August 11, 2022

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The valleys of Assassins, a drive back in time

TEHRAN – One of the most amazing parts of Iran’s Qazvin province, the valleys of Assassins were once the spine of Hasan-e Sabbah (1070–1124) and his followers as remnants of their history are everywhere, hiding in the ancient sight.

In the 1930s, British-Italian explorer and travel writer Freya Stark described her exploration of the place in her book “The Valleys of the Assassins”.

Alamut is famed for a well-fortified castle nested on top of a hill, once sheltering the followers of Sabbah who was the spiritual leader of a heretical Ismaili sect, known as ‘Assassins’. Narratives say Sabbah led a bizarre, much-feared mercenary organization whose members were dispatched to murder or kidnap leading political and religious figures of the day.

Narratives say that the name Alamut, which means “eagle’s nest”, is associated with a regional 8th-century king who spied an eagle landing amid its rugged lofty crags and was inspired to build an impregnable fortress.

The ruined structure, better known as Alamut Castle, is now a top travel destination for both domestic and international sightseers. The castle is situated on the northeastern side of Gazor Khan village in the environs of Mo’alem Kalayeh.

Sandwiched between the dry and barren plain of Qazvin in the south and the densely forested slopes of the Mazandaran province in the north, the site, also known as  Alamut, draws many travelers with particular objectives in mind: to find the past in the present, to learn about other cultures, to have a breath of fresh air, or simply to get some distance from work, to cite a few.

To reach the castle, you 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.

Assassins believed their actions would transport them to paradise. Supposedly Sabbah cunningly cultivated such beliefs by getting his followers stoned on hashish (unbeknown to them) and then showing them beautiful secret gardens.

This notion, however, gave the sect its popular name ‘Hashish-iyun’, the root of the modern English term ‘assassin’. Or so the story goes. Peter Willey’s book, Eagle’s Nest, gives an altogether more sympathetic version, portraying Sabbah as a champion of the free-thinking, pro-science Islamic tradition and suggesting that the hashish tales were exaggerations designed to denigrate Ismaili Islam.

The castle was captured by Mongol ruler Hulagu Khan in 1256 using diplomatic trickery, having earlier forced the surrender of the Ismailis’ spiritual leader (Sabbah’s successor).

Sabbah’s rule from Alamut (which he renamed the City of Good Fortune) is shrouded in mystery and enigma. This is partly because most Ismaili records of the era were destroyed by the invading Mongols while the writings of their detractors survived.

The castle was almost forgotten and only returned to public consciousness with the publication of Stark’s 1930s travel diary Valleys of the Assassins. A copy of that recently reprinted volume makes a great companion for the trip.

Here is a selection of comments that visitors to the castle have posted to TripAdvisor, one of the most popular travel websites in the world:

‘Worth taking time to step up the stairs to the summit’

It is worth going there but should not be the only visit to Alamut! I met many tourists who just came there to visit the castle only, but it is a big mistake! Before the castle, I visited several places which were worth more!

I had a tour guide friend who gave me good tips and also he drove me to the places! His name is Farzad he has a page as Alamut eagle over here on trip advisor! (Fabian h. from Aachen, Germany)

‘Magical place’

The Alamut Castle offers some great views across the Alamut Valley, they are renovating parts of the castle, but already a very worthwhile place to visit. (Bastiaan v. from Utrecht, the Netherlands)

‘Fantastic view’

It is definitely worth climbing up the 500 steps to this castle for the views. The walk was relatively easy though you can hire a donkey or a horse.

The castle itself is in ruins but the unfortunate feature is the scaffolding that has been put up to give access. There are also rusty tin roofs covering much of the structure making photography almost impossible. (Sus1952 from Palmerston North, New Zealand)

‘Alamut fortress and its amazing view on the summit’

It took one hour and a half from Qazvin to Alamut. The road itself is beautiful with mountain scenery. It takes 20 minutes to step up the stairs and you are supposed to buy a ticket. The view of Ghazor khan village and horizon from the summit is perfect.

You must know that it is not the only point in Alamut if you have a plan to go there. My guide took me to some amazing lesser-known places in Alamut. Not bad to contact him if you are going to have a trip to Alamut. He is helpful to travelers and speaks fluent English. (Robinbackpacker from Paris, France)

‘Great Tour with Vahid’

I did a day trip to Alamut valley including Alamut castle with Vahid [a local guide] and had a blast! The nature in the valley, the canyons and the views from the castle are absolutely stunning!

Vahid showed me all the good places, stopped whenever I wanted to take some photos and I was also served a very delicious home-cooked lunch at a family that runs a guesthouse and restaurant next to the castle.

Vahid also explained a lot about the history of the castle and the region as I didn’t have much time to do any research in advance. He’s a really funny and knowledgeable guide and he even helped me to plan my onward journey the next day and helped me catch the right bus from the highway to Tabriz, I highly recommend him!! (Enamena from Stuttgart, Germany)

‘Breathtaking views’

Breathtaking views from the top of the Hasan Sabah fortress … 1300 steps up. Make sure you have good hiking shoes as it can be very slippery ( we had lots of snow end of March) and the hike up and down is not as easy as it looks. The castle is not in very good shape and has scaffolding all around but it is still worth going up.

Across the castle is your best option for overnight: Alamut tourism guest house. It also offers lunch if you are only traveling thru. It is a basic but great location and a helpful host family.


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