The Assassins 1090-1270

By Jim Brown

The Assassins of Persia and Syria

At the height of their power the Assassins were most likely the fiercest of the Muslim sects. They were divided into two branches: the original Persian and the Syrian.  Both leaders were called the ‘Old Man of the Mountains’ although the Persian remained the senior branch.

Hasan-i Sabbah 

With the death of Muhammad no heir had been designated and Abu Bakr succeeded him.  Others thought Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet had a stronger claim.  This group was called Shiatu’Ali, and then Shia.  Later what was a political party became a religion.  In 765 AD with the death of  the Shia leader, Jafar al-Sadiq, his son Ismail was disinherited.  Ismail’s  followers became known as Ismaili.  Hasan-I Sabbah was an Ismaili.

The founder, and first leader of the Naziri sect, was born around 1048 in the city of Qumm.  When a child he moved to Rayy (modern Tehran) where he pursued a life of learning and religion.  About 1076 he was accused of being a dangerous agitator and moved to Cairo where he soon found himself embroiled in a power struggle as a supporter of Nizar, the Caliphs son, and was forced to leave. He travelled around Persia finally ending up in the Provinces of Gilan and Mazandaran: the lands of the Daylami. The Daylami were a notoriously hardy and warlike peoples. They embraced his teachings and formed the basis for the sect that became known in the West as the Assassins (also Hashshashin, Hashishin, Hashashun, Hashashiyyin, etc).  

Persia

In 1090 the Assassins seized, by surprise, the impregnable fortress of Alamut (Eagle's Nest), built around 860.  (Alamut was situated in a practically inaccessible region of the Elbruz Mountains south of the Caspian Sea.) Further raids captured more fortresses, with the sect also building others over the next few years, this allowed them to not only extended their control over towns and cities in the area but to extend the area under their control. As their power and influence grew, the Sunni Sultan of Seljuq Persia, Malik Shah, sent troops to storm Alamut. This attempt failed but the Assassins were to suffer continual sporadic attacks, including one that resulted in a war of attrition lasting 8 years . 

Following their first successes, fortresses, towns and cities were seized in the Province of Quhistan.  (In a mountainous area south east of their original base.)  Further fortresses were captured in another mountainous area (on the Persian Gulf) in the Provinces of Khuzistan and Fars in about 1092.  In 1105 an army was sent against these Provinces and the sect’s fortresses were overrun.

From about 1118 the two Assassin principalities in Persia were  independent States participating in alliances with their neighbours. Over the following years many forces were sent against them, both large and small, but  all proved futile. In 1227 the Khurasiani , under Jalal al-Din, forced them to pay tribute.

Some time before 1256 the Mongols attacked Quhistan Province but the invaders were eventually driven out.  In Persia the sect was all but destroyed by the invading Mongols under Hulagu Khan, who took the fortress of Alamut in 1256. Widespread massacre of the sect’s members followed,, but some fortresses held out until 1270. Alamut was restored under the Safavids who used it as a prison until the 18th century when it was abandoned.

Syria

A short time after their Persian successes missionaries were sent westwards into Syria.  In the area of Aleppo they won many converts because they were supported and encouraged by the Seljug Emir of Aleppo, Ridwan ibn-Tutush until his death in 1113. From Aleppo the sect spread southwards into the area of Jabal as-Summaq. In 1132 they managed to obtain the fortress of al-Quadmus and in 1141 the stronghold of Masyaf.  This last functioned as the capital of a Nizari emirate in Syria.  Over the next few years many other fortresses and towns fell into the Assassins’ hands as they advanced into the Jabal al-Bahra (Ansariyya) a mountainous area to the south.

By 1148 the Assassins were allied to Raymond of Antioch. (They also, at times, had alliances with both the Knights Templars and Hospitallers until this was forbidden under a Papal Bull of 1236). Around 1151 the Knights Templar raided their territory and compelled them to pay a tribute. An invasion by the Knights Hospitallers in 1227also forced them to pay tribute.

In 1175 10,000 horsemen of an anti-Shiite religious order, the Nubuwiyya, attacked in the Jabal al Summaq area killing and capturing 13,000. They attacked once again in 1176 and the Assassins evacuated the region. This was followed in 1176-7 by an attack from the ruler of Aleppo  into the Jabal al Bahra area.  This attack was met by the joint forces of Persia and Syria and was forced to withdrawal.

In 1260 the Mongols captured Musyaf but later in the September of that year, allied with the Mamelukes, the Assassins drove the invaders out of  Syria and reclaimed the fortress. However, the alliance with the Mamelukes was not to last.  In February 1270 Mamluk Sultan Baybars (Baibars) captured Musyaf. All the remaining fortressed were captured by 1273. (In 1830 an Ottoman expedition under Ibrahim Pasha resulted in considerable damage to the fortress of  Musyaf. Restoration began in 2000 funded by the Aga Khan Trust.)

Fidai and Assassins

The Fidai were the 'shock' troops of the sect and were the actual ‘assassins’ . The word derives from fida meaning to sacrifice i.e. give away their lives and everything for faith. There is controversy over where the word assassin comes from with some claiming it to be derived from the word Hasaneen meaning followers of Hasan with others claiming that the word actually is from hashish and means addict of the intoxicating herb hashish.

Assassinations

Few assassinations were attempted in the early years of the sect. Assassination became a religious weapon and the sect not only trained assassins but also employed a network of secret agents in the camps and cities of their enemies. These enemies were legion. Foremost among them are the Seljuk Turks and the Caliphs of Baghdad.   Among the many who were assassinated were two Caliphs and at least one prominent crusader. The assassins also made two attempts on the life of Salah ah-Din.

Possible army sizes

Attributed by Hakim Bey to Hasan-i Sabbah, about 1092:  'I have seventy thousand men and women throughout Asia, each one of them ready to do my bidding'.

Some Assassins were in the army of Raymond of Antioch at the Battle of Murat (Mons Muratus) in 1149. This army was only about 5,000 strong.  By the 1160’s William of Tyre estimated their numbers in Syria to be in the region of 60,000. Some sources say that the Assassins supplied some of the forces for the army of  Salah ah-Din that won the Battle of the Horns of Hattin in 1187.

Jean de Joinville writing about the Assassins troops of the 1250’s states that they had 3,000 axe-armed Daylamites as a sort of elite troop or bodyguard. Burchard (Brocard or Bocard) of Mount Sion, who wrote in in the 1283, said that the Syrian Assassins numbered 40,000.

The Ismaili today

With the loss of all their fortresses in both Persia and Syria the remaining sect members scattered throughout northern Syria, Persia, Afghanistan, and the Himalayas.  In the eleventh century missionaries were sent to India spreading the word in the province of Gujerat, where they are known as the Bohras.  Another major branch are known as the Khojas, or Mowlas, and are strong in what once the Punjab, now part of Pakistan.

The Nizari claim to be the largest branch of the Ismaili making up two thirds of the sect. The Ismaili themselves make up the second largest denomination of Shia. The Shia represent the second largest movement in Islam. The Aga Khan, Shah Karim al Husseni, is recognized as the forty-ninth hereditary Imam by the vast majority of the worldwide Ismaili.