Given the barbarism of the ancient world, that might be too specific a question to answer, but there is no doubt about where a particular kind of Islamic death cult began—nor about the fact that it gave the world a universal term for what was a new kind of terror, delivered without warning. This was not Al Qaeda or ISIS, but their distant forebears, zealots from a sect named the Ismailis. When they appeared in the 10th century they became known as the hashshashin, Arabic for those who take hashish. Or, in a word that passed into our language, assassins.
They were sent to the major cities of the time with precise orders to kill. They took their time, often as long as a year. They studied the daily routines of their targets. They took on new identities, adopted disguises. The hardest targets to reach were those at the top—in a few cases, the very top. They had to get close enough to touch. Once the killing was done there was little chance of escape.
Their campaign lasted for a century and a half. It was conducted with high efficiency and depended on maintaining a remarkable level of secrecy about where it was based—every one of the killers came from the same base. Many attempts to locate it were unsuccessful. The Ismailis felt forever invulnerable at the top of a remote mountain accessed by a single, secret path.
Only in the 1930s was the location of the base established beyond doubt.
In a way, the person who made the discovery was as single-minded and exceptional as the Ismailis. She was Freya Stark, one of that group of obsessive British explorers who suffered from desert lust—the ecstasy that came from binging on the hard-won intoxication of some of the Middle East’s most remote landscapes. Stark came a generation after that of Gertrude Bell, the Arabist scholar who, in 1921, arbitrarily decided the borders of a new nation, Iraq, [Gertrude of Arabia, 06.17.14] and of Lawrence of Arabia.
Stark has never had anywhere near the same renown as Bell or Lawrence, and had no taste for their kind of political meddling. Yet she ventured where few Westerners had ever been and had a novelist’s eye and ear for characters. Through sheer persistence she brought back the first widely read account of the eyrie where terrorism as we know it was conceived.
Stark had a British father and an Italian mother and spent most of her childhood in Italy, often ill and lacking focus. Then, on her ninth birthday, she was given a copy of One Thousand and One Nights. From that point she was hooked on “the Mysterious Orient.”
In 1931, at the age of 38, fluent in Arabic and Persian, Stark had already made three trips into remote and dangerous regions of western Persia. Now she set her sights on a place named Alamut, the “Eagle’s Nest,” in the largely unmapped mountains that divided the Iranian plateau from the Caspian Sea.
Alamut was, by legend, the Ismailis’ secret fortress. The sect and their leader were featured briefly in Marco Polo’s account of his travels, as The Old Man of The Mountains, but even in the early 20th century its location was unclear.
Stark knew the outline of the Assassins’ story. Ten centuries earlier Persia was under the rule of the Seljuks, part of a repressive Sunni empire. The Ismailis were a breakaway hard core Shia sect who believed in a kind of communist utopianism. They were waiting for the coming of The Promised One who would liberate the world from oppression. (When Persia became the primary Shia power in the 16th century the Ismailis played no part and remained a fringe heretical sect, surviving today, passively, under the leadership of the Aga Khan. Ironically, it is now Al Qaeda and ISIS acting as Sunni enforcers, with the same fanaticism as the Assassins, who visit terror on the Shia as apostates.)
And so, while they were waiting, they devised and executed a novel program of terrorism.
A single, anonymous killer was assigned a target and could, using patience and intelligence, reach and destroy some of the highest-placed officers of the Seljuk court—one assassin even killed a sultan and another a powerful vizier. There were, of course, no suicide belts. These assassins had to get up close and knife their victims. If they died—before or after the strike—they were promised a place in paradise.
If taken alive they were invariably tortured to death. But (waterboarding anybody?) any names they revealed under torture, supposedly of comrades, were actually those of enemies, frequently achieving—by proxy—another of their murderous objectives.
If they survived and made it back to Alamut they were treated as heroes for the rest of their lives. And smoked as much hash as they liked.
It proved to be a very effective exercise in asymmetric power. And, as today, in propaganda terms it was a force multiplier: as the killings steadily increased whole cities and their ruling regimes lived in fear of the sudden flash of a long knife from beneath a cloak. The Assassins didn’t bring down any regime, but they exacted the costs to societies we recognize: of contagious fear and the indiscriminate suspicions that come with it, as well as the diversion of resources required for security.
What made the cult appear to be invincible was that nobody seemed able to fix the location of its leadership, which for a considerable time was in the hands of one man, Sheikh al-Jabal—“master of the mountains”…or Marco Polo’s “Old Man.” Numerous expeditions set out for the mountains, but none found the right one.
