The Assassins in Fact and Fiction

By Carole Hillenbrand

Perhaps no other group from the Middle Ages has sparked modern-day imaginations like the Assassins. Viewed as mystical and deadly, they were said to be led in Syria by a charismatic figure known as the Old Man of the Mountain. What can we really know about them?

The defining narrative in medieval times about the myth of the Old Man of the Mountain (Shaykh al-Jabal) is that of Marco Polo, which was written down in the early fourteenth century. The account consists of legendary and folkloric material that had been spread across the Middle East and Europe by Sunni Muslims, Crusaders, and Jewish, Christian, and Muslim travellers who visited Syria, Egypt, the Holy Land, and Iran from the twelfth century onwards. Marco Polo’s account remained the definitive one for many centuries. He does not name the geographical location of the territory of the Old Man of the Mountain – he just names it the country of Mulahet, which he says means ‘heretics’ according to the law of the Saracens. Here is a typical passage from Marco Polo’s account:


The Old Man was called in their language Alaedin… He had made in a valley between two mountains the biggest and most beautiful garden that was ever seen… There were ladies there and damsels, the loveliest in the world, unrivalled at playing every sort of instrument and at singing and dancing. And he gave his men to understand that this garden was Paradise… No-one ever entered the garden except those who he wished to make Assassins… The Old Man kept with him at his court all the youths from 12 to 20… He used to put some of these youths in this Paradise four at a time, or ten, or twenty… He gave them draughts that sent them to sleep on the spot. Then he had them taken and put in the garden, where they were wakened. When they awoke and found themselves in there… they believed they were really in Paradise… He entices them in a strange manner with such hopes and with promises of such pleasures with eternal enjoyment that they prefer rather to die than to live. Many of them, even when standing on a wall, will jump off at his nod or command, and, shattering their skulls, die a miserable death.

We have several other medieval accounts – including those by Benjamin of Tudela, Burchard of Strasbourg, Arnold of Lübeck, and Gregory Bar Hebraeus – that offer similar stories: this Old Man of the Mountain was a mysterious figure who commanded the black arts of magic. His followers were said to follow no laws, to abuse women, and to eat the flesh of swine. The pejorative name that they were given, first by Sunni Muslims and then by the Crusaders, was hashishiyyun;  it came to mean ‘those who consume hashish’. In English this word would evolve to become Assassins.


Origins of the Nizaris

The actual history of the people that would be called Assassins begins in Egypt in the last years of the eleventh century. At that time, Egypt was ruled by the Fatimid dynasty, who followed Isma’ilism, a branch of Shia Islam. In 1094 the Fatimid Caliph Imam Al-Mustansir bi’llah died. Although the caliph had wanted his eldest son Abu Mansur Nizar to succeed him, the vizier engineered a palace coup to enthrone a much younger son who could be more easily controlled. Nizar and his supporters were able to raise an army to fight for the caliphate, but in 1095 they were defeated in battle. Nizar was captured, taken to Cairo, and executed.

However, Nizar’s followers would not accept the new Fatimid ruler, and they pledged allegiance to Nizar’s son Al-Hadi ibn Nizar. They would leave Egypt and go to Alamut, a remote fortress in northern Iran, under the leadership of Hasan-i Sabbah, northern Iran, where they set up their own state. Henceforth they adopted the name Nizaris.

Nizari missionaries from Iran began to infiltrate Syria from the early 1100s onwards. They tried to spread their message in the key cities of Aleppo and Damascus, hoping to gain the support of the many other Shia communities in the region. After unsuccessful attempts to seize power in these cities, the Nizaris in Syria withdrew in the 1130s to the relative safety of the mountains, heading for the area between Lattakieh and Hama. There the Syrian Nizaris displayed a remarkable ability to adapt to a difficult, and indeed hostile, environment, and to survive in it as a hated and beleaguered minority. They were helped, of course, by the fragmentation and weakness of Syria in the years following the First Crusade, a situation that lasted until the revitalization of the area under the strong rule of the two great twelfth-century ‘counter-crusade’ leaders, Nur al-Din and Saladin.

