Old Man in the Mountain (The Travels of Marco Polo)  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Old Man of the Mountain (disambiguation)

"Old Man in the Mountain" is a tale by Marco Polo from The Travels of Marco Polo. The old man is thought to refer to Hassan-i Sabbah, Rashid ad-Din Sinan and subsequent leaders of the Assassins.


Concerning the Old Man of the Mountain[1]

translated by Henry Yule

Mulehet is a country in which the Old Man of the Mountain dwelt in former days; and the name means "Place of the Aram." I will tell you his whole history as related by Messer Marco Polo, who heard it from several natives of that region.

The Old Man was called in their language ALOADIN. He had caused a certain valley between two mountains to be enclosed, and had turned it into a garden, the largest and most beautiful that ever was seen, filled with every variety of fruit. In it were erected pavilions and palaces the most elegant that can be imagined, all covered with gilding and exquisite painting. And there were runnels too, flowing freely with wine and milk and honey and water; and numbers of ladies and of the most beautiful damsels in the world, who could play on all manner of instruments, and sung most sweetly, and danced in a manner that it was charming to behold. For the Old Man desired to make his people believe that this was actually Paradise. So he had fashioned it after the description that Mahommet gave of his Paradise, to wit, that it should be a beautiful garden running with conduits of wine and milk and honey and water, and full of lovely women for the delectation of all its inmates. And sure enough the Saracens of those parts believed that it was Paradise!

Now no man was allowed to enter the Garden save those whom he intended to be his ASHISHIN. There was a Fortress at the entrance to the Garden, strong enough to resist all the world, and there was no other way to get in. He kept at his Court a number of the youths of the country, from 12 to 20 years of age, such as had a taste for soldiering, and to these he used to tell tales about Paradise, just as Mahommet had been wont to do, and they believed in him just as the Saracens believe in Mahommet. Then he would introduce them into his garden, some four, or six, or ten at a time, having first made them drink a certain potion which cast them into a deep sleep, and then causing them to be lifted and carried in. So when they awoke, they found themselves in the Garden.


Says the venerable Sire de Joinville: "Le Vieil de la Montaingne ne creoit pas en Mahommet, aincois creoit en la Loi de Haali, qui fu Oncle Mahommet." This is a crude statement, no doubt, but it has a germ of truth. Adherents of the family of 'Ali as the true successors of the Prophet existed from the tragical day of the death of Husain, and among these, probably owing to the secrecy with which they were compelled to hold their allegiance, there was always a tendency to all manner of strange and mystical doctrines; as in one direction to the glorification of 'Ali as a kind of incarnation of the Divinity, a character in which his lineal representatives were held in some manner to partake; in another direction to the development of Pantheism, and release from all positive creed and precepts. Of these Aliites, eventually called Shiahs, a chief sect, and parent of many heretical branches, were the Ismailites, who took their name, from the seventh Imam, whose return to earth they professed to expect at the end of the World. About A.D. 1090 a branch of the Ismaili stock was established by Hassan, son of Sabah, in the mountainous districts of Northern Persia; and, before their suppression by the Mongols, 170 years later, the power of the quasi-spiritual dynasty which Hassan founded had spread over the Eastern Kohistan, at least as far as Kain. Their headquarters were at Alamut ("Eagle's Nest"), about 32 miles north-east of Kazwin, and all over the territory which they held they established fortresses of great strength. De Sacy seems to have proved that they were called Hashishiya or Hashishin, from their use of the preparation of hemp called Hashish; and thence, through their system of murder and terrorism, came the modern application of the word Assassin. The original aim of this system was perhaps that of a kind of Vehmgericht, to punish or terrify orthodox persecutors who were too strong to be faced with the sword. I have adopted in the text one of the readings of the G. Text Asciscin, as expressing the original word with the greatest accuracy that Italian spelling admits. In another author we find it as Chazisii (see Bollandists, May, vol. ii. p. xi.); Joinville calls them Assacis; whilst Nangis and others corrupt the name into Harsacidae, and what not.

