Siege of Alamut (1256)
The Assassins were a secretive Islamic sect of ascetic religious fanatics that carried out political murder and were active in Iran and Syria from the 11th to the 13th century. They came into being at the end of the 11th century and lasted for about a 150 years until their impregnable cliffside castle in Persia was breached by the Mongols. Some regard them as being the first terrorists and sowing the seeds of terrorist thought and tactics in the Islamic world. They called themselves fidayeen (“martyrs”), which is what many suicide bombers today call themselves. [Source: Pico Iyer, Smithsonian magazine, October 1986]

The Assassins (more properly known as the Hashhashin) belonged to a mystical Sufi Muslim sect and smoked hashish. They were best known for their dramatic executions of Abbasid and Seljuk political figures. So well known were the Assassins that maps during the Crusades marked the Syrian coast as the "Country of the Assassins." Their name comes from the Arabic hashishiyya; the drug's powers were thought to explain the Assassins' oblivious bravery. The English word “assassin” was derived from "hashishin," which means "taker of hashish."

Marco Polo described the Assassins as men who were drugged with hashish wine and then taken to a lush valley where all of their sexual desires were fulfilled to gain their loyalty. From then on the leader of the sect, the story goes, could order these men to carry out any command, even brutally killing themselves. Leaders of kingdoms in the Middle East hired members of the sect for great sums of money to carry out assassinations.◂

Assassin Leader and Hashish Training

The assassins were founded and first led by Hasan-i Sabbah, who became an avid follower of Ismailism (a Shiite sect now ruled by the Aga Khan) after he nearly died from a wasting disease when he was 17. After being thrown in jail on several occasions for his radical beliefs he wandered the desert and attracted a group of followers, made up primarily of other outcasts, that grew into the assassins.

20120710-cannabis Afgran_Hash.jpg
Afghan hashish
Hasan-i Sabbah was known as the Old Man of the Mountains. He and his followers converted the occupants of a fortress near the Caspian Sea called Alamut to their belief. The fortress was located at the end of a nearly vertical path near the top of a 2000-meter-high ridge in the Elburz Mountains in present-day Iran. Hasan is said to have spent most of his 33 years in the fortress meditating and reading about theology, astronomy and magic. It is said he only left his tiny hut twice, both times to visit the roof.

New recruits to the Assassin sect, it was said, were taken into the sect’s luxurious gardens and given large amounts of hashish and were told that their euphoria was just a hint of the pleasures that waited them in heaven if they became martyrs while fulfilling their missions. Sect members also reportedly took hashish to give them courage to carry out their dangerous missions.

Young followers who aimed to become assassins were trained in the use of daggers and swords, and forbidden to drink alcohol or play the flute with the penalty for transgressors being a death sentence. Two of Hasan's own sons broke the rules and were executed as an example.

Many of the stories about the Assassins and the hashish taking appear to have been made up by their rivals to make them look bad or weirder than they really were.

Assassins as Killers and Terrorists

Hashashin versus Crusader Knight
The Assassins were masters of disguise and stealth. They often masqueraded as soldiers or servants and worked themselves into a position of trust, sometimes taking months to achieve this, so they could easily kill their victim---a vizier, a prince, a religious leader, warrior or king. They were similar to modern suicide terrorists in that killed at close range and with no escape routes.

Almost all their assassinations were carried out with daggers. The Assassins looked down on poisons and weapons that could be used from a distance such as crossbows as cowardly. Those that carried out their missions were not expected to survive. Like modern suicide bombers they believed that their ultimate death would give them a free ticket to paradise.

The Assassins were renowned for their loyalty and courage. It was considered such a sin to return alive from a mission that if one did so shame was cast on his entire family . On hearing the death of a son on an assassin mission one women is said to have "rejoiced and anointed her eyelids with kohl." When she later found he in fact had survived "she was grieved, and tore her hair and blackened her face."

Worrying about the threat of the Assassins was almost as bad as being assassinated. Sect followers were difficult to identify and trained to resist torture. It is said that those who were captured chose death before betraying other Assassins. Leaders who felt threatened by the Assassins were paranoid and distrustful of all those around them and some barricaded themselves in their homes. "By one single warrior on foot," wrote one Ismaili poet, "a king may be stricken with terror, though he owns more than 100,000 horsemen." The daggers of the assassins were named fidais, or faithful.

