The word “assassin” is a term that has been used to describe a group within the Nizari Ismaili state, formed when followers split within a branch of Shia Islam.
The true origins of the name have been debated for centuries among historians, with one such theory holding that assassin has its roots in “hashshāshīn” – meaning hashish smokers or users. The spread of the term was further facilitated by the encounters of historians and chroniclers who spread it further across Europe, telling gruesome tales of a warrior sect hiding in isolated mountain fortresses.
The Nizari Ismaili state was founded by Hassan-I Sabbah, who was born around 1050 AD. in a family from the city of Qom, Iran. In his early years, Hassan developed a keen interest in metaphysical matters and academia, studying palmistry, foreign languages, philosophy, astronomy and mathematics.
Much of Hassan’s life is speculated or written by third-party sources, but biographer Rashid-al-Din Hamadani records Hassan’s arrival in Egypt to study as a missionary on 30 August 1078 AD.
The people who have been described as a sinister order of assassins
Hassan toured extensively throughout Persia, debating his teachings and views on religious doctrine with religious leaders. His travels reached the shores of the Caspian Sea and the Alborz Mountains in the Rudbar region, where he sought a base from which to guide his mission.
Around 1090 AD, Hassan and his followers captured Alamut Castle using an elaborate infiltration strategy to trick the garrison. With a foothold established in the region, he expanded his influence by capturing strongholds in Rudbar and built new fortresses at strategic points for defense and trade.
The rapid expansion of his territory did not go unnoticed and Alamut was soon attacked by the larger forces of the nearest Saljuq amir, marking the initiation of an endless series of Saljuq-Isma’ili military confrontations.
In less than two years after the conquest of Alamut, Hasan and his followers conquered several cities in the Quhistan region – establishing an independent territorial Nizari state for the Persian Ismailis in the midst of the Saljuq sultanate, of which Hasan would be the ruler.
What did the assassination strategy entail?
In 1092 AD, the Saljug launched several major expeditions against the Isma’is in both Rudbar and Quhistan. These skirmishes came to an abrupt halt with the assassination of the Saljug vizier, Nizam al-Mulk, by a disguised Nizari fighter, followed by the death of Sultan Malik-Shah just weeks later.
This disorder allowed Hassan to consolidate his power and seize the strategic fortress of Lamasar (Lanbasar), west of Alamut, and the fortress of Girdkuh near Damgan.
Hassan devised a strategy to decentralize the political and military power of the Saljuq Sultanate. He established a network of agents, who infiltrated the households of enemy figures and assassinated them.
This assassination strategy was soon identified with the Nizari Ismailis, marking them in history as a feared elite group of assassins.
A feared elite group
In the 12th century AD, Hassan began sending subordinates to Syria to propagate the Nizari teachings. However, it would be nearly half a century before an affiliated Syrian branch would establish itself in the region and establish itself under the leadership of a subordinate of Hassan, Rashid ad-Din Sinan.
Rashid managed to enjoy considerable independence from the Persian Nizaris. The scriptures even ascribe to him a semi-divine status. Rashid would play a prominent role in the regional politics of the time, orchestrating various assassination attempts and shifting alliances with Salah al-Din (Saladin), the Crusaders, and other regional powers to protect the independence of his community.
The most notable assassination by the Syrian order was that of Conrad of Montferrat, a few days before he was crowned king of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1192 AD. In the mid-12th century, the affiliated Syrian branch captured several fortresses in the Nusayriyah mountain range, but they were later annexed by Sultan Baibars.
From that time, the Syrian-affiliated Ismailis retained limited autonomy over these former strongholds as vassals of the Mamluks.
During the reign of the Mongol ruler Güyük Khan (1206 – 1248 AD), the Mongols’ expansion plan involved conquering Islamic states to reach West Asia. During this period, the Ismaili state of Nizari was one such significant barrier, fortified with over fifty fortresses that could slow the Mongol advance.
The first Mongol attack against the Nizari Ismailis took place in April 1253 AD, when many of the fortresses were lost to the Christian Mongol general Ket-Buqa. The Mongols finally reached the founding fortress of Alamut in 1256 AD, writes Heritage Daily.
Mercenaries for the kings of Hungary
With the fall of the Nizari Ismailis state, the remnants of the Syrian branch were absorbed into the territories of Sultan Baibars. Historian Yaqut al-Hamawi speculates that the Böszörmény, (Izmaleite or Ismaili/Nizari), denomination of Muslims who lived in the Kingdom of Hungary between the 10th and 13th centuries AD. they were employed as mercenaries by the kings of Hungary.
Dr. Ismail Balic writes in “Traces of Islam in Hungary” that “Islam was first brought to the country by the Ismailis (in Izmaelitak or Boszormenyek)”.
The Institute of Ismaili Studies states that the assassins of the Ismaili Nizari state were “elaborated over the years, with legends culminating in Marco Polo’s account that the Nizari leader controlled the behavior of his followers through the use of hashish and a secret garden of paradise.” .
So influential were these stories that the word “assassin” entered European languages as a common noun for murderer, and the Nizari Ismailis were described not only in popular mythology but also in Western scholarship as a sinister order of assassins.