The Original Assassins Were a Feared Cult That Ordered Hits All Over the Middle East - Atlas Obscura
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The Original Assassins Were a Feared Cult That Ordered Hits All Over the Middle East

How to eliminate your rivals from deep within an impregnable mountain fortress.

Alamut Castle, home of the Assassins, can be seen perched atop this massive rock. (All Photos: Sherwin Shams)

If you were a member of a secretive, banned religious sect in the 11th century, chances are that you’d be fairly concerned about your safety and security, and you would probably go to great lengths to hide that knowledge from the public eye. With the penalties for holding such heretical beliefs ranging from forced conversion and wealth confiscation to torture and death, it could even make you quite paranoid.

One such leader, Hassan-e Sabah, took that paranoia to an extreme level, holing himself up in an impregnable mountain fortress for the rest of his life while orchestrating a stealth campaign of targeted killings of political rivals. Perched high upon a massive rock in the Alborz Mountains in what’s now modern-day Iran, the castle was the stronghold and nerve center for one of the most mysterious and feared groups ever to operate in the Middle East: the Assassins. 

The fortifications as seen from the valley.

A millennium after the sect Sabah founded became a byword for secrecy, fear and terror, the only approach to the Assassins’ former hideout remains a narrow, winding path that weaves its way around the back and sides of the mountain, barely wide enough for a single laden donkey to make its way up to the summit–the way in which it was first constructed. Squinting up against the sun, the earth-colored rock north of Qazvin, Iran, seems unclimbable, not to mention unconquerable.

Despite the fact that the path has since been refurbished, shored up, and provided with handrails to allow easier access, it’s a tough uphill walk. To launch an attack up it, however, would be laughable against even the slightest opposition from overhead.

In Sabah’s day, rocks were reputedly kept in readiness along the cliff edges, and could be dropped across the path from complete safety, letting gravity and solid mass make short work of any foolish enough to attempt to take the castle.

Approaching the internal castle keep – the inner stronghold where Hassan Sabah ruled.
Nor would have a siege have been an easy task. Built deep into the foundations of the fortress were massive storehouses of grain and water silos, estimated to have been enough to keep the garrison alive for up to two years. The sheer height and strength of the rock rendered traditional siege engines like catapults irrelevant, while also making any enemy troop movements visible from afar. There was no water source to poison or cut off, and no weak point to target.

So far, so secluded. But how would a ruler command from such a position of isolation? The answer lay in Sabah’s extended network of spies and agents across the region, from modern-day Afghanistan to the Mediterranean shores of Syria and Egypt. An adept and well-traveled purveyor of intrigue and conspiracy, in hushed meetings from city to city he had witnessed first-hand how his co-religionists were already skilled at hiding in plain sight, and knew that he could rely on their devotion.

The sole entrance to the castle, with modern doorframe.

Having been converted to Ismaili beliefs—a sect of Shia Islam that was seen as radical and unorthodox—as a teenager, he swore an oath of allegiance and then journeyed across Persia and the Islamic world of the time, eventually arriving in Egypt to continue his religious education. Details on Sabah’s life vary from source to source, as first-hand sources are rare and much of what is known about him comes from unverifiable myths and rumors intended to paint a negative picture of the Assassins and their beliefs. What we do know, however, is that when he returned to Persia from Cairo around the year 1080, he was an ardent preacher, attracting people to his cause, and spreading his network from place to place.

The vizier of the time, Nizam al-Mulk, of Persia’s Seljuq Empire, was strongly opposed to these activities, believing them to undermine the state and spread sectarianism. He therefore sent a party of soldiers after Sabah to bring him in and silence his preaching. Sabah, who was in Qazvin, escaped into the nearby Alborz mountains, where he hid for several years.  

An overview of the castle structure along the ridgeline, as seen from the highest lookout point.

It was here that he came across Alamut castle for the first time, and realized that it would make a perfect base for his operations. In what would be a first clear example of his particular brand of cunning and manipulation, he orchestrated a bloodless coup against the then-ruler of the castle, infiltrating the guards and domestic staff with his own followers.

Having gained control of this incredible defensive position, Hassan-e Sabah began his much more widespread campaign of terror, targeting select individuals who opposed him and his sect, and dispatching killers to take them out.

A water silo dug deep into the rock.

It is generally believed that the group used highly trained followers to get close to targets and either threaten them or dispose of them. These agents, like modern sleeper cells, would often lie in wait for years, working their way into positions of influence and responsibility before waiting for the command to strike. One of the most notable of the killings attributed to them was that of Sabah’s nemesis, the vizier Nizam al-Mulk, who was stabbed on the road to Baghdad by an assailant posing as a wandering holy man, or dervish.

So well-known and feared were the group that today’s word “assassin” entered the English language directly as a result of their actions. However, this was not the name they used for themselves, and the word’s origins are disputed. One theory is that it comes from the narcotic hashish, which was supposedly used as a form of mind control while indoctrinating youthful recruits, or as a way to make their agents fearless in the face of almost certain death. While romantic, this idea doesn’t seem to have too much evidence behind it; other etymologies propose that it was a Western mishearing of a word meaning “faithful,” or a term of disrespect used by their enemies.

A view from the castle of some of the spectacular rock formations sheltering the valley.

These enemies were certainly numerous and, faced with a hidden threat which could strike anywhere, even within the supposed safety of their own palaces, they concocted wild stories about the Assassins’ beliefs, rituals and practices, leading to claims of the most extreme behavior taking place within Alamut’s walls.

While many of these derogatory accusations are hard to verify, what we do know about the stronghold is that, besides the parts meant for defense and survival, there was a well-stocked library—one of the world’s foremost repositories of holy texts at the time, housing practically the only collection of the Ismaili scriptural writings. There was also a series of inner chambers, secluding the leader still further from the outside world and any possible treachery—only his most trusted deputies and guards were allowed to approach him directly. This paranoia apparently served Sabah well, however, as he lived safely in isolation within the citadel for nearly 35 years. 

The view over the village below, still inhabited after more than 900 years. It is now famous for its cherry orchards.

His dynasty survived him, with the Assassins occupying Alamut for more than 130 years after his death. Eventually the fortress fell, though not to direct military means. When the Mongols invaded and conquered several other Assassin castles in the region in 1256, word was sent from their leader to surrender the castle without resistance, in exchange for the lives of all contained within. For the second time the citadel changed hands, again without bloodshed, and the reign of the Assassins at Alamut came to an end. The new conquerors demolished much of the fortress, rendering it uninhabitable, and burnt almost all of the priceless library.

For this reason, much of the documentary evidence of Hassan-e Sabah and the Assassins was lost, so the castle, perhaps appropriately, retains many of its mysteries and secrets to this day. A devoted organization with a ruthless leader at its head: it’s hard not to wonder what era-defining plots and schemes took place within these walls, high above the plains below.