Alamut Castle

General information
Type Castle
Location Alamut region, Qazvin Province of Iran
Town or city Moallem Kalayeh
Country Iran
Coordinates 36°26′40.63″N 50°35′9.58″E / 36.4446194°N 50.5859944°E / 36.4446194; 50.5859944
Completed 602
Destroyed 1256

Alamut (Persian: الموت, meaning "eagle's nest") was a mountain fortress located in Alamut region in the South Caspian province of Daylam near the Rudbar region in Persia (Iran), approximately 100 km (60 mi) from present-day Tehran.[1]:23

Between 1090 and 1256 AD, under the leadership of Hasan-i Sabbah, Alamut became the site of intense activity for the Shi'a Nizari Ismai'lis, functioning as the headquarters of their state, which was consisted a series of unconnected strategic strongholds scattered throughout Persia and Syria, surrounded by huge swathes of hostile territory (the Seljuq Empire). In 1256, Ruknu-d-Dīn Khurshāh surrendered the fortress to the invading Mongols, and its famous library holdings were destroyed. Sources on the history and thought of the Ismailis in this period are therefore lacking and the majority extant are written by their detractors. After the Mongol destruction, the castle was of only regional significance, passing through the hands of various local powers. Today, it lies in ruins, but because of its historical significance, it is being developed by the Iranian government as a tourist destination.


The origins of the Alamut fortress can be traced back to the Justanid ruler, Vahsudan, who, during a hunting trip, witnessed a soaring eagle perch down high on a rock.[2]:29 Realizing the tactical advantage of the location, he chose the site for the construction of a fortress, which was called "Aluh āmū[kh]t" likely meaning "Eagle's Teaching" or "Nest of Punishment".[2]:29[3][4][5] Alamut remained under Justanid control until the arrival of the Ismaili chief da’i (missionary) Hasan-i Sabbah to the castle in 1090 AD, marking the start of the Alamut period in Ismaili history.

List of Nizārī Ismā'īlī rulers at Alamut (1090–1256 AD)

Nizārī Ismā'īlī Da’is who ruled at Alamut

  1. Hassan-i Sabbah (حسن صباح) (1090–1124)
  2. Kiya Buzurg-Ummid (کیا بزرگ امید) (1124–1138)
  3. Muḥammad ibn Kiyā Buzurg-Ummīd (محمد بزرگ امید) (1138–1162) Muhammad bin Kiya Buzrug Ummid (Turkish)

Nizārī Ismā'īlī Concealed Imāms at Alamut

  1. Ali al-Hâdî ibn Nizār ibn al-Mustanṣir billāh El-Hâdî bin el-Nizâr (Turkish)
  2. Al-Môhtadî ibn al-Hâdî (Muhammad I) El-Môhtadî bin el-Hâdî (Turkish)
  3. Al-Qahir ibn al-Môhtadî bi-Quwat’ûl-Lâh / bi-Ahkâmî’l-Lâh (Hassan I) El-Kahir bin el-Môhtadî bi-Kuvvet’ûl-Lâh / bi-Ahkâmî’l-Lâh (Turkish)

Nizārī Ismā'īlī Imāms who ruled at Alamut

  1. Imām Hasan ‘Ala Dhikrihi al-Salam (Hassan II) (امام حسن علی ذکره السلام) (1162–1166)
  2. Imām Nūr al-din Muhammad (Muhammad II) (امام نور الدین محمد) (1166–1210) Nūr al-din Muhammad II (Turkish)
  3. Imām Jalal al-Din Hasan (Hassan III) (امام جلال الدین حسن) (1210–1221)
  4. Imām ‘Alā’ ad-Dīn Muḥammad (Muhammad III) (امام علاء الدین محمد) (1221–1255) ‘Alā’ ad-Dīn Muḥammad III (Turkish)
  5. Imām Rukn al-Din Khurshah (امام رکن الدین خورشاه) (1255–1256)


Following his expulsion from Egypt over his support for Nizar bin Mustansir, Hasan-i Sabbah found that his co-religionists, the Ismailis, were scattered throughout Iran, with a strong presence in the northern and eastern regions, particularly in Daylaman, Khorasan and Quhistan. The Ismailis and other occupied peoples of Iran held shared resentment for the ruling Seljuqs, who had divided the country’s farmland into iqtā’ (fiefs) and levied heavy taxes upon the citizens living therein. The Seljuq amirs (independent rulers) usually held full jurisdiction and control over the districts they administered.[6]:126 Meanwhile, Persian artisans, craftsmen and lower classes grew increasingly dissatisfied with the Seljuq policies and heavy taxes.[6]:126 Hasan too, was appalled by the political and economic oppression imposed by the Sunni Seljuq ruling class on Shi'i Muslims living across Iran.[6]:126 It was in this context that he embarked on a resistance movement against the Seljuqs, beginning with the search for a secure site from which to launch his revolt.

