The Cult of Hassan-i Sabbah

The Cult of Hassan-i Sabbah Tales of History and Imagination


This post/podcast episode is part one of a two (edit: probably Three) part Tale. I’ll be dropping part two in a fortnight.

There is a shadowy tale from the medieval Near East that persists in the modern imagination.  At some time in the 11th Century a heretical cult arose in the mountains of northern Iran and Syria. They lived in rugged castles – only approachable through near impenetrable passes. Approaching the fortress you soon had the sense the hills had eyes, and if those eyes did not approve of your presence, acolytes would rain stones down on you from high above. If you made it through the valley, a steep, narrow goat path awaited. Thousands of feet above, the cult’s ‘Eagle’s Nest’ – Alamut castle, and it’s charismatic leader – a prototypical James Bond supervillain if ever there was one. Sometimes referred to as ‘The Old Man of The Mountain’ – more on that in a second – this man was responsible for the murder of hundreds of Sultans, administrators and Holy Men. One tale of note, when the Crusaders arrived, and set up four Christian kingdoms on the Levant, the cult brutally murdered the soon to be crowned, new King of Jerusalem. 

Rather than sending in an army, a small party of men arrived at court disguised as monks. They blended in perfectly, winning the trust of Conrad of Montferrat -a savvy, capable warrior who came to prominence through his actions in the Third Crusade. When they sprung their trap, Conrad was no match for two knife wielding murderers. He never even saw them coming. On his way home from business, days after being elected King, two men rode alongside him and unhesitatingly thrust their daggers into him. One shot apiece and the king bled out at the scene of the assault. 

Meanwhile, neither man even attempted to flee the scene. One was killed by the king’s bodyguards, the other taken in and questioned. He said nothing, but they knew who he was. He was an Assassin. What was strange, the hit was purportedly carried out on behalf of King Richard The Lionheart of England – who was furious his nephew Henry II of Champagne lost the crown to Conrad. 

Conrad of Montferrat

It was a strange killing, the Assassins almost never targeted westerners. For one, they had no shortage of enemies in the Islamic world to keep them busy. The method of murder was exactly as first reported to the west by Catholic priests in Armenia. The killers were chameleonic, able to present as one of their own. When it came time to deal the killing blow, it came swiftly, dispassionately – and with a brutal precision. The Assassin rarely attempted to fight their way out, and if brought in alive, were even less likely to give a reason for the murder. Their choice of murder weapon was always the same – a hitherto concealed dagger. Their victims were always powerful people whose loss greatly affected their kingdom.

 According to 12th century reports they were utterly heretical. For one they were rumoured to eat pork (for a while at least they did give up all orthodoxy, so for a few years this was possible). The explorer Marco Polo also claimed they got their name, by his telling the Hashhashins – as they smoked a lot of hashish. It’s now more generally accepted their name comes from the Arabic word assas, meaning principle. They were people of principle. This scans. Whether deeply religious, or in their heretical phase, they always followed the teachings and principles set out by their leader.  

In another tale which comes down from Marco Polo, the old man had a valley blocked off from the world at large. Inside the valley he built a magnificent pleasure dome – based on religious depictions of paradise. He drugged acolytes into unconsciousness before ‘magically’ transporting them into the valley. Every pleasure imaginable was theirs – from stunning vistas to music, sumptuous feasts to, one presumes, 72 virgins? The acolytes truly believed they were in heaven – till, suddenly, they were thrust back into the real world. On coming to, the old man was there to greet you. From day one this man educated you in the ways of the world. Now he was here to console you for having attained, and lost, heaven. 

“There is a way to return, you know. Just take this dagger, and when the time is right…” Well, you know how the rest plays out. 

This part of the legend is categorically false. There was no pleasure dome built for nefarious purposes. The founder of the cult, an Ismaili preacher named Hasan-i Sabbah, for that matter became an old man living in a mountain fortress – but the badass sobriquet old man of the mountain belonged to a later leader of the cult. We’ll discuss that man, Rashid ad-Din Salam in part two, as he is often considered the greatest of the Assassin chiefs. It is fair to say though Hasan-i Sabbah was something of a supervillain – the man practically invented terrorism.