When Stark returned to Persia in 1931 to search for Alamut the country, under the control of Reza Shah, was in the early throes of being converted to a secular republic on the model of Kemal Ataturk’s Turkey, but in many ways it remained a 19th century tribal society. The idea of a woman giving out orders to men was close to blasphemy, and in this case it was a white woman with the attitude and voice of an English governess. Undaunted, she set out with a small escort of guides and helpers she had recruited locally (none of whom had met a European before).
The reason for the elusiveness of Alamut soon became clear. In her account of the journey in The Valleys of the Assassins, a book published 80 years ago (it was her first and it established her as a great traveler) she wrote:
“Six people would each give me a different name for the selfsame hill: when in doubt they invented or borrowed one from somewhere else to please me.
“This explained the difficulty of locating Alamut, which is neither village nor castle but the main valley.”
Gradually ascending from the plain toward the foothills, with supplies carried on a few mules (unlike the elaborate caravans required by Gertrude Bell), she passed through country that alternated between barrenness and almost voluptuous oases with freshwater streams and orchards. Of her companions Stark wrote: “They were wild and simple and peaceful. They had not yet reached the point of sophistication where the miraculous is separated from everyday life, and were ready to believe anything in the vast and strange world.”
It took more than a week to get to the mountains. All the way Stark made meticulous notes on the geography, preparing the first scientific map of the region. (Her cartography later won her an award from the Royal Geographical Society). Over the previous 50 years a handful of less scientific Western travelers had preceded her, but Stark’s skills made her own luck and, suddenly, the payoff came:
“The entrance to the valley was so well hidden that previous expeditions had missed it. We climbed from boulder to boulder over the face of the cliff.…it was stifling enough now: the round white stones of the river bed and the red earth walls radiated heat upon us.”
There were more days of tough climbing until the seat of Sheikh al-Jabal came into sight.
“The Rock of the Assassins stands out like a ship, broadside on, from a concave mountainside that guards it on the north…I contemplated it with the feelings due to an object that has the power to make one travel so far….”
In the reverse view from the mountain the Ismailis regarded the rest of the world—at least that part of it that they knew—as vulnerable and deserving of their wrath. They had attempted to foment revolution but the peasants failed to rise to their bidding. But any established power, no matter how mighty and how distant, was a legitimate target for their kind of contract killing. In their eyes assassination had a sacramental quality.
When Stark finally reached the redoubt her sense of achievement was chilled by the elemental harshness.
“The great Rock looks a grim place. On every side the natural walls fall away in precipices; and from the highest point, 10,000 feet at least, one can see the great half-circle of the eastern mountains covered with snow, nameless on my map.”
In finally meeting their end the Ismailis were to experience another of those salutary lessons in geopolitical wisdom that each century seems fated to relearn: beware of unintended consequences.
In the 13th century a French envoy reached the Mongol court at Karakorum, deep in Mongolia. He was amazed to find security measures of an almost paranoid desperation. He was told that more than 40 Assassins, in various disguises, had been dispatched to eliminate the Great Khan Mongke (descendant of Genghis Khan).
The Mongols treated this not simply as a threat but an impertinent insult. It was time for boots on the ground (or, rather, boots in the saddle). In 1255 Mongke ordered his brother Hulegu to take a Mongol army and wipe out the Assassins once and for all. It took all the Mongol tenacity and skill to breach the mountain redoubt and, when they did they left nothing alive.
As she departed the mountain and got back to the foothills, Stark reflected: “The Mongols came, and their slant-eyed armies must have camped in these meadows through the winter months until the Rock capitulated and the devastating horde went by, and the heretical library was burnt and lost for ever.”
Not only did the Mongols wipe out the Assassins; they went on to subjugate the whole of Persia, and eventually rolled on over the whole of eastern Europe, being stopped only in Germany.
Stark’s epiphany would inform the rest of her life.
“This is a great moment, when you see, however distant, the goal of your wandering. The thing which has been living in your imagination suddenly becomes a part of the tangible world. It matters not how many ranges, rivers or parching dusty ways may lie between you: it is yours now for ever.”
In her case, ever was a long time. She carried on traveling until she was 92, building a shelf-full of books, and died in Italy in 1993, at age 100. Like the rest of the world, she then had every reason to believe that the aberration of the Assassins was safely interred on that mountaintop along with all other medieval barbarities. She was not alone in that belief.