The capture of Alamut

Hashshashin fortress of Alamut

By 1090 AD, the Seljuq vizier Nizam al-Mulk had already given orders for Hasan’s arrest and therefore Hasan was living in hiding in the northern town of Qazvin, approximately 60 km from the Alamut castle.[1]:23 There, he made plans for the capture of the fortress, which was surrounded by a fertile valley whose inhabitants were mainly fellow Shi’i Muslims, the support of whom Hasan could easily gather for the revolt against the Seljuqs. The castle had never before been captured by military means and thus Hasan planned meticulously.[1]:23 Meanwhile, he dispatched his reliable supporters to the Alamut valley to begin settlements around the castle.

In the summer of 1090 AD, Hasan set out from Qazvin towards Alamut on a mountainous route through Andej. He remained at Andej disguised as a schoolteacher named Dehkhoda until he was certain that a number of his supporters had settled directly below the castle in the village of Gazorkhan or had gained employment at the fortress itself.[1]:23 Still in disguise, Hasan made his way into the fortress, earning the trust and friendship of many of its soldiers. Careful not to attract the attention of the castle’s Zaydi ‘Alid lord, Mahdi, Hasan began to attract prominent figures at Alamut to his mission. It has even been suggested that Mahdi’s own deputy was a secret supporter of Hasan, waiting to demonstrate his loyalty on the day that Hasan would ultimately take the castle.[1]:23

Earlier in the summer, Mahdi visited Qazvin, where he received strict orders from Nizam al-Mulk to find and arrest Hasan who was said to be hiding in the province of Daylaman. Upon his return to the Alamut fortress, Mahdi noticed several new servants and guards employed there. His deputy explained that illness had taken many of the castle’s workers and it was fortunate that other labourers were found from the neighbouring villages. Worried about the associations of these workers, Mahdi ordered his deputy to arrest anyone with connections to the Ismailis.[1]:22

Mahdi’s suspicions were confirmed when Hasan finally approached the lord of the fortress, revealing his true identity and declared that the castle now belonged to him. Immediately, Mahdi called upon the guards to arrest and remove Hasan from the castle, only to find them prepared to follow Hasan's every command. Astounded, he realized he had been tricked and was allowed to exit the castle freely.[1]:23 Before leaving however, Mahdi was given a draft of 3000 gold dinars as payment for the fortress, payable by a Seljuq officer in service to the Ismaili cause named Ra’is Muzaffar who honoured the payment in full.[1]:23 The Alamut fortress was captured from Mahdi and therefore from Seljuq control by Hasan and his supporters without resorting to any violence.[1]:24

Construction and intellectual development

With Alamut now in his possession, Hasan swiftly embarked on a complete re-fortification of the complex. By enhancing the walls and structure of a series of storage facilities, the fortress was to act as a self-sustaining stronghold during major confrontations. The perimeters of the rooms were lined with limestone, so as to preserve provisions to be used in times of crisis. Indeed, when the Mongols invaded the fortress, Juwayni was astonished to see stored countless supplies in perfect condition to withstand a possible siege.[1]:27 Recent work by Iranian archeologists at the northern gate of the fortress revealed two interconnected cellars, likely used as private spaces or for food storage.[7]

Next, Hasan took on the task of irrigating the surrounding villages of the Alamut valley. The land at valley’s floor was arable land, allowing for the cultivation of dry crops including barley, wheat and rice. In order to make available the maximum amount of cultivable land, the ground was terraced under Hasan's direction.[1]:27 The sloping valley was broken up into step-like platforms upon which abundant food could be cultivated. In times of need the surrounding villages were well equipped to furnish the castle with ample supplies.

