Castle of the Assassins

Uggla finalMarco Polo tells a mysterious story of “the old man of the mountain”, master of an army of assassins in mountain strongholds which he trained to fanatic obedience and which gave him great power in the Near East. Going up in the Elburz mountains of Iran, I aim to explore this story.

The old man of the mountain, whose proper name was Alo-eddin, had his main castle in a mountain region called Mulehet, according to Marco Polo. In this beautiful mountain valley, he had constructed a secret landscape of marvellous gardens with all the pleasures anyone could ask for close at hand. Alo-eddin gathered promising young men at his court. He sometimes drugged them and took them to the secret gardens, letting them stay there for a while, then drugging them again and taking them out. In this way he installed in them a belief that he had the power to take them to paradise and back which made them fanatically loyal and ready to carry out the most daring assassins for him.

Starting from the city of Qazvin, the mini-bus takes me higher and higher up into the mountains. We are headed for Alamut valley, the “Mulehet” of Marco Polo and the site of Alamut castle, legendary stronghold of the Assassins sect.

This is the third in a series of blog posts relating an attempt to follow in Marco Polos footsteps through Iran, exploring his stories. Read the first one here and the second here.

The Rock of Alamut, with the ruined castle of the old man of the mountain on its top

The mini-bus negotiates serpentine mountain roads in a fascinating system of peaks and valleys with occasional green grazing-spots and the odd clay brick village. Not before long the asphalt road becomes a two-meter-wide gravel track on the edge of the cliffs.

Early in the afternoon the bus enters a particularly wide, green valley with an odd, gigantic rock towering in its midst. This is the valley of the Assassins and the rock is the site of Alamut castle.

On the bus I was generously invited to stay in the family home of a man living in the village below the rock. After having tea in his house, Mr Yar guides me on a narrow path up the castle rock and we soon stand before a landscape of ruins at its top.

Alamut 2
Ruins of Alamut castle

Alamut castle was truly the main stronghold of a sort of sect that have become known to history by the name of the Assassins. Their actual name was different, “Assassins” seemingly having risen out of misunderstanding. They were really the so-called Nizari-Ismaili, a special sort of Ismaili that in turn are a kind of Shi’i Muslims.

The Nizari-Ismaili were led by a succession of rulers from Alamut castle, the most famous one the first “old man of the mountain”, a certain Hassan-i Sabbah (the Alo-eddin of Marco Polo). The sect commanded a series of mountain strongholds in the Near East for a period during the middle ages and certainly committed political murders to further their cause. The scale of these murdering operations seems to have been much exaggerated though

Alamut castle is described in medieval written sources as a great stronghold and an important seat of learning, with fantastic libraries, astronomical observatories and the like. The Nizari-Ismaili state was crushed at the Mongol invasion of Iran in the early 13th century, however, and Alamut thoroughly ruined by the troops of Hulagu khan in 1256, just fifteen years before Marco Polo past by Qazvin. The Nizari-Ismaili community managed to survive and exists to this day, their leader’s part of a line of rulers going back to Hassan-i Sabbah and Alamut.

Strolling around at the ruin landscape at the top of Alamut rock, there are traces of walls, towers and buildings and it’s easy to imagine a great medieval castle here. I see no remains of paradise gardens though and if Hassan-i Sabbah ever had any for the training of assassins is unknown and forever lost in the mists of the past.

In Iran with Marco Polo

Uggla finalMarco Polos Silk Road journey was an epic overland adventure in the 1270s where he went from Venice to China through regions utterly unknown to contemporary Europe. Marco Polo was the first to describe travel along the southern Silk Road and his chapters on present Iran are full of interesting mysteries.

In Iran with Marco Polo is the first of a series of blog posts relating an attempt to follow in Marco Polos footsteps through Iran, exploring his stories.

