The Nizaris (Part 1): The Muslim group that inspired Assassin’s Creed

Sheltered in impregnable mountain fortresses, the Nizaris, a mysterious Muslim group spread throughout Iran and Syria, aroused the fear and respect of their enemies in the Middle Ages. It is said that the most loyal devotees complied unquestioningly with the commands of their leader, the enigmatic “Old Man of the Mountain,” who dispatched them on suicide missions to assassinate rival political and military leaders who posed a potential danger to his ambitions. By their actions they would be known as “assassins”. They were not afraid of death, which they demonstrated by jumping from dizzying heights to demonstrate loyalty to their leader if necessary. This is at least what has been transmitted to us from medieval European chroniclers. But what is the truth in all these stories? In this article we will learn more about the Nizaris or assassins, the group that inspired the Assassin’s Creed saga

“Nothing is true; everything is permitted” – Motto of the Order of Assassins

Assassin’s Creed is one of the most successful video games and praised by the public, to the point of having developed a complex and genuine universe in constant expansion. The main argument is the Manichean confrontation through the centuries of two irreconcilable factions: the Assassin Brotherhood and the Templar Order. Although both seek the same thing, peace and world order, the means to achieve these goals differ markedly between the two factions. The Templars consider the human being to be untrustworthy, a danger to himself (“man is a wolf to man”), because he quickly succumbs to his wildest instincts and most mundane passions, which makes him incapable of achieving these goals on his own. Therefore, they see the control and subjugation of free will as necessary to guide humanity and put it on the road to harmony and prosperity. The Assassins, on the other hand, do trust in free will and seek to safeguard it so that mankind can evolve and achieve peace through its own progress. In the meantime, this confrontation changes the course of history.

Assassin’s Creed has been one of Ubisoft’s most successful products. In the picture, Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad, main character of the videogame that inaugurated the franchise. Wallpaper flare

The Assassin Brotherhood is based on a series of tenets that determine the creed and the way of acting of its acolytes, which can be summarized in three core points: “stay your blade from the flesh of an innocent”, “hide in plain sight, be one with the crowd” and “never compromise the Brotherhood”. Assassins tend to dress in robes and hide their faces with a hood to go unnoticed. Other elements that characterize them are the lethal retractable blades equipped on their forearms with which they kill their enemies. They operate in the shadows and as inconspicuously as possible; they camouflage themselves among the crowd and watch their targets until they find the right moment to strike them down. They are not afraid of death, even jumping from great heights to mislead their pursuers or to demonstrate their loyalty to the creed.

Cover of Vladimir Bartol’s novel, a key source of inspiration for Assassin’s Creed. Wikimedia Commons

The main source of inspiration for the saga and especially for the first video game is the novel Alamut (1938), written by Vladimir Bartol. Many elements of the book appear in the game, starting with the main motto of the Brotherhood “nothing is true, everything is permitted”, which in the book is “nothing is an absolute reality; all is permitted”. Bartol’s work, although fictional, includes several characters and locations that actually existed, as does Assassin’s Creed. However, they often appear mixed with literary and narrative devices that do not correspond to historical reality.

Anyone who has a slight notion of the Assassin’s Creed saga will know that the stories are inspired by real events and characters. In the case of the Templars, it is clear who they are based on, but not many know that behind the apparently fictitious Assassins Brotherhood there is also a real and fascinating story: that of the Nizaris. To know it properly we must follow an order, so let’s start in the Near East, specifically in the seventh century AD, a period in which a single man, now praised by millions of people, changed the history of the world forever.

From the Shiites to the Ismailis

“To say that nothing is true is to realize that the foundations of society are fragile, and that we must be the shepherds of our own civilization. To say that everything is permitted, is to understand that we are the architects of our actions, and that we must live with their consequences, whether glorious or tragic” – Ezio Auditore

The Nizaris or assassins constitute one of the branches of Ismailism, which in turn is part of the Shiite tradition. The Ismailis are the second largest Shiite community after the Twelvers. As there are many terms to assimilate, we will explore them one by one.

On June 8, 632, the founder and prophet of Islam, Muhammad, died in Medina without leaving any designated successor. Consequently, his death was followed by a chaotic schism among his followers due to theological and leadership differences over who should succeed the prophet as the spiritual leader of the Islamic community. These dissensions would give rise to the two main branches of Islam: Sunnism or the orthodox branch, the majority and predominant throughout history, and Shi’ism.