The construction of Alamut's famous library likely occurred after Hasan's fortification of the castle and its surrounding valley. With its astronomical instruments and rare collection of works, the library attracted scholars and scientists of a variety of religious persuasions from around the world who visited it for many months at a time, hosted by the Ismailis.[1]:27 By and large the writings of the Persian Ismailis, both scientific and doctrinal, did not survive beyond the Alamut period. In addition to the rich literature they had already produced in Arabic, the relocation of the Ismaili center to Iran now prompted a surge in Persian Ismaili literature.[6]:121 The bulk of Nizari writing produced in this period however, was lost or destroyed during the Mongol invasions. While the majority of Alamut's theological works on Ismailism were lost during the library’s destruction, a few significant writings were preserved including the major anonymous work of 1199 AD entitled Haft Bāb-i Bābā Sayyidnā and a number of treatises by Nasir al-Din al-Tusi.

One of the earliest losses of the library came during the early years of the Imam Jalal al-Din Hasan’s leadership at Alamut. In keeping with his principles of bridging the gaping relations between the Persian Ismailis and the broader Sunni world, Imam Jalal al-Din Hasan invited a number of religious scholars from the town of Qazvin to visit the castle's library and burn any books they deemed heretical.[6]:121 However, it was not until under the direction of the Mongol ruler, Hulegu Khan, when the Mongols ascended to the fortress in December 1256 AD, that the Alamut library was lost. With the permission of Hulegu, Juvayni explored the library and selected a few works he deemed worthy of salvaging, before the remainder was set aflame. His choice items included copies of the Qur'an, a number of astronomical instruments and treatises, and a number of Ismaili works. An anti-Ismaili, Ata-Malik Juvayni's personal leanings were the sole measure of heretical content of the library's doctrinal works.[1]:66 Thus, some of the richest treatises regarding the tenets of Ismaili faith were lost with his destruction of the library. From his tour and survey of the castle, Juvayni compiled a description of Alamut that he incorporated into his chronicle of the Mongol invasions, entitled Tarikh-i Jahangushay-i Juvaini ("The History of the World Conqueror").[2]:31

Concealment and emergence: Imamat at Alamut

With the death of Hasan-i Sabbah in 1124 AD, the Alamut fortress was now in the command of the da’i Kiya Buzurg Ummid, under whose direction Ismaili-Seljuq relations improved.[1]:34 However, this was not without a test of the strength of Buzurg Ummid’s command, and consequently the Seljuqs began an offensive in 1126 AD on the Ismaili strongholds of Rudbar and Quhistan. Only after these assaults failed did the Seljuq sultan Sanjar concede to recognise the independence of the Ismaili territories.[1]:34 Three days before his death, Kiya Buzurg-Ummid designated his son Muḥammad ibn Kiyā to lead the community in the name of the Ismaili Imam.

Muhammad ibn Kiya Buzurg

Accordingly, Muḥammad succeeded Kiya Buzurg Ummid in 1138 AD. Though they expected some resistance to his rule, the fragmented Seljuqs were met with continued solidarity amongst the Ismailis, who remained unified under Muhammad's command.[8]:382 The early part of Muhammad's rule saw a continued low level of conflict, enabling the Nizaris to acquire and construct a number of fortresses in the Qumis and Rudbar regions, including the castles of Sa’adat-kuh, Mubarak-kuh, and Firuz-kuh.[8]:383 Muhammad designated his son Hasan, born in 1126 AD, to lead the community in the name of the Imam. Hasan was well trained in Ismaili doctrine and ta’wil (esoteric interpretation).

Imam Hasan ‘ala dhikrihi al-salam

Taken by illness in 1162 AD, Muhammad was succeeded by Hasan, who was then about thirty-five years of age.[9]:25 Only two years after his accession, the Imam Hasan ‘ala dhikri al-salam, apparently conducted a ceremony known as qiyama (resurrection) at the grounds of the castle of Alamut, whereby the Imam would once again become visible to his community of followers in and outside of the Nizārī Ismā'īlī state. Given Juwayni's polemical aims, and the fact that he burned the Ismā'īlī libraries which may have offered much more reliable testimony about the history, scholars have been dubious about his narrative but are forced to rely on it given the absence of alternative sources. Fortunately, descriptions of this event are also preserved in Rashid al-Din’s narrative and recounted in the Haft Bab-i Abi Ishaq, an Ismaili book of the 15th century AD. However, these are either based on Juwayni, or don't go into great detail.[10]:149 No contemporary Ismaili account of the events has survived, and it is likely that scholars will never know the exact details of this time.

The Imam Hasan ‘ala dhikrihi al-salam died only a year and a half after the declaration of the qiyama. According to Juwayni, he was stabbed in the Ismaili castle of Lambasar by his brother in law, Hasan Namwar.