The explanation of the name MULEHET as it is in Ramusio, or Mulcete as it is in the G. Text (the last expressing in Rusticiano's Pisan tongue the strongly aspirated Mulhete), is given by the former: "This name of Mulehet is as much as to say in the Saracen tongue 'The Abode of Heretics,'" the fact being that it does represent the Arabic term Mulhid, pl. Mulahidah, "Impii, heretici," which is in the Persian histories (as of Rashiduddin and Wassaf) the title most commonly used to indicate this community, and which is still applied by orthodox Mahomedans to the Nosairis, Druses, and other sects of that kind, more or less kindred to the Ismaili. The writer of the Tabakat-i-Nasiri calls the sectarians of Alamut Mulahidat-ul-maut, "Heretics of Death." The curious reading of the G. Text which we have preserved "vaut a dire des Aram," should be read as we have rendered it. I conceive that Marco was here unconsciously using one Oriental term to explain another. For it seems possible to explain Aram only as standing for Haram, in the sense of "wicked" or "reprobate."

In Pauthier's Text, instead of des aram, we find "veult dire en francois Diex Terrien," or Terrestrial God. This may have been substituted, in the correction of the original rough dictation, from a perception that the first expression was unintelligible. The new phrase does not indeed convey the meaning of Mulahidah, but it expresses a main characteristic of the heretical doctrine. The correction was probably made by Polo himself; it is certainly of very early date. For in the romance of Bauduin de Sebourc, which I believe dates early in the 14th century, the Caliph, on witnessing the extraordinary devotion of the followers of the Old Man (see note 1, ch. xxiv.), exclaims:

"Par Mahon ...

Vous estes Diex en terre, autre coze n'i a!" (I. p. 360.)

So also Fr. Jacopo d'Aqui in the Imago Mundi, says of the Assassins: "Dicitur iis quod sunt in Paradiso magno Dei Terreni"--expressions, no doubt, taken in both cases from Polo's book.

Khanikoff, and before him J. R. Forster, have supposed that the name Mulehet represents Alamut. But the resemblance is much closer and more satisfactory to Mulhid or Mulahidah. Mulhet is precisely the name by which the kingdom of the Ismailites is mentioned in Armenian history, and Mulihet is already applied in the same way by Rabbi Benjamin in the 12th century, and by Rubruquis in the 13th. The Chinese narrative of Hulaku's expedition calls it the kingdom of Mulahi. (Joinville, p. 138; J. As. ser. II., tom. xii. 285; Benj. Tudela, p. 106; Rub. p. 265; Remusat, Nouv. Melanges, I. 176; Gaubil, p. 128; Pauthier, pp. cxxxix.-cxli.; Mon. Hist. Patr. Scriptorum, III. 1559, Turin, 1848.) [Cf. on Mulehet, melahideh, Heretics, plural of molhid. Heretic, my note, pp. 476-482 of my ed. of Friar Odoric.--H. C.]

"Old Man of the Mountain" was the title applied by the Crusaders to the chief of that branch of the sect which was settled in the mountains north of Lebanon, being a translation of his popular Arabic title Shaikh-ul-Jibal. But according to Hammer this title properly belonged, as Polo gives it, to the Prince of Alamut, who never called himself Sultan, Malik, or Amir; and this seems probable, as his territory was known as the Balad-ul-Jibal.

How the Old Man Used to Train His Assasins[2]

When therefore they awoke, and found themselves in a place so charming, they deemed that it was Paradise in very truth. And the ladies and damsels dallied with them to their hearts' content, so that they had what young men would have; and with their own good will they never would have quitted the place.

Now this Prince whom we call the Old One kept his Court in grand and noble style, and made those simple hill-folks about him believe firmly that he was a great Prophet. And when he wanted one of his Ashishin to send on any mission, he would cause that potion whereof I spoke to be given to one of the youths in the garden, and then had him carried into his Palace. So when the young man awoke, he found himself in the Castle, and no longer in that Paradise; whereat he was not over well pleased. He was then conducted to the Old Man's presence, and bowed before him with great veneration as believing himself to be in the presence of a true Prophet. The Prince would then ask whence he came, and he would reply that he came from Paradise! and that it was exactly such as Mahommet had described it in the Law. This of course gave the others who stood by, and who had not been admitted, the greatest desire to enter therein.

