My Journey to Alamut Where Every Stone Tells a Story
By Ali M. Rajput
I am pleased to share with readers of Simerg an account of my memorable trip to the Ismaili Castle of Alamut, which became the capital of Ismaili power for 171 years, following the Nizari-Musteali Ismaili split upon the death of the Fatimid Imam, al-Mustansir. The trip took place during the summer of 2007, when I spent a total of 3 weeks in Iran.
I was accompanied by my son, Dr Karim Sultan Rajput. Most of the time, we stayed with old Ismaili friends in Tehran, Mashhad, Tus, Neshapur, Dizbad and several other Ismaili villages. We were able to renew ties of old friendships and made new friends within the Ismaili Jamat. We attended the Jamatkhana if there was one in the area we were visiting, and tried to understand the local issues and problems of the jamat. During our stays in Tehran, Mashhad and Dizbad we went to the Jamatkhana regularly.
Our main host was my very dear friend Hadi Mirshahi, originally from a very old Ismaili settlement of Dizbad, which was the centre of the mirshahi Ismailis and where many well-known personalities sprang up in the past. Hadi now lives in Mashhad where there is a sizable Ismaili Jamat. He had been our host for the entire time we were there, and we thank him and his wife and two sons for their hospitality and very great kindness.
One of the most important components of our journey was our visit to the celebrated castles of Alamut and Lamasar. Both of these castles are being excavated by the Iranian government which considers the Ismaili castles as their national heritage. We set aside three whole days for the sight seeing of these historical sites. We also examined the geographical, agricultural and cultural factors which helped sustain an Ismaili state for 171 years, considering the Jamat faced a combined threat from the powerful Seljuk Turks and the Sunni Caliphate of Baghdad. At the present time, a network of good roads makes it easier to reach these castles, and the whole mountain region is really well cultivated and prosperous.
Our excellent guide and driver was a young Ismaili engineer by the name Daryush, who was very well acquainted with this part of Iran. We began our journey in a small car from Tehran and took the highway heading north. We reached a junction road indicating the signs to Qazwin and Alamut. We wanted to explore the city of Qazwin first, and we took the road to the left and reached the city, which is the gateway to the district of Rudbar.
The city of Qazwin has a museum which throws a valuable light on its history of 11th and 12th centuries, when the city spearheaded the attacks by the Seljuk Turks against the Ismaili state. We had a fruitful discussion with the local scholars of the city on the subject of Alamut. After a short rest, we took the road leading to the district of Rudbar, and after some time we were traveling through the valley of Shahrud, the domain of the Ismailis confederation of the Ismaili State during the Alamut period.
The road that takes you to the district of Alamut is good, and the same road continues another 45 kilometres to the north towards the Caspian Sea, and to the castle of Lamasar.
I looked all over around the road, the hills and the valleys and was drowned in deep thought as I sank into the historical past. Then after some time I opened my eyes widely and shouted at the pitch of my voice “ALAMUT, ALAMUT, this is the valley of Alamut.”
The landscape seemed so familiar that I felt as if I had walked on these hills many times in the past. But this was the first time I had ever put my foot on these highlands. As I went back into history, I recollected the deep dedication and devotion with which Ismaili fidais had served the Imams so well by completing their assignments successfully. I felt gratified and humbled that I myself had devoted my life in the service to the Imam.
Times have changed to an angle of 180 degree, and the demands and nature of service have altered according to the changing times. The assignment of a fidai was dangerous and life threatening. In the present time, services to the Imam are offered in more peaceful circumstances. But are they less demanding? Not really, if one thinks about it, because service needs the same sincerity and complete devotion today as it did in the past. This notion of sincerity, complete devotion and serving the Imam with humility and a proper understanding of our faith should not change with time.
We arrived at the village of Gazar Khan whose population claims to be the descendants of Kiya Buzurg Umid, the second hujjat (proof or representative of the Imam) of the Castle of Alamut. The residents take pride in their ancestry, and relate the story of their past. They believe that after the fall of Alamut in 1256, and the subsequent massacre of the Ismaili population, those who survived and could not escape to distant lands had no option but to stay on. During the Safawid rule the residents were forced to adopt Twelver Shiism and as a consequence there are today no Ismailis living in the vicinity. We took leave of the village and headed towards the Alamut Castle.
The valley of Alamut is green and full of cherry orchards. A local cherry-grower told us that they harvest the fruit in the early hours of the morning. The fruit is then immediately flown to Dubai and reaches the breakfast table of the Emirate’s aristocracy. The castle of Alamut is only one kilometre away from the centre of the village. We wanted to purchase a kilo of fresh cherries but the owner would not accept any money from us. Instead, he gifted a couple of kilos to us in the memory of the “Old Man of the Mountain,” as they used to call Hasan-i Sabbah.
We proceeded on our journey and after a short while of driving, a tall black rock of black granite appeared in the horizon. At once I recognized it as the unassailable rock of Alamut and the famous castle of Alamut nesting on top of this huge mountain of granite stone. This was the Capital of a Confederation of the Ismaili State founded in 1090 AC, by a great genius of all times, Hasan-i Sabbah which lasted for 171 years against formidable enemies and ultimately surrendered before the Mongols in 1256 AC. The Ismaili State was defended by a string of castles, over one hundred in number and Alamut being the capital of the State.
