The age of the Crusades. Success for the crusaders in Palestine was hindered both by the victories of the honorable warrior, Saladin, and by internal animosities within their own camp, which were caused by disputes over issues such as succession to the throne of Jerusalem. This last depended on whether Richard the Lionheart or Margrave Tira Conrad Monferrato could come to an agreement. The latter was soon killed. One of the assassins was attempting to flee, while the other, after hearing the Margrave’s pleas for help, returned to finish the job, and both were caught. After being tortured, they disclosed information that they had been sent by a group within the Isma’ili sect called the fidai – assassins (from the Arabic, hashshashin).
The English monarch’s heart was not actually that of a lion. He in fact had to pay a contribution to these people. Saladin himself had to sleep in his armor, waking at each whisper and creak. There were two attempts on his life. Who were they? Why does everything connected with assassins still intrigue researchers?
Past in the Present
One more return into history. In age of Islam, when the religion was being propagated, Bedouins traveled not only with the Koran, but also with the scimitar. In response to this systematic expansion, the Persian nobility using the Shiite ideology enhanced their ability to defend against the Arabs. They succeeded in this. However, nothing under the sky is forever. In 765, the sixth Shia Imam, Jafar Sadik, pronounced his youngest son would be his successor instead of naming his eldest son, Ismael, according to tradition. Those who disagreed with his decision called themselves Ismaeli. They founded the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt. But a dynastic crisis led to the breakup of the community into Mustalia and Nisaria. From the latter emerged the sect of assassins.
In the 9th century, most theologians denounced the Ismaeli as infidels, and called the assassins mohatilla (“those who are without any of the Almighty’s attributes”). The main postulate was the triumph of intellect over faith. While explaining certain verses, their main argument was not dogma, but human intellect instead, which in their eyes seemed to be the supreme quality. Later on, all of this became transformed into something else. During the Crusades, many European ethnicities adopted the word “assassin” to mean killer.
I have already had the opportunity to meet the successors of the Ismaeli. Three years ago, a correspondent of the Parisian newspaper Le Monde, Sophie Shihab, and myself visited the city of Pul-i Humri in the Afghani province of Baglan during the war between Ismaeli troops and those of the Northern Alliance, who were under generals Haidar and Mustafa. These two officers headed the Andarab clan, which was competing with the hereditary chief of the Ismaeli, Sa-id Mansur Naderi, for power in the province. The bloodshed stopped only at night. The Ismaeli who were trying to gain control of the city, were eventually completely removed from it. Thinking that the fighting was over, we decided to the city of Bamian, but ended up in the midst of a real battle. The road upon which we were traveling happened to be the line of control between both parties. Upon noticing our minivan, they stopped shooting. As soon as we were past the battlefield, the firing was renewed. Two days later, we again heard gunfire, but this time it was but hectic shooting into the air. In coming closer to the battle, we saw a triumphant Mustafa accepting congratulations on his victory. The following day, we traveled to Kaiyan, where we visited the palatial estate of Naderi, and spoke with the local villagers.
Legends and Myths
When waking up in the morning I donned the robe given me by the Ismaeli chief, and then went out onto the terrace. Though cold, I enjoyed the morning stars and the fragile moon. Little by little the darkness dissipated, and the outlines of the mountains became sharper in the morning sky. In my mind I was trying to move the mountains apart and imagine a very famous structure known as Allamut in Iran. The founder of the order of the assassins, Hasan Ass-sabbah, gained control of this fortress in 1090. This was the start of an expansion during which the Ismaeli were able to seize quite a few fortresses in Huzistan, Mazandaran, Farse, and Damgan. The borders of the Ismaeli lands were not always congruent, and quite often the fortresses they possessed would be in the middle of enemy territory. Probably, this was the reason why some of them concealed their membership in the order. This mysteriousness gave birth to many legends.
Marco Polo was one of those to put down one of the legends. This is a legend about an old man living in the mountains. They believed that the story was about Ass-sabbah himself. According to the legend, the new recruits were administered drugs then brought into a garden, where after awaking they would continue enjoying themselves in the company of heavenly beauties. After learning that heaven is open only to assassins, they joined the order and became fidai (“one who sacrifices his life”). However, this old person turned out to be head of the Syrian Ismaeli, Rashid ad-Din Sinan. Very likely there was a garden, some hashish and opium, and even young beauties. But, there was no Eden there. As regards Ass-sabbah, he himself was an ascetic, who never left the Allamut fortress during 40 years, and who banned music and celebration. Even his own son was executed for breaching this ban. A second son was slandered, and then put to death as well. Ass-sabbah trained the fidai, and made them into fanatics. With a rationality that was inherent to him, he made his subordinates simply blind tools, and used them to murder and blackmail in order to achieve his own ends. His victims included around 300 sultans, emirs. imams, and officers.
