The Assassins, who are a people dependent on Phoenicia, are considered by the Mohometans to be sovereignly devout and pure in morals. They hold that the surest way to merit paradise is to kill someone of an opposing religion. They therefore show contempt for all personal danger and are often to be found singly or in pairs, carrying out such profitable executions at the cost of their certain death, appearing before an enemy in the midst of his troops to ‘assassinate’ him – (it is from them that we have borrowed that word). – Montaigne, On virtue
Twenty years ago today, on the morning of September 11, 2001, as New York’s shining twin peaks died, I thought of the Old Man of the Mountain. I’ve been thinking of him ever since.
I’d first crossed paths with the Old Man years ago while reading English history—he appears as a minor character in Richard the Lion-Heart’s misadventures as a Christian crusader. Minor he may have been, but long after I’d forgotten the messy details of the Crusades, I had reason to remember the Old Man. He was the first lord of terror, the progenitor of Osama bin Laden.
And when bin Laden was taken and killed, I read avidly the descriptions of that stunning raid, and thought again of the Old Man of the Mountain. The form of Islamic terrorism for which Osama bin Laden was the temporal cynosure emerged almost a thousand years ago, in a place oddly similar to the terrains where Osama lived and died. Here is the story:
In the year 1090, a man possessed by a notion of god climbed into the harsh mountains of Persia. It’s a traditional footpath, this route to epiphany. Man goes alone into a desert, up a mountain, into a cave. Finds absolute truth, returns to humanity with the light of heaven in his eyes, preaches.
But this particular man, Hasan-i Sabbah, did not return to earth as a prophet. By twisting his holy book, Hasan had developed a complex of fundamentalist beliefs with one stark point: follow me or be my enemy. Promoting “truth” was peripheral to his agenda. Nor was he alone. Banding with him to seize a rocky fortress called Alamut (in a thousand-year irony, Alamut means “Eagle’s Nest,” also the name of Hitler’s mountain retreat) were acolytes of his secretive cult.
It was Hasan’s successor, the Sheikh al Jabal, who became known as the Old Man of the Mountain—an epithet whispered with a shudder.
The Old Man’s sect was structured in seven concentric circles. It’s surprising to realize that the circle which made this obscure sect more than a footnote to theological history was one of the outer ones, remote from the center of power. It consisted of young men, ignorant boys, really. They were called the Devotees.
The Old Man had a great mission planned for his Devotees, and initiated them with an appropriately rich reward—paid, of necessity, in advance. Within that hard citadel, Hasan had somehow created a fabulous garden where wine was poured, music played and beautiful women lolled.
Each Devotee was brought into the garden and encouraged to abandon himself to its sensual pleasures. The women, the boy was told, were a mere sketch of the seventy glorious houris he would have as wives in heaven.
Imagine this adolescent, seduced and hypnotized by a blazing, god-like man and the goodies he dished out. Yet the Old Man, the magus, did not entirely trust his gifts and charisma to win these boys utterly. To offer his Devotees a full appreciation of paradise, the Old Man pumped up the boozy, erotic haze by getting them stoned on hashish.
Know that the gardens of paradise are waiting for you in all their beauty and the women of paradise are waiting, calling out, ‘Come hither, friend of God.’
Each boy–high not on the drug but on the enhanced pictures the drug had drawn for him–was then handed a sharpened dagger and sent down from the mountain to kill the Old Man’s enemies, and to die as martyrs.
Purify your heart and clean it from all earthly matters. The time of fun and waste has gone. You should feel complete tranquillity because the time between you and your marriage in heaven is very short.
The Arabic word “hashish” is the root of the word “assassin.” The Devotees, perhaps history’s first organized group of assassins, insinuated themselves individually into communities and even households of the Old Man’s enemies. Cloaked as servants or soldiers, they would live unsuspected for months or even years. Sleepers, they were sleepers.
Until one chosen day, when they would intone the prayer they had been given.
There is no God but God…We are of God, and to God we return.
And they would follow a command.
Check your weapon before you leave. You must make your knife sharp and you must not discomfort your animal during the slaughter.
Thus prepared for heaven, they’d approach the unsuspecting enemy.
Clench your teeth…strike like champions who do not want to go back to this world…Shout ‘Allahu Akbar,’ because this strikes fear in the hearts of the nonbelievers.