Shiites believe that Muhammad explicitly designated his cousin and son-in-law Ali as his successor. The illustration shows the investiture of Ali. Wikimedia Commons

Muhammad would eventually be succeeded by Abu Bakr, the first caliph of Islam (from “khalifat rasul Allah”: successor of the messenger of God) and one of his closest followers (considered the first person outside the Prophet’s family to convert to Islam). However, not everyone agreed. A small collective in Medina considered that Muhammad’s legitimate successor should be someone from his family (the “Ahl ul-Bayt”) and, more specifically, his cousin and son-in-law, the husband of his daughter Fatima, Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn Abi Talib (Ali), and in him they placed their loyalty. This minority group would be known as Shi’at’Ali, the party of Ali, or simply Shi’a. According to the Shi’a, in 632 Muhammad would have explicitly appointed Ali as his successor following a divine revelation. Consequently, Ali was the legitimate leader of the caliphate, the imam who should lead the Muslim community, since, ultimately, it was the will of God manifested through his messenger. All other pretenders to the throne could only be mere usurpers. Although Muhammad’s son-in-law would accede to the caliphate throne some years later, this disagreement would originate the Sunni-Shi’i schism.

With the passage of time, debates on various theological and historical issues and on the line of succession of the imams will weaken the Shiite union, giving rise to the formation of various sects and schools of thought. Ismailism will be one of the doctrines that will emerge from this fragmentation. We must place its birth after the death of Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq in 765, the fifth Imam in the Ismaili genealogy. He is one of the major figures in the history of Ismailism, as he introduced several fundamental doctrinal changes.

His succession was highly contentious. Jaʿfar is supposed to have designated his second son, Ismāʿīl (eponym of Ismailism), as his successor to the imamate. Unfortunately, Ismāʿīl died before his father. This event generated an existential crisis in some of Ja’far’s followers as they could not conceive how their imam, considered an infallible authority guided by the divinity, erred in such an important matter as the designation of his heir. In any case, the disciples of Jaʿfar fragmented into 6 groups according to which of his sons they showed loyalty to. The two largest factions were the Twelvers (the largest Shiite community in the world today), followers of Mūsā al-Kāẓim, another of Jaʿfar’s sons, and the Ismailis (with between 12 to 15 million followers today), who continued to show their devotion to Ismāʿīl and his son, Muhammad.

Jaʿfar was considered an extremely wise master, which earned him the respect of both Shiites and Sunnis. One of the most important things he did was to redefine the doctrine of the imamate. The imam is the most important figure for Shiites, as he is the spiritual leader of the Muslim community after Muhammad. And this is so because, since Ali, the imams are the heirs of religious knowledge and divine inspiration that allows them to interpret the exo- and esoteric dimensions of the Sharia and the sacred texts. This is another fundamental and differentiating element of the Ismaili doctrine and also the origin of the animosity and furious criticism of Sunni theologians, who went so far as to label them as heretics and atheists (in some sources they are designated with the derogatory term “hashishiyya”, from which the word “assassin” is derived). Broadly speaking, the Ismailis distinguish two meanings or inseparable aspects of the message revealed by Allah to Muhammad:

  • The“zāhir” or literal and apparent meaning, accessible to most people.

  • The “bātin”, the hidden knowledge that contains the true immutable and eternal spiritual reality to which only a few initiates have access.

Herein lies the importance of the imam, since, being the recipient of divine inspiration, he is the only person capable of interpreting the hidden and deeper meaning of the revealed message and, therefore, must be the only legitimate guide for those who consider themselves Muslims. Therefore, the Sunni caliph was reduced to a mere usurper. It was precisely this interest in the esoteric that infuriated the ideological enemies of the Ismailis, considering that it led to the abandonment of the Sharia.

From where did the imams obtain the necessary aptitude to interpret the revealed message? From their predecessors. According to Ja’far, each imam must explicitly designate his successor and transmit to him his divinely inspired knowledge and faculties so that he can adequately carry out his function as spiritual leader in the future. This would be a way of reproducing the first designation, i.e., the Prophet’s designation of Ali as his successor.

Finally, Ja’far refined and turned the practice of “taqiyya” into another precept of the Shi’i doctrine. Taqiyya consisted in the dissimulation of personal religious beliefs to survive persecution and pogroms, a behavior that the Ismailis would practice repeatedly throughout their history. It was the best way for a collective that disavowed the prevailing power to protect itself and survive.

The period from the death of Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq to 909 is known as the pre-Fatimid period. It is a very obscure period because of the paucity of historiographical sources. At that time, the Muslim world was ruled by the Sunni Abbasid dynasty, which had seized hegemony from the Umayyad dynasty in 750. The Abbasids persecuted fiercely those Muslims considered heretics, such as the Ismailis, for not following the doctrine that, according to them, was the only correct one. Faced with this unfavorable situation, the Ismailis were forced to go into hiding and adopt a clandestine way of life, refraining from leaving written evidence of their beliefs or, at the very least, limiting their dissemination, which would explain the scarcity of historiographical sources from this period.

