The distinguishing insight that marked Hasan's strategy was his decision to set up a rural power base, which he no doubt thought would be more secure than the urban centres on which the Ismailis had concentrated hitherto. This process began with his acquisition of the Castle of Alamut, in the mountains of northwestern Iran that border the Caspian sea.

The castle was held at this time by a castellan on behalf of the Seljuq Sultan. Hasan gradually infiltrated his men into the garrison. The castellan got wind of this and pretended to be sympathetic to Ismailism in order to lull the enemy's suspicions, but when he decided to act it was too late. Hasan had by this time entered the castle himself under a pseudonym; the castellan found himself impotent and had to yield possession of the castle to Hasan, who gave him a draft for three thousand dinars as the price of the castle, to be paid by the Governor of Damghan. The castellan, not taking this very seriously, did nothing with the draft for some time, but eventually he found himself short of funds and presented it. To his astonishment, the Governor kissed the note reverently and paid him the gold.

In the Muslim calendar the year in which Hasan gained possession of the castle was 483. By a strange coincidence, in the abjad system of number-letter correspondences this date gives the name of the stronghold, Aluh Amut. The occult correspondence was naturally not lost on the Ismailis, who made much of it. But the name itself is something of a puzzle. It is usually said to mean 'eagle's teaching', and there is a story that a monarch, out hunting with his falcon, had the Rock suggested to him as a suitable place for a castle by seeing his bird land upon it. Another possible meaning is 'eagle's nest', which seems intuitively more probable. (Indeed, one of the first things I saw when I visited the Rock in 1966 was an eagle soaring out from the summit.) However, at least one authority denies that the name has anything to do with eagles at all.

Whether or not the name Alamut is connected with eagles, there is undoubtedly something aquiline about the character of Hasan, whom I cannot help picturing as a gaunt figure with piercing eyes and a great beak of a nose. In a number of ways -- his remoteness, his inaccessibility, his ability to survive, and the almost superstitious fear that his name came to inspire in his enemies -- he puts one in mind of Osama bin Laden.

From his eyrie in Alamut Hasan made himself respected and feared throughout much of Iran, and he successfully resisted all attempts to dislodge him. He seems to have built new fortifications on the Rock and is said to have constructed vast store chambers for grain, honey, and water. Owing to the thoroughness with which the Mongols destroyed the castle we have no accurate information about this work.

One of the most puzzling questions is how the castle was supplied with water. At present the stream that supplies the fields of Qasir Khan at the foot of the Rock does not flow anywhere near the castle, though possibly its course was different nine hundred years ago. There are stories of water being brought in lead pipes, but this seems improbable and in any case would not afford any security in a siege. An interesting suggestion put forward by Peter Willey is that the curious channel that can be seen running across the south face of the Rock was built to collect rain water and feed it into chambers cut in the cliff. This does seem possible. At any rate, we can be pretty sure that massive engineering works of some kind were carried out to provide water and were successful, for Alamut held out in the face of several determined attempts to capture it.

The castle of Saru, SW of Alamut near Semnan, is much better preserved than Alamut and gives a good impression of Ismaili military architecture at this period. The main castle, Greater Saru, has triple defensive outer walls and an unusually strong double-bend main entrance way. It has a sophisticated water catchment area. Lesser Saru, 2 km away at the end of the western end of the valley, defended natural springs from which water was pumped to the main castle. These arrangements may give a clue to how Alamut was supplied with water.

Hasan-i-Sabbah became known as a severe and austere ruler. He remained within his house, writing, thinking, and planning. He is said to have gone out only twice, and to have gone up on the roof only once. At one time, when things were difficult, he sent his womenfolk away to another castle, where they had to spin like the other women, and he never brought them back. He had both his sons executed, one for drinking wine, the other on a charge of murder which later proved false. Von Hammer, the nineteenth-century historian who attributed all kinds of wickedness to the Assassins, cited these sentences as evidence of Ismaili depravity and Hasan's want of natural affection, but it seems more plausible to regard them as instances of his impartiality. They also make it clear that in Hasan's time the Muslim law (sharia) was enforced at Alamut with full rigour.

