Secret Societies of the Middle Ages, by Thomas Keightley, , at sacred-texts.com
Description of Alamoot--Fruitless Attempts to recover it--Extension of the Ismaïlite Power--The Ismaïlites in Syria--Attempt on the Life of Aboo-Hard Issa--Treaty made with Sultan Sanjar--Death of Hassan--His Character.
ALAMOOT, a name so famous in the history of the East, signifies the Vulture's Nest, an appellation derived from its lofty site. It was built in the year 860, on the summit of a hill, which bears a fancied resemblance to a lion couching with his nose to the ground, situated, according to Hammer, in 50½° E. long. and 36° N. lat. It was regarded as the strongest of 50 fortresses of the same kind, which were scattered over the district of Roodbar (River-land), the mountainous region which forms the border between Persian Irak and the more northerly provinces of Dilem and Taberistan, and is watered by the stream called the King's River (Shahrood). As soon as Hassan saw himself master of this important place he directed his thoughts to the means of increasing its strength. He repaired the original walls, and added new ones; he sunk wells, and dug a canal, which conveyed water from a considerable distance to the foot of the fortress. As the possession of Alamoot made him master of the surrounding country, he learned to regard the inhabitants as his subjects, and he stimulated them to agriculture, and made large plantations of fruit-trees around the eminence on which the fortress stood.
But before Hassan had time to commence, much less complete these plans of improvement, he saw
himself in danger of losing all the fruits of his toil. It was not to be expected that the emir, on whom the sultan had bestowed the province of Roodbar, would calmly view its strongest fort in the possession of the foe of the house of Seljook. Hassan, therefore, had not had time to collect stores and provisions when he found all access to the place cut off by the troops of the emir. The inhabitants were about to quit Alamoot, but Hassan exerted the usual influence of a commanding spirit over their minds, and confidently assured them that that was the place in which fortune would favour them. They yielded faith to his words and staid; and at length their perseverance wore out the patience of the emir, and Alamoot thence obtained the title of the Abode of Fortune. The sultan, who had at first viewed the progress of his ex-minister with contempt, began soon to grow apprehensive of his ultimate designs, and in 1092 he issued orders to the emir Arslantash (Lion-stone) to destroy Hassan and his adherents. Arslantash advanced against Alamoot. Hassan, though he had but 70 men with him, and was scantily supplied with provisions, defended himself courageously till Aboo Ali, the governor of Casveen, who was in secret one of his dais, sent 300 men to his aid. These fell suddenly, during the night, on the troops of the emir; the little garrison made at the same time a sortie; the sultan's troops took to flight, and Alamoot remained in the possession of the Ismaïlites. Much about the same time Malek Shah sent troops against Hussein Kaini, who was actively engaged in the cause of Hassan Sabah in Kuhistan. Hussein threw himself into Moominabad, a fortress nearly as strong as that of Alamoot, and the troops of the sultan assailed him in vain. It was now that Hassan began to display the system which we shall presently unveil. The aged vizir, the great and
good Nizam-al-Moolk, perished by the daggers of his emissaries, and the sultan himself speedily followed his minister to the tomb, not without suspicion of poison.
Circumstances were now particularly favourable to the plans of Hassan Sabah. On the death of sultan Malek Shah a civil war broke out among his sons for the succession. All the military chiefs and persons of eminence were engaged on one side or the other, and none had leisure or inclination to attend to the progress of the Ismaïlites. These, therefore, went on gradually extending their power, and fortress after fortress fell into their hands. In the course of ten years they saw themselves masters of the principal hill-forts of Persian Irak; they held that of Shandorr * (King's pearl), and two other fortresses, close to Isfahan; that of Khalankhan, on the borders of Fars and Kuhistan; Damaghan, Kirdkoo, and Firoozkoo, in the district of Komis; and Lamseer and several others in Kuhistan. It was in vain that the most distinguished imams and doctors of the law issued their, fetuas against the sect of the Ismaïlites, and condemned them to future perdition; in vain they called on the orthodox to employ the
sword of justice in freeing the earth from this godless and abominable race. The sect, strong in its secret bond of unity and determination of purpose, went on and prospered; the dagger avenged the fate of those who perished by the sword, and, as the Orientalized European historian of the society expresses it *, "heads fell like an abundant harvest beneath the twofold sickle of the sword of justice and the dagger of murder."
The appearance of the Ismaïlites, under their new form of organization, in Syria, happened at the same time with that of the crusaders in the Holy Land. The Siljookian Turks had made the conquest of that country, and the different chiefs who ruled Damascus, Aleppo, and the other towns and their districts, some of whom were of Turkish, others of Syrian extraction, were in a constant state of enmity with each other. Such powerful auxiliaries as the followers of Hassan Sabah were not to be neglected; Risvan, Prince of Aleppo, so celebrated in the history of the crusades, was their declared favourer and protector, and an Ismaïlite agent always resided with him. The first who occupied this post was an astrologer, and on his death the office fell to a Persian goldsmith, named Aboo Taher Essaigh. The enemies of Risvan felt the effects of his alliance with the Ismaïlites. The Prince of Emessa, for example, fell by their daggers, as he was about to relieve the castle of the Koords, to which Raymond, Count of Toulouse, had laid siege.