The city of Baghdad (Iraq) in the 10th century. It served at various times as the capital of the Abbasid caliphate. Jean Soutif

Despite these drawbacks, the Ismailis swelled their ranks and gradually increased their influence and military power until they emerged strongly in the middle of the ninth century as a revolutionary movement against the Abbasid caliphate. Recruitment took place mainly among the most disadvantaged social groups dissatisfied with the administration, such as the peasants and the semi-nomadic and Bedouin tribes. It was they who constituted the core of Ismailism in its beginnings. Progressively, the Shiite doctrine gained greater popularity and adherents, not only among the lower classes, but also among aristocrats, landowners and leaders, who offered economic support to the movement, favoring its structuring, consolidation and expansion. The empowerment encouraged the abandonment of the underground and turned the Ismailis into a threat to the Abbasid state. It also increased the number of missionaries sent to different regions of Iraq, Yemen and Persia to propagate the doctrine and win new acolytes. The ground was being paved for the achievement of one of the greatest successes for the Ismailis in particular and for the entire Shiite community in general.

The Fatimid Caliphate: the golden age of Ismailism

“Our creed does not command us to be free. It commands us to be wise” –  Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad

Despite fierce Sunni opposition, the Ismaili revolution culminated in 909 with a unique and unrepeatable achievement for the Shiites: the establishment of a caliphate, which would last until 1171. The first and the last of a Shiite type and, moreover, of an Ismaili nature. The consolidation of a sufficiently powerful military force and the proselytizing successes achieved by the Ismaili missionaries were the keys to overthrowing the Abbasids and replacing them in power.

This caliphate is known by the name “Fatimid” because the caliph-imams traced their bloodline to Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad and wife of Ali. At last, Shiite Muslims could express their beliefs and creed openly, without fear of persecution and reprisal by their enemies, at least in the Fatimid territories. Proof of this were the outstanding intellectual output and contributions to Islamic theology and philosophy by the Shiites during this period.

Area occupied by the Fatimid caliphate at the height of its power. Gabagool (Wikipedia)

Logically, the Fatimids took advantage of this opportunity to intensify the preaching of their doctrine and send dozens of missionaries to different parts of the Muslim world with the mission of making it clear that the Fatimid caliph-iman was the only legitimate religious and political authority to pay homage to, since through his lineage he had received divine inspiration and the necessary knowledge to correctly interpret the message revealed by Allah to Muhammad.

At first, the capital of the caliphate was established in Ifriqiya, present-day Tunisia, and later moved to Cairo (Egypt), where it remained until the end. The Fatimid Caliphate spread throughout North Africa, from Morocco to Egypt, Sicily (from where they launched several incursions towards the European Mediterranean shores), Syria, Yemen, Palestine, the African coast of the Red Sea and the Hijaz region (including the holy cities of Medina and Mecca).

Dinar minted during the time of the caliph al-Mustanṣir. Wikimedia Commons

Among the fourteen Fatimid caliph-imams who occupied the throne, Abū Tamīm Ma’ad al-Mustanṣir bi-llāh should be highlighted for being the one who reigned the longest and the one most directly related to the rise of the Nizaris. His rule lasted from 1036 until his death in 1094, an important period that marks the beginning of the decline of the caliphate because of the loss of hegemony and territories. The death of al-Mustanṣir, moreover, was accompanied by a schism among his acolytes. Thus, two new Ismaili branches emerged from the bosom of discord, one of them being the Nizaris, the famous assassins.

1094: the Nizaris are born

Al Mualim: “What is the truth?”

Altaïr: “We place faith in ourselves. We see the world the way it really is, and hope that one day all mankind might see the same.”

Before dying, al-Mustanṣir designated his eldest son, Abu Mansur Nizar (1045-1095), as his heir to the throne. However, during that period a ruse was being hatched to prevent Nizar from coming to power. Behind the conspiracy was the powerful vizier al-Malik al-Afdal, who planned to take all power into his own hands. He pulled the strings so that Nizar’s younger brother, Abu al-Qasim Ahmad, would finally accede to the throne, the ideal puppet through whom he could control the Fatimid caliphate.

Viziers played an important role in the Fatimid court. The successors of the caliphs were often minors when they acceded to the throne and were not ready to rule. In these circumstances, the elected viziers could act as regents and teachers of the future caliph until he reached the legal age. Occasionally, however, the viziers could attain great power and reduce their lord to a mere figurehead. The case of al-Afdal was a good example of this.

The regent vizier made shrewd moves to obtain the support of the Fatimid armies and the most influential members of the court and place Ahmad on the throne with the title of al-Musta’li billah, thus ending all chances of Nizar to succeed his father. The latter fled to Alexandria as a last resort to get the support of the governor of the city and its population, which he achieved, being recognized as caliph-imam by the Alexandrians. From there he would organize a revolution to dethrone the vizier, but it would be quickly crushed. Nizar ended his days in prison and was executed by immurement at the end of 1095.