To discuss Sabah we need to know a little about the politics and religion of his time. The following is reductive – we have a lot of information to share.
Hasan was born on an indeterminate year – probably 1050 AD, in the city of Qom, south of Tehran. He was born to a Twelver Shi’a family. 

Regarding, Shi’a and Sunni, Twelver and Ismaeli – In 632 Islam’s originator, the prophet Muhammad, died without a clear succession plan. Two factions developed in the power vacuum. One, the Sunni, believed Abu Bakr – an early and learned follower of Muhammad – should take the reins. Bakr was named Muhammad’s deputy – his Khalifa – from which we get the term Caliphate. Another faction backed Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali. They became known as the Shi’atu Ali – the party of Ali. This later shortened to Shi’a. Though initially a political division, both groups religious views diverged over time. 

Power, for the most part stayed with the Sunni. Ali did get a run as Caliph in 656, but his short run was mired down in an ugly civil war. He was murdered in 661, ushering in the Sunni, Umayyad dynasty. The Umayyads remained in power for a century before losing power to the Abbasids, also Sunni’s. 

In the meantime the Shi’a followed a shadow Caliphate run by a series of Imams – mostly comprised of descendants of Ali, and his wife Fatima. 

Being cut off from power didn’t mean the Shi’a didn’t attempt to take over on occasion. On several occasions between 680 and the 750s, the Shi’a did attempt to rebel. Several preachers took on increasingly messianic personas. They also picked up a number of discontented peoples. 

One of the side effects of the spread of Islam was, owing to much of it’s being through military conquest – a class of disaffected, conquered people coalesced. These people often found themselves locked into a lower social class than they belonged to pre-conquest. Many were antagonistic towards the religion of the oppressors; but many were open to an edgy, alternative version of that religion which promised them fairness and equity.  

The uprisings were mostly pretty similar. A charismatic gathered a dedicated following through promising his followers better. Once of a significant size, that faction took a shot at overthrowing a local ruler by force. However violence started off, sooner of later it gravitated towards a traditional showdown – two large groups facing off against one another on a battlefield.  The bigger, more powerful Sunni faction always won. The spate of attempted putsches ran out of steam in the mid 8th century. 

Shi’a Islam itself was fractious. The two sects we need to discuss are the Twelvers and the Ismailis. 

When the Shi’a reached their seventh Imam, they ran into an important juncture. Ja’far ibn Muhammad originally intended his son Isma’il to follow in his footsteps and become the seventh Imam – but for an unspecified reason the two men had a falling out. Isma’il was banished, and when the Imam passed in 765, his younger son Musa took over. The Ismaili sect separated from the rest of the Shi’a. They built a new doctrine concerned with uncovering hidden truths. At the heart of their doctrine, a radical desire to oust the Sunni from power. The remainder of the Shi’a followed the succession of Imams till they hit number 12. The twelfth, Muhammad ibn al-Hassan, disappeared mysteriously in 874. His followers, known as Twelvers, believe he ascended into a spiritual realm, and will return alongside the prophet Isa (Jesus) on judgment day. By Hasan-i Sabbah’s day the Twelvers were largely moderate, the Ismailis radical. 

In short, Sabah grew up a smart kid into a far less privileged set, but among the more conservative of that group. One could imagine he had something of a chip on his shoulder. His father’s bloodline was from Yemen, where he claimed to be a descendant of the Himyaritic kings of Southern Arabia. They followed Judaism, and ruled over much of the country – till one day they massacred a Christian enclave. The massacre brought down the wrath the Ethiopian Aksumite Kingdom in the 520s. The Aksumites destroyed their kingdom.
As a teen he was a self described seeker, and hoped to become a scholar of Twelver Shi’a. That all changed when his father moved the family to the city of Rayy- a city known for it’s radical thinkers. In his late teens he fell in with the company of an Ismaili preacher named Amira Zarrab, who patiently debated young Hasan over many points of their faith. Amira hadn’t radicalised Hasan outright, but their debates opened his mind to other possibilities. 