Under Hasan's leadership the Ismailis prospered. Other castles were acquired, some by capture, some by purchase or negotiation, and the Ismailis thus came to dominate quite a large area in this mountainous region. There also continued to be Ismaili cells in nearly every Iranian city, especially Isfahan, where the Ismailis had acquired a stronghold just outside the city. However, the Isfahan centre was captured by the Turks in 1107. The wife of the Ismaili chief decked herself in her jewels and flung herself from the battlements; the Chief himself (Ibn Attash) was captured, paraded through the town, and then skinned alive. This left Hasan as undisputed head of the Ismailis in Iran, and the Seljuqs mounted a protracted campaign against him. In 1118 Alamut was besieged, and Hasan had a hard time persuading his followers not to surrender. But at that moment news came of the death of the Sultan; despite the commander's pleas, the army dispersed and Alamut was saved.

The use of terror

The name 'assassin' is, of course, synonymous with political murder. In 1092 the famous statesman Nizam al-Mulk was on his way to Baghdad when he was approached from a youth from Daylam (the region of Alamut) in the guise of a supplicant. The man suddenly drew a knife from his robe and wounded the minister fatally. This is generally supposed to have been the first assassination carried out by Hasan's orders. The Ismailis claimed it was done to avenge the death of a carpenter, but doubtless there were more important political reasons.

Murder as a political weapon was not, of course, an Ismaili invention, and indeed it appears that a number of groups in Iran were making use of it at the time. The Ismailis, however, undoubtedly took the trend further than most. They may have believed that it was more humane to kill one man selectively than a multitude in a battle. In this respect they were significantly different from modern terrorists. In any case, given the fact that they were so enormously outnumbered by their enemies, terrorism was a logical enough expedient.

It is usually said that a special corps of assassins -- the fidais -- existed, but this is doubtful, at least until a much later date. Marco Polo, who visited the site of Alamut in the thirteenth century, after its destruction by the Mongols, relates the romantic legend of how the fidais were trained by the Grand Master. The 'Old Man', as Marco Polo calls him, following the Crusader usage, was said to have constructed a fantastic pleasure garden, flowing with wine, honey, milk, and water, and populated by beautiful women.

This was a representation of Paradise as described in the Qur'an. The Old Man was supposed to drug his future Assassins and bring them, unconscious, into the garden; after a time they were once again rendered insensible and brought out into the ordinary world. They were thus convinced that they had been given a foretaste of the joys to come if they obeyed the Old Man's orders, which they naturally did unquestioningly, certain that they would once more find themselves in Paradise after their death.

It need hardly be said that this is a total fantasy. There is no need to suppose that any such elaborate method of preparation was needed; like other Muslim soldiers the assassins would be told, and would unquestioningly believe, that if they were killed they would go straight to Paradise. A similar belief inspires modern suicide bombers among the Palestinians and other minority groups who lack other means of getting at their enemies. Death on an assassination mission was counted a great honour by the Ismailis. There is an often-repeated story of the mother of a fidai who rejoiced greatly and put on her best clothes when she heard that her son had been killed on a mission, but changed into mourning when he came home safely after all.

The fidais were at least not underhand in their assassinations. They did not poison their victims or stab them in the back in dark alleys, but killed them openly in public. A favourite occasion seems to have been at Friday prayers in the mosque. Publicity, in fact, was an important part of their aim, and they were successful in attaining this. Prominent men took to wearing armour under their clothes, and sometimes the Ismailis could achieve their purpose merely by a threat. Ismailis would insinuate themselves into the households of their victims, ready to assassinate them if necessary or perhaps merely to make it clear that they could do so if they wished.

