Hasan-i-Sabah was born in Persia in 1055 to a Shia Muslim family. As he grew older, he studied the Ismaili sect of Shiism and soon embraced it enthusiastically. He traveled throughout Persia, Syria and Egypt spreading the word. The Seljuk Turks invaded Persia in the middle of the eleventh century and forced their Sunni Islam on the Persians. This aggression intensified Hasan’s desire to spread Ismailism. He soon had many followers.
Alamut castle in the Elbruz Mountains of northern Persia dominated the 90-square mile valley below. Hassan converted many of the local inhabitants and soon they smuggled him into the impregnable castle. When the owner of Alamut discovered that his home had been invaded, he graciously agreed to leave. Hassan rewarded his kindly act by paying a fair price for the fortress.
Hasan spent the rest of his thirty-five years in Alamut. He never left. He led an exceptionally ascetic life. He exiled a flute player for playing music, as his strict Muslim creed taught that music was only for the dissolute. He had a son executed for consuming wine. His followers admired his piety.
Political murder was not new to Islam. The Prophet praised anyone who killed a political foe. Three of the four Righteous Caliphs that succeeded Muhammad were murdered. Hasan agreed that selective killing of political leaders was preferable to war, and oftentimes accomplished the same thing. But he mastered the intricacies of selective political elimination, what we now call assassination. There were plenty of Sunni targets in Persia for his agents. His agents never fled after committing their crime, which was always accomplished with nothing but a dagger.
The name “Assassin” most likely comes from the the derogatory term hashishim, used by both Sunni and hostile Shia. It has nothing to do with hashish and rewards of drug-filled romping through the Garden of Pleasure. Contemporary literature mentions nothing about this.
In the twelfth century, the Syrian Assassins were in trouble. They were surrounded by hostile Sunnis, be they Nur al-Din of Aleppo or Saladin, or local Sunni tribes. And European Crusaders were pushing the Assassins back as well. They were already paying a high annual tribute to the Knights Templar.
Rashid al-Din Sinan was born near Basra in about 1132. He joined the Ismailis and lived for a time in Alamut. Hassan II, the third ruler of Alamut after Hasan-i-Sabah, sent Sinan to Syria to strengthen the group in 1162. He played off one Muslim foe against another to keep his boat afloat. He proposed an alliance with Amalric, King of Jerusalem, if the King could negotiate an end to the tribute due to Templars. But the Templars would have none of that. One killed Sinan’s ambassador. Amalric apologized and jailed the offending knight. Unfortunately, Amalric’s unforeseen death due to dysentery precluded any further negotiations.
Sinan sent assassins to kill Saladin twice but failed. Saladin twice attacked Assassin strongholds, including Masyaf. But eventually the two groups allied.
In 1187, Saladin defeated the Kingdom of Jerusalem at Hattin. Then he picked off one Crusader castle or city at a time. He was soon at the gates of Tyre, the last Crusader stronghold in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. However, Conrad de Montferrat had arrived from northern Italy and had strengthened the city’s defenses. Twice Saladin laid siege to the city and failed to take it. Conrad was soon elected the new King of Jerusalem, after a fierce rivalry with Guy de Lusignan, the former king who had been captured at Hattin. Soon after, two Assassin disguised as monks stabbed him to death. One was killed on the spot and the other was captured. It is not known if Conrad’s murder was done at Saladin’s request or if Assassin-Crusader relations had deteriorated to the point that the killing was seen as a political necessity. Some thought that Conrad’s murder was done at the order of Richard Lionheart, who had backed Guy de Lusignan’s attempt to return to the throne. In a twist of historical irony, Sinan died soon after Conrad, and Saladin not long after Sinan. Richard had left the Holy Land six months before Saladin’s death. As he made his way through Europe, back to England, he was captured by Leopold Duke of Austria, a cousin of Conrad. Leopold charged Richard with the murder and sent him to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry for imprisonment. It must almost be noted that Richard, upon his arrival at Acre during the Third Crusade, found Leopold’s standard flying by the standard of the King of France. He immediately tore it down and put up his own, stating that the standard of a duke should not fly as high as that of a king.
After Sinan, the Syrian Assassins were commanded directly by the Lord of Alamut. They continued to balance alliances between Sunnis and Crusaders to keep their security. No further assassinations of Muslims were undertaken. However, Raymond son of King Bohemond IV of Antioch was killed by Assassins. Bohemond sent an army to crush them but the descendants of Saladin vowed to aid the Assassins and Bohemond cancelled the offensive.
The Syrian Assassins found themselves in an alliance with the Knights Hospitaller against Bohemond IV. When Pope Gregory IX found out, he forbad any further Hospitaller or Templar alliance with the Assassins. As these groups were answerable only to the pope, they had to comply.
The Mongol Hulagu Khan, grandson of Ghenghis Khan and brother of Kublai Khan, conquered Seljuk Persia and went on to raze Baghdad and cripple Damascus. They smashed Alamut and wiped out the Persian Assassins. The Syrian Assassins, however managed to survive. Their castles were captured by the Mongols, but the Assassins helped the Mamelukes of Egypt defeat the Mongol army at Ain Jalut in 1260. Thereafter, they were loyal subjects of the Mameluke sultans.
Good books on the subject:
The Templars and the Assassins, The Militia of Heaven, 2001; James Wasserman
A History of the Crusades, Volume II, 1952; Sir Steven Runciman
A History of the Crusades, Volume III, 1954; Sir Steven Runciman
Warriors of God, 2001; James Reston, Jr.