This is the second of a six-part series. For part one, see here.
The Origins of the Nizaris in Persia
Hassan-i Sabbah would lead the Nizaris in Persia. Recruited in Rayy, near Tehran, by the chief dawa (missionary) of the Fatimids in 1072, Hassan-i Sabbah went to Egypt between 1078 and 1081, before returning to Iran to proselytize. In 1090, Hassan-i Sabbah won control of the fortress of Alamut in north-west Iran, which would become the headquarters of the Nizaris. Throughout the 1090s, the Nizaris gained control of further castles in Daylam, specifically the Rudbar area; in the southwest of Iran between Khuzestan and Fars; and in the east in Quhistan. Most impressive was the capture of the fortress at Shahdiz, near Isfahan, in 1096-7.
The Daylamis were a notoriously rebellious and hardy people; one of the last to convert to Islam, they were then among the first to assert their independence within it, first politically by forming a separate dynasty and then religiously by converting to Shi’ism.
Quhistan was one of the last refuges of Zoroastrianism, and had required the armies of Islam to remove a few more obstacles than elsewhere to allow them to convert to the True Faith. Quhistan was chafing under the rule of the Seljuks, a Turkic people from Central Asia who had begun migrating west in the sixth century, even before the advent of Islam. By the late eleventh century, the Seljuks had colonized and taken rulership of some of the heartlands of Islam, a process that would continue unto completion with the Ottomans, a Seljuk House in Anatolia, taking custodianship of most of the Islamic world in the early sixteenth century, forming the last and greatest Islamic Empire. In Quhistan, an oppressive Seljuk officer had pressed his luck too far and tried to demand the daughter of a local lord. Hassan-i Sabbah’s agents had had great success in any case in Quhistan and, with the defection of this lord to the Nizaris, Quhistan’s conversion took on the character of a popular revolt. The Ismailis succeeded in creating effectively a contiguous State in Quhistan, as they later would in Rudbar.
From these fortresses the Nizaris would wage a campaign of assassination against the Sunni Islamic monarchies, intending to frighten, weaken, and ultimately overthrow them. Hassan-i Sabbah trained a cadre of men, the fida’i or fedayeen (men of sacrifice), whose weapon of choice was always the same: the dagger. The Nizaris never used other available weapons like poison or bows. The murders were ceremonial; the killers rarely made any effort to escape, often being killed on the spot. There is even evidence that the Nizaris considered it shameful to survive. This vaguely resembles suicide bombing, but it is not the same: suicide is strictly forbidden in classical Islam, and the Nizaris adhered to that.
The Nizaris greatest foe at their inception was the Seljuk Empire, the most powerful Sunni polity. In this struggle the Nizaris had an advantage: while formally a unified territory under the Isfahan Sultan, the Seljuk Imperium was in fact subdivided into three competing power centres: Isfahan, the capital, held by Berkyaruq; Baghdad, where Berkyaruq’s half-brother, Muhammad Tapar, ruled; and Khorasan, where Tapar’s full brother, Ahmad Sanjar, was ruler. Tapar took over in Isfahan after Berkyaruq died in 1105, and Sanjar replaced Tapar upon his death, ruling in Isfahan between 1118 and 1157.
In October 1092, the Nizaris brought off the first assassination, killing Nizam al-Mulk, the vizier in Isfahan who had been the real ruler for twenty years. Several efforts were made by Berkyaruq to suppress the Nizaris but he was unsuccessful, not least because he was continually distracted with intra-Seljuk fighting. By 1101, the Nizaris had become so bold—and infiltrated Sultan Berkyaruq’s court so badly—that he reached an agreement with Sanjar to join forces against the Nizaris. In short order, Sanjar laid siege to the Nizari statelet in Quhistan. With the Tabas fortress on the verge of falling, the Nizaris used a simple expedient: they bribed Sanjar’s emir to go away.
Between 1101 and 1103, the Nizaris cut down the Mufti of Isfahan, the prefect of Bayhaq, and the chief of the Karramiyya, a militantly anti-Ismaili order. The murder of Seljuk officers and officials had (temporarily) become too difficult as the Nizaris coped with a military onslaught, but civil and religious dignitaries who legitimized the anti-Ismaili campaigns or stirred up opposition to their doctrines and/or mob violence were punished.
With the reprieve, the Nizaris rebuilt, just in time for a renewed offensive by Sanjar’s emir in 1104. This time Tabas and several other Nizari fortresses fell; Ismaili settlements were pillaged and some of their inhabitants enslaved. But then the emir’s army curiously withdrew in exchange for a pledge that the Nizaris “would not build a castle, nor buy arms, nor summon any to their faith”. The bizarrely inconclusive campaign led to only one result: the Nizaris were soon back in control of Quhistan.
Terrorism by definition is supposed to invoke fear, and the Nizaris found room for maneuver by inciting this in their enemies. A notable incident after Mahmud II replaced Tapar in Baghdad in 1118 was Hassan-i Sabbah using a large sum of money to bribe a eunuch, sending him a dagger to stick in the ground beside the Sultan’s bed. Hassan-i Sabbah then sent a message to Mahmud II:
Did I not wish the Sultan well that dagger which was stuck into the hard ground would have been planted in his soft breast?
There is considerable evidence that after this the Baghdad Sultan inclined not to antagonize the Nizari Ismailis.
