Secret Societies of All Ages - Charles Heckethorn




II. The Assassins

142. Foundation of Order.—Only Arabia and Syria could have been the theatre of the dismal deeds of the Old Man or rather Lord of the Mountain, Hassan Sabbah was one of the days or missionaries of the School of Cairo, a man of adventurous spirit, who, having greatly distinguished himself, acquired much influence at Cairo. This influence, however, excited the envy of others, who succeeded in having him exiled. He had been put on board a ship to take him out of the country, but a storm arising, all considered themselves lost. But Hassan, assuming an authoritative air, exclaimed, "The Lord has promised me that no evil shall befall me." Suddenly the storm abated, and the sailors cried, "A miracle!" and became his followers. Hassan traversed Persia, preaching and making proselytes, and having seized the fortress of Alamut (1090), on the borders of Irak, and Dilem, which he called the "House of Fortune," he there established his rule.

143. Influence of Hassan.—What kind of rule? The history of his time is full of his name. Kings in the very centre of Europe trembled at it; his powerful arm reached everywhere. Philip Augustus of France was so afraid of him that he dared not stir without his guard around him; and perhaps the otherwise implacable Lord of the Mountain forgave him because of his fear. At first he showed no other intention but to increase the sway of the caliphate of Cairo, but was not long before throwing of the mask, because his fierce character submitted with difficulty to cunning and hypocrisy. He reduced the nine degrees into which the adherents of the Lodge of Cairo were divided to seven, placing himself at the head, with the title of Seydna or Sidna, whence the Spanish Cid, and the Italian Signore. The term Assassins is a corruption of Hashishim, derived from hashish (the hemp plant), with which the chief intoxicated his followers when they entered on some desperate enterprise.

144. Degrees of the Order.—To regulate the seven degrees he composed the Catechism of the Order. The first degree recommended to the missionary attentively to watch the disposition of the candidate, before admitting him to the order. The second impressed it upon him to gain the confidence of the candidate, by flattering his inclinations and passions; the third, to involve him in doubts and difficulties by showing him the absurdity of the Koran; the fourth, to exact from him a solemn oath of fidelity and obedience, with a promise to lay his doubts before his instructor; and the fifth, to show him that the most famous men of Church and State belonged to the secret order. The sixth, called "Confirmation," enjoined on the instructor to examine the proselyte concerning the whole preceding course, and firmly to establish him in it. The seventh, finally, called the "Exposition of the Allegory," gave the keys of the sect.

145. Devotion of Followers.—The followers were divided into two great hosts, "self-sacrificers" and "aspirants." The first, despising fatigues, dangers, and tortures, joyfully gave their lives whenever it pleased the great master, who required them either to protect himself or to carry out his mandates of death. The victim having been pointed out, the faithful, clothed in a white tunic with a red sash, the colours of innocence and blood, went on their mission, without being deterred by distance or danger. Having found the person they sought, they awaited the favourable moment for slaying him, and their daggers seldom missed their aim. Conrad of Montferrat, having quarrelled with Raschid-addin, the then Lord of the Mountain, and also caused a number of Musulman prisoners, brought from Tyre, to be massacred, Saladin induced Raschid-addin to kill Conrad. Richard Coeur-de-Lion was long accused of having instigated the murder. Two Assassins allowed themselves to be baptized, and placing themselves beside him, seemed only intent on praying; but the favourable opportunity presenting itself, they slew him, and one of them took refuge in a church. But hearing that the prince had been carried off still alive, he again forced his way into Montferrat's presence, and stabbed him a second time; and then expired, without a complaint, amidst refined tortures.

146. The Imaginary Paradise.—How was such devotion secured? The story goes, according to Marco Polo, that whenever the chief had need of a man to carry out any particularly dangerous enterprise, he had recourse to the following stratagem:—In a province of Persia, now named Sigistan, was the famous valley Mulebat, containing the palace of Alladin, another name of the Lord of the Mountain. This valley was a most delightful spot, and so protected by high mountains terminating in perpendicular cliffs, that from them no one could enter the valley, and all the ordinary approaches were guarded by strong fortresses. The valley was cultivated as the most luxurious gardens, with pavilions splendidly furnished, their sole occupants being the most lovely and charming women. The man selected by the lord to perform the dangerous exploit was first made drunk, and in this state carried into the valley, where he was left to roam whithersoever he pleased. On coming to his senses sufficiently to appreciate the beautiful scenery, and to enjoy the charms of the sylph-like creatures, that kept him engaged all the time in amorous dalliance, he was made to believe that this was Elysium; but ere he wearied or became satiated with love and wine, he was once more made drunk, and in this state carried back to his own home. When his services were required, he was again sent for by the lord, who told him that he had once permitted him to enjoy paradise, and if he would do his bidding he could luxuriate in the same delights for the rest of his life. The dupe, believing that his master had the power to do all this, was ready to commit whatever crime was required of him.

