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The real-world history that inspired Assassin's Creed and its story

With Assassin's Creed: Origins set to deliver us the lore behind the creation of the Assassin Brotherhood in the Assassin's Creed universe this October, I thought it would be a fun explore the secret clan that inspired the entire series in the first place: the medieval Hashashins. Indeed, while the upcoming tale of Bayek and his journey through Egypt will tell us the origins of the Assassins in Ubisoft's universe, the Assassin Order itself was based on this real-world organization of spies and (unsurprisingly) assassins.

The origins of the Hashashins

According to Saladin and The Fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem1, The Hashashins (Arabic and Persian for "assassins") originated in 1094 in Syria (and what is now northern Iran) under the leadership of Hassan-i Sabbah, a popular and well-respected Shia Muslim, in order to topple his enemies amidst the religious and political unrest in the Holy Lands. Searching for a place to establish a headquarters for his Order, Sabbah chose the fortress at Alamut, a sturdy, highly-defensible place by any midieval standard. Due to his high status, Sabbah had little problems gaining a serious following. As a result, it wasn't long after the settling at Alamut that the Hashashins (also referred to as Nizari Ismailis, considered a branch of the traditional Shia Muslims) began using agents of both espionage and assassination to gain a political foothold and eliminate key targets. These actions paved the way for expansion soon after.

Hassan-i Sabbah himself. (Source: NewWorldEncyclopedia.org)

Hassan-i Sabbah himself. (Source: NewWorldEncyclopedia.org)

Rise to power

The Hashashins quickly became notorious for their cunning throughout the land.

The Hashashins managed to capture and control several similar fortresses along Syria's mountain ranges, and as a result their influence and size continued to grow. With a large emphasis on training these new followers, the ranks of the Order's operatives swelled, and the Hashashins quickly became notorious for their cunning throughout the land. According to The Old Man of the Mountain2, only the best of the best became assassins. Members responsible for performing assassination were extensively trained not only to be masters of combat, but also to be masters of the mind. Many of the assigned assassinations required extremely meticulous planning and adaptability to avoid enemy security and get close to targets. The assassins also had to be both young and in their physical prime, in order to stealthily and quickly perform physical actions on their missions. In matters where assassination was not deemed necessary, other agents of the Order made use of non-lethal tactics, such as various forms of psychological warfare.

Masyaf castle, one of the Hashashins' many strongholds, as it stands in the first Assassin's Creed title.

Masyaf castle, one of the Hashashins' many strongholds, as it stands in the first Assassin's Creed title.

The agents of the Order would prove to be one of the biggest threats to the Christian armies that began invading in 1095, marking the beginning of the First Crusade. The Hashashins often were deployed in eliminating Crusade leaders and other important figures, and were also often successful. While it's true that the Crusaders targeted Hassan-i Sabbah and his Order, they never managed to defeat it — though the Crusaders were also engaged in war with other Islamic groups across the Holy Lands. When Sabbah fell ill and died in 1124 (he had lived 90 years - an exceptionally long life for a man in the medieval times!), a new leader rose to power for the Hashashins, and they continued to carry out assassinations and other activities against both Crusaders and enemy Islamic factions alike for over a hundred years, according to Hassan-i-Sabbah and the Assassins3.

Downfall and the aftermath

While the Hashashins continued to be successful for an extended period following the death of their founder, this success would not last forever. As noted in The Mongol campaigns in Asia4, the Mongol Empire began attempting to invade Syria in the 1240s, and while the various groups there were able to hold them off for over a decade, they finally found success in 1253 — besieging the Hashashin fortresses. These attacks were devastating against the Order, and while they put up a strong fight, all of their fortresses (including their headquarters at Alamut) were sacked by 1256. The Hashashins were suddenly in dire straits, clinging to what little territory and strength they had left.

A view of the Alamut fortress. This area is in fairly good condition. (Source)

A view of the Alamut fortress. This area is in fairly good condition. (Source)

When the Mongols were pushed out of Alamut by other Islamic forces, the Hashashins were able to briefly recapture it in 1275. By then the group was a shadow of its former self and not strong enough to return to past former glories. It is around this time that the Order was thought to have disbanded. No official records exist from here on, though it was rumored that many surviving Hashashins became mercenaries.

