At the end of the 11th century in the dry and broken mountains of Persia and Syria, a secret order of Nizari Muslims was formed. For the next 200 hundred years this brotherhood would operate in secret, maintaining the balance of power throughout the region as they sought their own goals.
This Shia order was bound by a common approach. They would monitor both Muslim and Christian leaders in the Middle East, watching from the shadows. And their chosen tool of statecraft would become synonymous with their name: these were the Hashshashin, also known as the assassins.
Formed by Hassan-i Sabbah, the order captured the great castle at Alamut in Iran, which would serve as their headquarters. Other strongholds were captured across Persia and Syria and the assassins grew in strength.
Nobody was safe from their blades. Viziers and caliphs, Christian Crusaders and holy men would all die at their hands. Saladin, great leader of the Seljuk Turks, escaped from them twice, and the Crusader leader Raymond II of Tripoli would die to an assassin, dragged from his horse and murdered at the southern gate of his city.
A State in Their Own Right
The Nizari Assassins saw themselves as their own state, standing apart and unencumbered by the politics of local kingdoms. Hassan-i Sabbah had initially supported Nizar ibn al-Mustansir, a claimant to the throne of the Fatimid Caliphate who had been usurped by his younger brother in concert with the court Vizier.
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Nizar himself would be executed by his brother in 1095, and from that point on the assassins would keep his lineage alive in their memories through a line of what they called “secret Imams”. These heirs to Nizar’s line won themselves a string of castles across Persia and Syria, and by 1100 they had infiltrated the Sultan’s court, and his army too.
The Vizier who had guided the younger brother of Nizar to the throne was one of the first victims, and more than 50 further officials would be killed under the order of Hassan-i Sabbah as the assassins secretly took over key positions at court.
Hassan-i Sabbah himself died in 1124, but his successors guided the assassins through the next two centuries. Their goals and methods were so secretive we are not even sure of what they were, and even the full list of their victims remains unknown.
But even the assassins could not resist the power of the invading Mongols. Castle after castle fell to the invaders, including Alamut in 1256 and, having been recaptured, again in 1275. The assassins were crushed as a power in the region.
Or at least that is what is said. Rumors persisted for decades afterwards that the assassins had survived the fall of Alamut and hidden themselves away, waiting for a chance to return and recover their position. The rumors were slow to die, and only after nothing had been heard for many years were the assassins forgotten.
Perhaps they did survive, taking their secrets and escaping the Mongol destruction. Perhaps they changed their practices, choosing never again to offer visible targets to an invading army.
Perhaps they survive to this day.
Top Image: The Hashshashin, also known as the assassins, were a powerful political faction in Persia and Syria for two centuries. Source: Warmtail / Adobe Stock.
By Joe Green