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Mar 02 2012

Historical Accuracy of Video Games: Assassin’s Creed’s Masyaf

..and reality.

Fantasy…

While working for a small Social Science Market Research firm a fellow co-worker approached me and asked if I would be willing to write some content for his website on video games. While I do enjoy playing video games, I in no way felt I was qualified to review games. So I suggested I could write a series of articles about the historical accuracy of video games, as I graduated with a Bachelor of Humanities, with a Major in History. When he agreed that this would make for a good topic of discussion I figured that it would be a good idea to look into the historical accuracy of the Assassin’s Creed series, as it is one of my favourite games to play.

For my first article I will provide an in-depth look at the Fortress Masyaf, the headquarters of the assassins, and how the ancient Syrian city is portrayed in the game. Masyaf was an isolated village, located in a remote mountainous area of what is modern-day Syria. The game depicts Masyaf as a large fortified temple like structure, with a couple of towers, the main keep, and a training yard for the assassins to hone their craft. The game designers made it so the citadel would inspire awe and wonderment, however the actual fortress was designed in the more practical sense, as a defensive fortification. The real fortress sits on a natural limestone foundation, at the edge of Jabal al-Bahra, and it served as a protective barrier for the neighbouring city.[1] The castle itself dates as far back as the 8th century BC, specifically the Aramaic Era, with the latest building phases occurring during the 12th century AD, when it was occupied by the Moslems.[2]

Many of the castles in Latin Syria provided an extension of an individual’s power and greed.[3]  Most castles grew out of the needs of individual lords, or particular situations, and were built only as elaborately as the situation called for.[4]  Many of these bastions became a source of economic power, which only served the lord of the castles and not the people of the area. Castles were often built on, or near, major agriculture areas. They were usually built within close proximity of large sources of water, which would provide supplies for the people in the castle and could also supply an army if needed.[5]  Despite the lordship using the castle for their own personal gains, the castles could still provide a quick means of military strength and protection. A castle had to be designed to resist armed attacks for long periods of time,[6] blockades and the devastating power of siege machines. Masyaf, much like traditional Crusader castles, possessed an outer curtain wall with a few towers, which were organized around a sizable gate house, and an interior stronghold.[7] The fortress also possessed three enormous cisterns, which were carved directly into the limestone foundation.[8] Having cisterns were key in staving off thirst during long drawn out sieges.

While the game may have built a more elaborate citadel than what actually existed at Masyaf, the concept of a guild of assassins occupying the fortress is not so far-fetched. Masyaf served as the headquarters for a group of assassins, which in Arabic is translated as hashishin, which means “hashish-smokers,” known simply as Shi’a Nizari Ismaili Muslims, or simply the Assassins.[9] The Assassins were a Shi’ite splinter group that had established itself out of Alamut,[10] a mountain fortress south of the Caspian Sea, approximately 100 kilometers from present day Tehran. The order was forced to flee in 1256, after controlling the citadel for 166 years, when Mongol invaders overran Alumet.[11] Once Alamut was destroyed the Nizari moved their headquarters to Masyaf. However once they were driven from Alamut their political power waned dramatically, as the order fell to the Mamluk Sultan, Baibars II.[12] The Mamluk Sultante would continue to employ the assassins’ services, at their usual fixed rate of pay per murder, well into the 14th century.[13]

[Ed's Note: We're about to spoil plot points from Assassin's Creed 1, the game is a half decade old but still be warned]

While it is true that Masyaf served as a base of operations for a guild of assassins, Ubisoft skews the historical timelines to serve the purpose of their game plot. The Nizari do not take up residence in Masyaf until the 1270’s, almost 78 years after the events of the Third Crusade had transpired. Furthermore, when Masyaf declines in political power, after Altair assassinated Al Mualim for attempting to use the “Apple” to brain wash humanity, which according the game occurs in 1191, Alumet was still a strong political institution. Even in 1227, when Abbas, Altair’s rival within the brotherhood, stages a coup and drives Altair into exile, Alumet had still not been overrun by Mongols. Finally, if we are to follow through with the Ubisoft timeline Masyaf will fall, in 1257, to the Mongols, which is exactly one year after Alumet was actually crushed by Mongols invaders. It would appear that Ubisoft took the history of Alumet, with some twists and turns, and moved it over to Masyaf. While this is an interesting plot line, there is really no point for the company to alter historical timelines when they could have simply structured their game around the history of Alumet.

Even though Ubisoft creates their own version of history with a brotherhood of assassins based at Masyaf, they have clearly done their homework and looked into the Nizari of Alumet. It is nice to see a company keep within the realm, even if slightly skewed, of history. For my next article I will explore the correlation between Al Mualim, who is referred to as Rashid ad-Din.

This article was written by Sean Quinn; a lover of History, Video Games, and arguing about the latter’s tendency to mess with the former.

[1] http://archnet.org/library/sites/one-site.jsp?site_id=7717

[2] http://www.answers.com/topic/masyaf-castle

[3] R.C. Smail, Crusading Warfare (1097-1193), (Cambridge at the University Press, 1956), 209-244.

[4] Thomas F. Madden, Crusades The Illustrated History, (Duncan Baird Publishers ltd, 2004), 70.

[5] Smail, Crusading Warfare, 209-244.

[6] Hugh Kennedy, Crusader Castles, (Cambridge University Press, 1994)

[7] http://archnet.org/library/sites/one-site.jsp?site_id=7717

[8] Ibid

[9] http://www.answers.com/topic/hashshashin

[10] Christopher Tyerman, God’s War: A New History of the Crusades, (England: Penguin Books, 2006), 128

[11] http://www.answers.com/topic/alamut

[12] http://www.answers.com/topic/hashshashin

[13] Ibid.

1 comment

1 ping

  1. Mauro

    I always had a sense of mystery in the first AC, after that it just gotten bigger. Excellent work and comparisons.

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