Secret Societies of the Middle Ages, by Thomas Keightley, , at sacred-texts.com
Ali of Rei--His son Hassan Sabah--Hassan sent to study at Nishaboor--Meets there Omar Khiam and Nizam-al-Moolk--Agreement made by them--Hassan introduced by Nizam to Sultan Malek Shah--Obliged to leave the Court--Anecdote of him--His own account of his Conversion--Goes to Egypt--Returns to Persia--Makes himself Master of Ala-moot.
THERE was a man named Ali, who resided in the city of Rei, in Persia. He was a strenuous Sheäh, and maintained that his family had originally come from Koofa, in Arabia; but the people of Khorasan asserted that his family had always dwelt in one of the villages near Toos, in that province, and that consequently his pretensions to an Arabian extraction were false. Ali, it would appear, was anxious to conceal his opinions, and employed the strongest asseverations to convince the governor of the province, a rigid Soonite, of his orthodoxy, and finally retired into a monastery to pass the remainder of his days in meditation. As a further means of clearing himself from the charge of heresy he sent his only son Hassan Sabah * to Nishaboor to be instructed by the celebrated imam Mowafek, who resided at that place. What lessons he may have given the young Hassan previously to parting with him, and what communication he may have afterwards kept up with him, are points on which history is silent.
The fame of the imam Mowafek was great over all Persia, and it was currently believed that those
who had the good fortune to study the Koran and the Soonna * under him were secure of their fortune in after-life. His school was consequently thronged by youths ambitious of knowledge and future distinction; and here Hassan met, and formed a strict intimacy with, Omar Khiam, afterwards so distinguished as a poet and an astronomer, and with Nizam-al-Moolk (Regulation of the Realm), who became vizir to the monarchs of the house of Seljook. This last, in a history which he wrote of himself and his times, relates the following instance of the early development of the ambition of Hassan. As these three, who were the most distinguished pupils of the imam, were one day together, "It is the general opinion," said Hassan, "that the pupils of the imam are certain of being fortunate. This opinion may be verified in one of us. So come, let us pledge ourselves to one another that he who shall be successful will make the other two sharers in his good fortune." His two companions readily assented, and the promise was mutually given and received.
Nizam-al-Moolk entered the path of politics, where his talents and his noble qualities had free course, and he rose through the various gradations of office, till at length he attained the highest post in the realm, the viziriate, under Alp Arslan (Strong Lion), the second monarch of the house of Seljook. When thus exalted he forgot not his former friends; and calling to mind the promise which he had made, he received with great kindness Omar Khiam, who waited on him to congratulate him on his elevation; and he offered at once to employ all his interest to procure him a post under the government. But Omar, who was devoted to Epicurean indulgences, and averse from toil and care, thanking his friend,
declined his proffered services; and all that the vizir could prevail on him to accept was an annual pension of 1,200 ducats on the revenues of Nishaboor, whither he retired to spend his days in ease and tranquillity.
The case was different with Hassan. During the ten years' reign of Alp Arslan he kept aloof from the vizir, living in obscurity, and probably maturing his plans for the future. But when the young prince Malek Shah (King King) mounted the throne he saw that his time was come. He suddenly appeared at the court of the new monarch, and waited on the powerful vizir. The story is thus told by the vizir himself in his work entitled Wasaya (Political Institutes), whence it is given by Mirkhond.
"He came to me at Nishaboor in the year that Malek Shah, having got rid of Kaward, had quieted the troubles which his rebellion had caused. I received him with the greatest honours, and performed, on my part, all that could be expected from a man who is a faithful observer of his oaths, and a slave to the engagements which he has contracted. Each day I gave him a new proof of my friendship, and I endeavoured to satisfy his desires. He said to me once, 'Khojah (master), you are of the number of the learned and the virtuous; you know that the goods of this world are but an enjoyment of little duration. Do you then think that you will be permitted to fail in your engagements by letting yourself be seduced by the attractions of greatness and the love of the world? and will you be of the number of those who violate the contract made with God?' 'Heaven keep me from it!' replied I. 'Though you heap honours upon me,' continued he, 'and though you pour upon me benefits without number, you cannot be ignorant that that is not the way to perform what we once pledged ourselves to respecting each other.' 'You are right,' said I; 'and I
am ready to satisfy you in what I promised. All that I possess of honour and power, received from my fathers or acquired by myself, belongs to you in common with me.' I then introduced him into the society of the sultan, I assigned him a rank and suitable titles, and I related to the prince all that had formerly passed between him and me. I spoke in terms of such praise of the extent of his knowledge, of his excellent qualities, and his good morals, that he obtained the rank of minister and of a confidential man. But he was, like his father, an impostor, a hypocrite, one who knew how to impose, and a wretch. He so well possessed the art of covering himself with an exterior of probity and virtue that in a little time he completely gained the mind of the sultan, and inspired him with such confidence that that prince blindly followed his advice in most of those affairs of a greater and more important nature which required good faith and sincerity, and he was always decided by his opinion. I have said all this to let it be seen that it was I who had raised him to this fortune, and yet, by an effect of his bad character, there came quarrels between the sultan and me, the unpleasant result of which had like to have been that the good reputation and favour which I had enjoyed for so many years were near going into dust and being annihilated; for at last his malignity broke out on a sudden, and the effects of his jealousy showed themselves in the most terrible manner in his actions and in his words."
