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Alamut Valley

The Ismailis and Castles of the Assassins
The term 'assassin', used in Europe from the XIII century to describe a hired killer, is said to be derived from the Arabic hashishiyun or 'hashish eater'. This expression, probably a pejorative one from the very beginning, was used to denigrate the Ismailis who were said by their enemies to intoxicate themselves with hashish before their politically or religiously motivated murders. The Assassins were feared as much in the Muslim world as in the Christian one for their daring practice of unexpectedly attacking even the most prominent men despite the protection that might surround them.

The Ismailis emerged from the seism which occurred in the Shia community on the death of the Sixth Imam, in 765. They refused to accept as successor a younger son of the Imam and recognized as legitimate heir his elder half-brother Ismail. Like the Twelver Shias, the Ismailis believe in the return of the Mahdi, the messianic Imam. In order to prepare for his return, the dai, or propagandists, were entrusted with the duty of preaching to the faithful. Pursued for their beliefs as much by the Sunnis as by other Shia, the dai were frequently compelled to carry out their task in hiding.

Taking advantage of the reduced personal power of the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad towards the end of the IX century, Ismaili missions were sent out to the Yemen, India, and North Africa. Their success was such that in 909, the hidden Imam proclaimed himself caliph and founded the Fatimid dynasty. In 937, after the conquest of Egypt, the Fatimid Caliphate built the new city of Cairo as their capital. This first Ismaili state, after repeated attacks from Sunni armies, finally fell to the Kurdish leader Saladin who restored the Abbasid caliphate in Egypt in 1171.

During the XI century, the Ismaili community was shaken by a deep ideological crisis. In 1017, the Druze proclaimed the divine nature of the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim, an unacceptable promotion in the eyes of other Ismailis. Many intellectuals were led to re-examine the very foundations of their own beliefs.

In this climate of political and moral uncertainty, one man, possessed of a very strong personality and determined to defend his Ismaili faith against the aggression of the Sunni Seljuk rulers, came to the fore: Hasan Sabbah. Born towards the middle of the XI returning to Iran. There he joined the Nizaris and militated against the Seljuks first in the Damghan area and then later around Qazvin where he gathered together a band of dedicated followers. In September of 1090, his men captured the castle of Alamut through trickery. An isolated and practically inaccessible fortress, it was to become the headquarters of the Ismailis. Until his death in May 1124, Hasan Sabbah never left Alamut again, and directed all his operations against the Seljuk Empire from there. The capture of Alamut was followed by the seizure of a series of other castles, first of all nearby in the Rudbar, an area which had long been a Shia stronghold, and then further afield near Damghan, Esfahan and in the mountains of Kuhestan, near present-day Afghanistan.

In 1092, the Seljuk sultan Malek Shah attacked the Ismaili fortresses at Alamut and in Kuhestan. Faced by an enemy far superior in number, Hasan Sabbah decided to remain entrenched, relying on his most fearsome weapon: assassination. It was at Alamut that the first fidai, or 'those who devote themselves', were formed. After a very strict doctrinal and military training, the fidai were prepared to sacrifice their own lives to carry out any task they might be given, in the belief that their actions would grant them entry to Paradise. Then began a series of carefully executed attacks against high-ranking or prominent men - princes, governors, generals, theologians - all of whom had condemned Ismailism. One of the first victims was the vizir of Sultan Malek Shah, Nezam ol-Molk, killed in 1092.

Ismaili missions which had been set up outside Iran adopted the same methods as their fellow believers, and with great success, most notably in Syria where their armies for the first time faced the Crusaders. The assassination of Conrad de Montferrat, the king of Jerusalem, caused a great stir throughout the Christian world.

The heir to Hasan Sabbah at Alamut, Bozorg-Omid (ruled 1124-1138), succeeded in maintaining the strength of the Ismailis, but their power declined after his death, particularly after the appearance of the Mongols at the beginning of the XIII century. The final blow was delivered by Hulagu, Genghis Khan's grandson, who in 1256 launched a series of attacks against the Ismaili castles in the Rudbar and Kuhestan. In order to obtain the best possible conditions for surrender from Hulagu, the Ismaili Imam Rokn od-Din ordered his fortresses to give themselves up without a fight. Most of them obeyed, although Alamut and Lamiasar refused. In December 1256, Alamut finally surrendered and the once proud castle was burned down. Its library was destroyed, and only a few fragments were saved from the flames.

The crushing of Alamut Castle was effectively the end of the Ismailis for generations though believers resurfaced centuries later and now Ismaili Islam is the predominant faith in parts of Tajikistan and northern Pakistan (though not at all in Iran).

The castles were forgotten and only returned to public consciousness with the publication of Dame Freya Stark's 1930s travel diary 'Valleys of the Assassins'. A copy of that recently reprinted volume makes a great companion for the trip.

Using a mix of savaris and taxis it's possible to visit both Razmiyan (65km) and Gazor Khan (110km) in a long day trip from Qazvin. But it's much more fun to take your time, sleeping a night or three at Gazor Khan to do some trekking. If you can manage enough Farsi to charter a taxi there is no real reason to take a guide, though a knowledgeable historian could help bring to life the castles' bare stones.

