In 1295, merchant-explorer Marco Polo returned to Venice after more than two decades of traveling across Asia. He detailed what he’d seen in The Travels of Marco Polo, describing, among other lurid tales, a sect of Muslims known to medieval Europeans as the Assassins. Their leader, he claimed, was an “old man of the mountain” who enticed youths into his service with copious amounts of hashish and gardens adorned with beautiful damsels. Told that they had just experienced the paradise that awaited them in the afterlife if they followed his orders, the young men pledged to defend their leader at any cost.
“All deemed themselves happy to receive the commands of their master and were forward to die in his service,” Polo wrote. “The consequence of this system was that when any of the neighboring princes, or others, gave umbrage to this chief, they were put to death by these, his disciplined assassins.”
Polo’s account seduced the imaginations of European Orientalists of later centuries, who took turns adding their own embellishments. Accounts from the medieval Muslim world are less fanciful but convey a sharp and explicitly hostile attitude toward the Nizaris, the Shiite Muslim denomination on which Polo based his tale. In Ibn al-Athir’s 13th-century chronicle, the Muslim historian described the group as an “affliction” whose members not only murdered their opponents but also attacked their allies at will. The men he referred to as Batini—esoterics, roughly—were outcasts due to their apparently shameful methods, and the fact that their very existence was rooted in deep schisms that cut through the Muslim community.
More recently, the Nizaris’ story has served as an inspiration for the popular video game franchise “Assassin’s Creed,” which pits a heavily fictionalized Order of Assassins against the Knights Templar in a struggle over free will spanning millennia. To mark the release this month of “Assassin’s Creed Mirage,” the latest installment in the Ubisoft series, explore the history behind the Order of Assassins, which is loosely based on the real-life Nizari Ismaili state of the 11th to 13th centuries.
At the turn of the tenth century, most of the Islamic world lived under the rule of either the Abbasid caliphate, which claimed universal authority over all Muslims, or independent rulers who swore nominal allegiance to the Abbasids. Unlike Sunni Muslims, who accepted Abbasid rule from Baghdad and believed that the Prophet Muhammad never chose a successor to lead them, Shiites insisted that the caliphate could only be passed along through the lineage of imams, or descendants of Muhammad designated as infallible by their predecessors. Shiites believe that the line began with Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib, but disputes over successions in later centuries led to splits within their community.
One such splinter group was the Ismailis, who derived their name from the imam Ismail ibn Jafar. Ismaili missionaries fanned out across the Muslim world to propagate their faith and provide spiritual guidance, despite facing persecution by Sunni authorities. These efforts bore fruit in 909, with the establishment of the Fatimid caliphate, an Ismaili dynasty named after Muhammad’s daughter Fatima.
Over the next 80 years, the Fatimids expanded across North Africa, Egypt, the Hejaz and most of the Levant, building Cairo as their capital and presenting the most serious challenge to Sunni hegemony since the seventh century. Even as their armies failed to penetrate further north and east, Fatimid missionaries operated throughout the Islamic world, gathering new followers and instigating anti-Sunni revolts. In 1058, a pro-Fatimid rebellion briefly captured Baghdad before being driven out by the Seljuk Turks, who had conquered much of the eastern Islamic world and established themselves as protectors of the Abbasid caliph and Sunni orthodoxy.
A decade or so later, Fatimid missionaries converted Hasan Sabbah, a young man from central Persia (now Iran). Hasan embraced his new faith with such zeal that he decided to train as a missionary himself. He proselytized across northern Persia before relocating to Cairo in 1076. Following a three-year stay in the Fatimid capital, Hasan returned to Persia with plans to gather support for a large-scale uprising against the Seljuks. His successful “seizure of Alamut in 1090 … initiated the open anti-[Seljuk] activities of the Persian Ismailis,” writes Ismaili scholar Farhad Daftary in The Assassin Legends: Myths of the Ismailis, “also marking the effective foundation of what was to become the Nizari Ismaili state.”
Hasan expanded and fortified Alamut Castle, which was perched atop a high rock in the northern Persian mountains. He also made improvements to irrigation and cultivation in the adjacent valley, which Polo would later portray as a pleasure garden designed to emulate paradise. By 1092, Hasan had captured several other fortresses and drawn the attention of the Seljuk sultan, who sent a military expedition in a failed attempt to dislodge him. That same year, a disguised Ismaili agent fatally stabbed the sultan’s indispensable vizier, Nizam al-Mulk, on the road from Isfahan to Baghdad.
