Image credit: Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash
I first heard the origin story of the word ‘Assasin’ in Dan Brown’s famous book Angels & Demons. While describing the antagonist in the book, Mr. Brown writes a few paragraphs about the order of Assasins and their origin story. The movie, however, completely ignores this part of Dan Brown’s historical fiction and focuses more on the main story.
While reading the book some five years back, I honestly thought that the history of Assassins as described in the book is mere fiction or part of the overall plot. However, in the last few years, this origin story has popped up multiple times while researching various topics and, of course, on my Reddit feed.
Sidenote: Reddit has many history nerds like myself, and it’s a pleasure to visit Reddit every day.
So, as I became intrigued by the history of the order of assassins or maybe the overall aura surrounding the coveted order of highly trained people who killed for pleasure, my research took me way back to the 13th century. To be precise, the era of the great Marco Polo.
Now, it’s true that when I write, I tend to overdo the preamble of the story before I reach the core. Few might say that it’s like serving too many vegetables before you get to your steak. But hey, I am developing my writing style here, so let me serve you some more vegetables. Capiche?
Finding a story is a fascinating task. It’s like peeling layers of onions. With each layer, you get into more new layers, which ultimately helps you find the center. I am writing this subtext to make you understand that unlike some stories with concrete historical references, the origin story of the word assassin is more of lore than a documented fact.
The earliest reference of the word I could find was in the famous book titled The Travels of Marco Polo, a journal of the travels of Marco Polo in the 13th century by an Italian writer Rustichello da Pisa.
In this journal, Marco Polo mentions meeting with The Old Man of the mountain, also known as Hassan-Al Sabbah. The grandmaster of the order of Assasins. At this point in my research, the lore became a reality because I could read documented history about Hassan – Al Sabbah.
These are the facts about Hassan – Al Sabbah. Yes, he was born in Persia somewhere around 1050 Ad, Yes, he was the founder of the Islamic State of Nizari, and Yes, he ruled from the Alamut castle. The Alamut castle is situated in the Alborz mountains of northern Iran. Hence, the nickname Old Man of the mountains.
This is the lore. Hassan-Al Sabbah and his small group of followers take refuge in the Alborz mountains, hiding from the Seljuk Turks. However, once they capture the Alamut castle, Hassan – Al Sabbah creates an army of the deadliest warriors across Asia called Hassassins.
Hassassins or Hashisins were named because this group of highly skilled killers liked something even more than killing. Smoking Hashish. Yes, Cannabis or Hash. The recreational drug was so famous within this group that they were literally known as the followers of Hashish.
If legends are to be believed, the transformation of the word Hassassins to Assassins came around the first crusade. It is believed that the crusaders named this group Assassins because of the deadly methods they used for assassinating people. And strangely, yes, it rhymes with Hassassins.
While the theory, Hassasins means follower of Hashish, is the most popular one (the same theory was used in Angels & Demons), I also found a couple of more theories around the origin story of the order of the Assassins.
The first came from a Mr. Raghib Sarhan, who wrote a letter to the editor in a magazine called Al-Kulliyah in 1972. According to this letter, Mr. Sarhan states the interpretation of the Arabic word Hassasins is incorrect. In reality, Crusaders did not name them. But instead, these fighters called themselves-‘Hassassin,’ from the Arabic root ‘Hassa”~which means to slaughter people or to exterminate.
Sidenote 2: Al-Kulliyah was a magazine published by the Alumni Association of the American university of Beirut.https://ulib.aub.edu.lb/kullyah/capaub_alkulliyah_1972_v48.pdf
The second theory, sadly, is from Wikipedia, which I honestly don’t rely on. However, I wanted to present every aspect of the story here, and therefore, I will put the words from Wikipedia in this blog. Wikipedia says that the Sabbah called his disciples Asāsiyyūn (meaning “people who are faithful to the foundation [of the faith]”). The word Assasin is, therefore, a wrong interpretation entirely.
Now it is up to you, my readers, to believe in any version of the origin story. However, I found all three versions fascinating. What I also found fascinating is the rich history of Persia. Someday, I will explore more about that too.
The last edition of the famous franchise John Wick was released in 2019, some 900 years after the order of Assasins came into existence. The order will continue. There will be another Assassin in the future. In short, storytellers will continue writing about the covet order, and history nerds like myself will always keep them alive.