The Assassins believed they were helping ordinary people repressed by their leaders but their violent methods turned many people off and resulted in many innocent Ishamelis being rounded up and tortured. The sect helped create negative impressions of the Ishmalis, Sufiis and Shiites.

Victims of the Assassins

The Assassins mainly targeted Muslim rulers whom they considered apostates. Unlike modern terrorists, the Assassins always chose individuals as their targets. The victims were almost always Muslim political, military or religious leaders regarded as usurpers, sources of evil, or enemies viewed as threats to themselves or their allies. Sometimes the Assassins went after people with religious views different than theirs, and sometimes they killed for hire. In the waning years of the sect Assassins were hired more and more by local rulers to serve as guards and hitmen.

Many Assassin victims were Seljuks. The first sect victim is said to have been Nizam al-Mulk, Grand Vizier of the Seljuk sultan Malikshah. The executioner, disguised as a holy man, stabbed the vizier with a dagger while he was being carried on his litter to his harem. Another Seljuk vizier was stabbed to death in his stables by assassins masquerading as grooms.

The assassins were active in the Crusades. A few Europeans were targets but most were Muslims. Saladin, the Kurdish warrior who drove the Crusaders from Jerusalem, was an Assassin target who escaped attacks two times because he avoided contact with strangers and slept in a special wooden tower. Under the torture of slow fire and flaying, two executioners disguised as Christian monks confessed they had been ordered to kill the King of Jerusalem by Richard the Lionhearted.

Attempts to capture the assassin's fortresses were unsuccessful until Genghis Khan captured it and butchered the last descendants of Hasan. Survivors of the sect fled to Syria.

Revival of the Assassins

Later the Assassin sect was revived. In the early 19th century two dozen devotees leapt from some bushes to execute the Caliph of Baghdad. A famous religious scholar was threatened by an assassin masquerading as a student who threatened the scholar after asking him to discuss a difficult religious matter. When the student pulled out a dagger, it was said, the scholar decided to change some religious positions that went against those of the Assassins.

In the sect was most active in the 1830s and 40s. When it was discovered they were behind a plot to assassinate the Shah of Iran they were exiled to India. The leader had been given the name of Aga Khan by the Shah. Today there are some 12 to 15 million followers of Ismaili Islam. Their present leader is the Harvard-educated forth Aga Khan.


Ninjas were professional spies, infiltrators and assassins who were valued more for their stealthiness than fighting ability. Their services were used mainly in times of war. There were two main ninja schools: one in Iga Ueno, near Nara, and another in Koga, Shiga Prefecture.

Ninpo, also known as ninjutsu, is the name of the martial arts practiced by ninjas. It is still practiced today. Genbukan, founded by a descendant of the founder of one of the two schools, operates a dojo that teaches ninpo in 25 countries and has provided to instruction to White House security and SWAT teams in the United States.

On the book Ninja Attack! by Matt Alt and Hiroko Yoda, Roland Kelts wrote they “turn their lucid lenses to the myths and realities behind Japan's irresistible secret agents, spies. Revealing what true ninja actually wore (not the sleek black uniforms and masks of popular rendering, of course, because they tried to blend into their surroundings---duh), ate, brandished and so on, the book admirably balances the seductions of ninja fiction with the astonishments of historical truth. “

Book: Secrets of the Ninja by Hiromitsu Kuroi (DH Publishing, 2003) and Ninja Attack! by Matt Alt and Hiroko Yoda. Good Websites and Sources: Iga-ryu Ninja Museum site ; Wikipedia article on Ninjas Wikipedia ; on Ninjas ; Ninjas and Film ; Shaolin Society on Ninjas


History of Ninjas

Samurai-Ninja Drama
The origins of ninjas is unclear. It is believed that the ancient ninjas may have been yamabushi (“mountain priests”) who adapted the Sonshi, a Chinese martial arts manual, to their own purposes. There are references to ninja-like shonobi in the Asuka Period (592-710) who were used to infiltrate enemy territory and described as "experts in the field of information gathering” and "masters of stealth and disguise."

The heyday of the ninjas was between the 12th and 16th centuries, when there were many local wars and the ability to spy, infiltrate and assassinate was highly valued. Hired by warlords as assassins and secret agents, ninja were widely used in the Sengoku period (1467-1568) when Japan was engulfed in civil war

Ninjas have played important roles in Japanese history. Iga ninja helped Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616) escape safely from Osaka in the turmoil that preceded the beginning of the Edo period. Ieyasu showed his gratitude by giving the ninja leader, Hattri Hanzo, a residence in the Imperial Palace, in Edo. The Hanzimon gate at the current palace is named after him. Matsuo Basho, Japan's most renowned haiku master, may have served for a time amid his nomadic wanderings as a spy for the shogunate.

