Iran: Make Love not War – Part 4 – The Valley of the Assassins

September 27, 2019
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THE history of Alamut is fascinating. You may have heard the fabled tale of the ‘Old Man of the Mountain’, which goes like this.

Once upon a time, there was an old man who lived in a castle in Persia. There, he created a guild of Ninja-like assassins, to be sent out into the world to kill corrupt tax collectors and other oppressors of the people. The assassins were fearless, and struck in broad daylight in front of vast crowds for maximum effect, heedless of their own safety.

In the more fanciful versions of the tale, the Old Man got his assassins stoned on hashish and led them into a beautiful garden, telling them that that this was Paradise and that it was the place to which they would return if they were slain by their target’s bodyguards.

The story of the Old Man of the Mountain inspires the modern computer game, Assassin’s Creed.

Well, amazingly, it’s true; though probably not the vision-of-Paradise bit, which seems to have been added later on by Marco Polo and other travellers who heard about the whole business third or fourth-hand.

The Old Man of the Mountain was an Ismai’ili religious leader and warrior named Hassan-i Sabbah. (The Isma’ili are a sub-sect of Shi’a Islam, the predominant form of the Muslim religion in Iran.)

A romantic portrayal of Hassan-i Sabbah. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Hassan-i Sabbah, who lived from around 1050 to 1124 CE (AD), directed most of his energies not only against particular officials but also against the country’s recent conquerors, the Turks.

Strategists commenting on the present Gulf crisis often say that Iran is unconquerable, with its mountains and vast distances (the country is several times bigger than France).

Well, whether that’s true or not today, Iran has certainly been conquered many times in the past. Perhaps that’s because, until recently, this vast and cultured country held only a surprisingly small population.

In Hassan-i Sabbah’s time, the Turks ruled Iran from Baghdad, in present-day Iraq. But that’s a long way away from northern Iran. And so Hassan-i Sabbah decided to fight not only particular injustices but also to try and gain a measure of independence for the northern part of Iran: a region of mountains and forests which has a reputation for being a bit of a wild frontier.

So, Hassan-i Sabbah was thus not only a sort of Robin Hood but also a sort of William Wallace, the Scottish independence fighter celebrated in the film Braveheart.

The sketch of Hassan-i Sabbah on horseback certainly gives a Wallace-like impression. Or perhaps still more so, of Robert the Bruce.

Of course, to the Turks, Hassan-i Sabbah and his followers were terrorists. And perhaps his methods were misguided. For, while it has been conquered many times, Iran has always risen again, for reasons that have less to do with its warlike capacities than with the ‘soft power’ of its culture, which over the centuries has successfully converted Mongols, Turks and Arabs to the Persian way of doing things.

Anyhow, where does the word assassin from from, and what does it mean? Many people say that it must have something to do with all that hashish.

Well, no. Hassan-i Sabbah called his warriors Asāsiyyūn, meaning ‘people who are faithful to the foundation’: the foundation of the Muslim faith that is, which includes a certain sympathy for the underdog.

But Marco Polo misheard this expression and thought it meant ‘people doped up on hashish’! And that seems to be where the story of the fake Paradise crept in.

The Alamut Valley, with cliffs overlooking. This is south of the wettest parts of the Alborz.

Alamut Castle was Hassan-i Sabbah’s stronghold. It sits on top of an amazing crag at more than 2,000 metres elevation in the Alamut Valley, an important scenic area in its own right. Alamut means something like the ‘eagle’s nest’.

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You can’t see much of the Alamut Castle in this view of its crag, partly because it’s on the other side and partly because it’s also quite ruined. You can see steps at left, for scale.

Quite randomly, I found a place to stay on a winding side road leading up to the Alamut Valley and ultimately to the Caspian Sea. We just looked around. We hadn’t pre-booked anything. I found this place which had obviously shone in earlier days. It was a bit run down now. But the woman managing it was glad to see us, and she would make us local food.

I had my own room, and the guys and the businessman’s mistress shared a room, presumably by pretending to be a family (I introduce these travelling companions in my previous post about Tabriz and the road of the martyrs). There were a whole lot of Iranians there, and the women weren’t wearing any hijabs, that is, headscarves. They were young Iranian women who said that they didn’t want to wear the bloody hijab, and certainly didn’t want to get married!

And I met an Iranian guide who asked me what sort of drugs I wanted. That was weird, and I said I didn’t want any.

What I found out later was that in this highland area, Hassan-i Sabbah’s old stomping ground, there’s an unofficial agreement with the leadership that people who go up into the hills can do what they want.

The women there just wore very very skinny headbands around their heads. They actually don’t wear hijabs. They wear tight-fitting clothes, dresses and skirts. And they certainly don’t wear the chador (‘tent’).

And so I was actually rather shocked to say the least. You get a certain impression of Iran through the media, and it’s just not that way at all. Or not everywhere at any rate.

We went up and we had a look at the castle and it was absolutely beautiful. It wasn’t a major climb, and I met an archaeologist and a teacher. At the time I was very fascinated with the Isma’ili sect. I had just been to Egypt and had made a visit to an Isma’ili shrine created by the Aga Khan, the leader of the sect. The castle was being reconstructed by Iran’s Cultural Heritage Organisation, and a mosque was being built as well.

We wandered about the site, but couldn’t really go in. We had to hike up a hill to get to the castle, the ‘Mountain’ in other words, and at the top there was a person selling tea . I asked for coffee at first! Actually there were forty varieties of tea on sale, some of them quite amazing!

In the amazing Alamut Canyon
Looking the other way in the Alamut Canyon

Walking around in the Alamut Canyon

The castle was being restored; there wasn't much of the original castle left, to be honest

A walk-around on the top of Alamut Castle

Anyone for tea?
Me, my guide, and tea

I got to chatting with some of the locals who lived in the area; and they started singing Kurdish songs. I heard so many Kurdish songs. Many of the Kurdish songs were songs of warriors. There were a lot of women fighting in for the cause of Kurdish autonomy in eastern Syrian autonomy where it borders Iran, in a left-wing organisation called the YPJ, left-wing as you can sort of tell from the red star in the flag. And the women I met just literally sang these amazing war-ballads, like WWII partisans.

Flag of the YPJ. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

It was a surprise to meet Kurds so close to Tehran.

In fact, the highlands of the Alborz are a Kurdish stronghold, one that is admittedly a long way from most of the other centres of Kurdish population. That’s probably another reason why the writ of the authorities doesn’t seem to run all that firmly here.

Reading more about the Kurds, I discovered that there are several different Kurdish groups whose languages, or dialects, can differ from each other almost as much as English and German; and are written in different scripts as well. The fact that the Kurds aren’t totally united is a product of the fact that they have lived for centuries under several different foreign rulers; who probably do everything they can to sustain this disunity.

Personally, I had no real opinion about Kurdish politics, other than that they should have been given a country of their own at some stage. As I mentioned in another blog, there are actually just as many Kurds in the world as there are Canadians. And yet every single one of them lives in someone else’s country.

To be continued . . . If you want the whole story more quickly, check out my short book Iran: Make Love not War, now on sale with 281 pictures and maps. Click on this image for a link to where you can get a copy. I also have my first book as a free download on my website if you sign up for the newsletter.


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