by Michael Isenberg.
Readers of my novel, The Thread of Reason, frequently ask me about the history behind the various stories I recount in the book. One of the most intriguing is that of the Sheikh (or Old Man) of the Mountain’s Secret Garden. The story comes from Marco Polo:
Mention shall now be made of the old man of the mountain. The district in which his residence lay obtained the name of Mulehet, signifying in the language of the Saracens, the place of heretics, and his people that of Mulehetites…The following account of this chief, Marco Polo testifies to having heard from sundry persons.
His name was Aloadin, and his religion was that of Mahomet. In a beautiful valley enclosed between two lofty mountains, he had formed a luxurious garden, stored with every delicious fruit and every fragrant shrub that could be produced. Palaces of various sizes and forms were erected in different parts of the grounds, ornamented with works in gold, with paintings, and with furniture of rich silks. By means of small conduits contrived in these buildings, streams of wine, milk, honey, and some of pure water were seen to flow in every direction.
The inhabitants of these palaces were elegant and beautiful damsels, accomplished in the arts of singing, playing upon all sorts of musical instruments, dancing, and especially those of dalliance and amorous allurement. Clothed in rich dresses they were seen continually sporting and amusing themselves in the garden and pavilions, their female guardians being confined within doors and never suffered to appear.
The object which the chief had in view in forming a garden of this fascinating kind was this: that Mahomet having promised to those who should obey his will the enjoyments of Paradise, where every species of sensual gratification should be found, in the society of beautiful nymphs, he was desirous of its being understood by his followers that he also was a prophet and the compeer of Mahomet, and had the power of admitting to Paradise such as he should choose to favor.
In order that none without his license might find their way into this delicious valley, he caused a strong and inexpugnable castle to be erected at the opening of it, through which the entry was by a secret passage. At his court, likewise, this chief entertained a number of youths, from the age of twelve to twenty years, selected from the inhabitants of the surrounding mountains, who showed a disposition for martial exercises, and appeared to possess the quality of daring courage. To them he was in the daily practice of discoursing on the subject of the paradise announced by the prophet, and of his own power of granting admission. And at certain times he caused opium to be administered to ten or a dozen of the youths; and when half dead with sleep he had them conveyed to the several apartments of the palaces in the garden.
Upon awakening from the state of stupor, their senses were struck with all the delightful objects that have been described, and each perceived himself surrounded by lovely damsels, singing, playing, and attracting his regards by the most fascinating caresses, serving him also with delicate foods and exquisite wines; until intoxicated with excess of enjoyment, amidst actual rivulets of milk and wine, he believed himself assuredly in Paradise, and felt an unwillingness to relinquish its delights.
When four or five days had thus passed, they were thrown once more into a drugged state, and carried out of the garden. Upon their being introduced to his presence, and questioned by him as to where they had been, their answer was, “In Paradise, through the favor of your highness”: and then before the whole court, who listened to them with eager curiosity and astonishment, they gave a circumstantial account of the scenes to which they had been witnesses.
The chief thereupon addressing them, said: “We have the assurances of our prophet that he who would defend his lord shall inherit Paradise, and if you show yourself devoted to the obedience of my orders, that happy lot awaits you.” Animated to enthusiasm by words of this nature, all deemed themselves happy to receive the commands of their master, and were forward to die in his service.
The consequences of this system was, when any of the neighboring princes, or others, gave offense to this chief, they were put to death by these his disciplined assassins: none of whom felt terror at the risk of losing their own lives, which they held in little estimation, provided they could execute their master’s will. On this account his tyranny became the subject of dread in all the surrounding countries.*
In other versions of the story, the recruits were given not opium, but rather hashish. From this the cult acquired its name, the Hashasheen, and the English language acquired a word: Assassin.
It’s a fascinating story. One would think that the damsel’s arts of “dalliance and amorous allurement” would indeed make for some very motivated killers, and I'm rather partial to the bit about rivers of wine. And yet, there is reason to think that it is nothing more than that: a story.
Marco Polo is not the most reliable of sources, and he did not travel through the area until years after the Assassin Cult and its castles had been destroyed. And even though they had operated for almost 170 years prior to that, I’m not aware of any references to the secret garden before Polo’s. Not to mention that it would take hundreds of people to build and maintain such a garden, which would make it almost impossible to keep it a secret. It would be widely known that it wasn't the real Paradise.
There are also other possible explanations for the origin of the term Hashasheen that don’t involve sex and drugs. The first Sheikh of the Mountain was named Hasan, and the cult may have taken its name from him.
But as I point out in the Historical Note to my novel,
In his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Winston Churchill told one of the many legends of Rosamunde, mistress to Henry Plantagenet. He followed it up with a disclaimer: tedious researchers had proven the darn thing wasn’t true. Churchill saw no reason to let that get in the way of a good story; he included it in his book anyway. I feel the same about the story of…the secret Garden of the Assassins. [It’s] just too famous—and too good—to leave out. I hope historians will approve of, or at least forgive, my solutions to the very real difficulties raised by the tedious researchers.
|Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com|
*- The Travels of Marco Polo, New York: Liveright Publishing Corp. (1926, 1953), M. Komroff, tr.