So when the Old Man would have any Prince slain, he would say to such a youth: "Go thou and slay So and So; and when thou returnest my Angels shall bear thee into Paradise. And shouldst thou die, natheless even so will I send my Angels to carry thee back into Paradise." So he caused them to believe; and thus there was no order of his that they would not affront any peril to execute, for the great desire they had to get back into that Paradise of his. And in this manner the Old One got his people to murder any one whom he desired to get rid of. Thus, too, the great dread that he inspired all Princes withal, made them become his tributaries in order that he might abide at peace and amity with them.[1]

I should also tell you that the Old Man had certain others under him, who copied his proceedings and acted exactly in the same manner. One of these was sent into the territory of Damascus, and the other into Curdistan.[2]


↑ 1.0 1.1 Romantic as this story is, it seems to be precisely the same that was current over all the East. It is given by Odoric at length, more briefly by a Chinese author, and again from an Arabic source by Hammer in the Mines de l'Orient. The following is the Chinese account as rendered by Remusat: "The soldiers of this country (Mulahi) are veritable brigands. When they see a lusty youth, they tempt him with the hope of gain, and bring him to such a point that he will be ready to kill his father or his elder brother with his own hand. After he is enlisted, they intoxicate him, and carry him in that state into a secluded retreat, where he is charmed with delicious music and beautiful women. All his desires are satisfied for several days, and then (in sleep) he is transported back to his original position. When he awakes, they ask what he has seen. He is then informed that if he will become an Assassin, he will be rewarded with the same felicity. And with the texts and prayers that they teach him they heat him to such a pitch that whatever commission be given him he will brave death without regret in order to execute it." The Arabic narrative is too long to extract. It is from a kind of historical romance called The Memoirs of Hakim, the date of which Hammer unfortunately omits to give. Its close coincidence in substance with Polo's story is quite remarkable. After a detailed description of the Paradise, and the transfer into it of the aspirant under the influence of bang, on his awaking and seeing his chief enter, he says, "O chief! am I awake or am I dreaming?" To which the chief: "O such an One, take heed that thou tell not the dream to any stranger. Know that Ali thy Lord hath vouchsafed to show thee the place destined for thee in Paradise.... Hesitate not a moment therefore in the service of the Imam who thus deigns to intimate his contentment with thee," and so on. William de Nangis thus speaks of the Syrian Shaikh, who alone was known to the Crusaders, though one of their historians (Jacques de Vitry, in Bongars, I. 1062) shows knowledge that the headquarters of the sect was in Persia: "He was much dreaded far and near, by both Saracens and Christians, because he so often caused princes of both classes indifferently to be murdered by his emissaries. For he used to bring up in his palace youths belonging to his territory, and had them taught a variety of languages, and above all things to fear their Lord and obey him unto death, which would thus become to them an entrance into the joys of Paradise. And whosoever of them thus perished in carrying out his Lord's behests was worshipped as an angel." As an instance of the implicit obedience rendered by the Fidawi or devoted disciples of the Shaikh, Fra Pipino and Marino Sanuto relate that when Henry Count of Champagne (titular King of Jerusalem) was on a visit to the Old Man of Syria, one day as they walked together they saw some lads in white sitting on the top of a high tower. The Shaikh, turning to the Count, asked if he had any subjects as obedient as his own? and without giving time for reply made a sign to two of the boys, who immediately leapt from the tower, and were killed on the spot. The same story is told in the Cento Novelle Antiche, as happening when the Emperor Frederic was on a visit (imaginary) to the Veglio. And it is introduced likewise as an incident in the Romance of Bauduin de Sebourc: "Volles veioir merveilles? dist li Rois Seignouris" to Bauduin and his friends, and on their assenting he makes the signal to one of his men on the battlements, and in a twinkling

  "Quant le vinrent en l'air salant de tel avis,
  Et aussi liement, et aussi esjois,
  Qu'il deust conquester mil livres de parisis!
  Ains qu'il venist a tiere il fut mors et fenis,
  Surles roches agues desrompis corps et pis," etc.