These events split the Fatimid Ismailis into two branches: those who reaffirmed their loyalty to Nizar, the Nizari Ismailis, and those who recognized al-Musta’li as their caliph-imam, the Mustalian Ismailis. From then on, Nizaris would not be too well regarded in Egypt, predominantly Mustalian, so they had to emigrate and establish their territories in other regions, such as Persia (present-day Iran), where they would constitute their own independent state. To understand why the Nizaris chose Persia to establish their command center, we must go back 5 years before the death of Nizar.

Alamut: the impregnable capital of the Nizari state

In 1090, a mysterious man working for the Fatimids infiltrated Alamut, an impressive rock fortress located on a ridge of the Alburz mountain massif in the Daylam region, south of the Caspian Sea. Its foundation is attributed to the Jostanids in 860, who chose an unbeatable location to erect their castle. In addition to dominating a fertile and bountiful valley, Alamut was surrounded by mountains and steep, rugged terrain. A narrow, steep and winding road was the only way to access the unconquerable fortress. In fact, no one could ever take it by force.

The stranger had long been hatching a plan to take over the castle. He had already achieved very satisfactory results by sending several missionaries clandestinely to Persia in order to win new acolytes for the Ismaili faith. Because of his situation, he knew that Alamut was the best place to establish his base of operations, especially since Persia was dominated by the Seljuk Turks, allies of the Abbasid dynasty and followers of Sunnism, and therefore enemies of the Fatimids. If he could get Alamut, he could establish himself in the heart of the enemy territory, attack them from within and defend himself in case they retaliated. In fact, it was a great idea, because military clashes between Ismailis and the Seljuk Empire were constant.

Missionaries ended up converting the garrison of Alamut to Ismailism, which was vital for the infiltrator to claim the castle for himself. Alamut thus became the proselytizing center of Nizarism in Persia. Thus Hassan-i Sabbah (1034-1124), the author of the operation to conquer the fortress, became the first lord of Alamut. Hassan was a charismatic preacher and missionary of Persian origin in the service of the Fatimid caliphate. Extremely astute and shrewd, he already sensed that the caliphate was tottering and that he should get as far away as possible to avoid being dragged down by its collapse.

The fortress of Alamut during its construction recreated for Assassin’s Creed Mirage. Assassin’s Creed (Twitter)

Indeed, already during the reign of al-Mustanṣir things were not going well. First, several enemy factions, including the Seljuk Turks, were gaining ground on the Fatimids and jeopardizing the stability of their hegemony. It was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain order in the territories and to quell the growing number of riots and popular revolts. Likewise, the government was suffering from intrigues, internal disorders and clashes between the different factions of the Fatimid court. Hassan saw in all this the last throes of a government in decline. Therefore, it was time to start organizing his own movement. In fact, after the death of al-Mustanṣir, the caliphate had little less than a century of life left. It would be a Fatimid vizier who would finally deliver the coup de grace to the caliphate in 1171. Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb, popularly known as Saladin, founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, wanted to restore the lost authority of the Sunni Abbasids. To this end, he consolidated his position at court and organized his own army with which he destroyed the Fatimid militias and expelled the Ismaili Fatimid dynasty from power, returning command to the Abbasids. Thus ended the only Shiite caliphate in history after 262 long and prosperous years of existence.

Thus, with the conquest of Alamut began the history of Nizari Ismailism, which would last until 1256, when Alamut was surrendered to Mongol hordes. However, the Nizari movement as such would not be founded until 1095, when Hassan-i Sabbah declared his allegiance to Nizar and his descendants and broke his link with the Fatimid caliphate. In this way, he established an autonomous and independent state in Persia and his own propaganda mission or “da’wa”, which progressively went from operating clandestinely to being more open and public despite the constant onslaught of the Seljuks.

Miniature with the Alamut fortress. Basawan (Wikimedia Commons)

Nizari proselytism was quite popular in Persia for several reasons. The first was the general dissatisfaction of the population with the Seljuk administration. Looting, massacres, or excessive taxation were a constant that the Persian population (and especially the most disadvantaged) was not willing to put up with much longer. To this had to be added the failure of the Islamization operation carried out by the Turks. Part of the population still felt deeply rooted in their Persian past and traditions and saw the Turks as invaders who sought to extirpate those roots. In contrast, Nizari Ismailism presented itself as a more open and egalitarian alternative for these people. Hassan’s struggle against the anti-Shi’a policies of the Turks communicated with nationalist sentiments and the need to preserve Persian idiosyncrasy. That’s why Nizaris were seen as allies. In fact, to demonstrate that Nizaris supported the Persian cause, Hassan adopted Persian as the official language of his movement. It should also be noted that the first lord of Alamut was of Persian origin, so it is possible that his struggle was aimed not only at promulgating the Nizari doctrine, but also at defending his people.

