Mongol Group B2

Marco Polo and western asia

The Old Man of the Mountain and His Assassins

By Zhenyuan Liang (zl2878)




To answer the question of whether Macro Polo arrived in Western Asia, I try to find out some clues from the story of the Old Man of the Mountain and his assassins that happened in Persia, a kingdom in Western Asia. According to the Description of the World written by Macro Polo, the Old Man of the Mountain who rules a castle in Alamut built a magnificent garden to counterfeit the paradise described by Mohammad.[1] Then, he brought some assassins to this garden and let them believe he was the prophet. Subsequently, he told these assassins that if they killed his enemies or died as his assassins, he could bring them back to paradise. Thus, these assassins were very obedient and continued to be a huge threat to other nearby kingdoms until Hulegu destroyed the Old Man of the Mountain and his assassins around the year 1262.[1]


In my web page, I will prove the high possibility for Macro Polo’s presence in Western Asia by considering two requirements. The first one is the correctness of the story, so Macro Polo did not make everything up in Venice. The second one is that few or no people in Venice or Europe knew this story before the publication of the Description of the World, so Macro Polo could not include this story in his book by consulting other people or swithout leaving Venice.



Macro Polo[3]

The story of the Old Man of the Mountain and his assassins is a very significant source for historians to judge whether Macro Polo had been to Western Asia or Iran. Admittedly, there are many other stories in the Description of the World that could be valuable sources for us to prove or disprove the presence of Marco Polo in Western Asia.[1] However, it is worth noting that one method for validating the travel of Marco Polo is to look at the authenticity of Marco Polo’s accounts, but many of these stories are so literary that it is meaningless for us to resolve our issue by studying the credibility of these stories.[1] On the contrary, in the story of the Old Man of the Mountain, although the description of paradise is sort of literary, the ruler of the Iran and people killed or threaten by assassins are very historical figures, and Hulegu’s later victory over the Old Man of the Mountain is also a very historical event[1].




The Old Man of the Mountain was a real historical person. While his name in the Description of the World is Alā’ al-Dīn, historians today believe he was Hassan-i Sabbāh, the founder of the Nizari Isma’ili state and its fidā’i military group. According to Farhad Daftary“Ḥasan-i Ṣabbāḥ’s major theological treatise, al-Fuṣūl al-arbaʿa, written originally in Persian, has not survived directly, but it has been preserved fragmentarily by Ḥasan’s contemporary al-Shahrastānī, in his heresiographical work written around 1127”.[4] Also, he points out that “we have fragments of an Isma’ili biography, preserved by later Persian historians, the first part of which seems to have been based on his lost autobiography”.[5] The description of his background and early life provided by the Ismaili biography, Sargudhasht-i Sayyidna, justifies the existence of the Old Man of the Mountain. Moreover, Forhad Daftary, in his Historical Dictionary of the Ismailismentioned that Hassan-i Sabbāh took Alamut in 1090, and Mongols conquered his castle in Alamut in 1256.[6] Marco Polo also states that Hulegu destroyed the Old Man of the Mountain in 1262, even though the years are a little bit mismatched.[1] Therefore, we can conclude that Macro Polo’s narrative in terms of the existence of the Old Man of the Mountain and Hulegu’s later conquer is correct.

Alamut Castle[7]

the Fortunately, the travelogue, Xishiji, also includes a similar narrative of the Old Man of the Mountain.[8] In 1263, the author of the book, Liuyu, traveled westward from China and recorded this story according to what he heard.[8] Here is the version of the story in Xishiji: “spotted any strong man [and] they lured him with material goods…They intoxicated him, escorted him to a basement and entertained him with music and beauty…They let him indulge in sensual pleasure…At the time he woke up…they taught him that if he could die as an assassin, he would live in joy and comfort like that”.[9]The likeness between the story in Xishiji and that in the Description of the World confirms that some part of Marco Polo’s account is true: the Old Man of the Mountain attempted to convince his assassins that he was the prophet and could bring them to paradise if they were compliant.

Then, we examine the validity of Macro Polo’s detailed description of why and how Hulegu conquered Alamut. According to Macro Polo, “Hulegu, lord of the Tartar of the East, found out all the bad things this Old Man was doing and said to himself that he would destroy him”.[1] And, based on the second edition of the Mongols, one reason for the Mongols’ invasion in Alamut is that Hulegu received an appeal from the Islamic judge (gddi) of Qazwin complained that the judge and his fellow had to wear armor beneath their clothes to prevent from being killed by assassins”.[10] Both sources indicate that the reason why Hulegu started a war is to punish the Old Man of the Mountain for the murder and the threat of his assassins. Besides, Macro Polo presents that Hulegu besieged the castle for three years and they did not submit or went out of the castle until they ran out of food.[1] Then, in Macro Polo’s book, Hulegu killed the Old Man of the Mountain and his assassins.[1] Accordingly, based on Eagle’s Nest, Muqaddam al-Din, the commander of Persian soldier, hesitated to submit to the Mongols, and three days later, the garrison surrendered so that the Mongols could begin their destruction”.[11] The reason why soldiers in Alamut did not submit was not consistent, but both sources point out that the Mongols besieged the city for three days.


