In 1295, Marco Polo, the famed merchant-adventurer, made his way back to Venice after spending over 20 years journeying through Asia. His observations were captured in The Travels of Marco Polo, where he wrote about many captivating stories, including an account of a Muslim group Europeans referred to as the Assassins.
He alleged their leader, the “old man of the mountain,” lured young followers using substantial amounts of hashish and gardens filled with enchanting maidens. Believing they had glimpsed the paradise awaiting them post-death, these young men vowed unwavering loyalty to their leader.
European Orientalists in subsequent centuries were mesmerized by Polo’s narrative, each contributing their own interpretations. However, medieval Muslim sources painted a less exaggerated yet decidedly negative picture of the Nizaris, the Shia Muslim sect Polo’s story was based upon.
The 13th-century account by Muslim scholar Ibn al-Athir portrayed them as a menace. Labeling them Batini—meaning esoterics—he highlighted their controversial tactics and their origin in significant divides within the Muslim populace.
Modern pop culture, specifically the video game series “Assassin’s Creed,” draws from the Nizaris’ history, setting a fictionalized Order of Assassins against the Knights Templar in a millennia-long battle for autonomy.
With the recent release of “Assassin’s Creed Mirage” from Ubisoft, it’s intriguing to delve into the background of the Order of Assassins, rooted in the actual Nizari Ismaili state from the 11th to 13th centuries.
By the start of the tenth century, the Islamic realm was largely under the domain of the Abbasid caliphate, asserting supremacy over all Muslims, or sovereign leaders who recognized the Abbasids in name.
Contrasting with Sunni Muslims, who endorsed Abbasid governance and believed Prophet Muhammad left no appointed successor, Shiites maintained the leadership could only continue via imams, and Muhammad’s lineage was deemed impeccable by those before them.
Starting with Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib, divergent opinions on succession led to internal divisions among Shiites. One breakout faction, the Ismailis, took their name from Imam Ismail ibn Jafar.
Despite Sunni suppression, Ismaili emissaries journeyed throughout Islamic regions, preaching and guiding spiritually. Their endeavors culminated in 909 with the formation of the Fatimid caliphate, an Ismaili regime named after Muhammad’s daughter, Fatima.
In the subsequent eight decades, the Fatimids extended their reign across various regions, establishing Cairo as their core and mounting the most formidable opposition to Sunni dominance since the 7th century.
While their military expeditions had boundaries, Fatimid advocates continued their missions across the Islamic territories, attracting adherents and triggering uprisings against Sunnis.
In 1058, a Fatimid-backed revolt temporarily seized Baghdad. However, the Seljuk Turks, protectors of the Abbasid leadership and Sunni tradition, soon reclaimed it.
Roughly ten years later, a young man named Hasan Sabbah from the heart of Persia (present-day Iran) was introduced to the teachings of the Fatimids. Such was the intensity of his conversion that he sought to become a missionary of the faith.
As he evangelized throughout northern Persia, he then took a journey to Cairo in 1076. After a tenure of three years in the Fatimid hub, Hasan journeyed back to Persia, determined to rally support for an uprising against Seljuk dominance.
As Ismaili historian Farhad Daftary notes in The Assassin Legends: Myths of the Ismailis, Hasan’s capturing of Alamut in 1090 not only marked a bold move against the Seljuks but also laid the foundation for the Nizari Ismaili state.
In the mountains of northern Persia, Hasan took control of and bolstered the Alamut Castle, a fortress elevated on a towering rock. In the neighboring valley, he initiated agrarian advancements, which Marco Polo would later interpret as a heavenly garden resembling paradise.
By 1092, his expanding influence led him to gain control over several strongholds, drawing the eyes of the Seljuk ruler, who dispatched a force to challenge him, albeit unsuccessfully. In that same year, a disguised Ismaili assassin ended the life of the sultan’s trusted vizier, Nizam al-Mulk.
Simultaneously, as Hasan worked to propagate Fatimid influence in the east, Egypt’s Ismaili landscape was being reshaped by a leadership struggle. The death of Fatimid caliph al-Mustansir Billah in 1094 resulted in two contending heirs: his elder son and heir-apparent, Nizar, and his younger sibling, Ahmad.
The previous two decades of Mustansir’s rule saw state matters governed by the Armenian vizier Badr al-Jamali and his offspring, al-Afdal Shahanshah, whose sister was wedded to Ahmad. The throne soon saw Ahmad, regarded by Afdal as more malleable than Nizar, crowned as al-Mustali Billah.
Instead of acquiescing to his younger sibling’s ascension, Nizar resisted, a resistance that met a swift end and saw him executed around 1095. With the Shiite’s nass doctrine – which stresses the importance of an infallible imam’s designation – the rift between Mustali and Nizar followers had both political and spiritual implications.