The entry point of the castle is on the opposite side of the road, and so we parked our car at a suitable parking space and proceeded to the entry point on foot. The Iranian government was excavating the site to preserve it as their national heritage, and had erected some scaffoldings as well as some staircases to climb to the top. The climb seemed very high, especially for me, considering that I was 84 years old then. Formidable indeed, and I wondered if I had ever be able to make it to the top.
My son, Karim, kept on encouraging and motivating me and I was also extremely determined to reach to the top. We saw a horse for hire, and Karim hired it for $5.00 to give me a ride. The horse owner agreed to take me, but only half way up, saying that the remaining half was too steep and slippery even for the horse to climb. Once I had dismounted the horse half-way up, I began the upper half of the climb on foot. Taking my time, slowly and steadily and with resolute determination and effort, I managed to reach the top of the rock.
We were now standing on the sacred grounds of the castle of Alamut. I looked at the over grown site of the castle of Alamut, and was dumbfounded for ten minutes. I had to hold back my tears to avoid embarrassment.
We had reached the sacred site of the capital of the Ismaili State and the center of the Ismaili Dawa for more than 171 years. This was the place chosen as the refuge for the Ismaili Dawa by one of the greatest genius of all times, Hujjat Hasan-i Sabbah, who laid the foundations of an Ismaili State, and where he resided the last 35 years of his life. This was the place where seven Ismaili Imams resided, which included Hasan ‘Ala dhikrihi al-Salam who made a declaration of Al-Qayamah.
List of Nizari Ismaili Rulers at Alamut (1090-1256 CE)
NIZARI ISMAILI DAI’S WHO RULED AT ALAMUT
1. Hasan-i Sabbah (1090–1124)
NIZARI ISMAILI IMAMS WHO RULED AT ALAMUT
1. Imam Hasan ‘Ala dhikrihi al-Salam (1162–1166)
Here the great scholarship of the two centuries flourished and one of the celebrated libraries was housed. After an uninterrupted rule of 171 years, a conspiracy of the enemies of both within and without, the Ismailis were compelled to surrender to the barbarian Mongols. It was here that the last Lord of Alamut and the Imam of the Ismailis, Imam Rukn al-Din Khurshah surrendered before Halagu Khan.
It was here that the Mongols violated their own treaty of peaceful existence with the Ismailis. When the Ismailis surrendered all of their castles – over one hundred in number – the Mongols invited all Ismailis including old and young under false pretence and then massacred them all, some 200,000 souls, the other made their escape some how.
“None of those peoples be spared, not even the babe in the cradle,” declared the Mongol edict. According to the testimony of the Mongol historian Juwaini and other contemporary historians it was generally believed that after the fall of Alamut, the Ismailis were completely wiped out from their usual habitat.
It does not however, seem to be the case. The evidence available from the local histories of Gilan and Daylaman and also the examination of the Ginanic literature of the Indian sub-continent, amplifies that Alamut was once again re-occupied by the Ismailis and was the place of residence of the Imam Islam Shah.
The region of Alamut is situated in Daylaman, a province of northern Iran, south of the Caspian Sea. Pir Sahib al-Din and his successor son, Pir Sadardin whose centre of dawat was situated at Uchch in Sind, have a number of ginans (devotional songs) attributed to them which speak of Daylam-Desh, Gar-Alamut and the lofty mountains of the Ismaili kingdom, and also mention the Imam of that age, namely Imam Islam Shah who resided in the castle of Alamut. The Pirs went to pay homage to the Imam of the time. In one of the ginan’s attributed to Sahib al-Din, the Pir says:
For, in the land of Daylam
The great king, my lord has descended
Imam has arrived in the garb of a human being
At the castle of Alamut, the capital of the land of Daylam
You are our lord, the Mahdi,
Lord Islam Shah, the granter of boons
How blessed is the region of Alamut
Where you have established your physical residence
Thus Alamut was only vacated 150 years later in favour of a safer and more convenient place known as Anjudan.
We had a detailed discussion with the station civil engineer in charge of the project of the excavation of the site. We learnt that the castle of Alamut had been used as a high security prison by the Safawid rulers. These new masters made some changes in its buildings, which have been marked and identified as such. As the excavation of the site nears completion, a clearer picture is beginning to emerge and this valuable information will enrich the Ismaili history of those times. A second similar project will cover the site of the castle of Lamasar, a further 45 kilometres to the North.
This trip to Alamut was one of the most important ones in my life. For those of us in the Jamat who are aware of the Ismaili history of that time, this is indeed a place of pilgrimage full of unforgettable traditions and rich heritage.
To me every stone of Alamut tells us a story and indeed is very sacred in my eyes.
Profile of Ali M. Rajput at Contributors.
Subscribe at top right of this page to receive new post notifications. We welcome feedback from our readers. Your feedback may be edited for length and brevity, and is subject to moderation. We are unable to acknowledge unpublished letters.