I had travelled from Venice, through Turkey in late June 1993, obtained an Iranian visa in Ankara and now faced the Iranian border at Bazargan. Crossing into Iran I was as full of prejudice as you can be, expecting to get hassled by Islamic fundamentalists at any time. Needless to say, Iran has many problems and most crucially regarding human rights. As it turned out, my experiences of the country were to be of a different kind.

My Iran itinerary

Having crossed the border, holding my breath, I got on a bus to Tabriz, the first major city and a place also visited by Marco Polo.

In his time, getting here in the winter of 1271-72, Tabriz was the Mongolian capital of the south-western subdivision of their empire – the Il-khanate. Abaqa Khan ruled this realm, married to Maria Palaiologina, a Byzantine princess successfully acting as a Christian leader among the Mongols. All this must have been convenient for Marco Polo, who was, after all, on official Mongol business travelling to meet the great khan in China.

Marco says in his book that Tabriz is a large and prosperous city, important for trade. Interestingly, he also talks about Christians in the city, the presence of churches and a nearby famous monastery.

I manage to find a cheap hotel, dare to walk the streets and find it is not that different from Turkey. The women are more covered, the men less influenced by western clothing styles. All are friendly and on my first day in the city I get invited to the suburban home of a bookseller for dinner, spending very nice hours with his family.

hotell Tabriz
My hotel in Tabriz
gata Tabriz
On the streets of Tabriz

I am on a mission here. I seek the truth about one of Marco Polos stories. I want to find the churches he talks about. There is supposed to be a Christian minority in Iran of some 300 000 people but walking the streets of Tabriz I find none. The bookseller suggests I should see the high representative of Armenian Christians in this region and full of new hope I seek his humble office.

Edge of the Taklamakan

Uggla finalMy journey on the Karakoram highway, described in previous posts, ends in Kashgar and on the edge of the great Taklamakan desert. Crossing this vast expanse of dead, sandy nothingness was a nightmare for earlier travellers along the Silk Roads. The origins of the name is unclear, it may mean “To abandon”, or “Place of no return”, while some say it may derive from Turkish “taqlar makan” or “Place of ruins”, which made a lot of sense to early 20th century explorers and archaeologists here.

The Taklamakan is the world’s second largest sand desert, 1 000 km long and 400 km wide. Historically, two Silk Road routes ran along its edges to the north and to the south. They both started at the Jade gate in the Great wall of China at present Dunhuang to the east, which was for most of history also the western rim of Chinese empires. Along these routes were series of petty city states and then the two Silk Road branches met again in Kashgar to the west.


Xuanzang, the famous Chinese traveller, went on the northern Silk Road route in AD 629, describing the oasis kingdoms of Turpan, Karasahr and Kucha. He visited Kashgar on his way back and wrote about the whole thing in a remarkable travel book. His book is the basis for the much later Ming dynasty novel Journey to the west, published in 1592 and a classic of Chinese literature.

Marco Polo went on the southern route in the 1270s, passing the oasis kingdoms of Yarkant, Khotan and Lop. Among other things he noted the production of jade in Khotan, where the most precious white jade was collected and caravanned east to China proper.

The histories and legends of the Taklamakan are endlessly rich. One of the most significant periods here were the hey days of desert exploration and archaeology which all started with Swedish explorer Sven Hedin.

This was the time of the Great Game of empires competing for control of Central Asia but the Taklamakan area was unexplored, its history little known, which soon attracted men like Hedin, who was the first to explore the desert ruins archaeologically. Arriving in Kashgar in 1894 he set out on an expedition trying to cross a part of the desert, which ended in disaster. After resting he set out again in 1896 and investigated two ruined cities to the north of Khotan with spectacular results, finding ancient buildings, wall-paintings and manuscripts. Most importantly, he wrote a bestselling book about it, Through Asia (1898), speaking about “a Pompeii of the desert”.