147. Sanguinary CharaMer of Hassan.—In that inaccessible nest the vulture-soul of its master was alone with his own ambition; and the very solitude, which constituted his power, must at times have weighed heavy upon him. And so it is said that he composed theological works, and gave himself up to frequent religious exercises. And this need not surprise us; theological studies are no bar to ferocity, and mystical gentleness is often found united with sanguinary fury. But he killed with calculation, to gain fame and power, to inspire fear and secure success. He impressed on his followers the belief that he could see things happening at a distance, and having established a pigeon-post, he was frequently informed of distant events with a surprising rapidity. A Persian caliph thought of attacking and dispersing the sect, and found on his pillow a dagger and a letter from Hassan, saying, "What has been placed beside thy head may be planted in thy heart." In spite of years he remained sanguinary to the last. With his own hand he killed his two sons; the one for having slain a day, and the other for having tasted wine. He did not design to found a dynasty or regular government, but an order, sect, or secret society; and perhaps his sons perished in consequence of badly disguising their desire to succeed him.

148. Further Instances of Devotion in Followers.—The obedience to the faithful did not cease with Hassan's death, as the following will show. Henry, Count of Champagne, had to pass close by the territory of the Assassins; one of the successors of Hassan, Rishad-ad-din, invited him to visit the fortress, which invitation the Count accepted. On making the round of the towers, two of the "faithful," at a sign from the "Lord," stabbed themselves to the heart, and fell at the feet of the terrified Count; whilst the master coolly said, "Say but the word, and at a sign from me you shall see them all thus on the ground." The Sultan having sent an ambassador to summon the rebellious Assassins to submission, the lord, in the presence of the ambassador, said to one of the faithful, "Kill thyself!" and he did it; and to another, "Throw thyself from this tower!" and he hurled himself down. Then turning to the ambassador, he said, "Seventy thousand followers obey me in the same manner. This is my reply to your master." The only exaggeration in this is probably in the number, the whole number of followers being never estimated above forty thousand, many of whom, moreover, were not "faithful ones," but only aspirants.

149. Murder of Raschid-addin's Ambassador.—The Knights of the Temple had possessions in the neighbourhood of those of the Assassins, and their superior power had enabled them, at what time is uncertain, to render the latter tributaries to the amount of 2000 ducats per annum. Raschid-addin, to whom all religions were alike, conceived the idea of releasing himself from this tribute by becoming, together with his people, Christians. He therefore sent in 1172 an ambassador to Amalric, king of Jerusalem, offering to embrace Christianity, provided the king would engage the Templars to renounce the tribute. The king readily assented to this, and at the same time assured the Templars that they should not be losers, as he would pay them the 2000 ducats annually out of his treasnry. The Templars made no objection, but on his way home the Ishmaelite ambassador was murdered by some Knights of the Temple, who, it would appear, acted by the orders of their superior, who probably did not consider the royal promise good for the tribute. At all events, when Amalric, full of indignation at the perfidious conduct of the Templars, insisted on their being punished, Adode St. Amand, the Master of the Temple, contented himself by saying that he had imposed penances on the murderers. The king, however, got hold of Du Mesnil, the leader in the assassination, and threw him into prison; but the king soon after dying, Du Mesnil regained his liberty. All hopes of the conversion of the Ishmaelites, however, were at an end.

