The Old Man Of The Mountain

The ruins of the fortress of Alamut in the mountain country of Iran.
The ruins of the fortress of Alamut in the mountain country of Iran.

I. The Abbasid And The Order Of The Assassins
In 1258 AD, the largest Mongol horde ever assembled, directed by Genghis Khan's grandson Möngke Khan and personally led by his brother Hulagu, completely destroyed the jewel of the Middle East: the city of Baghdad in modern Iraq.

At this time, Baghdad was the largest city in the world. It was also the seat of the 500 year-old Sunni Islamic Abbasid Caliphate (750 AD – 1258 AD). The powerful Caliphate's rule expanded across North Africa, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Pakistan and Lebanon (see map below). It had established itself by destroying the massive Umayyad Caliphate that had stretched as far as Cordoba in Spain. The Umayyad were non-denominational Islamic rulers, incorporating both Sunni and Shi'a wings into their empire until their downfall in their capital in Iraq in 750 AD.

That uprising was famously led by a imam (priest) called Ibrahim who claimed to be a descendent of Muhammad's youngest uncle. Ibrahim achieved considerable success but was captured in 747 and died in prison. The uprising was taken up by his brother Abdallah, known by the name of Abu al-'Abbas as-Saffah, who defeated the Umayyads in 750 AD in the Battle of the Zab near the Great Zab river. Abbas was subsequently proclaimed the Caliph (religious ruler) of his new empire: the Sunni Abbasid Empire[0].

The Abbasid faced many enemies during their reign. Parallel caliphates such as the Fatimids (909-1171), a Shi'a caliphate based in Egypt in northern Africa, and large military threats such as the Seljuq Empire (1037-1194) in Turkey provided no shortage of battles and insurrections within the Middle East up until the time of the Mongol invasions in 1208 AD.

By the time that the approaching Mongol horde tore through modern Iraq and Iran the Abbasid were already deeply scarred from being entrenched in a state of constant warfare from two sides for hundreds of years against two enormous military powers which they only narrowly triumphed against.

The massive Mongol cavalry overwhelmed the Abbasid's defensive remaining positions in the east. They burned the colossal libraries and madrassas (schools) that produced the skilled leaders and teachers of the Abbasid world. By doing so, the Mongols annihilated all who stood in their path or would be able challenge them one day. After their attacks on the borderlands and desert cities, the armies of Inner Asia filled the ancient Mesopotamian irrigation canals that fed large cities, like Baghdad, with the rotting carcasses of the war dead to poison the water supply. Their tactics scattered the best and brightest of the Golden Age of Islam into the barren sands and effectively ended the Abbasid empire.

Two years before Baghdad fell, in 1256 AD, the most feared warriors of the Abbasid were destroyed by the Mongols before they could be an effective military threat to the Horde's plan to surround and lay siege to the capital. They fell in their isolated mountain stronghold of Alamut in nothern Iran. Today, these men are remembered as the Assassins.

The word "assassin" comes into being to describe lone or small groups of highly dangerous soldiers encountered by European Crusaders the called the Hashshahsin. The Hashshahsin were a secretive military society from the Islamic sect of Ismailis of the Shi'a wing of the Islamic religion. The Ismailis were made up of Persians (Iranians) and Syrians that were employed by the Sunni Abbasid, taking a non-demoninational page from the Umayyad, to serve as enemies of the Seljuk Empire that ruled from 1037-1194 in Turkey and the dominate Shi'a Caliphate, The Fatmid Caliphate, in ancient northern Africa from 909-1171 AD.

The word hash or hashish also comes into being from descriptions of the Iranian Order of Assassins whose induction methodology reportedly included drugging prospective members with a local drug, hashish. Christian Crusaders first reported them as early as 1080 AD.

Two Arabic words become important contributions to the modern word "assassin". The first word is "hashishiyya". It was originally used as a slur to describe the Ismali sect as irreligious, social outcasts. This is important to understand how the Order began, as misunderstood outcasts from society.

The second word is "Hasaneen" (ha'sah'neen) which literally means followers of Hasan. The Order of Assassins was founded by the dynamic Shi'a leader Hasan-i Sabbah. In the year 1094 AD, Hasan established the Order's permanent base of operations high in the mountains of northern Iran.

Sabbah, and the Shi'a imams who followed him, used the religious organization to secure military power within the Abbasid empire due to their indispensable and lethal abilities. Hasan-i Sabban was so successful that he is still referred to as "Sayyidna" meaning "Our Master" in Arabic.

II. From Missionary To Master
Let us next look at the man the Golden Hordes of Genghis Khan and Christian Crusaders learned to fear. Let us look at the life of Hasan-i Sabbah, the Grand Master of Assassins.

Sabbah himself began life near modern Tehran in Rayy, Iran. He spent his early life as a wandering Persian missionary of the Ismali tradition learning and teaching mathematics, astronomy and history. While he was traveling in Egypt in 1071 AD, at the age of 17, his teaching and his connections to the government of the parallel caliphate of the Fatmid Caliphate brought Sabban to the attention of the highest of the local authorities - who promptly imprisoned him.

The crime: heresy and inciting unrest - both capital offenses.