During the second half of August this year, on my trip to Iran I visited the Allamut fortress, but unfortunately by the time I arrived, it was already dark. I saw a lonely rock, which, at 200 meters, stands high in the huge valley of Rudbara, a brook flowing down from the rock, and a small staircase leading towards the ruins. Only a haus (a water basin) has been preserved from the fortress. The inaccessible stronghold.
In 1256, Allamut was seized in a siege lasting less than three weeks. This was not due to a Mongolian show of strength. The Mongolians created a nation controlled by Ilkhan on the territory that is now modern Iran, Iraq, and the Caucuses. The reason for the fall was because the imam of the fortress, Ruknadin iben Mukhamed turned the fortress over to Genghis Khan’s grandson, Khulag. But not everybody followed his directive: the Gird-Kuhu fortress was seized by commander Kitbugi – only after a 20-year siege. The Mamluk (literally “slave”, which came to indicate the dynasty of the same name) under the Egyptian sultan Baybars completed the destruction through the seizure of the assassins’ fortresses in Lebanon and Syria. Those remaining alive were forced to flee.
When I was in Iran, I also visited Marag, the former capital of the Khulagid. My guide and his friend told me that they associated themselves with the Mongolians. I took an excursion to the local museum. After looking at me for a long time the curator said to me, “I know you are a Mogul.” (That is how Mongolians are known in the Middle East.) The exposition was not large, and there was only a collection of dishes, coins, and weaponry of that time. In the yard were koitas (stone statues of sheep). We also have these in Kazakhstan. Interestingly, up to 200 years ago, following the collapse of Ilkhan’s empire, Persians still addressed their nobility and the foreign ambassadors as tore (“nobility”).
There is smoke from a dung fire. I hear someone milking a cow. The steps of servants are audible as well. A car is driving along the road. Yesterday we came along this route. Just yesterday, I became acquainted with Naderi, and by evening was at a party in Kaiyan.
But first, I had to visit his friends’ place. Everything occurred according to tradition: a crowd of people came to meet their patriarch, and then they prepared a sacrificial sheep and garlands of flowers. The chief was walking very sullenly, and his people were giving him space by forming a corridor. He gestured to me to come close to him. When he climbed the stairs, the women standing by the staircase were catching up the edges of his robe and kissing it in awe. Placing some meat, rice and vegetables onto my plate, Naderi whispered to me, “At home I use a knife and fork, but when I am a guest at someone’s place, I must eat with my fingers, otherwise they will think that I am too proud.” But, the situation was not always like this. Just a year ago he was persecuted. During Talib times, he lived in England. Following the defeat of the Taliban, he returned to his motherland, and then registered his candidacy for the Loya-Djurge, but because of threats from the Andarabs, he was forced to flee the country again. Later, he again returned home. After finishing his meal, he cleaned his hands with a towel and made a gesture of humility. We then had desert and tea. At the very end, we cleaned our hands with water, signifying the meal was over.
A Walk about the Estate
One of the bodyguards suggested that we drive behind Naderi’s jeep. As soon as we took our place, a vehicle filled with bodyguards took the place in line after our car. I was going to recommend that our driver remain at distance of 200-250 meters away from the motorcade. At this very moment, I remembered Griboedov’s saying, “Let me be far away from both my patron’s love and hate.” Though bullets and mines have replaced the knives of Ass-Sabbah’s age, weapons are still the most convincing argument in any dispute. Nobody has yet ended this practice. This time, we had no accidents. After four hours arrived at the estate, which had been built at the top of a hill. After introducing me to a bearded man, Said Mansur said to me that the person had been his childhood friend, that his name is Hoja Sufi, and that he had brought Naderi 2,500 votes. He also told me that the Hoja had just recently been married a second time, and added, “I should spend more time in his company, then I would not feel that I am an old person.”
Following tea, we went for a walk about the estate. Pointing at some ruins, Naderi explained that there had been a guesthouse. Sighing, he narrated to us that 40 years ago he had received emir Zakhir-Shakh and his entourage of 500 here at this guesthouse. As a special gift, he presented the emir with a heard of 5,000 head of horse. Following that, he received his reward, which included a long term of imprisonment. Later on someone passed to him a message from Zakhir-Shakh, “There is only one king in this country, and it is me.” This was why he later on became a supporter of the People’s Democratic party. He became a feudal lord and a communist. Such a strange combination is only possible in Afghanistan. In answer to one of my questions, he stated that he was not going to put the estate in order. While sharing his plans with me, he said he would bequeath half of his estate to his son, Said Jafar, and the second portion would be divided up and left to his followers. I got the impression he did not believe in the stability of his current position.
