The Legendary Fortress of Hassan Sabah

By: Ideh Rashidi

 This text is a report of a trip to Alamut, a region on the southwest of the Caspian Sea and the northeast of Qazvin, near Lake Evan. It was the political and military center of Hassan Sabah, the founder of the Ismaili sect, which came about during the reign of the Seljuq king, Malekshah.
The ruins of the fortress of Hassan Sabah are at the summit of one of the mountains in the region and can be reached after trekking a long and treacherous road. Parts of the fortress that survived the ravages of time are twelve arches, remnants of some secret entrances to the fortress, and the relics of the stone walls of the main hall.
The desire to go on this trip awakened in me when I was halfway through the book "The Lord of Alamut". I kept thinking about this book and imagined its scenes in my mind. The historians contended that historical facts had been distorted, with some even calling this as "anti-history." However, my feelings were different. I remember how much I hated history at school, but on reading this book, as well as other historical novels, I became eager to learn more about the history of my country. I felt ashamed that I had not seriously absorbed the facts that I tried to learn by rote so many years ago.


Ten years had passed during which Alamut always reminded me of Hassan Sabah, the leader of the Ismaili sect and for whom Alamut was a sanctuary and a center of operations. I have not yet been able to evaluate him, either in a positive or negative light. He was as much a hero as a villain. He was as brave and able, as he was treacherous and cruel. Who was he really? How did he destroy Turkan Khatoon by deception in such a way that even today, nobody knows where her grave is? I thought that a visit to Alamut would reveal some secrets to me.


All these years, every time I asked how one could go to this place, I always received disappointing answers, such as: "There is only a road fit for donkeys and mules; you can't go there by car; it has very steep slopes; it is dangerous to go on foot and you definitely need an experienced guide ...". But I was not deterred. I heard that every year, tourists from all over the world see the place, so there must be a way.


It was a Thursday morning in early summer that a group of us finally set out. It was to be a two-day trip as we also wanted to go to Lake Evan, which is close to Alamut. We heard about this place and also saw a photograph of the beautiful lake on the cover of a monthly tourist journal. Only eight remained of the fifteen who had originally declared their willingness to go. Some were enthusiastic and others were just coming for recreation and diversion. While on the road, we started to exchange information with our guide about the place we were about to visit in order to create some excitement. We recounted the stories we heard about Hassan Sabah and about Alamut:


"Alamut is a mountainous region that lies southwest of the Caspian Sea and northeast of Qazvin. In the past, peasants scoured for medicinal herbs on its slopes, or carved out for themselves small farms and orchards where they planted herbs. The peasants sold these herbs to the urbanites, making Alamut one of the centers of herbal medicine and a source of herbal raw materials. It is said that the people of Alamut had a valuable collection of information on medicine, but when the Mongol Khan, Hulagu, occupied the fortress, he burned the books and destroyed "Lam-sar", the strongest battlement within the Alamut fortress."


The Tehran-Qazvin freeway easily brought us to the entrance gate of Qazvin, but thereafter, the road divided and there were no guiding signs. Even our guide could not find the way to Alamut. We went around the square several times hoping to find a sign that would point the way to where we wanted to go but none was in sight. So, we inquired from peddlers on the roadside and they pointed a way that we followed with some hesitation, until our guide said we were on the right trail. Nevertheless, we had stopped at every crossroad and waited for someone to show up to give us directions, occupying us to such an extent that we neglected to watch the beautiful scenery around us. It was really beautiful - a thick forest, vegetable gardens, heaps of wheat and undulating fields of green wheat, singing birds, the deep blue sky, the green land and a dark river flowing in between.


With every turn of the road, a singular vista opened before our eyes and we did not know from which window to look. Being in the middle of such a magnificent natural setting was such a delight that nobody complained of hunger, as if stopping to eat would cut short this sweet dream. I thanked God for being able to hear and see (and for all other senses that made me able to experience such a delicious feeling). I could see the same expression on the face of my fellow travelers.


After we passed "Mo'allem-Kalayeh", a small sign pointed the way to Lake Evan. This was the first sign we had ever encountered on this road. The guide reminded us that the program for the following day was a trip to the lake, which was an hours distance from Alamut. A few kilometers further, the road narrowed, becoming dusty and slippery as we advanced. The minibus we were riding was ascending the snaking road, with the driver dexterously trying to evade the large potholes still full of the previous day's rain. To achieve this, he sometimes pulled all the way to the side of the slippery road, making us hold our breath. We were all pinned to our seats, with our eyes fixed on the road. The exhilaration and thrill of a few moments earlier were replaced with fear and anxiety.


The minibus was ascending slowly. Some peasant women waved for the minibus to stop. We hesitated to do so, fearing that the vehicle might slide backwards. We passed them but the guide asked the driver to stop. The peasants then ran to board the minibus, pulling along boxes full of plums. We moved to make some space for them and in their local dialect, which was very similar to that of northerners, they exchanged greetings with us. They informed us that the only bridge on this road had collapsed so we should take another route, which was not very good but other minibuses were able to negotiate through. We continued on our way with anxiety. We would have not known what to do if another car came from the opposite direction. Along some parts, huge potholes had made the road very difficult to pass and the driver kept trying to avoid the holes as best as he could.