This alerted explorers, archaeologists and collecting European museums and the race was on to explore the ruins of the Taklamakan. Orientalist and archaeologist Marc Aurel Stein was soon around, excavating cities sponsored by the British Museum. Albert Grünwedel and Albert von le Coq of the great ethnological museum in Berlin made large excavations of Turpan to the north of the desert, stunning emperor Wilhelm II. Sven Hedin was also back a few times, most famously investigating a place called Loulan and all this went on until the 1930s, filling up museum collections in the West.

Reading their reports today, their motives and methods seem steadily more questionable in the light of new understandings of the age of colonialism and debates on repatriation.

The finds from the Taklamakan ruins of Khotan, Turpan and Loulan are still to be seen in museums in London, Berlin and Stockholm, exciting new generations, while names such as Stein, Hedin and von le Coq perish like echoes in the desert wind.


Father of Ice Mountains

Uggla finalIt’s a strange and rather spooky bus ride from Tashkurgan to Kashgar along the Karakoram Highway on the roof of the world. The wide valley is framed on all sides by the solemn Pamir mountains, the air supremely clear, the odd wild yak wanders the valley and I get a feeling we are the last people on earth on a road to nowhere.

About two hours from Tashkurgan the bus pauses at the oddly beautiful, perfectly still and crystal-clear Kalakule lake. The weather is calm and sunny and there is a group of small buildings by the lake, including a couple of Mountain Tajik yurts.

Looking up at the mountain scenery behind the lake a chill runs down my spine as I see the clouds around a great peak and realize it’s the notorious Muztagh Ata, the Father of ice mountains.

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts relating a passage along the Karakoram Highway. Read the previous ones here, here, and here.

Kalakule lake with Muztagh Ata in the background
At Kalakule lake

Muztagh Ata, at 7 509 m, is actually known as one of the easier plus 7 000 m peaks to climb, since the ascent to the top is not that steep. It still took a long time before anyone got up there.

The first known attempt was made by a countryman of mine, the (in)famous explorer Sven Hedin who made a failed run for it in 1894. Hedin tried to reach the summit twice but didn’t even get close. It almost broke him and he went off to Kashgar to recuperate for weeks. My chill from seeing it comes from reading his account, with terrible marches in the snow. The difficulty is not the altitude or the climbing, but the arduous going and unpredictable weather.

Several others tried to climb it during the early 1900s but no one succeeded until a Soviet-Chinese expedition as late as 1956. Since then it has been ascended many times.

The bus leaves Kalakule at noon. We follow the valley for a while, still along the Karakoram Highway, the Silk Road and on the same tracks as Marco Polo 700 odd years ago, but then turn right after a while and go through a series of passes in the eastern Pamirs.

We descend on the other side, now in the Tarim basin and on the outskirts of the immense Taklamakan desert. We are approaching the main centre of this part of the world, the great oasis town of Kashgar, a Silk Road centre since the dawn of history.

For some miles the road continues along the edge of the desert and then, by late afternoon, we enter Kashgar. I manage to get a room in a dreadful concrete bunker they call “Qini wage”. The place used to be known as Qini bagh, was a British consulate and a major hub in the Great Game between 19th century empires.

This is the far frontier of China proper, outside the Jade gate of the Great Wall and where most people are Uyghur Turkish and Muslims. It’s been a site of conflict and repression in the 20th century, where majority China have clashed with one of its largest minorities, which continues today. Its also a place of fascinating Silk Road history.


Karakoram highway

Uggla finalThe road onwards from Gilgit is narrow, boulder-strewn and treacherous. The bus got cancelled so I took off in a rented jeep with two Pakistanis and a German.

We are moving north very slowly on the Karakoram highway to Sost in the stunningly beautiful Hunza valley and then to the Chinese border in the Khunjerab pass.

This unrealistic road between Pakistan and China was literally cut out of the highest mountain ranges in the world in the Himalayas. It is a true wonder but came at a terrible cost. Tens of thousands of people worked on building it and more than a thousand died from accidents. While military engineers worked on the Pakistani side, the Chinese used its army, paid volunteers and also convicts. Most deaths occurred on the Chinese side.

