The Travels of Marco Polo/Book 1/Chapter 23

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Concerning the Old Man of the Mountain[edit]

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.[1]




  1. 1.0 1.1 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. (See Abulf. in Buesching, V. 319.)