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.

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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.

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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.

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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.