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From _The Book of Grass: An Anthology on Indian Hemp_, edited by George
Andrews and Simon Vinkenoog.

THE ASSASSINS by Philip K. Hitti

The Assassin movement, called the "new propaganda" by its members, was
inaugurated by al-Hasan ibn-al-Sabbah (died in 1124), probably a Persian
from Tus, who claimed descent from the Himyarite kings of South Arabia.  The
motives were evidently personal ambition and desire for vengeance on the
part of the heresiarch.  As a young man in al-Rayy, al-Hassan received
instruction in the Batinite system, and after spending a year and a half in
Egypt returned to his native land as a Fatimid missionary.  Here in 1090 he
gained possession of the strong mountain fortress Alamut, north-west of
Qazwin.  Strategically situated on an extension of the Alburz chain, 10200
feet above sea level, and on the difficult by shortest road between the
shores of the Caspian and the Persian highlands, this "eagle's nest," as the
name probably means, gave ibn-al-Sabbah and his successors a central
stronghold of primary importance.  Its possession was the first historical
fact in the life of the new order.

From Alamut the grand master with his disciples made surprise raids in
various directions which netted other fortresses.  In pursuit of their ends
they made free and treacherous use of th dagger, reducing assassination to
an art.  Their secret organization, based on Ismailite antecedents,
developed an agnosticism which aimed to emancipate the initiate from the
trammels of doctrine, enlightened him as to the superfluity of prophets and
encouraged him to believe nothing and dare all.  Below the grand master
stood the grand priors, each in charge of a particular district.  After
these came the ordinary propagandists.  The lowest degree of the order
comprised the "fida'is", who stood ready to execute whatever orders the
grand master issued.  A graphic, though late and secondhad, description of
the method by which the master of Alamut is said to have hypnotized his
"self-sacrificing ones" with the use of hashish has come down to us from
Marco Polo, who passed in that neighborhood in 1271 or 1272.  After
describing in glowing terms the magnificent garden surrounding the elegant
pavilions and palaces built by the grand master at Alamut, Polo proceeds:
"Now no man was allowed to enter the Garden save those whom he intended to
be his ASHISHIN.  There was a fortress at the entrance to the Garden, strong
enough to resist all the world, and there was no other way to get in.  He
kept at his Court a number of the youths of the country, from twelve to
twenty years of age, such as had a taste for soldiering... Then he would
introduce them into his Garden, some four, or six, or ten at a time, having
first made them drink a certain potion which cast them into a deep sleep,
and then causing them to be lifted and carried in.  So when they awoke they
found themselves in the Garden.

"When therefore they awoke, and found themselves in a place so charming,
they deemed that it was Paradise in very truth.  And the ladies and damsels
dallied with them to their hearts' content...

"So when the Old Man would have any prince slain, he would say to such a
youth: 'Go thou and slay So and So; and when thou returnest my Angels shall
bear thee into Paradise.  And shouldst thou die, natheless even so will I
send my Angels to carry thee back into Paradise.'"

(from 'The Book of Ser Marco Polo, the Venetian', translated by Henry Yule,
London, 1875.)

The Assassination in 1092 of the illustrious vizir of the Saljug sultanate,
Nizam-al-Mulk, by a fida'i disguised as a Sufi, was the first of a series of
mysterious murders which plunged the Muslim world into terror.  When in the
same year the Saljug Sultan Malikshah bestirred himself and sent a
disciplinary force against the fortress, its garrison made a night sortie
and repelled the besieging army.  Other attempts by caliphs and sultans
proved equally futile until finally the Mongolian Hulagu, who destroyed the
caliphate, seized the fortress in 1256 together with its subsidary castles
in Persia.  Since the Assassin books andrecords were destroyed, our
information about this strange and spectacular order is derived mainly from
hostile sources.

As early as the last years of the eleventh century the Assassins had
succeeded in setting firm foot in Syria and winning as convert the Saljug
prince of Aleppo, Ridwan ibn-Tutush (died in 1113).  By 1140 they had
captured the hill fortress of Masyad and many others in northern Syria,
including al-Kahf, al-Qadmus and al-'Ullayqah.  Even Shayzar (modern Sayjar)
on the Orontes was temporarily occupied by the Assassins, whom Usamah calls
Isma'ilites.  One of their most famous masters in Syria was Rachid-al-Din
Sinan (died in 1192), who resided at Masyad and bore the title shakkh
al-jabal', translated by the Crusades' chroniclers as "the old man of the
mountain".  It was Rashid's henchmen who struck awe and terror into the
hearts of the Crusaders.  After the capture of Masyad in 1260 by the
Mongols, the Mamluk Sultan Baybars in 1272 dealt the Syrian Assassins the
final blow.  Since then the Assassins have been sparsely scattered through
northern Syria, Persia, 'Uman, Zanzibar, and especially India, where they
number about 150000 and go by the name of Thojas or Mowlas.  They all
acknowledge as titular head the Aga Khan of Bombay, who claims descent
through the last grand master of Alamut from Isma'il, the seventh imam,
receives over a tenth of the revenues of his followers, even in Syria, and
spends most of his time as a sportsman between Paris and London.