Sultan Sanjar made a truce with Alamut, persuaded, it is said, by a dagger thrust into the ground next to his pillow. And an amusing story concerns a professor of theology who made a practice of reviling the "heretics" of Alamut. At length, one of his students, who had impressed him by the attention he paid to his lectures, revealed himself as a fidai and offered the professor alternative inducements to mend his ways: a dagger or a bag of gold. The professor wisely chose the gold; and, when subsequently twitted about the reason for his changed attitude to the Ismailis, replied that he had been convinced of his error by arguments that were "both weighty and pointed".

In the aftermath of an assassination the Sunni population of a town would often catch and kill anyone they suspected of being an Ismaili, so massacres were frequent at times, and were followed by further assassinations as the Ismailis took revenge on the leaders. In 1093 a number of suspected Ismailis were burned alive in Isfahan. Such events offered a chance for people to denounce others against whom they had a grudge, so doubtless many innocents perished along with the Ismailis. The systematic use of terror helped to foster the image of the Ismailis as supremely wicked and capable of any imaginable infamy.

Assassination as a political weapon may be hard to justify morally (although what about the bomb plot to kill Hitler?), and certainly it was this practice that made the Ismailis' name so execrated among both Muslims and Christians. Even so, one cannot help sensing the intensity of their devotion to their cause and the feeling of comradeship that inspired their heroism. For heroism it was: few fidais survived, and their deaths were seldom easy.

The split with Cairo

When the dispute about the succession erupted in Cairo at the end of the eleventh century the Iranian Ismailis, led by Hasan, took the side of Nizar and were henceforth known as Nizaris. We don't know the reasons for this decision, though personal loyalty to Nizar does not seem to have been important. Perhaps Hasan had come into conflict with Badr in Cairo, as later Nizari accounts suggest, but more probably the motives for the schism were less personal.

There were, it is true, genuine doctrinal reasons why the Iranian Ismailis should not accept the revoking of the designation of Nizar as Imam, for it was just this question that had led to the separation of the Ismaili sect in the first place, but no doubt politics and national pride entered into it as well. The Iranian Ismailis were fiercely independent, already in revolt against the Turkish invaders, and probably unenthusiastic about owning allegiance to a foreign power, especially since Badr's troops, on whom he relied for his position, were largely Turkish. In any case, the military power of Cairo was beginning to weaken and was therefore less to be relied on for support.

Whatever the exact reasons for the break, Hasan's authority ensured that it was generally accepted among the Persian Ismailis, who henceforth were pretty well universally adherents of Nizar; and though there was at first some dissent in Syria, before long the Syrian Ismailis too were loyal to the new dispensation. Allegiance to Nizar raised an important practical question, however: where was the Imam? After Nizar's death there was no obvious successor, but it was a central part of the Ismaili position that there must always be an Imam somewhere, otherwise everything would fall to pieces. For the moment the Imam was regarded as 'Hidden'; later he was to stage a most dramatic reappearance.

One might have expected that Hasan himself would claim to be the Imam, but he never did so, and indeed it is said that when his followers wrote up a fanciful genealogy for him he threw it contemptuously in the river, remarking that he would rather be the Imam's favoured servant than his degenerate son. The title generally applied to Hasan was Hujja -- Proof. This was the name of a high rank in the Ismaili hierarchy and signified a senior missionary responsible for a particular territory. But the title could also refer to someone who served as a link with a more exalted level in the hierarchy. Hujja could be applied to Hasan this sense as well, and eventually he seems to have been regarded as the Imam's official representative.

Until the end of of his long life, Hasan remained in Alamut, a lonely and severe figure, administering his strange realm, ordering assassinations, thinking, writing, planning, and waiting . . . for what? Did he believe that a son of the dead Nizar would one day appear to claim the Imamhood? If so, how was he to be recognized as genuine? Or had Hasan perhaps given up all hope of finding a physical Imam, and now conceived of the Imam as existing on a spiritual (though nonetheless real) plane of existence?

