During the Middle Ages the Hashshashin, whose name is the root for the English word assassin, was a fearsome branch of the Ismaeli Muslims.
The order was originally founded in Persia and Syria in the eleventh century by Hassan-i Sabbah. The Hashshashin were given their name by their enemies for their suspected use of hashish, as Hashshashin may mean hashish smokers.
History of the Hashshashin
While they were first known of as early as the eighth century, the Hashshashin were formally founded in 1090 when Hassan-i Sabbah created a fortress at Alamut in the Daylam mountains. The initial aim of the Hashshashin, who called themselves al-da’wa al-jadida, which means new doctrine, was to destroy the Abbasid Caliphate by assassinating its most powerful members. Within their ranks they were organized into classes depending on their initiation into the secrets of their order. With the invasion of Christian Crusaders, they killed many Christians as well. However, most of their victims weren’t necessarily the most pressing enemies of their order, they were often influenced by others. Mostly, the Old Man or later the Old Man of the Mountain as their leader was known, would send orders to balance out the power of the Hashshashin’s enemies. Some of their most notable victims include Abbasid vizier Nizam al-Mulk, Fatimid vizier al-Afdal Shahanshah, Ibn al-Khashshab of Aleppo, al-Bursuqi of Mosul, Count Raymond II of Tripoli, Conrad de Montferrat (it is suspected the Richard the Lionheart paid for Conrad’s assassination), Albert Avogadro the Patriarch of Jerusalem, and Prince Edward (who would go on to become Edward I of England) was wounded by a poisoned Hashshashin dagger.
The Hashshashin reached the height of their power in the late twelfth century under the first Old Man of the Mountain, Rashid al-Din Sinan. It was during this time that Europeans, especially the Crusaders, became more and more interested in the stories of the mysterious Old Man in the Mountain and his followers, the deadly Assassins.
Tactics Used by the Hashshashin
Because of their lack of numbers and political support they were unable to assemble a conventional army, so they instead trained a smaller group of highly trained sleeper commandos called Fedayeen. The Fedayeen were taught different languages, science, trade, philosophy, etc. so that they were able to infiltrate the ranks of their enemies. They didn’t always kill their intended target though, intimidation was often enough to make their enemy think twice. They often left daggers on the pillow of their target as they slept as a clear sign that they weren’t safe anywhere.
When facing the Seljuk Turks, the Fedayeen would publicly execute a targeted individual with a dagger and then escape without any additional casualties. Not even the Sultan Saladin was safe from several near successful attempts on his life. However, when he lifted the siege of Masyaf, he tried to maintain good relations with the Hashshashin.
The order were also some of the first people in the world to use a mirror’s reflection to communicate during the day. At night they used fire signals in very much the same way.
Legend of the Hashshashin
The most predominant legend of the Hashshashin is centered around their use of hashish. Their enemies believed that they would murder their victims while they were high on hashish or opium. Marco Polo, who visited Alamut in 1273 (seventeen years after the stronghold was destroyed by the Mongols) wrote that hashish was used in an initiation ritual. He claims that they were drugged to simulate death and then awoke in a garden where they were served a magnificent feast by beautiful virgins. Believing that they were in Heaven and therefore that their leader was Devine, they would willingly follow all his orders, even to the death. However there is no evidence that any of this is true, in fact Hassan-i Sabbah was known to be particularly harsh to anyone who used intoxicants because he felt they undermined the discipline that his people needed to survive. He even executed one of his own sons for drinking alcohol. Alternately the name Hashshashin could come from their respect for their founder, as it could mean the followers of Hassan.
The Downfall of the Hashshashin
With the invasion of Khwarizm, the Mongol Empire wiped out the Hashshashin. Fedayeen were probably dispatched to kill Mongke Khan, but commander Kitbuga retaliated by attacking several Hashshashin strongholds in 1253. On December 15, 1256, the Mongols besieged Alamut. The assassins were able to recapture Alamut in 1275, but they could only hold it for a few months before they were crushed and lost all their political power.
The Syrian branch of the Hashshashin was conquered by the Mamluk Sultan, Baibars I, who continued to use the services of the small amount of Hashshashin that remained. To survive they had to resort to Tagg’iya (concealing their faith under threat) until they were called upon by their Imam. Today they have been survived by the Shia Imami Isma’ili Muslims who are currently led by the Aga Khan IV.