The year is 1176 AD; Saladin’s army is laying siege to a fortress in Syria. The great leader sleeps in his tent safe in the knowledge that it is surrounded by bodyguards. He suddenly awakes; something is not right. He turns to see by his bed a platter off scones that wasn’t there before, and, more worryingly, a poisoned dagger is plunged into the centre of the plate with a note demanding the army leaves or he will die. Immediately the army retreats. The fortress of Masyaf had just demonstrated the skill of its greatest weapon, the Assassins.

Saladin wasn’t the only person to fear this order; the Assassins were feared and hated by most of the Middle East. Although the order was Islamic, they represented a splinter group from the rest of the religion and as a result had to use force to survive, indeed they often allied with the Christian Crusaders over Islam.

The fortress of Masyaf had just demonstrated the skill of its greatest weapon, the Assassins.

The Order is truly remarkable in that they refused to kill innocent people; something which is also encouraged in the Assassin’s Creed games. In a world where vast armies clashed and streets ran with blood the policy of only eliminating key people was truly a break from tradition and in the context of the time a very peaceful policy.

Information is scarce to say the least; most accounts were either written by their enemies or centuries after they fell, but the longest lasting evidence of their existence was their name, the Hashashin. The word assassin in English harks back to this long lost order.

Founded just under a thousand years ago (circa 1080 AD) the Assassins were the followers of Hassan-i Sabbah. Sabbah was a renowned practitioner of Nizari Ismailism, and people began to gather around him. He acquired the mountain fortress of Alamut in Iran which became the capital of the Assassin Order, with Sabbah as its first Grand Master. The ‘Pieces of Eden’ from the series are probably based on the way that Sabbah was said to obtain new recruits. Stories say that he would take them to paradise for a time and then return them to this world, and only if they did as he commanded would they be able to return; although this tale was probably made up long after the order was destroyed. The leap of faith in Assassin’s Creed also comes from the old stories where the Grand Master demonstrated the dedication of his followers to an invading army. He told some of them to leap from the castle walls. Such fanatic belief persuaded the army to withdraw; the scene was largely recreated at the start of the first game.

The leap of faith in Assassin’s Creed also comes from the old stories where the Grand Master demonstrated the dedication of his followers to an invading army.

They had a strict hierarchy with low level assassins at the bottom who were generally expendable and more advanced ones towards the top. They were trained in disguise, combat, and were able to read. They were taught to be patient and bide their time in completing an assignment. Although assassinations were mainly planned to increase the security of the state, they also took outside contracts from both sides during the Crusades as they didn’t want either side to get the upper hand. The fear of the order was also exploited as they often simply left a poisoned dagger on the targets bed; the scared target would then more than likely give in to their demands. Over time they acquired more towns including their northern capital, Masyaf, which features in the first game.

Their downfall came when they tried to kill one person too many. When they failed to kill the Mongol Emperor he rapidly retaliated. Alamut was all but destroyed in the subsequent attack and the southern part of the order collapsed soon after. The northern half under Masyaf lingered on under the service of the local ruler. Individual assassins carried on into the fourteenth century in underground groups with the last true assassin believing to have died in the fifteenth.

The order may have fallen long ago but its reputation is likely to live on for a long time to come.

The key difference with the games is that the focus on religion is all but stripped away; it makes the existence of the order in Christian renaissance Italy highly unlikely.

Like the Knights Templar the Hashashin have become a perfect target for rumours and conspiracy theories. What is certain is that the order chose a very unusual path, they did not fight on the battlefield, they largely refused to kill innocent people and their very name lives on in many languages. The order may have fallen long ago but its reputation is likely to live on for a long time to come.

Tim Winstanley

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Image: Cea. via Flickr

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2 Comments

  1. Will Hazell
    February 14, 2013 at 01:20 — Reply

    Very interesting. I had no idea the Assassins were actually based on reality.

  2. Tim Winstanley
    February 14, 2013 at 21:45 — Reply

    Its a shame they seem to be less well known than the Knights Templar.

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