The Abbasid Caliphate (750 AD – 1258 AD) stretched from northern Africa past modern Saudi Arabia.
The Abbasid Caliphate (750 AD – 1258 AD) reached from northern Africa past modern Saudi Arabia. Alamut was located near the Tabaristan region. (Larger View)

Hasan was not executed but was eventually released. He was taken from the desert prison in Egypt and deported back to Iran. There, he continued his missionary work in northern Iran where he gathered many Shi'a and Ismali followers in the mountain fortress called Alamut. In Arabic Alamut means "Eagle's Teaching" or alternatively "Eagle's Nest".

The famous story of the founding of Alamut is that the crafty Hasan-i Sabbah asked the Governor of medieval Tehran to buy a piece of land "large enough to covered by the skin of a cow". The official, in his haste to be seen as doing a favor for the popular missionary, agreed. Saban then cut the cow hide into hundreds of tiny pieces and spread them over the mountainside.[1]

It was here at Alamut, in the Alborz Mountains in the Tabaristan region 60 miles north of modern Tehran and south of the Caspian Sea, that Hasan-i Sabah would become known as The Old Man Of The Mountain.

He was named after his reclusive habit of permanent entrenchment in the near impenetrable stronghold in the mountains. Something from the Egyptian prison must simmered deeply within Sabban as he turned the religious order into a merciless society devoted to committing politically aimed murders. From the Eagle's Nest he used the same feverish zeal that he had once pursued knowledge and religious release with to seek out enemies and threats and eliminate them.

Hasan-i Sabbah lived in Alamut from 1094 AD to 1124 AD, ordering his men to seek out political leaders, sheiks, and English crusaders of his day and executing them.

The structural system of Ismali Missionary service that Sabbah was trained in started at the lowest position of "footsoldier" or "Fida'i", followed by "Rafik" or "comrade", and finally the "Da'I" or "missionary".

Sabbah, a Da'I himself, modeled his own secret society of assassins much in the same way. Alamut's order started at the top with himself as "Grand Headmaster", then “Greater Propagandists”, followed by "Propagandists", then the "Companions" (also called Rafiks), and the "Adherents" ("Lasiqs" also known by the Ismali title "Fida'i"). Interchangeable titles among the lower ranks meant that Sabbah could double his foot-soldiers and sergeants - or disavow them from the "inner order" after they failed or succeeded "too well". This is much like the modern concept of "plausible deniability".

It was from among these new enlistees, the Lasiqs or Fida'i, who were trained to become some of the most feared assassins - the newest and most zealous of the Assassins. These men were often self-sacrificing agents or suicide bombers of their day - carrying poisoned daggers to court or into madrassas. There they would assassinate key figures despite without fear of any consequences afterward. It's worth noting that Fida'i also means "sacrifice" in Arabic.

The Lasiqs were fully indoctrinated much like today's suicide bombers are. They were brainwashed with the fanatical belief that they would be rewarded with Paradise after their murderous mission as a martyr ended. Sabbah himself set up this indoctrination by drugging initiates in the cult, drugging them with hashish and then allowing them access to his personal gardens and harems which he described to them as Heaven itself. A heaven that would await them after their mission was complete.

Hasan-i Sabbah survived many intrigues in his mountain fortress before Alamut was eventually passed on to new Grand Masters and then to Shi'a imams before Hulagu besieged it in 1256 AD.

After Hulagu's Mongol guard murdered the current ruler of Alamut, Khudavand Khurshah who had surrendered after a long battle, he took possession of the vast libraries of Alamut - one of the last of the great repositories of knowledge in the ancient Middle Eastern world to survive the Mongol invasion. Afterwards, Alamut was demolished to it's very foundations.

III.After The Horde And The Abbasid In Southern Iran and Cairo
When in was clear that the Mongols intended to destroy the city, Muslims feared that a supernatural disaster would strike if the blood of Al-Musta'sim, a direct descendant of Muhammad's uncle and the last reigning Abbasid caliph in Baghdad, was spilled. The Shiites of Persia stated that no such calamity had happened after the deaths of the original Shiite leader Hussein.

Nevertheless, as a precaution and in accordance with a Mongol taboo which forbade spilling royal blood, Hulagu had Al-Musta'sim wrapped in a carpet and trampled to death by horses on February 20th 1258. The Caliph's immediate family was also executed.

Following the devastation of Baghdad, a few surviving members of the Abbasid dynastic family led by the eldest amongst them, Ismail II, made their way into the region of Fars in Southern Iran where they rebuilt libraries and learning centers in the region. There they have lived until modern times.

In 1261, an Abbasid caliphate was re-established in Cairo, Egypt. The first Abbasid caliph of Cairo was Al-Mustansir. The Abbasid caliphs in Egypt continued to maintain the presence of authority, but it was confined to religious matters. The Abbasid caliphate of Cairo lasted until the time of Al-Mutawakkil III, who was taken away as a prisoner by Selim I to Constantinople where he had a ceremonial role. He died in 1543, following his return to Cairo.

[0] = Cited from Wikipedia Umayyad Caliphate, Abbasid Revolution.
[1] = Cited from a story recounted on

Wikipedia, Hashshashin
Wikipedia, Hasan-i-Sabbah
National Geographic, Iran's Castle Of The Assassins
Hub Pages, Battle Of Baghdad
Disinfo, Hasan bin Sabbah
Encyclopedia Iranica, Ismaili History

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