The Assassins of Alamût

The Assassins (or Hashisham ) were a Persian Ismai'ili sect created by Hassan i Sabbah in 1090. Like many Order and Secret Societies throughout the ages, the actual history and practices have been blended or bastardized by folk-lore and myth. The history of Alamût is no exception to this.

Hassan i Sabbah was an Isma' ili da'i of Persian origin. It has been rumoured that he attended school at the University of Nishapur with Omar Khayyam and was given a position at the same court where Omar Khayyam was the Court Astrologer, but was forced to leave over a scandal perpetrated by a jealous rival. He travelled to Egypt in 1086 and became active with the Fatimid branch of the Isma'ili, under the expected successor to the Fatamid Caliphate, Nizar Hassan i Sabbah returned to Persia where he continued to work and support the Fatimid branch of the Isma'ili. When Nizar was imprisoned and supplanted by his younger brother, Hassan i Sabbah broke with the Fatimids and seized the fortress of Alamût (The Eagle's Nest) in 1090. Alamût is located on the southern shore of the Caspian Sea in the Elburz Mountain range. Here he was able to establish a power base among the outer tribes and mountain people far from the centers of established political and economic power.

At least in the outer, the religious teaching emanating from Alamût appeared to be a derivation of the Isma'ili faith, a gnostic dualistic form Islam similar to Manicheism. for the Isma'ili, the Imam, or religious head was the personal representative of God in the physical world and salvation was only obtainable through the Imam ( a Western analogy would be if the Pope were also seen as the Messiah). For years the Isma'ili Imam had been the Fatamid Caliphate, but with the split, Hassan i Sabbah took the role of Imam upon himself.

The empire that Hassan i Sabbah established was not a physical empire, but rather a hidden political empire within the borders of other empires. And for this reason it established and required an entirely new kind of warfare and tactics. Hassan i Sabbah had complete control over his adepts who were willing to sacrifice themselves for him.These adepts known as Assassins, derived from Hashashin, consumer of Hashish, would infiltrate Hassan i Sabbah's enemies' ranks, where they would often rise to positions of prominence and trust, often posing as religious teachers or dervishes. From this position it was easy for them to kill their intended victim. The assassinations would usually be carried out with a knife and the Assassin would not try and escape capture. Instead, he would wait calmly prepared to die, having carried out his objective. Sometimes an Assassin would be in the sevice of a Sultan for years and years before being required to strike. This sort of political assassination was new to most of the Kings and it was easier to give in to the Old Man's demands, when a King could not be sure of even his closest advisors or be sure when the dagger would come. The power to assassinate an enemy was said to reach as far as India and Paris.

An interesting glimpse into the inner ideology of the Assassins may be seen in the works and teachings of Hassan, the grandson of Buzurg Ummid, who held Alamût after the Old Man of the Mountain. Two years after Hassan's accension to the the Imamate of Alamût, he assembled all of the religious leaders of area that "to all jinn, Angels and Men", that their salvation lay in following his commands and that the religious law of Islam was abrogated. He then made two bows signifying the premature end of Ramadan and celebrated by drinking and feasting and holding a festival to mark the shattering of the sacred law. It is also noted that written on the door of the library were the words "With the aid of God, the ruler of the universe destroyed the fetters of the law.

It is these and others stories from myth that have lead modern writers and magicians, such as William S. Burroughs. Brion Gyson and R. A. Wilson to spend consider interest in Alamût and attribute the phrase "Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted" to the the Old Man of the Mountain. Since the writings of Marco Polo, tales of the Assassins and the Mythical Garden have been circulating and discussed. Most of the Western myth surrounding Alamût comes from the Travels of Marco Polo. Marco Polo's tales of Alamut and the Assassins are supposedly taken from his travels in the early 1270s, but unfortunately, the Assassins and their strongholds were destroyed by Hulagu Khan and his Mongol raiders in 1256. What Marco Polo tells us is not his first hand experience but rather his telling of tales that he picked up from story-tellers along his journey.