In fact, Hassan played the part of a treacherous friend. Everything that occurred in the divan was carefully reported to the sultan, and the worst construction put upon it, and hints of the incapacity and dishonesty of the vizir were thrown out on the fitting occasions. The vizir himself has left us an account of what he considered the worst trick which his old
schoolfellow attempted to play him. The sultan, it seems, wishing to see a clear and regular balance-sheet of the revenues and expenditure of his empire, directed Nizam-al-Moolk to prepare it. The vizir required a space of more than a year for the accomplishment of the task. Hassan deemed this a good opportunity for distinguishing himself, and boldly offered to do what the sultan demanded in forty days, not more than one-tenth of the time required by the vizir. All the clerks in the finance department were immediately placed at the disposal of Hassan; and the vizir himself confesses that at the end of the forty days the accounts were ready to be laid before the sultan. But, just when we might expect to see Hassan in triumph, and enjoying the highest favour of the monarch, we find him leaving the court in disgrace and vowing revenge on the sultan and his minister. This circumstance is left unexplained by the Ornament of the Realm, who however acknowledges, with great naïveté, that, if Hassan had not been obliged to fly, he should have left the court himself. But other historians inform us that the vizir, apprehensive of the consequences, had recourse to art, and contrived to have some of Hassan's papers stolen, so that, when the latter presented himself before the sultan, full of hope and pride, and commenced his statement, he found himself obliged to stop for want of some of his most important documents. As he could not account for this confusion, the sultan became enraged at the apparent attempt to deceive him, and Hassan was forthwith obliged to retire from court with precipitation.
Nizam-al-Moolk determined to keep no measures with a man who had thus sought his ruin, and he resolved to destroy him. Hassan fled to Rei, but, not thinking himself safe there, he went further south,
and took refuge with his friend the reis * Aboo-’l-Fazl (Father of Excellence), at Isfahan. What his plans may have hitherto been is uncertain; but now they seem to have assumed a definite form, and he unceasingly meditated on the means of avenging himself on the sultan and his minister. In consultation one day with Aboo-’l-Fazl, who appears to have adopted his speculative tenets, after he had poured out his complaints against the vizir and his master, he concluded by passionately saying, "Oh that I had but two faithful friends at my devotion! soon should I overthrow the Turk and the peasant," meaning the sultan and the vizir. Aboo-’l-Fazl, who was one of the most clear-headed men of his time, and who still did not comprehend the long-sighted views of Hassan, began to fancy that disappointment had deranged the intellect of his friend, and, believing that reasoning would in such a case be useless, commenced giving him at his meals aromatic drinks and dishes prepared with saffron, in order to relieve his brain. Hassan perceived what his kind host was about, and resolved to leave him. Aboo-’l-Fazl in vain employed all his eloquence to induce him to prolong his visit; Hassan departed, and shortly afterwards set out for Egypt.
Twenty years afterwards, when Hassan had accomplished all he had projected, when the sultan and the vizir were both dead, and the society of the Assassins was fully organized, the reis Aboo-’l-Fazl, who was one of his most zealous partisans, visited him at his hill-fort of Alamoot. "Well, reis," said Hassan,
[paragraph continues] "which of us was the madman? did you or I stand most in need of the aromatic drinks and the dishes prepared with saffron which you used to have served up at Isfahan? You see that I kept my word as soon as I had found two trusty friends."
When Hassan left Isfahan, in the year 1078, the khalif Mostanser, a man of some energy, occupied the throne of Egypt, and considerable exertions were made by the missionaries of the society at Cairo to gain proselytes throughout Asia. Among these proselytes was Hassan Sabah, and the following account of his conversion, which has fortunately been preserved in his own words, is interesting, as affording a proof that, like Cromwell, and, as we have supposed, Mohammed, and all who have attained to temporal power by means of religion, he commenced in sincerity, and was deceived himself before he deceived others.
