Manas. Studies into Asia and Africa.

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Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”

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Manas 3 (2017), 2.

Published on 03.11.2017

ISSN: 2367-6256

Lambev, Nikola. The Ismāʿīlīs And The Levantine Origins Of The Military Orders. – In: Manas: The Arab World and Islam in Cultural-Historical Perspective, Vol. 3, 2, 2017.

2017 / Volume 3 / Issue number 2 : The Arab World and Islam in Cultural-Historical Perspective

The Ismāʿīlīs And The Levantine Origins Of The Military Orders

Nikola Lambev


Arriving and settling in the Levant, the crusaders brought with them their specific Western culture. Its blending with the powerful local tradition gave birth to rather curious historical and cultural phenomena resulting from their mutual influence. Contrary to the dominant historiographic concept, defining knighthood and military orders as phenomena strictly inherent to mediaeval Western European civilisation, the present article focuses rather on their Middle Eastern origins. Reflecting upon the background of the Levantine knightly confraternities, the author seeks their prototype in the Muslim institutions, closely related to the doctrine of jihād. At the core of the text is the Ismāʿīlī organisation, which became infamous as “The Order of Assassins”. Relying on an extensive amount of local and Western sources, the author reviews its history, structure and methods – something which gives him grounds to consider it among the military religious brotherhoods typical of the crusading era in the Middle East.

Keywords: Crusades, crusaders, Ismailis, Ismāʿīlīs, Ismaili, Ismāʿīlī, Ismailism, Ismāʿīlīsm, Assassins, hashish, knights, military religious orders, jihad



The noble armed cavaliers and their military religious orders won the right to be a symbol of the Crusades long ago. Since then, the ruling historiographic concept has defined knighthood and the chivalric culture born from it as phenomena, strictly inherent to Western Mediaeval civilization. Here, however, we will be paying tribute to their Middle Eastern origins. The blending of local tradition with Western ideas brought by the Franks[1], gave birth to rather curious historical and cultural phenomena. Such were, above all, the military religious orders and the peculiar Outremerian[2] chivalric culture shared by both Muslim and Christian nobility. The renowned orientalist Prof Philip Hitti supports the notion (1951: 616) that they were fruits exclusively of the Syrian cultural soil. The very interaction with Muslim knights encouraged the Frankish warriors to wear a coat-of-arms on their battle gear. Hence the introduction in Europe of typically Eastern heraldic symbols like the two-headed eagle, the lion, the fleur-de-lis, and the rosette (Mayer 1933: 9-10, 22-25).

Regarding the origin of the military religious orders, one must probably look for their prototype in the Muslim ribāṭ. This institution, closely related to the doctrine of jihād, traces its origins long before the arrival of the Franks in Syria and Palestine. It emerged around the VIII century as a frontier outpost – a fortified “monastery” supported by a garrison, combining the daily religious practices with a war against the enemies of Islam. Al-Maqrīzī gives us the later definition of ribāṭ – the way this institution was known in XV century Cairo:

“The ribāṭ is a dwelling inhabited by the people of the path of Allah… He who dwells in a ribāṭ, practising obedience to Allah, preserves the servants (of Allah) and the lands (of Islam) from calamity through his supplications… The conditions pertaining to the residents of a ribāṭ are the severance of relations with (other) people and the opening of relations with the Truth (i.e. Allah); the abandonment of acquisitiveness relying upon the protection of the Causer of all causes; the avoidance of all manners of associations… the performance of acts of worship day and night in lieu of all other normal activities; keeping oneself occupied with maintaining the timings (of prayer), performing private worship, waiting for the time of prayer, shunning heedlessness, thereby becoming murābiṭ (i.e. a dweller in a ribāṭ) and a defender of the faith… The ribāṭ is the home of the Sufis and their halting-place, for every class of people has a dwelling-place, and the ribāṭ is their dwelling-place.” (Mortel 1998: 29-30).

This institution became a common expression of the righteous aspiration for personal jihād. Around the core group of professional warriors forming the garrison of the classical ribāṭ, gathered a great number of volunteers wishing to fulfil their religious duty as auxiliary soldiers. They usually performed a temporary service of 40 days, or during Ramaḍān, but often some of them decided to devote themselves entirely to this vocation. The life in these fortresses of Islam followed strict military and religious rules, and their dwellers were on permanent war footing. During the intervals between military campaigns they devoted their time to strict fasting and prayers. They supported themselves with both donations and plunder. According to several early ḥadīths, service in a ribāṭ brought outstanding merits and was even considered to be more dignified and worthy than participation in a holy war on enemy territory. Three days of service were enough to be endowed with merits like the ones that only the prophets, martyrs and saints possessed, guaranteeing one acceptance in Paradise. All these traits of the ribāṭ gave ground for speculations whether this institution was the prototype of both the Ismāʿīlī organisation and of the Frankish military religious orders in Outremer. (Forey 1985/1994: 177–181; Forey 1992: 8–9; Lourie 1982: 160, 165; Hillenbrand 1999: 98, 100–101; Barber 1994: 40–41).

Of course, the Outremerian knighthood has its roots in Western tradition too. According to it, for each warrior supporting himself with the yield from a land tenure, there was one wandering adventurer who used his military skills to earn a living, something which often brought him to distant lands. According to Richard Barber (1995: 19), this tradition came from the Vikings. These ancestors of the Normans (major participants in the crusading expeditions), used to supply men for the Varangian Guard in Constantinople. One can find Norman warriors searching for their luck all around the Mediterranean. Normans roamed the Middle East long before the arrival of the first crusaders.[3]

The rise of the military orders was among the typical phenomena, born in the Holy Land during the age of the Crusades. When speaking of organisations, combining religious and military characteristics, we normally think of the Knights Templar and Hospitaller. Here we will focus on the Ismāʿīlīs in Persia and Syria, who became known among the Franks as “The Assassins’ Order”.

Long before becoming the political entity we know from the age of the Crusades, Ismāʿīlīsm started as a branch of the Shīʿa movement, which supported the notion that the prophet Muḥammad appointed as Imam (“successor”) his cousin ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib. In this theocratic and messianic system, the Imamate was hereditary and the imam was divinely designated and possessed special spiritual and political authority. Ismāʿīlīsm originated from the dynastic schism after the death of the 6th imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq (765). His firstborn son Ismāʿīl predeceased his father. Part of his followers claimed that he didn’t die but was hidden and would reappear someday. Others accepted his death and held that the imamate passed to his son Muḥammad. However, Jaʿfar’s younger son Mūsā al-Kāẓim gained more recognition and the schism became a fact. His partisans were known as Twelvers, and those of Ismāʿīl as Seveners, depending on the number of imams they recognised before the coming of the age of the hidden ones. The Seveners continued to elaborate the doctrine of the imamate. The Ismāʿīlī imam was an emanation of God, omniscient and infallible, with almost unlimited power. This resulted in a highly hierarchical organisation. The Ismāʿīlī teaching evolved, adopting the science and philosophy of Ancient Greece, and the partisans of the doctrine became known as Bāṭinīya, since they strongly believed in the esoteric interpretation of Islam above its exoteric revelation. Accordingly, they developed a complex proselytising process, involving seven degrees of introduction into the doctrine, depending on the convert’s readiness to advance into their unorthodox ideas. This allowed them to reach out to a wider demographic range and to gain more followers among different social strata. Above all, as W. Ivanow (1960: 17) points out, the Ismāʿīlīsm appealed to the public with its aspiration to reorganise the existing order “under the authority of the true Imam, whose descent from the Prophet was regarded as a sufficient guarantee that he honestly followed the principles of Islam, so much perverted and abused by the actual authority”. They struggled against the Abbasids, who in their eyes were usurpers, depriving the Alids from their legitimate right to lead the Muslim community. Later, when recruiting followers, the Ismāʿīlīya strongly relied on those dissatisfied with the Seljuq government, including the city paupers and the oppressed Bedouins. These people became fertile soil for the sprouting of heterodox Shīʿa ideas. Known as ghulāt (“exaggerators”), the extremists often employed political murder and terror. Due to its urban origins, Ismāʿīlīsm was also closely tied to the development of the Muslim guild organisation. Subsequently the latter served as a model for the construction of the Ismāʿīlī hierarchy and organisation. Equality and tolerance were two of its main principles. For example, the Ismāʿīlī sect of the Qarmatians was organised as a secret commune with a mandatory initiation ritual. The members of this group shared their wives and whole property. (Shahrastānī 1984: 163–165; Ivanow 1960: 13–17; Franzius 1969: 24–29; De Sacy 1994: 136–137, 142; Lewis 1969: 100–103; Hitti 1958: 442–445; Corbin 1975: 520).