Ismaili version of the Alamut history

What little we know about the Imamate at Alamut is narrated to us by one of the greatest detractors of the Ismailis, Juwayni. According to the Ismaili version of the events, in the year following the death of the Imam-Caliph al-Mustansir, a qadi (judge) by the name of Sa’idi travelled from Egypt to Alamut, taking with him Imam Nizar’s youngest son, who was known as al-Hadi.[8]:391 Imam Hadi apparently lived in concealment in the Alamut valley, under the protection of Hasan-i Sabbah, then the chief da’i of the Nizari Ismaili state. Following him were Imam Muhtadi and Imam Qahir, also living in concealment from the general population, but in touch with the highest-ranking members of the Ismaili hierarchy (hudūd). These living and visible proofs of the existence of the concealed Imams are known in Ismaili doctrine as hujjat (proof). The period of the Imam’s concealment was marked by central direction from the chief da’i at the Alamut fortress across the Nizari Ismaili state. With the emergence of Imam Hasan ‘ala dhikri al-salam however, the period of concealment (saṭr) was now complete.

Imam Nūr al-Dīn Muhammad

Succeeding Hasan 'ala dhikri al-salam in 1166, was the Imam Nūr al-Dīn Muhammad II, who, like his father and the imams of the pre-Alamut period, openly declared himself to his followers. Under the forty-year rule of the Imam Nur al-Din Muhammad, the doctrine of Imamate was further developed and, consistent with the tradition of Shi'i Islam, the figure of the Imam was accorded greater importance.

Further information: Nur al-Din Muhammad II

Imam Jalal al-Dīn Hasan

Within Persia, the Nizaris of the qiyama period largely disregarded their former political endeavours and became considerably isolated from the surrounding Sunni world. The death of Muhammad II however, ushered in a new era for the Nizaris, under the direction of the next Imam Jalal al-din Hasan. Imam Jalal al-Din Hasan invited Sunni scholars and jurists from across Khurasan and Iraq to visit Alamut, and even invited them to inspect the library and remove any books they found to be objectionable.[8]:405 During his lifetime, the Imam Jalal al-Din Hasan maintained friendly relations with the `Abbasid Caliph al-Nasir. An alliance with the caliph of Baghdad meant greater resources for the self-defence of not only the Nizari Ismaili state, but also the broader Muslim world.[9]:29

Further information: Jalaluddin Hasan

Imam ‘Ala al-Din Muhammad

After his death in 1221, Imam Jalal al-Din Hasan was succeeded by his son ‘Ala al-Din Muhammad. Ascending to the throne at only nine years of age, Imam 'Ala al-Din Muhammad continued his father's policy of maintaining close relations with the Abbasid caliph.[8]:406 Under the leadership of Imam 'Ala al-Din Muhammad, the need for an Imam to constantly guide the community according to the demands of the times was emphasized. Intellectual life and scholarship flourished under the rule of Imam 'Ala al-Din Muhammad. The Nizari libraries were invigorated with scholars from across Asia, fleeing from the invading Mongols.[6]:147 Among these intellectuals, some, including Naṣīr al-Din Tusi, were responsible for important contributions to Ismaili thought towards the end of the Alamut period. Having written on the topics of astronomy, philosophy, and theology, Tusi's notable contributions to Ismaili thought include Rawdat al-Taslim (Paradise of Submission), which he composed with Hasan-i Mahmud Katib, and Sayr va Suluk (The Journey), his spiritual autobiography. Following his two major ethical works, al-Tusi studied under the patronage of the Ismaili Imam at the Alamut library until it capitulated to the Mongols in 1256.

Imam Rukn al-Din Khurshah

By the time of Imam 'Ala al-Din Muhammad’s murder in 1255, the Mongols had already attacked a number of the Ismaili strongholds in Quhistan. Imam 'Ala al-Din Muhammad was succeeded by his eldest son Imam Rukn al-Din Khurshah who engaged in a long series of negotiations with invading Mongols, and under whose leadership, the Alamut castle was surrendered to the Mongols.[11]

Further information: Ruknu-d-Dīn Khurshāh

The Mongol invasion and collapse of the Nizari Ismaili state

Siege of Alamut 1213-1214, depicted in the Jami' al-tawarikh by Rashid-al-Din Hamadani Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Division Orientale.

