprised the working plan of the spreading of the Faith. The First Rule was the the Missionary must know human psychology in such a way as to be able to select suitable people for admission to the cult; and was summed up in the mnemonic: Cast no seeds upon rocks. The second rule of procedure was the application of flattery and gaining the confidence of the prospective member. Third came the casting of doubt into the mind, by superior knowledge. Fourthly, the teacher must apply an oath to student never to betray any of the 'truths' which were to be revealed to him. Now he was told, as the fifth stage, that Ismailism was a powerful secret organization, supported by some of the most important figures of the time. After this, the aspirant was questioned and studied, to discover whether he had absorbed the opinions of the teacher and attached himself sufficiently into a position of dependence upon his ideas. At this stage he was asked to meditate upon the meaning of the reported saying of the prophet that "Paradise lies in the shadow of swords". In the final degree, many difficult passages of the Koran were explained in terms of allegory.

How is it that the rules of this extraordinarily successful Order are known in such detail? It so happened that when the Mongols eventually overthrew Alamut by force of arms, their chief Halaku ('Destruction') Khan, asked his chief minister to examine their library. This most learned man, 'Father of Kings' Jawani, later wrote a careful book in which he detailed the organization of the Assassins, whose name he attributed to the use of the drug Hashish, which they were said to use in stupefying candidates for the ephemeral visit to 'paradise'.

It is possible that recruits were made in another way than by selecting gullible, fully grown youths. Legend has it that Hasan, once master of Alamut, used to buy unwanted childern from their parens, and train them in implicit obedience and with the sole desire to die in his service.

Buzurg-Umid ('Great Promise'), the second Grand Master, maintained the power of the Assassins on much the same pattern: building new forts, gaining fresh converts, terrorizing those whom he did not want to have killed and using them to further his designs of world conquest. Sultan Sanjar of Persia, in spite of several expeditions against the Viper's Nest, as Alamut was now being called, could do little about him. Ambassadors on each side were slain; a notable religious leader was captured by the Assassins, given a mock trial and flung into a furnace. The Grand Master at this time seldom put on the field more than two thousand men at a time: but it must be remembered that they were killers acting under an iron discipline, and more than a match for any organized army that they might ever have to face. Now the Order began to spread in Syria, where the continued contact with the Crusaders was established.

The warriors of the Cross were in fairly effective control of an area extending from the Egyptian border to Armenia in the north. Bahram, a Persian leader of the Assassin cult from Astrabad, gained control of a mighty fortress in Syria, in the region known as the Valley of Demons (Wadi-el-Jan), and from there spread from one fort to another. The Grand Prior Bahram now moved to an even more substantial fortified place, Massyat. Bahram's successor, Ismail the Lash-Bearer, planted a trained devotee on the saintly Vizier of Baghdad, into whose confidence he worked his way to such an extent that this Assassin, now called the 'Father of Trust', was actually made Grand Judge of Baghdad.

The Crusaders had by now been about thirty years in the Holy Land, and the Assassins decided that they could usefully form an alliance with them aimed against Baghdad. A secret treaty was therefore made between the Grand Master and Baldwin II, King of Jerusalem, whereby the Ismaili Grand Judge would have opened the gates of Baghdad treacherously to the Crusaders, if the fortified city of Tyre were handed over to the Assassins for their part in the transaction.

Something went wrong. The judge had ordered an underling to open the city's gates. This servant had told the military commander of Damascus, who lost no time in killing the man, the Vizier and six thousand people believed to be secret Assassins within the city. The Damascus garrison fell upon the Crusaders and beat them back in a thunderstorm which the Christian warriors attributed to divine anger at their unworthy pact, and the Assassins as an attempt by the powers of Nature to allow the Crusaders into the city under its cover.

Meanwhile the Grand Master was indulging in an orgy of destruction of individual rulers who opposed his creed; the list is interminable, but this is a fair example: "The celebrated Aksunkur, Prince of Mosul, was a warrior equally dreaded by the Christians and the Assassins. As this Prince, on his return from Ma'ara Masrin, where the Moslem and Christian hosts had parted without venturing to engage, entered the Mosque at Mosul to perform his devotions, he was attacked at the moment when he was about to take his usual seat by eight Assassins, disguised as dervishes. Three of them fell below the blows of the valiant Emir; but ere his people could come to his aid, he had received his death-wound and expired."

