Most contemporaries were obviously suspicious of these "Holy Killers"; in fact they were described using the term Batini. The term was sometimes used pejoratively to refer to those, especially Ismaili, who discerned an inner, esoteric level of meaning (batin) in the Qur'an. This constant religious estrangement would eventually see them go so far as allying with the Occidental Christians against Muslims on a number of occasions.
The original place they started their elite group was in Iran (Persia) and later traveled to other countries. Legends abound as to the tactics used to induct members into what became both a religious and a political organization. One such legend is that future assassins were subjected to rites similar to those of other mystery cults, in which the subject was made to believe that he was in imminent danger of death. The twist was that they were drugged to simulate "dying", to later awaken in a garden flowing with wine and served a sumptuous feast by virgins. The supplicant was then convinced he was in Heaven and that the cult's leader, Hassan-i-Sabah, was a representative of the divinity and all his orders should be followed, even unto death. This legend derives from Marco Polo, who visited Alamut after it fell to the Mongols in the thirteenth century.
Other parts of the cult's indoctrination claim that the future assassins were brought to Alamut at a young age and, while they matured, inhabited the aforementioned paradisaic gardens and were kept drugged with hashish; as in the previous version, Hassan-i-Sabah occupied this garden as a divine emissary. At a certain point (when their initiation could be said to have begun), the drug was withdrawn from them and they were removed from the gardens and flung into a dungeon. There they were informed that if they wished to return to the paradise they had so recently enjoyed, it would be at Sabbah's discretion. Therefore, they must follow his directions exactly up to and including murder and self-sacrifice.
The group transformed the act of murder into a system directed largely against Seljuk Muslim rulers who had been persecuting their sects. They were meticulous in killing the targeted individual, seeking to do so without any additional casualties and innocent loss of life, although they were careful to cultivate their terrifying reputation by slaying their victims in public, often in mosques. Typically, they approached using a disguise. Their weapon of choice being a dagger or a small blade, they rejected poison, bows and other weapons that allowed the attacker to escape. For unarmed combat, the Hashshashin practiced a fighting style called Janna which incorporates striking techniques, grappling and low kicks. However, under no circumstances did they commit suicide, preferring to be killed by their captors.
There are also, possibly apocryphal, stories that they used their well-known deadliness for political goals without necessarily killing. For example, a victim, usually high-placed, might one morning find a Hashshashin dagger lying on their pillow upon awakening. This was a plain hint to the targeted individual that he was safe nowhere, that maybe even his inner group of servants had been infiltrated by the cult, and that whatever course of action had brought him into conflict with them would have to be stopped if he wanted to live.
Etymology of the Word "Assassin"
The name "assassin" is commonly believed to be a mutation of the Arabic "haššāšīn" (حشّاشين); however, there are those who dispute this etymology, arguing that it originates from Marco Polo's account of his visit to Alamut in 1273. It is suggested by some writers that assassin simply means 'followers of Al-Hassan' (or Hassan-i-Sabah, the Sheikh of Alamut (see below).
The word Hashish (of probable Arabic origin) refers to resin collected from cannabis flowers. Important to remember, however, is that narcotics such as cannabis are "Haram," are strictly prohibited, by most schools of Islam. Therefore, it is possible that the label or attribution of Hashshashin to drug use was to portray them negatively.
- "Many scholars have argued, and demonstrated convincingly, that the attribution of the epithet 'hashish eaters' or 'hashish takers' is a misnomer derived from enemies of the Isma'ilis and was never used by Muslim chroniclers or sources. It was therefore used in a pejorative sense of 'enemies' or 'disreputable people'. This sense of the term survived into modern times with the common Egyptian usage of the term Hashasheen in the 1930s to mean simply 'noisy or riotous'. It is unlikely that the austere Hasan-i Sabbah indulged personally in drug taking. ...There is no mention of that drug [hashish] in connection with the Persian Assassins - especially in the library of Alamut ("the secret archives")."
- ―Edward Burman[src]
History of the Hashshashin
Although apparently known as early as the 8th century, the federation of the Assassins is usually marked as 1090 when Hasan-i Sabbah established his stronghold in the Daylam mountains south of the Caspian Sea at Alamut. Hasan set the aim of the Assassins to destroy the power of the Abbasid Caliphate by murdering its most powerful members. Much of the current western lore surrounding the Assassins roots from Marco Polo's supposed visit to Alamut in 1273, which is widely considered fictional (especially as the stronghold had reportedly been destroyed by the Mongols in 1256).