Once settled in Alamut, Hassan undertook several renovations and repairs to the castle to make it even more impregnable and turn it into the capital of the Nizari state. He had storerooms, water tanks, and an intricate system of pipes built to supply water to all the rooms and sectors of the fortress, in addition to reinforcing the fortifications. He also expanded and improved the irrigation systems and crops in the Alamut valley. In this way, he secured a source of basic supplies to sustain its population and resist prolonged sieges, which would be regular for centuries to come. Alamut would also be known for the rich library it housed, a great center of Ismaili and Nizari knowledge.

The inaccessibility of the Alamut fortress was a fact. In the photograph, the beautiful and rugged landscape surrounding Alamut, today in ruins. Alireza Javaheri (Wikimedia Commons)

The lord of Alamut then proceeded to create a network of impregnable fortresses to consolidate his rule in Persia, from which to disseminate the Nizari da’wa, and call for numerous revolts at the same time to overwhelm the Turks and drive them out of the region. To this end, he dispatched missionaries to the existing fortresses to convert their garrisons and built new castles on the mountain peaks. In this way, Nizaris became a considerable force. In addition, Turkish hegemony was in recession, spurred largely by the consideration of the state as a family patrimony to be divided among the Turkish sultan’s relatives, which resulted in the fragmentation of the empire into several minor sultanates and the decentralization and dispersion of power among numerous religious and military leaders. After the death of Sultan Malikshah in 1092, chaos ensued and the Seljuk Empire was plunged into a long civil war between the sultan’s sons, rulers of these smaller sultanates. This situation gave Hassan and his followers a breathing space to consolidate their position in the area.

However, the military power of the Turks was still far superior, making it unfeasible to organize an army to fight them. Thus, Nizaris adopted an auxiliary strategy to achieve their political ambitions: selectively assassinate important and influential characters to demoralize the enemy and generate chaos; the strategy for which they would be mythologized and feared, origin of numerous legends and exaggerations; the same one that would give them the nickname of “assassins”; the same one practiced by the protagonists of Assassin’s Creed. These missions, often suicidal, were carried out voluntarily by the “fidā’īs”, selfless and extremely devoted young men who were willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of their community. Their acts, because of the risk and danger involved, were glorified by the Nizaris, who drew up honorary lists with the names of the fidā’īs and their feats. Their targets were usually high-ranking religious, political, and military figures who could cause great harm to their community, so their missions were justified as a form of preemptive self-defense. Assassinations were usually carried out in public to serve as a warning and to intimidate anyone thinking of messing with the Nizaris.

The Seljuk vizier Nizam al-Mulk was one of the first victims of Nizari fidā’īs. Because of the practice of magnicide, Nizaris would become known as “assassins” in European circles. Anonymous (Wikimedia Commons)

The Nizaris in Syria

“We work in the dark , to serve the light. We are Assassins” – Aguilar de Nerja

The Nizari da’wa would not remain confined to Persia. Alamut served as a radiating nucleus for missionaries and propagandists who would establish themselves in different regions of the Near East, especially in Syria, also dominated by the Seljuk dynasty. The sending of preachers to Syria would begin during the first years of the 12th century. The Syrian population was predisposed to the acceptance of the Nizari da’wa actually, since Ismailism had already been swarming there for some time. In fact, after the death of al-Mustanṣir, some Syrians reacted in favor of the proclamation of the independent Nizari state of Persia, a number that grew over time.

Masyaf Castle recreated in Assassin’s Creed. Assassin’s Creed Wiki

As in Persia, political and religious fragmentation threatened the stability of the region. The population was also dissatisfied with the Turkish rule because of the many problems it had caused. This situation was aggravated by the appearance on the scene of other actors that would change the future of the Near East: the European Crusaders, who arrived at the end of the 11th century. These circumstances favored the expansion of Nizari Ismailism in Syria, partly because they could establish alliances and peaceful pacts with some local lords or factions depending on the moment to gain followers more easily. Good examples of this were the times when the Nizaris allied themselves with the great enemy of the Muslim community: the Crusaders; such as the time they supported the French prince Raymond of Antioch against the governor of Aleppo, Nur al-Din, for suppressing Shiite liturgies.

The tactics used to organize the da’wa in Syria were similar to those applied in Persia: to build a network of mountain fortresses that would serve as centers of operations from which to spread their doctrine to the surrounding areas. After various vicissitudes (and after unsuccessfully trying to install their headquarters in Aleppo and then in Damascus), the Syrian Nizaris found the ideal place to permanently settle their headquarters and whose name will surely be known to fans of Assassin’s Creed: Masyaf, the most important stronghold of the Syrian Nizaris. Located 40 km west of the city of Hama, in the mountainous region of Jabal Bahra, in the Mediterranean Levant, they managed to capture it around 1140-1141. Another important fortress was the castle of Qadmus, the first they acquired in Jabal Bahra and frequent residence of the leader of the Syrian da’wa.

