The mysterious story of Alamut castle, the Old Man of the Mountains and his assassins is mixed with lots of legends and stories over the centuries. Almost a thousand years ago, during the Seljuq era (1037-1307), a boy was born in in the city of Qom, Persia. His name was Hassan Sabbah. The Seljuqs were a Sunni Turk dynasty that happend to have good relations with the Abbasid Caliphate (the Sunni successors of the Islamic prophet Muhammad) and the rulers at the time. However, the city of Qom at the time had become a stronghold for Shia philosophy and ideology. Thus, Hassan Sabbah was raised as a Shia muslim in a sea full of hardline Sunnism. Later on, he traveled to Egypt to complete his religious studies. There, he got familiar with Isma’ilism, a branch of Shia Islam that split from the original twelver shi’ism in many of its core principles and foundations. From that day, he became its fiery missionary.
After a few years in Egypt, Hassan Sabbah moved back to Persia. He spent most of his time traveling around, inviting people to Isma’ilism and generally rebelling against what he considered “unworthy” Sunni Saljuqs. After the death of Al-Mustansir Billah, the Imam (Isma’ilis call their leaders Imam) of Isma’ilism in Egypt, the followers of Isma’ilism divided into two groups. Each group claimed one of Al-Mustansir Billah’s two sons as his successor. In Egypt the younger son, Mustali, became the new Imam. However, Hassan Sabbah believed Mustali’s elder brother, Nizar, was the rightful successor of his father. As a result Sabbah lost the support of Isma’ilism biggest source of power, Egypt. A year later Nizar got killed and those Isma’ilis who believed Nizar was the right Imam, started to follow Hassan Sabbah himself. Although this was the beginning of Hassan Sabbah’s reign and influence, he never actually saw himself as an Imam or leader, rather referring to himself as the carrier of the true message of Nizar.
Having lost his support in Egypt and surrounded by Abbasids and Seljuqs, Hassan Sabbah and his limited number of followers retreated towards the rugged peaks of the Alborz mountains (a mountain range in northern Iran). Sabbah chose the Alborz mountains due to its protective natural barrier against the Seljuqs sources of power in the South (based in the city of Isfahan). Another important note was the fact that Iran’s Northern region at the time, already contained a large pocket of Shia muslims who had escaped religious persecution from their Sunni rulers. Thus it was easier for Sabbah to invite them toward his branch of Nizari Isma’ilism
After converting all the villages in the Alamut region to Isma’ilism, Sabbah turned his attention towards Alamut fortress. This would be the base for all his future operations. Alamut fortress was a fort built several hundred years before Sabbah’s arrival in 602, perched on top of one of the most strategic locations overlooking Shahrood Valley. Its unique location gave it unprecedented views in all four directions, making it almost impossible to penetrate from all angles.
Hassan made his way into the fortress as a teacher and started to earn the trust and friendship of many of its soldiers. After converting most of the staff to Isma’ilism, he took over the fortress. He presented Alamut’s owner with payment for his fortress, which he had no choice but to accept.
Lacking his own army, Hassan Sabbah came up with a fighting group called the Hashashin. The English word, “assassin”, was thought to have been derived from the word “hashashin”, meaning “those who smoke hash”. In Marco Polo’s writings, the Italian traveler reports the story of the “Old Man of the Mountains” (A reference to Sabbah). The stories follow a cult leader, who would put his young followers into a trance using hashish, lead them to a garden full of fine women and luxuries, and fool them into believing that what they had witnessed was the real rendition of the Quran’s promised paradise. Later, when the young men would gain their sobriety, they would beg Sabbah to take them back, even if it meant giving their own lives in the process. This however, was simply Marco Polo’s version of the story. The origin of the word “assassin” may have a variety of roots, but the real reason why the original Assassins or “Hashashin” were so feared was because of their followers indifference towards death.
With this new weapon, Sabbah began to order assassinations, ranging from politicians to military leaders. Assassins would rarely attack ordinary citizens though, and tended not to be hostile towards them. Knives and daggers were used to kill, and sometimes as a warning, a knife would be placed on the pillow of prospective victims. When an assassination was actually carried out, the assassin would not be allowed to run away; instead, to strike further fear into the enemy, they would stand near the victim without showing any emotion and departed only when the body was discovered. This further increased the ruthless reputation of the assassin clan throughout Sunni-controlled lands.
For almost 200 years the alamut fortress was the base of Hassan Sabbah and his seven successors. Finally, in 1256, alamut fortress surrendered to the Mongols. After capturing Alamut, the Mongols destroyed the defensive mechanisms and several other parts of the fortress to make sure no one else could use the fortress in the future.