by Ryszard Antolak
“In a beautiful valley enclosed between two lofty mountains was created a magnificent garden stored with every delicious fruit and every fragrant shrub…By means of small conduits in magnificent buildings, streams of wine, milk, honey and pure water flowed in every direction. …and in order that none might stray into this delicious valley, a strong and impregnable fortress [Alamut] was built at the opening of it, through which entry was barred except by means of a secret passageway”.
– Travels of Marco Polo Ch 22 –
There is probably no other place in Iran better known around the world than the fortress of Alamut. This place has spawned so many legends of paradisiacal gardens, beautiful houris, intoxicated hashish addicts, ruthless assassins and other fanciful nonsense that they have reached to the utmost limits of incredulity.
Yet for all that, it is a truly awe-inspiring place. Even had you known nothing of its religious or political history; even if you had never heard of Hasan Sabbah, of the Assassins, the Ismailis or the grand proclamation of the Qiyamat, this place would seize the mind of any casual traveller who beheld it.
Alamut lies at the end of a tortured, winding road that twists and turns over three mountain ridges, countless valleys and across some of the wildest and most spectacular scenery in all Iran. No one comes here by accident. The 80kms journey from Qazvin takes some three hours of hard driving on a modern road that is only a few decades old. Before that, all that existed was a narrow donkey track to lead the traveller to his destination, a journey that could last days, and sometimes weeks.
The fortress itself clings impossibly to the summit of a gigantic boulder set against the high peaks of the Hawdeqan Mountains. The hills around it are folded in delicate shades of pastel green or lavender, pinkish in some places, terracotta in others. Ochres and browns are streaked in wide brush strokes across the landscape. It is a truly beautiful place.
But it is not until you come to the foot of this colossal mass of stone that you realize the immensity and impregnability of the fortress at its summit. Bigger than anything else in the world it seems, this rock is deeply scarred by grooves and curious striations that change colour with the quality of the light: now purple, now mauve, metallic grey, brown. You could almost believe this mass of rock was breathing like an immense, sleeping organism.
At the foot of the mountain on its western side lies the little village of Shotor Khan, nestled among orchards of pretty cherry trees. From this position, the rock appears as a slim, rugged pyramid. Juwayni, the chronicler of the Mongol siege of Alamut, compared it to a kneeling camel with its neck stretched out. But I could not envisage this. Rather as its name suggested, I imagined a giant eagle sitting on its nest and the fortress – a royal crown- perched high on its feathered head.
The ascent begins with 800 stone steps recently constructed for the benefit of visitors. Thereafter the path dwindles to a narrow goat track that winds its way laboriously around the northern side of the rock to its eastern side. Local village boys offer donkey rides up part of the track, but we declined the offer. One of them asked me where I had come from and I answered “Scotland”. Then seeing his confusion, quickly added, “England”. He smiled and nodded, repeating the only English phrase he knew: “I have a book. I have a book”, and disappeared down the track to his animals, laughing as he did so.
The last part of the climb is a hair-raising assault up a vertical cliffface covered in scaffolding and wooden planks. God only knows how people negotiated this part of the climb in Hasan’s day. Maybe, as my companion suggested, they were hauled up by rope, or there was some secret entrance long since lost.
Attaining the summit is a breath-taking and exhilarating experience. The fortress complex, one soon discovers, sits astride a dangerously narrow ledge of rock resembling the handle and blade of a knife. Precipitous slopes yawn on either side. You begin to experience a vague vertigo, a fear that you are only precariously on terra firma.
At the time of the Assassins, the fortress of Alamut consisted of two linked citadels, the first of which (the larger) was reached by a narrow tunnel to the east (which can still be seen). Excavations are continuing but much remains a mystery, a result of the deliberate dismantling of the fortress by the Mongols. Many of the buildings, it appears, were cut deeply into the rock so that the whole site was once honeycombed with countless subterranean passages and cavernous rooms. The mosque, for example, appears today as a giant chasm, or quarry, into which one peers from a great height, tens of metres above it. Slim, elegant pillars and walls of finely dressed stone can be made out in its dusty atmosphere. But there is no means of entry for the visitor. Elsewhere can be found stables, washhouses and rooms without doors or windows whose function may have been storage. No-one really knows.
In one of these rooms can be seen the legendary water basin which filled itself up by collecting rainwater and melting snow from channels and canals on the mountains. It was famed never to overflow. Other rooms were clearly intended for storage, perhaps once filled with barley, honey, oil, dried fruit and sheep fat to enable the citadel to hold out during a siege for years if need be. During its destruction by the Mongols, an invading soldier is reported to have fallen into one of these tanks and drowned in a vat of honey.
At the highest point and defended by its own walls and entrance gate, stands the inner citadel reserved exclusively for the Grand Master and his circle of associates. It is perched on yet a narrower neck of rock and consists of a long alleyway of low buildings clinging to both sides of a knife-edged ridge. The houses slope off slightly at an angle as if they were about to slip off the mountain to the earth, hundreds of feet below. The pathway inclines forward dangerously so that a barrier of plastic ribbon has been set up to prevent further access for the public.
Beyond it lies a smooth narrow ridge of rock stretching 100 metres or so to a dead-end overhanging a truly frightening precipice. Precariously perched at the end of this long slender finger of rock was the house of the Grand master of Alamut, Hasan Sabbah. His tiny cell was furnished with only a single window and stood out like a watch tower at the edge of the abyss: a kind of spiritual lighthouse raised against the darkness. Here the Grand Master spent the last thirty years of his life praying, writing and governing his scattered community. From his small monastic cell he sent out missionaries, spies and assassins all over the Middle East (and even as far away as Western Europe and India. He created a state of over 50 fortresses: an archipelago of gnosis, divine sparks of light in a universe of ignorance and darkness. Or so he believed. And the Gnosis that governed them was so secret that even today we have only fragments of the great jigsaw puzzle that ruled their lives.
