The Order of Assassins Was Very Real and Very Deadly

By: Patrick J. Kiger  | 
Hasan ibn Sabbah
Hasan Sabbah, depicted here, was a prominent leader and founder of the Nizari Ismailis, a faction of Shiite Muslims in the ancient Middle East. Shutterstock/German Vizulis

If you're familiar with the enduringly popular Assassin's Creed video game franchise, you know all about the secret society of the Assassins. It's been battling another clandestine organization, the Templars, throughout most of human history.

In the video game, the assassins are well-trained killers with impressive Parkour skills and the stealth to elude pursuing guards as they track down and eliminate their targets.It's such a captivating fictional universe that it inspired the 2016 action thriller, "Assassin's Creed."


What you might not realize, though, is the fictional assassins were inspired — very, very loosely — by a real historical phenomenon. There was a very real Order of Assassins who were agents of the medieval Nizari Ismaili, a faction of Shiite Muslims who broke away from the larger Shiite community in the late 11th century. They took refuge in an assortment of castles in the mountains of Syria and what is now Iran.

Who Were the Order of Assassins?

Conrad de Montferrat
The Assassins targeted and killed Crusade leader Conrad de Montferrat before he could be crowned king of Jerusalem in April 1192.
Public Domain

As a religious minority with a lot of enemies on all sides, ranging from the Turkish Seljuk Empire to the European Crusaders, the Nizari Ismaili were in a tough situation. Nevertheless, for nearly two centuries, from the late 11th to the mid-13th centuries, the small faction inspired fear and respect from rulers with big, powerful armies.

That's because the faction didn't fight the way that everyone else did. To the contrary, their fighters, who became known in Western legend as the Assassins, generally avoided battles altogether. Instead, they almost entirely relied upon surprising and killing leaders of their enemies.


Perhaps their most famous target was the Crusader leader Conrad of Montferrat, who was intercepted as he walked home from dinner with a bishop in the city of Tyre (in modern Lebanon) and stabbed to death, just days before he was scheduled to be crowned king of Jerusalem in April 1192.

The Nizari Ismaili were far from the first to target leaders for killing — as John Withington details in "Assassins' Deeds: A History of Assassinations from Ancient Egypt to the Present Day," the first successful target of a political assassination may have been the Pharoah Teti in 2333 B.C.E. But they may have been the first to use it as a strategy.

"I cannot think of any specific parallels with any creed, either political or religious, to the Ismaili assassins in terms of this approach to what might be called asymmetrical warfare," says James Waterson. He's author of the 2008 book "The Ismaili Assassins: A History of Medieval Murder," and several other volumes on warfare in medieval Middle East.


How Did the Assassins Wage War?

In some ways, the medieval Nizari Ismaili strategy actually seems like a less brutal way to wage war than their adversaries with conventional armies, who often wreaked destruction upon civilians as well as the enemy. As modern Ismaili scholars have emphasized, the medieval faction acted in self-defense, and attacked only political and military figures, but not the larger population. And as Waterson notes, they turned to targeted killings largely out of necessity — not to seize power, but to survive.

"The Nizari Ismailis were essentially a very conservative faction, and very limited in terms of their appeals for mass conversion, and essentially wanted to continue their way of life and their way of faith without persecution," Waterson, an alumnus of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London and a former teacher, explains in a lengthy email.


Though the Nizari Ismailis had fortified strongholds, they lacked the military might and numbers to withstand sieges by enemy armies. Waterson describes Hassan Sabah, their founder, as a highly educated man with experience in government, who wisely made the calculation that the best way to relieve the pressure from a superior besieging force was to decapitate it.

"Hitting at the top of the pyramid when you have limited resources shows a clear understanding of the military society he was facing," Waterson says.

A lot of fantastical myths about the Nizari Ismailis' fighters — some of them concocted by enemies who sought to demonize them — still are floating around. Their adversaries, at a loss to explain their effectiveness, portrayed them as fanatics driven by visions of paradise induced by smoking hashish. (The term assassin comes from a medieval Latin word, assassinus, derived from the Arabic term for hashish user, according to Merriam-Webster.)

Venetian merchant, adventurer and memoirist Marco Polo, who came along after the group's defeat by the Mongols, bought into those myths, depicting them as young males "from the age of twelve to twenty years, selected from the inhabitants of the surrounding mountains, who showed a disposition for martial exercises, and appeared to possess the quality of daring courage."