Finally, one of the women gave us the good news that the steep road was over. We inhaled a deep breath of satisfaction and started to watch the distant panorama of orchards, wild flowers, cucumber farms, and girls and boys waving happily in greeting. The minibus stopped in the middle of the village square and the guide told us we would have to stay at the hotel. We all looked for the hotel, which turned out to be on a two-storey building, with beautiful flowers planted in front of the second floor window. Compared to a regular house in the city, it was small, but it was cleaner and more sanitary than most of the other houses in the village. This was the only place available in the area where visitors could stay. The other place was the village school (but that needed a permit). We were lucky to find that the hotel's large and clean room was not occupied.


After moving our equipment and taking a rest, at around five in the afternoon, we started our ascent toward the Alamut summit. A number of youngsters wanted to show us the way and some villagers looked at us with curiosity. An old man told us to stay the night and watch a marriage ceremony in the village that was scheduled to take place in another hour.


Beside the first steep turn, an old woman sat next to a door and asked for pain relieving tablets. She complained of a persistent ache in her back. With some reservations and worrying about possible side effects, a member of our group finally gave her an analgesic. A few moments later, a bevy of children and adults were following us, asking for money, medicine, food and many other things. The guide told them we would see to their needs after we returned. We wanted to see the fortress before sunset.
From afar, the peak resembled a mountain, two-thirds of which had been cut off jaggedly and horizontally. The path was very narrow and steep. If I could not hear the voices of some young boys higher up, I would not have believed it possible to climb up. Every once in a while, the soil slipped from under our feet and we were stricken with terror at the thought of falling over the precipice. Yet, the pride of conquering Alamut kept us from returning along the half-completed road.


Considering that except for the guide, none of us was a mountain climber, we reached the top in one hour. An arched gate indicated the entrance to an open area and led us very close to a precipice. The guide explained that the followers of Hassan Sabah used many secret entrances. He pointed to some gateways that were hidden under rocks or trees, adding: "These entrances were connected to the main halls via tunnels dug under the rocks through soil, but all of them are now destroyed and blocked, with the passage of time."


One could still recognize the stone walls belonging to two large halls. The guide said the larger hall had probably been the dwelling of Hassan Sabah, but that the main building lay beneath our feet, covered with dust and rocks. From what we were saw, we could hardly imagine a battle fortress. We slowly walked up and down the boulders in silence. Everything looked ordinary and seemed just another mountain covered with sand, dust and wild plants.


On the extreme west of the peak, the guide pointed to a pit twenty meters below us on the slope of the mountain, which was called the pool. Apparently, during the winter, it became filled with snow and provided the residents of the fortress with water for the rest of the year.


From high up where we stood, the view of the village on the slope of the mountain was stunning. Alone and far from other people, isolated from their sadness and happiness, we could still hear their cheers. They were bringing in the bride.


To be located higher up than anyone else, being unreachable and remote induce a certain pride in human beings. Maybe this pride reduced the sense of sorrow, melancholy and loneliness the ancient residents of the fortress must have felt. I felt a strange sense of anticipating a revelation. We watched from between the boulders, hoping to find some new wonder and uncover a secret. How human beings long to unravel the secrets of the past, something they can never achieve. The best they can do is to bring their guesses and speculations closer to the truth. Yet, how easily we judge and even condemn, unjustly.


I was wishing I could sit, concentrate, and summon the ghost of Hassan Sabah so that I could find out what went on in his mind. So much struggle, so much defiance, so many killings of people who did not think like him. What was all that for? I wanted his ghost to tell me if he was happy with the course he took. In the thousands of years spanning the history of Iran, he played a brief role. But most Iranians and experts on Iran know him and his story. His ideals though are still shrouded in mystery. The question came to my mind: "Why was this historic region, with its strange fate, left so desolate and why is there no organization responsible for its preservation?"


The answer I heard only increased my consternation: "Paying more attention to this region may be construed as aggrandizing Hassan Sabah and his methods. People are worried that it may encourage his followers, increase their number, and, God forbid, spur them on to continue his path!"

How can such a thing be possible? What kind of application can that sort of thought have in our world? Are the roots of our faith so feeble that we will be swayed every which way any breeze blows? I do not consider myself a zealot, but I felt insulted. Aren't there Christians in our country? Aren't there churches, Zoroastrians and followers of other theistic religions? Aren't there sects with special rituals? How can one think that human beings can be led to salvation by putting constraints on their thoughts?
Human beings should learn the history of their land. They should learn about the mistakes of the past: the self-centered courses of actions, the one-dimensional outlooks. They must learn about good and bad so that they can distinguish between them when they encounter them in their lives.


The sounds of drum and horn reached a crescendo and echoed in the mountain. The sun was about to set. Anxious about the approaching darkness, we started to descend quickly. It seemed that the road became easier to follow. The guide smiled and said that we had climbed the wrong route, which of course was shorter.


We approached the village as the night spread its dark pall across the sky, a black cloak covered with shining jewels. What a beautiful night and how close were the heavens! They said that Alamut has one of the most beautiful starry nights in the whole of Iran. So many attractions, so many things to see in a village so close to Tehran, a book full of history and so many things left unsaid! With a little expenditure, this region can attract a great number of tourists and generate much income for its poor residents. A hidden treasure, the key to which are aspiration and some planning.


Next day at dawn, like many others who traveled before us, we were gone. But the long expectation of Alamut for an end to this several hundred years stupor would not yet come to pass.
I think everyone slept that night thinking about Hassan Sabah.