14th-century painting of the successful assassination of Nizam al-Mulk, vizier of the Seljuk Empire, by an Assassin.
In my mythic fantasy novel, The Fruit of Passion, the world I’ve woven draws heavily from the Welsh branch of Celtic mythology and tradition, namely from the works of the Mabinogion, The Spoils of Annwn and the Welsh Triads. The main cast of characters are Northeners whose kingdoms, customs and traditions have their base on the history of Yr Hen Ogledd: The kingdoms of the Old North and the various Celtic tribes of the isle of Britain from the Iron Age to the medieval period as well as their potent magico-religious beliefs regarding the Otherworld.
Continuing in the same historical vein, an important theme of my novel to which a large part of the plot is dedicated relates to the violent clash between the Celts and the Romans during the expansion of the later’s Empire in the South. Again, here I’ve based my fictional Empire on that of the ancient Romans, incorporating a slew of their Mediterranean customs and notions into the narrative as their counterparts, the Vitalians, conquer new territories and annex them to their ever-growing state.
The neighbouring countries of the South and the East have forfeited their freedom and have bowed down as the Vitalians have clasped the yoke of tyranny around their throats. Only the Northern isles have managed through blood and sacrifice to remain independent as they have waged for centuries an open rebellion at great cost to themselves.
However, amidst the subjugated Eastern provinces, a spark of resistance still flares: an elite society of warriors who take refuge in their mountainous strongolds and embark on raids against the conquerors to free their countrymen and restore their nation to its former glory. So, with the initiative of their leader, these fighters seek an alliance with the Northern kingdoms in order to crush the Vitalians and shake off the bitter bonds of slavery.
A major influence in the conception of these Esstern recusants stood the real-life order of the Assassins in Persia and Syria. So, let’s explore what this shadowy brotherhood was and what tenets its members adhered to, shall we?
The Order of Assassins: Identity
The Assassins were a Nizari Isma’ili sect of Shia Islam who lived in the mountainous regions of Persia and Syria between 1090 and 1275. The shocking means of attack they employed focused mainly on the murders of prominent political figures of the Middle East. Targeting first Muslim and then Christians, they always singled out those who undermined and assailed their state.
The present-day term assassination is based on the policy used by the Assassins. Their religious sect was born in the late 11th century after a succession crisis within the Fatimid Caliphate between Nizar ibn al-Mustansir and his half-brother, caliph al-Musta’li.Contemporaneous historians include the Arabs ibn al-Qalanisi and Ali ibn al-Athir and the Persian Ata-Malik Juvayni. The first two called the Assassins batiniyya, a name widely accepted by Isma’ilis themselves.
Brief History: Rise and Decline
The founder of the Nizari Isma’ili was the erudite Hassan-i Sabbah. Sabbah called his disciples Asāsiyyūn, “أساسِيّون”, an Arabic term which translates as ‘’those faithful to the foundation of the faith’’. The state rose into existence in 1090 after the storming and capture of Alamut Castle located in modern Iran, which the Assassins used as their inner sanctum and headquarters.
The Alamut and Lambsar castles became the pulsing hub of a nexus of Isma’ili fortresses scattered throughout Persia and Syria. Some of these included Syrian strongholds at Masyaf, Abu Qubays, al-Qadmus and al-Kahf. Sabbah held the reins of the Nizari Isma’ili state until his death in 1124. The Assassins and their terrorizing subterfuge became known to the Western part of the world through the written accounts of the explorer Marco Polo. The Europeans mistakenly believed their name to stem from the term hashish, and that the Assassins were hashish consumers, something which was only a colourful tale circulated amongst the West.
The head of the Nizari Isma’ili state was a religious leader, at first da’i and later Imam. Amongst the most prominent Assassin leaders of the sect operating in Syria were al-Hakim al-Munajjim, the physician-astrologer (d. 1103), Abu Tahir al-Sa’igh, the goldsmith (d. 1113), Bahram al-Da’i (d. 1127), and Rashid ad-Din Sinan, having enjoyed the fame of the greatest Assassin chief (d. 1193).
While Assassins is understood to encompass all the members of the sect, in actuality only a faction of disciples known as the fida’i engaged in armed conflict.Without their own troops to command to march into battle, the Nizari relied on these warriors to spy on and assassinate major political enemies. The weapons they wielded were the daggers, as they weren’t inclined towards arrows and poison. Their opponents involved authorities like the Fatimids, Abbasids and Seljuks.
In the course of three centuries, their victims amounted to hundreds, among them a Jerusalem ruler and multiple Muslim and Christian chiefs. Their first victory regarding the establishment of the Nizari Isma’ili state in Persia was the assassination of the Seljuk vizier Nizam al-Mulk in 1092.
Other targets of note included Janah ad-Dawla, emir of Homs, (1103), Mawdud ibn Altuntash, atabeg of Mosul (1113), Fatimid vizier Al-Afdal Shahanshah (1121), Seljuk atabeg Aqsunqur al-Bursuqi (1126), Fatimid caliph al-Amir bi-Ahkami’l-Lah (1130), Taj al-Mulk Buri, atabeg of Damascus (1132), and Abbasid caliphs al-Mustarshid (1135) and ar-Rashid (1138).
The Kurdish founder of the Ayubbid dynasty, Saladin, a salient adversary of the Assassins, managed to escape their ire twice when attempts against his life were made (1175-1176). In 1152, the Count of Tripoli, Raymond II, fell dead by the daggers of the Assassins. The Assassins struck terror, too, at the hearts of the Crusaders, the latter losing the actual king of Jerusalem, Conrad of Montferrat, in 1192 and Philip of Montfort of Tyre in 1270.
The rule of the Imam Rukn al-Din Khurshah marked the internal decline of the Nizari Isma’ili state, which was destroyed in the end as Khurshah surrendered the castles to the Mongols after the latter invaded Persia. Khurshah died in 1256, and the arrival of the Mongols sounded the death knell for the Assassins. By 1275, the order had received a blow from which it would never recover its former flourishing.
A host of Western, Arabic, Syrian and Persian accounts spoke of the order, depicting its ranks as highly trained killers, resistant to torture and interrogation who aimed at the annihilation of major political foes who opposed the order’s goals.
European orientalists of the 19th and 20th centuries also mentioned the Isma’ili Assassins in their works, basing their references on seminal works by medieval Sunni Arab and Persian authors, particularly ibn al-Qalanisi’s Mudhayyal Ta’rikh Dimashq (Continuation of the Chronicle of Damascus), ibn al-Athir’s al-Kāmil fit-Tārīkh (The Complete History), and Juvayni’s Tarīkh-i Jahān-gushā (History of the World Conqueror).
In the subsequent parts of my essay, I’ll focus on issues such as the etymology of the name given to the order, their origin, their military tactics, succession and the next generation as well as the legends and folkore that has surrounded them.