The Masyaf fortress nowadays, former headquarters of the Syrian Nizaris. CharlesDamas (Wikimedia Commons)

As we can see, Nizaris spread over very large regions, often separated by enormous distances. Despite this, the Nizari collective developed a very strong sense of unity and cohesion, both internally and in the face of their enemies, which facilitated the stability and continuity of Nizari Ismailism and the discipline and solidarity of their devotees. In fact, the lords of Alamut enjoyed long reigns that were practically devoid of political conflicts, unlike other Muslim or Christian groups. The authority of the lord of Alamut was widely recognized and respected. Consequently, doctrinal modifications or the election of leaders for local da’was (who were appointed from Alamut) were usually accepted without reluctance.

The Old Man of the Mountain

“I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also was a chasing at the wind. For in much wisdom is much grief. And he that increaseth knowledge, increaseth sorrow.” – Al Mualim

A key event in the history of the Syrian Nizaris was the election of Rashid al-Din Sinan (1132/1135-1192), a.k.a. Al Mualim in Assassin’s Creed, a.k.a. “Old Man of the Mountain” in European chronicles, as the chief of the Syrian da’wa. This character, an important figure of the Crusades, converted to Nizari Ismailism in his youth. He studied in Alamut, where he met Hassan II, the future lord of Alamut.

Sinan starred in the golden age of Syrian Nizaris. He would rule for about 30 years and is considered the most important leader for raising his community to the pinnacle of fame and power, giving it its own identity and a high degree of independence. During his administration, he reinforced the network of strongholds by rebuilding those already acquired or building new impenetrable and self-sufficient fortresses in the mountains. He also founded a lethal corps of fidā’īs, whose exploits were the source of the exaggerated tales and reports that fed the legends of the assassins by which the Nizaris would become known in Europe through chroniclers and Crusaders. These rumors initially alluded to the Syrian Nizaris, but would soon spread to the entire Nizari community, as did the title “Old Man of the Mountain”, which began with Sinan and would end up being applied to the lords of Alamut as well.

Medieval engraving of the Old Man of the Mountain (on the right). This legendary title was initially attributed to the leader of the Syrian da’wa by the Europeans, although it was later also attributed to the lords of Alamut. Wikimedia Commons

Like their peers in Persia, the Syrian Nizaris found themselves outnumbered and surrounded by countless enemies as well. Templars, Knights Hospitallers, Saracens, and Seljuks hindered peaceful coexistence and endangered the consolidation of the Nizari community. Since they could not confront them by military force, they also opted for selective assassinations of prominent people and strategic alliances. Depending on which was their most powerful enemy at a given moment, they allied with some factions or others. Thus, they sometimes allied with the Crusaders to confront Saladin’s forces when they threatened their integrity (or, directly, they paid them heavy tribute in exchange for peace) or with Saladin if they obtained benefits and protection. The relationship of Nizaris with the powerful Ayyubid sultan was truly one of love-hate. Sinan went so far as to dispatch fidā’īs on two occasions to end Saladin’s life. Both missions ended in failure, although the second time they managed to wound him superficially. In retaliation, Saladin laid siege to Masyaf, although it was interrupted thanks to the intervention of his maternal uncle, who was interested in maintaining a cordial relationship with Nizaris. From this arose a truce between Saladin and the Nizaris that ended the fidā’īs’ assassination attempts against him.

Among the numerous assassinations committed by the fidā’īs, the one that really made them famous was that of Conrad of Monferrat (1140-1192), the elected king of Jerusalem. It is said that two fidā’īs disguised as Christian monks stabbed the king to death in Tyre in April 1192, the same year Sinan died. It was an event recorded by many Christian and Muslim chroniclers, which denotes the great impact it had, especially among Crusaders; not in vain if an untouchable king was accessible to the assassins, anyone could be next. It has often been pointed to Sinan as the instigator of the regicide, but it is not clear. Others point to Saladin, the English king Richard the Lionheart, or some Frankish nobleman. In any case, Conrad was not the first important Christian to be killed by fidā’īs. Forty years earlier, Count Raymond II of Tripoli also died at the hands of the Nizaris. In retaliation, the Christians of Tripoli and the Templars attacked Syria and the Nizaris.

Conrad I of Jerusalem, a leading figure of the Third Crusade, was assassinated by two Nizari fidā’īs, although it is unknown who was the instigator of the assassination. François-Édouard Picot (Wikimedia Commons)

The beginning of the end

“When does our work ever go as expected? It’s our ability to adapt that makes us who we are” – Al Mualim

At the beginning of the 13th century, the echoes of a formidable force advancing unstoppably from the east resounded in Persia. It was the herald announcing the debacle of the Nizaris: the Mongol (or Tatar) empire. The Persian Nizaris tried to delay their end as long as they could, but their efforts were in vain. Hasan III of Alamut, who led the Nizaris from 1210 to 1221, in response to the news and refugees arriving from the territories invaded by the Mongols, contacted them to build bridges of friendship. It worked at first, but did not last long.