With the rise of the Fāṭimids in Egypt the Ismāʿīlīsm became an official doctrine. Its subjugation to the state establishment and the resulting modification of its main ideas brought severe crisis and ultimately a dynastic schism. After the passing of the caliph al-Mustanṣir in 1094 the throne was taken by the favourite of the ruling military clique – al-Mustaʿli – instead of Nizār – the caliph’s first born. The eastern Ismāʿīlīs in Persia refused to recognize the new caliph, severed their ties with the Fāṭimids and became known as Nizārīs.[4] During the next two hundred years they experienced intense blossoming of ideas and politics and became an influential factor in the Seljuq territories, in contrast with the constant decline of the Egyptian Mustaʿlians.

The Nizārīs were considered to be immediate descendants of the local Persian knighthood. According to the distinguished Russian orientalist V. Bartold (Бартольд 1912: XXXI–XXXII), the Ismāʿīlī movement in Iran was an alliance of the local knighthood against the new social and political order enforced by Islam. This happened during the time of strong cultural and patriotic upswing that followed the Seljuq conquest of Persia. The participants in this process were Muslims as well as Zoroastrians. The latter were convinced that the things Muslims created were only a pale imitation of the old paragons. In the stories of this age, the Ismāʿīlīs were presented as a kind of elite. Being such, these “fortress people” stood in opposition to the common folk, especially city crowds. In the words of Arab geographers and travellers, the Iranian knighthood of Tars carried above all the tradition of the Sassanid Age[5]. Ḥamdallāh Qazvīnī recounts (Бартольд 1912: XXXII) that in this area the struggle between the Ismāʿīlīs and their adversaries was particularly violent.

The Nizārīs were organised as a closed secret community. They are often compared with the Ṣūfī[6] confraternities. There is even a certain hypothesis that the Nizārīs adopted from the Ṣūfīs themselves the principles of celibacy and unconditional obedience. These principles were also mandatory for the other military religious orders. However, if the Ismāʿīlīs did indeed adopt celibacy, it was applied only to the warrior elite and not to common followers (Hodgson 1974: 205-206).

At the core of the swift Nizārī success in the East was the Persian Ḥasan-i Ṣabbāḥ. Born in Qumm in the middle of XI century he claimed to be a descendant of a noble Yemenite family. Ḥassan received religious training and, being an outstanding student, adopted the Ismāʿīlīsm as a philosophical doctrine. He continued his education in Nīshāpūr, where, according to the legend, his classmates were the distinguished mystic and poet ʿUmar al-Khayyām and Niẓām al-Mulk – a great vizier and a famous Seljuq statesman. Eventually, from true friends the three men became sworn rivals, to the extent that in 1092 Ḥasan-i Ṣabbāḥ ordered the assassination of Niẓām al-Mulk. The famous chronicler of the Mongols Rashīd al-Dīn Ṭabīb recounts the story:

“Now the cause of the enmity and mistrust which existed between the Nidhámu'l-Mulk and Ḥasan-i-Ṣabbáḥ was that they and ʿUmar Khayyám were at school together in Níshápúr, and there, in boyish fashion, conceived for one another a devoted friendship which culminated in their partaking of each other's blood and registering a solemn vow that whichever of them should attain to high rank and lofty degree should protect and help the others.”

“Now it happened, by a train of circumstances fully set forth in the History of the House of Seljúq, that the Nidhámu'l-Mulk attained to the position of Prime Minister. ʿUmar Khayyám waited upon him and reminded him of the vows and covenants of their boyish days. The Nidhámu'l-Mulk, recognising these old claims, said, ‘I give thee the government of Níshápúr and its dependencies.’ But ʿUmar, who was a great man, and withal a philosopher and a man of sense, replied, ‘I have no desire to administer a province or to exercise authority over the people.

Rather assign to me a stipend or pension.’ So the Nidhámu'l-Mulk assigned him an allowance of ten thousand dínárs from the treasury of Níshápúr, to be paid over to him annually without deduction or tax.” (Browne 1964: 253).

The narrative continues with the arrival of Ḥasan-i Ṣabbāḥ to claim his part of the agreement. Like al-Khayyām before him, he refused to become a governor of Iṣfahān, wishing to receive a higher office at the court. There he tried to undermine his friend’s position, ultimately failing and fleeing to the Fāṭimids in Cairo. Being a supporter of Nizār, he became involved in the dynastic schism in the capital and was even imprisoned for a short while in Damietta. The collapse of part of the prison was taken as a bad omen by the authorities and Ḥasan was released. After suffering a ship wreck, he got to Syria, then to Baghdad and ended up back in Persia. There, he momentarily took the lead of the local Ismāʿīlī revival and started looking for a suitable stronghold from which to oversee the organisation. Thus, on the 4th of September 1090, his Ismāʿīlīs captured the Rock of Alamūt – a fortress in western part of the Alborz mountain range in Quhistan (Northern Khorasan). Ibn al-Athīr relates a legend, according to which “a Daylamī prince, who was fond of hunting, flew an eagle one day and, when he followed it, he saw that it alighted on the site of this [future] castle. He found it to be an impregnable position, so ordered the castle to be built there and called it Aluh Mūt, which in Daylamī tongue means ‘the eagle’s teaching’.” (Ibn al-Athῑr 2006: 42). Ḥasan-i Ṣabbāḥ issued his orders from there. Preoccupied with science, he never set foot outside the castle until his death. In the words of Ibn al-Athīr, he was a capable and energetic leader with vast knowledge of geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and magic. His detachments of Nizārī emissaries were scouting the surrounding area taking possession of more and more new strongholds. Sunnism never sank deep roots into these lands, and local people readily adopted various heretical doctrines. Thus, slowly the Iranian Ismāʿīlīs built a chain of impregnable fortresses. Their propaganda network became larger as the number of their supporters increased. This was due to a mixture of campaigning, lowering taxes and terror.[7] Ḥasan-i Ṣabbāḥ directed the Ismāʿīlī idea of struggle with the tyrant against the Seljuqs and the Abbasid Caliphate, which provided them with religious sanction. He created a strict organisation and a hierarchy led by a Grand Master, representative of the Hidden Imam. The Ismāʿīlī tradition held that Nizār and his son were killed in Cairo, but his grandson was saved, brought to Alamūt and raised by Ḥasan-i Ṣabbāḥ. Religious propaganda, terror and political murder became main methods of fighting against the Seljuqs. (Ibn al-Athῑr 2006: 41–46; De Sacy 1994: 142–145; Von Hammer-Purgstall 1835: 48–50; Lewis 1969: 105–109; Ivanow 1960: 1–3, 17–28).[8]

On the eve of the Crusades, the Nizārīs had already sunk deep roots into the future Latin East. Thanks to the turbulent circulation of philosophic ideas and spiritual doctrines in these lands, Ismāʿīlīsm came to be an influential school of religious and cultural thought. Vast number of Islamised Christians and Jews became its converts and also many Bedouins, who still couldn’t shake off their jāhilīyyan[9] beliefs. While soaking in the strong influence of Neoplatonism the Ismāʿīlīs continued to seek the inner and allegoric interpretation of the Quran - ṭawīl al-bāṭin.[10] In their doctrine, the Messianic idea has a particularly important place. Its cornerstone is the coming of al-Mahdī (the Messiah), who will deliver the world from tyranny and dishonour, and will launch the new “Age of the Divine law”. This became the main creed of the Ismāʿīlīs.

