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Assassins (Ismailites) - 1090-1255

Historically, assassination was an accepted hazard of those in power or of those who posed a threat to the established order. The term 'assassin' derived from a crusader corruption of the arabic 'hashashin' or users of hashish. The assassin differs from the terrorist (whose purpose is to create chaos) and the murderer (who kills out of unreasoning passion) in that he deliberately and calculatingly sets out to take a life. Moreover, assassins usually act alone, without belonging to an organized group.

The impact of assassinations on society can be incalculable. For instance, the murders of the French Foreign Minister and the King of Yugoslavia in 1934 assured factionalism in Yugoslavia and the ascendancy in France of a politician noted for his appeasement of Nazi Germany. Psychiatric diagnoses of assassins have suggested that many of these persons have schizoid personalities of a paranoid type. Thus, the murders of the Kennedy brothers, Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley, James Garfield, and the attempts on the lives of other American political figures, supposedly were acts of deranged individuals. The case studies of Lee Harvey Oswald and Sirhan Sirhan show further that these assassions shared a belief that they could alter world conditions with a gun.

On the fall of the Saljukians, Persia was divided among several petty princes. The king of Khuwarizm held Khurasan. The Assassins continued their power on the south-east borders of the Caspian for 160 years. The rest of Persia was divided amongst the petty sovereigns called Atd-begs. The Ishmaelians or Assassins constituted a sect or confraternity, which was founded by Hassan Sabah, about the year 1090, in Persia. The title given to the chief of the Order was Sheikh-el-Jebel, which has been translated the "Old Man of the Mountains," but which meant literally, " The Sage of the Kabbala." Some writers confounded them with the Templars, whom were considered as the precursors of the Freemasons. The old belief that they were a confederacy of murderers - whence was taken the English word assassin - must now be abandoned as a figment of the credulity of past centuries.

The name is derived, it was supposed, from their immoderate use of the plant haschish, or henbane, which produced a delirious frenzy. Some believed the word to be derived from their founder Hasan; but the more probable derivation is from Hashish, a species of intoxicating hemp, taken previous to their engaging in their diabolical enterprises. Hence Hash-shashin, corrupted by the Crusaders into Assassin.

Shakespeare's works abound in references to drugs and poisons; some of these pertain to the mystic vagaries and superstitions of kakopharmacy or dirt medicine, alchemy and witchcraft; others, on the other hand, are borrowed from the more scientific, even though empirical, data furnished by the materia medica and poison-lore of antiquity and the Middle Ages. The manner of Hamlet's father's death as described by his ghost in Act I, Scene 5, is from "juice of cursed hebenon in a vial." There are altogether five interpretations: some holding that hebona or hebenon means the yew-tree; others that it refers to henbane or hydscyamus niger; still others explain it as ebony; a few suggest that the word may refer to hemlock; and a few others think that the deadly nightshade or belladonna is here meant.

Hashish, the produce of the Indian hemp, was renowned for the singular power of awakening in the mind a train of phenomcna'of the most extraordinary character, entrancing the senses in delicious reveries, and modifying the organic sensibility. The opium-eater, and the devotee to the winebottle, declared that their favorite means of enjoyment possessed little power in comparison to hashish.

Marco Polo reported that the Old Man of the Mountain, so mysteriously known, educated young men, the most robust of his tribe, to execute his barbarous decrees. To those who delivered themselves up entirely to his will he promised future rewards of eternal happiness, of which he gave them a foretaste by placing them in delicious gardens, adorned with all that Asiatic luxury could imagine of rich and brilliant, and where every sensual gratification was at command. The young men, after having swallowed a certain beverage, were placed in temples within the gardens; and there, while under the influence of intoxication, indulged to the utmost in their degrading passions, till such was their rapture, that at a word they would throw themselves from the summit of a tower, rush through flames, or strike a poniard in the heart of their dearest friend.

But Marco Polo did not claim the Old Man used hashish. In fact, he wrote "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 dead with sleep he had them conveyed to the several apartments of the palaces in the garden."

In any event, the enthusiasm of the crusaders was met in the East by a similar excitement, which gave birth to societies formed in the spirit of Mohammedanism, and springing directly from the desire of sustaining the cause of Allah and his prophet by the extreme of religious fanaticism. Hassan-Ben-Sahab is the mysterious reformer of Islam. He appeared on Mount Lebanon after the middle of the eleventh century, preaching the reform with extraordinary eloquence ; but his fiery ambition urged him forward beyond the bounds of his mission. As the Imam of Mohammed, he proclaimed the second advent of the Prophet ; he enraptured the masses with his vehement exhortations of the austerest observances of Islamism ; he formed a bodyguard initiated in the mysteries of the advent, and occupied Alamut, in the mountains of Dilem. Urged on by his ambition, he boldly changed the creed, and proclaimed that "There was no God but God, and that Hassan was the Prophet of God,"' and at the head of thousands of fanatical followers built up his empire extending from the frontiers of Persia to the coast of the Mediterranean.