This is the second in a series of blog posts relating a passage along the Karakoram highway. Read the first one here.


The mountain ranges meet in Gilgit. To the east is the Karakoram and in the south one end of the Himalayas. To the west you find Hindu Kush and Pamir is waiting to the north. In the north-east is the Kunlun, protecting Tibet.

Everything else is diminished by the gigantic presence of the mountains. Their deep-grey colors and brutal zick-zack lines are setting the tone for the entire landscape and all things human becomes miniatures. Some kilometers away is the mighty Rakaposhi, known as “the mother of clouds” and rising almost eight kilometers straight up in the sky. A bit further east looms the terrifying K2.

Karakoram is a Turkish word, meaning “black gravel” and it’s self-explanatory since the valleys here are covered in dark pebbles having eroded down from the mountain sides.


The British Raj was the governing of an Indian empire by the British crown between 1858 and 1947. Securing this rule, and the incomes generated from it, was a major concern and though the mountainous parts to the north first seemed impregnable, a disturbing insight soon grew among the British that it might still be possible for the Russian empire to send troops down through the mountains to conquer the subcontinent.

Imperial Russia thought exactly the same way, but so to speak from the other side, fearing British expansion northwards. The Royal Geographical Society in London started sending explorers with military training north to map the mountain passes, which was mirrored by the Imperial Geographical Society in St Petersburg and so started “The Great Game”, a cynical hide and seek game of mapping, espionage and intriguing for ultimate control of the roof of the world.


In the autumn of 1889, Captain Francis Edward Younghusband is slowly and arduously moving north in the high valleys above Gilgit with a small escort of Ghurkas. They wander, climb and wade over mountain passes and rivers into the beautiful but deadly Hunza valley.

The Mir of Hunza rules an independent and untrustworthy small mountain kingdom just outside the reach of British India. The kingdom is often loyal to China and bandits based here have developed a habit of plundering caravans on the Silk Road passing through.

There is a terrible chance that Hunza may align with the Russians and Younghusband is to map the area and gather information about the current situation. 

A few days in to the expedition a courier gallops into Younghusbands camp, delivering a letter from Captain Bronislav Grombchevsky inviting him to dinner. Grombchevsky is camped nearby with an escort of Cossacks, on a mission from the Imperial Geographical society and Younghusbands exact mirror reflection on the other side.

They have an animated dinner where it turns out both are on a mission to establish contact with the Mir. Grombchevsky tries to fool Younghusband that Russian troops are ready to invade from the north. Younghusband gives Grombchevsky wrong directions on how to travel south, sending him and the Cossacks on a death march in the mountains.

In the Khunjerab pass

In the autumn of 1947 the maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir decided to join the new Indian state, but his commanders in Gilgit and the north, where most people are Muslim, rebelled and soon Gilgit, the Hunza valley and the entire north Kashmir belonged to Pakistan. India and Pakistan have fought over it since then.

The Karakoram Highway serpents up the valleys, passing small, stone-built villages, over rock-slides and rivers. We have little to talk about, me, the two Pakistanis and the German.

Half a day’s journey from Gilgit we arrive in Sost, a big village along the road and I find a room in the terrible Karawan hotel. Someone tries to break into my room at midnight but I have barricaded the door with a chair.

We start from Sost at dawn in two Toyota landcruisers belonging to NATCO, Northern Areas Transport Company. No larger vehicles are getting through from Sost to the Khunjerab. The air is thin and cold, the mountains grey and the road appalling.

The border between Pakistan and China is in the 4 800 m Khunjerab pass, “the home of the running water”, the highest border crossing in the world, and the red landcruiser stops to pause at two large commemoration stones in the pass.

