The Order of Assassins: The Origins of a Secretive Sect

The Order of Assassins is the stuff of legend, telling of masterful warriors trained for targeted attacks. But who were they? And are the stories even real?

6 February 2024

Legend tells of a deadly mediaeval sect picking off their adversaries’ leaders one by one; of those trained in killing, spying, and stealth from childhood; of drug fuelled brainwashing; and of a leader who inspired such unwavering devotion that his people would not only kill, but die on his word. This is the image portrayed of the Order of Assassins or “Hashshashin.” So pervasive was the myth that it soaked into the English language, with an “assassin” defined as one who kills for political or power-fuelled reasons.

So, are the stories true? Who were the Hashshashin? How did they attain their fearful reputation? And what’s this got to do with video games? Worry not, because we’re cutting to the core of the issue with an insight into the real assassins order.

The Original Assassins Order

Hassan-i Sabbah leading initiations at Alamut (Credit: Pictures from History / Contributor via Getty Images)

The story of the real Assassins Order finds its roots around 1090 AD, when a fight for the throne of Cairo saw one prince executed so his brother could rule. The event caused a rift in the Ismaili community, with allegiances split between the two siblings. Those who had supported the slain prince, Nizari, fled to Persia, splintering to become a faction of their own: the Nizari Ismailis.

Under the leadership of Hassan-i Sabbah, the Nizaris established a stronghold at the fortress of Alamut in what is now northern Iran. There, this small group found itself persecuted and surrounded by far more powerful foes. Unable to directly engage with their mightier adversaries on the battlefield, Hassan-i Sabbah chose a more strategic approach. One that would become the stuff of legend: targeting not their enemies’ armies, but their leaders.

The Rise of the Order of Assassins

Tomb of Nizam al-Mulk (Credit: Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Thus began the formation of the original Assassins Order. And, for the next 300 years, they embarked on a campaign of high-profile killings of eminent figures. Of course, this was no trivial task, requiring both skill and training. What’s more, a hallmark of the killings was that they were as public as possible so as to sow maximum fear, overwhelmingly ending in the assassin’s death. However, this secret organisation was not known as the Order of Assassins. In honour of the uncompromising commitment to their cause, those who carried out the missions were called fedayeen, meaning “self-sacrificers.” Their organisation was called al-Da’awa or “the Calling.”

While not the first to carry out assassinations, the original Assassins Order are thought to be the first to use them so strategically. The fedayeen developed a reputation as skilled killers, spies and fighters, with tales including agents posing as mystics and infiltrating royal guard ranks. Amongst their most high-profile killings were those of the Vizier of the Seljuk Empire Nizam al-Mulk, Fatimid Caliph al-Amir, and the de facto king of Jerusalem, Marquis Conrad of Montferrat.

From the 11th to the 13th century, the Nizari were linked to a series of high-profile killings. These missions often ended in their own deaths, thus earning them a reputation for an uncompromising commitment to their cause.

It’s worth noting that targeted assassination was not the Nizaris’ only tactic. In addition to espionage and the capture of strategic locations, they also used missionary work and diplomacy to expand their influence. At their zenith, they had a series of highly fortified mountain strongholds in Iran and in Syria.

The Hashshashin: A Misnomer?

Alamut in modern-day Iran (Credit: Jean-Michel COUREAU/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

But, wait. If the Nizari operatives were called fedayeen, where does the name “assassins” come from? In fact, it almost certainly originated from their enemies’ insulting moniker for the group, the “Hashshashin.” Some say this referred to them as users of hashish. And indeed there were depictions of them as drug-fuelled heretics being brainwashed to kill, but this was most likely a result of European misinterpretation of the term. Others point to the colloquial use of hashish as meaning “fodder,” thus referring to the Order of Assassins as expendable tools in political murder and extortion.

Interaction with Crusaders and Muslim Rulers

Historic depiction of Saladin (Credit: Photo 12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The Hashshashin assassins’ exploits became widely known, not to mention exaggerated, during the Crusades. Interestingly, the Assassins’ relationship with Muslim and Christian leaders was complex and sometimes collaborative. They attempted to assassinate Salah al-Din, but later formed working relationships with him and King Richard. Their political alignment shifted over time, ceasing attacks on Muslims and focusing on Crusaders. Those who dispute their motivations as being purely defensive point to these malleable alliances.

The Decline of the Hashshashin Assassins

A depiction of battle against the Mongol army (Credit: Pictures from History / Contributor via Getty Images)

The Hashshashins’ power began to wane in the late 13th century, facing significant challenges from Mamluk Sultan Baybars and the Mongols. Their strongholds fell one by one, and their political influence diminished, signalling the end of their era of assassination campaigns. The 14th century saw the split between Syrian and Persian Nizari Ismailis and largely drew a close to their notorious activities.

From Myth to Art

Advert for Assassin's Creed 3 video game (Credit: Bloomberg / Contributor via Getty Images)

The legendary Order of Assassins is a mix of myth and reality. Even their nickname, Hashshashin, would echo through history, giving us the term ‘assassin’, while any such high-profile killing would be termed an ‘assassination’. And, where there’s a reality as interesting as this, art is sure to follow. Indeed, in 2007, the game Assassin’s Creed was released, inspired by the history and legends of the Nizari Ismailis, attaining enormous success and worldwide attention.


You May Also Like

Explore More