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Frank Harold

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On a clear day you can see the mountains rising just north of Tehran, a great wall of them towering 8000 feet above the city under its pall of smog (see images). The Alborz (or Elburz, signifying High Guard in Old Persian), together with their extensions, stretch in a long arc across the top of Iran, from the border with Azerbaijan almost to the outliers of the Hindu Kush. Both culturally and geographically, the Alborz mountains separate two worlds. To the south lies the parched plateau, with a great desert at its heart. Thanks to the perennial streams that originate in the hills, cities have flourished for centuries at the foot of the Alborz: Rayy, Nishapur, Qazvin, not to mention Tehran. North of the mountains is the Caspian littoral, moist and lush, a land of rice paddies, tea plantations and orange groves. To the east the climate quickly grows drier; here is the edge of Central Asia, still the home of nomadic Turkoman tribes. In the mountains all these elements mingle --- moist and dry, settled and nomadic, Iran and Turan.


The northern slopes, with an annual rainfall of 40 to 80 inches, are covered with dense forest that is aptly descibed by the term “jangal”. Beech, ash, elm and at higher elevations oak grow thickly, festooned with creepers and moss. Leopards are said to hold out in remote areas. Old villages built of logs and stone,with pitched slate roofs held down by large boulders , recall rural Switzerland before it was slicked up. But the hand of man lies heavy on the land: peasants, and even more so charcoal burners, have made deep inroads into what was once continuous forest, and recent efforts to halt the devastation have had limited success.

The drive across the mountains is dramatic, whichever road one chooses ( see images). Long before the pass is reached, forest gives way to the arid landscape of the interior. The steep, bare slopes are covered with shale and rubble; there is nothing to stop the avalanches that roar down into the valleys every winter. Many of the streams have carved deep gorges, for geologically speaking these mountains are still young; their bones show everywhere, the strata heaved up, twisted and broken. Of trees there are now none, aside from an occasional juniper. Ancient records tell of open forests here in Achaemenid times, but these have long since been felled for timber and fuel. The ubiquitous sheep and goats see to it that trees will not soon regenerate. The valley bottoms alone are green with fields, orchards and groves of poplar. Irrigation ditches run for miles along the hillsides, their course marked by a thin line of trees. It is a harsh landscape, entirely man-made despite its wild appearance, but one of haunting beauty.

As we pass from the moist north to the arid south, which is fortunate to chalk up 12 inches of rain and snow in a year, adobe replaces wood as the chief building material and flat roofs double as living space. Some villages grow fruit, higher up it is wheat, beans and potatoes, with flocks of sheep and some cows to make up the shortfall. In the fall, when all the land turns sere and brown, great mounds of hay are stacked up on the flat roofs. Springtime brings the Persian miracle, when the lifeless hillsides suddenly burst into bloom and the green of the fields hurts the eye. As recently as thirty years ago, most of the Alborz villages were accessible only on foot. The Islamic Republic of Iran takes justifiable pride in the networks of narrow paved roads that now links every village to the outside world. Tourist may regret the loss of romance, but the inhabitants don’t.

The highways that carry lorries across the passes to Chalus, Amol, Sari or Resht follow trade routes that are many centuries old. Mule trains travelled them regularly, bringing rice, dried fish, salt and charcoal from the Caspian side in exchange for wheat, dried fruit and manufactured goods from the urbanized plateau. Traces of that past commerce are still visible here and there : medieval tomb towers, hump-backed stone bridges and the ruins of castles and caravanserais (images). The little town of Ab Ask is one of those ancient halting places, mentioned in geographers’ itineraries as far back as the 9th century C.E.

In 1969 it was a sleepy place, off the main road, perched among poplars atop a tufa cliff overlooking the gorge of the Haraz river. Adobe houses, an old mosque and the larger mansion of the landlord, adorned with trellised windows and spirited murals, spoke of a traditional social order that was then just passing.

