Secret Societies of the Middle Ages - Thomas Keightly

A10. Jellal-ed-Deen

Restoration of Religion—His Harem makes the Pilgrimage to Mecca—Marries the Princess of Ghilan—Geography of the Country between Roodbar and the Caspian—Persian Romance—Zohak and Feridoon—Kei Kaoos and Roostem—Ferdoosee's Description of Mazanderan—History of the Shah Nameh—Proof of the Antiquity of the Tales contained in it.

The unhallowed rule of Mohammed II. lasted for the long space of thirty-five years, during which time all the practices of Islam were neglected by the Ismailites. The mosks were closed, the fast of Ramazan neglected, the solemn seasons of prayer despised. But such a state can never last; man must have religion; it is as essential to him as his food; and those pseudo-philosophers who have endeavoured to deprive him of it have only displayed in the attempt their ignorance and folly. The purification of the popular faith is the appropriate task of the true philanthropist.

We may often observe the son to exhibit a character the diametrically opposite of that of his father, either led by nature or struck by the ill effects of his father's conduct. This common appearance was now exhibited among the Assassins. Mohammed disregarded all the observances of the ceremonial law; his son and successor, Jellal-ed-deen (Glory of Religion) Hassan, distinguished himself, from his early years, by a zeal for the ordinances of Islam. The avowal of his sentiments caused considerable enmity and suspicion between him and Mohammed; the father feared the son, and the son the father. On the days of public audience, at which Jellal-ed-deen was expected to appear, the old sheikh used the precaution of wearing a shirt of mail under his clothes, and of increasing the number of his guards. His death, which occurred when his son had attained his twenty-fifth year, is ascribed by several historians, though apparently without any sufficient reason, to poison administered to him by his successor.

The succession of Jellal-ed-deen was uncontested. He immediately set about placing all things on the footing which they had been on previous to the time of On his Memory be Peace. The mosks were repaired and reopened; the call to prayer sounded as heretofore from the minarets; and the solemn assemblies for worship and instruction were held once more on every Friday. Imams, Koran-readers, preachers, and teachers of all kinds, were invited to Alamoot, where they were honourably entertained and richly rewarded. Jellal-ed-deen wrote to his lieutenants in Kusistan and Syria, informing them of what he had done, and inviting them to follow his example. He also wrote to the khalif, to the powerful Shah of Khaurism, and to all the princes of Persia, to assure them of the purity of his faith. His ambassadors were everywhere received with honour, and the khalif and all the princes gave to Jellal-ed-deen, in the letters which they wrote in reply, the title of prince, which had never been conceded to any of his predecessors. The imams, and the men learned in the law, loudly upheld the orthodoxy of the faith of the mountain-chief, on whom they bestowed the name of Nev (New) Musulman. When the people of Casveen, who had always been at enmity with the Ismailites, doubted of his orthodoxy, Jellal-ed-deen condescended to ask of them to send some persons of respectability to Alamoot, that he might have an opportunity of convincing them. They came, and in their presence he committed to the flames a pile of books which he said were the writings of Hassan Sabah, and contained the secret rules and ordinances of the society. He cursed the memory of Hassan and his successors, and the envoys returned to Casveen, fully convinced of his sincerity.

In the second year of his reign Jellal-ed-deen gave a further proof of the purity of his religious faith by permitting, or, perhaps, directing, his harem, that is, his mother, his wife, and a long train of their female attendants, to undertake the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, to worship at the tomb of the Prophet. The sacred banner was, according to custom, borne before the caravan of the pilgrims from Alamoot, and the Tesbeel, or distribution of water to the pilgrims, usual on such occasions, was performed by the harem of the mountain-prince on such a scale of magnificence and liberality as far eclipsed that of the great Shah of Khaurism, whose caravan reached Bagdad at the same time on its way to Mecca. The khalif Nassir-ladin-Illah even gave precedence to the banner of the pilgrims from Alamoot, and this mark of partiality drew on him the wrath of the potent prince of Khaurism. Twice did the latter afterwards collect an army to make war on the successor of the Prophet. With the first, consisting of nearly 300,000 men, he marched against Bagdad, and had reached Hamadan and Holuan, when a violent snow-storm obliged him to retire. He had collected his forces a second time, when the hordes of Chinghis Khan burst into his dominions. His son and successor resumed his plans, and reached Hamadan, when again a snow-storm came to avert destruction from the City of Peace. As the power of the Mongol conqueror was now great and formidable, the prudent prince of Alamoot sent in secret ambassadors to assure him of his submission, and to tender his homage.