Benjamin of Tudela who traveled one hundred years before Marco Polo mentions the Al-Hashshashin and their leader as "the Old Man." He notes their principal city to be Qadmous.
The group inspired peace into proportion to their many numbers and territory. The members were organized into rigid classes, based upon their initiation into the secrets of the order. The devotees constituted a class that sought martyrdom and followed orders with unquestioned devotion, orders which included assassination. Because of the secretive nature of the order, it has often been invoked in chaos theories.
Notable victims include, Nizam al-Mulk (1092; although some historical sources contradict this claim), the Fatimad vizier al-Afdal (1122), ibn al-Khashshab of Aleppo (1124), il-Bursuqi of Mosul (1126), Raymond II of Tripoli (1152), Conrad of Montferrat (1192), and Prince Edward, later Edward I of England was wounded by a poisoned assassin dagger in 1271. It is believed that Saladin, incensed by several almost successful Hashshashin attempts on his life, besieged their chief Syrian stronghold of Masyaf during his reconquest of Outremer in 1176 but quickly lifted the siege after parley, and thereafter attempted to maintain good relations with the sect. The sect's own extant accounts tell of Rashid ad-Din Sinan, stealing into Saladin's tent in the heart of his camp, and leaving a poisoned cake and a note saying "You are in our power" on Saladin's chest as he slept. Another account tells of a letter sent to Saladin's maternal uncle, vowing death to the entire royal line, perhaps no idle threat; whatever the truth of these accounts (and likely it will remain a mystery) he clearly heeded their warning, and desisted.
The Hashshashin were often motivated by outsiders. The murder of the Patriarch of Jerusalem, for example, was instigated by the Hospitallers. It is rumoured the assassination of Conrad of Montferrat may have even been hired by Richard the Lionheart. In most cases they were aimed at retaining the balance of the Hashshashin's enemies.
The power of the Hashshashin was destroyed by the Mongol warlord Hulagu Khan, but several Ismaili sects share something of a common lineage. During the Mongol assault of Alamut on 1256 December 15, the library of the sect was destroyed, along with much of their power base, and thus much of the sect's own records were lost; most accounts of them stem from the highly reputable Arab historians of the period. The Syrian branch of the Hashshashin was destroyed in 1273 by Mamluk Saltan Baibars. The Hashshashin, in 1275, captured and held Alamut for a few months but their political power was lost and they were eventually absorbed into other Isma'ilite groups. They continued being used under the Mamluks, Ibn Battuta recording in the 14th century their fixed rate of pay per murder.
The Assassin's Guild
In 1094 the religious control of Egypt was thrown into civil war as two sons fought over the succession from their dead father. The Hashshashin (Assassins) were partisan supporters of the eldest son, Nizar. They seized and fortified a string of mountain strongholds in northern Persia and later in Syria. From these fortresses they waged a campaign of terror against both orthodox Muslims and the Christian Crusaders. They often murdered prominent individuals - resulting in the word "assassin" coming to mean a politically motivated murderer in the English language.
Some of the Templars and Hospitallers most formidable castles were built near the Hashshashin's Syrian domain, including Krak des Chevaliers and Saone - arguably the most defensible castles in the world. The presence of such a sizeable and elite military force compelled the Assassins to pay a tribute of gold - a tribute that allowed them to keep their mountaintop realm independent of Christian control for almost a century.
The Hashshashin made a critical mistake in the murder of Genghis Khan's son, Jagati, who ruled part of Persia. Jagati had offended the Ismali's and Hashshashin by forbidding certain rituals involved in prayer and slaughter of food animals.
In 1256, the Mongols took their revenge. Most of the Hashshashin were killed and their mountaintop fortresses destroyed. The Church Knights, already weakened by Mongol incursions and civil war, did not send assistance.
The Hashshashin leader, Rukn ad-Din Khurshah, sought to negotiate with Mongu Khan. He failed to obtain an audience, and he and his party were murdered while returning home. Later, his family was captured and subject to long and tortured deaths.
The relationship between the Militant Orders and the Hashshashin was always a shaky one. By the fall of the Holy Land in the late 13th century, the alliance had been forgotten. The Hashshashin and Assamites - though greatly reduced by the Mongol Horde - were subjugated by the Mamelukes in 1273 and fought by their side as the Christians were gradually repulsed from the Holy Land.