Sunday, March 31, 2013

Hassan Sabah and the Assassins

Of the many historical tales and anecdotes arising out of the Middle East, few offer the kind of salaciousness and intrigue as that of the story of “the Assassins”. It is a narrative both entertaining and fascinating, but when scrutinized, may reveal something about the way history is made.

As the Middle East of the 12th century buckled under the weight of the invading Crusaders and the ensuing political chaos that followed in their wake, a wave of brazen murders targeting some of the most powerful people in the region began in earnest. 

Representatives of different ruling powers – political, military, bureaucratic and religious – started falling to the daggers and arrows of shadowy murderers who killed with astonishing daring. With no obvious pattern or motive, these killings of mostly Sunni officials were seen as originating from outside the fray of the region’s overlapping conflicts.

Stories soon began to circulate of a strange figure said to be holed-up in an impenetrable mountain fortress in northern Persia with an army of fanatical disciples. This “Old Man of the Mountain” was none other than the formidable personage of Hassan Sabah. A religious leader of the Ismaili branch of Shia Islam, Sabah was the first in a line of politico-religious demagogues believed to be waging a clandestine war against the rulers of the Middle East. 

It was known that Sabah had studied at a religious school in Cairo, and had risen to become an outspoken and controversial figure. After falling out with authorities in Egypt following a failed power grab, he and a handful of disciples made their way to his native Persia. There he moved between principalities until finally settling at a place in the Alborz Mountains known “Alamut”. From a rugged alpine fortress, Sabah went about creating a rigid and messianic cult-like society devoted to attacking and destabilizing the region’s competing empires. 

The Ismaili Fatimids of Cairo, the Sunni Abbasids in Baghdad, various Seljuk rulers, and even the Crusaders, were all said to be targets of his army of shadow warriors. Numerous redoubts of this strange new sect had also reportedly sprung up throughout the mountains of Syria. Stories of these interlopers, which grew ever more outlandish over time, circulated in an environment of intermittent warfare where the lines demarcating friend from foe were in constant flux.

During the two centuries in which the Crusades were fought, this obscure sect, led by a succession of rulers, was known by various names, including: 


They were names that would ultimately morph into the English word “Assassin” – denoting a hired professional murderer who kills by stealth.

The stories depicted these partisans as an elite corps of fanatical religious killers who had infiltrated Middle East society at all levels, awaiting orders to plunge their daggers into the hearts of men of political prominence. “The Old Man of the Mountain” (a name attached to ALL the rulers of Alamut, even after Hassan’s death), was the chief mastermind of this menace, carrying out his plans from an unreachable castle perch.

The famous Venetian traveller and merchant, Marco Polo passed through the environs of Alamut in 1273, some two decades after the Mongols destroyed the Assassin headquarters. While there, Polo collected from the locals information passed down about this erstwhile group. 

Of all the depictions of the Assassins throughout history, Polo’s would be the most memorable – and most often quoted. According to the Venetian, the Old Man of the Mountain gained his adherents, his Ashishin, by some of the dastardliest methods of subterfuge. 

Male recruits were drugged to the point of unconsciousness and relocated inside a beautiful garden where they awoke and partook in all manner of sensual pleasures. This, they were told, was a foretaste of the rewards for those willing to sacrifice themselves to the political cause. The adherents were later drugged again and removed from the gardens. When they regained consciousness they were told that they had been given a sneak preview of paradise. Only through obedience and servitude could they return there again, post-mortem.

Marco Polo asserted that through these, and other manipulative techniques, The Old Man of the Mountain brainwashed his army of fanatical murders. European writers, stupefied by these romantic histories later added to them, suggesting that all the various names for the assassins - “Heyssessini”, “Assassini”, “Ashishin” - were derived for the Arabic word hashish (and its variations describing people who take hashish, i.e. - hashishiyun) – thus lending weight to Polo’s story. 

Different versions of this tale have endured over several centuries, inspiring many written works. Interestingly there is another little known interpretation of events, albeit less dramatic, and which depicts Hassan Sabah and his supposed assassin underlings in a less damning light.

