The Medieval Era’s Scariest Killer Cult
The medieval era’s scariest cult was started by an Islamic scholar named Hassan al Sabbah (1034 – 1124). A Shiite missionary, he detoured from missionary work to found the Order of Assassins, a politico-religious cult. Despised as heretics by most Muslims, relatively few, and geographically dispersed, the Assassins punched far above their weight. They wielded considerable power throughout the Middle East by terrorizing the region for generations. Before, there had been a rough balance of power between Muslim Sunnis and Shiites. The less numerous Shiites were championed by the rising Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt, while the more numerous Sunnis were led by the waning Abbasid Caliphate in Iraq. That balance was upset when the Seljuk Turks, recent Sunni converts, fell upon the Fatimids and broke their power between 1056-1060. The Fatimids, defeated militarily by the Seljuks, responded with clandestine warfare.
Assassination was used as a political tool against Sunni leadership. That campaign was eventually led by Sheik Hassan al Sabah, who led a radical Shiite faction, the Nizari Ismailis before he founded the Assassins cult. In 1090, with Fatimid funding, Sheik Hassan seized Alamout Castle in the mountains south of the Caspian Sea in Persia. From there, he and his followers expanded their reach and established a series of remote mountain fortresses in Persia and Syria. That earned al Sabbah the moniker of Old Man of the Mountain, a title passed on to his successors. From those holdfasts, he sent suicide squads of killers known as fida’is (“self-sacrificers”) against prominent leaders throughout the Middle East. The killing campaign carried out by Hassan al Sabbah’s followers initially hewed to the goals of the Assassins’ Fatimid sponsors. Then they went rogue.