The original 'Assassins': Medieval warriors of Alamut

High inside a secret mountain fortress, the Nizari Ismaili, a small Muslim sect, struck terror into the powers fighting over the Holy Land in the Middle Ages. Dubbed the "Assassins" by their enemies, the Nizari held power for just 300 years, but their impact would last for centuries.

Alamut, the Assassins’ fortress, now in modern-day Iran, was a place that induced terror in the hearts of Sunni Muslim rulers. Related to eagles, the name Alamut conveys its majestic height and impregnability.
Photograph by Matjaz Krivic/Getty Images

Conrad of Montferrat, an Italian crusader, was preparing for his coronation as king of Jerusalem, in Tyre, in April 1192. Making his way down a narrow street of the city, he was attacked by two men disguised as monks, who stabbed him to death.

Although historians still speculate who ordered the attack, there is little doubt as to the identity of the killers. They were not monks, but members of a secretive Muslim sect with strongholds seated high in the mountains of Persia and Syria. Headquartered in an impenetrable Persian castle, Alamut, these agents specialized in targeted killings and espionage. Infiltrating the ranks of their enemies, they would strike their targets, often with knives, and were willing to die for their mission. Syrian enemies called them the Hashishim, but they are better known today by the European crusaders’ term: Assassins.

Perhaps the first European account of the Assassins comes from a Spanish rabbi, Benjamin of Tudela, who traveled through Syria in 1167. He told of a mysterious leader, the Old Man of the Mountain, who led a sect of warriors who dwelled in hidden mountain fortresses.

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