In an article written in 1922 by Sirdar Iqbal Ali Shah entitled “General Principles of Sufism”, Hassan Sabah is portrayed not as a killer, but as a mystic who led an Ismaili reform movement in isolated communities in Iran and Syria. According to Shah, his earlier training in Cairo took place at an esoteric school known as “The House of Wisdom” - an Ismaili version of its famous namesake in Baghdad that was devoted to the acquisition of knowledge. 

Shah suggests that Hassan, a natural luminary who had risen through the ranks of knowledge “saw clearly that the plan of the society of Cairo was in some respects defective.” He likely voiced his opinions and fell foul with the Ismaili religious leadership whose displeasure with his ideas forced him from Egypt. When he retired to Persia, he remodeled the Cairo coursework and set up his own esoteric school to inculcate the knowledge of Reality, which, mystics assert, lies at the heart of all religions.

What we might infer from this version of events is that Hassan and his pupils, operating in relative obscurity, may have unwittingly become the basis of a rumour that sought to explain the mysterious murders - and which then grew out of the control during the early Middle Ages.

“Around the figure of Hassan cluster many legends and traditions, most of which have been highly coloured by the passage of time,” Shah writes.

We will likely never uncover the real facts of that period - a confusing amalgam of power struggles and wars between shifting alliances and groups, both local and foreign; a situation which at times bordered on anarchy. 

But, bearing in mind the confusion of the period, the fact that murder for private and public reasons was common at the time, and that the human proclivity for assumption and imagination can be almost limitless, it seems possible that the story of the Assassins, as it has come down to us, may very well have been a distortion of some other reality. 

The Lebanese-French author Amin Maalouf, in his fictional novel Samarkand, puts forward an idea, which, when looked at closely, may lend credence to Shah’s argument. 

Referring to Assassins, Maalouf writes:

“[...] their contemporaries in the Muslim world would call them hash-ishiyun, 'hashish-smokers'; some orientalists thought that this was the origin of the word 'assassin'...The truth is different. According to texts that have come down to us from Alamut, Hassan-i Sabbah liked to call his disciples Asasiyun, meaning people who are faithful to the Asās, meaning 'foundation' of the faith. This is the word, misunderstood by foreign travelers, that seemed similar to 'hashish'."

Friday, March 29, 2013

Al-Mu'tasim - Mirrors

"He who goes in quest of aid"

Al-Mu'tasim is the name of the eighth Abassid ruler who was victorious in eight battles, produced eight sons and eight daughters, owned eight thousand slaves, and ruled for a period of eight years, eight months and eight days. It's also the name of a character from a Jorge Luis Borges story who has nothing to do with that Abassid ruler. Like many of the Argentinian writer's tales, we enter a world of mirrors and ambiguity, and of sudden discoveries at the most astounding times, and in the most unusual places.

A law student in Bombay renounces his Islamic faith, and finds himself in a battle between Hindus and Muslims during a Moharram procession. An anonymous figure is stabbed and dies; our lawyer enters the ensuing battle, and kills a Hindu. He runs, escapes a "lean and evil mob of moon-coloured hounds" and finds refuge in a circular tower. There, he climbs an iron ladder and meets a filthy old man complaining about Gujarati horse thieves. He flees further, engaging the zoo of humanity.

According to Borges, so begins the tale¨The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim¨, a fantasy story of this lawyer´s descent into iniquity, and from there into realization. He dives deep into confusion, fornicating in the Machua bazaar in Calcutta, and narrating the death of a blind astrologer in Benares, before hitting bottom. 

Finally, back home in Bombay, he suddenly sees in another abominable man, the reflection of a friend of a friend of a friend: Al-Mu'tasim, a figure of shining brightness and clarity. The lawyer suddenly realizes that we all have some aspect, a varying grade, of that ultimate incarnation.  He then begins his ascent in a devoted search for that bright light of humanity, mirrored in all that he meets.