His conversion to the Ismaili sect came after the young man caught a mysterious life- threatening illness. He pulled through, claiming his near-death experience gave him all the insight he needed. On recovery he sought out a Ismaili tutor. 

There’s a legend around Hasan’s turn to super-villainy that comes to us through the 19th century poet and writer Edward FitzGerald. FitzGerald states, in his introduction to his translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (a popular book of Persian poetry), there were once three young, ambitious friends. They went to school together, where each child excelled. Omar Khayyam, now known to us as a poet, was an excellent mathematician and astronomer. Hasan a theologian. The third young man was a budding politician who came to be known as Nizam al-Mulk. The three made a pact that when one achieved fame, they would help the other two get to where they needed to be. 

A modern depiction of Omar Khayyam

The legend tells Nizam al-Mulk was the first to reach prominence, quickly rising through political circles to become Vizier – a high official – to the Seljuk Sultan. Both men approached Nizam, and were offered governorships in far flung regions. Neither accepted. Khayyam wanted nothing more than an academic life and – if you’ve read his poetry you know this – a life full of pleasure. Hasan was rather hurt by the offer, and chose to put himself forward for his friend’s position at the first opportunity. Feeling threatened, Nizam dug up dirt on Hasan. He hoped to disgrace him so badly he’d leave the kingdom immediately. Whatever he found worked, and a shamed, and henceforth vengeful Hasan left for Egypt. 

This is another falsehood. Nizam al-Mulk, who did become Vizier in 1072, was three decades older than the two other men. Al-Mulk and Hasan did know one another however, and would cross paths on a couple of occasions. The circumstances of Hasan’s exile were rather different.

Hasan suddenly left Rayy in 1076, first for Isfahan in Central Iran, then Azerbaijan in the South Caucasus – then finally Egypt via modern day Lebanon and Palestine. His studies in Ismailism led to him becoming a missionary; an active recruiter to the cause. A vocal political agitator considered a threat to the order, it’s believed al-Mulk himself ordered Hasan’s arrest. On his journey he ran into further trouble elsewhere while proselytising. In Farquin, Turkey he was expelled from the city after making claims no-one but a Shi’a Imam had the right to interpret religious texts. On route via Damascus, Syria he ran into trouble of another kind, when a military conflict broke out. He finally arrived in Shi’a controlled Egypt in 1078, where he was warmly welcomed by the establishment. 

Even in Egypt, ruled by a Fatimid Shi’a regime, his radical preaching got him in trouble yet again. Egypt’s top general ordered him imprisoned, then expelled upon release to North Africa. In 1081 he was placed on a French ship – but the ship sank en-route. Hasan was rescued, then dropped off in Syria. From there he snuck back into Persia.   

Hasan-i Sabbah spent most of the following decade preaching his gospel in the far flung regions of Persia – especially in the rugged mountains of the North. Locals there were resistant to the spread of Islam. Many of his converts felt similar animosities towards the regime as he did. They were tough, resourceful people who could handle themselves in a fight, and many were happy to sign up to any cause that might bring them a better life. In Khurasan, to the North, Hasan-i Sabbah built himself a small nation’s worth of followers. 

This in itself presented a problem. Now you have an army, what do you do with it? Past efforts were all failures – like In 680 a group aligned with Ali’s son Husayn who tried to overthrow the Umayyad Caliphate. All but one of the conspirators were executed. Another movement in 685, fighting on behalf of another of Ali’s sons, Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya, lasted two years before they were done away with. Dozens of other groups, one of whom bore a resemblance to the Indian Thugee – they ritualistically strangled their victims – all fell by the wayside. Hasan realised he couldn’t ever go toe to toe with a Sunni army. He needed a force of special operatives who could blend in, then strike down leaders unexpectedly. If he could get people to believe it a righteous act, he was a good way there. Just convince them an action of removing an irreligious leader was not just right, it was their ticket to paradise. If these people were bold enough – it would cause ripples of terror that spread well beyond the Islamic world.
That was all good, but sooner of later, the enemy would mount a counter attack on their terms. What Hasan also needed was a mountain fortress so unapproachable, no-one would ever attempt to counter-attack. 