The son of Hasan III, Muhammad III of Alamut, had to live through the most complex and convulsive period in the history of the Nizaris. The alliance with the Mongols weakened around 1230 because of their expansionist pretensions to conquer all of Persia. The only chance then was to resist them. By then, the Nizaris had allied with the Abbasid caliphs. The Muslim world, previously divided by the disparity of doctrines, was uniting in the face of the common enemy that threatened to wipe them off the map. Anyone who wanted to fight the Mongols was welcome. In fact, the Muslim congregation sent ambassadors to the kings of England and France to expand their alliance with the Christians as well. The European monarchs rejected the offers, for they had other ambitions in mind: to support the Mongol empire to destroy all Muslims.

The army commanded by the Khan Hülegü dethroned the Nizaris. Rashid-al-Din Hamadani (Wikimedia Commons)

Years passed and the hope of coping with the Tatars became smaller and smaller. The Mongol empire managed to penetrate into Persia. Every Nizari fortress they found, every Nizari fortress that fell. Their policy was to leave no trace of the defeated enemies. That is why Mongols completely dismantled the conquered Nizari castles, reduced them to dust and exterminated their inhabitants.

While the Mongol hordes advanced unstoppably, the tension in Alamut increased by the minute. On the one hand, Muhammad III wanted to continue to confront the Mongols, but his advisors opted for negotiation, which was not possible if Muhammad remained in power. Finally, the imam was deposed, assassinated, and relieved by his son and last lord of Alamut Rukn al-Dīn Khurshāh.

In 1252, Khan Hülegü, the grandson of Genghis Khan, sent a large army of 12,000 soldiers to support his garrisons in Persia and attack the Nizari strongholds with everything. Khurshāh would succeed in contacting the Khan, who requested the absolute destruction of the Nizari castles as a sine qua non condition for accepting the imam’s allegiance and submission. As a sign of good will, the Nizari imam ordered to dismantle some fortresses, but not Alamut, the identity symbol of Nizaris. Khurshāh futilely tried to postpone his surrender by taking detours and delaying talks with the Mongol Khan, who finally ordered to resume the invasion of Persia.

November 19, 1256 officially marked the end of the Nizari state. The last lord of Alamut took refuge in the castle of Maymūndiz, from where he briefly faced the siege of Hülegü. On November 19, the imam capitulated and gave the order for all remaining Nizari fortresses in Persia and Syria to open their gates to the Mongols and allow them to dismantle and destroy them. Thus ended the golden age of Nizari Ismailism. Even so, there were still Nizaris who continued to resist. At Maymūndiz, a group of fidā’īs continued to fight desperately for 3 more days despite the surrender of their leader. The fortresses of Alamut, Lamasar, and Girdkūh also refused to capitulate.

The Khan sent his hosts to conquer Alamut, which was subdued after several days of fighting. After the defeat, the Mongol leader allowed Khurshāh, who accompanied the Mongol army, to enter Alamut to take the last look to the proud capital of his state one last time before it was scrapped. Valuable treasures, including the library, were irretrievably lost. Had it survived, it would have allowed us to learn much more about the Nizaris and its protagonists. Only a few works managed to avoid the flames thanks to the intervention of Atā-Mālik Juwaynī, one of the leading chroniclers of the Mongol invasions.

The Mongol horde razed Alamut to the ground, dismantled every last stone and burned the valuable Nizari library [Jami’ al-tawarikh]. Rashid-al-Din Hamadani (Wikimedia Commons)

Regarding the castle of Lamasar, its garrison held out for another year, and might have continued had it not been for an unfortunate cholera epidemic that decimated the fortress’s population.

Both Juwaynī and other chroniclers were amazed at the impenetrability and self-sufficiency of the Nizari strongholds. They were certain that, under other circumstances, they could have withstood the Mongols for long periods. And they were not exaggerating, as the garrison of Girdkūh, which survived 30 more years after the fall of Alamut, proved. As for the last lord of Alamut, his end was quite tragic: when he ceased to be useful, he, his relatives and allies were put to the sword.

What happened after the conquest of Alamut with the Syrian Nizaris? The Mongol empire continued to advance westward with nothing and no one to stop it. In February 1258 they besieged and devastated Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid caliphate, putting an end to the hegemony of this dynasty. They then continued on to Syria to expel the Ayyubids (the dynasty founded by Saladin) and the Nizaris.