Penetrating into the mountains of Northern Syria, they encountered the crusaders and became known as Assassins. The Franks were impressed mostly with their benevolence and soon discovered them to be a strong ally in the struggle against the Seljuqs. Although officially under Alamūt’s authority, the Syrian Ismāʿīlīs gradually became an independent force. This is evident from the names they were called in historical sources. Speaking of Nizārīs in general, Muslim authors use the pejorative Malāḥida (heretics), or the terms Bāṭinīs or Ismāʿīlīs. The name Ḥashshāshīn, however, was almost exclusively reserved for their branch in Syria. There the crusaders corrupted the word into “assassin”, which later acquired its contemporary meaning in European languages – a person who carries out a plot to murder a prominent figure. But why were they called Ḥashshāshīn? Many of their contemporaries believed that the Nizārīs used hashish on a regular basis to achieve mystical experience. Hashish is an essential resin produced from the tips of female cannabis plants. Its use as an opiate for reaching ecstatic experience was widespread among Ṣūfī orders and other mystic communities in the Orient. According to Charles Nowell (1947: 502–503) in the case of the Nizārīs only the leaders of the order knew of hashish. They had access to the substance and masterfully used it to induce certain thoughts and actions in their subjects. Like any such opiate, the effects of hashish depend on the dosage. A small dose acts refreshingly and increases endurance, while a larger dose can reduce one’s inhibitions and encourage reckless actions. Its extended use can cause physical and mental lethargy – something which would prevent the fidāʾīs[11] from successfully completing their mission. This can be a hint that probably the use of hashish was strictly and carefully regulated and dosed – whether to induce ecstatic visions in the young converts, as some sort of doping for the preparation of the self-collected and methodical fidāʾīs, or to supress the self-preservation instinct of the foredoomed troopers. Baron Silvestre de Sacy, pioneer of the Ismāʿīlī studies, entertained the possibility (1994: 171) that the knowledge of the preparation of hashish came from India, since the plant they used was called Indian hemp. In his mind, this was even more plausible because of the presence of ideas like transmigration of souls, divine incarnations, emanations etc. in the Ismāʿīlī doctrine.[12] On the other hand, scholars like Farhad Daftary (1994: 91–93) renounce the possibility that the Ismāʿīlīs used opiates. He maintains that Hashishiyya was merely a metaphorically employed pejorative name for the order, since Muslim society considered the use of hashish to be a symbol of social and religious degradation. However, the renowned Egyptian historian al-Maqrīzī (Daftary 1994: 91-93, 165) speaks of the popularity of this drug among the various social strata in XIV century Cairo and Damascus. He even mentions a certain Persian Nizārī, who used to prepare hashish electuaries sweetened with honey and spices and sell them to members of the Cairo elite.

Apparently, the title of the Ismāʽīlī leader also raised certain confusion. Muslim authors called the ruler of Alamūt muqaddam (“superior”); ḥaḍrat or ṣāḥib (“master”). The Ismāʿīlīs themselves called him sayyidnā or mawlāna (“our Lord”). The Old Man of the Mountain, popular among Western sources, was a bad interpretation of Sheikh al-Jabal and Sheikh al-Ḥashshāshīn (Hauzinski 1974: 236, n.13).

The initial activity of the Ismāʿīlīs in Syria was still conducted from the Rock of Alamūt. The sheikh of the Nizārīs appointed the mission leaders and assigned their objectives. The Persian model was strictly followed. For about fifty years the Assassins took control over a number of strongholds in the mountains of Northern Syria. Their actions were aimed mainly towards the fortresses in Jabal al-Summāq and Jabal Bahrāʾ. Some were captured, others were built over old Byzantine foundations. Thus, around the middle of XII century the Assassins had fully developed a network of impregnable mountain bases. Burchard of Strassburg, a special envoy of Frederick I Barbarossa, sent in 1175 to meet Saladin, mentions the Syrian Ismāʿīlīs and their ways in his report to the emperor:

“Bear in mind, that in the vicinity of Damascus, Antioch and Aleppo lives a race of the Saracens from the mountains, which were commonly called Assassins and in Roman language “the old men of the mountain”. This human race lives without any laws, eats meat and even pork against the Saracen laws, and lays with all the women indifferently, even with their mothers and sisters. They live in the mountains and are nearly unconquerable because they withdraw in the most fortified castles, and their land is not very fertile but they feed off livestock.” (Burchardus Argentoratensis 1980: 406)[13].

Another description of the Ismāʿīlīs in Syria gives us Jacques de Vitry, who was appointed Bishop of Acre in 1216 by Pope Honorius III:

“In the province of Phoenicia, near the borders of the Antaradensian town which is now called Tortosa, dwells a certain people, shut in on all sides by rocks and mountains, who have ten castles, very strong and impregnable, by reason of the narrow ways and inaccessible rocks, with their suburbs and the valleys, which are most fruitful in all species of fruits and corn, and most delightful for their amenity. The number of these men, who are called Assassins, is said to exceed 40,000. They set a captain over themselves, not by hereditary succession, but by the prerogative of merit, whom they call the Old Man (Veterem seu Senem), not so much on the account of his advanced age as for his pre-eminence in prudence and dignity. The first and principal abbot of this unhappy religion of theirs, and the place where they had their origin and whence they came to Syria, is in the very remote parts of the east, near the city of Bagdad and the parts of the province of Persia. These people, who do not divide the hoof, nor make a difference between what is sacred and what is profane, believe that all obedience indifferently shown by them towards their superior is meritorious for eternal life. Hence they are bound to their master, whom they call the Old Man, with such a bond of subjection and obedience that there is nothing so difficult or so dangerous that they would fear to undertake, or which they would not perform with a cheerful mind and ardent will, at the command of their lord.” (Keightley 1837: 117–118).

The Assassins were particularly persistent in their attempts to conquer the fortress of Shayzar and even controlled it for some time.[14] Their efforts were also concentrated on establishing Ismāʿīlī cells in the bigger cities. Yet, at the end of XI century Riḍwān, the Seljuq ruler of Aleppo and alleged secret Ismāʿīlī partisan, encouraged the Assassins to settle in his city, hoping to use their help against his cousins. Here they founded dār al-daʿwa (propaganda house). Following the death of Riḍwān, the order gradually lost influence over the citizens and transferred its main activity to Damascus and Mosul. (Lewis 1966/1976: 231, 246–248: Ибн Джубайр 1984: 181; Gibb 1974: 41–42; Ходжсон 2004: 98–103, 113–115; Lewis 1969: 109–115).

