Hassan-i-Sabah, photo in the Public Domain
Assassin’s Creed is one of the highest-grossing video game franchises, grossing an estimated $4.6 billion in 2020. According to Richard Moss at Polygon, the Ubisoft franchise initially intended Assassin’s Creed to be a sequel to Prince of Persia, reimagined for a new generation of consoles — the PS3 and Xbox 360. The games offer unprecedented freedom in running, jumping, and climbing onto the buildings of cities like Damascus, Acre, and Jerusalem. The protagonist, an Assassin, fights against the rival group of Templars in a game rife with ideological and religious conflicts.
I didn’t know that Assassin’s Creed is based on real-life history, an ancient clan known as the Hashashins. The Hashashins originated in 1094 in Syria and northern Iran and would carry out political assassinations for about 150 years. Fredrich Nietzche once referred to the Hashashins as living a life “of which no monastic order has ever achieved,” which absolutely terrified the Christians of the Crusades.
This is the story of the Hashashins, the inspiration behind Assassin’s Creed.
The man who started the Hashashins was named Hassan-i Sabbah, who was a well-known and respected Shia Muslim. And the Hashashins, near the beginning of their inception, found one great enemy: the Christian armies of the Crusades. According to Brendan Lowry at Windows Central, Sabbah established a fortress at Alamut for the Order of Assassins. There, the Hashashins made their palace in a sturdy and highly defensible place.
Sabbah called his disciples Asāsiyyūn, which in Arabic means “people who are faithful to the foundation.” Marco Polo noted the Hashashins committed many political murders, often under the influence of drugs (hashish), which would be the origin of a possibly derogatory name for the assassins. However, in Egyptian Arabic, hashasheen means “noisy people,” which is a more plausible explanation.
Sabbah and the Hashashins were a part of the Ismaili sect of Shia Islam. According to Farhad Daftary in the Historical Dictionary of the Ismailis, Sabbah seized Alamut Castle in 1090 and used it as a seat of the Nizari Ismaili state of Persia. It was a bloodless conquest — Sabbah turned took his time to win over the people of Alamut. In the castle, Sabbah established a major library, and his followers established other castles that challenged the Seljuk Turks, Sunni Muslims in control of Persia.
He was an intensely religious man, and his followers were too. One time, Sabbah had one of his sons executed after he was accused of drunkenness. He and the Hashashins supported Nizar, the Ismaili prince and founder of the Fatimid dynasty. Maria Crenshaw, author of The Assassins: a terror cult, Sabbah and the rest of Nizar's followers were known as Nizari Ismailis. Their faith would be the driving force for their assassinations.
“They used the sacredness of their mission to justify the murder of anyone opposed to their attempts to convert people to their form of Islam.”
Kallie Szczepanski at Thought Catalog notes that the Hashashins were meticulous in their assassination attempts. They would often study the languages and cultures of anyone against the Nizari Ismaili state. The difference between Assassin’s Creed and the Hashashins was that the Hashashins didn’t wear cloaks — they would camouflage themselves in a crowd, whether it was as peasants or in a royal court.
Since the group did not have many members, they used assassinations with knives they could conceal. The U.S. Army’s guide to terrorism in the 21st century says the Hashashins provoked intense fear in their opponents. One rumor said they had to use hashish to produce the courage to kill enemy leaders so brazenly.
The Army uses five criteria to describe terrorism, even for groups in antiquity: killings had to be theatrical in a sense. The killings would have to be political, psychological, coercive, dynamic, and deliberate. The Hashashins method of assassination would include sending a lone assassin to kill an enemy leader. The assassin would almost always be killed or captured, and they would often wait next to the bodies they killed for capture, seeming not to fear death at all. The Army notes the Hashashins were remembered for many reasons:
“First as forerunners of modern terrorists in aspects of motivation, organization, targeting, and goals. Secondly, although both were ultimate failures, the fact that they are remembered hundreds of years later, demonstrates the deep psychological impact they caused.”
These assassins were promised a place in Heaven following martyring themselves and carrying out an attack. The assassinations would inspire such horror throughout the Middle East, as Szczepanski notes, that many enemy leaders wore armor or chainmail shirts under their clothes.
Most of the victims were Seljuk Turks early on in the history of the Hashashins. Their most high profile target was Nizam al-Mulk, a Persian vizier in the Seljuk court. His killer, Butahir Arrani, was disguised as a holy man, and he would be killed by Nizam’s guards immediately. Nizam’s son, Fakhri, would also be killed by a Hashashins disguised as a beggar. The Hashashins also killed one Sunni caliph named Mustarshid in 1131.
At the time, Sunni caliphates like the Abbasid Caliphate and the later Seljuk Empire mistreated Shi’a Muslims. But in the 10th and 11th centuries, the Roman Empire embarked on the First Crusade, and Christian Crusaders attacked the Middle East to secure Jerusalem. Between the Crusaders and the Seljuks, the Nizari Shi’a did not have the numbers to defeat either in open battle.
The Assassins were so feared in the region that, according to Crenshaw, they could threaten an enemy into submission to get what they want. Throughout history, many would defend and condemn the Nizari Ismailis. Their enemies would be more inclined to sacrifice large numbers of troops in battle than run the risk of sudden death “at the hands of a dagger-wielding fanatic.” Their fanaticism meant the Nizaris would never try to escape, and such loyalty sparked the rumor the killers would be drugged while making the attacks.
However, Crenshaw says most scholars discredit the rumor of the assassins being drugged, saying these rumors were invented to tarnish the sect’s credibility. “After all, a drug-befuddled emissary would hardly be an effective killer,” she says. From the Hashashins, the Christian Crusaders translated a word named “assassin,” which would be a common term in Europe for people who committed political murders.
The end of the Hashashins
The Mongols would eventually bring down the assassins. In 1219, the ruler of Khwarezm, a city of modern-day Uzbekistan, killed a group of Mongol traders in the city. Genghis Khan, furious, decided to punish Khwarezm and proceeded to conquer most of Central Asia. All of Persia fell to the Mongols, except the Hashashin fortresses.
Despite the assassins pledging their loyalty to the Mongols, Genghis Khan’s grandson, Mongke Khan, wanted to conquer the Muslim world. The Hashashins tried to kill Mongke Khan, and the Mongols didn’t hold back anymore.
The Mongols captured Alamut on November 19, 1256, after the Hashashins surrendered. To stop the assassins from coming back together, they tore down all their castles. By 1275, the Mongols had killed and taken out all the Hashashins.
If the fact that the word “assassin” coming from Hashashin tells you anything, the Nizaris invoked significant fear. However, the Arabic etymology was forgotten in the early 19th century.
But the group’s approach to warfare was unprecedented in history, being remembered by the military for its extreme terrorism even today. At the time, Crenshaw says the Muslim world regarded the Hashashins with both horror and disgust and didn’t look kindly on their religious beliefs either.
“Many had considered the sect a real threat to stability in the Muslim world,” Crenshaw says.
Most orthodox Muslims of the time thought the Mongols provided a service in wiping out the Hashashins. Works like Assassin’s Creed remember centuries leader, the Sabbah and his assassins. Vladimir Bartol once wrote a novel called Alamut, which also inspired Assassin’s Creed. A character named Hassan-i Sabbah said on his deathbed, are “nothing is true, everything is permitted.”
Originally published at Frame of Reference on January 3rd, 2021.