Comparison to the games

Veteran fans of the Assassin's Creed series will know that the Hashashins are, in fact, represented in the games. Specifically, they are the sect we encounter in the very first game from 2007.

While much of the historical information in the original Assassin's Creed is actually quite accurate, there are some big differences between the real-world Hashashins and Ubisoft's Assassin Brotherhood.

Firstly, the Hashashins never wore the iconic hooded outfit that is donned by all Assassins. Disguising was a core element to their tactics, but the Hashashins chose a disguise that made them look as ordinary as possible, depending on the situation. For example, the Hashashin responsible for an assassination in the streets would be wearing the clothes of a peasant; if the assassination took place in an extravagant party, then the killer would have worn fancy, lavish clothing.2

Secondly, the two Orders share fundamentally different ideals. While the Hashashins fought for their Shia beliefs and for Hassan-i Sabbah against his political enemies1, the Assassin Brotherhood's motivation is more global. They fight to preserve freedom and individualism.

Lastly (and sadly, because they're so cool) the Hashashins never made use of any sort of hidden blade that Ubisoft's Assassins make frequent use of, according to all records of the time period. Many records, such as The Templars and the Assassins5, indicate that the Hashashins made use of small, concealable daggers.

There you have it: the real-world history behind Assassin's Creed. What do you think of how Ubisoft based their fictional Assassin Brotherhood on real-life historical assassins? I, for one, love it, and I'm extremely interested to see how they plan on explaining the origins of the in-game Assassins in the upcoming installment.

Assassin's Creed: Origins takes a leap of faith onto shelves on October 27th, 2017, and will be available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC.

Sources

[1] Lane-Poole, Stanley. (1906) Saladin and the Fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. G.P. Putnam's Sons.

[2] Nowell, Charles. (1947) The Old Man of the Mountain. The University of Chicago Press.

[3] Lockhart, Lawrence. (1930) Hassan-i-Sabbah and the Assassins. University of London.

[4] Benson, Douglas. (1991) The Mongol campaigns in Asia. Benson, Douglas. (Self-published)

[5] Wasserman, James. (2001) The Templars and the Assassins. Simon & Schuster.

Brendan Lowry is a Windows Central writer and Oakland University graduate with a burning passion for video games, of which he's been an avid fan since childhood. You'll find him doing reviews, editorials, and general coverage on everything Xbox and PC. Follow him on Twitter.