(Cathay, 153; Remusat, Nouv. Mel. I. 178; Mines de l'Orient, III. 201 seqq.; Nangis in Duchesne, V. 332; Pipino in Muratori, IX. 705; Defremery in J. As. ser. V. tom. v. 34 seqq.; Cent. Nov. Antiche, Firenze, 1572, p. 91; Bauduin de Sebourc, I. 359.) The following are some of the more notable murders or attempts at murder ascribed to the Ismailite emissaries either from Syria or from Persia:-- A.D. 1092. Nizum-ul-Mulk, formerly the powerful minister of Malik Shah, Seljukian sovereign of Persia, and a little later his two sons. 1102. The Prince of Homs, in the chief Mosque of that city. 1113. Maudud, Prince of Mosul, in the chief Mosque of Damascus. About 1114. Abul Muzafar 'Ali, Wazir of Sanjar Shah, and Chakar Beg, grand-uncle of the latter. 1116. Ahmed Yel, Prince of Maragha, at Baghdad, in the presence of Mahomed, Sultan of Persia. 1121. The Amir Afdhal, the powerful Wazir of Egypt, at Cairo. 1126. Kasim Aksonkor, Prince of Mosul and Aleppo, in the Great Mosque at Mosul. 1127. Moyin-uddin, Wazir of Sanjar Shah of Persia. 1129. Amir Billah, Khalif of Egypt. 1131. Taj-ul Muluk Buri, Prince of Damascus. 1134. Shams-ul-Muluk, son of the preceding. 1135-38. The Khalif Mostarshid, the Khalif Rashid, and Daud, Seljukian Prince of Azerbaijan. 1149. Raymond, Count of Tripoli. 1191. Kizil Arzlan, Prince of Azerbaijan. 1192. Conrad of Montferrat, titular King of Jerusalem; a murder which King Richard has been accused of instigating. 1217. Oghulmish, Prince of Hamadan. And in 1174 and 1176 attempts to murder the great Saladin. 1271. Attempt to murder Ala'uddin Juwaini, Governor of Baghdad, and historian of the Mongols. 1272. The attempt to murder Prince Edward of England at Acre. In latter years the Fidawi or Ismailite adepts appear to have let out their services simply as hired assassins. Bibars, in a letter to his court at Cairo, boasts of using them when needful. A Mahomedan author ascribes to Bibars the instigation of the attempt on Prince Edward. (Makrizi, II. 100; J. As. XI. 150.) ↑ 2.0 2.1 Hammer mentions as what he chooses to call "Grand Priors" under the Shaikh or "Grand Master" at Alamut, the chief, in Syria, one in the Kuhistan of E. Persia (Tun-o-Kain), one in Kumis (the country about Damghan and Bostam), and one in Irak; he does not speak of any in Kurdistan. Colonel Monteith, however, says, though without stating authority or particulars, "There were several divisions of them (the Assassins) scattered throughout Syria, Kurdistan (near the Lake of Wan), and Asia Minor, but all acknowledging as Imaum or High Priest the Chief residing at Alamut." And it may be noted that Odoric, a generation after Polo, puts the Old Man at Millescorte, which looks like Malasgird, north of Lake Van, (H. des Assass. p. 104; J. R. G. S. III. 16; Cathay, p. ccxliii.)

How the Old Man Came By His End[3]

Now it came to pass, in the year of Christ's Incarnation, 1252, that Alaue, Lord of the Tartars of the Levant, heard tell of these great crimes of the Old Man, and resolved to make an end of him. So he took and sent one of his Barons with a great Army to that Castle, and they besieged it for three years, but they could not take it, so strong was it. And indeed if they had had food within it never would have been taken. But after being besieged those three years they ran short of victual, and were taken. The Old Man was put to death with all his men [and the Castle with its Garden of Paradise was levelled with the ground]. And since that time he has had no successor; and there was an end to all his villainies.[1] Now let us go back to our journey.