After some initial incidents in the mountain of Jabal al-Summāq and the district of Jazr (Northern Syria), nearly constant allied relations were established between the Ismāʿīlīs and the Franks. The assassinations of members of the Frankish nobility by fidāʾīs were due mostly to internal feuds in the crusader families. At the core of Ḥasan-i Ṣabbāḥ’s political doctrine stood the call for destroying the Seljuqs. In Ismāʿīlīs’ eyes the Turks weren’t people but jinns and forces of evil. They were a particularly big obstacle for the Assassins due to their control over the routes to the Ismāʿīlī hub in Persia. (Cahen 1940: 344; Lewis 1969: 120; Строева 1978: 48, 56; Можейко 1989: 156). The Seljuqs themselves were terrified by the mysterious Assassins whose victims were some of their most distinguished men. The only way out was to deal with the sinister sect decisively and without mercy. Behind the Seljuqs stood almost all of the Sunni community, which recognised them as the sole protector of Orthodox Islam. The Sunnis spread the claim that the Ismāʿīlīya descended from the Persian Zoroastrianism. Its goal was the extermination of Islam and its replacement with dualism as revenge for the conquest of Iran. Being bloodthirsty pagans under the constant influence of opiates, the Ismāʿīlīs wanted to kill as many Muslims as possible. Thus, a mass psychosis was created. To protect the population from the “Ismāʿīlī infection”, the Seljuq government built a network of theology schools (madrasa). Entire villages were annihilated on suspicion of ties with the Ismāʿīlīs. This was followed by retaliatory actions and so the “vicious circle” of violence was closed. Ibn Jubayr recounts how all the residents of the Ismāʿīlī village of al-Bāb (the “door” between Buzāʿa and Aleppo) were massacred, their bodies were cut in pieces and their heads – gathered in heaps (Ибн Джубайр 1984: 178).[15]

The Ismāʿīlī deeds in the East gave birth to a number of curious, even astonishing stories. Without a doubt among the most vivid of them is the legend of the “paradise gardens” and “the Old Man of the Mountain”. It appears in almost all Christian sources regarding the history of the sect. Here is the most popular version given to us by Marco Polo, who travelled the Orient in the late XIII century:

“In a beautiful valley enclosed between two lofty mountains, he [the Old Man of the Mountain] had formed a luxurious garden, stored with every delicious fruit and every fragrant shrub that could be procured. Palaces of various sizes and forms were erected in different parts of the grounds, ornamented with works in gold, with paintings, and with furniture of rich silks. By means of small conduits contrived in these buildings, streams of wine, milk, honey, and some of pure water, were seen to flow in every direction.

The inhabitants of these palaces were elegant and beautiful damsels, accomplished in the arts of singing, playing upon all sorts of musical instruments, dancing, and especially those of dalliance and amorous allurement. Clothed in rich dresses they were seen continually sporting and amusing themselves in the garden and pavilions, their female guardians being confined within doors and never suffered to appear. The object which the chief had in view in forming a garden of this fascinating kind, was this: that Mahomet having promised to those who should obey his will the enjoyments of Paradise, where every species of sensual gratification should be found, in the society of beautiful nymphs, he was desirous of its being understood by his followers that he also was a prophet and the compeer of Mahomet, and had the power of admitting to Paradise such as he should choose to favour.

In order that none without his licence might find their way into this delicious valley, he caused a strong and inexpugnable castle to be erected at the opening of it, through which the entry was by a secret passage. At this court, likewise, this chief entertained a number of youths, from the age of twelve to twenty years, selected from the inhabitants of the surrounding mountains, who showed a disposition for martial exercises, and appeared to possess the quality of daring courage. To them he was in the daily practice of discoursing on the subject of the paradise announced by the prophet, and of his own power of granting admission. And at certain times he caused opium to be administered to ten or a dozen of the youths; and when half death with sleep he had them conveyed to the several apartments of the palaces in the garden.

Upon awakening from the state of stupor, their senses were struck with all the delightful objects that have been described, and each perceived himself surrounded by lovely damsels, singing, playing, and attracting his regards by the most fascinating caresses, serving him also with delicate foods and exquisite wines; until intoxicated with excess of enjoyment amidst actual rivulets of milk and wine, he believed himself assuredly in Paradise, and felt an unwillingness to relinquish its delights.

When four or five days had thus been passed, they were thrown once more into a drugged state, and carried out of the garden. Upon their being introduced to his presence, and questioned by him as to where they had been, their answer was, “In Paradise, through the favour of your highness”: and then before the whole court, who listened to them with eager curiosity and astonishment, they gave a circumstantial account of the scenes to which they had been witnesses.

The chief thereupon addressing them, said: “We have the assurances of our prophet that he who defends his lord shall inherit Paradise, and if you show yourselves devoted to the obedience of my orders, that happy lot awaits you.” Animated to enthusiasm by words of this nature, all deemed themselves happy to receive the commands of their master, and were forward to die in his service.

The consequence of this system was, that when any of the neighbouring princes, or others, gave offence to this chief, they were put to death by these his disciplined assassins; none of whom felt terror at the risk of losing their own lives, which they held in little estimation, provided they could execute their master’s will. On this account, his tyranny became the subject of dread in all the surrounding countries.

He had also constituted two deputies or representatives of himself, of whom one had his residence in the vicinity of Damascus, and the other in Kurdistan; and these pursued the plan he had established for training their young dependents. Thus there was no person, however powerful, who, having become exposed to the enmity of the Old Man of the Mountain, could escape assassination.” (Marco Polo 1926: 53–56).

Almost identical is the recount of Odoric of Pordenone (Daftary 1990: 13–14) – a Franciscan monk who journeyed through the East between 1318 and 1330. Another version of the story, given to us by Arnold of Lübeck (Daftary 1994: 104), claims that these gardens didn’t actually exist, but were a product of the imagination of the drugged Assassins. According to a third version, found in an old French manuscript (Runte 1974: 542–545), the visions were produced by enclosing the children in training underground. At first, they were kept in catacombs under the care of nurses. Only later were they transferred to house-like subterranean quarters, allowing limited view of the surrounding garden. From there they could see the paradisiac scenes and their future Assassin comrades, filled with happiness and engaged in merry frolic. The presence of women brings out the question whether they were part of the staging or were also raised in the catacombs. The story of the “paradise gardens” was not limited only to Christian sources. There is a Muslim version discovered by Austrian orientalist Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall in the historical novel Sīrat al-Ḥākim (a biography of the Fāṭimid caliph), dubiously attributed to Ibn Khallikān, a prominent XIII century scholar. It describes the gardens of Maṣyāf, the seat of the Ismāʿīlīs in Syria:

“Our narrative now returns to Ismaïl the chief of the Ismaïlites. He took with him his people laden with gold, silver, pearls, and other effects, taken away from the inhabitants of the coasts, and which he had received in the island of Cyprus, and on the part of the king of Egypt, Dhaher, the son of Hakem-biëmr-Illah. Having bidden farewell to the sultan of Egypt at Tripolis, they proceeded to Massyat, when the inhabitants of the castles and fortresses assembled to enjoy themselves, along with the chief Ismail and his people. They put on the rich dresses with which the sultan had supplied them, and adorned the castle of Massyat with everything that was good and fine. Ismaïl made his entry into Massyat with the Devoted (Fedavee), as no one has ever done at Massyat before him or after him. He stopped there some time to take into his service some more persons whom he might make Devoted both in heart and body.