Like the character of Jesus and his readiness to consort with the poor and the leprous, and like many Borges characters, the main protagonist in Al Mu'tasim realizes the presence of the divinity in the abominable. But, according to Borges, not only are all reflections, dim or strong, of that divine light, but the search is not limited to the lawyer from Bombay, or any one of us: ¨the Almighty is also in search of Someone, and that Someone, in search of a superior...Someone, and so on, to the End...of Time.¨  

As the lawyer´s ascent proceeds, his search takes him from one meeting to another, until he meets a saint who precedes a Persian bookseller, who in turn precedes Al-Mu'tasim himself, a glowing light recognized only by his voice (at which point the novel ends).


Who knows what is fiction, fact or fantasy in the world of Borges? He uses the Middle East and Islamic world, its grand history and its attractive confusions, to cast a fun shadow on reality. 

In one chapter of this story, there are hints that the Persian bookseller's words to Al-Mu'tasim are, in fact, the lawyer´s. In another, the indication is that Al-Mu'tasim is the Hindu that the law student may have murdered. After the quest ends, and before it began, it seems the seeker and the sought may after all be one. Borges's specialty, in one story after another, is to take us to that reality. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The White Synagogue of Toledo

Today, Western style skyscrapers have spread to the desert of the Gulf and the Pacific coast of China. Once upon a time, Arabic-Islamic architecture also spread from its origins in the Middle East to Spain and other places where Islamic civilization blossomed.

One of the many stunning examples of the beauty of that style in the Andalus is the ´White Synagogue´ of Toledo, a building estimated to have been built in the 11th century. It was a centerpiece of the city's thriving Jewish community and was a typical case of mudejar art: Muslim architects building for non-Islamic purposes in Christian Spain after the reconquista - this time for a Jewish community. Its space of repeating white 'horseshoe' arches creates a unique sense of serenity and purity.

Under the Arabs, Toledo was a centre of learning that helped pass the knowledge of antiquity, and of the east, northwards to Europe. This tradition was carried on in the city after the Christian conquest, especially through the Toledo School of Translators. The spirit of tolerance of the city was sadly lost: Jews were slaughtered by Chirstians in this very synagogue in 1395. However, the building still stands, recently renovated: the oldest standing synagogue in Europe.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Al-Azraq Oasis

A unique and little known community that flies below the radar of most tourist itineraries can be found east of Amman, along Jordan’s desert highway to Baghdad. There’s not much on the surface to distinguish the oasis town of al-Azraq from the many other pit stops frequented by the region’s truckers. Some may even call the place uninspiring, or even ugly. But a few elements make the community stand out.

For thousands of years al-Azraq (meaning "the blue one") has been known for its large abundance of water. That rare Middle Eastern commodity, which long ago bubbled to the surface to form large pools, not only magnetized migratory birds travelling between Asia and Africa, but also whole communities of foreigners. Both Chechens from the Caucasus of Russia and Druze peoples from present-day Syria and Lebanon flocked to Azraq in the early 20th century to escape persecution and start new lives. They are communities that endure in al-Azraq to this day.

In recent decades, large-scale extraction of that water by the Jordanian government has unfortunately depleted those marshes. But the downsized pools, along with the water buffalo brought by the Chechens, can still be seen there. 

A few kilometers away there is a wildlife reserve housing exotic animals (including the Arabian Oryx). And an ancient stone castle whose foundations date back to Roman times, and which was used as a temporary base by T.E. Lawrence in his guerilla campaign against the Ottomans during World War One, is also open to the public. 

In all directions surrounding al-Azraq is a wide expanse of desert imbued with history, characters and points of interest that beckon the curious. 

You can read more here about Al-Azraq Oasis and Jordan’s seldom visited Eastern Desert.  

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Afghanistan Before the Soviet Invasion

The Denver Post recently published a handful of interesting photos from Afghanistan in the 1960s. The images were taken by an American teacher, Dr. William Podlich, who travelled to Kabul on a two-year stint with UNESCO. His wife and two teenage daughters travelled with him.

Podlich took many photos of daily life in Afghanistan while documenting the life of his family. The images, which you can see here show a much different place than the Afghanistan we often see today.