Day By Day© by Chris Muir.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Mr. Past, meet Mr. Present. Mr. Present, meet Mr. Past

One of my father's favorite stories when I was a kid was the one about the origin of the word "assassin," which involves murderous drug addicts. Here's a version of that story from Wikipedia, although I've been too lazy to include the original hyperlinks:

Although apparently known as early as the 8th century, the foundation of the Assassins is usually marked as 1090 when Hasan-i Sabbah established his stronghold in the mountains south of the Caspian Sea at Alamut. A Yemeni emigrant and an Ismaili Shiite, Hasan set the aim of the Assassins to destroy the power of the Abbasid Caliphate by murdering its most powerful members. Hasan ibn Sabbah was also known as "The Old Man of the Mountain", however, this is likely to have been a mistake in translation, since "Old Man" is the literal translation of "Sheikh". Much of the current western lore surrounding the Assassins stems from Marco Polo's supposed visit to Alamut in 1273, which is widely considered mythical (especially as the stronghold had reportedly been destroyed by the Mongols in 1256). Benjamin of Tudela who traveled one hundred years before Marco Polo mentions the Al-Hashshashin and their leader as "the Old Man." He notes their principal city to be Kadmus. The group inspired terror out of all proportion to their scant numbers and territory. The members were organized into rigid classes, based upon their initiation into the secrets of the order. The devotees constituted a class that sought martyrdom and followed orders with unquestioned devotion, orders which included assassination. Because of the secretive nature of the order, it has often been invoked in conspiracy theories. Most of the victims of the Assassins were Sunni Muslims. There were some extremely highly placed victims including Nizam-ul-Mulk. It is known that Saladin, incensed by several almost successful attempts on his life, besieged their chief Syrian stronghold of Masyaf during his reconquest of Outremer in 1176 but quickly lifted the siege after parley, and thereafter attempted to maintain good relations with the sect. The sect's own extant (and doubtless embellished) accounts tell of the Old Man himself stealing into Saladin's tent in the heart of his camp, and leaving a poisoned cake and a note saying "You are in our power" on Saladin's chest as he slept. Another account tells of a letter sent to Saladin's maternal uncle, vowing death to the entire royal line, perhaps no idle threat; whatever the truth of these accounts (and likely it will remain a mystery) he clearly heeded their warning, and desisted. Alone amongst the Islamic heretics Saladin so despised, the batinis would be granted leeway. Christians were largely untouched by the depredations of the Assassins; it was not until the middle of the 12th century that they had even really heard of them, although Raymond II of Tripoli and Conrad of Montferrat, King of Jerusalem, were victims. The Assassins of Conrad may have even been hired by Richard the Lionheart. The power of the Hashshashin was destroyed by the Mongol warlord Hulagu Khan, but several Ismaili sects share something of a common lineage, such as the sect led by the Aga Khan. During the Mongol assault of Alamut, the library of the sect was destroyed, along with much of their powerbase, and thus much of the sect's own records were lost; most accounts of them stem from the highly reputable Arab historians of the period. The word "assassin" in the English language has come to denote a murderer, usually with a political motive.
There's a reason why I'm ruminating today about thousand year old murders committed by Muslims under the influence of opiates. The Evil Conservative Blog has some interesting facts about the war in Iraq. The one that piqued my interesting, and led to my little rumination about word etymologies is this: "Random autopsies on dead insurgents show a high level of opiate use." I guess the past is never truly dead, especially in a region as old as the Middle East. There's a whole bunch of other interesting stuff there, too, if you want the dirt on weapons (ours and theirs) and tactics (ours and theirs). Hat tip: Paragraph Farmer (who always finds good stuff).