During the relative peace of Edo Period ninja found themselves out of work. To survive they began producing manuscripts explaining their skills, weapons and tools. They became the subjects of stories and nobles and this elevated them to the status of magical superheros, an images that persists to this day.

Ninja Stealth

null Ninjas were trained from an early age to walk and move quietly. They communicated with secret codes and used aliases instead of their real names. Before going on missions they avoided eating garlic and beans to reduce the chance of producing odors that might draw unwanted attention.

Ninjas were skilled at scaling castle walls and using well tunnels to pop up in unlikely places. Their ability to disappear is attributed to their use of trapdoors in floors and secret pivotal doors in walls. Their residences had hidden escape routes and movable floorboards where their weapons and swords were stashed.

Contrary to myth, ninja men did not dress in hooded black jumpsuits. Rather they wore conservative blue outfits like those worn by peasants that allowed them to blend into the crowd. When they traveled they often posed as Buddhist priests or candy salesmen. Women ninjas were rare and didn’t wear red costumes.

Ninja Training

Ninja training included instruction in esoteric Buddhism, Chinese yin and Yang philosophy, mountain asceticism, herbal medicine, psychology, astronomy, magic, pharmacology and fortunetelling. Some believe that the spiritual training by ninjas gave them the power to disappear, if you believe the films, in a puff of smoke.

Ninjas did a lot of physical training and tried to keep their body weight around 60 kilograms. They lifted 60-kilogram rice bags with one hand for strength, sprinted at great speeds backwards and sideways, and trained hard to develop skills in climbing, jumping, swimming, moving through difficult terrain. Finger strengthening exercises were done so they could hang from trees and walls for hours. They were forbidden from eating meat and ate unmilled brown rice to boost their concentration.

Among the 18 basic ninpo techniques are henso-jutsi (disguise), taijutsi (unarmed self-defense), shurikenjutsu (blade throwing). They also learned 18 martial arts skills. Among these are the use of the etsi (giant battle ax) and geki (two pronged spear).

Training took part is small family units. Explaining what it took to be a ninja, a ninja grandmaster Masaaki Hatsumi told the Daily Yomiuri, “Ninpo has forms, but don’t be bound by them. You cannot survive only with technique. Forget the techniques you have learned and listen to your senses. Move economically and use your space to the full...A hardy spirit and discipline are the most essential things you need to acquire through martial arts training.”

Ninja Technology

Among the weapons used by ninjas were disguised knives and swords, metal claws, spiked devises that pierced the feet of pursuing enemies, and 30 different kinds of deadly shuriken (throwing knives). Despite their reputation for stealth, ninjas were not shy about using noisy weapons. They also employed arrow-mounted-rockets, smoke pots, rifles and portable cannons that shot gravel and iron chips.

ninja stars

Star- and swastika-shaped shuriken were often tipped with poison. Ninjas using them aimed for the head. Shuriken are heavier than you think and throwing them is not easy as it appears in the movies. You are supposed to grip the lower thirds of the device and keep your arm straight and snap you wrist when you throw it.

Smoke was used in a number of ways by ninjas: as a signal the start of a battle or operation; as a diversion for disappearances and escapes. Ninjas also mixed smoke with poisons to make breathing difficult for their opponents. Their use of hidden traps was equally diabolical. A diagram from a ninja training manual shows a staircase that leads in the dark to a dead end, with a hidden pit whose floor is covered with spikes.

Among the other devices used by ninjas were special pipes that allowed them to listen to conversations in adjacent rooms, bamboo sticks used for scaling walls, sophisticated lock picks, foot-mounted floats used to traverse swamps, and grass rakes that could be used to scale walls or kill an opponent. When they were on the road ninjas subsisted off katayaki, dense, calorie-filled cookies. Some carried a compass-like magnet that always pointed south when placed on water, pistols disguised as short swords, and “portable” miniature cannons constructed to pass as vases.

Ninja tools

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except 1) 2) 3) Ninja Museum Iga 4) 5) Ninja Museum Ueno

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated July 2012

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