Friday, October 18

Razing Alamout

The Assassins are chiefly remembered today for their use of political murders for psychological effect. As a heretical offshoot (the Nizaris) of an unorthodox sect (the Ismailis), their agenda was primarily survival; and from their eagle's nest, the Alamout, they launched spectacular suicide attacks against personages who represented state-power used against them.  Hasan al-Sabbah, their founder and the Old Man of the fables' Mountain, sent young men supposedly drugged with hashish and filled with promises of paradise, against targets big and small; even the great Saladin lived in mortal fear of an Assassin (the Syrian Assassins were in loose alliance with the Frankish crusaders against Saladin for a while.)  The Assassins would carefully study the culture and self-images of their targets;  an operative would then be dispatched to infiltrate the inner circle of the intended victim, sometimes serving for years as a servant or familiar; at an opportune moment, the Assassin would stab his victim. 

Persians had long felt mistreated by their Arabic Sunni conquerors, and the Arab-Persian divide quickly manifested itself in the form of the Sunni-Shi'a split. Muhammad's descendants through Fatima who settled in Egypt formed another faction, the Ismaili Shi'a, who eventually gave rise to another fragment called the Nizaris. The Fatimid Caliph of Cairo Mustansirbillah had declared his son Nizar as heir and Imam. A coup by an army officer deposed this 'infalliable' Imam and exceuted him. The Cairo Ismailis came around to accepting the replacement; the  Persian Ismailis under Hasan al-Sabah did not, remaining loyal to the line of Nizar. They came to be known in the West as the Assassin cult. The terms hashishiyya or hashishin (from the Arabic: حشاشين‎ or hashshāshīn), as coined by Muslim sources, are used metaphorically in an abusive sense ("irreligious outcasts", "low-class rabble", etc.) Any literal interpretation of these terms in referring to the Nizaris as hashish-intoxicated fidayeen suicide-squads is rooted in the fantasies of medieval Westerners and their ignorance of Islam.

In the 10th and 11th centuries,  newly-converted Turks, the Sunni Seljuks, took control of Persia. The Nizari Shi'a could not defeat Turks or Arabs; but from a series of mountaintop fortresses in Persia and Syria, however, they could wage asymmetric war and assassinate key Seljuk, Kurdish, Frankish or Arab leaders, or indeed anyone who tried to extend political control into Nizari areas. Nizam al-Mulk, the vizier to the Seljuk court (and Hassan Sabah's classmate with Omar Khayyam, see here), was killed in October of 1092 by an Assassin disguised as a Sufi mystic. (Rumi's master Sham-e-Tabrizi is said to have been a descendant of a Nizari lord of Alamout.) The Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad  Mustarshid fell to Assassin daggers in 1131.  In 1192, Conrad of Montferrat was murdered by men disguised as monks; henceforward the Crusaders, already demoralized by the loss of Jerusalem to the Khwarezmiyya, became fearful of a stab in the dark by their turncoat former allies, who were said to be masters of disguise and devils in cunning. In 1213, the Sherif of Mecca was targeted, but his lookalike cousin ended up getting killed in a case of mistaken identity.  Hasan's successors, however, overreached in sending a covert mission against Möngke Khan.

By 1237, the Mongols had conquered much of Persia, except for the strongholds of the Assassins. Since the fall of Khwarezm, the Mongols were focusing on Eastern Europe and Khorasan, and ruled lightly in western Iran. However, Genghis Khan's grandson Möngke grew determined to extract tribute from Baghdad. Fearful of this renewed interest in his region, the Assassin leader Muhammad III sent a team to kill the khagan. The suicide-squad arrived to pretend to offer submission to the Möngke, planning to stab him as soon as an opportunity presented itself. Mongke's guards suspected something was amiss from the chain-mail the emissaries wore under their robes, and turned the Assassins away; but the damage had been done. Möngke was alarmed, and determined to end the threat of these sinister cultists who had extended their menace even to his court in Mongolia, once and for all. As a detour from the sack of Baghdad, he directed Hülegü to contain the Assassin threat.

Muhammad's eldest son and successor, Khur Shah, had had a falling out with his father. Muhammad used to torment the boy, keeping him shut up in the womens' quarters of Alamout (from which the boy would escape to drink wine.) Khur Shah conspired with Nizami nobles to foment a coup. One day Muhammad went out to the sheep folds in the valley with his favorite catamite, Hasan-i-Mazanderani. This handsome youth had fled from the Mongols to Alamout, and Muhammad had developed a passion for him, giving Hasan-i-Mazanderani his own mistress for wife but continuing to openly sleep with both. Muhammad never returned from his night out in the valley; his decapitated body was found in the morning. Juvaini suggests it was Hasan (on Khur Shah's instigation) killed Muhammad. Soon afterwards, Khur Shah's men decapitated Hasan.

Hülegü Khan reached Nizari territory in Qohistan in 1256. By autumn, the Mongols were in the valley below the castle of Maymun Diz where Khur Shah was holed up. Khur Shah first sent his brother Shahenshah to offer submission. Hülegü asked Khur shah to dismantle Alamout and come himself in submission. While the Nizaris prevaricated, Hülegü bombarded Maymun Diz with mangonels and naphtha; the next day Khur Shah came down in surrender. With their leader captive, after a few days the garrison at Alamout surrendered; Juvaini was with the Mongols as they moved in to destroy the stronghold, and managed to save a portion of Hasan Sabbah's famous library, including astrolabes and Qurans. The Nizari texts he burnt; a blot on all his erudition to this day. Juvaini writes that within the rock bastions of Alamout were hollow tanks to store all sorts of provender needed to withstand long sieges; a Mongol waded into such a pool of honey and so deep was it that he nearly drowned.

After the fall of Alamout, Khur Shah's utility to the Mongols was low. He is said to have fallen in love with a Mongol girl and allowed to marry her. When he professed a love for witnessing camel-fights, he was given a hundred particularly vicious male camels to be able to enjoy the spectacle. In time he asked to be sent to the court of the khagan; Möngke denied his request for audience, receiving his formal surrender by proxy; and then ordered him killed on his journey back, saying that Khur Shah was not worth providing with the relay-horses his journey back to Alamout would take.

After the fall of Alamout, Nizari clans continued to live secretly in Azerbaijan. In the 14th century, they sent missionaries to India, where newly converted Ismailis came to be known as Khoja Mussulmans (from the Arabic khwaja, or lord.) Ismailism had been adapted for India; for the Khojas, all prophets and Imams are the same, and they retain many Hindu traditions, including a variation of the Vaishnavite belief in the Dashavatara. Khojas believe Ali was Kalki, the last avatar of Vishnu.

In the 19th century, the Ismaili imam Hasan Ali received the honorific of Aga Khan from the Shah, but had to flee to India after a subsequent falling out. After some bitter power struggles, the British adjudicated the Aga Khan's claim to the Imamate and Sir Joseph Arnold of Bombay High Court ruled that the Khojas were undoubtedly the descendants of the Assassins and that the Aga Khan was the descendant of the Lord of Alamout; so he is regarded by the Khojas to this day.

For more information on the Assassins, see Anthony Campbell's essay (and account of his 1966 trek to the ruins of Alamout) here. Below, an Iranian Press-TV documentary on Alamout.


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