The expansion of Mongol power across Western Asia depended upon the conquest of the Islamic lands, the complete seizure of which would be impossible without dismantling the ardent Nizari Ismaili state.[1]:75 Consisting of over fifty strongholds unified under the central power of the Imam, the Nizaris represented a significant obstruction to the Mongol undertaking. The task of successively destroying these castles was assigned to Hulegu, under the direction of his brother, the Great Khan Möngke. Only after their destruction could the invading Mongols proceed to remove the Abbasid caliph from Baghdad and advance their conquest westward.

Before Hulegu set forth toward Persia, the threat to the Muslim world posed by the swelling Mongol force was perceived by the Ismaili Imam ‘Ala al-Din Muhammad, who in 1238 joined the Abbasid caliph, al-Mustansir, in appealing to the European monarchs of England and France to coalesce in a Christian-Muslim Alliance against the Mongols.[1]:77 Although the European rulers did not accept this proposal, the Ismaili Imam partnered again with the Sunni caliph in 1246 AD when the two journeyed to the enthronement of the Great Khan Güyük in Mongolia.[1]:77 Their joint expressions of peace were not acknowledged by the Mongol lord and shortly after in 1252 AD, the Mongols arrived in Quhistan.

The first Mongol attack on the Ismailis came in April 1253 AD, when many of the Quhistani fortresses were lost to the Christian Mongol general Ket-Buqa. By May, the Mongol troops had proceeded to the fortress of Girdkuh where Ismaili forces held ground for several months. In December, a cholera outbreak within the castle weakened the Ismaili defences. Reinforcements quickly arrived from the neighbouring Alamut fortress and thwarted the attacking Mongols, killing several hundred of Ket-Buqa’s troops.[1]:76 The castle was saved but the subsequent Mongol assaults on the towns of Tun and Tus resulted in massacres. Across Khurasan the Mongols imposed tyrannical laws and were responsible for the mass displacement of the province’s population.[1]:76

After the massacres at Tun in 1256 AD, Hulegu became directly involved in the Mongol campaign to eliminate the Ismaili centres of power. From a lavish tent erected for him at Tus, Hulegu summoned the Ismaili governor at Quhistan, Nasir al-Din Muhtasham and demanded the surrender of all fortresses in his province. Nasir al-Din explained that submission could only come at the Imam's orders and that he, as governor, was powerless to seek the Ismailis' compliance.[10]:266

Meanwhile, Imam ‘Ala al-Din Mohammad, who had been murdered, was succeeded by his son Rukn al-Din in 1255 AD. In 1256 AD, Rukn al-Din commenced a series of gestures demonstrating his submission to the Mongols. In a show of his compliance and at the demand of Hulegu, Rukn al-Din began the dismantling process at Alamut, Maymundiz and Lamasar, removing towers and battlements.[10]:267 However, as winter approached, Hulegu took these gestures to be a means of delaying his seizure of the castles and on November 8, 1256, the Mongol troops quickly encircled the Maymundiz fortress and residence of the Imam. After four days of preliminary bombardment with significant casualties for both sides, the Mongols assembled their mangonels around the castle in preparation for a direct siege. There was still no snow on the ground and the attacks proceeded, forcing Rukn al-Din to declare his surrender in exchange for his and his family’s safe passage.[1]:79 A yarligh (decree) was drafted and taken to the Imam by Juwayni. After another bombardment, Rukn al-Din descended from Maymundiz on the 19th day of November.

In the hands of Hulegu, Rukn al-Din was forced to send the message of surrender to all the castles in the Alamut valley. At the Alamut fortress, the Mongol Prince Balaghai led his troops to the base of the castle, calling for the surrender of the commander of Alamut, Muqaddam al-Din. It was decreed that should he surrender and pledge his allegiance to the Great Khan within one day, the lives of those at Alamut would be spared. Maymundiz was reluctant and wondered if the Imam’s message of surrender was an actually act of duress.[1]:79 In obedience to the Imam, Muqaddam and his men descended from the fortress, and the Mongol army entered Alamut and began its demolition.[1]:79

Compared with Maymundiz, the Alamut fortress was far better fortified and could have long withstood the assaults of the Mongol army. However, the castle was relatively small in size and was easily surrounded by the Mongols. Still, the most significant factor in determining the defeat of the Ismailis at Alamut was the command by the Imam for the surrender of the castles in the valley. Many of the other fortresses had already complied, therefore not only would Muqaddam’s resistance have resulted in a direct battle for the castle, but the explicit violation of the instructions of the Imam, which would impact significantly on the Ismaili commander’s oath of total obedience to the Imam.[1]:80

