Monday, August 6, 2012

From "Hashish-Eater" to Assassin

Alamut fortification in Iran
Photo by Payampak
By Heidi Noroozy

In 1930, British explorer and travel writer, Freya Stark, undertook an unusual journey across Persia, from the western province of Lurestan to the Caspian Sea. Her travels took her through a remote and as yet unmapped region of the Alborz Mountains called the Alamut Valley, better known to Westerners as the Valley of the Assassins.

Nearly 900 years before Freya Stark’s expedition, Alamut was home to a heretical sect of Shia mystics called the Nizari Ismailis. Their leader, Hassan-i Sabbah, captured Alamut Castle in 1090 and eventually expanded his territory to include 50 fortresses tucked away among the remote mountain peaks.

The Nizaris were a small band of men and their families surrounded by hostile enemies, and Hassan developed a strategy for dealing with threats to his power without sacrificing too many of his own soldiers. He would order them to kill enemy leaders, both political and religious, using stealth, cunning, and ruthlessness. Daggers were the murder weapons of choice, and often the Nizaris would leave a knife on the pillow of a sleeping target as a warning. This band of militant fanatics is long gone now (though the form of Islam that they followed is still practiced in parts of the Middle East and Central Asia), but they’ve left behind a chilling legacy: the word “assassin.”

Linguists disagree on how the term, “assassin,” came into English and other European languages, although most scholars attribute the word’s origin to the Nizari Ismailis, aka the Alamut Assassins. One theory comes from an account by Marco Polo, who visited Alamut in the 13th century, not long after the sect and their stronghold were destroyed by Mongol invaders.

Castles in Alamut & Rudbar regions, Iran
Photo by Jolle
In his account of the trip, Marco Polo described a ritual in which Hassan-i Sabbah would give his young followers a drink laced with hashish that put them to sleep. He’d then place them in a beautiful garden filled with lovely maidens and wake them up, telling them they were in paradise. Later, when he sent them out on a mission, he’d promise them that if they were successful they’d return to paradise. According to legend, this practice earned the Assassins the nickname, hashishiyyeen, an Arab term meaning “hashish-eater.”

The problem with this theory is that neither Ismaeli nor other Muslim texts offer any evidence that the Assassins ever took hashish, a drug made from the resin of the cannabis plant and not usually administered in liquid form. Marco Polo’s account may have been influenced by the reports of Crusader chroniclers, who encountered the Ismailis on their holy wars. In any case, it’s unlikely that the explorer ever met any Assassins since their stronghold had been destroyed in 1256, when he was only two years old (and 132 years after Hassan-i Sabbeh’s death) .

Another theory is that the Arabic term, “hashish-eater,” had a different, more figurative connotation at the time. It meant “outlaw,” or “disreputable person,” and was likely applied to the Assassins by their enemies and not by the Nizaris themseves.

Hassan and his men called themselves the “asasayoon,” or “followers of the foundation (asas) of faith,” which leads to the third theory, that “assassin” derives from this word.

Siege of Alamut
Persian Miniature
Although this etymology sounds plausible, my money is still on “hashishiyyeen” in the figurative sense as the origin of the word. Usually it’s the victors who write the final chapter of any history, and it makes sense that the Alamut Assassins’ enemies would continue to call them outlaws decades or even centuries after they met their end.

Whatever the real origin of the word, “assassin” entered European languages during the Middle Ages. The Crusaders were frequent targets of Nizari attacks, including Conrad of Montferrat, who was assassinated shortly before being crowned King of Jerusalem. The first Western texts to document the use of the term are the chronicles of these holy wars.

Today, all that’s left of the Alamut Assassins are their crumbling fortresses, a tangle of legends, and a word that still chills the heart.

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