BY BEN THOMAS
The medieval Middle East lived in terror of the Order of Assassins—remembered in legend as the Hashshāshīn: “The Hash-Smokers.” These expert killers struck with near-supernatural stealth, stabbing enemies in dark alleys, in their own palaces—even in crowded markets in broad daylight.
No one, not even the most powerful caliph, sultan, or vizier, was safe from an Assassin’s blade. They were loathed and feared as the ISIS of their day: terrorists who answered to no organized government, playing by their own murderous rules. In the end, it took an army of Mongol warriors to take them down—but that’s a story for another day.
Perhaps the strangest part of this tale, however, is the persistent rumor about the Assassins’ initiation ritual: a bacchanalian Garden of Delights where novices—blazed out of their mind on potent hashish—spent the night with beautiful women in bejewelled palaces… then awoke ready to carry out the Order’s grim bidding.
Historians, poets, and travelers have fallen in love with these cannabis-centric tales of the Assassins, which persist even today.
But who were the Assassins, really? Did wild weed orgies fuel their murderous frenzy, as their enemies claimed—or were their motives more calculated? Let’s examine the facts, and discover the truth about this secretive sect.
Any supervillain would envy the Assassins’ main headquarters. Alamūt (“Eagle’s Nest”) Castle crowned the peak of a steep and craggy mountain in western Iran. This stronghold was unapproachable, except by ascent through a perilous maze of steep switchbacks and rock faces. The route to the top was a well-guarded secret, entrusted only to a select few.
Within their sanctum of stone, Assassins trained in the arts of concealment, espionage, and close-quarters combat—and, allegedly, getting cosmically high on their secret stash of hash (more on that in a minute). Refusing to use “cowardly” weapons like poisons, they closed in on their targets in the midst of bustling crowds—then struck at the moment it was least expected.
Assassins trained in the arts of concealment, espionage, and close-quarters combat—and, allegedly, getting cosmically high on their secret stash of hash.
What fueled the Assassins’ campaign of murderous terror? It all began with one man, Hassan-i Sabbah. Hassan believed that all existing Islamic caliphates had to be replaced by a new, pure Islamic State spanning Persia and Syria.
Supported by an army of followers, whom he called Asāsiyyūn (“people who are faithful to the foundation [of Islam]”), he set about conquering this new state. And incredibly, the Assassins actually managed to achieve this objective within Hassan’s own lifetime. Within just a few decades they conquered a whole string of castles throughout the Middle East, and struck at enemies everywhere from Egypt to Iran.
Given the Assassins’ reputation for ruthless violence, it’s understandable that Alamūt Castle attracted its share of lurid folklore. Hassan’s enemies described the citadel as a hive of hateful fanaticism—while local gossips told travelers, such as Marco Polo, that the term “Assassin” had nothing to do with faithfulness, but was instead derived from the Arabic Hashshāshīn: “hashish-smoker,” hinting at local gossip that the Order’s followers were fueled by cannabis.
Contrary to those rumors, however, you might be surprised to learn that Assassins lived less like a stoner collective, and more like medieval monks. They worked in the crop fields on the surrounding hills, harvesting grain and fruit for storage in the castle’s cellars. And like Muslims of all nations, they would have answered the adhan (call to prayer) five times every day, prostrating themselves in solemn devotion on mats facing toward Mecca.
As for Hassan-i Sabbah himself, he spent long hours writing in his native Persian, which he intended to replace Arabic as his new state’s common language. A lifelong lover of astronomy and literature, he also collected scientific instruments and rare books, creating a laboratory that attracted scholars from across the Islamic world—making his fortress even more like a supervillain’s lair.
What motivated these extremists to leap into the jaws of certain death? Was their fearlessness really fueled by a secret weed paradise?
Among this community, only one select group were designated to carry out political killings. These were the Fedayeen (“Those Who Sacrifice Themselves”)—an elite inner circle of warriors, revered for their solemn vow to die as martyrs for the cause.
The Fedayeen were lethal chameleons, changing their forms for each new mission. One team, disguised as Christian monks, approached the King of Jerusalem on his way home from dinner, distracting him with a letter from the church—then ran a blade through his heart. Another Assassin, disguised as a Muslim beggar, approached the ruler of Mosul asking for spare change—then grabbed the ruler’s belt and stomach-shanked him to death.
Yet despite their mastery of illusion, very few Fedayeen survived their missions. In fact, many were caught (literally) red-handed at the scene of the crime, and publicly executed. This begs the question, what motivated these extremists to leap into the jaws of certain death? Was their fearlessness really fueled by a secret weed paradise?
For later Europeans, the answer was obvious: the Assassins must’ve been on drugs. While Arab historians connected the Assassins with hashish as early as the 13th century, it was the Italian traveler Marco Polo who wrote down the legend in its most famous form.
According to Polo’s account, the Assassins had created a beautiful garden, filled with fruit trees and pavilions and palaces, all covered with glittering gems and gold; and rivers of sweet drinks. For their initiation ritual, novices would gulp down a goblet of “a certain potion”—then enter this garden, where beautiful maidens played instruments and danced for them. There in this garden, high out of their minds, the initiates would believe they were truly in heaven:
[The Old Man] had caused a certain valley between two mountains to be enclosed, and had turned it into a garden, the largest and most beautiful that ever was seen, filled with every variety of fruit. In it were erected pavilions and palaces the most elegant that can be imagined, all covered with gilding and exquisite painting.
And there were runnels too, flowing freely with wine and milk and honey and water; and numbers of ladies and of the most beautiful damsels in the world, who could play on all manner of instruments, and sung most sweetly, and danced in a manner that it was charming to behold.
For the Old Man desired to make his people believe that this was actually Paradise… Then he would introduce them into his garden, some four, or six, or ten at a time, having first made them drink a certain potion which cast them into a deep sleep, and then causing them to be lifted and carried in. So when they awoke, they found themselves in the Garden.
According to Polo, this elaborate ruse gave novice Assassins a first-person glimpse of Heaven—a destination for which, having seen it with their own eyes, they’d gladly sacrifice themselves.
Oddly enough, though, Polo’s tale not makes no mention of hashish, referring only to “a certain potion” that put the initiates to sleep. It wasn’t until the 1800s that writers like Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall and Silvestre de Sacy popularized the idea of weed-fueled Fedayeen. By that time, hashish had developed its own popularity in Western Europe, where poets like Charles Baudelaire enshrined the Assassins as hash-smoking dreamers in popular imagination.
Based on what we know of the stern, disciplined devotion of Hassan’s followers, a lavishly expensive garden smoke sesh doesn’t seem all that likely. What’s more, modern archaeologists have found no trace of a fountained paradise at Alamūt. It’s also eyebrow-raising that, while the Assassins’ enemies did often mock them as “hashish-users,” they never mentioned a cannabis-centric initiation ritual—which is clearly the kind of thing the Assassins’ enemies would’ve wanted to call them out on.
The real origin of this story, then, may be forever lost in the mists of the past. But in one way, the idea may have contained a tiny grain of truth: the Fedayeen did believe martyrdom would send them straight to Paradise, where they’d be greeted with seventy-two virgins to enjoy for all eternity.
Most of us today, on the other hand, would probably prefer to just smoke some hash in the garden, and leave it at that.
Ben Thomas is a journalist and novelist who's lived in 40+ countries. He specializes in telling stories from the frontiers of science, history, culture, and the cosmos—and the points where all these fields intersect. Find him on Twitter at @writingben.