Fortresses of the Ismaili Assassins

Explore the impregnable fortresses of the notorious Ismaili Assassins in the dramatic and visually stunning Alamut region.

As the Fatimid regime of Egypt and Syria began to crack and fragment in the 1060s, the Ismaili community in Iran began to dig in, securing strongholds to defend their villages and land. This valley of the river Alamut soon gained an international reputation as the ‘Valley of the Assassins’, with its chain of impregnable fortresses dominating the trade routes, and its team of highly trained men willing to sacrifi ce their own lives to safeguard the leaders of the Ismaili community, such as Hassan al-Sabbah in Iran and Rashid al-Din Sinan in Syria (the ‘Old Man of the Mountains’ as described by the Crusader chronicler, Joinville).

These were the young men whose clandestine activities spread terror among the Crusaders and Muslim military leaders as they infi ltrated inner court circles to ‘remove’ those who threatened their own community – leaders like the Seljuk sultan and champion of Sunni Islam, Malik Shah (r1072–92), his vizier Nizam al-Molk (assassinated 1092) and Richard Coeur de Lion.

Alamut © Elaheabed CC BY-SA 4.0

As recorded by Marco Polo, rumours spread that Hassan al-Sabbah could instil such loyalty and single-mindedness only by drugging his followers with hashish (who were then known as hashashiyya, from which comes ‘assassin’) and promising them the delights of paradise.

The reality was that this was a tight-knit community with a rigid hierarchy under a charismatic leader – Hassan al-Sabbah – renowned for his scholarship and library. His death in 1124 resulted in serious disquiet within the community, and without the protection of the strongholds such as Alamut, perhaps its very survival would have been threatened.

Later successors followed more pragmatic policies, establishing links with neighbouring political powers, but the Mongol invasions changed all this. Circumstances allowed Hulagu, the Mongol commander, to seize and imprison the leader of the Iranian Ismaili community in Qazvin in 1256, heralding a massacre in which the fortresses were surrendered.

The community scattered throughout Iran but in the 1770s it was in control of Kerman and Bam, with the blessing of the Zand family. The leader of the Ismailis was honoured with the title of Agha Khan by Fath Ali Shah, but by 1840 the religious atmosphere had so changed that most of the community left for India and the rest scattered around central Asia, Pakistan and East Africa.