Mongol Group c2

Is Marco Polo’s description of cities and stories in Chapter 1 reliable?

The old man of the mountain

Introduction

In Marco Polo’s The Description of the World chapter one section 41-43[1], he described the story of the Old Man of the Mountain, which he heard from several men when he traveled to Alamut[2] in Persia, in detail. The main purpose of this article is to explore the authenticity of this story.

The story of the Old Man of the Mountain was also written by different scholars and had different versions because of the spreading after Marco Polo. Odoric Pordenone, Abel Rémusat, and De Guigenes also wrote about the story of the Old Man of the Mountain in various sources and details. The old man was named Hassan-i Sabbāh or Hassan as-Sabbāh[3], who also called Alā’ al-Dīn in The Description of the World and known in the West as the Old Man of the Mountain.[4] Hassan-i Sabbāh was the organizer of the Nizari Isma’ili state and its fidā’i military group[5] known as the Order of Assassins[6] or Hashashin[7]. The ‘Old Man’ and his Assassins are crucial in the history for different reasons. On the one hand, they played a revolutionary, disruptive role at the critical period of Islam’s development. On the other hand, they had important relations with European Christians during the crusade. Lastly, the fragmentary reports that reached the outside world of their lives and behavior gave them a curious place in legend and imaginative literature.[8] Therefore, the reliability of the ‘Old Man’ and his Assassins legend needs more evidence and researches for authentication.

Footnotes:

[1] Polo, Marco (2016). 1. In S. Kinoshita (Trans.), The Description of the World. pp. 33–35. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.

[2] Daftary, Farhad (2012). Historical Dictionary of the Ismailis. Scarecrow Press. pp. 15, 69. ISBN 9780810861640.

[3] Frischauer, Willi (1970). “Chapter II”. The Aga Khans. The Bodley Head. p. 40. ISBN 0-370-01304-2.

[4] Wasserman, James (8 August 2017). A Note to the Reader on the Historical Context. Templar Heresy: A Story of Gnostic Illumination. Destiny Books. ISBN 978-1-62055-658-0.

[5] Lewis, Bernard (1967). The Assassins: a Radical Sect of Islam. pp. 38, 65. Oxford University Press

[6] Chisholm, Hugh (1911). “Ḥasan-e Ṣabbāḥ”. Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.

[7] Hashashin, also known as the Assassins, was a medieval organization of assassins located in the Middle East. The Assassins were medieval Nizari Ismailis of Persia and Syria.

[8] Nowell, Charles (1947). The Old Man of the Mountain. Speculum, 22(4), p. 497. doi:10.2307/2853134

Details

According to Marco Polo’s The Description of the World, legend has it that Hassan-i Sabbāh built a great garden in the valley in Alamut, with flowers and trees and gardens of unparalleled beauty. The palace was splendidly decorated with countless gold and silver treasures, and everywhere there were pipes circulating wine, milk, honey, and water (The Description of the World, p. 33). The legendary paradise garden described by Marco Polo is believed to be the Alamut Castle in present-day Alamut, the Rudbar district of northernmost Iran, and was possessed by Hassan-i Sabbāh in 1090.[9]Alamut Castle has also been shown to refer to the Order of Assassins’ impregnable fortress, or the Old Man of the Mountain about whom many stories and curious tales were told in the time of the Crusaders and Marco Polo.[10] There are academic records showing that the architecture of Alamut’s famous library possibly took place after Hasan fortified the castle and its surrounding valley. With its astronomical instruments and a rare collection of works, the library attracted scholars and scientists from all over the world who have visited it for several months at a time hosted by the Isma’ilis.[11] In Alamut Castle’s surviving ruins, archaeologists indeed have found the remains of astronomical instruments, a library and a mosque built deep in the rock. Also, with molded and decorated delicate brick decorations and broken bits of turquoise glazed tiles, glossy painted tiles, these findings speak of the castle’s splendid architecture during the Ismailite era.[12]

Excavations certainly prove that a nearly complete social system inside the Alamut Castle. However, among the excavations, archaeologists did not find any architecture that can indicate the legendary paradise garden mentioned by Marco Polo in The Description of the World. The excavations of the splendid architecture possibly prove the existence of the famous library architecture rather than the legendary paradise garden. According to Charles E. Nowell[13], Hassan-i Sabbāh had established and promoted the planting around Alamut for solely economic and strategic purposes. This has given birth to the legends of the garden and the fountain of wine, milk, and honey. Instead of literally existing, the paradise garden possibly represented the imaginings of the drugged Assassins if we could trace the stories back to their origins and inspirations.[14]

In addition to the Alamut Castle’s surviving ruins, the Chinese historical record mentioned the story of the Old Man of the Mountain as well. Si Shi Ki[15] written by Liu Yu portrayed the story as

俗见男子勇壮者,以利诱之,令手刃父兄,然后充兵,醉酒,扶入窟室,娱以音乐美女,纵其欲,数日复置故处,既醒,问其所见,教之能为刺客死,则享福如此,因授以经咒,日诵,葢使蛊其心志,死无悔也” (Si Shi Ki, vol. 1).