Risvan put the strong castle of Sarmin, which lay about a day's journey south of Aleppo, into the hands of Aboo-’l-Fettah, the nephew of Hassan Sabah, and his Dai-el-Kebir (Great Missionary) for the province of Syria. The governor of this fortress was Aboo Taher Essaigh. A few years afterwards (1107) the people of Apamea invoked the aid of Aboo Taher
against Khalaf, their Egyptian governor. Aboo Taher took possession of the town in the name of Risvan, but Tancred, who was at war with that prince, having come and attacked it, it was forced to surrender. Aboo Taher stipulated for free egress for himself; but Tancred, in violation of the treaty, brought him to Antioch, where he remained till his ransom was paid. Aboo-’l-Fettah and the other Ismaïlites were given up to the vengeance of the sons of Khalaf. Tancred took front them at the same time another strong fortress, named Kefrlana. This is to be noted as the first collision between the Crusaders and the Assassins, as we shall now begin to call them. The origin of this name shall presently be explained.
On the return of Aboo Taher to Aleppo a very remarkable attempt at assassination took place. There was a wealthy merchant, named Aboo-Hard Issa *, a sworn foe to the Ismaïlites, and who had spent large sums of money in his efforts to injure them. He was now arrived from the borders of Toorkistan with a richly laden caravan of 500 camels. An Ismaïlite, named Ahmed, a native of Rei, had secretly accompanied him from the time he left Khorasan, with the design of avenging the death of his father, who had fallen under the blows of Aboo-Hard's people. The Ismaïlite, on arriving at Aleppo, immediately communicated with Aboo Taher and Risvan. Revenge, and the hope of gaining the wealth of the hostile merchant, made them yield assent at once to the project of assassination. Aboo Taher gave Ahmed
a sufficient number of assistants; Risvan promised the aid of his guards; and one day, as the merchant was in the midst of his slaves, counting his camels, the murderers fell on him. But the faithful slaves valiantly defended their master, and the Ismaïlites expiated their guilt with their lives. The princes of Syria heaped reproaches on Risvan for this scandalous violation of the rights of hospitality, and he vainly endeavoured to justify himself by pretending ignorance of the fact. Aboo Taher, as the increasing hatred of the people of Aleppo to the sect made that town an unsafe abode, returned to Persia, his native country, leaving his son, Aboo-’l-Fettah, to manage the affairs of the society in his stead.
The acquisition of castles and other places of strength was now the open and avowed object of the society, whose aim was evidently at the empire of Asia, and no mean was left unemployed for the effecting of this design. In the year 1108 they made a bold attempt at making themselves masters of the strong castle of Khizar, also in Syria, which belonged to the family of Monkad. The festival of Easter being come, when the Mussulman garrison was in the habit of going down into the town to partake in the festivities of the Christians, during their absence the Ismaïlites entered the castle, and barred the gates. When the garrison returned towards night, they found themselves excluded; but the Ismaïlites, in their reliance on the strength of the place, being negligent, the women drew up their husbands by cords at the windows, and the intruders were speedily expelled.
In the year 1113, as Mevdood, Prince of Mosul, was walking up and down, on a festival day, in the mosk of Damascus, with the celebrated Togteghin, he was fallen on and slain by an Ismaïlite. The murderer was cut to pieces on the spot.
This year was, however, near proving fatal to the society in Syria. Risvan, their great protector, died; and the eunuch Looloo, the guardian of his young son, was their sworn enemy. An order for their indiscriminate destruction was forthwith issued, and, in consequence, more than 300 men, women, and children were massacred, while 200 more were thrown into prison. Aboo-’l-Fettah was put to death with torture; his body was cut to pieces and burnt at the gate looking towards Irak, and his head sent through all Syria. They did not, however, fall totally unavenged; the daggers of the society were directed against the governors and men in power, many of whom became their victims. Thus, in the year 1115, as the Attabeg Togteghin was receiving an audience at the court of the khalif of Bagdad, the governor of Khorasan was fallen upon by three Ismaïlites, who probably mistook him for the Attabeg, and he and they perished. In 1119 as Bediï, the governor of Aleppo, was journeying with his sons to the court of the emir Il-Ghazi, they were fallen upon by two assassins; Bediï and one of his sons fell by their blows; his other sons cut the murderers down; but a third then sprang forth, and gave the finishing stroke to one of the young men, who was already wounded. The murderer was taken, and brought before Togteghin and Il-Ghazi, who only ordered him to be put in prison; but he drowned himself to escape their vengeance, from which he had, perhaps, nothing to apprehend.
