Late in the eleventh century, Hassan ben Sabbah, forced from his studies in Cairo, returned to his home in Persia.
He then acquired a mountain fortress in the southern part of the country, and made it the seat of a new religious organization. Though the principles were mainly those of one of the leading sects of Mohammedanism, he determined that the head of the organization itself should be an absolute ruler.
During the two centuries in which it flourished, the new sect wielded great power, not only throughout Persia, but also in all of Asia Minor, because of the terror it inspired. The hereditary title of its chieftain was Sheik-al-Jebal, known among the European Crusaders as “the Old Man of the Mountains,” a name that caused the bravest among them to tremble.
The lowest order and the most numerous of its members was a body of young men known as the Fedahvis, “the Devoted Ones.”
The most absolute obedience was required of them, even, if ordered, to embrace death without question or hesitation. And it was this group that caused the terror in which the sect was held, for it was the duty of its members to kill any person whom the chieftain might designate.
That person would be killed. If the first youth were slain in the attempt, another, or another, or another would fulfil the order. The score of murder in Persia, Syria, and Arabia was high during those centuries.
But before these young men were sent out on their tasks, they were induced to partake liberally of hashish. This is the Oriental equivalent of marihuana, but is more powerful. The young votaries, under the stupefying influence and ecstatic effect of this drug, were not only utterly fearless, but eager for the bliss of Paradise.
In the Arabic language, they were hashashin, or, “eaters of hashish.” Travelers from Europe understood the word to be assassin.