The conquest of the Ismaili castles was critical to the Mongol’s political and territorial expansion westward. However, it was depicted by Juwayni as a "matter of divine punishment upon the heretics [at] the nest of satan".[1]:81 Juwayni’s depiction of the fall of the Nizari Ismaili state reveals the religious leanings of the anti-Ismaili historian. When Rukn al-Din arrived in Mongolia with promises to persuade the prevailing Ismaili fortresses to surrender, the Great Khan Mongke no longer believed the Imam to be of use. En route back to his homeland, Rukn al-Din was put to death. In his description of this, Juwayni concludes that the Imam’s murder cleansed "the world which had been polluted by their evil".[1]:83 Subsequently in Quhistan, the Ismailis were called by thousands to attend large gatherings, where they were massacred. While some escaped to neighbouring regions, the Ismailis who perished in the massacres following the capture of the Ismaili garrisons numbered nearly 100,000.[1]:83

Defense and military tactics

View of Alamut Castle.

The natural geographical features of the valley surrounding Alamut largely secured the castle’s defence. Positioned atop a narrow rock base approximately 180 m above ground level, the fortress could not be taken by direct military force.[1]:27 To the east, the Alamut valley is bordered by a mountainous range called Alamkuh (The Throne of Solomon) between which the Alamut River flows. The valley's western entrance is a narrow one, shielded by cliffs over 350 m high. Known as the Shirkuh, the gorge sits at the intersection of three rivers: the Taliqan, Shahrud and Alamut River. For much of the year, the raging waters of the river made this entrance nearly inaccessible. Qazvin, the closest town to the valley by land can only be reached by an underdeveloped mule track upon which an enemy’s presence could easily be detected given the dust clouds arising from their passage.[1]:27

The military approach of the Nizari Ismaili state was largely a defensive one, with strategically chosen sites that appeared to avoid confrontation wherever possible without the loss of life.[1]:58 But the defining characteristic of the Nizari Ismaili state was that it was scattered geographically throughout Persia and Syria. The Alamut castle therefore was only one of a nexus of strongholds throughout the regions where Ismailis could retreat to safety if necessary. West of Alamut in the Shahrud Valley, the major fortress of Lamasar served as just one example of such a retreat. In the context of their political uprising, the various spaces of Ismaili military presence took on the name dar al-hijra (place of refuge). The notion of the dar al-hijra originates from the time of the Prophet Muhammad, who fled with his supporters from intense persecution to safe haven in Yathrib.[10]:79 In this way, the Fatimids found their dar al-hijra in North Africa. Likewise during the revolt against the Seljuqs, several fortresses served as spaces of refuge for the Ismailis.

View from Alamut Castle.

In pursuit of their religious and political goals, the Ismailis adopted various military strategies popular in the Middle Ages. One such method was that of assassination, the selective elimination of prominent rival figures. The murders of political adversaries were usually carried out in public spaces, creating resounding intimidation for other possible enemies.[6]:129 Throughout history, many groups have resorted to assassination as a means of achieving political ends. In the Ismaili context, these assignments were performed by fidā’īs (devotees) of the Ismaili mission. They were unique in that civilians were never targeted. The assassinations were against those whose elimination would most greatly reduce aggression against the Ismailis and, in particular, against those who had perpetrated massacres against the community.[1]:61 A single assassination was usually employed in favour of widespread bloodshed resultant from factional combat. The first instance of assassination in the effort to establish an Nizari Ismaili state in Persia is widely considered to be the murder of Seljuq vizier, Nizam al-Mulk.[1]:29 Carried out by a man dressed as a Sufi whose identity remains unclear, the vizier’s murder in a Seljuq court is distinctive of exactly the type of visibility for which missions of the fida’is have been significantly exaggerated.[1]:29 While the Seljuqs and Crusaders both employed assassination as a military means of disposing of factional enemies, during the Alamut period almost any murder of political significance in the Islamic lands was attributed to the Ismailis.[6]:129