Soon afterwards a giant, stone-faced Chinese border guard, easily more than two meters tall and dressed in impressive green uniform full of shiny buttons and with high, black leather boots ask for my passport without even the slightest hint of a smile.

Explorer Freya Stark and the Valley of the Assassins

Uggla finalFreya Stark, “the nomad queen”, was curious, resolved and a great explorer of the last century. She always travelled alone.

In the 1930s Freya journeyed the Near East. She defied the contemporary idea of how a woman of the British empire was supposed to behave, using practical clothing, travelling on her own without male chaperons and staying precisely where she damn well pleased. She was fearless, not hesitating to travel regions with peoples hating the British.

Freya Stark first arrived in the Levant in 1927 to study Arabian grammar with little more than a fur coat, a revolver and a copy of Dante’s Inferno. She later criss-crossed the Near East on courageous trips that she wrote popular books as well as scientific papers about. In one of her most daring journeys she mapped the ruined castles of the strange medieval Assassins sect in the Elburz mountains of northern Iran.

Freya 0

I had the opportunity to follow in her tracks some years ago, to the site of the main castle of the so-called Assassins – the legendary Alamut. Having obtained a visa and crossed the Iranian border northwest of Tabriz, I had an easy ride with buses to Qazvin. On the way I managed to stop to see the fantastic Dome of Soltaniyeh, southeast of Zanjan. The dome is part of the mausoleum for the 14th century ruler Il-khan Öljeitü, UNESCO world heritage and the third largest brick dome in the world.

Road to Alamut

From the south, Qazvin is the main departure point for a journey in the Elburz. Going off in a mini-bus early in the day you quickly cross the foothills until serpentine mountain roads start and you enter a fascinating system of peaks and valleys with the occasional green grazing-spot and small villages of clay brick. Not before long the asphalt road becomes a two-meter-wide gravel track on the edge of cliffs.

The bus heads for the village of Ghazor khan right below Alamut castle. Immediately at boarding it I was generously offered a bed for the night in the village by Mr Yar. This sort of hospitality regarding meals, transport or a place to stay for the night was a very common thing everywhere while I was travelling Iran.

Early in the afternoon the bus enters a particularly wide, green valley with an odd, gigantic rock towering in its midst. This is the valley of the Assassins and the rock is the site of Alamut itself.

alamut 1

After having tea in his house, Mr Yar guides me on a narrow path up the castle rock and we soon stand before a landscape of ruins at its top.

The old man of the mountain

Legend has it that the Assassins were a sect of murderers, ruled by “the old man of the mountain”, the master of Alamut. Truth is there was really a sort of religious sect, commanding a series of mountain strongholds in the Near East for a period during the middle ages. Their actual name was not “Assassins” though, this name seemingly having arisen out of misunderstanding. They were really the so-called Nizari-ismaili, a special sort of ismaili that in turn are a kind of Shi’i Muslims.

The Nizari-ismaili were in fact led by a succession of rulers from Alamut castle, the most famous one the first “old man of the mountain”, a certain Hassan-i Sabbah. The sect certainly committed some political murders to further their cause, though the scale of these murdering operations seems to have been very much exaggerated.

The Nizari-ismaili state was crushed at the Mongol invasion of Iran in the early 13th century when Alamut was ruined. The Nizari-ismaili community survived, however, and exists to this day, their leader’s part of a line of rulers going back to Alamut.

alamut 3

Freya Stark in the Elburz

Freya Stark had a difficult way here. She started in Qazvin with three muleteers and reached Alamut several days later after an exhausting march. Freya made a thorough investigation of the castle ruins and then continued on further expeditions in the mountains where she was the first to rediscover other castles of the Nizari-ismaili. She also made an attempt to be the first westerner to climb the mountain known as The Throne of Solomon but failed and caught malaria. This didn’t stop her from exploring further and writing her brilliant book The Valleys of the Assassins about it all.