↑ 1.0 1.1 The date in Pauthier is 1242; in the G. T. and in Ramusio 1262. Neither is right, nor certainly could Polo have meant the former. When Mangku Kaan, after his enthronement (1251), determined at a great Kurultai or Diet, on perfecting the Mongol conquests, he entrusted his brother Kublai with the completion of the subjugation of China and the adjacent countries, whilst his brother Hulaku received the command of the army destined for Persia and Syria. The complaints that came from the Mongol officers already in Persia determined him to commence with the reduction of the Ismailites, and Hulaku set out from Karakorum in February, 1254. He proceeded with great deliberation, and the Oxus was not crossed till January, 1256. But an army had been sent long in advance under "one of his Barons," Kitubuka Noyan, and in 1253 it was already actively engaged in besieging the Ismailite fortresses. In 1255, during the progress of the war, ALA'UDDIN MAHOMED, the reigning Prince of the Assassins (mentioned by Polo as Alaodin), was murdered at the instigation of his son Ruknuddin Khurshah, who succeeded to the authority. A year later (November, 1256) Ruknuddin surrendered to Hulaku. [Bretschneider (Med. Res. II. p. 109) says that Alamut was taken by Hulaku, 20th December, 1256.--H. C.] The fortresses given up, all well furnished with provisions and artillery engines, were 100 in number. Two of them, however, Lembeser and Girdkuh, refused to surrender. The former fell after a year; the latter is stated to have held out for twenty years-- actually, as it would seem, about fourteen, or till December, 1270. Ruknuddin was well treated by Hulaku, and despatched to the Court of the Kaan. The accounts of his death differ, but that most commonly alleged, according to Rashiduddin, is that Mangku Kaan was irritated at hearing of his approach, asking why his post-horses should be fagged to no purpose, and sent executioners to put Ruknuddin to death on the road. Alamut had been surrendered without any substantial resistance. Some survivors of the sect got hold of it again in 1275-1276, and held out for a time. The dominion was extinguished, but the sect remained, though scattered indeed and obscure. A very strange case that came before Sir Joseph Arnould in the High Court at Bombay in 1866 threw much new light on the survival of the Ismailis. Some centuries ago a Dai or Missionary of the Ismailis, named Sadruddin, made converts from the Hindu trading classes in Upper Sind. Under the name of Khojas the sect multiplied considerably in Sind, Kach'h, and Guzerat, whence they spread to Bombay and to Zanzibar. Their numbers in Western India are now probably not less than 50,000 to 60,000. Their doctrine, or at least the books which they revere, appear to embrace a strange jumble of Hindu notions with Mahomedan practices and Shiah mysticism, but the main characteristic endures of deep reverence, if not worship, of the person of their hereditary Imam. To his presence, when he resided in Persia, numbers of pilgrims used to betake themselves, and large remittances of what we may call Ismail's Pence were made to him. Abul Hassan, the last Imam but one of admitted lineal descent from the later Shaikhs of Alamut, and claiming (as they did) descent from the Imam Ismail and his great ancestor 'Ali Abu Talib, had considerable estates at Mehelati, between Kum and Hamadan, and at one time held the Government of Kerman. His son and successor, Shah Khalilullah, was killed in a brawl at Yezd in 1818. Fatteh 'Ali Shah, fearing Ismailite vengeance, caused the homicide to be severely punished, and conferred gifts and honours on the young Imam, Agha Khan, including the hand of one of his own daughters. In 1840 Agha Khan, who had raised a revolt at Kerman, had to escape from Persia. He took refuge in Sind, and eventually rendered good service both to General Nott at Kandahar and to Sir C. Napier in Sind, for which he receives a pension from our Government. For many years this genuine Heir and successor of the Viex de la Montaingne has had his headquarters at Bombay, where he devotes, or for a long time did devote, the large income that he receives from the faithful to the maintenance of a racing stable, being the chief patron and promoter of the Bombay Turf! A schism among the Khojas, owing apparently to the desire of part of the well-to-do Bombay community to sever themselves from the peculiarities of the sect and to set up as respectable Sunnis, led in 1866 to an action in the High Court, the object of which was to exclude Agha Khan from all rights over the Khojas, and to transfer the property of the community to the charge of Orthodox