While Hasan furthered the Fatimid cause in the east, a succession crisis in Egypt threw the Ismaili community into disarray. In 1094, the Fatimid caliph al-Mustansir Billah died, leaving two claimants to the imamate: his eldest son and designated successor, Nizar, and a younger son, Ahmad. In the last 20 years of Mustansir’s long and troubled reign, state affairs had been dominated by the ethnically Armenian vizier Badr al-Jamali and his son al-Afdal Shahanshah, whose sister was married to Ahmad; now, Afdal took immediate steps to secure the throne for Ahmad, whom he viewed as more pliable than Nizar. Ahmad took the throne as al-Mustali Billah.
Rather than accept his brother’s succession, Nizar rebelled, but he was quickly defeated and executed, likely in late 1095. The Shiite belief in nass, the designation of an infallible imam—in this case Nizar—by his predecessor, meant that the breach between Mustali’s partisans and Nizar’s followers was both political and religious in nature.
“Because God makes the imam infallible, his choice of a successor is the same as if God made that choice,” says Paul Walker, a historian at the University of Chicago. “When the succession is disputed, you have a serious problem.” The subsequent rift ran across the entire Ismaili community, with the Persian branch under Hasan’s leadership upholding Nizar’s rights to the imamate.
Sources are unclear why Hasan chose to recognize Nizar. One popular story points to personal animus between Hasan and the caliph’s Armenian viziers. Hasan gained the confidence of Mustansir in Cairo but aroused the suspicion of Badr, who imprisoned him. Miraculously, the prison tower’s walls collapsed, allowing Hasan to escape.
Though the tale is apocryphal, it echoes the resentment that many Ismailis bore toward Badr and Afdal, who were viewed as disrespectful of caliphal authority and insufficiently committed to the Ismaili cause. The Persian Ismailis already harbored a clear sense of independence. “Quite on their own, the Ismailis of the [Seljuk] realms were making great strides,” wrote scholar Marshall G.S. Hodgson in his 2005 book on the Nizaris. “Why should they feel a need for Egyptian domination? They could afford to look coldly on Mustali’s dubious claims.”
Hasan’s declaration for Nizar signaled a broader reorientation of the Persian Ismaili mission. “Hasan reduced Ismaili doctrine to its most essential feature—the absolute necessity for having a divinely guided teacher, the imam, to tell people what’s right and what’s wrong,” says Walker. But the Nizaris had to reckon with another problem, too: Nizar had died without naming a successor.
“They still seemed to believe that Nizar was the imam and minted coins in his name until 1166,” Walker continues. “Did they know, or admit, that he had been killed? We just don’t know—there’s almost no information.” Before his own death in 1124, Hasan was acknowledged as hujja, the chief representative of the absent imam and leader of the Nizari community. Hasan and his descendants used this title as a source of authority until 1164, when his grandson Hasan II asserted greater power by proclaiming himself the re-emergent imam.
After the Nizari split, the Persian Ismailis continued a policy of armed revolt against the Seljuks and other Sunni realms, with the nature of Nizari operations shaped by the vast military superiority of their foes. From their network of mountain strongholds in Persia and Syria, the Nizaris conducted small-scale attacks, captured vulnerable castles and assassinated enemy leaders.
While they were hardly the first group in the Muslim world (or elsewhere) to assassinate their political rivals, the Nizaris’ reliance on the practice was unprecedented in scale and notoriety. Such tasks were carried out by fidais, or “young devotees who personally volunteered to sacrifice their lives as a matter of conviction, in the service of their religion and community,” writes Daftary. These missions were often carried out in public settings, sowing fear and virtually guaranteeing the assassin’s own death or capture.
Prominent figures who fell to fidai blades included Mawdud, the Seljuk ruler of Mosul; two Abbasid caliphs; the hated Fatimid vizier Afdal; and Mustali’s son, the Fatimid caliph al-Amir. The mighty Ayyubid Sultan Saladin, a devout Sunni who took control of Egypt after the death of the last Fatimid caliph in 1171, waged war against the Syrian Nizaris, twice escaping assassins but ceasing his attacks soon thereafter. According to Walker, the frequent assassinations caused so much fear and confusion that “anyone who was assassinated was said to [have been] killed by the Nizaris.”