The reasons for Hasan’s allegiance to Nizar remain ambiguous. Some tales highlight personal disputes with the Armenian viziers in Cairo. It is said that Hasan, after winning Mustansir’s trust, became a suspect in Badr’s eyes and was incarcerated. Legend has it that the prison walls miraculously crumbled, granting Hasan freedom.
Such stories may reflect the broader disdain many Ismailis felt towards Badr and Afdal, perceived as undermining the caliph and lukewarm towards the Ismaili objectives. This sentiment paved the way for Persian Ismailis’ distinct identity.
Hasan’s support for Nizar underscored a wider shift in the Ismaili mission of Persia. According to Walker, Hasan emphasized the Ismaili doctrine’s core tenet – the indispensable presence of a divinely instructed imam to guide people. However, a challenge emerged: the deceased Nizar had not named his successor.
Before his departure from the world in 1124, Hasan was revered as hujja, the principal envoy of the unseen imam and the Nizari community’s head. Utilizing this title, Hasan’s lineage upheld their authority until 1164 when his grandson, Hasan II, elevated his status by declaring himself as the manifest imam.
Following the division with the Nizaris, Ismailis in Persia pursued an approach of military resistance against the Seljuks and their Sunni adversaries, adapting their tactics in light of the overwhelming might of their opponents.
From their series of mountain fortresses in Persia and Syria, the Nizaris initiated surprise attacks, overtook vulnerable fortifications, and targeted key enemy figures for elimination.
While not the inaugural group in Islamic territories (or beyond) to resort to assassination for political objectives, the scale and infamy of the Nizaris’ use of this method stood unparalleled. Key individuals who became victims of the fidai attackers encompassed Mawdud, Mosul’s Seljuk leader; a pair of Abbasid caliphs; the despised Fatimid advisor Afdal; and al-Amir, Mustali’s offspring, and the Fatimid caliph.
The formidable Ayyubid leader, Sultan Saladin, a dedicated Sunni who rose to power in Egypt post the last Fatimid caliph’s demise in 1171, initiated battles against Syrian Nizaris.
He evaded assassination attempts twice but halted his offensives shortly after. Additionally, the Nizaris adopted non-violent techniques to meet their objectives. Their Ismaili evangelism continued unabated post the schism of 1094, delving deeply into the defense and governance bodies of their Sunni rivals.
Confronted with the escalating Nizari menace, Sunni rulers retaliated using equally uncompromising strategies. The main character in the inaugural “Assassin’s Creed” video game from 2007, Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad, is a constructed entity.
Born in 1165 with a Nizari father and Christian lineage from the mother’s side, Altaïr honed his skills with the Order of Assassins, guided by Rashid al-Din Sinan, the documented Syrian Nizari chieftain sometimes labeled as the “old man of the mountain” in Polo’s writings. (Hasan remains another potential reference for this anonymous figure.)
Following an unsuccessful mission at Jerusalem’s Temple of Solomon, Altaïr is tasked with eliminating nine adversaries from the opposing Knights Templar. While the fidais were fervently committed, there exists no concrete evidence to support claims of their involvement in the excesses depicted by Polo or that they were enticed by worldly visions of the afterlife.
European voyagers, predominantly Crusaders, disseminated the portrayal of Nizaris as intoxicated fanatics in Europe. Yet, these narratives often echoed stories that had been prevalent among Muslims for ages. Polo’s encounters were primarily influenced by Sunni critics who branded the Ismaili faction as deviant and perilous.
A circulating tale even insinuated that Ismailism was a creation of a Jewish sorcerer aiming to dismantle Islam. While the narcotics narratives were European constructs, they likely drew from the disparaging label “hashishin” (users of hashish), a term frequently directed at Nizaris by fellow Muslims.
The Crusaders venturing into the Levant between the 11th to 13th centuries adopted and augmented these tales, seeking an explanation for the Nizari fidais’ puzzling bravery.
The myths they carried to the West encompassed heavenly rewards and intense hashish consumption, yet omitted the enchanting garden – an addition by Polo. The practice of illustrating the Nizaris in wildly exaggerated narratives persisted even after the Mongols obliterated their order in 1256.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, as European intrigue in the purported Orient intensified, Orientalists drew upon Crusader chronicles and antagonistic Sunni records to project myths as truths.
Recent assessments of the Nizaris have taken on a markedly political undertone, leveraging present-day narratives of unrest in the Middle East to resurrect images of the “Assassins.”
In his writings, Pape occasionally references the debated historian Bernard Lewis, who proposed that the Nizaris “might just be the inaugural terrorists,” even though earlier groups with similar characteristics existed in diverse sociopolitical landscapes.
Conversely, scholars such as Daftary, Daryoush Mohammad Poor, and others connected to the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London, have been striving to offer a refreshed perspective on the Nizaris for many years.