The Story in Europe:


However, some people in Europe had already known the notoriety of the Old Man of the Mountain and his assassins when Macro Polo left Venice in the thirteenth century.[1] According to The Old Man of the Mountain: The Growth of a Legend, Wolfgang Fleischhauer believes that “the story grew and thrived in the climate of European power politics of the late twelfth and thirteenth Centuries”.[12] Moreover, he argues that “the murder in 1192 of Conrad of Montferrat, newly elected king of Jerusalem, furnished the basis for universal notoriety”.[12] Note that Macro Polo left Venice in the thirteenth century[1] when the notoriety of the assassins had spread for a while, so it is possible for Macro Polo to hear of this story without traveling to Iran, violating the second requirement I mentioned in the first paragraph.


Used as an Auxiliary Evidence:

Macro Polo’s route[14]

Admittedly, the story of the Old Man of the Mountain and his assassins had significant influence at that time so that it is hard to prove that Macro Polo knew this story in Iran but not in Venice. However, if we combine this accurate story and the other less influential story in the Description of the World, the story of Old Man of the Mountain and his assassins can be a piece of strong auxiliary evidence for proving Macro Polo’s presence in Western Asia. In the prologue of the Description of the World, Marco Polo recounted a story in terms of how he and his father and uncle returned to Venice from China by ship.[1] In 1286, the principal wife of Argun had died, so Argun sent three envoys to Kubilai for a new wife. Kubilai permitted and allowed his daughter, Koechlin, to be his wife and left with the envoys.[1] Also, Kubilai agreed to three Polo’s requests to leave with the envoys and Kökechin so that they can return to Venice after sending Kökechin to Abhar, where Argun lived.[1] Fortunately, according to Igor de Rachewiltz, Yang Chih-chiu found the exact same name of the three envoys in Yong-lo-ta-tien, and Rasid al Din briefly mentioned their arrival in Abhar and a party of the envoys and the bride in his book Collection of Histories.[15] Significantly, Haw believes that “the story of his return journey has quite recently been proved to show knowledge of events that he could scarcely have known about except through personal involvement”.[16] Note that Arhar, where Argun lived, is a place in Persia. Therefore, by combining Macro Polo’s return journey and the story of the Old Man of the Mountain, we can conclude that it is very probable that Macro Polo arrived in Persia.




To summarize, most of the account about the Old Man of the Mountain and assassins is correct even though there are some trivial differences with other sources. Due to the spread of this story in Europe in the late twelfth and thirteenth century, we cannot judge if Macro Polo knew this story in Persia or Venice. However, Macro Polo’s return journey, which was less well-known than the story about the assassins, tends to show that Macro Polo was very likely to have long-distance travel from Venice to Persia. Therefore, the accuracy of the story of the Old Man of the Mountain can serve as a piece of auxiliary evidence for the story of return journey to further support Macro Polo’s presence in Western Asia.





1. Marco Polo, Sharon Kinoshita, and Ian Mladjov, The Description of the World (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2016), pp. 33-36. 2. adaped from, Abu Huraira, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh): ask Allah for Firdouse which is the best and highest part of Paradise,
3. adapted from, Wikipedia, 4. Farhad Daftary, Ismaili Literature: A Bibliography of Sources and Studies (London: I.B. Tauris, 2004), p. 115. 5. Farhad Daftary, The Ismāʻı̄lı̄s: Their History and Doctrines (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 311.


6. Farhad Daftary, Historical Dictionary of the Ismailis (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2012), p. 15.
7. adapted from, iTourismA, Alamut Castle Location: Qazvin, Qazvin province, Iran Category: Monuments Inscription (National Monuments of Iran): 2002, 8. Karim H. Karim, “Proceedings of the 2nd International Ismaili Studies accessed December 21, 2020,, p. 124. 9. Mark Cartwright, “The Assassins,” Ancient History Encyclopedia (Ancient History Encyclopedia, December 18, 2020), 10. David Morgan, The Mongols (Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2007), p. 142.


11. Peter Willey, Eagle’s Nest Ismaili Castles in Iran and Syria (London: I.B. Tauris, 2005), p. 80.
12. Wolfgang Fleischhauer, “The Old Man of the Mountain: The Growth of a Legend,” Taylor & Francis, accessed December 21, 2020,, p. 84. 13. adapted from Brian Frederick Windley, Europe, 14. adapted from Fosco Maraini, Marco Polo, 15. Igor de Rachewiltz, “Macro Polo Went to China,” Zentralasiatische Studien 2 (1997): pp. 34-92, pp. 47-48. 16. Stephen G. Haw, Marco Polo’s China: A Venetian in the Realm of Khubilai Khan (New York: Routledge, 2009), p. 178.



Polo, Marco, Sharon Kinoshita, and Ian Mladjov. The Description of the World. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2016.

Daftary, Farhad. Ismaili Literature: A Bibliography of Sources and Studies. London: I.B. Tauris, 2004.

Daftary, Farhad. The Ismāʻı̄lı̄s: Their History and Doctrines. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Daftary, Farhad. Historical Dictionary of the Ismailis. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2012.


Cartwright, Mark. “The Assassins.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, December 18, 2020.

Morgan, David. The Mongols. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2007.

Willey, Peter. Eagle’s Nest Ismaili Castles in Iran and Syria. London: I.B. Tauris, 2005.

Fleischhauer, Wolfgang. “The Old Man of the Mountain: The Growth of a Legend.” Taylor & Francis. Accessed December 21, 2020.

Rachewiltz, Igor de. “Macro Polo Went to China.” Zentralasiatische Studien 2, 1997.

Haw, Stephen G. Marco Polo’s China: A Venetian in the Realm of Khubilai Khan. New York: Routledge, 2009.


This web page was created by Zhenyuan Liang (zl2878)