With this view he had caused to be made a vast garden, into which he had water conducted. In the middle of this garden he built a kiosk raised to the height of four stories. On each of the four sides were richly-ornamented windows joined by four arches, in which were painted stars of gold and silver. He put into it roses, porcelain, glasses, and drinking-vessels of gold and silver. He had with him Mamlooks (i.e. slaves), ten males and ten females, who were come with him from the region of the Nile, and who had scarcely attained the age of puberty. He clothed them in silks and in the finest stuffs, and he gave unto them bracelets of gold and of silver. The columns were overlaid with musk and with amber, and in the four arches of the windows he set four caskets, in which was the purest musk. The columns were polished, and this place was the retreat of the slaves. He divided the garden into four parts. In the first of these were pear-trees, apple-trees, vines, cherries, mulberries, plums, and other kinds of fruit-trees. In the second were oranges, lemons, olives, pomegranates, and other fruits. In the third were cucumbers, melons, leguminous plants, &c. In the fourth were roses, jessamine, tamarinds, narcissi, violets, lilies, anemonies, &c. &c.

The garden was divided by canals of water, and the kiosk was surrounded with ponds and reservoirs. There were groves in which were seen antelopes, ostriches, asses, and wild cows. Issuing from the ponds, one met ducks, geese, partridges, quails, hares, foxes, and other animals. Around the kiosk the chief Ismaïl planted walks of tall trees, terminating in the different parts of the garden. He built there a great house, divided into two apartments, the upper and the lower. From the latter covered walks led out into the garden, which was all enclosed with walls, so that no one could see into it, for these walks and buildings were all void of inhabitants. He made a gallery of coolness, which ran from this apartment to the cellar, which was behind. This apartment served as a place of assembly for the men. Having placed himself on a sofa there opposite the door, the chief made his men sit down, and gave them to eat and to drink during the whole length of the day until evening. At nightfall he looked around him, and, selecting those whose firmness pleased him, said to them, ‘Ho! such-a-one, come and seat thyself near me.’ It is thus that Ismaïl made those whom he had chosen sit near him on the sofa and drink. He then spoke to them of the great and excellent qualities of the imam Ali, of his bravery, his nobleness, and his generosity, until they fell asleep, overcome by the power of the benjeh [bhang, hashish] which he had given them, and which never failed to produce its effects in less than a quarter of an hour, so that they fell down as if they were inanimate. As soon as the man had fallen the chief Ismaïl arose, and, taking him up, brought him into a dormitory, and then, shutting the door, carried him on his shoulders into the gallery of coolness, which was in the garden, and thence into the kiosk, where he committed him to the care of the male and female slaves, directing them to comply with all the desires of the candidate, on whom they flung vinegar till he awoke. When he had come to himself the youths and maidens said to him, 'We are only waiting for thy death, for this place is destined for thee. This is one of the pavilions of paradise, and we are the hoories and the children of paradise. If thou wert dead thou wouldest be for ever with us, but thou art only dreaming, and wilt soon awake.’ Meanwhile the chief Ismaïl had returned to the company as soon as he had witnessed the awakening of the candidate, who now perceived nothing but youths and maidens of the greatest beauty, and adorned in the most magnificent manner.

He looked round the place, inhaled the fragrance of musk and frankincense, and drew near to the garden, where he saw the beasts and the birds, the running water, and the trees. He gazed on the beauty of the kiosk, and the vases of gold and silver, while the youths and maidens kept him in converse. In this way he remained confounded, not knowing whether he was awake or only dreaming. When two hours of the night had gone by, the chief Ismaïl returned to the dormitory, closed the door, and thence proceeded to the garden, where his slaves came around him and rose before him. When the candidate perceived him he said unto him, ‘O chief Ismaïl, do I dream, or am I awake?’ The chief Ismaïl then made answer to him, ‘O such-a-one, beware of relating this vision to anyone who is a stranger to this place! Know that the Lord Ali has shown thee the place which is destined for thee in paradise. Know that at this moment the Lord Ali and I have been sitting together in the regions of the empyrean. So do not hesitate a moment in the service of the imam who has given thee to know his felicity.’ Then the chief Ismaïl ordered supper to be served. It was brought in vessels of gold and of silver, and consisted of boiled meats and roast meats, with other dishes. While the candidate ate he was sprinkled with rose-water; when he called for drink there were brought to him vessels of gold and silver filled with delicious liquors, in which also had been mingled some benjeh. When he had fallen asleep, Ismaïl carried him through the gallery back to the dormitory, and, leaving him there, returned to his company. After a little time he went back, threw vinegar on his face, and then, bringing him out, ordered one of the Mamlooks to shake him. On awaking, and finding himself in the same place among the guests, he said, ‘There is no god but God, and Mohammed is the Prophet of God!’ The chief Ismaïl then drew near and caressed him, and he remained, as it were, immersed in intoxication, wholly devoted to the service of the chief, who then said unto him, ‘O such-a-one, know that what thou hast seen was not a dream, but one of the miracles of the imam Ali. Know that he has written thy name among those of his friends. If thou keep the secret thou art certain of thy felicity, but if thou speak of it thou wilt incur the resentment of the imam. If thou die thou art a martyr; but beware of relating this to any person whatever. Thou hast entered by one of the gates to the friendship of the imam, and art become one of his family; but if thou betray the secret, thou wilt become one of his enemies, and be driven from his house.’ Thus this man became one of the servants of the chief Ismaïl, who in this manner surrounded himself with trusty men, until his reputation was established. This is what is related of the chief Ismaïl and his Devoted.” (Keightley 1837: 74–78).

Despite their legendary character, it is possible that to some extent these tales were based on actual facts. Indeed, many of the Ismāʿīlī strongholds in Syria resembled delightful gardens, being transformed into well irrigated, self-sufficient communities able to withstand long sieges. Naturally, the stories were twisted by the notorious fame of the Assassins, but one can find there many elements of the actual hierarchy and methods of their organisation. The structure of the order is generally known. Along with the network of strongholds in the mountains, numerous secret Ismāʿīlī cells were formed in major cities. Communication between them was carried through homing pigeons. The urban branches were occupied mainly with propaganda and spying. An initiation process in seven or nine stages into the secret esoteric doctrine was the path to admission to the Ismāʿīlī organisation daʿwa (mission). The hierarchical order was of paramount importance for its structure, since in the Assassins’ universe everything had to take its proper place according to the cosmic scheme. The head of the order was dāʿī al-duʿāt (the grand master or great missionary) of Alamut. His person was sacred and everyone obeyed his will. He appointed dāʿī al-kabīr (grand prior or missionary) who was responsible for one of the three principal territories – Kuhistan, Khuzistan and Syria. Below them were the dāʿī missionaries. All regular members were called rafīqs (fellows, comrades), except the fearsome fidāʾīs (devotee or self-sacrificer) ready to execute every order even at the cost of his life. At the bottom of the hierarchy stood the lāṣiqs (associates, aspirants). From their strongholds, the Assassins launched constant attacks on Seljuq caravans and military units. Political murder became their method of choice for accomplishing the goals and designs of the sect. The early Shīʿīs called this manner of eliminating the enemy jihād khafī (secret jihād). There is a possibility that this approach was adopted from earlier extreme Shīʿa groups. One of them even practiced strangulation with a cord as a religious duty, not unlike the notorious Indian Thugs. Its members were known as unnāq – stranglers. However, the Assassin’s weapon of choice was the dagger. (Lewis 1969: 101; Walker 1976: 14–16; Silvestre de Sacy 1994: 178–181; Daftary 1994: 103; Browne 1964: 206; Hitti 1958: 443, 446; Ходжсон 2004: 91). The imminence of murder terrified the rulers of the Middle East (both Muslim and Christian), since no one felt secure. The Assassins meticulously perfected their methods. Several more or less synchronous sources describe the training and preparation of the fidāʾīs. This is how Ambroise, a Norman chronicler accompanying Richard Cœur de Lion on the Third Crusade (1189–1192), recounts how the youths were groomed for killers:

“The Old Man of the Mountain had a habit, which became a tradition, to gather a huge number of children to raise in his palace; they were schooled and received guidance. They were trained how to behave when living with the noble and the wise, moreover they knew all the languages of the world. They took a terrible and grim oath that after the lessons they received, as soon as the Old Man of the Mountain came before them and gave order, to atone for their sins and to win his friendship they would kill every pointed out nobleman, and this was regarded to be a good deed. They were given huge knives, strong and sharp-ground and they would go to ambush the designated victim, becoming close with him, attending him, naturally he thought well of them and at the end, they would find opportunity to commit their hellish murder. They believed that through this, they would deserve a place in Paradise, something that obviously could not happen.” (Ambroise 1897: 236).

