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Mystery and Intrigue in Northern Iran

18th May 2017

Tour leader Jude Holliday has just returned from leading our Journey Around the Caspian Sea group tour. Below Jude looks back on the history of the assassins in northern Iran, following visits to the country's impressive castles amidst the surrounding mountains...

Marco Polo told a story that would be held as true for centuries; that an 'Old Man of the Mountain' in Persia would drug his young followers with hashish and they would do his bidding, involving the killing of enemies.It is thought that the word "assassin" derives from the word hashish as a result. The Crusaders perpetuated the myth of drug-crazed murderers (and fought them) and a fascination and fear ensued that lasted until their fall at the hands of the Mongols in the mid-13th century.

The ‘Old Man of the Mountain’ was Hassan-i Sabbah (1034-1124 approx), a Nizari Ismaili, an Islamic sect that formed in the late 11th century from a split within Ismailism, itself a branch of Shia Islam. Hassan-i Sabbah created a secret order of trained killers – assassins – their targets being political and religious enemies. Responsible for the systematic elimination of opposing figures, the word ‘assassin’ has ever since been used to describe a hired or professional killer, paving the way for the related term ‘assassination’, which denotes any action involving murder of a high-profile target for political reasons.

Hassan-i Sabbah was the First Grand Master of the Nizari Ismaili and decided on Alamut in what is now northwest Iran as a location for his headquarters. It held a mosque and extensive library, as well as accommodation for training assassins.

Far from being a bunch of rag-tag, high-as-a-kite murderers, assassins were highly skilled and trained in the art of covert operations. They learned languages where it was necessary in order to infiltrate areas of their target – they never killed en masse, but picked off a target, usually in a public place so as to instill fear in other enemies. They did not however always kill their targets, preferring at times to threaten an enemy into submission. This could sometimes be accomplished with a dagger and a threatening note placed on an enemy's pillow while he slept.

Alamut Castle was only one of many strongholds throughout the region. West of Alamut, in the Shahrud Valley, stands the major fortress of Lamasar, and Roodkhan Castle stands in Gilan Province.

At Lamasar we gazed at steep slopes covered in sweeps of the most vivid of red poppies and wondered how on earth they had built such a complex (enough of it remains to appreciate its vastness, complete with water storage holes gouged out of the hard rock). At Roodkhan Castle we clambered up over 900 steps, amongst dappled sunlight that shone through trees covered with fresh spring-green leaves, accompanied by the sound of a stream in full spate as it tumbled its way down the hillside. The sight of the remarkably intact walls and fortifications were well worth the hike (as was the well-earned lunch at the foot of the hillside).

Today, the fortress of Alamut is a mere shell of crumbling, ruined, weather-beaten walls but the atmosphere and setting remain fascinating. The remote, inaccessible site with its panoramic views to the Alamut Valley below (Freya Starks’ Assassin’s Valley) and the snow-capped mountains in the distance are awe-inspiring. Despite the sunny day, the wind whistled about our heads (we ladies removed our obligatory headscarves in order to feel the wind in our hair; bliss) and we tried to imagine life here in an 11th century winter and training to be an assassin.

After that we scuttled back to the bus for a welcome cup of tea and biscuits.

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Jude Holliday

Jude hails from the south coast of England. She moved to London where she gained a first-class degree in South Asian Studies, but India-proper was cal…

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