The once imposing castle of Alamut was left in ruins after the Mongol invasion, as can be seen in this contemporary photograph. Bernd vsBv

The fall of the administrative center of the Nizari state must have come as a severe and disheartening blow to the Syrian Nizaris. In the absence of a strong central leadership, the Syrians began to choose their leaders locally, which led to continuous dissensions among the contenders for power. Long gone was the golden age of Sinan when the Syrian Nizaris stood firm and united before adversities and posed a considerable threat to their adversaries. These clashes weakened the Syrian Nizaris and consequently made them more vulnerable to their enemies. The Mongols managed to subdue several Nizari fortresses, including the mythical Masyaf. However, Mongol hegemony in Syria was to be short-lived.

In the early 1960s, the Mamluks from Egypt, heirs to Islamic power after the fall of Persia, Baghdad and Syria, replaced the Mongols as the predominant force in Syria with the support of the Nizaris. Despite this alliance, the Mamluk Sultan Baybars I demanded the submission of the Syrian Nizaris, although it was better to be subordinated to the Mamluks than to the Mongols, for at least the former did not try to exterminate them. The Nizaris were able to survive semi-autonomously as subjects of the Mamluks and their successors with the guarantee of being able to maintain their traditions, practices, and identity. In fact, on more than one occasion, the Nizari fidā’īs worked at the service of the Mamluks to murder Christians. Despite all this, the Mamluks intended to control the Nizaris and subjugate them, so they ended up seizing all their remaining Nizari castles. In July 1273 the last of the strongholds in Syria passed into the hands of the Mamluks and Nizaris were irretrievably relegated to a minority Shiite Muslim group; a faint glimmer of the once legendary, feared and respected political power.

The Nizaris after the fall of Alamut

“All that we do, all that we are, begins and ends with ourselves.” – Arno Victor Dorian

Despite the attempts of the Mongols to annihilate them, Nizaris continued to exist and survive to the present day. After their catastrophic defeat, the Nizaris fragmented into small, scattered communities isolated from each other. And not only the Nizaris. The entire Ismaili community irretrievably lost its former glory and splendor. The political influence they had enjoyed years before disappeared, and they had no choice but to organize themselves into small minority groups scattered in different countries. Once again, they entered another period in which it was risky to openly manifest their creed. History was repeating itself, so their response was to adopt taqiyya to survive. They continued to practice their doctrine, but covertly and secretly, often using other creeds (especially Sufism) as a cover.

This new stage of its history is known as the post-Alamut period and, according to some historians, can be divided into three phases that summarize the most important milestones and episodes of this new cycle. The first covers the first two centuries after the fall of Alamut, highlighting the dispute over the succession in the family of imams that divided Nizaris into two groups depending on the pretender they followed: the Muhammad-Shāhīs, who would be accepted by the bulk of the Nizari community at first, and the Qasim-Shāhīs, who would end up imposing themselves later on.

The Qasim-Shāhīs emerged in a small village in Central Persia called Anjudān during the second half of the 15th century, which gave rise to the beginning of the second phase, known as the Anjudān renaissance. This is a period when socio-political circumstances improved and Nizaris were able to recover and resume the public da’wa. There was a revival of the Nizari thought and intellectual activities at the same time that the dynasty of the Qasim-Shāhīs began to displace the Muhammad-Shāhīs and to gain a growing number of acolytes in Syria, Central Asia, and the Indian subcontinent.

Karīm al-Ḥussayni, the fourth Aga Khan, is the current spiritual leader of the Ismailis. The Ismaili Imamat

In the 18th century, the seat of the Ismaili imamate moved to another Persian town: Kahak, ending the second post-Alamut historical period. Some time later, in the middle of the 19th century, the imamate again moved its residence, but this time out of Persia, to India. After 7 long centuries, Persia ceased to be the central seat of Nizaris.

The Ismaili leader became known to the outside world as Aga Khan (“lord and master”). Thus began the modern stage of Ismailism, which extends to the present day and is marked by openness to the West, closer diplomatic relations between the Aga Khan and European leaders, and intense socio-political and economic reforms to improve the living conditions of Ismailis and to restore and spread their cultural heritage, including the improvement of the status and rights of women, the dissemination of Islamic culture, the opening of numerous educational and health centers and the democratization of access to them. Currently, the Ismaili leader is Karīm al-Ḥussayni, the fourth Aga Khan and the forty-ninth imam.

This is, roughly speaking, the exciting history of the Nizaris. Despite the innumerable trifles and obstacles that have stood in their way, the Nizaris have managed to survive to the present day by maintaining a strong and united community in the face of adversity. Unfortunately, one thing they still have to deal with is the multitude of legends that, since the Middle Ages, have been adulterating and poisoning their history and deeds. We will address these legends in the next part and try to isolate the myths and hearsay in order to get to know the Nizaris better:

The Nizaris (Part 2). Debunking the legends of the Assassins


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