The Nizari Mission in Syria
The Nizaris dispatched agents from Persia to Syria in 1103, who sought to replicate the strategy of capturing fortresses for a revolutionary campaign against the Seljuks, who had by this point conquered everything from Central Asia, up to eastern Anatolia, and the Mediterranean coast. The only part of the Middle East not held by the Seljuks was Egypt, held by the Fatimid Caliphate, and the coastal strip of Palestine and Lebanon/Syria, which had been held by the Fatimids and was now held by the Crusaders.
The First Crusade was proclaimed in 1095, and the Crusaders established three Latin States in 1098-99—Edessa, Antioch, and Jerusalem—before adding a fourth, Tripoli, in 1104. The Crusader intrusion as the Seljuk polity of the late Tutush broke down no doubt stressed Syria’s society and made it more receptive to the Nizaris’ message of messianic hope. The Crusaders’ presence, however, had minimal impact. Movements later arose bent on expelling the Crusaders (see part three), but their reasoning was local: they were making a bid for the leadership of the Sunni world. The Crusader “occupation” did not arouse widespread popular resentment or rejection; instead the local polities collaborated (and conflicted) with the Crusader realms as-and-when needed in the usual pattern of State-to-State relations.
The Nizaris chose to bring their “New Preaching” from Alamut to Syria, rather than neighbouring Iraq, because Syria presented more opportunities. Unlike the river-valley societies of Egypt and Iraq, Syria had no history of political centralization; rather to the contrary. Syria was a volatile polity and her coast—between the Taurus Mountain range in what is now southern Turkey and Sinai—offered a mountainous terrain, perfect for the Nizari tactic of entrenchment in fortresses, which was also fragmented politically and religiously opportune with numerous particularisms, including Shi’ite ghulat sects: the Old Preaching (Mustali) Ismailis, the Druze, and the Nusayris/Alawis.
Though the Nizaris are often referred to as the Assassins, it is only the Syrian-based branch of the Nizaris that acquired that name, derived from the Arabic al-Hashishiyya, originally meaning herbage, later specialized to Indian hemp/cannabis. It was, in short, a term of abuse in Syria, likely a reference to (and perhaps an explanation for) the Nizaris’ incredible beliefs and extravagant behaviour. The first reference to the Syrian-based Nizaris as al-Hashishis appears to be in 1123 by the Fatimids—ruled at this time by Caliph al-Amir, whose hatred of the Nizaris was notorious. The Fatimids were, jointly with the Sunni rulers, regarded as the Nizaris’ main enemy. But the popularization of the term seems to have come later in the twelfth century during the Nizaris’ Resurrection period. [Update: For an expanded look at the etymology of Assassins, see Pieter Van Ostaeyen.]
For all the advantages Syria possessed for the Nizaris, they still found it far more difficult than in Persia to entrench themselves, perhaps because all of the Assassin leaders were Persians. It took three attempts for the Nizaris to establish themselves in Syria.
In 1085, Tutush had established the first independent Seljuk polity, in Syria, when he broke with Isfahan, held by his brother, Malik-Shah I. Upon Tutush’s death in 1095, his unified realm shattered, with pieces now ruled over by various Seljuk princes and officers, the most important of whom were Tutush’s sons, Ridwan who held Aleppo and Duqaq who held Damascus.
Between 1103 and 1113, the Nizaris tried to create a base of operations under Ridwan’s patronage in Aleppo. Aleppo had an important Shi’ite population and was conveniently near the ghulat Shi’a areas of Jibal al-Summaq (the Idlibi plains where the Druze are based) and Jibal Ansariya (named for its Nusayri/Alawi inhabitants). It is likely that Ridwan—locked in a struggle with Duqaq—was implicated in the Assassins’ first murder, that of Homs ruler Janah ad-Dawla.
After Ridwan’s death in December 1113 and the instigation of a pogrom by Aleppo’s militia leader, Ibn Badi (whom the Assassins would kill in 1119), the Nizaris looked south, where they found a patron in Tughtigin, who ruled Damascus after Duqaq died in 1104.
It is worth noting, however, that in the spring of 1114, the Nizaris in northern Syria were still strong enough to lead an open attack in battle formation from Afamiya and Sarmin against the Muslim stronghold of Shayzar, and it was not until 1124 that the Nizaris were completely expelled from Aleppo City.
By late 1126, Bahram, the Assassin leader, had appeared openly in Damascus, and the Assassins were given a building in the city from which to operate under official protection. Bahram would soon take an important role in local politics. Bahram’s first demand, with his newfound influence, was for a castle; Tughtigin, gave the Assassins a fortress in Baniyas.
In early 1128, two events severely weakened the Assassins: Bahram was killed in a scuffle with local tribes in Wadi al-Taym, and Tughtigin died. Though Tughtigin’s vizier, al-Mazdagani, maintained his support for the Assassins, an anti-Ismaili spasm of the kind that had followed Ridwan’s death in Aleppo would occur in September 1129, orchestrated by Damascus’ new ruler, Buri, and some of his senior officials. Al-Mazdagani was murdered and a mob massacred probably more than 10,000 Ismailis. So ended the second Nizari attempt to embed in Syria.
The Assassins were in some disarray, as evidenced by the fact that the counterstroke against their Syrian enemies came from Alamut: two Nizaris sent from Persia infiltrated Buri’s security detail and struck him down in May 1131.
Between their 1129 destruction in Damascus and 1149, little is heard of the Nizaris in Syria, but they were evidently working to consolidate. The Assassins captured al-Qadmus/Kahf fortress in the Baniyas area in 1132 and their most important fortress in Masyaf, east of Hama, in 1141, and the Assassins’ most active and important period was still in the future.