And while it's tempting for the modern mind, conditioned by comic books, movie blockbusters and video games, to imagine them as a secretive force of martial arts experts fluent in multiple languages, trained from boyhood to possess extraordinary fighting skill and mastery of the arts of deception, the reality was less exotic. Historians depict the Assassins as ordinary people who were willing to risk their lives — and often to be sacrificed — out of religious piety and to protect their community.

"In this age pretty much every male carried sidearms, and farmers as we know from the chronicles, were just as capable of inflicting damage on military forces as regular soldiers," Waterson says.

And though one of the dagger-wielding assassins' classic tactics was to infiltrate enemy leaders' defenses by posing as lowly servants, harmless civilians or religious clerics, they didn't need to be masters of disguise.

"What I feel is more likely is that the internal religious fervor of the assassins allowed them to be sleepers for very long periods of time within the entourage and close personal guards of the possible candidates for assassination," Waterson says. "The assassin within your guard could then simply be 'turned on' by messaging from the grandmaster of either Syria or Persia. We see this in a number of anecdotes related to the Sultan Saladin, who at one point felt so little trust in his close personal guard that he took to sleeping in a high wooden mobile tower."


Little Is Known About How the Assassins Trained

Alamet Castle
Hassan Sabbah captured Alamut castle in 1090 and it became a stronghold of the Nizari Ismaili until the Mongols took it in the 1200s. What's left of it remains in present-day Iran. Flickr/Ninara/(CC BY 2.0)

Though the assassins have been written about extensively over the years by historians such as Marshall G.S. Hodgson, there's not much information available about their training or tactics.

"Generally speaking, the assassins' attacks do seem to have a degree of coordination or at least very, very good timing when the victim will be at their most vulnerable," Waterson says. He cites the example of one of the assassins' most famous kills, Nizam al-Mulk, the 11th-century chief minister of the Turkish Seljuq sultans.


"He's returning from a day's work to his home and his harem," Waterson explains. "Of course his mind would have been focused on the pleasures to be had that evening and disguise of a holy man stopping him for a discussion and to give a blessing perhaps was used in what was obviously a fairly rapid and effective assassination."

Other enemies, such as Turkish military leader and diplomat Tughtigin, were ambushed while leaving mosques. "One would be expected to show oneself to the people as the ruler of the city and perhaps would not be wearing full armor for the Friday prayers," Waterson says. Such attacks were made possible by "good timing, good planning, but nothing specific or special in the weaponry or training."

The Nizari Ismailis assassins were recognized within the community for their bravery, both in life and posthumously. "The roll of honor that was held inside Alamut castle of successful assassins I think tells us that they had a higher position in assassin society as well as a specific domestic uniform of a white tunic," Waterson says. Additionally, "I think there would have been a degree of kudos for families who had given up their sons to continue the lore of brave and effective assassins."

The Nizari Ismailis' skillfulness at covert action enabled them to be a force to be reckoned with in the complicated, continually shifting struggle for power in the medieval Middle East. Louis Haas, a professor of history at Middle Tennessee State University, whose expertise includes the Crusades, notes that in the deeply divided maelstrom of ethnic and religious factions in the medieval Middle East, the Nizari Ismailis sometimes found themselves having to align with groups that previously had been enemies, including even the Crusaders.

"All these states themselves are playing against each other," Haas explains. "At times during the Crusades, crusading states will ally with Muslim powers, versus other crusaders or other Muslims."


The Assassins Met Their Match in the Mongols

The siege of Baghdad
The Mongols began a 13-day siege on Baghdad in 1157 (depicted here) after their campaign in Persia defeated the Nizari Ismailis' stronghold on Alamut castle. Wikimedia/(CC BY-SA 4.0)

While the Nazari Ismaili's strategy and daring practices enabled them to survive against the Turks and Crusaders, they met their match when a new adversary, the Mongols showed up in the 1200s. The new enemy, as Haas notes, didn't waste time with strategic maneuvering or covert machinations. The Mongols' style was relentless and brutal — they collected sacks full of severed ears of dead enemies, and after a battle, once famously paraded with the severed head of Duke Henry II of Silesia on a pike.

"The Mongols just take no prisoners," Haas explains. "They just went in and routed them out. "


"The Mongols also used terror as a psychological weapon to a degree far larger than that that could be created by piecemeal assassinations," Waterson explains. The Mongols quickly took the Nazari Ismailis' main castle at Alamut in modern-day Iran, though some of the faction's castles held out longer.

After the destruction of the Nazari Ismaili centers by the Mongols, the group scattered widely, and despite often facing persecution, managed to preserve their religious, intellectual and community traditions, according the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London. Today, the community still survives and is spread across five continents and 30 countries.