Just as the Crusaders in Outremer survived as minorities in the Sunni Muslim-majority areas of Egypt, Syria, and the Holy Land, so too the Syrian Nizaris within a few decades adopted the strategy of occupying existing castles or obtaining new ones in under-populated northern Syria – castles such as Qadmus (1132-3), al-Kahf (1135-6), and, above all, Masyaf (1140). It is hard to know how many castles they controlled – one historian suggests twenty-four, while another believes it was about seventy. Many of these fortifications were very close together, forming a virtually impregnable zone. Small wonder that the Syrian Nizaris were able to exercise a political influence out of all proportion to their size.


Rashid al-Din Sinan

After an early period of establishing a firm foothold in the mountains of Northern Syria far from their mother centre in Iran, the Syrian Nizaris acquired their most famous and long-ruling leader, Rashid al-Din Sinan, the Shaykh al-Jabal, the Old Man of the Mountain – a title that suggests both noble stock and an aura of mystery. He took over the leadership at Masyaf in 1169, ruling there for nearly twenty-five years. He found himself in conflict, not only with three Crusader states, but also with the strong Sunni Muslim military barons Nur al-Din and Saladin.

We know a few details about Sinan. He was born in Basra and worked as a school teacher before becoming a missionary. He was sent from Iran to Syria in 1162, but took no leadership for seven years. He would go on to rule the Syrian Nizari community until his death in 1193; during his time in power he had acted independently of the Nizaris based in Iran.

Hassan-i Sabbah depicted with his followers in a manuscript of Marco Polo’s account – BNF Fr. 2810 fol. 16v.

We have only one account that tells the story of Sinan’s life from the Nizari point of view. It was written in 1324 by a Syrian Nizari scholar named Abu Firas and is called The splendid exploits of Rashid al-Din Sinan. This account, not surprisingly, is hagiographical, full of legendary anecdotes about Sinan, but it also provides factual information corroborated by the chronicles of medieval Sunni Muslim, anti-Nizari writers. The work is a fascinating source but it should be used with great caution. One passage from it is, however, especially significant:


Many common ignorant fools think that it is thanks to his knowledge of magic that the Lord Rashid al-Din practiced these marvels. Well, he confounded them all and reduced them to silence, not by science or magic but by the force of truth and conviction, by his demonstrations and by the quotations which he pronounced from Qur’anic verses.

In the context of the many hagiographical episodes that Abu Firas recounts in the biography of his hero, this picture of his religious credentials has a convincing ring to it.

Within his community Sinan seems to have organised his followers with great skill. The account of Abu Firas describes him as possessing extraordinary powers, such as clairvoyance, prophecy, and telepathy. He did not need a personal bodyguard, ruling by the force of his character alone and inspiring devotion and fear alike among his subjects. He was a man of few words, preferring instead to assume grand poses. He was, for example, never seen eating, and he cast no reflection in water. There are dozens of chapters devoted to his seemingly miraculous exploits, whether these be escaping assassination attempts against himself or being able to reply to letters before they were even delivered.

A 19th-century depiction of the Assassins – from Les Mystères de la Franc-Maçonnerie, Paris, 1886.

From the very beginning of his residence in Masyaf, Sinan is depicted by Abu Firas as a mysterious, eccentric personage. He arrived in Syria riding on a white donkey and wearing a headdress of striped Yemeni wool and shoes he had sewn himself. He did not announce himself as the new head of the Syrian Nizaris, preferring instead to await the death of the current incumbent. He would remain motionless for hours, with his lips mysteriously  moving but with no sound coming out of them. However, despite this portrayal of him, Sinan had his feet firmly on the ground; for example, he positioned pigeon towers on mountaintops from which to send messages to the other citadels he governed. Clearly, then, he was a most formidable charismatic personality, and his actions would show him to be a worthy adversary in the struggle for power in the medieval Middle East.

