The End of the Eagle’s Nest - the Assassin stronghold of Alamut.

15 December 1256, 60 miles from Tehran, the forces of Hulagu Khan sacked the Eagle’s Nest, the Assassin stronghold of Alamut.
“Now no man was allowed to enter the Garden save those whom he intended to be his ASHISHIN. There was a Fortress at the entrance to the Garden, strong enough to resist all the world, and there was no other way to get in. He kept at his Court a number of the youths of the country, from 12 to 20 years of age, such as had a taste for soldiering, and to these he used to tell tales about Paradise, just as Mahommet had been wont to do, and they believed in him just as the Saracens believe in Mahommet. Then he would introduce them into his garden, some four, or six, or ten at a time, having first made them drink a certain potion which cast them into a deep sleep, and then causing them to be lifted and carried in. So when they awoke, they found themselves in the Garden“ (Marco Polo)

 The stylised assault on Alamut by Hulagu Khan,
Persian miniature, ca 1600

When the 6th Shiite Imam died in 765, a group around Ismail split from the main branch of Imamah and went separate ways, calling themselves the Ismāʿīlī henceforth. By and large not recognised by other Muslims, the Ismāʿīlī flourished in obscurity, seeing and laying out a further secret message behind the text of the Qur’an, obvious only to scholars, a combination of Greek philosophy and Sufism. Two hundred years later, a further branch developed that did not support the Fatimid Caliphate calling themselves Nizari. Under their leader Hassan-i Sabbah, this group in Syria and Persia soon became known by the abusive term Ḥashshāshīn, from “hashishiyya”, "without any explanation" and “using hemp”, more or less lotus-eaters. As otherworldly as their beliefs might have been to the other faithful, Hassan-i Sabbah established a very real and material rule over the region, soon coming into conflict with the expanding Seljuk Turks and their more orthodox exegesis of Islam. In 1092, a Nizari fida’i daggered the Seljuk vizier Nizam al-Mulk by the order of Hassan-i Sabbah from his stronghold Alamut Castle, marking the beginning of the legend of the feared sect of the Assassins.

An agent (fida’i) of the Ismailis («Order of Assassins») (left, in white turban) fatally stabs Nizam al-Mulk, a Seljuk vizier, in 1092 (14th century painting, wikipedia)

Marco Polo hands down the story of how young men were brought to the gardens of Alamut where they, doped and entertained by young ladies, enjoyed the pleasures of paradise. After a while, they were cast out of paradise again and trained to become fida’i, self-sacrificing agents, while obviously being cold turkey and promised to re-join the pleasures after successfully completing their mission, that meant, of course, their death. The story is very probably humbug, but Hassan-i Sabbah and his successors had indeed a larger group of highly motivated assassinators at their disposal and used them to further their own political agenda without hesitation. Their targets were primarily the neighbouring Muslim rulers and, rather infrequently, the Christian princes of the Outremer, Raymond II of Tripoli and Conrad of Montferrat being the exception, and the assassinations were usually related to strengthening Nizari rule in Northern Syria – until Sultan Baibars put an end to it during the second half of the 13th century. In 1271, after the end of the Crusader kingdoms, Baibars appointed one of his generals as governor over the Nizari territory, forced them to hand over their castles and had their leaders to live among his court in Egypt.

The ruins of Alamut in present-day Iran

The arrival of the Mongols in the Middle East changed everything, for the remaining Assassins in Persia as well as the other Muslims. In 1253, the first invasion under Ket-Buqa lost them most of their castles and while their last Imam Rukn ad-Din tried to negotiate with Hulegu Khan, offering complete submission under Mongol rule, the grandson of Genghis Khan would have none of it. In 1256 the Mongols approached Alamut, the Eagle’s Nest, and sacked the place after a short siege. The Persian historian Atâ-Malek Jovayni who accompanied the conquerors could at least salvage a part of the books deemed non-heretical from an orthodox Islamic point of view, but the greater part of the Nizari’s library, containing religious, philosophical and scientific writings, was destroyed along with the famous fortress. Afterwards, every male Nizari the Mongols could lay their hands on, was rounded up and killed. The descendants of Rukn ad-Din and the surviving Nizari left Persia and went into hiding until the 19th century.

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