And oh did it. For at least two hundred years, the Ismaili Shiites of Alamut assassinated viziers and princes, threatened imams and even attempted the life of the mighty Saladin. At a period when the culture of Islam was producing substantial discoveries in science and mathematics, the Old Man had discovered that by sending suicidal killers into the bosom of dynasties and crusader camps he could effectively terrify his immediate world.
That was the Old Man of the Mountain. Although some of the filigree may be folklore, the essence is history.
The quotes I used, however, are taken from the four-page document recovered by the FBI out of the possessions of the contemporary Devotees who, on September 11, 2001, destroyed the World Trade Center and killed thousands.
On September 11, I stood at my dentist’s huge window on 40th Street and watched the slashed North Tower burning, saw the ball of fire that erupted when the second plane drove into the South Tower.
Afterward, I walked all the way downtown to the law office where I worked. Thousands of people coated in white ash, carrying briefcases and wearing suits, were marching silently, grimly north, in the opposite direction.
My route down the far west of Manhattan gave me a full open view of the Twin Towers. What was I seeing, though? Intensely beautiful, intensely blue skies, thick clouds rising only from the World Trade Center site. How could I not have seen that the towers had fallen? Was the smoke screening the empty space? Or was it my psyche, not yet ready to absorb the reality?
I didn’t understand that the towers were gone until I reached the office, on Hudson Street and Franklin, seven blocks north of what had been the World Trade Center. A few people who had gotten in early were in the conference room, the TV tuned to the only station that had decided, after the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, to keep a back-up antenna on the Empire State Building. All the other stations had transmitted, lived and died from the top of the Twin Towers.
I wandered to our offices south windows and peered left, where the Towers had always been. Nothingness, that nothing-to-see-ness.
I cried only once. Watching TV obsessively one night, I saw a middle-aged, retired steelworker, still muscular, fitted out with his hardhat and his tools, down at the site. He and his union compatriots had come, he said, because they were the local who had constructed the towers twenty-five years before. On camera, he choked up a little as he told the reporter, We built this and we’re the ones who should take it down.
For weeks after the towers fell, we New Yorkers who lived, who worked in southern Manhattan, from the Village to Battery Park, existed in a genteel mobile ghetto. Police barricades manned by courteous, wary cops in unfamiliar uniforms stretched from river to river, at first across 14th Street, then down at Canal.
The whitish dust covered the streets for weeks.
Because we needed to show picture IDs and other proof at the border to get into work or out to home, once I got back into our office, I typed up letters on our letterhead, handed them out like the exit passes in Casablanca.
One of the courts in which my law firm practiced, New York State’s Court of Claims, had disappeared, along with its home, World Trade Center building 5, or 6 or whichever. Weeks and weeks later, after the Court personnel had managed to relocate, a clerk called us and asked–it was wrenching–if we could make copies of all the documents in our Court of Claims cases and send them over. None of their records had survived.
Every few days, though, the barricades moved south. On the day in October when lower Broadway was liberated, I walked downtown to witness what the latest Old Man had done to my city. A beautiful day and I was struck, first, by the bewildering amount of light: without that massive urban range to catch the sun, the dramatic shadowed valleys of lower Manhattan had collapsed into a painfully open, sunshot plain, the reverse of a black hole.
Away from the theatricalized images on the TV screen, the destruction was horrible. More violent a landscape than ancient Alamut, or today’s Pakistan, or Yemen, or wherever it is we’re fighting that “war against terrorism,” the war that never was and never should have been.
Our own modest, middle-class pleasure garden—that sprawling subterranean promenade beneath the Twin Towers, with Sbarro’s pizza and ATMs and newsstands and the Gap and mass transit—was buried beneath a treacherous crag of cement, tortured steel, glass into dust.
I heard that one passageway, though, remained oddly intact. As it happened, it was the one I last traversed at the WTC two weeks earlier. I barely noticed the bath-and-body shop but did glance at the windows of Victoria’s Secret, at the mannequins in brightly colored push-up bras and thongs.
I imagined them standing there still, coated in ash. They were resin houris, the brides of drugged-out ghosts, in the Old Man of the Mountain’s psychotic vision of paradise.