In fact at this time the dread of the followers of Hassan Sabah had sunk deep into the hearts of all the princes of the East, for there was no security against their daggers. Accordingly, when the next year (1120) Aboo Mohammed, the head of them at Aleppo, where they had re-established themselves, sent to the powerful II-Ghazi to demand of him possession
of the castle of Sherif, near that town, he feared to refuse; but the people of Aleppo, at the persuasion of one of their fellow-citizens (who speedily paid for his advice with his blood), rose en masse, levelled the walls, filled up the ditches, and united the castle to the town. Even the great Noor-ed-deen (Lamp of Religion) was some years afterwards obliged to have recourse to the same artifice to save the castle of Beitlaha from becoming one of their strong-holds.
The same system was pursued in Persia, where sultan Sanjar, the son of Malek Shah, had united under his sceptre the greater part of the dominions of his father and Fakhr-al-Moolk (Fame of the Realm). The son and successor of Nizam-al-Moolk and Chakar Beg, the great uncle of the sultan, perished by the daggers of the emissaries of Hassan Sabah. Sultan Sanjar was himself on his march, intending to lay siege to Alamoot, and the other strong-holds of the Ismaïlites, when one morning, on awaking, he found a dagger struck in the ground close to his pillow. The sultan was dismayed, but he concealed his terror, and a few days afterwards there came a brief note from Alamoot, containing these words: "Were we not well affected towards the sultan, the dagger had been struck in his bosom, not in the ground." Sanjar recollected that his brother Mohammed, who had laid siege to the castles of Lamseer and Alamoot, had died suddenly just as they were on the point of surrendering--an event so opportune for the society, that it was but natural to ascribe it to their agency--and he deemed it the safest course to proceed gently with such dangerous opponents. He accordingly hearkened to proposals of peace, which was concluded on the following conditions: 1. That the Ismaïlites should add no new works to their castles; 2. That they should purchase
no arms or military machines; 3. That they should make no more proselytes. The sultan, on his part, released the Ismaïlites from all tolls and taxes in the district of Kirdkoh, and assigned them a part of the revenue of the territory of Komis by way of annual pension. To apprehend clearly what the power of the society was, we must recollect that sultan Sanjar was the most powerful monarch of the East, that his mandate was obeyed from Cashgar to Antioch, from the Caspian to the Straits of Bab-el-Mandeb.
Thirty-four years had now elapsed since the acquisition of Alamoot, and the first establishment of the power of Hassan Sabah. In all that time he had never been seen out of the castle of Alamoot, and had been even known but twice to leave his chamber, and to make his appearance on the terrace. In silence and in solitude he pondered the means of extending the power of the society of which he was the head, and he drew up, with his own hand, the rules and precepts which were to govern it. He had outlived most of his old companions and early disciples, and he was now childless, for he had put to death his two only sons, the elder for having been concerned in the murder of his faithful adherent Hussein Kaini; the younger for having violated the precept of the Koran against drinking wine. Feeling the approaches of death, he summoned to Alamoot Keäh Buzoorg Oomeid (Keäh of Good Hope), who was residing at Lamseer, which he had conquered twenty years before, and Aboo Ali, of Casveen, and committed the direction of the society to them, appointing the former to be its proper spiritual head and director, and placing in the hands of the latter the administration of the civil and external affairs. He then calmly expired, apparently unconscious of or indifferent to the fact of having, by the organization of his pernicious society, rendered
his name an object of execration, a by-word and a proverb among the nations.
Dimly as we may discern the character of Hassan Sabah through the medium of prejudice and hatred through which the scanty notices of it have reached us, we cannot refuse him a place among the higher order of minds. The founder of an empire or of a powerful society is almost always a great man; but Hassan seems to have had this advantage over Loyola and other founders of societies, that he saw clearly from the commencement what might be done, and formed all his plans with a view to one ultimate object. He surely had no ordinary mind who could ask but two devoted adherents to shake the throne of the house of Seljook, then at the acme of its power.
58:* This castle was built by sultan Malek Shah. The following was its origin:--As Malek Shah, who was a great lover of the chase, was out one day a hunting, one of the hounds went astray on the nearly inaccessible rock on which the castle was afterwards erected. The ambassador of the Byzantine emperor, who was of the party, observed to the sultan, that in his master's dominions so advantageous a situation would not be left unoccupied, but would long since have been crowned with a castle. The sultan followed the ambassador's advice, and erected the castle of the King's Pearl on this lofty rock. When the castle fell into the hands of the Ismaïlites, pious Moslems remarked that it could not have better luck, since its site had been pointed out by a dog (an unclean beast in their eyes), and its erection advised by an infidel.
59:* Hammer, 97.
60:* That is, Jesus. It may be here observed that the proper names of the Old Testament are still used in the East. Ibrahim, Ismael, Yahya, Joossuf, Moossa, Daood, Suleiman, Issa, are Abraham, Ishmael, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, Solomon, and Joshua, or Jesus.