Alamut Castle: a visit to once impenetrable fortress of ‘Assassins’

June 19, 2021 - 18:13

TEHRAN – Perched on top of a steep hill, Alamut Castle was once sheltering the followers of Hasan-e Sabbah (1070–1124), the spiritual leader of a heretical Ismaili sect that spawned the word ‘Assassins’.

Alamut Castle is situated on the northeastern side of Gazor Khan Village in the environs of Alamut, Qazvin province. While approaching the village, visitors should pass for nearly half along a narrow road surrounded by cherry and pomegranate orchards, until a mass of gray-brown rock looms from distance with fortifications perched atop a summit.

The access path to the fortress starts about 700m beyond the village square and requires a steep 25-minute climb via a stairway.

Meaning “eagle’s nest”, Alamut is a geographic region in the western edge of the Alborz Mountain range, between the dry and barren plain of Qazvin in the south and the densely forested slopes of the Mazandaran province in the north.

Sabbah’s rule over Alamut is shrouded in mystery and enigma; partly because most Ismaili records of the era were destroyed by the Mongols while the writings of their detractors survived.

In the early 1930s, British-Italian explorer and travel writer Freya Stark described her exploration of the place in her book “The Valleys of the Assassins”. In her celebrated 1934 travelogue, she recounts her hike up to Nevisar with mules that "seemed to be standing on their hind legs."

These days Alamut is something of a great day out. Visitors can leave Tehran first thing in the morning for Qazvin, weave across the Alamut's first ramparts a few hours later, and, heading up-valley, reach Gazorkhan in time for a late lunch.

Most visitors -- virtually all Iranian -- regard the gorgeous mountain-rimmed valley as an idyllic weekend retreat. Villages and hamlets dot its floor and sides; cornfields and rice paddies occupy parcels of land between ravines, and irregular terraced plateaus ruffle the valley's picturesque undulating terrain.

Qazvin was once the capital of the mighty Persian Empire, under Safavids, from 1548 to 98. It is a major tourist destination with a wonderfully restored caravanserai-turned-arts precinct, some quirky museums, and a handful of decent eating options. For most travelers, Qazvin is also primarily the staging point for excursions to the famed castle of “Assassins”.


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