Yet it was not a state with a united territory. It was only an order of fanatics called Hatsheshim, or as the crusaders pronounced it, Assassins, who from their numerous strongholds all along the mountains, obeyed the commands of the terrible Prophet, the Sheik al Djebal, the Ancient of the Mountain, and kept the people in the most fearful subjection to his invisible power. Hassan, in his snowwhite caftan and turban, the emblem of purity, was the grand master of his order of Saracen Knights or Fedavies, who, under their three Dais al-Kebir, or grand priors, were trained to the most extraordinary obedience and self-sacrifice.

Malek-Shah, the Sultan of Mossoul, astonished at this far-spreading heresy, marched his army against Hassan and sent his envoy to the castle of Alamut to enforce submission. The old Sheik of the Mountains, surrounded by his Assassins, received the Turk, and beckoning one of his followers said : "Stab thyself," - and to another: " Throw thyself down from the battlements" - and before the words were pronounced his disciples had obeyed him and lay expiring - the one at the feet of the Turk - the other, lacerated at the bottom of the precipice! not only as willing but as joyful martyrs to their faith. The terrible old man then turned to the trembling envoy: "Go tell thy master what thou hast seen, and add, that seventy thousand heroes like these obey my nod." The Sultan still advanced, but on seeing, the next morning, a mysterious dagger sticking in his pillow, in the most retired part of his tent, he became so frightened that he ordered the retreat of his army, and left the old monster of the mountain to himself.

Fearful, almost incredible, were the secret murders of the devoted Assassins. The ministers, the viziers in Bagdad, in Cairo, the chieftains in the mountains, the Kaliphs, the Sultans surrounded by their courtiers and life-guards, Count Raymond II of Toulouse before Tripolis in 1151, the Marquis Conrad of Montferrat in Acre in 1192, several kings, distinguished prelates, and knights - not only in Palestine, but even in Europe - fell beneath the dagger or by the poison of the invisible Old Man of the Mountain.

The terror was so great that every demand of the mysterious chief was immediately complied with, for the secret members of this Mohammedan Temple were every where. Their principal castles were Alamut or Vulture's Nest, situated to the north of Casbin on the frontier mountains of Dilem, the seat of the Old Man. Rudbar on the west, and Lamsir and Kirdkuh on the northeast of Alamut, were impregnable fortresses, held by the fanatics. Tabsin (Tubbus), Tun and Kanain, Assassin castles of Kuhistan in Persia, secured his influence in the east, while the fortresses of Shadeir (Schadiz). near Ispahan, Dirkul and Kalendshan, farther south, extended his authority toward the west.

Thus a chain of strongholds brought the Sheik in communication with his most important possessions, those of the district of the Ismaelitcs (279) on Mount Lebanon between the principality of Antioch and the county of Tripolis. Here the treacherous Assassins or Ismaelites possessed the castles of Masyad, Kehef, Kadmus and Szafita, in the highest range of the mountain, and the still more important Balanca, Banias (Valenia) on the sea-coast, which in its strong position among precipitous rocks cut off the communication between the Christian States.

At Alamut and Masyad were the luxuriant gardens concealed by high walls, where the young fedavies, intoxicated with "hashish" [of some sort], were carried to taste the joys of paradise (as they were made to believe), and were thus rendered willing to encounter death in order to secure a permanent seat in that abode of bliss.

Under the Sheik stood, 1st, the three Dais al-Kebir (grand priors of the order); 2d, the Dais or initiated masters ; 8d, the Refeeks, or companions; 4th, the Fedavies, or devoted ; 5th, the Laseeks, aspirants or novices, and lastly the multitude of the profane people. The fundamental maxim of the creed, which separated the secret doctrines of the initiated Assassins from the austere public tenets of the mass of the common people, was most carefully preserved, and the people were held to the strictest injunctions of the Koran. The East did not detect the motive power of the Assassins' Chief; the trembling multitudes only saw the poniard strike those who had offended the Envoy of the invisible Imam himself, the forerunner of the Great Prophet, who was expected to arrive in power and glory to assert his dominion on earth.

The eastern branch of the Assassins was destroyed by the Mongols during the invasion of Hulagu in 1258. In Syria they continued to alarm the crusaders for fourteen years longer, until their strongholds, Masyad and Banias, were besieged and taken by Bibars, the Mamluke Sultan of Egypt, and the rest of the Assassins fled into the higher ranges of the mountain, where they still possess a mystical religion and live under the name of the Ismailiyeh.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:45:33 ZULU