Tramping the mountains in spring and summer we sometimes came across encampments of nomads, with their black goat-hair tents and unfriendly dogs. These are not the “Great Nomads”, whose tribal federations are still a power in southern Iran. They are “little nomads”, hardly more than family groups, whose sheep and goats crop the sparse pastures of the southern foothills and remote valleys like that of the river Lar at the base of Demavand. They may not look it, but these nomads were once lords of the mountains. From the 11th century onward, incursions of Turks and Mongols pressed upon the farming villages, causing many of them to be abandoned. The Qajar dynasty, which ruled Iran throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, was of Turkish nomad origins. It was the Qajars who chose Tehran to be the capital, perhaps in order to be close to their favorite grazing grounds.


With the return of firm central government, the depredations of the nomads were suppressed. Villages recovered, augmented by the re-settlement of Kurds into the mountain districts. We found the hills quite peaceful, apart from the furious traffic on weekends, and a welcome respite from nerve-jangling Tehran. Once away from summer cottages and ski resorts, life still moved with the rhythm of the seasons and at the pace of mule and donkey. It left time for that traditional Persian courtesy which, in Tehran, seemed a lost memory if not a fiction. The mule driver, the peasant on his way from the field, even the man toting a great bundle of brush and twigs on his back, all had time for a chat or at least a greeting. My favorite was always that old salutations so welcome to a man on foot --- khaste’ nabashid, may you not grow tired.


Armies generally avoided the central Alborz with their lofty passes ( the indefatigable Alexander was an exception: the Greek’s Caspian Gates was probably the 7000 - foot col that now carries the railway). In consequence, the rugged terrain called Daylam made a base for independent princes who raided the towns, and levied tolls on travellers by the Silk Road along the mountains’ southern flanks. When the Caliph Harun-al- Rashid toured his eastern possesssions (807 C.E.) he was feted everywhere, but in Qazvin it was his turn to spread a feast for the unruly chieftains ( it didn’t work). The Buyids, a Persian dynasty (932 - 1055 C.E.) that eventually took control of Baghdad and most of Iran, got its start in Daylam. Forty years later, the remote valley of Alamut became the center of a violently sectarian Shi’ite state, bent on breaking the dominance of the Sunni Saljuqs who had by then captured the Iranian plateau. Their systematic reliance on drugs and political terrorism lends the Order of the Assassins a macabre relevance to our own time.

The Ismailis are an offshoot of Shia Islam, who broke away over the succession to Ja’afar, the sixth Imam. They made up a loose network of religious communities scattered from Syria to Khorassan, organized along military lines, led by a da’i ( the “summoner”) who represented the rightful seventh Imam. Perhaps one should think of them as akin to the chivalric orders of monks that played such a large role during the crusades. Often in conflict with the Sunni majority, and frequently persecuted as schismatics, they looked to Fatimid Egypt for help. As the Fatimids waned and the Saljuqs consolidated their rule, repression of the Ismailis intensified. They revolted in 1080 C.E., capturing fortresses in the mountais of Syria and Iran, particularly in Daylam. Ten years later Hassan-i-Sabah seized the strong castle of Alamut, which dominated a large and fertile valley in the central Alborz north of Qazvin. He made it the capital of the movement, and of a state that was to endure for 160 years (1090 - 1256) and terrify the neighborhood.


Hassan was the sort of man around whom legends gather, and it is impossible now to know how much truth they contain. There is no doubt that he was a fanatic, determined to impose his brand of Shi’ism on the whole region, and that his preferred method was murder. Many leading figures, including the sultan’s prime minister Nizam-al-Mulk, died at the hands of Hassan’s emissaries, who owed their reckless courage to the liberal use of hashish. The story goes that local young men would be drugged, and awakened in a garden filled with running water, flowers and willing maidens. This, they were told in due course, was paradise; and they would return here, as live heroes or as dead martyrs, upon completion of their assigned mission. Whatever the trick was, it worked again and again. The crusaders, who encountered the Syrian branch of the Order to their cost, referred to its legendary master as The Old Man of the Mountain. And Hassan’s legacy endures: our word “assassin” derives from the Hashishins of Alamut.