Jellal-ed-deen took a more active part in the politics of his neighbours than his predecessors had done. He formed an alliance with the Atabeg Mozaffer-ed-deen (Causing the Religion to be victorious), the governor of Azerbeijan, against the governor of Irak, who was their common enemy. He even visited the Atabeg at his residence, where he was received with the utmost magnificence, and each day the Atabeg sent 1,000 dinars for the expenses of his table. The two princes sent to the khalif for aid; their request was granted; and they marched against, defeated, and slew the governor of Irak, and appointed another in his place. After an absence of eighteen months Jellal-ed-deen returned to Alamoot, having in the mean time, by his prudent conduct, greatly augmented the fame of his orthodoxy. He now ventured to aspire to a connexion with one of the ancient princely houses of the country, and asked in marriage the daughter of Ky Kaoos, the prince of Ghilan. The latter having expressed his readiness to give his consent, provided that of the khalif could be obtained, envoys were despatched to Bagdad, who speedily returned with the approbation of Nassir-ladin-Illah, and the princess of Ghilan was sent to Alamoot.

The mention of Ghilan and of Ky Kaoos presents an opportunity, which we are not willing to let pass, of diversifying our narrative by an excursion into the regions of Persian geography and romance, which may cast a gleam of the sunshine of poetry over the concluding portion of our history of the dark and secret deeds of the Ismailites.

The mountain range named Demavend, on the south side of which Roodbar, the territory of the Ismailites, lies, is the northern termination of the province of Irak Ajemee, or Persian Irak. Beyond it stretches to the Caspian Sea a fertile region, partly hilly, partly plain. This country is divided into five districts, which were in those times distinct from and independent of each other. At the foot of the mountains lay Taberistan and Dilem, the former to the east, the latter to the west. Dilem is celebrated as having been the native country of the family of Buyah, which, rising from the humblest station, exercised under the khalifs, and with the title of Ameer-al-Omra (Prince of the Princes), a power nearly regal over Persia during a century and a half. North of Dilem lay Ghilan, and north of Taberistan Mazenderan, the ancient Hyrcania. In the midst of these four provinces lay Ruyan and Rostemdar, remarkable for having been governed for a space of 800 years by one family of princes, while dynasty after dynasty rose and fell in the neighbouring states. In these provinces the names of the royal lines recall to our mind the ancient history, both true and fabulous, of Iran (Persia), as we find it in the poem of Ferdoosee, the Homer of that country. The family of Kawpara, which governed Ruyan and Rostemdar, affected to derive their lineage from the celebrated blacksmith Gavah, who raised his apron as the standard of revolt against the Assyrian tyrant Zohak; and the family of Bavend, which ruled for nearly seven centuries, with but two interruptions, over Mazenderan and Taberistan, were descended from the elder brother of Noosheerwan the Just, the most celebrated monarch of the house of Sassan.

This region is the classic land of Persia. When, as their romantic history relates, Jemsheed, the third monarch of Iran after Cayamars, the first who ruled over men, had long reigned in happiness and prosperity, his head was lifted up with pride, and God withdrew from him his favour. His dominions were invaded by Zohak, the prince of the Tauzees (Assyrians or Arabs); his subjects fell away from him, and, after lurking for a hundred years in secret places, he fell into the hands of the victor, who cut him asunder with a saw. A child was born of the race of Jemsheed, named Feridoon, whom, as soon as he came to the light (in the village of Wereghi, in Taberistan), his mother Faranuk gave to a herdsman to rear, and his nourishment was the milk of a female buffalo, whose name was Poormayeh. Zohak meantime had a dream, in which he beheld two warriors, who led up to him a third, armed with a club which terminated in the head of a cow. The warrior struck him on the head with his club, and took him and chained him in the cavern of a mountain. He awoke with a loud cry, and called all the priests, and astrologers, and wise men, to interpret his dream. They feared to speak. At last they told him of the birth and nurture of Feridoon, who was destined to overcome him. Zohak fell speechless from his throne at the intelligence. On recovering, he sent persons in all directions to search for and put to death the fatal child; but the maternal anxiety of Faranuk was on the watch, and she removed the young Feridoon to the celebrated mountain Elburz, where she committed him to the care of a pious anchorite. Zohak, after a long search, discovered the place where Feridoon had been first placed by his mother, and in his rage he killed the beautiful and innocent cow Poormayeh.