There is a long stretch of ruins at the top of the rock which Mr Yar leads me through. Written sources tell of a fabulous library in Alamut castle and an advanced astronomic observatory. There are no traces of such things now, or of the paradise gardens of legend, where the old man of the mountain would have trained his assassins.

Mr Yar leads me down the steep path to Ghazor khan, offers me a drink of apple juice, later an excellent dinner, and I spend the night in his living room to the sweet smell of cherry trees from the garden.

The Silk Road with Marco Polo

Uggla finalHave you thought about travelling the Silk Road, the legendary network of overland routes from the Mediterranean to eastern China?

You should, and there is no better guide than Marco Polo, the venetian who was the first westerner to do this journey describing what he saw. When Marco travelled from Venice to Beijing 700 years ago it was like going to the dark side of the moon.

Spellbound by Marco Polos book and its mysteries I followed in his steps some years ago. Who were the strange Assassins sect he writes about, or those worshipping an eternal fire in present Iran? What roads did Marco actually take and could they be travelled again? How could he even do this trip in medieval times without modern equipment? The Mongols, occupying most of Asia, were seen as the legions from hell by Christian Europe, so how did Marco dare to engage with them?

Physical Map of Asia

The Silk Road

The so-called Silk Road is a network of roads rather than a single route, leading from eastern China over land to the Mediterranian sea in the west. By Marco Polos time they had been travelled by traders and caravans for more than a thousand years already, but very few people travelled all the way. Trade was mostly done back and forth over parts of the network of routes and between great cities such as the silk centres of China and Kashgar, Bokhara, Samarkand, Balkh, Herat, Merv, Tabriz, Bhagdad and Istanbul. The historical importance of these routes is immense. Empires thrived controlling them and fell to armies following them.

Going all the way today you might want to start in Istanbul and end up in Beijing, like I did, going through Turkey, Iran and then either Afghanistan and Pakistan or through the central Asian former Soviet republics and finally across China. It’s a 4 000 miles / 7000 km journey as the crow flies, much longer on the ground.

Venedig x

A tricky route

The “oveland trip” from Europe to India was popular during the 1960s and 70s and more or less for anyone though mostly attracting young people, many of which were “hippies” in search of alternative lifeways and seduced by Asian religions or philosophies. The hippie trail eastwards came to an abrupt end though, precisely in 1979 and due to political upheavels. The soviets invaded Afghanistan this year and a religious movement dethroned the Shah of Iran, creating an Islamic republic.

Since then there have been wars in Afghanistan and from time to time impossible to pass through Iran. Travelling the Silk Road today is tricky for the long and arduous road itself. You are, after all, journeying a considerable part of the globe and having to handle the bureacracy of the many countries you will have to pass is a trick in itself.

Yazd x

In a way, Marco Polo had it easier. The Mongols may have been feared by the Christian leaders of Europe, but for smooth traders like Marco and his elder venetian relatives they were no difficulty. The same Mongol empire ruling most of the Silk Road area rather made things easier once the Polos had befriended the great khan. The Polo family even acted as ambassadors for the khan of the Mongols to the Pope, and vice versa, representing the Pope at the court of the khan.

Following Marco Polo

The curious thing about Marco Polo and his book are its many riddles which have kept historians and adventurers going for a long time. Marco recorded his route and his impressions of countries and cities, but he also recorded the many stories and legends told to him along the way. I had the opportunity to investigate some of them, which I will return to.

I followed Marco Polos Silk Road route through Turkey, visiting the lost city of Ayas, spent three weeks tracing his roads in Iran which turned out a very hospitable country to me and where I managed to see Shiraz, Persepolis and the holy city of Meshed. In Afghanistan I stayed with a mujahedin guerilla fraction in Herat before flying to Pakistan and going by the ruff Karakorum highway across the Himalayas to Kashgar in the Taklamakan desert area of western China. I visited the famous Dunhuang caves by the desert and rode steam trains through northern China to Beijing.

Herat x

Kashgar x