[Review] The Ismaili Assassins: A History of Medieval Murder by James Waterson

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The Ismaili Assassins were an underground group of political killers who were ready to kill Christians and Muslims alike with complete disregard for their own lives. These devoted murderers were under the powerful control of a grand master who used assassination as part of a grand strategic vision that embraced Egypt, the Levant and Persia and even reached the court of the Mongol Khans in far away Qaraqorum.The Assassins were meticulous in their killing. They often slayed their victims in public, thereby cultivating their terrifying reputation. They assumed disguises and their weapon of choice was a dagger. The dagger was blessed by the grand master and killing with it was a holy and sanctified act – poison or other methods of murder were forbidden to the followers of the sect.Surviving a mission was considered a deep dishonour and mothers rejoiced when they heard that their Assassin sons had died having completed their deadly acts.Their formidable reputation spread far and wide. In 1253, the Mongol chiefs were so fearful of them that they massacred and enslaved the Assassins’ women and children in an attempt to liquidate the sect. The English monarch, Edward I, was nearly dispatched by their blades and Richard the Lionheart’s reputation was sullied by his association with the Assassins’ murder of Conrad of Montferrat. The Ismaili Assassins explores the origins, actions and legacy of this notorious sect. Enriched with eyewitness accounts from Islamic and Western sources, this important book unlocks the history of the Crusades and the early Islamic period, giving the reader entry into a historical epoch that is thrilling and pertinent.

Anyone who knows me knows that I adore the Assassins Creed game franchise – the fictional stories of how the Assassins fought against the Templars gripped me from the very first game – set during the crusades, you play as Altair ibn l’Ahad and fight against the Templar menace, whilst in the modern day you are Desmond Miles, a man forced to relive his ancestors memories. Suffice to say this sparked an interest in the real history behind the assassin sect, so when the fantastic people at Pen and Sword/Frontline books offered to send me a review copy of this book, I jumped at the chance. It is only the second book I have read on the history of the Assassins and let me tell you, it’s made me hungry for more.

The first thing that struck me about this book was Waterson’s simple prose – something that is very much needed with such a heavy topic. Waterson weaves the tale of the assassins right from their very beginnings seamlessly, and it makes it an absolute joy to read. I was also very pleased to see footnotes within this work. These days, many popular history books have little in the way of citations so this was a really pleasing thing to see. With such a subject, one needs to be able to see where quotations from both primary and secondary sources have come from.

Waterson covers a huge expanse of time in his biography of the secretive sect of killers, starting with the origins of Islam and the controversy around who was to succeed Muhammad (pbuh) after his death. We see the rise of the assassins then and read about their suicidal acts – their usual method was to get up close and personal with a dagger, and if they were to die in the attempt then so much the better. They believed it would bring honour upon them and their brothers. And as one reads these tales of brutal assassinations, one can’t help but compare them to the awful modern day suicide bombers in the middle east – one wonders (although the author does seem somewhat loath to say such a thing) if the actions of the Ismaili assassins serve as a blueprint for such modern day horrors.

It must be noted that this book covers centuries of history in not a huge amount of pages and therefore serves as more of an introduction to an incredibly vast and complicated subject. However the author does a fantastic job of explaining the complex history of this mysterious sect of people and bringing their world to the fore. I honestly could not put this book down and it really has made me hungry for more information on these mysterious, violent people and the mindset behind what they did.

A huge thank you to Pen & Sword/Frontline books for providing me with a review copy of this book. The Ismaili Assassins can be found on Amazon and in all good book stores.

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