Mahomedans. To the elaborate addresses of Mr. Howard and Sir Joseph Arnould, on this most singular process before an English Court, I owe the preceding particulars. The judgment was entirely in favour of the Old Man of the Mountain. [Sir Bartle Frere writes of Agha Khan in 1875: "Like his ancestor, the Old One of Marco Polo's time, he keeps his court in grand and noble style. His sons, popularly known as 'The Persian Princes,' are active sportsmen, and age has not dulled the Agha's enjoyment of horse-racing. Some of the best blood of Arabia is always to be found in his stables. He spares no expense on his racers, and no prejudice of religion or race prevents his availing himself of the science and skill of an English trainer or jockey when the races come round. If tidings of war or threatened disturbance should arise from Central Asia or Persia, the Agha is always one of the first to hear of it, and seldom fails to pay a visit to the Governor or to some old friend high in office to hear the news and offer the services of a tried sword and an experienced leader to the Government which has so long secured him a quiet refuge for his old age." Agha Khan died in April, 1881, at the age of 81. He was succeeded by his son Agha Ali Shah, one of the members of the Legislative Council. (See The Homeward Mail, Overland Times of India, of 14th April, 1881.)] The Bohras of Western India are identified with the Imami-Ismailis in some books, and were so spoken of in the first edition of this work. This is, however, an error, originally due, it would seem, to Sir John Malcolm. The nature of their doctrine, indeed, seems to be very much alike, and the Bohras, like the Ismailis, attach a divine character to their Mullah or chief pontiff, and make a pilgrimage to his presence once in life. But the persons so reverenced are quite different; and the Bohras recognise all the 12 Imams of ordinary Shiahs. Their first appearance in India was early, the date which they assign being A.H. 532 (A.D. 1137-1138). Their chief seat was in Yemen, from which a large emigration to India took place on its conquest by the Turks in 1538. Ibn Batuta seems to have met with Bohras at Gandar, near Baroch, in 1342. (Voyages, IV. 58.) A Chinese account of the expedition of Hulaku will be found in Remusat's Nouveaux Melanges (I.), and in Pauthier's Introduction. (Q. R. 115-219, esp. 213; Ilch. vol. i.; J. A. S. B. VI. 842 seqq.) [A new and complete translation has been given by Dr. E. Bretschneider, Med. Res. I. 112 seqq.--H. C.] There is some account of the rock of Alamut and its exceedingly slender traces of occupancy, by Colonel Monteith, in J. R. G. S. III. 15, and again by Sir Justin Sheil in vol. viii. p. 431. There does not seem to be any specific authority for assigning the Paradise of the Shaikh to Alamut; and it is at least worthy of note that another of the castles of the Mulahidah, destroyed by Hulaku, was called Firdus, i.e. Paradise. In any case, I see no reason to suppose that Polo visited Alamut, which would have been quite out of the road that he is following. It is possible that "the Castle," to which he alludes at the beginning of next chapter, and which set him off upon this digression, was Girdkuh. It has not, as far as I know, been identified by modern travellers, but it stood within 10 or 12 miles of Damghan (to the west or north-west). It is probably the Tigado of Hayton, of which he thus speaks: "The Assassins had an impregnable castle called Tigado, which was furnished with all necessaries, and was so strong that it had no fear of attack on any side. Howbeit, Halooen commanded a certain captain of his that he should take 10,000 Tartars who had been left in garrison in Persia, and with them lay siege to the said castle, and not leave it till he had taken it. Wherefore the said Tartars continued besieging it for seven whole years, winter and summer, without being able to take it. At last the Assassins surrendered, from sheer want of clothing, but not of victuals or other necessaries." So Ramusio; other copies read "27 years." In any case it corroborates the fact that Girdkuh was said to have held out for an extraordinary length of time. If Rashiduddin is right in naming 1270 as the date of surrender, this would be quite a recent event when the Polo party passed, and draw special attention to the spot. (J. As. ser. IV. tom. xiii. 48; Ilch. I. 93, 104, 274; Q. R. p. 278; Ritter, VIII. 336.) A note which I have from Djihan Numa (I. 259) connects Girdkuh with a district called Chinar. This may be a clue to the term Arbre Sec; but there are difficulties.

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