Zohak is represented as a most execrable tyrant. Acting under the counsel of the Devil, he had murdered his own father to get his throne. His infernal adviser afterwards assumed the form of a young man, and became his cook. He prepared for him all manner of curious and high-seasoned dishes; for hitherto the food of mankind had been rude and plain. As a reward, he only asked permission to kiss the shoulders of the king. Zohak readily granted this apparently moderate request; but from the spots where the Devil impressed his lips grew forth two black snakes. In vain every art was employed to remove them, in vain they were cut away, they grew again like plants. The physicians were in perplexity. At length the Devil himself came in the shape of a physician, and said that the only mode of keeping them quiet was to feed them with human brains. His object, we are told, was gradually in this way to destroy the whole race of man.

The design of the Devil seemed likely to be accomplished. Each day two human beings were slain, and the serpents fed with their brains. At length two of the tyrant's cooks discovered that the brain of a man mixed with that of a ram satisfied the monsters, and, of the two men who were given to be killed each day, they always secretly let go one, and those who were thus delivered became the progenitors of the Koords who dwell in the mountains west of Persia. Among those unfortunate persons who were condemned to be food for the serpents was the son of a blacksmith named Gavah. The afflicted father went boldly before the tyrant, and remonstrated with him on the injustice of his conduct. Zohak heard him with patience and released his son. He also made him bearer of a letter addressed to all the provinces of the empire, vaunting his goodness, and calling on all to support him against the youthful pretender to his throne. But Gavah, instead of executing the mandate, tore the tyrant's letter, and, raising his leathern apron on a lance by way of standard, called on all the inhabitants of Iran to arise and take arms in support of Feridoon, the rightful heir to the throne of Jemsheed.

[Illustration] from Secret Societies of the Middle Ages by Thomas Keightly


Meantime Feridoon, who had attained the age of twice eight years, came down from Elburz, and, going to his mother, besought her to tell him from whom he derived his birth. Faranuk related to him his whole history, when the young hero, in great emotion, vowed to attack the tyrant, and avenge on him the death of his father; but his mother sought, by representing the great power of Zohak, to divert him from his purpose, and exhorted him to abandon all such thoughts, and to enjoy in quiet the good things of this life. But a numerous army, led by Gavah in search of the true heir to the throne, now came in sight. Feridoon, joyfully advancing to meet them, adorned with gold and precious stones the leathern banner, placed upon it the orb of the moon, and, naming it Direfsh-e-Gavanee (Gavah's Apron), selected it for the banner of the empire of Iran. Each succeeding prince, we are told, at his accession, added jewels to it, and Direfsh-e-Gavanee blazed in the front of battle like a sun. Feridoon, then calling for smiths, drew for them in the sand the form of a club, with a cow's head at the end of it, and when they had made it he named it Gawpeigor (Cow-face), in honour of his nurse. Taking leave of his mother, he marches against the tyrant; an angel comes from heaven to aid the rightful cause; Zohak is deserted by his troops; he falls into the hands of Feridoon, who, by the direction of the angel, imprisons him in a cavern of the mountain Demavend. Feridoon, on ascending the throne of his forefathers, governed with such mildness, firmness, and justice, that his name is to the present day in Persia significative of the ideal of a perfect monarch.

