HASAN BIN SABAH – His Defensive Warfare

By Rafique Ali

Article on ‘Hasan Bin Sabah Ki Jannat & Khud Kush Bambar’ posted on PTH Facebook page captured my attention. If you Google Hasan Bin Sabah, results will more or less narrate his Jannat in Alamut Fort and an unparalleled loyalty he command from followers.

European historians extract myth of Hasan Bin Sabah also known as Old Man of Mountains from Marco Polo’s memoir ‘The Kingdom and Marvels of The East’. Two books of modern era are must read for anybody seeking serious scholarly work on personality of Hasan Bin Sabah and Legend of Assassins. First book title ‘The Assassins’ written by Bernard Lewis republished in 2002; second book title ‘Assassin Legends – Myth of Isma’ilis ‘ was published in 1994.  Bernard Lewis, an authority on Middle Eastern History relied on original account of European and Middle Eastern historians whose scholarship based on Marco Polo’s narration. On the other hand Farhad Daftari did more extensive detailed work; he counter checked Marco Polo’s account logically.

It is important to understand few dates. Hasan Bin Sabah known to live between mid-11th till early 12th century. Around late 11th century he captured network of castles in the treacherous region between northwest of Persia and south of Persian sea, present day Qazvin province in Iran. Second Important date to remember is 1,256 AD (13th century) when forces of Halagu Khan finally destroyed Alamut castle. Third date is 1,271 AD when Marco Polo a Venice native travelled East at young age of 17, he was accompanying his father and uncle. He reached Alamut around 1,273; i.e. 17 years after its destruction. Legends of Hasan Bin Sabah’s Jannat were larger than life then, so he heard stories and tales while passing that region. He returned to Venice in 1,292 after spending around 21 years in East, travelling and staying. Farhad Daftary narrated that Venice was arch rival of neighboring Genoa, in 1,298 Genois attacked and defeated Venetian. Marco Polo was taken prisoner and this is where he told story of his travel to a fellow prisoner name Rusticiano, who put it down in the book. Which eventually become original source of legend.


Marco Polo travelled through ruins of Alamut, 17 years after its destruction and 150 years after death of Hasan Bin Sabah. He did not witness anything; all he heard were tales and stories.

Now, let me take you to late eleventh century till mid twelfth century when Ismail’s were living in in the shadow of hostile Seljuk’s, who were Turks having allegiance to Abbasid Caliphs of Baghdad. Ismaili’s being off-shoot of Shia Islam, a minority sect were extremely independent; they refused to bow to Sunni Caliph of Baghdad. Hasan Bin Sabah’s capture and restoration of Alamut and building network of fortresses weren’t end of the story. Alamut was strategically located, that’s why it used to be called eagle’s nest, and a small army can defend it from large invaders. Though Seljuk’s attempts to invade these castles were foiled repeatedly but their attacks on Ismaili villages and caravans were norm of the day. Hasan Bin Sabah wasn’t just a military man; he was an engineer, an astronomer and mathematician too. His genius devised game of fear or psychological warfare. He sent trained small group of mercenaries, called Fida’yeen in the heart of Seljuk’s territories, these mercenaries made daring public assassinations of enemy leaders. Their weapons were dagger. Tales of assassin of Hasan Bin Sabah become legend when they got their biggest catch, Nizam Ul Mulk; dreaded leader of Seljuk’s. Zeal of Fida’yeen was puzzling to general population. Partly to the myth, partly to the propaganda of enemies who spread story that Hasan Bin Sabah give them Hashish (which later become Hashasin and then later Assassin in modern English); take them to manmade Jannat in Alamut Fort. Then tell them if they want to live in Jannat permanently then they have to do assassinations. In reality they were protecting their families and clan; they knew that their death was for the greater cause of survival of overall community. Fedayeen’s were doing nothing new they were protecting their people, just like what every foot soldier in the battle ground during medieval era would do.

When overwhelming force of Mongols under Halagu Khan destroyed forward fortresses & Alamut in 1256, he killed thousands of Ismaili’s but more devastation he did when his Wazir Ata Ul Mulk Javehni burnt library in Alamut. Thus extensive work of knowledge accumulated over centuries in fields of mathematics, philosophy, astronomy, medicine & engineering was destroyed.

Alamut Castle 1256
Alamut Castle 1256

Also important to make a disclaimer that connecting Hasan Bin Sabah as founder of present day terrorism will be a misnomer. His mercenary targets were precisely military individuals, no collateral damage or civilian’s casualties. His men killed few targets but intended magnitude of success magnified in hundreds. Present day terrorist are following ideology of Ibne Tammiyah, who first introduced concept of Darul Harb & Darul Kufr and encouraged Muslim to clean Islam from inside enemies. In other words it was license to kill other fellow Muslim if you feel they aren’t good Muslims.

After 5th crusade European contact to Islam, their languages and cultures around them were depleting. Tale of drug, dagger, women and fake paradise was too sexy and exotic for European writers to resist and not to replicate. Thus Provencal Italian poets made comparison between obedience of Fida’i to Old Man of Mountains with their own romantic devotion towards their ladies.  This is how legend was born.


The writer can be contacted on twitter @GoToMtns


  • Kamath

    Mongols were not only invaders that destroyed centres of knowledge and learning. In 11th -12,th centuries, Muslim armies decimated great centres of Buddhist monasteries of Nalanda, Vikramasila, Taxila etc. In India. These were places were literally thousands of monks from places as far as China came and studied. Today, copies of translations can be found in China and Korea etc.

    So ignorance and barbarism exists everywhere in every society!