The meaning of the story described by Liu is similar to what Marco Polo mentioned in The Description of the World that the Old Man took the youths into the garden in batches when they were unconscious, let them enjoy themselves in the garden, and made them comfortable, believing that they had indeed arrived at the legendary paradise. After some time, they were again unconscious and carried out of the garden. When the youths woke up, the Old Man asked them where they came from, and they all replied that they were from Paradise. The Old Man then sent them on an assassination mission, saying that they would be admitted to heaven after death if they did their best for the religion (The Description of the World, p. 34). Some differences are 1) Liu mentioned the Old Man would lure the youths with benefits, threaten the youths with their families, and made them affiliated to him 2) Liu detailed that the youths were given a sutra mantra to recite every day, and the scripture was used to compel their heart and mind to die without regret.

In comparison, the other Chinese version of the story given by Abel Rémusat is more different than that provided by Si Shi Ki and The Description of the World. According to Charles E. Nowell, Abel Rémusat said that the Assassins were soldiers who had deteriorated into brigands and seemed to make the paradise garden a kind of ordinary house of prostitution.[16] But Abel Rémusat described the same things as Si Shi Ki that Assassins had to learn texts and prayers. Besides, Friai Odoric Pordenone, who passed through the land of Assassin some fifty years later than Polo, offered the same tale of the Old Man of the Mountain in less depth and shorter detail.[17] Although it is the same story, Odoric Pordenone gave a different name to the location where he learned the story[18] and gave more attention to the portrayal of the Kurdistan Assassins instead of those of Persia when Marco Polo concluded the two branch establishments with a summary of the destruction of the Assassins by Hülegü. What’s more, Odoric Pordenone got his facts firsthand, not from books. So the tale he and Marco used was probably a famous one in the Orient, and could have been picked up by any tourist.[19] Compared with the one described by Marco Polo and Odoric Pordenone, De Guigenes’s story of the Old Man of the Mountain was told so much less elaborately but provided a same tale using oriental sources.[20]

Many similar accounts in different versions of the Old Man of the Mountain probably indicated that the Old Man and his Assassins have existed. However, the story of how the Old Man using the legendary paradise garden trained his Assassins and made them obey is more a legend than a historical fact. So far, no historical records show that the Old Man’s training way is real and actually happened in history. The uneven version of the story also makes scholars question the authenticity of the story, and makes them inclined to be the circulation of a story and legend. Also, according to Charles E. Nowell, the myth of Shedad[21] must certainly be an ancestor of the Old Man of the Mountain story as learned by Marco Polo and Fariar Odoric. The various representations of the Old Man attempted to imitate God, and the legends were built in such ways. Moreover, the image of Hassan-i Sabbāh was an ascetic because he was expelled from Egypt in his early years due to civil strife in the court, but the Old Man of the Mountain known to literature became a debaucher of youth.[22]

Footnotes:

[9] Mirkhond [a Persian historian], ‘Le jardin de la pureté, contenant l’histoire des prophètes, desrois, et des khalifs,’ transl. and ed. A. Jourdain, Notices et extraits des manuscrits de la Bibliothèque Imperiole, IX (1813), 154-155; M. C. Defrémery, ‘Documents sur l’histoire des Ismaéliens ou Batiniens de la Perse,’ Journal Asiatique, 5th ser., XV (1860), 164-166

[10] Ivanow, W. (1931). Alamut. The Geographical Journal, 77(1), p. 38. doi:10.2307/1785122

[11] Willey, Peter (2005). Eagle’s Nest: Ismaili Castles in Iran and Syria. London: I.B. Tauris. ISBN 978-1-85043-464-1.

[12] Choubak H. Alamut Castle (Eagle’s Nest): Hassan Sabbah Stronghold. IQBQ. 16 (2) :1-28

[13] Charles E. Nowell was a professor of history who graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and was an author of The Great Discoveries and the First Colonial Empires and others.

