Given the barbarism of the ancient world, that might be too specific a question to answer, but there is no doubt about where a particular kind of Islamic death cult began—nor about the fact that it gave the world a universal term for what was a new kind of terror, delivered without warning. This was not Al Qaeda or ISIS, but their distant forebears, zealots from a sect named the Ismailis. When they appeared in the 10th century they became known as the hashshashin, Arabic for those who take hashish. Or, in a word that passed into our language, assassins.

They were sent to the major cities of the time with precise orders to kill. They took their time, often as long as a year. They studied the daily routines of their targets. They took on new identities, adopted disguises. The hardest targets to reach were those at the top—in a few cases, the very top. They had to get close enough to touch. Once the killing was done there was little chance of escape.

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