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The Assassins: Part II

Where were we? Ah, yes: With the ninth-century Qarmatians in southern Iraq. In 899 they actually founded an independent state on the Persian Gulf under the leadership of Hamdan Qarmat’s disciple Sa’id al-Hasan al-Jannabi. For a century this state staged bloody raids on neighboring principalities as far off as Syria.

Eventually, the Qarmatian state was destroyed. Yet many of its ideas lingered on. Among those influenced by them was a Persian named Hasan ibn as-Sabah, who gathered a band of armed followers and in 1090 gained control of the 3,000-meter-high mountain stronghold of Alamut, in the Elburz Mountains of Iran, south of the Caspian Sea. The site was visited some two centuries later by Marco Polo, who found memories of Hasan to be still vivid. He wrote of them:

He had made in a valley between two mountains the biggest and most beautiful garden that was ever seen, planted with all the finest fruits in the world…. and also four conduits, one flowing with wine, one with milk, one with honey, and one with water. There were fair ladies and damsels there, the loveliest in the world, unrivaled at every sort of instrument and at singing and dancing…. No one ever entered the garden except those whom he wished to make Assassins [assassini in Marco’s Italian]…. He would give them draughts [of hashish] that sent them to sleep on the spot. Then he had them taken and put in the garden, where they were wakened. When they awoke and found themselves there and saw all the things I have told you of, they believed they were in Paradise….Now the Sheikh held his court with great splendor and magnificence and bore himself most nobly and convinced the simple mountain folk round about that he was a prophet; and they believed it to be the truth. And when he wanted emissaries to send on some mission of murder, he would administer the drug to as many as he pleased; and while they slept he had them carried to his palace…. When [they awoke and] he asked them whence they came, they would answer that they had come from Paradise and they would tell their listeners all that they had found there. And the others who heard this and had not been there were filled with a great longing to go to this Paradise; they longed for death so that they might go there and looked forward eagerly to the day of their going.In order to bring about the death of some lord or other man which he desired, he would take some of these Assassins of his and send them wherever he might wish, telling them that he was minded to dispatch them to Paradise; they were to go accordingly and kill such and such a man; if they died on their mission, they would go there all the sooner. Those who received such a command obeyed it with a right good will, more readily than anything else they might have been called on to do. Away they went and did all that they were commanded. Thus it happened that no one ever escaped when the Sheikh of the Mountain desired his death….

Hasan ibn as-Sabah was thus the original “Old Man of the Mountain,” preceding his namesake Rashid ed-Din Sinan by a hundred years. He also founded a secret religious brotherhood of which he termed himself “grand master” and which aimed, in the words of the Arab historian Philip Hitti, “to emancipate the initiate from the trammels of doctrine and encouraged him to dare all. Below the grand master stood the grand priors.…the lower degree of the order comprised the fida’is, who stood ready to execute whatever orders the grand master issued.”

If the word feda’i, or “self-sacrificer,” rings a bell, it should. It’s the singular of “fedayeen,” a term coined by Hasan ibn es-Sabah and widely used in Arabic to this day to describe irregulars fighting for an Arab cause. It’s a favorite of the Palestinians and also had wide currency during the recent fighting in Iraq.

The descriptions of Hasan ibn es-Sabah and Rashid ed-Din Sanin’s “Assassins” that we find in sources like Marco Polo, or in the medieval Arab historian Ibn-Battuta, remind one strongly of today’s Muslim suicide bombers. Nor is this the only parallel to come to mind. The Assassin network spread throughout the Middle East, setting up bases throughout Syria and Lebanon, and it even found recognized rulers who welcomed it and gave it refuge, such as the Seljuk prince of Aleppo, Ridwan ibn Tatush. Sound like Al Qaeda?

In the end it took a great power then, too, to put an end to Assassin terrorism. This was Genghis Khan’s Mongols, who swept through the Middle East in the mid-13th century and — with the help of the Mamluks — finished the Assassins off. Or at least finished them as a fighting force. As a religious sect they continued to exist, eventually calling themselves Ismailis, after the disputed seventh Sh’ite imam Ismail, and coming under the aegis of the Aga Khans of India, who in recent generations have been known mostly for their fabulous wealth and the sybaritic lives lived by them in the fashionable capitals of Europe. It should only happen to Osama bin Laden!

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