The deadly vengeance of the hash eaters

The Nizaris, a deadly sect of Ismāʿīli warriors, were feared across the Middle East and beyond for their daring attacks on powerful enemies. They became known as the ḥaššāšīn or Ḥashshāshīn – a word that was modified in European languages as the Assassins. The word’s Arabic origin was, however, devised as derogatory slur to highlight a particular habit of the group. To the god-fearing, they were the notorious order of hashish-eaters.

Today’s ‘hashish-eaters’, stoners, smokers, potheads and dope fiends, are not renowned for their violence and military fearlessness. Sitting on a comfy sofa under a thick and pungent purple haze, they might erupt in a fit of laughter or develop powerful cravings for snacks. But they are unlikely to form secretive religious sects and execute their rivals and enemies in daring raids. In truth, the nearest any contemporary pot smokers are likely to get to their etymological forebears is by playing computer games such as Assassin’s Creed, Guild Wars or Final Fantasy.

The historical link remains as an etymological footnote, explaining the origin of the word ‘assassin’, its links to hashish, or hash (a preparation based on compressed cannabis) and the existence of a small but terrifying military sect that erupted in the turbulent middle east in the age of the Crusades.

The Hashishin were founded under Hassan-i-Sabah during the 11th century as the military wing of the Shi’ite Ismaili. Their role was twofold – to drive the Christian invaders landing on the shores of the Levant back into the sea and to oppose the Turkish warlords who had swamped the Arab world. The group, known by themselves as the Nizari Ismailis, practised what would today be called ‘asymmetric warfare’. They were a small group compared with the huge forces ranged against them and were thinly spread between mountain fortresses in modern day Lebanon and Iran.

Despite these numeric and geographic disadvantages, they wrought terror against the Abbasid and Fatimid caliphs, the sultans and viziers of the Great Seljuk and Ayyubid empires, the princes of the Crusader states, and emirs who ruled important cities like Damascus, Homs, and Mosul. Soon, word of their exploits reached both courts throughout Europe and the Mongol warriors sweeping westwards and people spoke of the Assassins, followers of the mysterious “Old Man of the Mountain” and practisers of strange and unspeakable rituals.

Their most feared practise was the targeting and killing of military and political rulers. Vizier Nizam al-Mulk, Conrad of Montferrat, a Seljuk vizier, the emir of Damascus and the prefect of Aleppo all fell victim to the Assassins’ blades. Soon, fear alone was a potent weapon, as told in this story:

“Hasan was also shrewd enough to recognize that it could sometimes be more effective to deter a hostile leader than to kill him and risk revenge from his family, court, and subjects. Thus, after Sanjar ibn Malik Shah, the Seljuk viceroy who ruled eastern Persia, dispatched several military expeditions against the Ismailis and refused to receive their ambassadors in the early 1100s, Hasan bribed a member of Sanjar’s court to leave a dagger embedded in the ground next to his bed while he slept.

Sanjar was terrified when he discovered the weapon the following morning, but he had no idea who was responsible and kept the incident secret. Shortly thereafter, another Assassin ambassador arrived at his court, bearing a sobering message from Hasan: “Did I not wish the Sultan well, that dagger which was stuck into the hard ground would have been planted in his soft breast.” Sanjar promptly concluded a nonaggression pact with the Assassins that lasted a quarter of a century.”

Marco Polo related tales he had gleaned from his time with the Mongolian court. The Hashishin recruits were made fearless fighters by making them addicted to hashish and opening the door to an earthly paradise as an introduction to the eternal pleasures they would earn by dying in battle. Gardens were created in the middle of their fearsome citadels where the recruits were trained, drugged and pleasured. As with many tales from far off lands, there was little basis in truth – no reference to drug use is found even in critical Muslim sources. They would ultimately be crushed by the Mongols, who assumed they could only be completely safe from attack if the sect was completely crushed. The Nizaris were so completely destroyed that the Sunni historian Juvaini reported that they “became but a tale on men’s lips and a tradition in the world.”

But the imagination is powerful, and this group, renowned as warriors and feared as perpetrators of bloody revenge and terror, would become known around the world as the Assassins. Soon, the killing of any political or military leader became known as an assassination. The Hashishin would then live on in English (assassins), French (assassin), Italian (assassino), Spanish (asesino), Portuguese (assassino) and Latin (assassīnus).

In 1259, Matthew Paris recorded in the Chronica Majora: “Qui tandem confessus est, se missum illuc, vt Regem more assessinorum occideret, à Willielmo de Marisco” (He finally confessed that he had been sent back to assassinate and kill the King by William de Marisco). The age of assassination had arrived.