Perched on the mountain peaks of the Alborz Mountains, in the northwest of Iran, the Alamut Castle is one of the most famous and mysterious castles in the country. There are only ruins remaining from the once majestic castle, but its historical importance and the legends around it continue to make this place worth visiting. In this article, discover the story of Hassan Sabbah and the Alamut Castle, best known under the name of “Fortress of Assassins”.
What is the Alamut Castle?
Nowadays, the Alamut Castle located in the Qazvin Province (Northwest of Iran) is referring to the ruins of an ancient fortress. There would be about 30 % left of the original structure, which was a 20.000 square-meter fort, whose construction started in the 9th century.
Located on top of a hill (1800-meter height), the castle is composed of two upper and lower parts, as well as quadruplet walls surrounded by precipices. Thanks to its location and architecture, the Alamut Castle was known as one of the most impregnable castles.
It became famous under Hassan Sabbah’s rule, a propagandist of the Ismailis, a Shia sect, that led a resistance again the Seljuk, the dynasty in power at the time in Persia. Hassan Sabbah and his followers were famous for leading assassinations, making the Alamut Castle known as the Castle or Fortress of Assassins.
The Story of the Alamut Castle
The story of the Alamut Castle starts in 891, when an ancient Persian king decided to start the construction of the castle. Two centuries before the reign of Hassan Sabah, this king was on a hunt when he saw a large eagle perched on top of a remote hill. Seeing this as a favorable omen and realizing the strategic value of the location, the king chose to build a castle there and to name it “Alamut”, which can translate to “Eagle’s nest”.
Hassan Sabbah and the Ismailis’ Story
It was in 1090 AD that the castle entered fame. This was when Hassan Sabbah took the castle to make it the center of the Ismailis. The Ismailis, also called Niazaris, are an esoteric branch of Shia Islam, that was persecuted by the Seljuk Empire.
There are various stories detailing how Hassan Sabbah took the castle. Some said he disguised himself as a teacher, others said he gradually converted locals and guards to infiltrate the castle. Whichever technique he used, it is said that he took control of the castle without spilling a drop of blood, and he would even have paid the former owner of the castle when taking it upon him.
Hassan Sabbah made the Alamut Castle the headquarter of the Ismailis and spent the rest of his life hiding there, reading and writing. From Alamut, Hassan Sabbah fomented an open rebellion against the Seljuk Dynasty and his followers took and built several other castles in the region.
He organized military groups to oppose a fierce resistance to the dominating dynasty, with one specificity for which the Ismailis became famous: political assassinations.
Hassan Sabbah and his followers, known as “the Assassins”, organized the murder of many important political figures, such as viziers, caliphs, and crusaders. It is even said that Kind Edward I of England narrowly escaped an Assassin’ attack. One of the most famous assassinations led by Hassan Sabbah’s sect took place in 1092, when one of his followers, disguised as a dervish, killed the Grand Vizier Nizam al-Molk on his journey from Isfahan to Baghdad.
The Legend of the Assassins
Western travelers have recorded in their travelogue the story of the Alamut Castle, often adding a hint of mystery. Marco Polo recalls the story of an “old man of the mountain” that would give drugs to his followers and promise them a paradise full of women and wine if they died following his orders (with suicide killings).
While there are many stories saying Hassan Sabbah’s followers would have been under the influence of drugs and alcohol to obey him, historians believe a large part of these tales are exaggerations. Yet, these legends have stayed in the popular culture, and served as an inspiration for the Assassins Creed video games and Prince of Persia movie.
The End of Alamut Castle’s Glory
The story of the Assassins took an end in 1256, when the Mongols invaded the region and took over the castle. Put under siege, the Assassins eventually had to submit. Inhabitants of the castle were killed, the large library where scientific scholars and philosophers used to study was burned, and the castle itself was gradually destroyed as kings kept searching for treasures that would have been hidden by the Assassins.
Later, the Alamut Castle also became a place of exile for political opponents and turned into a prison under the Safavid Empire. Left abandoned, it was only in the 19th century that the ruins of the castle were rediscovered.
How and When to Visit the Alamut Castle?
The Alamut Castle is one of the most significant castles in Iran, worth visiting for its historical significance and its beautiful natural surroundings. It is located in the northwest of Qazvin Province, above the small village of Moallem Kalayeh, some 230 kilometers away from Tehran (about 4 hours of road).
Expect some hiking to reach the Assassins’ fortress, as it is located on top of a hill, about 2000 meters’ height. It’s a moderate hike that requires a proper equipment (comfortable shoes). You’ll have to climb about 400 stairs with a slope of 35 degrees, for about 1 to 2 hours depending on your walking pace.
As it’s at a high altitude, the best time of the year to visit the Alamut Castle is during late spring and summer. While the view is amazing, the trail is often closed during winter due to heavy snow and reaching the top of the hill at that season requires professional training.