Alamut Castle stands today as a reminder of one of Islam’s darker periods and as a warning against the dangers of religious fundamentalism. From here, anti-Abbasid militants spent three centuries terrorizing their rivals, including the Caliphate, moderate or secular Sunnis, schismatic Shiites and just about anyone else who crossed their paths. At the height of their power the very mention of the Hashashin instilled fear Cairo to Mashhad. It took the might of the Mongol Empire to finally lay them low. While most of their strongholds were totally destroyed, much of Alamut Castle, where Heaven and Hell stood side by side, can still be visited.
Of the many splinter cults that have sprouted from Islam over the centuries, perhaps none are as terrible or as fascinating as that of the Hashashin, or Assassins. The Order of the Hashashin is believed to have been born sometime in the 8th century, after the Abbasid rise to power, or possibly even as early as the Sunni-Shiite schism. Essentially an anti-Abbasid organization devoted to removing the Caliph from power, the early Hashashin were probably little more than militants who opposed the religious and secular authorities in Baghdad.
The near-legendary history of the Hashashin really begins in the 11th century, when its most famous member, Hasani Sabah, established a stronghold at Alamut Castle. It was under Sabah, the Old Man of the Mountain, that initiation rites and training became ritualized. Portions of the castle were adapted to theatrics for the brainwashing of new members. Initiates were alternately exposed to elaborate visions of Heaven and Hell, with the promise to reward members with the former or punish lapsed or incompetent members with the latter. Sabah’s training techniques were very successful, creating a cadre of fearless and skilled terrorists. For the next century and a half, the Hashashin wrought chaos among Sunni leaders and anyone else who they perceived to stand in their way. But while many Abbasids were slain at the hands of the drug-induced cultists, the Hashashin never achieved their political aims in this matter.
Legend has it that one of the Order’s members even managed to infiltrate the command tent of Saladin, but only left behind a note of warning, not a corpse. After a brief military engagement with the Hashashin, Saladin decided it would be easier and safer to simply make peace with them. Until the crusades, the business of the Assassins was strictly a Muslim affair. However, several prominent Christian leaders were killed by the Order, and it is believed that some were hired by Christians as mercenaries to dispatch their political rivals. The power and influence of the Hashashin lasted until the middle of the 13th century. When the Mongol horde of Hulagu Khan arrived in 1256 AD, they sacked Alamut Castle, along with the other Hashashin strongholds and most of the nearby cities.
The Hashashin never recovered from the destruction of the Mongols, and within a few decades the Order was all but a memory. There is no account of any serious attempt at resuscitating the Order, and any surviving members probably moved on to other endeavors. However, many of the ideals, goals and methods of modern-day Islamic fundamentalist militancy trace their roots back to the Hashashin. Today the ruins of Alamut Castle have become a symbol of praise by some, loathing by others, and is one of the world’s most nefarious of castles.
One of the most impressive things about Alamut Castle is its sheer inaccessibility, which is perhaps why the Hashashin chose it as their chief lair. The only way to reach the fortress was by way of a narrow, man-made trail that hugs the cliff. In fact, the castle was never conquered; it was yielded to the Mongols in exchange for leniency. That trail is still there today, and is still realistically the only way to get in. Much of the castle is now in ruins, caused by earthquakes and natural decay. But they are still a magnificent site, especially set against the backdrop of the Alborz Mountains.
Because the damage was not manmade, and because the site was not turned into a quarry, the outline of the castle and its many chambers can easily be traced. One of its tall towers still remains standing, clawing precariously at the sky. As of this writing, it is known that the Iranian government is making an effort to restore the site. However, the extent and timetable of the work is not known. Most of the work appears to on the outer walls and slopes of the castle and hill, both of which are currently covered in scaffolding. No other information is available concerning this restoration work.
Qazvin is located in Northern Iran on the road from Tehran to Tabriz, approximately 70 miles south of the Caspian Sea. Qazvin and Alumut Castle are very far off the beaten path, and tourist information is extremely limited. There is no official tourist infrastructure at Alamut Castle, and as an open-air ruin, presumably has no restriction regarding days and hours of operation. Due to current diplomatic difficulties, it is unknown whether or not this situation may have or will change. Web: www.tourismiran.ir (official tourism website of Iran).
According to tradition, there were seven Castles of the Hashashin, although in truth they controlled a vast network of fortresses and secret strongholds across the Islamic world. In addition to Alamut, the other castles most worth seeing are Lamsar Castle, which is actually larger and better preserved, and Rudkhan Castle. There is little left to see of the others.