A 14th-century depiction of the assassination of a Seljuk vizier in 1092 – Topkapi Palace Museum, Cami Al Tebari TSMK, Inv. No. H. 1653, folio 360b

It can be assumed with confidence that the Crusaders would not have had the slightest interest in Nizari doctrine, practice, and proselytizing, whilst Sunni Muslims would have dismissed their doctrinal details with horror and contempt. Given the jihad-saturated atmosphere of twelfth-century Muslim writings, it is noteworthy that there is, it would seem, no mention of jihad in a Nizari context. The only allusion to such matters that I have found so far are the words of an unknown Nizari poet. Referring to the strategy of killing high-profile victims, which achieved maximum impact at minimal costs to the sect – a policy that the Syrian Nizaris had brought with them from Iran and a policy that made their name feared both in the Middle East and in Europe – the unknown poet writes:

By a single warrior on foot, a king may be struck with terror, though he may own more than 100,000 horsemen.

This interesting line of poetry may well be an oblique allusion to the young men called fida’is, trained to perform acts of political murder with daggers as part of a strategy of intimidation.

Against Saladin

It must be admitted that both Crusader and Sunni Muslim chroniclers attribute almost every murder of important figures to Sinan’s fida’is (devoted followers). In a very short space of time, their small group caused a degree of fear and paranoia quite out of proportion to their small numbers.

Perhaps the most famous episodes concerning the Nizaris of Syria involve the rivalry between Sinan and Saladin. Saladin’s predecessor Nur al-Din had already tried to attack Sinan’s territory and had, according to Abu Firas, the terrifying experience of finding a dagger on the ground near his head; on it he saw the words, “If you do not leave tomorrow night, this dagger will be stuck in your belly”. But it was Saladin who became the target of the fiercest hostility, which took the form of two attempts on his life soon after he arrived in Syria from Cairo late in 1174.

The ruins of Maysaf Castle in Syria – photo by Nabih Farkouh / Wikimedia Commons

Why should Saladin have been attacked by the Nizaris so soon after his seizure of power in Syria? In the tough power politics of twelfth-century Syria, the period immediately after the death of Nur al-Din presented a very good opportunity for Sinan to attack Saladin, a threatening newcomer who was trying to grab all the lands that had been carved out as an empire by Nur al-Din. Nur al-Din had died in 1174, having ruled for twenty-eight years. In that time he had never managed to achieve any great success against the Nizaris. But clearly a new military leader in the form of Saladin coming from Egypt should be stopped before his power became consolidated. Saladin left Egypt and arrived in Damascus in November 1174, under the guise of protecting the eleven-year-old son of Nur al-Din from his threatening cousins in Mosul. Sinan must have feared for the survival of the Nizari state in Syria when he saw the rising power of Saladin; this was truly a dangerous enemy.

The first assassination attempt on Saladin took place outside the walls of Aleppo early in 1175. It is not clear from the sources who instigated this attack. Was the family of Nur al-Din, whose territories Saladin was bent on capturing, involved in this? Or the governor of Aleppo, Gümüshtegin? Had one of these two parties got in touch with Sinan? Or was it Sinan alone? The Sunni Muslim chronicler Ibn al-Jawzi suggests that the attempts on Saladin’s life were the result of his aggression against Nizari villages in 1174-5. Whatever the truth, Saladin escaped unharmed on this occasion. Quite possibly, it was a united initiative from all three parties who saw Saladin as a dangerous foe, interfering in Syrian affairs.