The description in Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi (1997: 306–307), another contemporary record of the Third Crusade, follows almost verbatim the narrative of Ambroise. Burchard of Strassburg adds (Burchardus Argentoratensis 1980: 408–409) that the children were “instructed in various languages like Latin, Greek, Roman, Saracen, and many others…” and that the fidāʾīs were given special golden daggers. Jacques de Vitry completes the picture:

“The Old Man… sends them to various provinces with daggers, and orders them to slay the great men of the Christians, as well as of the Saracens, either because he is at enmity with them for some cause or other, or at the request of his friends, or even for the lucre of a large sum of money which has been given him, promising them, for the execution of this command, that they shall have far greater delights, and without end, in paradise, after death, than even those amidst which they had been reared. If they chance to die in this act of obedience they are regarded as martyrs by their companions, and being placed by that people among their saints, are held in the greatest reverence. Their parents are enriched with many gifts by the master, who is called the Old Man, and if they were slaves they are let go free ever after. Whence these wretched and misguided youths, who are sent from the convent (conventu) of the aforesaid brethren to different parts of the world, undertake their deadly legation with such joy and delight, and perform it with such diligence and solicitude, transforming themselves in various ways, and assuming the manners and dress of other nations, sometimes concealing themselves under the appearance of merchants, at other times under that of priests and monks, and in an infinity of other modes, that there is hardly any person in the whole world so cautious as to be able to guard against their machinations. They disdain to plot against an inferior person. The great men to whom they are hostile either redeem themselves by a large sum of money, or, going armed and attended by a body of guards, pass their life in suspicion and in dread of death.” (Keightley 1837: 118–119).[16]

To sum up, the Assassins apparently received serious education and long training before being ready for action. Fluent in many languages, they were introduced into the entourage of prominent figures, and if and when one of them became inconvenient, they would take him out. For their killings, Assassins always used daggers. Even according to some sources, the weapons of the fidāʾīs were consecrated by their masters before action. Undoubtedly the success of the Assassins was due to their incredible devotion and extreme obedience. The doctrinal training in the order was so comprehensive that the Ismāʿīlīs recognized in their sheikh’s person a supreme, almost divine authority and were convinced that the violent death they would almost inevitably meet at the end of their mission would bring them eternal life in Paradise. Sources are unanimous that the fallen Assassins were revered as martyrs. The mothers of the surviving fidāʾīs even mourned the unhappy fate of their children to come back alive. Odes were composed for the fallen heroes and their names were written in commemorative lists. As Charles Nowell points out (1947: 503–504), all of this was completely incomprehensible for Western authors, ignorant of the details of the Ismāʿīlī doctrine. The phenomenal obedience of the Assassins confused them and they were ready to consider any explanation, even the most absurd. For some the Old Man used the fidāʾīs only to entertain his guests, having them throw themselves from high cliffs. For others, he kept them in obedience with the help of magic and opiates. An example of this is the account of Arnold of Lübeck (around 1210):

“About this Old Man I am told a ridiculous story, but one that is attested to me by reliable witnesses. This Old Man, by his magic art, knows how to deceive the people of his land, so that they believe in no other God but him. He also fills them by supernatural means with the hope of eternal joy and happiness, so that they prefer Death to Life. For often many of them, upon a sign or order from him, have hurled themselves from a high wall, on which they were standing, so that they died with a broken neck below. Those he declares the most blessed who spill human blood and in such an act of revenge find their own death. If some of them have chosen to die in this manner, that they agree to kill someone by treachery, hoping to die more blessed because of it, he himself hands them daggers especially sanctified for this purpose, and by a certain potion puts them into a state of ecstasy, rapture, and transport, and lets them see through his magic powers fantastic visions full of joy and pleasure, or rather of folly, promising them these joys in eternity if they carry out such a deed.” (Fleischhauer 1955: 80).

Significant cause for the success of the tactic adopted by the order was the major role of the noble person in this age. The strikes of the Assassins were aimed at individuals who were considered harmful. According to the Ismāʽīlīs, their victims were tyrants against whom they were obliged to fight. The assassinations were committed with particular ostentation, while at the same time achieving a propaganda effect. The murders were meticulously planned to avoid harming innocent bystanders. The goal was with the elimination of one key person to prevent bloody combat. (William of Tyre 1943: 391; Daftary 1990: 352-354; Daftary 1994: 98; Franzius 1969: 45-46; Lewis 1969: 108; Hodgson 1974: 60; Ходжсон 2004: 92-93). Many contemporaries claimed that the influence of the Assassins spread far beyond the Middle East. Some even accused them of having agents in Europe. It was known that many prominent Muslim and Christian figures, including the rulers of Germany, Hungary, Spain and Yemen paid them handsome sums as a ransom for their lives (Jean de Joinville 1882: 470).

The Syrian Assassins gained their biggest fame and influence under the leadership of Rashīd al-Dīn Sinān. His career generally coincided with that of the great Ayyūbid Sultan Ṣaḷāh al-Dīn Yūsuf (Saladin). Between 1162 and 1194, Sinān sowed fear in the hearts of the people in the Levant and was ranked among the emblematic figures of that age.

Rashīd al-Dīn whose full name was Sinān ibn Salmān ibn Muḥammad ibn Abī l-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī was born to a notable Basran family. At an early age, he embraced the Ismāʿīlī ideas. In the words of Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall (1835: 127–128) his writings, preserved in Syria by the remainder of the sect, showed Sinān’s familiarity with the Christian doctrine and its sacred texts. A possible explanation would be if he was indeed raised with the ideas of the Nuṣayrīs – a heterodox Shīʿa sect combining Christianity and Islam (Ходжсон 2004: 191; Ridley 1938: 93). After a quarrel with his brothers Sinān left his home and went to Alamūt. There he studied together with Ḥasan and Ḥusayn – sons of the Great Missionary Kiyā Muḥammad – and was initiated into the esoteric science and philosophy of the Nizārīs. Soon after Ḥasan II succeeded his father as dāʿī al-duʿāt (1162), he sent his friend Sinān to Syria to take command of the local mission as dāʿī al-kabīr.[17] He supplied him with special letters so he could contact the Ismāʿīlī agents there. On his way to the Syrian strongholds, Sinān travelled through Aleppo and thus his story was included in the chronicle of local historian Kamāl al-Dīn. The latter represented the Assassin missionary as a man of extraordinary charisma and abilities, who wrote excellent prose and composed beautiful poetry:

“If you had mastered all human knowledge
      You would be the friend of all the world

But you do not know, and you have begun to think
       That whoever has different aims from yours is ignorant.

Shame on you! The truth has become clear,
       Different from what you say, and you are as one who sleeps.” (Lewis 1966/1976: 229).