Mazenderan is not less celebrated in Persian romance than the region at the foot of Demavend. It was the scene of the dangers of the light-minded Kej Kaoos (supposed to be the Cyaxares of the Greeks), and of the marvellous adventures called the Seven Fables or Stages of the Hero Roostem, the Hercules of Persia, who came to his aid. When Kej Kaoos mounted the throne of Iran, he exulted in his wealth and in his power. A deev (Demon), desirous of luring him to his destruction, assumed the guise of a wandering minstrel, and, coming to his court, sought to be permitted to sing before the padisha (Emperor). His request was acceded to,—his theme was the praises of Mazenderan, and he sang to this effect:—

"Mazenderan deserves that the shah should think on it; the rose blooms evermore in its gardens, its hills are arrayed with tulips and jessamines, mild is the air, the earth is bright of hue, neither cold nor heat oppresses the lovely land, spring abides there evermore, the nightingale sings without ceasing in the gardens, and the deer bound joyously through the woods. The earth is never weary of pouring forth fruits, the air is evermore filled with fragrance, like unto rose-water are the streams, the tulip glows unceasingly on the meads, pure are the rivers, and their banks are smiling: ever mayest thou behold the falcon at the chase. All its districts are adorned with abundance of food, beyond measure are the treasures which are there piled up, the flowers bend in worship before the throne, and around it stand the men of renown richly girded with gold. Who dwelleth not there knoweth no pleasure, as joy and luxuriant pastime are to him unknown."

Kej Kaoos was beguiled by the tempter, and, eager to get possession of so rich a land, he led a large army into it. The Shah of Mazenderan was aided by a potent demon or enchanter named the Deev Seffeed (White Deev), who, by his magic arts, cast a profound darkness over the Iranian monarch and his host, in which they would have all been destroyed but for the timely arrival of Roostem, who, after surmounting all the impediments that magic could throw in his way, slew the Deev Seffeed, and delivered his sovereign.

Kej Kaoos, we are afterwards told by the poet, formed the insane project of ascending to heaven, which he attempted in the following manner. A stage was constructed on which a throne was set for the monarch; four javelins were placed at the corners, with pieces of goat's flesh on them, and four hungry eagles were tied at the bottom, who, by their efforts to reach the meat, raised the stage aloft into the air; but when the strength of the birds was exhausted the whole fell with the royal aeronaut in the desert, where he was found by Roostem and the other chiefs.

[Illustration] from Secret Societies of the Middle Ages by Thomas Keightly


The history of the Shah-nameh (King-book), in which these legends are contained, is one of the most curious in literature. The fanaticism of the Arabs, who conquered Persia, raged with indiscriminate fury against the literature, as well as the religion, of that country; and when, in the time of Al-Mansoor and his successors Haroon-er-Rasheed and Al-Mamoon, the Arabs themselves began to devote their attention to literature and science, it was the science of Greece and the poetry of their native language that they cultivated. The Persian literature meantime languished in obscurity, and the traditional, heroic, and legendary tales of the nation were fading fast from memory, when a governor of a province, zealous, as it would appear, for the honour of the Persian nation, made a collection of them, and formed from them a continuous narrative in prose. The book thus formed was called the Bostan-nameh (Garden-book). It was in great repute in the northern part of Persia, where, at a distance from the court of the khalifs, the Persian manners, language, and nationality were better preserved; and when the Turkish family of the Samenee founded an empire in that part of Persia, sultan Mansoor I., of that race, gave orders to a poet named Dakeekee to turn the Bastan-nameh into Persian verse. The poet undertook the task, but he had not made more than a thousand verses when he perished by assassination. There being no one supposed capable of continuing his work, it was suspended till twenty years afterwards, when the celebrated Mahmood of Ghizni, the conqueror of India, meeting with the Bastan-nameh, gave portions of it to three of the most renowned poets of the time to versify. The palm of excellence was adjudged to Anseri, who versified the tale of Sohrab slain by his own father Roostem, one of the most pathetic and affecting narratives in any language. The sultan made him Prince of the Poets, and directed him to versify the entire work; but, diffident of his powers, Anseri shrank from the task, and having some time afterwards met a poet of Toos in Khorasan, named Isaac, the son of Sheriff-Shah, surnamed Ferdoosee (Paradisal), either from his father's employment as a gardener, or from the beauty of his verses, he introduced him to the sultan, who gladly committed the task to him. Ferdoosee laboured with enthusiasm in the celebration of the ancient glories of his country; and in the space of thirty or, as some assert, of only eight years, he brought the poem to within two thousand lines of its termination, which lines were added by another poet after his death.