The second attempt on Saladin’s life took place in 1176; it was a much more terrifying incident and it seems likely to have come from Sinan alone. The following account comes from the chronicle of the Ayyubid dynasty by Ibn Wasil. During the siege of Azaz, Saladin was attacked whilst in a tent one night reviewing some troops and raising their morale. Some Nizaris, wearing military apparel, were in the group. One of them leapt out of the line and struck Saladin’s head with a knife. Had it not been for his helmet the sultan would have been killed. Saladin tried to stop further blows but he could not prevent the assailant from striking him again and again in his neck, which was, however, protected by a chainmail collar. One of Saladin’s mamluks appeared and killed the assassin. That was not the end of the incident. A second assassin appeared and killed Saladin’s commander Da’ud before being struck down himself. Two more assassins then came forward; one was killed by Saladin’s brother and the fourth, fleeing from the tent, was torn to pieces by the crowd.

Ibn Wasil continues his most unusually long narrative of an assassination attempt with the following graphic description:

The sultan rode to his tent, terrified by this event, with his blood flowing down his cheek and the collar of his chainmail wet. He hid himself away, took precautions and constructed around his tent something resembling a palisade to cover it. He sat in a wooden house, on his guard against the soldiery. Those whom he did not like (the look of) he sent away and those he recognized he allowed in.

It is well known that, despite the panegyrics of his biographers and his heroic reputation in medieval Europe for generosity and chivalric virtues, Saladin was capable of demonstrating great anger. The famous episode with Reynald of Chatillon after Hattin in Saladin’s tent is just one example of his passionate nature when roused by feelings of personal vengeance. And what could be more personal than attacks on his own life? So it is not surprising that he sought reprisals against the Nizaris by besieging their centre of operations at Masyaf shortly after the second attempt to kill him.

But Saladin withdrew after only one week of the siege, and thereafter neither he nor Sinan embarked on aggressive action against the other for the rest of their lives. They died within a few months of each other in 1193. It does indeed seem probable that they came to some kind of non-aggression pact after Masyaf. After all, Saladin had been attacked in a terrifying manner on two occasions and was lucky to escape with his life. He must have been very fearful of further attempts to kill him. Thus the mighty Saladin, the public promoter of Sunni Islam and the eradication of heresy, was cornered into making a deal with the leader of the hated Nizari sect in Syria.

The murder of Conrad of Montferrat

There is another high-profile assassination attempt that has been blamed on Rashid al-Din Sinan and his followers: the killing of Conrad, Marquis of Montferrat. This Italian nobleman had come to the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1187 and quickly gained a reputation as a capable leader of Crusader forces. He also used his political connections to gain power in the kingdom, and by 1190 he was the de facto king of the Crusader state.

Conrad de Montferrat became the de facto King of Jerusalem (as Conrad I) by virtue of his marriage to Isabella I of Jerusalem (depicted here) from 24 November 1190, but officially elected only in 1192, days before his death – Bibliothèque nationale de France MS Français 2824 fol. 173v

Conrad would find his share of enemies among the Crusaders, including the English king Richard I. In April 1192, Conrad was elected the official king of Jerusalem by the local barons, but before he could take the throne, he was attacked in the city of Tyre on 28 April 1192. The Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi is one of several accounts that tells the story of what happened to Conrad:

One day he had been given a friendly invitation to dine with the Bishop of Beauvais, and was returning peacefully from the feast, absolutely cheerful and good-humoured. He had reached the Toll-house when two young Assassins, unencumbered by cloaks, rushed up to him at great speed, stretched out the two knives which they held in their hands and stabbed him this way and that way in the stomach, mortally wounding him, before running off at full speed!

The chronicler notes that as Conrad fell dying from his horse, one of the attackers was immediately killed, while the other escaped to a nearby church. He was soon dragged out, interrogated, and killed. This second attacker confessed that he had been sent by the Old Man of the Mountain to kill the Marquis, and that he and his colleague had “been in the Marquis’ service a long time, awaiting a suitable moment to carry out the deed.”

