The Travels of Marco Polo, by Marco Polo

Chapter xxiv.

How the Old Man Used to Train His Assassins.

When therefore they awoke, and found themselves in a place so charming, they deemed that it was Paradise in very truth. And the ladies and damsels dallied with them to their hearts’ content, so that they had what young men would have; and with their own good will they never would have quitted the place.

Now this Prince whom we call the Old One kept his Court in grand and noble style, and made those simple hill-folks about him believe firmly that he was a great Prophet. And when he wanted one of his Ashishin to send on any mission, he would cause that potion whereof I spoke to be given to one of the youths in the garden, and then had him carried into his Palace. So when the young man awoke, he found himself in the Castle, and no longer in that Paradise; whereat he was not over well pleased. He was then conducted to the Old Man’s presence, and bowed before him with great veneration as believing himself to be in the presence of a true Prophet. The Prince would then ask whence he came, and he would reply that he came from Paradise! and that it was exactly such as Mahommet had described it in the Law. This of course gave the others who stood by, and who had not been admitted, the greatest desire to enter therein.

So when the Old Man would have any Prince slain, he would say to such a youth: “Go thou and slay So and So; and when thou returnest my Angels shall bear thee into Paradise. And shouldst thou die, natheless even so will I send my Angels to carry thee back into Paradise.” So he caused them to believe; and thus there was no order of his that they would not affront any peril to execute, for the great desire they had to get back into that Paradise of his. And in this manner the Old One got his people to murder any one whom he desired to get rid of. Thus, too, the great dread that he inspired all Princes withal, made them become his tributaries in order that he might abide at peace and amity with them.1

I should also tell you that the Old Man had certain others under him, who copied his proceedings and acted exactly in the same manner. One of these was sent into the territory of Damascus, and the other into Curdistan.2

NOTE 1. — Romantic as this story is, it seems to be precisely the same that was current over all the East. It is given by Odoric at length, more briefly by a Chinese author, and again from an Arabic source by Hammer in the Mines de l’Orient.

The following is the Chinese account as rendered by Rémusat: “The soldiers of this country (Mulahi) are veritable brigands. When they see a lusty youth, they tempt him with the hope of gain, and bring him to such a point that he will be ready to kill his father or his elder brother with his own hand. After he is enlisted, they intoxicate him, and carry him in that state into a secluded retreat, where he is charmed with delicious music and beautiful women. All his desires are satisfied for several days, and then (in sleep) he is transported back to his original position. When he awakes, they ask what he has seen. He is then informed that if he will become an Assassin, he will be rewarded with the same felicity. And with the texts and prayers that they teach him they heat him to such a pitch that whatever commission be given him he will brave death without regret in order to execute it.”

The Arabic narrative is too long to extract. It is from a kind of historical romance called The Memoirs of Hakim, the date of which Hammer unfortunately omits to give. Its close coincidence in substance with Polo’s story is quite remarkable. After a detailed description of the Paradise, and the transfer into it of the aspirant under the influence of bang, on his awaking and seeing his chief enter, he says, “O chief! am I awake or am I dreaming?” To which the chief: “O such an One, take heed that thou tell not the dream to any stranger. Know that Ali thy Lord hath vouchsafed to show thee the place destined for thee in Paradise. . . . Hesitate not a moment therefore in the service of the Imam who thus deigns to intimate his contentment with thee,” and so on.

William de Nangis thus speaks of the Syrian Shaikh, who alone was known to the Crusaders, though one of their historians (Jacques de Vitry, in Bongars, I. 1062) shows knowledge that the headquarters of the sect was in Persia: “He was much dreaded far and near, by both Saracens and Christians, because he so often caused princes of both classes indifferently to be murdered by his emissaries. For he used to bring up in his palace youths belonging to his territory, and had them taught a variety of languages, and above all things to fear their Lord and obey him unto death, which would thus become to them an entrance into the joys of Paradise. And whosoever of them thus perished in carrying out his Lord’s behests was worshipped as an angel.” As an instance of the implicit obedience rendered by the Fidáwí or devoted disciples of the Shaikh, Fra Pipino and Marino Sanuto relate that when Henry Count of Champagne (titular King of Jerusalem) was on a visit to the Old Man of Syria, one day as they walked together they saw some lads in white sitting on the top of a high tower. The Shaikh, turning to the Count, asked if he had any subjects as obedient as his own? and without giving time for reply made a sign to two of the boys, who immediately leapt from the tower, and were killed on the spot. The same story is told in the Cento Novelle Antiche, as happening when the Emperor Frederic was on a visit (imaginary) to the Veglio. And it is introduced likewise as an incident in the Romance of Bauduin de Sebourc:

“Vollés veioir merveilles? dist li Rois Seignouris”

to Bauduin and his friends, and on their assenting he makes the signal to one of his men on the battlements, and in a twinkling

“Quant le vinrent en l’air salant de tel avis,

Et aussi liément, et aussi esjois,

Qu’il deust conquester mil livres de parisis!

Ains qu’il venist a tière il fut mors et fenis,

Surles roches agues desrompis corps et pis,”1 etc.

(Cathay, 153; Rémusat, Nouv. Mél. I. 178; Mines de l’Orient, III. 201 seqq.; Nangis in Duchesne, V. 332; Pipino in Muratori, IX. 705; Defrémery in J. As. sér. V. tom. v. 34 seqq.; Cent. Nov. Antiche, Firenze, 1572, p. 91; Bauduin de Sebourc, I. 359.)

The following are some of the more notable murders or attempts at murder ascribed to the Ismailite emissaries either from Syria or from Persia:—

A.D. 1092. Nizum-ul-Mulk, formerly the powerful minister of Malik Shah, Seljukian sovereign of Persia, and a little later his two sons. 1102. The Prince of Homs, in the chief Mosque of that city. 1113. Maudúd, Prince of Mosul, in the chief Mosque of Damascus. About 1114. Abul Muzafar ‘Ali, Wazir of Sanjár Shah, and Chakar Beg, grand-uncle of the latter. 1116. Ahmed Yel, Prince of Maragha, at Baghdad, in the presence of Mahomed, Sultan of Persia. 1121. The Amir Afdhal, the powerful Wazir of Egypt, at Cairo. 1126. Kasim Aksonkor, Prince of Mosul and Aleppo, in the Great Mosque at Mosul. 1127. Moyin-uddin, Wazir of Sanjár Shah of Persia. 1129. Amír Billah, Khalif of Egypt. 1131. Taj-ul Mulúk Buri, Prince of Damascus. 1134. Shams-ul-Mulúk, son of the preceding. 1135–38. The Khalif Mostarshid, the Khalif Rashíd, and Daùd, Seljukian Prince of Azerbaijan. 1149. Raymond, Count of Tripoli. 1191. Kizil Arzlan, Prince of Azerbaijan. 1192. Conrad of Montferrat, titular King of Jerusalem; a murder which King Richard has been accused of instigating. 1217. Oghulmish, Prince of Hamadán.

And in 1174 and 1176 attempts to murder the great Saladin. 1271. Attempt to murder Ala’uddin Juwaini, Governor of Baghdad, and historian of the Mongols. 1272. The attempt to murder Prince Edward of England at Acre.

In latter years the Fidáwí or Ismailite adepts appear to have let out their services simply as hired assassins. Bibars, in a letter to his court at Cairo, boasts of using them when needful. A Mahomedan author ascribes to Bibars the instigation of the attempt on Prince Edward. (Makrizi, II. 100; J. As. XI. 150.)

NOTE 2. — Hammer mentions as what he chooses to call “Grand Priors” under the Shaikh or “Grand Master” at Alamút, the chief, in Syria, one in the Kuhistan of E. Persia (Tun-o-Kain), one in Kumis (the country about Damghan and Bostam), and one in Irák; he does not speak of any in Kurdistan. Colonel Monteith, however, says, though without stating authority or particulars, “There were several divisions of them (the Assassins) scattered throughout Syria, Kurdistan (near the Lake of Wan), and Asia Minor, but all acknowledging as Imaum or High Priest the Chief residing at Alamut.” And it may be noted that Odoric, a generation after Polo, puts the Old Man at Millescorte, which looks like Malasgird, north of Lake Van, (H. des Assass. p. 104; J. R. G. S. III. 16; Cathay, p. ccxliii.)

1 This story has been transferred to Peter the Great, who is alleged to have exhibited the docility of his subjects in the same way to the King of Denmark, by ordering a Cossack to jump from the Round Tower at Copenhagen, on the summit of which they were standing.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:24