Assassin’s Creed: Fact and Fiction
04 Nov, 2009
Secret Orders and organizations have always fascinated and stimulated imaginations throughout history. Military orders like the Order of the Hospitallers, Teutonic Knights, and the Knights Templar, along with fraternal societies such as the notable Freemasons and even the Catholic Church have been written about extensively. In some case, virtually little records about these groups survived the journey through time and their stories became myths. Sometimes these myths could be used to precipitate fear among society for political gain like when King Philip IV of France ordered the eradication of the Knights Templar by in the 13th century.
In the society of the twenty-first century, these myths continue to permeate and hypnotize pop culture through various mediums, mainly in literature and fiction such as The Da Vinci Code and The Lost Symbol and, of course, visual media such as movies and, in our case, video games. Assassin’s Creed, which takes place at the height of the Third Crusade in the 1190s, is a prime example of a hybrid between historical events and the myths surrounding the Order of the Assassins. In order to understand the contexts and reasons of the myths in the game, it’s better to understand a little of the historical context and origins of the Hashshashin and how they came into existence.
The word “Assassin” has become synonymous with “one who kills a person for fanatical or monetary reasons” as many in the Western world have come to understand it. However, the origins of the word is actually derived from the Arabic word “Hashshashin,” which has been speculated to have meant “one who used hashish.” Many scholars have debated the actual meaning of Hashshashin. Some have suggested that it was a derogatory term used to distinguish the radical sect known as the Nizari, which was an extreme group within Shi’ite Islam. Another likely definition offered in the ongoing debates, is the idea that the term means “follower of Hassan-i Sabbah,” who was the founder of the Nizari sect. Regardless of these differing translations of the term, the Hashshashin were one of the most feared zealots the Middle East from modern-day Iran to Egypt.
Being a minority within a minority, the Order was not able to organize along conventional military terms. Their Sunni counterparts and the Shi’ite Fatimids from whom they had split, was able to organize. As did their Christian rivals—the Templars and Hospitallers. As a result of their deficiency in numbers, the Hashshashin had to result to unconventional tactics—tactics that would establish the legend, which they would be known for. The methods, which military thinkers now call “asymmetric warfare,” allowed the Hashshashin to gain footholds throughout the Islamic world of the Middle East and carry out their quest for a new utopia of a state within a state—a concept that is arguably similar to that of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and Hezbollah and Lebanon. To accomplish these objectives, the Hashshashin relied on covertly converting civilians living in and around strategic points of interests. They would also rely on a network of sleeper commando units known as the Fedayeen to protect Nizari followers from persecution.
Their most notable tactic is political assassination with a hidden knife or a blade as their trusted weapon. They detested using poisons and bows as it increased the chances of the target’s survival. The order also used intimidation as a tactic to achieve its political objectives like leaving a dagger on a pillow next to a sleeping target as a warning that one was not safe anywhere. Another trait worth noting is the meticulous execution of their missions by deliberately avoiding collateral damage to innocent life, a feature that the developers at Ubisoft made sure to reiterate. However, in order to assert their ferocity, the Hashshashin carried out their killings in public, which players find themselves doing in the game.
After the end of the Crusades, the Hashshashin began to decline as an independent entity. The Mongol invasions of the 13th century saw the destruction and conquest of most of their strongholds, which forced the Order to join with the Mamelukes of Egypt and essentially do the bidding of the Sultan in exchange for their survival. However, their autonomy was destroyed.
Ubisoft’s fine tradition of emphasis on thorough research with regards to historically-based games is emulated in Assassin’s Creed through many of the game’s features. The aesthetics in relation to the environment and architecture of the time period is noteworthy. The cities of Damascus and Jerusalem’s old city are recreated from medieval maps along with many of their famous landmarks such as the Al-Aqsa mosque, the Dome of the Rock, Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, and the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. The Hashshashin stronghold of Masyaf is a loose interpretation of what the Masyaf of 1191 may have been. Most of what is known of the fortress is based on accounts of Crusaders who have supposedly encountered it on their expeditions. Saladin, who is mentioned in the game, but is never seen, laid siege to Masyaf in response to his attempted assassination. (Click for supplemental maps.)
The authenticity of the game in terms of equipment, clothing, and language spoken during the particular time period must be noted as well. The armor and uniforms of the differing factions within Assassin’s Creed are authentic from the emblems all the way to the helmets that are worn. The trademark white overcoat with the red cross of the Templars is easily distinguished from the lion standard of Richard the Lionheart. The Hashshashin method of combat also reflects the doctrine, which they espouse to. However, Altair’s free-running trait is purely for the wow-factor to add to the intensity of combat. Adding to the authenticity are the differing languages that are spoken by the different factions. Depending on the knights encountered in the different cities, players hear a variety of French, English, Arabic, and German spoken.
Lastly, is the historical content associated with the game. Although Assassin’s Creed is set in a historical time period, many of the events that occur are a mixture of fact and myth. There were several figures that were met with an assassin’s blade, who were not historically murdered by Hashshashin. The first of these characters was Garnier de Nablus, the Grand Master of the Hospitallers. He fought in the Third Crusade under Richard the Lionheart at the battle of Arsuf. Robert de Sable, Grand Master of the Knights Templar, did not meet the fate as represented in the game. He remained Grand Master until 1193. In the game, he is portrayed as a young man, which is a misrepresentation. Al-Mualim, the leader of the Hashshashin, is loosely based on “Old Man of the Mountain,” Rashid ad-Din Sinan. He died of old age between 1192 and 1194. Finally is William of Montferrat; the father of Conrad of Montferrat, who was actually killed by Hashshashin. There is some historical speculation that Richard contracted the Hashshashin to carry out the murder. William of Montferrat died of old age.
Despite these discrepancies, the characters mentioned in the game were all present during the time. Although many of the missions throughout the game were fictional, they represented what the Hashshashin were all about; high profile assassinations and striking fear. The general historical context in which the game takes place is real and accurate. Assassin’s Creed deserves praise for its effort in representing the world of the Hashshashin. Through the use of myth and history, Ubisoft was able to craft a great game and at the same time, stimulate interest in an almost forgotten sect, whose tactics somewhat resonate in the modern world.
What can be said about Assassin’s Creed II is another story.