"From my childhood," says he, "even from the age of seven years, my sole endeavour was to acquire knowledge and capacity. I had been reared up, like my fathers, in the doctrine of the twelve imams, and I made acquaintance with an Ismaïlite companion (Refeek), named Emir Dhareb, with whom I knit fast the bonds of friendship. My opinion was that the tenets of the Ismaïlites resembled those of the Philosophers, and that the ruler of Egypt was a man who was initiated in them. As often, therefore, as Emir said anything in favour of these doctrines I fell into strife with him, and many controversies on points of faith ensued between him and me. I gave not in to anything that Emir said in disparagement of our sect, though it left a strong impression on my mind. Meanwhile Emir parted from me, and I fell into a severe fit of sickness, during which I reproached myself, saying, that the doctrine of the Ismaïlites was assuredly the true one, and that yet out of obstinacy I had not gone over to it, and that
should death (which God avert!) overtake me, I should die without having attained to the truth. At length I recovered of that sickness, and I now met with another Ismaïlite, named Aboo Nejm Zaraj, of whom I inquired touching the truth of his doctrine. Aboo Nejm explained it to me in the fullest manner, so that I saw quite through the depths of it. Finally I met a dai, named Moomin, to whom the sheikh Abd-al-Melik (Servant of the King, i, e. of God) Ben Attash, the director of the missions of Irak, had given permission to exercise this office. I besought that he would accept my homage (in the name of the Fatimite khalif), but this he at the first refused to do, because I had been in higher dignities than he; but when I pressed him thereto beyond all measure, he yielded his consent. When now the sheikh Abd-al-Melik came to Rei, and through intercourse learned to know me, my behaviour was pleasing unto him, and he bestowed on me the office of a dai. He said unto me, 'Thou must go unto Egypt, to be a sharer in the felicity of serving the imam Mostander.' When the sheikh Abd-al-Melik went from Rei to Isfahan I set forth for Egypt *."
There is something highly interesting in this account of his thoughts and feelings given by Hassan Sabah, particularly when we recollect that this was the man who afterwards organized the society of the Assassins, so long the scourge of the East. We here find him, according to his own statement, dreading the idea of dying without having openly made profession of the truth, yet afterwards, if we are to credit the Oriental historians, he inculcated the doctrine of the indifference of all human actions. Unfortunately this declension from virtue to vice has been too often exhibited to allow of our doubting that it may have happened in the case of Hassan Sabah. A further reflection
which presents itself is this; Can anything be more absurd than those points which have split the Moslems into sects? and yet how deeply has conscience been engaged in them, and with what sincerity have they not been embraced and maintained! Will not this apply in some measure to the dissensions among Christians, who divide into parties, not for the essential doctrines of their religion, but for some merely accessory parts?
Hassan, on his arrival in Egypt, whither his fame had preceded him, was received with every demonstration of respect. His known talents, and the knowledge of the high favour and consideration which he had enjoyed at the court of Malek Shah, made the khalif esteem him a most important acquisition to the cause of the Ismaïlites, and no means were omitted to soothe and flatter him. He was met on the frontiers by the Dai-al-Doat, the sherif Taher Casvini, and several other persons of high consideration; the great officers of state and court waited on hint as soon as he had entered Cairo, where the khalif assigned him a suitable abode, and loaded him with honours and tokens of favour. But such was the state of seclusion which the Fatimite khalifs had adopted, that during the eighteen months which Hassan is said to have passed at Cairo he never once beheld the face of Mostanser, though that monarch always evinced the utmost solicitude about him, and never spoke of him but in terms of the highest praise.
While Hassan abode in Egypt the question of the succession to the throne (always a matter of dispute in Oriental monarchies) became a subject of dissension and angry debate at court. The khalif had declared his eldest son, Nesar, to be his legitimate successor; but Bedr-al-Jemali, the Emir-al-Juyoosh, or commander-in-chief of the army, who enjoyed almost unlimited power under the Fatimites, asserted
the superior right of Musteäli, the khalif's second son, which right his power afterwards made good. Hassan Sabah, not very wisely, as it would seem, took the side of Prince Nesar, and thereby drew on himself the hostility of Bedr-al-Jemali, who resolved on his destruction. In vain the reluctant khalif struggled against the might of the powerful Emir-al-Juyoosh; he was obliged to surrender Hassan to his vengeance, and to issue an order for committing him to close custody in the castle of Damietta.