The fanaticism which inspired the killers was shared, it seems, by other members of their families, who had been thoroughly trained in the bloody creed: for the historian Kamal-ed-Din relates, "On this occasion when the mother of one of the youths who attempted Aksunkur's life heard that he had been slain, she painted her face and donned the gayest raiment and ornaments, rejoicing that her son had been found worthy to die the glorious death of a martyr in the cause of the Imam. But when she saw him return alive and unscathed, she cut off her hair and blackened her countenance, and would not be comforted."

Things thus continued for the fourteen years and a quarter of the Second Grand Master's rule. When he died he nominated his son Kia Mohammed as his successor. Under Mohammed the killings continued, a part of the sea-coast of Palestine came into Assassin hands, and the cult leaders reaffirmed their overt belief in orthodox Islam. In public, Ismailis were ordinary Moslems; the secret doctrine of the divinely guider leader was not to be discussed with the uninitiated.

But this most successful of secret societies soon showed that its strength ultimately depended upon a powerful leader: and Kia Mohammed was not such. Little by little it became obvious that his own son, Hasan the Hated, was the stronger personality. Now Hasan, through some magnetic power, was able to capture the imagination of the Assassins, soon having it believed that he himself was none other than the Power of All Powers, the Hidden Imam, who had been mentioned by the first Grand Master; an incarnation of all greatness. So important was he that he was the fountain of power, and others only held a measure of authority because he allowed them to have it.

This final absurdity was lapped up by members who had been conditioned to believe in things which were not, shall we say, exactly self-evident to the ordinary man. The doctrine of the all-powerful Invisible Imam was a part of Ismailism; and Hasan was ready even during his early manhood to assume the role. But, since his father was able to assert himself by having some two hundred and fifty of Hasan' followers murdered, he thought it wiser to hold his hand. In 1163 his chance came. Mohammed died, and Hasan II issued an order to all Ismailis to collect below the castle of Alamut.

Never before had such an assembly of killers, fanatics and dedicated perverters of the truth been seen. Hasan, probably in a state of megalomania, assured them that he had received a message from the Almighty that as from now, all the bond of religion were loosed: everyone might do as he liked. It was not necessary to keep up the pretences. And, furthermore, he, Hasan, was none other than the Hidden Imam. His word was law; and he was a form of the divintiy, not merely relaying instructions from above.

There was one further obstacle. According to Ismaili doctrine, the Hidden Imam was to be of the Family of Hashim, the blood of Mohammed the Prophet. Such descendants were known and revered: and it was common knowledge that Hasan II was not one of them. He overcame this difficulty by stating that he was not in fact the true son of Kia Mohammed the Persian, but an adopted child of the Caliphial family of Egypt. This pretence was carried on for four years, during which the crazed Hasan showed that he was not as mad as he might have been, by consolidating quite efficiently the power of the cult. Eventually, he was assassinated by his brother-in-law, Namwar ('The Famous'). Now the father-to-son succession seemed to be established. Mohammed II, son of Hasan II, began the cultivation of letters and sciences which was to distinguish successive Grand Masters of the Order. It was a conceit of his, in the time of the greatest flowering of Persian literature, that he was supreme among poets and philosophers. He used his assassins, too, to drive this point well home. The Imam Razi, one of the greatest thinkers of the time, refused to acknowledge the Assassins as the most advanced theologians: so Mohammed II sent an envoy to him, promising either a swift death by dagger or a pension of several thousand gold pieces a year. Suddenly the learned Imam's discourses seemed to lose their bite. One day, soon afterwards, he was asked why he did not attack the Assassins as of old. "Because," said the old man, with a nervous glance around the assembly where a murderer might lurk, "their arguments are so sharp, and pointed."

For thirty-five years Mohammed II ruled the Ismailis with a rod of iron; the only law was that of obedience to the Assassin will. The observances of ritual Islam were abolished. A new star had arisen: a power to stiffen resistance to Crusader penetration; Saladin, who was to become an implacable foe of the Assassins.