The Nizaris also used less violent methods to accomplish their goals. The Ismaili proselytizing mission didn’t stop after the 1094 schism, instead penetrating deep into the military and political structures of the community’s Sunni enemies. According to Hodgson, by 1100, the Nizaris “were proceeding so well in the conversion of the rank and file of [Seljuk Sultan Berkyaruq]’s armies that it is said some officers asked permission … to appear before him in armor, for fear of their men.” In response to the growing Nizari threat, Sunni authorities struck back with their own ruthless methods. “It became an established practice in many urban localities to round up all those accused of being Ismaili and to consign them to fire or put them to the sword, especially in the aftermath of a Nizari-suspected assassination,” writes Daftary.
The protagonist of the first “Assassin’s Creed” game, released in 2007, is a fictional character named Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad. Born in 1165 to a Nizari father and a Christian mother, Altaïr trains as a member of the Order of Assassins under Rashid al-Din Sinan, the historical Syrian Nizari leader who may be referred to as the “old man of the mountain” in Polo’s travelogue. (Hasan is another candidate for the unnamed character.) After failing to recover an important artifact from the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, Altaïr receives an opportunity to redeem himself by assassinating nine members of the rival Knights Templar.
“While the developers sometimes mix up places, names and dates to match Altaïr’s game narrative, the broader historical context is maintained in a mature fashion, honoring the rich and complex history of the Nizari Ismailis in Syria at that time,” wrote cultural theologian Frank Bosman in a 2016 journal article. “In doing so, ‘Assassin’s Creed’ debunks almost all of the traditional Assassin legends, thus adding to a more realistic and historically viable view of the Nizari Ismailis.”
Despite the fanatical devotion of the fidais, scholars have no real proof that they or any other Nizaris engaged in the debauchery described by Polo, nor that they required materialistic promises of paradise as motivation. “On the contrary,” writes Daftary, “the fidais … were highly alert and sober individuals who often had to wait patiently and for extended periods in order to find a suitable opportunity to accomplish their missions.”
Polo and other European travelers—mainly Crusaders—popularized the image of the Nizaris as drug-fueled cultists in the West. But their stories often drew on tales that had circulated among Muslims for centuries. The milieu that Polo entered was one dominated by Sunni polemicists who denounced the Ismaili community as heretical and dangerous. One rumor even suggested that Ismailism was a sect created by a Jewish magician hoping to destroy Islam from within.
“The ‘black legend’ invented by the chief anti-Ismaili polemicists of the tenth century came to be accepted as an accurate description by successive generations of the medieval Muslim writers and by Muslim society at large,” Daftary writes. Though the drug tales were a European fabrication, they probably took inspiration from the derogatory term “hashishin” (hashish users), which was often applied to Nizaris by other Muslims.
The Crusaders who arrived in the Levant between the 11th and 13th centuries absorbed these stories and expanded on them to explain what they viewed as strange, irrational courage by the Nizari fidais. The legends they brought back west included the promises of paradise and excessive hashish intake, but not the beguiling garden, which was Polo’s own idea.
The rich tradition of portraying the Nizaris in utterly fanciful terms continued long after the destruction of the order by the Mongols in 1256. In the 18th and 19th centuries, as Europeans took a heightened interest in the so-called Orient and the curiosities it had to offer, Orientalists relied on Crusader accounts and hostile Sunni sources to misrepresent fiction as fact. The Austrian Orientalist-diplomat Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall even condemned the Nizaris as a “union of imposters and dupes, which, under the mask of a more austere creed and severer morals, undermined all religion and morality.”
Some recent evaluations of the Nizaris have adopted a more explicitly political edge, capitalizing on contemporary narratives of violence in the Middle East to revive the specter of the “Assassins.” Political scientist Robert Pape heavily emphasizes the “suicide” part of the Nizari mission in his book about modern suicide bombings, arguing that the fidais, rather than attempting to escape, “reveled in their impending death.” In his work, Pape sometimes cites the controversial historian Bernard Lewis, who once suggested that the Nizaris “may well be the first terrorists” despite the existence of older, arguably similar groups in various cultural and political contexts.
At the other end of the spectrum, Daftary, Daryoush Mohammad Poor and other academics affiliated with the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London have sought to present a reappraisal of the Nizaris over the past several decades. Overall, the depiction of the Nizaris with the widest reach is “Assassins Creed,” whose portrayal of the order, while heavily fictionalized, is largely positive. “I guess I can settle with that,” says Walker. “At least the castles look somewhat accurate.”