Legend and folklore

During the medieval period, Western scholarship on the Ismailis contributed to the popular view of the community as a radical sect of assassins, believed to be trained for the precise murder of their adversaries. By the 14th century AD, European scholarship on the topic had not advanced much beyond the work and tales from the Crusaders.[6]:14 The origins of the word forgotten, across Europe the term Assassin had taken the meaning of "professional murderer".[6]:14 In 1603 the first Western publication on the topic of the Assassins was authored by a court official for King Henry IV and was mainly based on the narratives of Marco Polo (1254–1324) from his visits to the Near East. While he assembled the accounts of many Western travelers, the author failed to explain the etymology of the term Assassin.[6]:15

The infamous Assassins were finally linked by orientalists scholar Silvestre de Sacy (d.1838) to the Arabic hashish using their variant names assassini and assissini in the 19th century. Citing the example of one of the first written applications of the Arabic term hashishi to the Ismailis by historian Abu Shams (d.1267), de Sacy demonstrated its connection to the name given to the Ismailis throughout Western scholarship.[6]:14 Ironically, the first known usage of the term hashishi has been traced back to 1122 AD when the Fatimid Caliph al-Amir employed it in derogatory reference to the Syrian Nizaris.[6]:12 Without accusing the group of utilizing the hashish drug, the caliph used the term in a pejorative manner. This label was quickly applied by anti-Ismaili historians to the Ismailis of Syria and Persia.[6]:13 Used figuratively, the term hashish i connoted meanings such as outcasts or rabble.[6]:13 The spread of the term was further facilitated through military encounters between the Nizaris and the Crusaders, whose chroniclers adopted the term and disseminated it across Europe.

The legends of the Assassins had much to do with the training and instruction of Nizari fida’is, famed for their public missions during which they often gave their lives to eliminate adversaries. Misinformation from the Crusader accounts and the works of anti-Ismaili historians have contributed to the tales of fida’is being fed with hashish as part of their training.[9]:21 Whether fida’is were actually trained or dispatched by Nizari leaders is unconfirmed, but scholars including Wladimir Ivanow purport that the assassination of key figures including Seljuq vizier Nizam al-Mulk likely provided encouraging impetus to others in the community who sought to secure the Nizaris from political aggression.[9]:21 In fact, the Seljuqs and Crusaders both employed assassination as a military means of disposing of factional enemies. Yet during the Alamut period almost any murder of political significance in the Islamic lands became attributed to the Ismailis.[6]:129 So inflated had this association grown, that in the work of Orientalist scholars such as Bernard Lewis the Ismailis were virtually equated to the politically active fida’is. Thus the Nizari Ismaili community was regarded as a radical and heretical sect known as the Assassins.[12] Originally, a "local and popular term" first applied to the Ismailis of Syria, the label was orally transmitted to Western historians and thus found itself in their histories of the Nizaris.[10]

The tales of the fida’is’ training collected from anti-Ismaili historians and orientalists writers were confounded and compiled in Marco Polo’s account, in which he described a "secret garden of paradise".[6]:16 After being drugged, the Ismaili devotees were said be taken to a paradise-like garden filled with attractive young maidens and beautiful plants in which these fida’is would awaken. Here, they were told by an "old" man that they were witnessing their place in Paradise and that should they wish to return to this garden permanently, they must serve the Nizari cause.[10] So went the tale of the "Old Man in the Mountain", assembled by Marco Polo and accepted by Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall (1774–1856), a prominent orientalist writer responsible for much of the spread of this legend. Until the 1930s, von Hammer’s retelling of the Assassin legends served as the standard account of the Nizaris across Europe.[6]:16

Modern works on the Nizaris have elucidated the history of the Nizaris and in doing so, dispelled popular histories from the past as legends. In 1933, under the direction of the Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III (1877–1957), the Islamic Research Association was developed. Prominent historian Wladimir Ivanow, was central to both this institution and the 1946 Ismaili Society of Bombay. Cataloguing a number of Ismaili texts, Ivanow provided the ground for great strides in modern Ismaili scholarship.[6]:17

