Assassins of Alamut — Streams of Wine, Milk, and Honey

Artistic rendering of Hassan-i Sabbah available on WikiCommons
Artistic rendering of Hassan-i Sabbah

“Nothing is true, everything is permitted.”

So begins the film version of William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, with the quote attributed to Hassan-i Sabbah.

In the late 11th century, Hassan led a group known as the Assassins, an order of Nizari Ismailis (a branch of Shia Islam), from his network of mountain fortresses. Hassan and the Assassins can lay claim to a significant influence among 20th-century countercultural figures, including Burroughs and Robert Anton Wilson, whether because of mysticism, neurological studies, the allure of secrecy, knowledge of drugs, or any combination of those and other resumé builders. But for me, the most appealing aspect of the Assassins begins with the land in which they surrounded themselves.

Arkon Daraul devotes the first two chapters of A History of Secret Societies to Hassan and the Assassins. He explains Hassan’s plan to lure potential inductees into the order — to promise paradise to them by demonstrating it on earth — “in the form of an artificial paradise, where houris played and fountains gushed sweet-scented waters, where every sensual wish was granted amid beautiful flowers and gilded pavilions.” Daraul also quotes Marco Polo, who supposedly passed through the most prominent of Assassin castles, Alamut, some years after Hassan would have died, in 1271:

“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 procured. […] By means of small conduits contained in these buildings, streams of wine, milk, honey and some of pure water were seen to flow in every direction.”

Hassan apparently employed a variety of drugs (in combination with hired women and the scenery itself) to mimic paradise for potential inductees. But personally, I find the image of Alamut intoxicating enough! Like a “happy place” one can go to while meditating or having one’s blood pressure taken.

Here I should address the element of secrecy, as mentioned above. In “The Temporary Autonomous Zone,” Hakim Bey writes that, “The medieval Assassins founded a ‘State’ which consisted of a network of remote mountain valleys and castles, separated by thousands of miles, strategically invulnerable to invasion, connected by the information flow of secret agents, at war with all governments, and devoted only to knowledge.” To put that secrecy into context, consider these words of Guy Debord and Gil J. Wolman, in “A User’s Guide to Détournement”:

“Gestures and words can be given other meanings, and have been throughout history for various practical reasons. The secret societies of ancient China made use of quite subtle recognition signals encompassing the greater part of social behavior (the manner of arranging cups; of drinking; quotations of poems interrupted at agreed-on points). The need for a secret language, for passwords, is inseparable from a tendency toward play. Ultimately, any sign or word is susceptible to being converted into something else, even into its opposite.”

While I also enjoy the romantic aspect of secret signals and passwords, and especially support their use toward “play,” the key here lies within their ability to change meaning. For a little elaboration on the connection to the Assassins, here’s one final quote, from the director of Naked Lunch, David Cronenberg, regarding Hassan’s “Nothing is true, everything is permitted”:

“It’s saying: Because death is inevitable, we are free to invent our own reality. We are part of a culture, we are part of an ethical and moral system, but all we have to do is take one step outside it and we see that none of that is absolute. Nothing is true. It’s not an absolute. It’s only a human construct, very definitely able to change and susceptible to change and rethinking. And you can then be free.”

Now, the Assassins would not necessarily be considered pillars of any community; their methods of persuasion, for one thing, fall quite simply under the category of mind control. They also clearly orient their practices toward one gender at the expense of another. And that’s not to mention their stake in the origins of the word “assassinate.”

But my proposal is to disregard the seedier side of their history — consign it to the dustbins (because why not?) — and to place the element of secrecy in the service of conversion to something else, as Debord and Wolman put it. Not necessarily to bypass ethical and moral systems, but more that, as Cronenberg indicates, “we are free to invent our own reality.”

By extension, not too many steps exist between inventing our own reality and the Alamut castle that so captivated my imagination (that supposedly existed in reality), that of a “luxurious garden,” in a valley “between two lofty mountains,” where paradise was created “amid beautiful flowers and gilded pavilions.” Streams of wine, milk, and honey may be a stretch, but it doesn’t hurt to dream. Quite the contrary, in fact; applied to the world around us, perhaps there are no limits to inventing our own reality. And furthermore, there may be a considerable need to do so.

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About the Author

I like to write, make films, play and watch soccer, meditate, read, and wander. I also enjoy psychogeography, Filipino cinema, craft beer, and strawberry shortcake. You can find me on Twitter and Google +.
  • Aisha Abdel

    Excellent article! In Stanley Lane-Poole’s historical (and exciting) account of “Saladin and the fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem,” there is an account of an Assassin attempt on the life of Salah al Din (Saladin), the reigning Muslim Sultan leading the war against the Crusaders that you might find interesting. I’m covering this book on my blog, one chapter per post.

    Here’s an historical account of the Assassins:
    https://aishasoasis.wordpress.com/2014/04/05/saladin-and-the-crusades-from-lane-poole-part-iii-chapter-x/ (scroll to Page 148)