The Ismaili Assassins – A History of Medieval Murder, James Waterson

The Ismaili Assassins – A History of Medieval Murder, James Waterson

We start with quite a detailed explaination of the origins of the Assassins, which requires a reasonable understanding of the early history of Islam, the disputes that led to the original split between the Sunni and Shi’a branches of the faith, the fighting to control the Caliphate, the rise of more military governments as the caliphs lost most of their power, the emergence of the Ismaili branch of Islam, and the events that turned a religious movement into a small, scattered but powerful ‘state’.

The Assassins were created by Hasan-i-Sabbah, a Persian Ismaili who visited Egypt, the centre of the Fatamid caliphate, before returning to Persia where he recruited a large number of followers, and eventually gained control of a series of the famous mountain fortresses that allowed the Assassins to defy many more powerful opponents over the years. Waterson traces the evolution of the Assassin’s small mountainous state, their expansion into Syria, their use of political murder to unbalance their opponents, and their relationship with the many other powers who came and went during their time.

This is quite a complex story, as the Assassins outlived an impressive number of their rivals, but the author does a good job of keeping things clear. The more exaggerated myths that came to surround the Assassins and the reality (if any) behind them are examined here, but the book focuses on the (slightly) more mundane reality of their history.

Despite their murderous reputation, the Assassins probably killed fewer people than most of their contemporary powers, relying on the fear caused by a few well chosen killings instead of widescale military campaigning. They look almost blameless compared to the Mongols, whose bloodthirsty irruption into the Middle East was marked by a series of massacres so brutal that they caused a drop in the population! It soon becomes clear that most of the more outlandish stories about the Assassins were exaggerated, produced by their enemies, or had more to do with the imagination of their authors than reality.

The image that emerges is of a small grouping that found an unusual way to survive the often brutal politics of the Middle East, and at least until the last few years of their existence actually come across as being somewhat less violent than most of their neighbours. The key to their success was that they found a way of using a relatively small number of killings to convince most of their neighbours that it simply wasn’t worth attacking them. This is an excellent study of this infamous group, and helps to create a picture of the real historical Assassins to stand alongside the myths that made them famous.


1 – A House Divided: The Origins of the Ismaili Assassins
2 – Statehood and Separation: The Assassins are Born
3 – Whetting the Blade: Assassination as War
4 – New Blood in a New Land: The Assassins in Syria
5 – The Gathering Tempest: New Enemies for the Persian Mission
6 – The White Donkey and the War Charger: Sinan and Saladin
7 – Destruction in the Homeland: The Mongol Conquest of Persia
8 – Mamluks, Mongols and Crusading Kings: The End of the Syrian Mission
9 – Both Forgotten and Remembered: The Meaning and The Myth of the Assassins

Author: James Waterson
Edition: Paperback
Pages: 256
Publisher: Frontpage
Year: 2019 edition of 2008 original

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