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.

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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.

The road to Zanjan

Uggla finalThe stunning turquoise dome of Soltaniyeh, just outside Zanjan in northern Iran, rises alone over a vast ruin landscape like a sole survivor. This was once the seat of power of the Mongolian Il-khans of Iran in the days of Marco Polo and the magnificent dome will take your breath away, just as it was designed to do 700 years ago.

I got here by bus from the city of Tabriz where I arrived after having crossed the Iranian border with Turkey. Worried at first, expecting Iran to be a tricky country to travel, people I have met so far have been incredibly friendly and helpful. Getting of the bus in Soltaniyeh I will have a few hours to see the famous dome, a key monument in Islamic architecture and, according to UNESCO, a monument of outstanding universal value as stated when it was added on the World Heritage List.

This is the second 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.

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In the Church of St Mary, Tabriz, Iran

Marco Polo made a big thing of the large number of Christians being present in the vicinity of Tabriz, otherwise an Islamic region by his days in the 13th century. Seeking the truth behind this story I spent my days in Tabriz looking for Christians and Churches.

Finding little evidence of any Christian presence, a strike of luck finally placed me in the office of Nshan Topouzian, high representative of the Armenian, apostolic church and its religious leader here. Confirming there were thousands of Christians in Tabriz and several Churches, he also let me borrow his official car and driver, sending us out Church-spotting in the evening. I eventually got to see two Churches, of which “St Mariam” (Mary) was said to be from the 11th century and could, if that is true, have been visited by Marco Polo.

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Intricate tiling inside the mausoleum

Early next morning I get to the bus station and board a bus for Zanjan and Soltaniyeh. Getting around by bus seems surprisingly easy in Iran.

When Marco Polo was here in the winter of 1271–1272, Tabriz was the Mongolian capital of their Iranian dominion, the Il-khanate. Though he was travelling on official Mongolian business, carrying the most prestigious letters of passage from the great khan in China, Marco says nothing of any contacts with the Il-khanate leadership in Tabriz. He has a lot to say of Iran in his days though, which I will get back to.

The dome of Soltaniyeh is actually the mausoleum of Il-khan Oljeitu and was built in 1302–12 when he had made Soltaniyeh capital of the Ilkhanid dynasty after Tabriz. It’s a fantastic, octangular structure with the breath-taking, 50 m high blue dome on top. The inside is decorated with magnificent glazed tile-work and designs in inlaid materials. Oljeitu had intended Soltaniyeh to be the greatest among cities but after his death in 1316 it rapidly declined, turning into an elaborate ruin with his splendid mausoleum the sole reminder of its brief period of glory.

From Soltaniyeh I intend going on to Qazvin, the natural starting point for a trip up in the Elburz mountains to explore Marco Polos most capturing story in Iran – the legend of the Old man of the mountain and the mysterious Assassins sect.


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.

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My hotel in Tabriz
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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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