The Shah-nameh is, beyond comparison, the finest poem of the Mohammedan east. It consists of 60,000 rhymed couplets, and embraces the history of Persia, from the beginning of the world to the period of its conquest by the Arabs. The verses move on with spirit and rapidity, resembling more the flow of our lyrical, than that of our common heroic, lines.

Ferdoosee wrote his poem in the early part of the eleventh century from a book which had been in existence a long time before, for he always calls it an old book. No proof therefore is needed that he did not invent the tales which compose the Shah-nameh, and they have every appearance of having been the ancient traditionary legends of the Persian nation. But we are able to show that these legends were popular in Persia nearly six centuries before his time; and it was chiefly with a view to establishing this curious point that we related the tale of Zohak and Feridoon.

Moses of Choren, the Armenian historian, who wrote about the year 440, thus addresses the person to whom his work is dedicated. "How should the vain and empty fables about Byrasp Astyages gain any portion of thy favour, or why shouldest thou impose on us the fatigue of elucidating the absurd, tasteless, senseless legends of the Persians about him? to wit, of his first injurious benefit of the demoniac powers which were subject to him, and how he could not deceive him who was deception and falsehood itself. Then, of the kiss on the shoulders, whence the dragons came, and how thenceforward the growth of vice destroyed mankind by the pampering of the belly, until at last a certain Rhodones bound him with chains of brass, and brought him to the mountain which is called Demavend; how Byraspes then dragged to a hill Rhodones, when he fell asleep on the way, but this last, awaking out of his sleep, brought him to a cavern of the mountain, where he chained him fast, and set an image opposite to him, so that, terrified by it, and held by the chains, he might never more escape to destroy the world."

Here we have evidently the whole story of Zohak and Feridoon current in Persia in the fifth century; and any one who has reflected on the nature of tradition must be well aware that it must have existed there for centuries before. The very names are nearly the same. Taking the first syllable from Feridoon, it becomes nearly Rodon, and Biyraspi Aidahaki (the words of the Armenian text) signify the dragon Byrasp: Zohak is evidently nearly the same with the last word. This fable could hardly have been invented in the time of the Sassanian dynasty, who had not then been more than two centuries on the throne, much less during the period of the dominion of the Parthian Arsacides, who were adverse to everything Persian. We are therefore carried back to the times of the Kejanians, the Achaemenides of the Greeks; and it is by no means impossible that the tale of Zohak and Feridoon was known even to the host which Xerxes led to the subjugation of Greece.

It is well known to those versed in oriental history that, when the founder of the house of Sassan mounted the throne of Persia in the year 226, he determined to bring back everything, as far as was possible, to its state in the time of the Kejanians, from whom he affected to be descended, and that his successors trod in his footsteps. But, as Persia had been for five centuries and a half under the dominion of the Greeks and Parthians, there was probably no authentic record of the ancient state of things remaining. Recourse was therefore had to the traditional tales of the country; and, as the legend of Zohak and Feridoon was, as we have seen, one of the most remarkable of these tales, it was at once adopted as a genuine portion of the national history, and a banner formed to represent the Apron of Gavah, which was, as the poet describes it, adorned with additional jewels by each monarch of the house of Sassan at his accession. This hypothesis will very simply explain the circumstance of this banner being unnoticed by the Greek writers, while it is an undoubted fact that it was captured by the Arabs at the battle of Kadiseah, which broke the power of Persia,—a circumstance which has perplexed Sir John Malcolm.

We will finally observe that the historian just alluded to, as well as some others, thinks that the darkness cast by the magic art of the White Deev over Ky Kaoos and his army in Mazanderan coincides with the eclipse of the sun predicted by Thales, and which, according to Herodotus, parted the armies of the Medians and the Lydians when engaged in conflict. Little stress is however, we apprehend, to be laid on such coincidences. Tradition does not usually retain the memory of facts of this nature, though fiction is apt enough to invent them. The only circumstances which we have observed in the early part of the Shah-nameh agreeing with Grecian history, are some relating to the youthful days of Kei Khoosroo, which are very like what Herodotus relates of Cyrus.

We now return to the history of the Assassins.