Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Iran's Castle of the Assassins

A huge rock pinnacle in the Alamut Valley is the setting chosen by the Assassin cult's founder, Hassan-i Sabah, as his headquarters in a fight against a host of perceived enemies. The rock is too large for the castle to be seen at this scale. Photo by Newsha Tavolakian.
Did you know that the notorious Assassin cult originated in Iran? Their founder’s headquarters and the valley from which they operated for almost two hundred years is not far from Tehran. I was surprised to hear that archaeological research was going on there, so I made a point of visiting Alamut, the fortress castle of Hassan-i Sabbah, as my first stop outside Tehran.
The Assassin Cult, a name that may be derived from the Arabic “hashashin,” meaning hashish user, is surrounded in mystery and legend. This is in part because they were secretive, but also because the historical record we have of their activities is written from many different and conflicting perspectives. One of the best known of these, and probably least accurate, is that of Marco Polo. He is supposed to have visited Alamut in 1273, seventeen years after it was destroyed by the Mongols. The Mongols, under Hulagu Khan, grandson of Genghis, had proceeded from Alamut to sack Baghdad in 1258 and Damascus in 1260.
Marco Polo passed on a story about an “Old Man” luring young men to his castle and plying them into a stupor and three day sleep with hashish. When they awoke, they found themselves in a contrived paradise of wine, women, and song. The Old Man would then tell the young men that they could enjoy such a paradise permanently if they became assassins and died as martyrs.

The fortress at Alamut was woven into natural rock. Numerous caves, pits (used as cisterns), and tunnels suggest how the place was used to withstand seiges. It is said that the fortress ultimately fell to the Mongols because of an outbreak of cholera. Photo by Newsha Tavolakian.
Alamut is one of the most impressive settings for a fortress that I have ever seen. It sits 200 meters above the valley floor atop a rock so big that it makes the ruins of the castle on top look like the work of ants. Hassan-I Sabbah only lived here from 1094 to 1124, but the setting shows why it is no wonder that his followers were able to hold onto this place for so long. From the vantage point of the castle one can see the surrounding valley for miles. An invading army would first have to take a long trudge from the valley floor up to the rock. The side of the rock facing the valley is virtually vertical. An army would have to climb further, around back, where the big rock is less precipitous. With fortifications the back side would have been as daunting as the front.
When I visited Alamut, I met Hamedei Chubai, an archaeologist and director of excavations there. She had been working there for about five years and had established, from what I could tell, a very professional operation. There was an immaculate headquarters building with plenty of space for labs and visitors. A number of Iranian archaeologists and students were involved in research there.
Chubai accompanied me to the excavations on top of the rock. I saw that the whole top of the rock was covered in ruins. Chubai explained that after Hassan-i Sabbah’s castle was destroyed in 1256, others came and rebuilt. She took me down a ladder into rooms that ancient architects had built into a hole in the rock or on a ledge. She showed me how the brick workmanship of the lowest archaeological layer was superior to that of later times. This, she said, was the palace of Hassan-i Sabbah. He probably received visitors in that very room.

Dr. Hamedei Chubai isn't shy about her respect for Hassan-i Sabbah. She is shown here at the project headquarters with artifacts that may help her sort the truth from the fiction about the Assassins. Photo by Newsha Tavolakian.
Chubai doesn’t buy the hashish and paradise stories about Hassan-i Sabbah. “Really, I think he was a religious man, he was very insistent on his idea of rescuing Iran and the world from the oppressions of kings.” The religion she refers to is Isma’ili, a branch of the Shi’a community of Islam. Hassan-i Sabbah apparently identified himself as an imam with authority to pronounce new teachings to his sect that justified assassination as a religious duty. Among the kings Hassan-i Sabbah fought were the Abassid Caliphs of Baghdad and the Seljuk Turks who were occupying Persia at the time. She went on to explain how he was a very learned man, familiar with medicine, chemistry, and astronomy. He had an interest in educating others and most likely behaved as a strict role model. “I think this was the center of resistence for Iranian culture,” she said. For that reason, she says, Hassan-i Sabbah is famous in Iran, if not a hero.
It is interesting how someone can appear as a hero in one culture and a villain in another. There are obvious parallels today. This is part of what makes the story of the Assassin cult fascinating. It is a complex piece of the complex political and religious dynamics of the time. It involves the Caliphate of Baghdad, the Seljuk Turks, the Fatimid rulers of Cairo, Saladin (who suffered two Assassin attacks), and even the Crusaders, who the Assassins frequently saw as allies.
What do you think? Was Hassan-I Sabbah a hero or a villain?

by Chris Sloan

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