The Medieval Sect That Inspired the Video Game ‘Assassin’s Creed’

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In 1295, merchant-explorer Marco Polo returned to Venice after more than two decades of traveling across Asia. He detailed what he’d seen in The Travels of Marco Polo, describing, among other lurid tales, a sect of Muslims known to medieval Europeans as the Assassins. Their leader, he claimed, was an “old man of the mountain” who enticed youths into his service with copious amounts of hashish and gardens adorned with beautiful damsels. Told that they had just experienced the paradise that awaited them in the afterlife if they followed his orders, the young men pledged to defend their leader at any cost.

“All deemed themselves happy to receive the commands of their master and were forward to die in his service,” Polo wrote. “The consequence of this system was that when any of the neighboring princes, or others, gave umbrage to this chief, they were put to death by these, his disciplined assassins.”

Polo’s account seduced the imaginations of European Orientalists of later centuries, who took turns adding their own embellishments. Accounts from the medieval Muslim world are less fanciful but convey a sharp and explicitly hostile attitude toward the Nizaris, the Shiite Muslim denomination on which Polo based his tale. In Ibn al-Athir’s 13th-century chronicle, the Muslim historian described the group as an “affliction” whose members not only murdered their opponents but also attacked their allies at will. The men he referred to as Batini—esoterics, roughly—were outcasts due to their apparently shameful methods, and the fact that their very existence was rooted in deep schisms that cut through the Muslim community.

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