My own guess, for it can be nothing more, is that the last possibility is the most likely. The Hasan whose character has come down to us is very far from naive, and he is totally uncompromising in his rejection of makeshift second-best solutions. Such a man must surely have realized that no genuine Imam was likely to appear in the foreseeable future, and that all the Nizaris could do was to preserve the Imamhood as an idea. The most reliable information we have suggests that this was Hasan's position, and that in his time there was no specific teaching at Alamut about when or how the Imam would appear. Indeed, even Hasan's second successor, Muhammad I, issued coins bearing simply the name of Nizar, with no suggestion of the existence of any later Imam.

To the modern mind it may be tempting to suppose that Hasan was merely cynical, and used the legend of the vanished Imam for his own purposes while himself disbelieving in it. But this, I think, would be totally to misconceive the mediaeval out­ look in general and Hasan's character in particular. All that we know of Hasan suggests that he was wholly sincere in his beliefs, and I am sure it would be a complete mistake to discount them. There is something that recalls the Roman censor Marcus Porcius Cato in Hasan's character, an unyielding firmness and integrity which, though it may not inspire our affection, cannot but compel our respect.

Hasan wrote a great deal but little of what he wrote has come down to us. His style was characteristically terse. From what can be surmised about his teaching, it seems to have differed somewhat, at least in emphasis, from that of the Fatimid Ismailis. The literature from Cairo contained much mystical speculation about the nature of the Imam. Hasan's Imam is more of an authoritarian figure, who seems to be as much a ruler and a law­giver as a mystagogue.

Probably this change in emphasis was partly due to the situation of the Nizaris in Iran. They were broken up and scattered in small groups throughout the country, and there was a need for strong leadership from Alamut if they were to maintain their cohesion. No doubt, too, men tended to cast the Imam in their own image, and Hasan seems to have been by nature as well as by necessity a stern disciplinarian, so that his version of the Imam's character was a severe one.

Hasan's immediate successors

Hasan died in 1124. It is said that he concealed his fatal illness to the last, a piece of austerity that accords well with what we know of his character; he was always renowned for his laconic speech. He was succeeded by his lieutenant, Kiya Bozorg-Ummid (Kiya Great Hope).

By now the Nizaris were ceasing to be an important power in the cities and were becoming a network state within the Seljuq state. The Seljuqs had for some twenty years largely ceased hostilities against them; soon after the accession of Bozorg-Ummid warfare broke out again, but the Nizaris held their own.

They were also responsible for a number of assassinations, including that of the Abbasid Caliph Mustarshid in 1135. Great celebrations were held in Alamut on this occasion, but the people of Isfahan took revenge by massacring anyone who they thought was an Ismaili. It is said that this murder was carried out at the instigation of Sanjar, the Sultan of the eastern Seljuq empire, while the Caliph was a prisoner of Sultan Masud in the west. If so, it indicates the complexity of the intrigues and shifting alliances that were taking place at the time.

At a more local level, fighting went on intermittently with the neighbouring city of Qazvin. Bozorg-Ummid, though evidently able enough militarily, seems not to have contributed anything to the community intellectually, and in this respect the Nizaris don't seem to have been very active during the rules of either Bozorg-Ummid or his son and successor, Muhammad I, who came to power in 1138.

By this time the Nizari state had settled into its own pattern of existence, with a hereditary succession of rulers. An early event in Muhammad I's reign was the murder of Caliph Rashid, son of the Caliph Mustarshid who had been assassinated earlier; Rashid was under house arrest in Isfahan at the time and the murder was committed by soldiers who may have had Ismaili sympathies.

Warfare with the Seljuqs continued under Muhammad I, though at a reduced intensity, and the Nizaris captured a number of new fortresses. But all this activity was relatively petty and there was beginning to be an increasing discrepancy between the original high hopes of the community and what had actually been achieved. Before long, however, the situation was to change dramatically, and the Nizaris' patience was to reap an unlooked-for reward.

To read more, go to my Smashwords page where you will find a larger extract.