The Old Man of the Mountain
Sheik Hassan al Sabah (1034 – 1124), who became known as “The Old Man of the Mountain”, was a shadowy Islamic scholar who led a radical Shiite faction, the Nizari Ismailis, and founded the Assassins cult. Although despised as heretics by most Muslims, few in numbers, and geographically dispersed, the Assassins punched above their weight and wielded considerable power in the Middle East by terrorizing the region for generations. In 1090, he seized Alamout Castle in the mountains south of the Caspian Sea in Persia, and from that base expanded to establish a series of remote mountain fortresses in the highlands of Persia and Syria – earning him the nickname Old Man of the Mountain, a title passed on to his successors.
He adopted an innovative recruitment strategy, whereby he convinced recruits that he held the keys to paradise. Prospects would be summoned to an Assassin fortress, and there they would be housed in bare cells and attend daily religious lectures, during which it would gradually be hinted that the Sheik held the keys to paradise. Then, one day a promising recruit would be drugged with hashish, earning the group the Arabic name “Hashashin” – a word that was rendered into “Assassins” by various Europeans.
When the recruit came to, high on hash, he found himself amidst beautifully landscaped gardens, with clear streams meandering between rows of vines heavy with grapes, and trees ripe with fruit. Lambs and tame deer frolicked about; peacocks wandered around, ruffling and spreading their plumes; and brightly colored birds flew above, filling the air with their song. Amidst the stunning surroundings were stunningly beautiful women to seduce the recruit and satisfy all his desires.
Plying the youth with wine, keeping him high on hash, and feeding him mouth watering delicacies, the temptresses would convince the besotted young man that he was in paradise, and that his seductresses were the houris promised those who made it into heaven. Then, after days of delights and heavenly pleasures, the young man would be drugged senseless once more, and removed from the gardens.
Awoken back in his bare cell, he would be told that he had been in paradise, sent there by the grace of the Old Man of the Mountain, who held the keys to heaven. The recruit would then be told that he could return to paradise, provided he died while killing the Sheik’s enemies. It was extremely effective: suicide squads of horny young fanatics, high on hash and desperate to die while killing the cult’s enemies, descended from the Assassins’ mountain holdfasts to terrorize the Middle East.
Their first victim of note was Nizam al Mulk, a Grand Vizier who dominated the Seljuk Empire for 20 years before the Assassins got him in 1092. During their centuries of operations, the cult’s suicide squads killed numerous sultans, viziers, generals, Crusader higher ups including a King of Jerusalem, and at least two Caliphs. In his youth, king Edward I of England was grievously wounded and barely survived an attack from an Assassin while on Crusade.
An early practitioner of “propaganda of the deed”, the Sheik had his Assassins murder their victims in as dramatic and public a manner as possible – particularly targets who had enveloped themselves in heavy layers of protective security. By public killings in front of as many horrified witnesses as possible, the Sheik advertised his cult’s reach, and struck fear into the hearts of leading men by fostering the perception that those targeted by the Assassins were dead men walking, no matter the precautions taken. The Sheik’s cult survived him, with his successors adopting the title of Old Man of the Mountain, for nearly two centuries, until they were done in by the Mongols.