The Cult of Hashshash

Assassination has a long, if inglorious history, and the assassin (as a profession) dates back many years. The origins of the professional assassin goes back a long way - the first Chinese emperor, Shih huang-ti certainly employed at least one assassin, charged with the task of reducing the number of opponents to his rule. The Greek and Roman rulers certainly used the services of dedicated men for similar reasons (and quite openly, it seems - many important Imperial Roman figures were certainly assassinated), and there is evidence for many ancient civilisations' powerful players having dedicated bodyguard/assassins.

The word "assassin" has come into the English language from the Persian 'hashshashin', often mistakenly linked with hashish use. The precise etymology is uncertain, but is connected with the Persian Hasan-e Sabbah (or Hassan I Sabbah), leader of the Ismailite Islamic sect in the 11th Century. It is most likely to have been drawn from his name, rather than their alleged use of hashish to arouse their killing passion.

The assassins themselves were also members of Hasan's faith, and were trained by him as zealous religious shock troops. The cult arose out of warfare among the Fatimids (heads of the Shiite Ismailites). Following the death of the caliph al-Mustansir in 1094, Hasan-e Sabbah and many others in Iran refused to recognize the new caliph in Cairo. They became followers of his brother and rival, Nizar, and began the sect of the Nizari Ismailites. The Nizaris fought what we would now think of as a terrorist war, seeing the struggle as a religious duty, and their reward, Paradise.

When Hasan-e Sabbah captured Alamut, the reign of Assassins began. The title became attached to any member of his fighting force, and the assassins were highly effective as guerilla fighters as well as being assassins in the modern sense of the word.

By the early 12th Century, their war had spread into Syria, and followed this with their capture of the fortresses in the An-Nusayriyah Mountains, including the strategically important Masyaf. Their reign was a short one, however, as the Mongols gradually pushed them back until they captured Alamut in 1256.

They still have followers to this day, predominantly in Syria, Iran, and Central and South Asia. The largest group is to be found in India and Pakistan, gibing their alliegence to the Aga Khan. They are known as the Khojas.

The Myth of Hashish

As the legend goes, Hasan used hashish to enlist young men into the cult, and also to turn them into the fearsome warriors they became. The story originates with Marco Polo, who visited Iran and Iraq in 1273, almost 150 years after the events.

The Old Man kept at his court such boys of twelve years old as seemed to him destined to become courageous men. When the Old Man sent them into the garden in groups of four, ten or twenty, he gave them hashish to drink. They slept for three days, then they were carried sleeping into the garden where he had them awakened.

When these young men woke, and found themselves in the garden with all these marvelous things, they truly believed themselves to be in paradise. And these damsels were always with them in songs and great entertainments; they received everything they asked for, so that they would never have left that garden of their own will.

This account is unlikely for several reasons. Firstly, Hasan was violently opposed to the use of narcotics, taking the view that the Quran's ban on alcohol should extend into other intoxicants, to the extent that he ordered one of his sons executed for drunkenness. Secondly, hashish is rarely (if ever) taken in liquid form. Certainly, the secret archives at Alamut contained no reference to hashish or other substances being used in this way, and it is likely that Polo romanticised and exaggerated the accounts given by local sources, who may have been opposed to the memory of the conquering hashshashin.
Encyclopædia Britannica