The religious community of Alamut was committed to the cause of Nizari Ismailism, a radical Shiite interpretation of Islam formerly linked to the Fatimids of Egypt. Hasan Sabbah who was interested in all the advances of science, philosophy and poetry, developed the theology further. The Quran for him was an external shell enclosing a hidden spiritual truth. He read obscure inner meanings into its verses and formulated esoteric doctrines and abstruse theological hypotheses. The Mongols destroyed Hassan’s great library at Alamut so we have difficulty today piecing together their beliefs. But we can still discern something of the Order’s original structure. Hasan sat atop a hierarchy that descended through nine levels of initiation from da’is (missionaries), rafiks and lassiks at the top, to mujibs (or answerers) at the bottom. Above him was envisaged a similar (angelic) hierarchy, reaching into the heavens and up to God himself.
Hasan Sabbah acquired Alamut in 1090 and from that date onwards his agents worked with Jesuitical fervour to infiltrate their teachings into the strongholds of orthodoxy. He called some of his closest associates “assassiyun”, or people of the “assass” (the foundation of the faith). We might well call them “fundamentalists” today. Later the term was mistakenly taken to mean something to do with hashish. And in the West they became known as “Assassins”, a word that has come to mean the murder of any prominent individual for political ends.
Just like other political states, the Assassins engaged in war to protect their scattered communities. But they did not slaughter innocent soldiers pressed into the service of their masters. Instead, they used assassinations to strike at the rulers and potentates themselves. And for that reason they were reviled and slandered by the worst kinds of propaganda.
It was said that Hasan had spies and “sleepers” in every city of the Middle East. Disguised as merchants or carpenters, blacksmiths or bodyguards, they waited (sometimes for years or decades) for a signal from their master to execute his order whatever it might be. And they were willing to sacrifice their lives in the process. Only a few assassinations were necessary before the Ismaili sect gained such a reputation for terror that no-one dared move against them.
And yet only a few generations later this highly austere, hierarchical community, whose every action was governed by the strictest and severest of laws, transformed itself overnight into something wholly unprecedented.
In the year 1162 during the period of Ramadan, a successor to the Grand Master of Alamut (Hassan II) descended the fortress on the rock and addressed his followers from the place where the village now stands. On that momentous day (August 8th) he urged his community to turn their backs to Mecca and away from all outward forms of religion. He proclaimed the Qiyamat, the “Resurrection”, the announcement of a discontinuity in the flow of History and the passage of Time.
Islam had come of age, he told them. Its interior Truth had blossomed and burst free of its bonds. It no longer needed the outer code of the Law. The age of Sharia was over. Heaven, Paradise, Bliss, Redemption were all around them if they only looked with their spiritual eyes. Religion no longer meant an adherence to external laws. It was now a personal relationship between an “imam” and his followers. So all that had been forbidden was now allowed. On the doors of the great library of Alamut were inscribed the words: “With the aid of God, the ruler of the universe has destroyed the fetters of the Law (Shariah)”. Wine was drunk, music was played, people danced in the streets. A purely spiritual Islam of reformed Iranian Ismailism had been born.
But It did not last long. There was the inevitable backlash, various reactions and retractions. The Order began to weaken internally until the Mongols arrived to deal a final, swift death blow to the remaining shards of this religious experiment.
The Mongol leader (Hulagu) journeyed himself to the citadel in 1256 and ordered everything to be destroyed, including the famous library.Among the precious writings that disappeared were the works of Hasan himself and the complete history of the Assassins and their doctrines.
But just before the burning he allowed his historian Junayvi (who was writing a biography of the Mongol prince) to enter the library and bring out a few of the books, enough as would fit into a small wheelbarrow. No time was allowed to consider the matter. Junayvi hurriedly saved a few Qurans, a chronicle of Alamut and a biography of Hasan Sabbah. Everything else perished in the flames. The vast library filled with tens hundreds of thousands of manuscripts burned for seven days and seven nights bringing to an end the history of the Ismailis of Alamut. Over the years, knowledge of the Ismailis degenerated into misunderstandings, romances and other fanciful nonsenses such as those popularised by the explorer Marco Polo.
Or so it was believed. But later, as I sat sipping chai in the shade of the cherry trees below the famous rock, I started to doubt the commonly-held view. You reach a point, I realized, where you can have everything – all the facts, the dates, the various details slotted together into neat chronological order. And everything amounts to nothing. Only the heart redeems. And the language of the heart is not the language of fact. The history of the Assassins did not end with the sack of Alamut. Its ideas ran underground to inform Iranian Sufism for generations. Shams-e-Tabriz (the mentor of Jalaludin Rumi) was even rumoured to be the son of a grand master of Alamut. Facets of the doctrine were adopted by the Templars (and others) who introduced them to Europe. Strands of ideas ended up in the literature of the Holy Grail and the various Arthurian legends.
In the last resort Alamut is not just a mountain valley in northern Iran. It is a mandala of the heart, a place where the imagination finds a home outside of Time, where it feels intensely “grounded”.
If they ever existed, the legendary gardens of Marco Polo must have been situated at the foot of the mountain where I sat that hot July afternoon, sipping tea in the shade of the cherry trees. And for a brief moment perhaps, it seemed to me as if I really did inhabit paradise, and felt blessed with a rare form of peace.
So I lingered for a long time in the valley of Alamut wandering the various paths and tracks of that idyllic landscape until the sun sank low and I returned to the car. Then I was driven away in a cloud of dust, expelled like Adam from his homeland forever.