Exploring the Alamut Valley
By Amar Grover
Stand almost anywhere in Tehran, Iran’s vast sprawling capital, and the rugged ramparts of the Alborz Mountains fill its northern skyline. Dusted by snow even through the summer, the curving Alborz form a great barrier rising just inland from the lush Caspian littoral and separate it from the desert-like central Iranian plateau.
Within its deep folds lie countless valleys and among them the Alamut has the most prominent history. Stretching east to west, its upper end is framed by lofty snow-clad peaks while down-valley its rivers and streams drain away through a narrow gorge. It is this sheltered if not isolated terrain that helped make the strategic valley easily defensible, and which made it synonymous with an enigmatic 11th-century sect.
Alamut is probably better known as the ‘Valley of the Assassins’ – not, on the face of it, the most appealing name to entice today’s tourists. Yet the so-called assassins were an 11th-century order of the Nizari Ismailis, a Shia sect of Islam who increasingly resented the power and perceived greed of Persia’s ruling Seljuk dynasty.
Led initially by Hassan-e Sabbah, essentially a travelling missionary devoted to the cause, the Assassins controlled dozens of isolated strongholds scattered across northern Persia and Syria. Yet it was in Alamut where they galvanised a particularly sympathetic population, its fertile lands offering self-sufficiency while its cliffs and ravines proved ideal for eerie-like fortresses.
The Assassins made a spectacular and very public show of killing their enemies; rather than mass slaughter they generally chose individual high-profile political targets. It was a bold strategy that meant for a time they perhaps punched above their weight. Led by one of Genghis Khan’s grandsons the Mongols finally ended their precarious autonomy in around 1256.
Today the Alamut Valley is a picturesque backwater, its tranquil mountain-framed landscapes cocooning small villages that line the valley floor and occupy shelves of land bestriding side-valleys. Among lines of poplar trees stand neat terraces of rice paddy along with fields of barley, wheat and fruit orchards. Relatively little-visited, it’s only in recent decades that roads have penetrated its remoter corners bringing cars and pickups to see off once ubiquitous mules and donkeys.
Those once-feared castles also remain though today one visits more for the views and a sense of history than their surviving architectural fragments. Alamut, the Assassins’ famous base, is the best-known and stands perched implausibly atop a huge slab of tilted rock. Despite the stout climb to reach it, Alamut is probably the valley’s most popular destination and it’s worth remembering the fortress was never actually seized by force.
Overlooking Razmiyan village, Lamsar Castle is another well-known spot though you’re very likely to have it to yourself. A stepped path climbs into the stark lonely hills to a series of walkways and stairs. Navigating the final humps of bare rock, you reach what was probably the Assassins’ largest fortress. Portions of wall and bastions remain though much of this sloping plateau probably didn’t really need them: much of it ends in sheer drops to wild ravines below.
Beyond Alamut the main road weaves through the narrowing valley to Garmarud. Here amongst jagged crags lies Navisar Castle though you’ll be scrambling with goats to reach it. The road climbs further through a slender gorge to alpine-like meadows and higher still past Pichebon hamlet to a beautifully-sited part-ruined caravanserai. Just beyond it lies the Salambar Pass and if you’ve come this far you may as well plunge on into the adjoining valley that eventually leads to the lush subtropical Caspian.
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