In turn, I pointed out the valley through which I had once seen his people running. I told him about my previous trip to Kaiyan. At that time, the troops of mullah Alam, Amir Nur-aga, Gulom Azrat, and Said Jabar had joined those of Mustafa, and came to rob Naderi’s vassals, leaving them to starve to death. “Here there was a flower bed, a small zoo containing ostriches, peacocks and eagles, as well as a pigeon house. Everything died,” said Said Mansur. Upon coming closer to a swimming pool, he showed to me the tiles lining the sides. The Talibs had shot at the tiles in order to entertain themselves. Everything was stolen, including the furniture, antiques, and a library of ancient manuscripts. The fountains were also destroyed. Only the base remains from a large statue of an eagle, which had been standing at the top of the hill. What the Talibs did not finish was completed by the Andarabs.
“There had been an armory of various weapons,” continued Naderi. He did not mention one fact, which was that Mustafa had stated the U.S. had supplied Naderi with the large cache of weaponry. During my previous trip, I did not only see traces of an American presence in Kaiyan, but also noted empty weapons crates lined up. I looked at one of them closely, and found a tag stating that these were PG-71 grenades, followed by information that they were from the Ministry of Defense of the USSR. There was an additional tag, written in the Serb language, stating that since 1995 these had been the property of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Slovenia. Then, the troops led by Said Jafar were defeated. Three days later, Sophie and I found him at the mansion of general Dustum, located near the city of Balkh. I still remember his gaunt face after many kilometers of marching, and the passion with which he told us how his troops freed the city of Pul-i Humri from the Talibs, about the details of the fighting, and about how Arab soldiers, who were fighting on the side of his enemy, were stoically defending themselves, against whom his troops were forced to use grenades. In a week, when he had to leave the city in order to attend a funeral, the Andarabs used the opportunity to seize it. So the Ismaeli’s attack was an attempt to restore the status quo. While speaking with him, we were amazed at his infinite lust for power, as well as his ambitiousness.
Roots and Precursors
At dinner, Naderi began speaking about the history of the Ismaeli. He told us about the deeds of the daiya. These were imams who were also assassins, called Kaiya Buzurga. If you were to listen to him, it would seem that all of these people were angels. Not being able to restrain myself, I said something tactless. I pronounced the name of Nizam ul-Mulk, who was killed by the daiya. Following a long pause, Said Mansur continued his narration. He told us about his acquaintance with a recognized specialist in the history and philosophy of the Ismaeli, Farkhat Daftari. He as well told us that despite a difficult financial situation, he agreed to accept Iran’s offer to head a committee responsible for creating monument in Allamut to Ass-sabbah, who he worships deeply. As per his words, this monument is made of pure silver. But, this is not really true. This could be possible only if Tehran really needs supporters in Afghanistan. In Iran, the Ismaeli are not considered to be Muslims, and are not allowed to visit mosques.
We continued our conversation over breakfast the next morning. Naderi told us that before all the furnishings had been emblazoned with images of eagles, in memory of Allamut. Before, they used only golden dishes here. The river at the bottom of the valley contained gold, and that there had been special equipment on the river. Interestingly enough, one of the specialists had been a Russian. I asked him about the condition of the palace, which we had not actually seen yet. It is a four-story building, with massive columns, located atop a hill 10 kilometers away from Kaiyan. Said Mansur said that the palace had been destroyed. Using the excuse that the palace had been built by ordinary people, the Andarabs got hold of his two villas in Pul-i Humri, and as of yet had not returned them to him.
All Ismaeli give Naderi 10% from their income, and he in his turn provides 10% of his income to the spiritual leader of all Ismaeli, Agahan IV, who is famous for being charitable. Imam Agahan is the descendent of the Indian Ismaeli. The imam’s ancestor had received the title of baronet for special services to Great Britain, and he has a great influence in Afghanistan. Diplomats, who had been accredited in Kabul, told me that a trip to the city of Pagman, planned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, had to be delayed for 30 minutes because Agahan’s representatives had arrived late.
A servant stood up and attracted Naderi’s attention. In a stutter he told us about his mother’s sickness, and asked Naderi to visit her and to say a prayer for her. She believes that she would recover after such a visit. Naderi is the last person from whom she should have asked this. Despite the religious title, Naderi has only an externality about his religiousness. I noticed that least of all he regretted the destruction of the mosque that had been destroyed by the Talibs. He promised to visit her, but meanwhile recommended that the patient take a mixture of milk and quince. It was time for me to leave him. As a farewell gift he gave to me jewelry box – “for your honorable spouse” – with an eagle on its lid. Being very hospitable, Naderi told me that his house would always be open to me, even when he is away.
I again had to pass along that terrible road. Nothing has changed in the East. Murders, terror, and blackmail are still the most effective ways to achieve one’s goals. I thought that perhaps this is the place of the very roots of Islamic fundamentalism. Maybe the fidai are the forerunners of the current shakid?
When leaving Afghanistan, I remembered that I never said the most important thing to Said Mansur – about my Mongolian origin.