46 Comments
  • knew this but thank you please more things like this
  • Glad you enjoyed.
  • Nice history lesson. The real-world origin shows there was some good research done.
  • I'm Arab, assassins is "Qatala" or "Qatalin" or "Safahin", "Hashashin" means nothing in Arabic!
  • Modern Arabic maybe not, ancient arabic maybe is! Ask an imam or professor... my2cts
  • Hashash is a drug,you know
  • Yep, there were rumors discovered by Marco Polo that indicated that Sabbah used it to drug his followers, but there was never any hard facts supporting it, just speculation. Which is why I chose to not write on it here.
  • They used it to prepare themselves for their suicide missions.
  • In ancient Arabic it definitely was.
  • Well maybe you are right, Old Arabic has a very rich vocabulary, and modern Arabs like myself are ignorant of a great part of it...
  • Glad you realised that..
  • Either that, or the English word "assassin" was originated from the clan's name
  • Either that, or the English word "assassin" was originated from the clan's name
  • It meant Assassin in some older dialects. It depends on which variation of Arabic you speak.
  • Maybe so, i speak "Hassania" which is an Arabic dialect spoken in some areas of north Africa....but I understand most of modern Arabic dialects, I do not pretend thou having the knowledge of every single word Arabs had or are using to describe a thing or an act or a person...
  • A *very* quick web search brings info on that. While I recommend you read it, what I can sum up is that "Hashashin" is in fact the etymological origin of the latin term "assassin". So you're probably both right and wrong. "The Assassins were finally linked by the 19th century orientalist scholar Silvestre de Sacy to the Arabic word hashish using their variant names assassin and assissini in the 19th century. Citing the example of one of the first written applications of the Arabic term hashish to the Ismailis by 13th century historian Abu Shama, de Sacy demonstrated its connection to the name given to the Ismailis throughout Western scholarship.[Daftary 1] The first known usage of the term hashishi has been traced back to 1122 when the Fatimid caliph al-Āmir employed it in derogatory reference to the Syrian Nizaris.[Daftary 2] Used figuratively, the term hashishi connoted meanings such as outcasts or rabble.[Daftary 3] Without actually accusing the group of using the hashish drug, the Caliph used the term in a pejorative manner. This label was quickly adopted by anti-Ismaili historians and applied to the Ismailis of Syria and Persia. The spread of the term was further facilitated through military encounters between the Nizaris and the Crusaders, whose chroniclers adopted the term and disseminated it across Europe.
    During the medieval period, Western scholarship on the Ismailis contributed to the popular view of the community as a radical sect of assassins, believed to be trained for the precise murder of their adversaries. By the 14th century, European scholarship on the topic had not advanced much beyond the work and tales from the Crusaders.[Daftary 4] The origins of the word forgotten, across Europe the term Assassin had taken the meaning of "professional murderer".[Daftary 5]"
  • From the Online Etymology Dictionary: assassin (n.)
    1530s (in Anglo-Latin from mid-13c.), via French and Italian, from Arabic hashishiyyin "hashish-users," plural of hashishiyy, from the source of hashish (q.v.). A fanatical Ismaili Muslim sect of the mountains of Lebanon in the time of the Crusades, under leadership of the "Old Man of the Mountains" (translates Arabic shaik-al-jibal, name applied to Hasan ibu-al-Sabbah), they had a reputation for murdering opposing leaders after intoxicating themselves by eating hashish. The plural suffix -in was mistaken in Europe for part of the word (compare Bedouin). Middle English had the word as hassais (mid-14c.), from Old French hassasis, assasis, which is from the Arabic word.
  • I am a Nizari Ismaili Shia Muslim, and I approve this message. It was so weird for me to play this game knowing that I was playing a version of the historic events of my religious ancestors. So cool.
  • That makes me super happy you were able to learn that!
  • Not cool to play jihadists killing Christians.
  • Though I'm Christian, I'm not sure I approve of everything that the Crusaders did. I'm pretty sure they had it coming, so I don't think anyone was innocent in this particular event in history.
  • I'm not sure I approve of everything that the Crusaders did. That's a non sequitur; no one's saying that "everything" the Crusaders did was good. (In another post here, I noted that some Crusaders committed atrocities along the way. And the fact that Pope Urban II would tell Christians that going to fight (even in the defense of others) would bring them salvation smacks of jihadist ideology.) I'm stating the simple fact that it's neither fun nor moral to play as jihadists butchering non-Muslims.
  • Approval not needed
  • To whom are you responding, calvin?
  • Someone for Homeland to check on over here...
  • I think the characters and their historical basis was certainly an interesting part of the game. But what was even more immersive and moving was the settings in historical settings. Those were beautifully unique.
  • Really cool article. Enjoyed reading it.
  • Thanks much!
  • Very interesting
  • It is for sure. I like how inspired by history this series is, right down to the main faction.
  • Great article, And I agree I really like how the AC games borrow heavily from actual history, it's really interesting and helps make the games partially educational (although there are obviously deviations).
  • It's rather unique in the gaming scene!
  • The Gabriel Knight games did a similar thing which was awesome.
  • Do the Templars next!  Their real world history is pretty interesting too.
  • There's an idea. I might just do that. People are enjoying this first one so far.
  • Rennes Le Chateau in France has a rich Templar history.
  • Nice Post! Now planning to read all sources mentioned ;) cheers
  • Hopefully, modern day Iran will meet the same fate as these overglorified ragheads. When we eventually nuke them back to the stone age.
  • I wouldn't use "raghead," but an effective response to the global jihad is long overdue.
  • Very interesting read. 
  • They next series of AC, they should put up with the feature of disguises. Like in HITMAN
  • Why are my upvotes not working in chrome 59?
  • I enjoyed the article. Thank you.
  • the Christian armies that began invading in 1095
    That's like saying that the United States "invaded" western Europe in the 1940s. The first Crusade was called by Pope Urban II in response to centuries of jihad against eastern Christendom. Whatever crimes Crusaders might have committed along the way, to pretend that they were the aggressors is an insult to history and humanity.
  • Awesomely interesting :-)
  • (double post... the W10 app is too slow to react...)