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God's Assassins

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The Medieval Roots of Terrorism (Devils Histories) 

By Gavin Baddeley and Paul Woods
Review by Thomas McGrath

My sixteen year old brother recently attained the dubious distinction of being the first member of my family (for the last three generations, at least) to be booted out of secondary school. Good on him! Besides, he's bigger fish to fry, namely stalking a meticulously recreated medieval Middle East on the bizarre Assassin's Creed Xbox series, knifing Templars in the name of Hasan Sabbah's notorious sect. We certainly live in interesting times.

Prior to reading Gavin Baddeley and Paul Woods' excellent overview, the latest in their Devil's Histories series, God's Assassins: The Medieval Roots of Terrorism (we'll have to forgive that achingly 'timely' subheading), almost everything I knew about Sabbah and his spiritual progeny I had gleaned courtesy of those, ahem, famously objective historians, the Bills Burroughs and Cooper, and while they systematically whetted my appetite for more information - the former Bill presenting the Assassins as precocious psychedelic beatniks, the latter as the missing link between the Egyptian and Western Illuminati - I was under no illusions that I had been satisfactorily edified on the topic; in no mood for any further bamboozlement, I also didn't fancy seeing the Assassins stripped of their intriguing allure by historians innately hostile to the extraordinary.

Refreshingly, Baddeley and Woods do neither. Possessing an eye and appetite for the spectacular, they are also very far from the 'anything goes' charlatans that dominate occult history. If a fact is dubious, they say so, loudly and proudly, but a delectable yarn (no matter how suspect) has far more chance of inclusion in God's Assassins than a dependable yawn, and so, while the reader never feels led up a garden path, the writers happily make use of fact and myth, the very best of each, cramming the work with vivid and memorable details.

Around the turn of the first millennium AD, Ismaili schismatic Hasan Sabbah mounted a revolution in the Middle East, seizing mountainous strongholds and conducting his war with an unusually large degree of guile and a small number of troops, the latter dedicated assassins whose disdain for their own mortality arguably made a single one as lethal as a thousand standard soldiers.

That skeleton is, as far as such a thing goes, historical fact, though it is fact fantastical enough to have thrown up a plethora of contemporaneous and retrospective mythologizing and speculation, such as the infamous 'foretaste' of paradise Sabbah was alleged to have arranged for his initiates, a virtual afterlife in a sequestered valley, replete with nymphs and rivers of milk and honey (making it sound like a cross between the Playboy Mansion and Willy Wonka's workplace), to which his drugged young neophytes would be surreptiously transported, waking up to believe themselves as actually in another world, one they were later assured could be their permanent habitué if they died executing Sabbah's murderous instructions.

Another famous legend regarded the way Sabbah would impress or intimidate visiting dignitaries, by ordering his sentinels, with a couple of casual codified gestures, to hurl themselves off the ramparts of his Alamut stronghold in mere demonstration of their preternatural loyalty.

These two myths, or legends (probably the most famous regarding the Assassins), adequately illustrate the unusual terrain the subject presents to historians. On the one hand, it is easy to see how the one seems to substantiate the other: Sabbah's concocted paradise helping us comprehend the nihilistic bravado of those lemming sentinels. On the other, however, the two could be seen as entwined to the point that, if the sources we have to attest either can be properly disputed (as they have been, relatively effectively, by numerous historians), it is a demonstration of how myth fertilises myth, proliferating to such an extent that an entirely new reality is steadily draped over historical fact, through which it is impossible to discern the original subject.

And yet, as God's Assassins emphasises, there is a limit to how much we can dismiss, as much as accept: whether or not they hurled themselves off ramparts in the name of public relations, many of Sabbah's followers were patently happy to die for the cause (once you'd knifed a Shah, for example, escape was not a realistic option), and did anticipate a posthumous reward for their self-sacrifice, just as suicide bombers do today. If Sabbah needed to rely on props and prostitutes to inspire devotion, then it surely made him a manipulator of the second rank (heretical insinuation!), as we have no record of the same crude machinations being required by the like Islamists of recent times: the suicide bomber's susceptibility, or imagination, has been quite enough.

The point, however, is that, regardless of the truth of these famous stories, their essence is really no more fantastical than the bare facts. God's Assassins has this very instinct for the mundane elements of a myth, and the miraculous elements in a fact. Striking a similar balance, its authors always demand that reality to be as interesting as possible - while refusing to fudge the data.

Anyway, the history of the Assassins throws up numerous barely believable, substantiated moments. One such was the third Grand Master's (Hasan Sabbah II) declaration of the so-called 'Resurrection', for the announcement of which he summoned Assassin notables from across the Islamic world to the Alamut fortress, sat them all facing away from Mecca, declared the end of Sharia, and removed the silk cloths covering the tables to reveal that they were heaving with wine and pork. During Ramadan. Such incidents are vividly depicted in Baddeley and Woods' prose, which is colloquial without being trite, and often very insightful (heading straight for the proverbial jugular).

The authors' punctuate their selection of Assassin lore, both alleged and established, with digressions into a wide variety of topics, ranging from the Templars to Scientology, Charles Manson to the CIA, and although the cameos do feel increasingly predictable (was that L Ron Hubbard skulking about just left of stage...), Baddeley and Woods' ability to discern thematic connections, rather than the purportedly actual ones favoured in the extravagant speculations of most occult historians, consistently saves God's Assassins from collapsing into cliché.

For those of us bored of hokum, but still drawn to the dark and extraordinary hinterlands of history, God's Assassins (and the Devil's Histories more generally) comes strongly recommended.

God's Assassins:
The Medieval Roots of Terrorism (Devils Histories)
By Gavin Baddeley and Paul Woods
256 pages
Ian Allan Publishing, 2009
ISBN 9780711034099

Ian Allan Publishing

gods assassins  , gavin baddeley  , paul woods  , thomas mcgrath  , illuminati  , cia  , charles manson  ,
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