After his arrival in Syria, Sinān established himself in the castle of al-Kahf. Apparently, if the account of Abū Firās (Franzius 1969: 108) is to be trusted, he remained there incognito for several years, dressed like a hermit, preaching from a rock, teaching children and healing the sick. The locals started calling him the Physician and even considered him to be a saint. Nobody saw him eat, drink or spit. After assuming the position of chief missionary, Sinān put his efforts into capturing and rebuilding the fortresses necessary for his designs. (Lewis 1966/1976: 225–227, 231–232, 251; Lewis 1969: 120-121; Franzius 1969: 107–108). The contemporaries were particularly impressed with the enormous authority of the new sheikh. He kept his subjects in total obedience. Their life and death were literally at his disposal. Kamāl al-Dīn (Lewis 1966/1976: 230) and Ibn Jubayr (Ибн Джубайр 1984: 181) claim that his followers were happy to throw themselves from a high cliff and perish at his command. One ʿAbd al-Raḥmān ibn Abī Bakr al-Jarīrī from Damascus relates a curious anecdote regarding Sinān’s methods of persuasion:

“There was near the sofa on which he sat a hole in the ground sufficiently deep for a man to sit down in it. This he covered with a thin piece of wood, leaving only so much of it open as would contain the neck of a man. He placed on this cover of wood a disk of bronze with a hole in the middle of it, and put in it two doors. Then taking one of his disciples, to whom he had given a considerable sum of money to obtain his consent, he placed the perforated disk round his neck, and kept it down by weights, so that nothing appeared but the neck of the man; and he put warm blood upon it, so that it looked as if he had just cut off his head. He then called in his companions, and showed them the plate, on which they beheld the head of their comrade. 'Tell thy comrades,' said the master to the head, 'what thou hast seen, and what has been said unto thee.' The man then answered as he had been previously instructed. 'Which wouldest thou prefer,' said the master, 'to return to the world and thy friends, or to dwell in paradise?' 'What need have I,' replied the head, 'to return to the world after having seen my pavilion in paradise, and the hoories, and all that God has prepared for me? Comrades, salute my family, and take care not to disobey this prophet, who is the lord of the prophets in the state of time, as God has said unto me. Farewell.' These words strengthened the faith of the others; but when they were gone the master took the man up out of the hole, and cut off his head in right earnest. It was by such means as this that he made himself obeyed by his people.” (Keightley 1837: 79–80).

While Sinān was establishing himself in Syria, a real doctrinal revolution took place in Alamūt. On 17 Ramaḍān 559 AH (8 August 1164) Ḥasan II, the 4th dāʿī al-duʿāt gathered his people and gave a speech in the western part of the castle (thus the audience turned their back to Mecca!). Attired in white, he addressed the inhabitants of the world – people, jinns, and angels and formally announced the festival of the “Great Resurrection” – Qiyāma al-Qiyāmat. He claimed that in the esoteric reality he is the “Imam of Time”, descendant of Nizār, and released his followers from the burden of Sharīʿa. The fasting was abolished and feasts were organised with pork, wine, music, dancing and female company. Ḥasan proclaimed himself to be a Divine messenger, a sole carrier of the Truth. “The end of the world”, “the resurrection of the dead” and a new era of “spiritual Paradise” were also announced. Henceforth started the deification of the Ismāʿīlī imam as incarnation of the “revelation of Allah”. Through him people can see God, as through the light they know that the Sun exists. Similar ceremonies took place in most of the Ismāʿīlī centres. Sinān introduced the new ideology in Syria, something that authors like William of Tyre (1943: 390–394) and Jacques de Vitry (Keightley 1837: 119) probably misinterpreted as an alleged desire to adopt Christianity. Sources report the establishment of openly free relations in the Ismāʿīlī communities, especially in Jabal al-Summāq where they became so extreme that Sinān had to intervene and to punish his subjects. Many of the mosques were taken down, the prayers were abandoned. The partisans, calling themselves al-Ṣufāt (“the sincere, the pure”), indulged in incest with sisters, mothers and daughters.[18] The women dared to wear men’s clothes. This act of abolishment of the Sharīʿa completely separated the Assassins from Orthodox Islam. (Lewis 1966/1976: 230, 239–242; Lewis 1971/1976: 578–579; Lewis 1969: 122; Ivanow 1960: 25–29; Von Hammer-Purgstall 1835: 107–110; Franzius 1969: 76–83,112; Беляев 1957: 74–75).

Apparently, many of Sinān’s followers worshipped him and he did not hesitate to encourage them to believe that he was an actual divine incarnation. In the words of Kamāl al-Dīn (Lewis 1966/1976: 230–231) the Ismāʿīlī leader was “an outstanding man, of secret devices, vast designs and great jugglery, with power to incite and mislead hearts, to hide secrets, outwit enemies and to use the vile and the foolish for his evil purposes”. A mythology of sorts was created around Sinān’s person, fuelled by rumours like the one that his figure was not reflected by water. He was believed to possess supernatural abilities like telepathy and clairvoyance, perhaps aided by his vast network of spies and the pigeon posting system concealed in sepulchral mounds near the Assassins’ castles. Gradually his power and influence grew and Syria became centre of the Ismāʿīlī activity. After all, Sinān was an excellent politician and a capable administrator who, during his thirty years at the head of the Syrian mission, managed to expand Assassins’ territories and influence, skilfully manoeuvring in the complex Middle Eastern situation. Bar Hebraeus too was impressed by his formidable authority:

“Now SÎNÂN was held in fear by all the kings of the Arabs and Franks. And he forged knives (or, daggers), and on each one of them was [engraved] the name of one of the kings. And when he gave a knife to one of his own men, even though it were in the heart of the sea, he would go and fulfil his will. He was well instructed in the wisdom of the foreigners and transmigration of souls, and he thought the doctrine of Plato to the men of his own party. And therefore they held death in contempt, and [believed] that they did not go forth from the world even though they were killed. And he hid himself many times, and the report went forth that he was dead, but he very soon reappeared. This was so often the case that when he was dead his slaves did not believe it.” (Bar Hebraeus 1932: 343).

Soon he emancipated himself from Alamūt and even, according to some, proclaimed himself Imam. Confirmation of this could be the accounts of his deification and the fact that fidāʾīs were sent from the centre in Persia to take him out. The assassination attempts failed. Part of the Nizārī emissaries were killed, the others yielded to his will. (Bar Hebraeus 1932: 245, 248–249; Ибн Джубайр 1984: 181; Lewis 1969: 121; Lewis 1971/1976: 578–579; Franzius 1969: 109–112; Ходжсон 2004: 191–216; Семенова 1966: 71).

Precisely during Sinān’s rule the Assassins order reached the peak of its organisational development and political authority. Soon after his death, the Ismāʿīlīs in Syria, but also their brothers in Iran, became victims of accelerating decline and degradation. For a short while the Nizārī power peaked again in the beginning of XIII century when they became close with ʿAbbāsid Caliph al-Nāṣir. Curiously enough, at the same time the caliph decided to restructure the urban organisation futūwah (“manliness”, “chivalry”) abiding by the knightly virtue and mutual aid, and known for its private militias. It started in the XIIth century as a Darvīsh brotherhood[19], venerating ʿAlī ibn Abī Tālib as an ideal model of conduct. Al-Nāṣir transformed the confraternity into a genuine military order, bestowing the hereditary rank of fata (“young man”) to worthy dignitaries. An elaborate initiation ceremony was introduced, in which the novice had to take the oath, to drink from the special cup of salted water kaʾs al-fityān and to wear the wide trousers sarāwīl or libās al-futūwah. He also was invested with a belt, not unlike the dubbing ceremonies of the western knights. Al-Maqrīzī gives us a description of the ritual:

“The surrounding kings drank this year [1211] the Cup of the Futūwah to the Caliph, and donned the trousers of the Futūwah. They received patents to this effect that might display their loyalty to him. Each king was commanded to cause his chief subjects to drink of the cup and don the trousers in order to display their relation to him. This the kings did; each summoned to him the qāḍis of his realm, the jurists, the emirs, and the great officers, dressed them in the trousers and gave them the cup to drink. The Caliph al-Nāṣir was very devoted to this institution. He instructed the kings to show their allegiance to him by shooting of bullets [bunduq] and to set an example in this.” (al-Maqrīzī 1980: 154).

