Note on the Old Man of the Mountain
In his voyage account from the 13th century, Marco Polo tells of “the old man of the mountain” (Book I: Ch. 21), or Ala’u-‘d-Din Muhammad, one of the last rulers of the Nizari Ismailis, a heretical offshoot of Shiite Islam in lands stretching from modern Afghanistan to Syria:
“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. 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, 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.”
In Polo’s highly dubious account, Ala’u-‘d-Din created this artificial wonderland to have power over the young male initiates to his military order. Claiming to be a prophet equal to Mahomet, and able to determine who would enter paradise, Ala’u-‘d-Din would have daring youths brought to his meagre castle, given opium, and transported by means of tunnels to his sound-stage seventh heaven, there to be given a supposed glimpse of paradise. Having thus been promised every form of delight in exchange for their obedience, the young men were enlisted into Ala’u-‘d-Din’s order of political killers, feared throughout the region. One version of the story holds the youth were regularly drugged with hashish and were originally known as “Hashshashin”, or “hashish users” giving the order its proper name Assassins.
The account is as questionable as everything else in Marco Polo’s journal and appeals to a certain fascination with the shadowy and cruel secret orders of the near east. William S. Burroughs, for instance, was mesmerized by the story and referred to it throughout his texts. More recently, a light bulb went on over my head when the Sufi anarchist writer Hakim Bey referred to Osama bin Laden as “the old man of the mountain”, while dismissing him as another power-mad thug. In the end, Ala’u-‘d-Din died in much the same way, besieged in his fortress after being surrounded for three years by the troops sent by Hülegü, the Mongol ruler of west Asian, in 1252.
Nevertheless, the assassins kept neighboring rulers in fear for years. Often, Hassan-i Sabbah, the founder of the order, is quoted as having said, “Nothing is true; everything is permitted,” although he most certainly did not, if he ever existed. It’s hard to say. The order’s strategy involved both false appearances and personal disappearance, banking on the power of the absent image in Islamic culture. In more universal terms, an unseen assailant is nearly always exaggerated in the imagination, as children who hear strange noises in the dark can attest. Tactics like the “one percent doctrine” are the fear responses of small children, or perhaps unwitting co-stars in the theatrical productions mounted by mad actors for stupidly loyal audiences who have been tricked into thinking the play ends in paradise.