The Hashashins, or the Order of Assassins, is one of the most strikingly efficient groups of killers in history. Here are the dark origins of the Order that inspired 'Assassin's Creed'.
We all know what "assassin" means, but few people are aware of the dark and fascinating history behind the word. But the influence of the original Assassins is hard to ignore, especially after the massively successful video game franchise, Assassin's Creed, brought the Order to the mainstream spotlight. Here's the story of the Hashashins, and the dark origins of one of the most terrifying and successful killing organizations of all time.
After the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632 AD, the Muslim world was divided. Two main lines of the religion sprung up, and Islam split between Sunnis and Shiites. The latter had a more constrained and exclusive view of who should become a leader among the religious, or an "imam." They thought only certain descendants of Ali, the Prophet's cousin, could take on such a mantle. The Sunnis, on the other hand, believed that any man could become an imam if they studied the sacred texts diligently; they also accepted the legitimacy of Caliphs regardless of whether they descended from Ali or not. As things stood, the Sunnis had superior numbers compared to the Shiites.
Being particularly prone to disagreement over who the chosen one was among Ali's descendants, the Shiites became increasingly divided with the passing years. By the 8th century, a relatively small—but influential—group of Shiites arose who believed that the seventh person in line for succession, Ismail bin Jafar, should fulfill the role of imam. This minor group came to be called the "Seveners," more officially known as Ismaili Shiites.
The Seveners were the predecessors of the Assassins. Most Shiites and practically all Sunnis considered them heretical, so they were forced to hide and disperse throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa and thrown into secrecy. They became something akin to a cult, and in their devotion to their faith, they felt a righteous calling to convert others and bring them into their ranks. For this purpose, they made use of secret missionaries, known as da'is.
In spite of their seemingly small numbers and the clandestine nature of their sect, the Seveners were enormously powerful. In the 10th century, they managed to overthrow the Sunni rulers in many regions along the Mediterranean, and little by little took cities in Northern Africa. Soon enough, they founded the mighty Fatimid Caliphate, which subsequently expanded to rule most of the Muslim world.
And from the depths of the Fatimid Caliphate, a dark, zealous order was born in 1090, meant to put fear into political and religious enemies, to keep hiding in the dark and strike from the shadows: the Hashashins, or the Order of Assassins.
Hassan-I Sabbah, the First Grand Master
The Order was founded by Hassan-i Sabbah deep in the heart of enemy territory in Persia and Syria. The Assassins, also known as the Nizari Ismailis, were born right as Hassan established the Nizari Ismaili state after he took control of Alamut Castle, an almost impregnable fortress in the Alamut region of the South Caspian province in what is now Iran. Incredibly enough, Hassan managed to take the place without bloodshed by converting the surrounding settlements and the garrison within to his side. This castle served as the strategic stronghold and official headquarters for the Assassins until 1256.
Hassan is remembered as a brilliant strategist and mathematician, a highly charismatic leader, a dedicated religious scholar, and a devious mastermind behind some of the era's most terrifying acts. He was born in the first half of the 11th century, and passionately studied Islam, geometry, philosophy, and astronomy. He was introduced to Ismailism by a man called Amira Zarrab, who eventually became his mentor.
After Hassan almost died from a severe illness some years later, he vowed to learn and spread "the truth" as much as he could possibly managed. As a devout Sevener, his whole life was thereafter dedicated to spreading the faith, becoming a da'i before traveling to Alamut. There, he would seek to strike against the dominating Seljuk Empire, a Sunni state that represented everything he opposed within Islam, and against the incoming Crusader kings of Catholicism.
Hassan thus became the first and most prominent Grand Master of the order, calling his disciples Asāsiyyūn, meaning "people who are faithful to the foundation of the faith." Though every member of the sect became known as an "Assassin," only a select group of acolytes, known as fida'i, engaged in actual conflict. The Nizari state lacked its own army, so they relied on these exclusive and highly trained warriors to spy and kill key enemy figures; and throughout their 300 years of existence, the Assassins managed to take out many Crusader leaders, sultans, viziers, and even two Caliphs.
The so-called Lord of the Mountain spent the rest of his life as leader of the Assassins, though he remained within his imposing fortress studying, praying, and directing the actions of his followers with incredibly efficiency. He would go on to acquire 20 more castles throughout Iran and Syria, spread far and wide across the very core of the Seljuk Empire. Under his rule, the Nizari State grew from an isolated force into a dominating power on par with their sworn enemies. His small order rivaled the greatest armies in efficiency and were far more successful in terrorizing those who would oppose them. That was their mark; their calling; their purpose.
The Order of Assassins lasted well into the 13th century, when they were caught off-guard by the overwhelming Mongol invasion. After the Mongol Empire besieged and took Alamut on December 15, 1256, the Assassins were thrown into disarray. They managed to retake the fortress briefly in 1275, but were crushed soon after. They lost all their political power then.
The Syrian branch of the Order continued to offer services, but were reduced to a kind of mercenary force throughout the 14th century. Though they would never recover, the Assassins left a lasting mark that haunts us to this day. Their incredibly effective methods and systematic elimination of opposing individuals created an ever-lasting legend whose details remain shrouded in mystery. They've inspired hundreds of fictional accounts and works of art, from paintings to video-games, including the Assassin's Creed series.
A fear never forgotten
Ever since their fall, the word "assassin" has been the standard term to refer to highly-effective killers whose targets are usually high-profile figures. There's hardly a more fitting legacy for the Order than that.
"When the Christian Crusaders in the East fell upon that invincible order of Assassins, the order of free spirits par excellence, the lowest rank of whom lived a life of obedience the like of which no monastic order has ever achieved, somehow or other they received an inkling of that symbol and watchword that was reserved for the highest ranks alone as their secretum: ‘nothing is true, everything is permitted’" — Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality
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