[14] Nowell, Charles (1947). The Old Man of the Mountain. Speculum, 22(4), p. 518. doi:10.2307/2853134

[15] 《西使记》, Si Shi Ki, Wikisource. It was a record of an embassy called Chang Te to the region in the west.

[16] Nowell, Charles (1947). The Old Man of the Mountain. Speculum, 22(4), p. 517. doi:10.2307/2853134

[17] Cathy and the Way Thither: Being a Collection of Medieval Notices of China, transl. and ed. Sir Henry Yule, revised by Henri Cordier, 4 vols. (Hakluyt Society, London, 1911-1914), II, 257-258.

[18] Polo calls the Assassin home ‘Muleete,’ which comes from ‘Mulbid,’ meaning ‘Heretie.’ Odoric calls it ‘Millestorte’ (Nowell 1947, 517).

[19] Nowell, Charles (1947). The Old Man of the Mountain. Speculum, 22(4), p. 517. doi:10.2307/2853134

[20] See Histoire générale des Huns, I , 341. in detail.

[21] Early in the history of Islam, a man seeking a lost camel in the desert wandered to the Eden of Shedad. He took valuable objects away to his home and returned with a large band of men. This time no paradise was found; only the tomb of Shedad on which were written words warning mankind from following his evil example (Nowell 1947, 519).

[22] Nowell, Charles (1947). The Old Man of the Mountain. Speculum, 22(4), p. 519. doi:10.2307/2853134

Conclusions

In conclusion, in the Alamut Castle’s ruins, archaeologists have not found an architecture that corresponds to the legendary paradise garden mentioned by Marco Polo and other historical records. Also, various versions and details of the story of the Old Man of the Mountain provide a trend that the story of the Old Man using the paradise garden to train his Assassins was only a legend instead of a fact. Perhaps the Old Man and his Assassins have existed in the history because the excavations of Alamut Castle ruins certainly prove that a nearly complete social system once existed here. But the story of the paradise garden and how the Old Man trained his Assassins have no evidence; thus, it is only a fable. And as a result of many distortions, the story was woven into the structure of crucial mythology, as ancient as civilization itself. Therefore, the story of the Old Man of the Mountain is more inclined to be unreliable because it is a legend.

References

1. Chisholm, H. (1911). Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica.

2. Choubak H. (2009). Alamut Castle (Eagle’s Nest): Hassan Sabbah Stronghold. IQBQ. 16 (2) :1-28

3. Daftary, F. (2012). Historical dictionary of the Ismailis. Scarecrow Press.

4. Defrémery, C. (1860). Documents sur l’histoire des Ismaéliens ou Batiniens de la Perse. Journal Asiatique (Vol. XV, Ser. 5th).

5. Frischauer, W. (1970). The Aga Khans. The Bodley Head.

6. Guignes, J. de. (1756). Histoire génerale des Huns, des Turcs, des Mogols et des autres Tartares occidentaux, &c. avant et depuis Jesus-Christ jusqu’à présent, précedée d’une introduction contenant des tables chronol. & historiques des princes qui ont regné dans l’Asie: ouvrage tiré des livres chinois & des manuscrits orientaux de la bibliothèque du roi. Dessaint & Saillant.

7. Ivanow, W. (1931). Alamut. The Geographical Journal, 77(1), 38-45. doi:10.2307/1785122

8. Lewis, B. (1967). The Assassins: a Radical Sect of Islam.

9. Liu, Y. (Yuan). Si Shi Ki (Vol. 1). Wikisource.

10. Mirkhond[a Persian historian]. (1813). Le jardin de la pureté, contenant l’histoire des prophètes, desrois, et des khalifs. Notices et extraits des manuscrits de la Bibliothèque Imperiole. (A. Jourdain, Trans.) (Vol. IX).

11. Nowell, C. (1947). The Old Man of the Mountain. Speculum, 22(4), 497-519. doi:10.2307/2853134

12. Polo, M. (2016). The Description of the World. (S. Kinoshita, Trans.). Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.

13. Wasserman, J., Stump, K. W., & Rochman, H. (2017). Templar heresy: a story of Gnostic illumination. Destiny Books.

14. Willey, P. (2005). Eagle’s nest Ismaili castles in Iran and Syria. I.B. Tauris.

15. Yule, H. (Ed.). (2010). Cathay and the Way Thither: Being a Collection of Medieval Notices of China (Cambridge Library Collection – Hakluyt First Series). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511696954

16. Image copyright from https://byzantinemporia.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Garden-of-Paradise.jpg

 

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