In recent years, the archaeologist Peter Willey has provided interesting evidence against the folkloric Assassin histories of earlier scholars. Drawing on its established esoteric doctrine, Willey asserts that the Ismaili understanding of Paradise is a deeply symbolic one. While the Qur'anic description of Heaven includes natural imagery, Willey argues that no Nizari fida’i would seriously believe that he was witnessing Paradise simply by awakening in a beauteous garden.[1]:55 The Nizaris' symbolic interpretation of the Qur'anic description of Paradise serves as evidence against the possibility of such an exotic garden used as motivation for the devotees to carry out their armed missions. Furthermore, Willey points out that Juwayni the courtier of the Great Mongke, surveyed the Alamut castle just before the Mongol invasion. In his reports about of the fortress, there are elaborate descriptions of sophisticated storage facilities and the famous Alamut library. However, even this anti-Ismaili historian makes no mention of the folkloric gardens on the Alamut grounds.[1]:55 Having destroyed a number of texts of the library’s collection, deemed by Juwayni to be heretical, it would be expected that he would pay significant attention to the Nizari gardens, particularly if they were the site of drug use and temptation. Juwayni not having once mentioned such gardens, Willey concludes that there is no sound evidence in favour of these fictitious legends. A reference collection of material excavated at Alamut Castle by Willey is in the British Museum.[13]

In popular culture

See also

Family tree

Fatimids (Seven pillars)
Muhammad al-Qaim Bi-Amrillah
Isma'il al-Mansur Bi-Nasrillah
Al-Mu'izz li-Din Allah
Abu Mansoor Nizar al-Aziz Billah
Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah
Ali az-Zahir
Ma'ad al-Mustansir
Nizārī Ismā'īlīs
Abû Mansûr Nizâr al-Mustafâ li-Dîn’il-Lâh
Abû’l-Qâsim ʿAhmed al-Mustâ‘lî
Ali al-Hâdî ibn al-Nizâr
Alamut (Shī‘a Imāmī Ismā'īlī Ṭarīqah)
At-Tayyib Abu'l-Qasim
Al-Mohtadî ibn al-Hâdî (Muhammad I)
'Abd al-Majīd al-Ḥāfiẓ
Hasan II (Alâ Zikrihi’s-Selâm)
Nûr’ad-Dīn Muḥammad II (‘Ala Muhammad)
Jalâl’ud-Dîn Hasan III
‘Alā’ad-Dīn Muḥammad III
Ruknu-d-Dīn Khurshāh
Aga Khan IV (Nezār’îyyāh)
Tāyyibī Da'is (Dawoodi Bohras)


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 Willey, Peter (2005). Eagle's Nest: Ismaili Castles in Iran and Syria. London: I.B. Tauris. ISBN 978-1-85043-464-1.
  2. 1 2 3 Virani, Shafique N. (2007). The Ismailis in the Middle Ages: A History of Survival, a Search for Salvation. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195311730.
  3. Petrushevskiĭ, Ilʹi͡a Pavlovich (1985). Islam in Iran. SUNY Press. p. 363, Note 40. ISBN 0887060706: The numerical value of the word (الموت) is 483, which is the date of the castle's capture by Hassan-i Sabbah (483 AH = 1090/91 AD).
  4. Hourcade, B. (December 15, 1985). "ALAMŪT". Encyclopædia Iranica. Retrieved February 10, 2013. According to legend, an eagle indicated the site to a Daylamite ruler; hence the name, from aloh (eagle) and āmū(ḵ)t (taught).
  5. Bosworth, C. E. (January 1989). "Review of Books". Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland. 121 (1): 153–154. doi:10.1017/S0035869X00168108.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 Daftary, Farhad (1998). A Short History of the Ismailis: Traditions of a Muslim Community. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 9781558761933.
  7. "Iran finds Ismaili cellars in Alamut". Press TV. 19 December 2007. Archived from the original on 5 March 2016. Retrieved 21 December 2007.
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 Daftary, Farhad (1990). The Ismāʻīlīs: Their History and Doctrines. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521370196.
  9. 1 2 3 4 Ivanov, Vladimir A. (1960). Alamut and Lamasar; Two Mediaeval Ismaili Strongholds in Iran, an Archaeological Study. Teheran: Ismaili Society. OCLC 257192.
  10. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Hodgson, Marshall G.S. (2005). The Secret Order of Assassins: The Struggle of the Early Nizārī Ismā'īlīs Against the Islamic World. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 9780812219166.
  11. Daftary, Farhad (1996). Mediaeval Isma’ili History and Thought. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521451406.
  12. Lewis, Bernard (1967). The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam. London: Weidenfeld.
  13. British Museum
  14. The Hundredth Anniversary of Vladimir Bartol, the Author of Alamut, Government Communication Office, Republic of Slovenia, 2003. Accessed 15 December 2010.

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Coordinates: 36°26′40.63″N 50°35′9.58″E / 36.4446194°N 50.5859944°E / 36.4446194; 50.5859944

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