The rules of initiation show stages loosely corresponding to the stages of the European knighthood. “The cup” and “the trousers” became part of the local heraldry – Muslim knights used these symbols on their shields as a mark of nobility. Members of the brotherhood wore uniforms and were allowed to participate in special sport competitions. Essentially, futūwah used Ṣūfī doctrines and methods to promote honour, generosity and bravery among the military caste. The organisation spread to Asia Minor, becoming a confraternity of sworn brothers living in convents, whose main concern was the struggle with their own ego and against any tyrannical rulers. It is speculated that the order originated on the basis of the erotic elements in the comradery. Ultimately, futūwah became one of the key elements in the formation of the Muslim guilds. (al-Maqrīzī 1980: 327 n.28; Ibn Battuta 1939: 125–126, 354–355 n.5; al-Sulami 1983: 14-22; Mayer 1933: 11, 21; Cahen 1969: 665–666; Боровков 1953: 87–89).

The rapprochement with the Sunni leader of Baghdad, who even bestowed the honorary title “New Muslim” upon the Nizārī leader Ḥasan III, did not save the Ismāʿīlīs from the accelerating decline, which ended in the second half of the XIII century with the destruction of their organisation in Persia and Syria by Mongols and Mamlūks, respectively. Let me conclude this review of the Ismāʿīlī order with an interesting portrait of one of the last “Old Men” – Ḥasan’s successor ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn Muḥammad (who inherited his father in 1221 at the fragile age of nine), which somehow illustrates the final years of Alamūt:

“Now this boy had been brought up with other little boys of the same age as himself in the occupation of rearing lambs and going round with camels, and he deputed the whole direction of his domain to women. And when he had reigned five years, a certain physician who was with them, without any illness which demanded the letting of blood, slit a vein and drew out from him a very considerable quantity of blood. And because of this black bile obtained the mastery over him, and he began to imagine horrible imaginings, and to think that he was God. And because the minds of those who were under his hand were obscured by great error, and they were delivered over to the knowledge of vanity, they believed whatever he told them. And no man was able to admonish him, but every man he cursed or abused, [his curses] caused to die an evil death. And because of this the wise men also who were under the yoke of his service, because of their fear of him, magnified him as God. And ʿALÂ AD-DÎN constitutionally hated ornamented apparel, and he dressed himself in raiment made of wool and blue ʿamarkûbâ (brocade?), and he dwelt continually with the sheep. It is said that one day when he was sitting on a pinnacle of a certain high mountain, with ambassadors from the various counties round bout him, that at a mere hint (i.e. motion) of his eyebrows, fifty of the men who were standing before him cast themselves down from the pinnacle of that high mountain and died. And thus the fear of him fell upon all the kings of the earth, and they were bowed down under the yoke of the tribute which they were giving to him and were sending with the good products of their lands.” (Bar Hebraeus 1932: 386–387).





[1] “Franks” was the popular name for the crusaders and for all the Western settlers in the Middle East during the Crusades.

[2] Outremer (French) – “Overseas”, the Crusader states and European territories in the Levant.

[3] Like one Roussel de Bailleul, who during the 70ties of XI century earned with his sword a domain in Central Asia Minor (Barber 1995: 19).

[4] The Nizārī Ismāʿīlīs were also known as “the New Message” in opposition to “the Old Message” of the Mustaʿlians.

[5] The time of the last pre-Islamic Iranian dynasty.

[6] Ṣūfīs were the mystics of Islam.

[7] The Soviet school brings the Ismāʿīlī movement down to purely feudal confrontation with the Seljuq rule and the accompanying propaganda, neglecting the religious and doctrinal motive – Беляев 1957: 7071; Строева 1978: 126127.

[8] Regarding the Nizārī state in Persia, which after all is not in the centre of the present study, see Defrémery 1860: 130210; Daftary 1990: 153, 324 ff; Ходжсон 2004: 4760, 71112, 151-158, 217235, 258286; Hodgson 1968: 422482; Lewis 1991: 55137.

[9] Jāhilīyya – “ignorance” or “barbarism”, the Quranic term for the pagan past of the Arab tribes before the Prophet Muḥammad.

[10] Another Ismāʿīlī school were the Druze, often mixed up in the sources with the Syrian Assassins (Lewis 1952: 482).

[11] Fidāʾī – “self-sacrificer”, the term for the Ismāʿīlī assassin.

[12] Regarding the different names of the Ismāʿīlīs and the use of hashish, see Daftary 1990: 1819, 93; Daftary 1994: 8991; Lewis 1971/1976: 573580; Lewis 1953/1976: 475, 477; Hodgson 1968: 443; Hauzinski 1974: 235237.

[13] This description was retold almost verbatim a century later in the Rothelin Continuation of William of Tyre (1999: 35). The Ismāʿīlī activity in the Lebanese mountains is mentioned also by Benjamin of Tudela (Binyamin da Tudela 1988: 31).

[14] Regarding the relations between the Assassins and the Munqidhites (the rulers of Shayzar), and the exploits of Prince Usāma Ibn Munqidh during the Ismāʿīlī sieges, see Usāmah Ibn Munqidh 1964: 107108, 146, 153154, 190192. Regarding the Ismāʿīlī attempts to take Shayzar, see Ibn al-Athīr 2006: 146; Ibn al-Qalānisī 1932: 147148; Cahen 1940: 397.

[15] Regarding the Sunni reaction, see also Lewis 1969: 109; Hodgson 1974: 61; Hodgson 1968: 453.

[16] The story of the Assassins’ training can be found also in the slightly later Rothelin Continuation of William of Tyre (1999: 36), as well as in Itinerarium Regis Ricardi (1882: 277) and Traité de la Terre d’Outremer (1882: 472 n.).

[17] Marshall Hodgson offers the hypothesis that Sinān escaped from Alamut in Syria because of an alleged conflict with Kiyā Muḥammad. Here he remained hidden until his friend Ḥasan came in power. Then Sinān reappeared and became the head of the Syrian daʿwa. This could explain why emissaries where sent from Alamut to kill him. In this case they were sent by Kiyā Muḥammad (Ходжсон 2004: 192 n.; Lewis 1966/1976: 251).

[18] According to some religious systems the incest brings superhuman knowledge and power (the myth of King Oedipus).

[19] Ṣūfī order.





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About the author

Никола Ламбев е доктор по история, защитил дисертация в катедра „Антична история, тракология и средновековна обща история“ на Исторически факултет при Софийски университет „Св. Климент Охридски“ (2007). Възпитаник е на Националната гимназия за древни езици и култури „Св. Константин Кирил Философ“. Специализирал е в Università di Pisa и Scuola Normale Superiore, Пиза, Италия (2005-6). По време на следването си завършва цялостен модул „Арабско обществознание“ към специалност „Арабистика“ в Софийски университет „Св. Климент Охридски“. Научните му интереси и публикации са интердисциплинарни, предимно в областта на контактите и взаимодействието на различните култури в Близкия изток през средните векове.