The Assassins of Alamut by Anthony Campbell.pdf

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Anthony Campbell
Who were the Assassins?
Assassins and assassination are, regrettably, very much with us today. Our heads of
government must be protected by elaborate security day and night, while the rest of us in
many parts of the world are constantly at risk of being caught up in the fanaticism of zealots
of one kind or another who feel it justifiable, or even meritorious, to kill innocent
bystanders. Assassination as a political weapon is no doubt as old as organized human
society but the word itself is of mediaeval origin and refers to the activities of a Persian sect
who were popularly supposed to drug themselves by means of hashish, whence the name.
The Assassins did indeed carry out political murders with as much publicity as possible and
therefore were terrorists, but unlike their modern counterparts they did not kill innocent
bystanders; they were highly selective in their activities. But who were the original Assassins,
and what did they believe about themselves? These are fascinating questions, whose interest
is not confined to politics or history; the ramifications extend to religion, mysticism, and
ideas about the millennium.
The Assassins were a heretical Islamic sect. They were a potent source of myth and legends;
this emerges in an imaginative account written by Marco Polo, who visited the site of their
castle at Alamut in Iran just after its destruction by the Mongols. He repeats the legend of
how the future assassins were supposedly prepared for their missions by being drugged with
hashish, brought into a secret pleasure garden, and told they had visited Paradise, to which
they would return if they were killed in action.
By the time Marco Polo reached Alamut, the prevailing view of the sect as supremely wicked
yet dangerously alluring was already well established in people's minds. Alamut was already
well past its heyday when it fell to the Mongols, but the legend of depravity and license had
arisen much earlier, when the castle was the centre of a widespread and, from the orthodox
point of view, most dangerous heresy.
Even before Marco Polo, the West had encountered the Assassins through their Syrian
branch, which was known to the Crusaders. The great contemporary historian of the
Crusades, William of Tyre, had written about them in a way that reveals a fair amount of
understanding, and a remarkable embassy from the Assassins had gone to the King of
Jerusalem offering their conversion to Christianity. At one time the Syrian Assassins were in
loose alliance with the Franks against Saladin, whom they attempted more than once to
murder, though later -- and especially after the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin in 1187 -- they
took part in the Muslim struggle against the Franks. In 1192 Conrad of Montferrat was
murdered by men disguised as monks, and it is generally supposed that these were Assassins,
though the English King Richard I has also been suspected of instigating the murder. From
this time on, it seems, the Crusaders, already severely demoralised by the loss of Jerusalem,
became more fearful of the Assassins, to whom they ascribed devilish cunning, a mastery of
disguise, and a knowledge of various Frankish languages.
Count Henry of Champagne visited the Assassins in 1194, and is supposed to have
witnessed a remarkable display of loyalty on behalf of the followers of the "Old Man of the
Mountain". (This is another misconception, based on a literal translation of "sheikh", which
should have been rendered as "master".)
While walking together in the castle one day, Henry and the Assassin chief began to talk of
obedience. Some youths in white were sitting on top of a high tower. "I will show you what
obedience means", the chief said; he gave a sign, and immediately two of the youths leapt
from the tower and were dashed to pieces at the foot of the rock.
Stories such as these made up the legend of the Assassins that persisted in the West until
quite recently. In the nineteenth century a Viennese amateur historian called von Hammer
Purgstall wrote a book about the Assassins in which he ascribed to them, if not quite every
conceivable form of infamy, at least most of those that could be openly referred to in print
at the time. Whenever more than one possible interpretation of a statement or event existed,
von Hammer automatically preferred the one that showed the Assassins in the worst
possible light. His motive in writing seems to have been as much to emphasize the
wickedness of all secret societies (including the Jesuits and Freemasons of his day) as to
make a historical study of the Assassins, and his book has little historical value; nevertheless,
it remained the standard reference work on the sect as late as the 1930s, when Freya Stark
went to Alamut.
Since that time, however, much new information has come to light, some of it material
preserved by descendants of the Assassins themselves. This has been extensively studied and
edited by the Russian scholar W. Ivanow, who apparently has had access to a large number
of documents and manuscripts that are not generally available. The other main authority on
the sect is the American M.G.S. Hodgson.
