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The Hashshashin, a cult of highly trained Muslim assassins, were one of the deadliest of all secret societies.

Regarded as one of the most fearsome of all secret societies, the Hashshashin seemed capable of striking down any victim or penetrating any security. They moved as if they were deadly shadows and struck with a fury that shattered the nerves and the resolve of their most stalwart foes. Because the Hashshashin had been indoctrinated to believe that death in the pursuit of orders guaranteed an immediate transference to Paradise, they fought with a fury untouched by the normal fear of dying in combat.

Most of the early members of the secret society were followers of the Nizari branch of the Isma Iliyya sect of Shiite Muslims and were located primarily in Syria and Persia. In 1090 Hasan ibn Sabbah seized the mountain citadel of Alamaut in northern Persia and made it his “Eagles’ Nest,” a center where he, as grand master, could live in relative safety and direct his forces throughout Asia. Hasan became known as the “Old Man of the Mountains,” and he set about creating a fanatical organization composed of devotees, known as fedayeen, who did whatever he commanded with blind obedience.

The very name of the secret society of killers has given us the word assassin, one who kills for fanatical or monetary reasons, and its offshoots assassinate, the act of killing suddenly and treacherously, and assassination, the murder of a prominent person. Their name, Hashshashin, is derived from the Arabic hashish (the concentrated, intoxicating resin of the Indian hemp plant) and the accusation made by European Crusaders that the fierce warriors made liberal use of the narcotic effects of hashish to achieve their courage and to eliminate their fear of death.

Hasan ibn Sabbah frequently bought boys from poverty-stricken parents and reared them in camps where he trained them to be skilled murderers, leading them step by step to higher levels of killing proficiency. At the same time that he was shaping them into deadly warriors, he indoctrinated them spiritually, convincing them that as they advanced under his leadership they would come closer to the sacred and ultimate mystery that only he could reveal. Hasan told them that the conventional teachings of Islam had misled them. Paradise could not be attained by following the preachings of Muhammad, but only by complete obedience to Hasan ibn Sabbah, who was the true incarnation of God on Earth.

Hasan supplied his young soldiers with generous amounts of hashish, then hypnotically guided them in a visual meditation to the lavish gardens of heaven, where they were allowed to witness the beauty of the afterlife. When the youths regained full consciousness, they believed unequivocally that they had been allowed a glimpse of their future dwelling place in Paradise.

Although the Hashshashin came to be feared by kings, princes, sheikhs, sultans, and Christian Crusaders, their membership probably never included more than two thousand fedayeen at any one time. Masters of disguise and fluent in many languages and dialects, they might one day appear as simple peasants working around a castle wall and the next emerge as deadly warriors springing on their victims from the shadows.

The assassins inveigled themselves into the services of all the surrounding rulers, posing as loyal soldiers or servants, but always awaiting the bidding of their grand master. A powerful sultan who defied the orders of Hasan might suddenly find himself mercilessly attacked by men he had regarded for many years as trusted servants. As the power of Hasan’s secret society became known throughout the East, a monarch never knew which of his seemingly faithful retinue was really an assassin only awaiting orders to murder him.

Between 1090 and 1256 there were eight grand masters who ruled the society of assassins. In 1256 and 1258 the Mongols virtually destroyed the sect in Iran and in Syria. Although the Hashshashin scattered throughout the East and into Europe, in 1272 the Mamluk sultan Baybars brought about their downfall as an organized sect.

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Two days later, he had me sit beside him under a chestnut tree and told me about Hasan as-Sabbah and his band of hashashin, the origins of the legend of the assassins.
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