A guide (or at least a bag-carrying mule and mule-driver) is wise, however, if you are planning a multiday, cross-Alborz trek into the Caspian hinterland.

Lamiasar CastleRazmiyan & Lamiasar Castle
The winding descent into Razmiyan from Qazvin passes some timeless mud hamlets and gives wonderful views over the Shahrud Valley's rice terraces.

Central Razmiyan itself is a strangely soulless place but a handily central taxi agency makes it easy to arrange onward transport if you have arrived by savari. A taxi goes up to the Lamiasar Castle access path (2.5km towards Hir). From there it's an obvious 20-minute stroll to the top edge of the castle where a remnant hint of round bastion and some other wall chunks remain. The castle site sweeps down from here to outer-wall remnants that drop vertically into the valley below. Allow at least an hour to seek out the various degraded fortifications, enjoy the birdsong and meet the lizards. Bring a hat and sunscreen as there is minimal shade.

There is no formal accommodation in Razmiyan. With its powerful mountain backdrop, the tiny Evan Lake would be stunningly beautiful if it weren't for nearby power lines and muddy car-washing spots.

Moallem KalayehMoallem Kalayeh & Andej
Sometimes called Alamut town, Moallem Kalayeh is the Alamut Valley's one-street district centre. It's a useful transport staging post for the region but not a sight in itself. If you get stuck here, Haddodi Restaurant rents two very simple rooms. It's on the main street 50m east of the eagle statue. The town centre, where rare buses and savaris loiter, is 600m further east. Savaris to Qazvin are an hour quicker than the dreadfully slow bus (daily except Friday) that departs once feeder buses from outlying villages have arrived. You can get to Gazor Khan by taxi including a side trip to Andej en route. Or take the returning school bus around 11.45am.

The 8km road-spur to Andej (elev 1587m) passes beside three truly awesome red-rock side-canyons, somewhat reminiscent of the Olgas (in central Australia). The turnoff is just northwest of Shahrak, which has a prominent (but not Assassin-related) castle ruin.

Gazor Khan & Alamut Castle
alamut castleThe region's greatest attraction is the fabled ruin of Alamut Castle (dawn-dusk), Hasan-e Sabbah's famous fortress site. The site is a dramatic crag rising abruptly above the pleasant, unpretentious little cherry-growing village of Gazor Khan.

Although the trip to Alamut is slightly less arduous today than it was 20 years ago, when it took several days on horseback to reach the castle, it is still difficult. It is a full-day's excursion from Qazvin, and requires an early start, particularly in autumn when the sun sets early, in order to allow sufficient time at the castle itself and to avoid negotiating the mountain roads in the dark. The pass, which leads to the valley below the castle, is generally closed by snow until May. The road from the pass is now in good condition; it winds first through Moallem Kalaye and then goes on to the village of Gazor Khan from where a steep path leads up to the rock itself (a good half-hour's walk up). On top, archaeological workings are shielded by unsightly corrugated metal sheeting. But the phenomenal views from the ramparts are unmissable.

Savaris usually run to Qazvin at around 7am (2.5 hours). At the same time there is a bus to Moallem Kalayeh (school days, small fee, 45 minutes). Both leave from the village square outside Hotel Koosaran.

Trekking towards the Caspian: Garmarud to Yuj
Crossing the Alborz on foot from the Alamut Valley to the Caspian hinterland is geographically compelling, scenically stunning and culturally fascinating. You will be one of just a handful of foreigners to make such a trip, but hurry: road builders are slowly extending tracks further and further into the isolated mountain villages and a whole way of life revolving around donkey transport will soon be a thing of the past.

The route described here isn't especially arduous, though a guide and/or mule-driver is recommended to avoid difficulties at a few awkward spots, especially if you attempt the walk before June, when you will be tramping through treacherous snows on the highest sections. It's most pleasant to allow three days, though two days or even less is quite possible if you are in some inexplicable hurry. (In midsummer you could shorten the walk by arranging a 4WD to take you as far as Salajanbar.)

The hike starts in pretty, canyon-framed Garmarud village. 18km east of the Gazor Khan turning, where the Alamut Valley road's asphalt ends. Whether you walk or drive, the route goes via picturesque Pichebon hamlet and across the 3200m Salambar Pass beside the small, partly renovated (but deserted) Pichebon Caravanserai. There are fabulous views here. On foot from Garmarud it takes 5.5 hours to that caravanserai. From the caravanserai it's another three hours to Salajanbar, descending very slowly through pretty thorn shrubs and fields of yellow iris. If you follow the 4WD track instead of the walking path, take the right-hand fork an hour beyond the pass.

Wonderfully picturesque Maran is the last village en route with no semblance of a road. Walking there from Salajanbar takes three hours and requires fording a stream twice. While not that hard, it's potentially dangerous when the water is high: slip and you will be washed over a waterfall to certain doom.

Another three hours' downhill hike from Maran brings you to an un-asphalted road below pretty Yuj village set in flower-filled meadows.