While Hassan lay in confinement at Damietta one of the towers of that city fell down without any apparent cause. This being looked upon in the light of a miracle by the partisans of Hassan and the khalif, his enemies, to prevent his deriving any advantage from it, hurried him on board of a ship which was on the point of sailing for Africa. Scarcely had the vessel put to sea when a violent tempest came on. The sea rolled mountains high, the thunder roared, and the lightning flamed. Terror laid hold on all who were aboard, save Hassan Sabah, who looked calm and undisturbed on the commotion of the elements, while others gazed with agony on the prospect of instant death. On being asked the cause of his tranquillity he made answer, in imitation probably of St. Paul, "Our Lord (Seydna) has promised me that no evil shall befall me." Shortly afterwards the storm fell and the sea grew calm. The crew and passengers now regarded him as a man under the especial favour of Heaven, and when a strong west wind sprung up, and drove them to the coast of Syria, they offered no opposition to his leaving the vessel and going on shore.
Hassan proceeded to Aleppo, where he staid some time, and thence directed his course to Bagdad. Leaving that city he entered Persia, traversed the province of Khuzistan, and, visiting the cities of
[paragraph continues] Isfahan and Yezd, went on to the eastern province of Kerman, everywhere making proselytes to his opinions. He then returned to Isfahan, where he made a stay of four months. He next spent three months in Khuzistan. Having fixed his view on Damaghan and the surrounding country in Irak as a district well calculated to be the seat of the power which he meditated establishing, he devoted three entire years to the task of gaining disciples among its inhabitants, For this purpose he employed the most eloquent dais he could find, and directed them to win over by all means the inhabitants of the numerous hill-forts which were in that region. While his dais were thus engaged he himself traversed the more northerly districts of Jorjan and Dilem, and when he deemed the time fit returned to the province of Irak, where Hussein Kaïni, one of the most zealous of his missionaries, had been long since engaged in persuading the people of the strong hill-fort of Alamoot to swear obedience to the khalif Mostanser. The arguments of the dai had proved convincing to the great majority of the inhabitants, but the governor, Ali Mehdi, an upright and worthy man, whose ancestors had built the fort, remained, with a few others, faithful to his duty, and would acknowledge no spiritual head but the Abbasside khalif of Bagdad; no temporal chief but the Seljookian Malek Shah. Mehdi, when he first perceived the progress of Ismaïlism among his people, expelled those who had embraced it, but afterwards permitted them to return. Sure of the aid of a strong party within the fort, Hassan is said to have employed against the governor the same artifice by which Dido is related to have deceived the Lybians *. He
offered him 3,000 ducats for as much ground as he could compass with an ox-hide. The guileless Mehdi consented, and Hassan instantly cutting the hide into thongs surrounded with it the fortress of Alamoot. Mehdi, seeing himself thus tricked, refused to stand to the agreement. Hassan appealed to justice, and to the arms of his partisans within the fortress, and by their aid compelled the governor to depart from Alamoot. As Mehdi was setting out for Damaghan, whither he proposed to retire, Hassan placed in his hand an order on the reis Mozaffer, the governor of the castle of Kirdkoo, couched in these terms: "Let the reis Mozaffer pay to Mehdi, the descendant of Ali, 3,000 ducats, as the price of the fortress of Alamoot. Peace be upon the Prophet and his family! God, the best of directors, sufficeth us." Mehdi could hardly believe that a man of the consequence of the reis Mozaffer, who held an important government under the Seljookian sultans, would pay the slightest attention to the order of a mere adventurer like Hassan Sabah; he, however, resolved, out of curiosity, or rather, as we are told, pressed by his want of the money, to try how he would act. He accordingly presented the order, and, to his infinite surprise, was forthwith paid the 3,000 ducats. The reis had in fact been long in secret one of the most zealous disciples of Hassan Sabah.
Historians are careful to inform us that it was on the night of Wednesday, the sixth of the month Rejeb, in the 483d year of the Hejra, that Hassan Sabah made himself master of Alamoot, which was to become the chief seat of the power of the sect of the Ismaïlites. This year answers to the year 1090 of the Christian era, and thus the dominion of the Assassins was founded only nine years before the Christians of the west established their empire in the Holy Land.
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43:* Or Hassan-ben-Sabah (son of Sabah), so named from Sabah Homairi, one of his pretended Arabian ancestors.
44:* The Soonna is the body of traditions, answering to the Mishna of the Jews, held by the orthodox Mussulmans.
48:* Reis, from the Arabic Râs (the head), answers in some respects to captain, a word of similar origin. Thus the master of a ship is called the Reis. Sir John Malcolm says, "it is equivalent to esquire, as it was originally understood. It implies in Persia the possession of landed estates and some magisterial power. The reis is in general the hereditary head of a village."
53:* Sir J. Malcolm says that the person with whom he read this portion of history in Persia observed to him that the English were well acquainted with this stratagem, as it was by means of it that they got Calcutta from the poor Emperor of Delhi.