150. Suppression of Assassins.—Raschid-addin died in 1192. His successors had neither his genius nor his prestige. The days of the sect were counted. In 1256 Hoolagoo, the brother of Mongoo, the Great Khan of Mongolia, invaded Persia, and exterminated all the Assassins he could seize. Rokn-addin, the last Master of Alamut, was put to death; most of his fortresses fell into the hands of Hoolagoo. But the Mameluk Sultan of Egypt having in 1260 defeated the Mongolians, the fortresses were restored to the Ishmaelites. But this was only a respite; in 1265 they forced to pay tribute to the Sultan of Egypt. Sarim, the then chief of the Assassins, in 1270 made one more effort to throw off the Egyptian yoke, but he was defeated, and in 1273 the Assassins had surrendered all their strong places to Baibars I., Sultan of Egypt. But this ruler had no intention, like Hoolagoo, of exterminating the Assassins; his object was to turn them to account. Ibn Batoutah, the traveller, in 1326 found them residing in their ancient towns and fortified places: they are, he says, the arrows of the Sultan, with which he reaches his enemies. And from the preface to a collection of anecdotes regarding Raschid-addin, made by Abou Firas about the year 1324, we learn that the doctrines of the Assassins continued to be openly professed.

151. Modern Assassins.—The sect is still in existence, both in Persia and Syria. The Persian Ishmaelites dwell chiefly in Roodbar, but they are to be met with all over the East, and even appear as traders on the banks of the Ganges. A. Drummond, British Consul at Aleppo, in his "Travels through Several Parts of Asia" (London, 1754, fol.), says (p. 217),

"Some authors assert that these people [the Assassins] were entirely extirpated in the thirteenth century by the Tartars . . . but I, who have lived so long in this infernal place, will venture to affirm that some of their spawn still exists in the mountains that surround us; for nothing is so cruel, barbarous, and execrable that is not acted, and even gloried in, by these cursed Gourdina."

Further, M. Rousseau, the French Consul at Aleppo, when travelling through Persia in 1810, found that the Assassins recognised as their chief an imam of the posterity of Ali residing at Kehk, a small village between Ispahan and Teheran. His name was Shah Khaliloullah, and he was revered almost like a god and credited with the power of working miracles. Fraser, another traveller, says that the followers of Khaliloullah would, when he pared his nails, fight for the clippings; the water in which he washed became holy water. This chief was killed, during a temporary sojourn at Yezd, in a riot against the governor of the town, and he was succeeded by his son.

152. A Modern Assassin Chief.—In 1866 a singular law case was decided at Bombay. There is in that city a numerous community of traders called Khodjas. A Persian, Aga Khan Mehelati, i.e., a native of Mehelat, a place situated near Khek, had sent an agent to Bombay to claim from the Khodjas the annual tribute due from them to him, and amounting to about; 10,000. The claim was resisted, and the British court was appealed to by Aga Khan. Sir Joseph Arnold investigated his claim. The Aga proved his pedigree, showing that he descended in a direct line from the fourth grandmaster of Alamut, and Sir Joseph declared it proved; and it was further demonstrated by the trial that the Khodjas were members of the ancient sect of the Assassins, to which sect they had been converted four hundred years before by an Ishmaelite missionary, who composed a work which has remained the sacred book of the Khodjas; it is written in a jargon which only the initiated can understand. In 1841-42, during the Afghan war, Aga Khan furnished to the British Government a contingent of light cavalry, raised at his own expense, for which he was awarded a pension, which, besides the £20,000 per annum he receives from the Khodjas, enables him to live in good style either at Bombay, or Puna, or Bangalore, where he indulges in his favourite pastime, hunting. When the Prince of Wales was in India he paid a visit to Aga Khan, whose ancestor, Raschid-addin Sinan, had spared the life of Richard Coeur de-Lion.

153. Christian Princes in League with Assassi7is.—Several Christian princes were suspected of conniving at the deeds of the Assassins. Richard of England is one of them; but we have seen (145) that he is free from the charge of having instigated the murder of that Conrad of Montferrat spoken of above. There also existed for a long time a rumour that Richard had attempted the life of the king of France through Hassan and his Assassins. The nephew of Barbarossa, Frederick II., was excommunicated by Innocent II. for having caused the Duke of Bavaria to be slain by the Assassins; and Frederick II., in a letter to the king of Bohemia, accuses the Duke of Austria of having by similar agents attempted his life. Historians also mention an Arab who, in 1158, was discovered in the imperial camp at the siege of Milan, and on the point of stabbing the emperor. Who had armed that Assassin? It is not known. Mutual distrust existed amongst the rulers of Europe, and the power of Hassan and his successors increased in accordance with it.