The Syrian branch of the cult grew in power, while the activities of the Eastern Assassins were carried out much more quietly, with missionaries being sent to India, Afghanistan, even the remote Pamir mountains which straddle China and Russia, where even today adherents of the sect are to be found. Saladin had overcome the other Ismaili branch and original home of Assassinism - Egypt - and restored the true faith to the people of the Nile. He now had enough booty for ten years' war against the Crusaders in Palestine, and troops to spare. His first task was to unify the forces of Islam; and this he determined to do by force if necessary. Sinan, Ancient of the Assassin cult in Syria, decided to oppose this terrible enemy of the Fatimites. Three assassins fell upon Saladin and nearly killed him. This made the sect a priority target for the Saracen chief. The Old Man of the Mountain, for his part, now unleashed a succession of fanatics, in every kind of disguise, upon Saladin. By 1176, Saladin decided that an end must be put to the cult. He invaded their territory and started to lay it waste, when the Assassin chief offered him freedom of action to fight the Crusaders, and no further attempt upon his life, if the cult were spared. These terms were agreed to, and henceforth no Assassin ever again attempted to molest Sultan Saladin.

This period introduces Sinan as yet another strange and terrible Assassin leader. He had decided that he was the incarnation of all power and deity, and that he would live the part. Sinan was never seen to eat or drink, sleep, or even to spit. Between sunrise and sunset he stood on a pinnacle of rock, dressed in a hair-shirt, and preached his own power and glory to delghted Assassins. Thus, at one and the same time, there were two chiefs of the Order, each busily telling his own followers that he, and he alone, was God. Hasan in Persia, Sinan in Syria, each commanded legions of devoted killers, all committed by oath to follow his path.

When Mohammed II died, he was succeeded by his son Jalaludin, who completely reversed the orders that the Assassins were to have no outward religious observances. He felt that he could do a great deal by adopting the cloak of orthodox piety, and sent ambassadors far and wide to announce his maintenance of the true faith. He went so far as to curse his predecessors publicly, in order to convince the incredulous that such a people as the Assassins could turn over a new leaf. As a result of what would today be called a long-term and comprehensive propaganda plan, he was acknowledged as a religious leader by half the orthodox monarchs of Islam, and (the first Assassin to be so styled) came to be termed Prince Jalaludin.

Jalaludin died in 1203, after twelve years of leadership of the cult, handing over to Alaeddin (Aladdin), a child of nine years of age. Weak, inefficient, stupid, Alaeddin made little mark upon history. It is said that his main activity was tending sheep, to which he was passionately attached, and he even had a small hut built in a sheepfold, where he spent most of his time. He was extraordinarily cruel, in spite of the contact with the sheep, and continued to terrorize in time-honoured fashion any person, great or small, who did not pay tribute or otherwise co-operate with the organization.

The Assassins' hands, ears and eyes were everywhere. Once fully initiated, a man might be sent to a place a thousand miles away, there to take up residence and live: waiting for the moment when orders came to him from Alamut to fulfil his fatal destiny. A story is told of the court of the Shah of Khwarism, thus: "The Ismaili ambassador spent some time with the Vizier. One day, after a splendid banquet when the wine which they had been drinking in violation of the law had mounted into their heads, the ambassador told the Vizier by way of confidence that there were several Ismailis among the pages, grooms, guards and other persons who were immediately about the Sultan. The Vizier, dismayed and at the same time curious to know who these dangerous attendants were, besought the ambassador to point them out to him, giving him his napkin as a pledge that nothing evil should happen to them. Instantly, at a sign from the envoy, five of the persons who were attendants in the chamber stepped forth, avowing themselves to be concealed Assassins, 'On such a day and at such an hour,' said one of them, an Indian, to the Vizier, 'I might have slain thee without being seen or punished; and if I did not do so it was only because I had no orders from my superiors.' "

The Vizier begged for his life. But word got the Sultan, who ordered the Assassins to be apprehended and burned alive, and "the five chamberlains were cast on the falming pyre, where they died exulting at being found worthy to suffer in the service of the great Sheikh of the Mountain." The Assassins had the last laugh, for an order arrived immediately afterwards from Alamut, that the Shah must pay ten thousand pieces of gold as compensation for each man killed - which he did.

Another subsidiary activity which the Assassins delighted in was holding captive in Alamut of useful, rare and distinguished personages who could be of value to them in educational, military or other spheres. One was a physician, another a famous astronomer, a third the greatest painter in Persia, who worked to the order of the chief alone.

The end of chapter was near, for the Mongol hordes under Halaku, lieutenant of Chinghiz, were steadily destroying all the civilization of Islam which lay in their inexorable path westwards. Rukneddin, son of Alaeddin, succeeded him and tried at first to turn the Mongol tide. After a series of encounters, pitched battles, intrigues and counter-intrigues, Rukneddin was taken. He played for time as long as he could, but was eventually murdered in his own turn by the victorious Mongol chief's men. Assassin power in Persia was broken, and what remained of the members were ordered - none knows by whom - to conceal their faith and await a signal that the cult was in full operation again. Alamut was silenced, and the Syrian headquarters alone remained.