Accusations soon emerged against King Richard, believing that he was the real mastermind of the plot. Historians have also suggested that other Crusade leaders were responsible for the assassination. Meanwhile, sources from the Islamic world offer their own version of events. Ibn al-Athir, writing in the early thirteenth century, believed that it was Saladin that orchestrated the attack on Conrad. He offered Sinan money to kill both the Marquis and King Richard, but the Nizari leader only acted to kill Conrad, apparently concluding “that Saladin should not have a mind untroubled by the Franks, and thus be free to deal with them.”

Ibn al-Athir then goes on to offer his own account of the assassination:

He sent two men disguised as monks, who became associated with the Lord of Sidon and Balian’s son the Lord of Ramla. They were both with the Marquis in Tyre. The two stayed with them for six months, making a show of piety. The Marquis became acquainted with them and trusted them. On the above date (28 April 1192) the Bishop at Tyre gave a banquet for the Marquis. He attended, ate his food and drank his wine and left. The two Batinis we have mentioned leapt on him and wounded him severely. One of them fled and entered a church to hide. It chanced that the Marquis was carried there to have his wound bound. This assassin attacked and slew him. Both Batinis were killed in due course.

What emerges from reading the various sources is that there is a jumble of different versions of who may have been involved in the killing, somehow conspiring with Rashid al-Din Sinan for his followers to carry out the deed. Meanwhile, the Nizaris themselves seemingly never responded to these accusations, for it was in their interest to stay silent and let their reputation as deadly foes spread throughout the region.

A 15th-century depiction of the Mongols besieging Alamut in 1256. Bibliothèque nationale de France MS Supplément Persan 206 fol. 149r

Rashid al-Din Sinan would die in 1193, but his successors would take on the title of Old Man of the Mountains. Their small state in the Syrian mountains would last until the 1260s, finally being defeated by the Mamluk leader Baybars. It was also around this time that the Mongols of the Ilkhanate conquered the Nizaris in Iran. However, the Nizari Ismaili faith endured, despite centuries of oppression, and they are now mostly known through the Aga Khan, their spiritual leader.

Taking a look back at Rashid al-Din Sinan and his followers, it is certainly difficult to discern fact from fiction. One must keep in mind that the Syrian Nizaris were just a tiny group that were trying to survive in their mountain strongholds, which they achieved mostly through alliances and compromises with their neighbours. It was more through diplomacy than warfare that they endured. Their alleged use of murder was exaggerated by their enemies, but this was a notion they did not want to dispel, for it helped to protect them. Those myths around the Assassins have endured long after their states were lost, but careful historical research can help to shed further light on who they really were.

Carole Hillenbrand is Professor Emerita in Islamic History at the University of Edinburgh and Professor of Islamic History at the University of St Andrews. Her work as a historian has earned her the title of Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

Further Reading:

Carole Hillenbrand, The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives (Edinburgh University Press, 2009)

Nadia Eboo Jamal, Surviving the Mongols: Nizari Quhistani and the Continuity of Ismaili Tradition in Persia (I.B. Tauris, 2002)

Bernard Lewis, “Kamāl al-dīn’s biography of Rāšid al- dīn Sinān,” Arabica, 13:3 (1966), 225-267.

Bruce Lincoln, “An Early Moment in the Discourse of “Terrorism:” Reflections on a Tale from Marco Polo,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 48:2 (2006), 242-259.

Meriem Pagès, From Martyr to Murderer: Representations of the Assassins in Twelfth- and Thirteenth-Century Europe (Syracuse University Press, 2014)

Shafique N. Virani, The Ismailis in the Middle Ages: A History of Survival, A Search for Salvation (Oxford University Press, 2007)

Peter Wiley, Eagle’s Nest: Ismaili Castles In Iran and Syria (I.B. Tauris, 2005)

Patrick A. Williams, “The Assassination of Conrad of Montferrat: Another Suspect,” Traditio, 26 (1970), 381-389.

This article was first published in Medieval Warfare magazine. Click here to buy this issue.