Alamut Castle was ideal. Set on a narrow ridge in the middle of the Elburz mountains, the castle was only approachable by a steep, narrow path. It was currently owned by another sect. That wasn’t going to stop Hasan. He sent several of his followers to the surrounding villages to convert locals. In September 1090, with several of his own sect now embedded in the castle, he was snuck into Alamut. Hasan delivered the owners an ultimatum. He had 3,000 gold dinars on him to buy the castle. The owners could take the money and leave. If they refused Hasan would have them all killed. The pervious owners took the money and left. Hasan stayed at Alamut castle for the rest of his life, another 35 years all up. In that time he never returned back down the mountain.

His cult continued to grow. The assassins captured several other mountain fortresses through similar means.

Part of the modern ruins of Alamut Castle.

First blood was shed soon after. One of Hasan’s missionaries came into conflict with a muezzin – an official who calls the people to Friday prayers. The missionary tried to convert the man, who refused to give the assassin the time of day. This led to his murder. Vizier Nizam al-Mulk was so furious he ordered the assassin responsible executed, his body subsequently to be dragged through the streets. In 1092 in reprisal, Sultan Malik-Shah ordered two expeditions to Alamut to kill the Assassins. Hasan only had a force of around 70 men to defend Alamut, but they withstood both sieges. 

On October 14 1092 the Assassins took out their first major target. Vizier Nizam al-Mulk continued to wage war against the cult. The Vizier was travelling from Isfahan to Baghdad with an entourage, when approached by a Sufi travelling in the opposite direction. Drawing no suspicion he was allowed to approach the Vizier. Once within striking distance the man, an Assassin named Bu Tahir Arrani, drew his dagger and stabbed the Vizier to death.
This was the first of nearly fifty successful assassinations carried out in Hasan-i Sabbah’s lifetime. All the victims at this time were princes, generals, governors and holy men who called for action against the Ismaili. The names of the assassins were entered on a roll of honour. The cult continued to grow, even infiltrating the Sultan’s army. Many high officials refused to leave the house without chain mail armour under their clothes. Further military expeditions were sent after them. Though surrounding villages were often pillaged, their mountain fortresses withstood the attacks. 

One expedition in 1107 was nearly derailed from within. False reports of uprisings elsewhere held them up for over a month. Insiders at court then delayed further by starting a religious debate. If a mission was being sent to depose the Assassins as heretics, can we honestly say they really ARE heretics? If so, how? All the while Assassins within the court attempted to kill the prominent Emir speaking the loudest against them. In this case the assassination attempt failed. Ultimately in this one case they did lose a fortress. The siege was extremely costly however. It only drove home certain castles held by the Assassins, Alamut included, would be several orders more difficult to take. 

When Hasan-i Sabbah passed on in 1124, they moved a long way towards peace with the Sunni and independence from the Caliphate. One tale told of their fight for legitimacy, Hasan sent a large sum of money to the Sultan, with a request for a meeting. When rebuffed, Hasan sent another gift days later. One morning the Sultan awoke to find a dagger, blade stuck deep into the floor next to his bed. The Sultan, clearly shaken, ordered the incident be kept secret. Hasan sent him a messenger the following day, the message “Did I not wish the Sultan well that dagger which was struck into the hard ground would have been planted in his soft breast”

For a while after this peace ensued. 

But, of course this would not always be the case. Crusades featuring glory-seeking Europeans began in 1095 and would continue in the region for centuries after. In Egypt a new regime, the Mamluks – comprised of enslaved Central Asians from the Altai basin – would take over, changing the geopolitical landscape. Of course the unstoppable Mongol horde eventually arrived on the scene. We’ll cover all of that in part two, The Old Man of the Mountain, in two weeks’ time.

1 thought on “The Cult of Hassan-i Sabbah

  1. Pingback: The Mongols are Coming! | Tales of History and Imagination

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