From all this modern scholarship has emerged a picture of the Assassins which, if it lacks
some of the lurid qualities of the legend, has at least the merit of credibility. Moreover, the
truth turns out to be more enthralling than the fiction. No longer can we believe in the Old
Man of the Mountain hatching his evil plots and sending forth his murderous emissaries
drugged with hashish. Such a state of mind hardly seems compatible with the legendary
accomplishments of the assassins -- their superlative cunning, patience, knowledge of
languages, and so forth -- and in any case our modern experience of terrorism does not
suggest that its perpetrators require any narcotic stronger than fanaticism itself. Besides, if
the claims of modern users of hashish are to be believed, the effects of the drug tend more
towards pacificism than murderousness. But there is no real evidence that the Assassins used
hashish at all, at least for this purpose. (It is possible that they used it as a psychedelic agent
for religious reasons, but that is another matter.) The term "hashishin", from which our
word Assassin probably derives, was not used by members of the sect themselves but was a
nickname applied by their enemies; even so, it was not in common use. The usual names for
the Assassins were "esotericists" (batinis), Isma'ilis, or Nizaris.
The real story of the Assassins contains several fascinating elements. First, there is the use of
political murder, which is what the sect is chiefly remembered for today. Then there is their
complex philosophy, which guided their development and culminated in the extraordinary
proclamation of the 'Resurrection' at Alamut. This in turn was followed by the tragedy of the
destruction of Alamut by the Mongols. Yet, amazingly, this was not the end for the
Assassins, for they were reborn as the Khojas in India; the Agha Khan is the lineal
descendant of the rulers of Alamut. This is the story that I tell in this book.
A visit to Alamut (1966)
I first heard of the Assassins many years ago when I read Freya Stark's classic travel book
The Valley of the Assassins . Probably because she was such a remarkable writer, the notion of
the Assassins lodged in my mind, so it was natural that when I later found myself living in
Iran I should think of making a journey to see the Assassins' stronghold for myself. In 1966
I did so.
It was of course a much easier expedition for me, even in 1966, than it had been for Freya
Stark thirty-five years earlier; it was probably also easier than it would be today, though for
different reasons. In 1930 Freya Stark had to make the whole journey on foot, but in 1966 a
road, of sorts, went at least part of the way, though there was still a half-day's walk to reach
the Castle from the road. Even in 1966 not many people went there, however, and it was
difficult to obtain much reliable information in advance, so that a little of the spirit of
discovery still attended the project. Indeed, shortly after I went I was followed by no less
distinguished a traveller than Wilfrid Thesiger, who was passing through Iran on his way to
some more adventurous journey. Thesiger no doubt regarded his visit to the Castle as little
more than a pleasant stroll, whereas for me it was a major undertaking.
Unlike Freya Stark -- and thanks largely to the sketch map in my well-worn Penguin copy of
her book, which accompanied me -- I at least knew exactly where the valley lay. It is set
among the mountains at the Western edge of the Alborz range, between the plain of Qazvin
in the south and the province of Mazanderan bordering the Caspian Sea to the north. In
earlier times a part of these mountains formed the district of Daylam, which was, and still is,
remote and wild. They separate the central Iranian plain from the Caspian, and they are a
formidable barrier, with passes at about 10,000 feet. On the south side the mountains are dry
and barren, with scattered oases of cultivation. On the north side you enter a different world,
where the slopes are densely forested. Wild animals -- boar, bear, leopard -- are still to be
found there today, and in mediaeval times must have been much more plentiful.
The main castle of the Assassins lies in the Alamut valley, on a tribute of the Alamut River
near a village called Qasir Khan. I had been told that there were lorries that carried paraffin
from Qazvin to the mountain villages; they called at Shahrak, at the head of the valley, and
from there it was about six hours' walk to reach Qasir Khan. My plan was to visit the castle
and then to go on northwards over the mountains and down through the forest to the
Caspian. I knew no one who had done this but it looked quite feasible on the map.
My equipment consisted of a back pack in which I carried some spare clothes and
emergency rations and also a sleeping bag and an aerial survey map of the mountains kindly
lent me by a friend in the US embassy. The map was not really detailed enough for my
purpose but it was all I had since Freya Stark had not continued on the route I intended to
follow. I relied on being able to get local advice.
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