It was a long time until the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt was able to overcome the Mongol thrust. In 1260, however, he carried the banners of Islam victoriously against them, and restored the fortress of Alamut and other properties to the Assassins, who were strongly surviving underground. They soon found that they had exchanged one master for another, for the Egyptians were now employing them for their own purposes. Ibn Batuta, the great traveller of the fourteeth century, found them well entrenched in their former strong places, being used as the "arrows of the Sultan of Egypt with which he reaches his enemies."

The supposed suppression of the creed which followed the Mongol destruction did not in fact take place. Copying each other, historians have asserted that Assassinism died six hundred years ago. Now and again, however, fresh facts of their continued existence still come to light. In the eighteenth century an Englishman, the British Consul at Aleppo in Syria, was at pains to make this better known: "Some authors assert," he wirtes, "that these people were entirely extirpated in the thirteenth century by the Tartars... but I, who have lived so long in this infernal place, will venture to affirm that some of their spawn still exists in the mountains that surround us; for nothing is so cruel, barbarous and execrable that is not acted, and even gloried in, by these cursed Gourdins."

The Assassins were widely dispersed throughout Asia. The rise of the Thugs, the secret society of assassination of India, followed the Mongol invasion of Persia. indeed, at least one of the Thug recognition-signals (Ali bhai Salam!) indicates salutations to Ali, the descendant of the Prophet most greatly revered by the Assassins. Ismailis, not all of them recognizing the one chief, reside in places as far apart as Malaya, East Africa and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). They would not necessarily feel that they are Assassins in the same sense as the extremists who followed the old Sheikhs of the Mountains; but at least some of them revere the descendants of the Lords of Alamut to the extent of deification.

The modern phase of Ismailism dates from 1810, when the French consul at Aleppo found that the Assassins in Persia recognized as their divinely-inspired chief a reputed descendant of the Fourth Grand Master of Alamut, who then lived at Kehk, a small village between Isfahan and Tehran. This Shah Khalilullah "was revered almost like a god and credited with the power of working miracles... the followers of Khalilullah would, when he pared his nails, fight for the clippings; the water in which he washed became holy water."

The sect next appear to the public gaze through an odd happening. In 1866, a law case was decided in Bombay. There is in that city a large community of commercial men known as Khojas: "A Persian," the record tells us, "Aga Khan Mehalati (i.e., a native of Mehelat, a place situated near Khek) had sent an agent to Bombay to claim from the Khojas the annual tribute due from them to him, and amounting to about £ 10,000. The claim was resisted, and the British court was appealed to by Aga Khan. Sir Joseph Arnold investigated his claim. The Aga proves his pedigree, showing that he descended in a direct line from the fourth Grand Master of Alamut, and Sir Joseph declared it proved; and it was further demonstrated by the trial that the Khojas were members of the ancient sect of the Assassins, to which sect they had been converted four hundred years before by an Ishmaelite missionary, who composed a work which has remained the sacred book of the Khojas."

In the First Afghan War, the then Aga Khan contributed a force of light cavalry to the British forces. For this he was awarded a pension. Hitti, in his History of the Arabs, notes (p. 448, 1951 edition) that the Assassin sect, known as Khojas and Malwas, gave over a tenth of their revenues to the Aga Khan, who "spends most of his time as a sportsman between Paris and London."

The influence of the new form of organization and training, as well as initiatory techniques, of the Assassins upon later societies has been remarked by a number of students. That the Crusaders knew a good deal about the Ismailis is shown from the detailed descriptions of them which survive. S. Ameer Ali, an Orientalist of considerable repute, goes further in his assessment: "From the Ismailis the Crusaders borrowed the conception which led to the formation of all the secret societies, religious and secular, of Europe. The institutions of Templars and Hospitallers; the Society of Jesus, founded by Ignatius Loyola, composed by a body of men whose devotion to their cause can hardly be surpassed in our time; the ferocious Dominicans, the milder Franciscans - may all be traced either to Cairo or to Alamut. The Knights Templar especially, with their system of grand masters, grand priors and religious devotees, and their degrees of initiation, bear the strongest analogy to the Eastern Ismailis."