Hassan’s successors were less ferocious, and therefore less memorable, but they kept the Ismaili state alive. Sometimes in opposition to the Saljuq sultans and sometimes in collaboration, they controlled numerous fortresses throughout the mountains and as far east as the rock of Girdkuh near Damghan. The castle of Alamut acquired an astronomical observatory and an extensive library, and became a haven for scholars and politicians who had fallen out of the sultan’s favor. And the political methods perfected there continued to serve throughout the eastern Caliphate. In the end, the Order of the Assassins met its match in the Mongol khan Hulagu. In a Blitzkrieg campaign during the winter of 1256 C.E., Hulagu’s soldiers burned and razed the fortresses one by one. The impregnable castle of Alamut surrendered without a siege, but some of the others held out for a time. Shortly thereafter the Ismailis of Iran were slaughtered, with the approval of their Sunni victims, and ceased to play a role in Iranian politics. Remnants of the sect survive to this day in Syria, Pakistan, Iran and Yemen; the Agha Khan is their descendant.

Access to Alamut was not easy in 1970, and to judge by the guidebooks may not be much easier today. It required a jeep, and a driver whom we nicknamed Rustam, after Ferdowsi’s puissant hero. The road from Qazvin crosses the Chala Pass at over 6000 ft, which affords a stupendous view acroos the valley 4000 feet below, and up to the perpetual snows of Alam Kuh. The drive ends at the village of Shahrak on the Alamut river, where one starts to walk ( images). The track follows the river for some miles, and then turns north up a side valley, through an idyllic spring landscape of abundant water, green fields and flowers everywhere. It leads to Gazur Khan, a charming village at the foot of the vast rock of Alamut, with the castle ruins on top. We enjoyed the hospitality of the mayor, who offered simple comfort graced with courtesy, and spent the remainder of the day trying to explain to the local schoolchildren the difference between President Richard Nixon and H.I.M. The Shah of Iran.

It’s about an hour from the village to the summit of the rock, along a goat track narrow and slippery in spots but quite passable. The castle’s keep was built on a rocky spur, connected to the rest of the world only by a narrow neck of turf; it was never taken by storm. The library, observatory and that garden of earthly delights must have been located elsewhere. Little enough now remains, aside from bits of rather coarse masonry (and even that may date from a later time, when the castle was rebuilt to serve as a prison). But the view is compensation enough, to the village far below and across the arid ranges. Is it true that Hasan-i-Sabah was wont to test his minions’ loyalty by commanding them to leap over the edge? One would like to think so, and also that eventually one turned on the old man and heaved him into oblivion.

Of the one hundred or so Assassin fortresses, not many can still be recognized. Maymun Dez, considered the strongest of them all, consists of a warren of caves and galleries carved out of a huge rock a few miles from Alamut; it is inaccessible without serious climbing gear. Freya Stark noted extensive remains at Navisar Shah, at the head of the Alamut valley, and at Lamassar some 40 miles downstream. The most spectacular of the ruins known to me are those of Samiran, a fortress mentioned by several medieval geographers and rediscovered by Peter Willey; though quite accessible, they remain little visited.


From the large dam on the Sefid Rud river at Manjil, halfway between Qazvin and Resht, a small road leads eastward up the valley of the Qizil Uzun. Fifteen miles upstream one passes within sight of the ruins, which dominate a narrow gorge through which the river (now drowned) used to churn. Samiran was an outpost of Hassan’s empire, and a lucrative stronghold before that, athwart a major caravan route from the Caspian to Azerbaijan. The site was splendid in its desolation (images). There were the ruins of a mosque, the stump of a minaret and several medieval tomb towers. The ensemble was dominated by the gaunt remains of a large castle, whose battlements and keep frowned upon the waters. The ground was littered with glazed potsherds. We thought briefly upon Ozymandias, and started the tense drive back to Tehran.


The classic account of travel in the Alborz is The Valleys of the Assassins, by Freya Stark (John Murray, London 1936; reprinted 1971). Peter Willey described his explorations of the ruins in The Castles of the Assassins (London, 1963). For a lucid account of the complicated history of Alamut and its masters see the article by B. Hourcade in the Encyclopaedia Iranica.

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© 2006 Frank Harold.
Silk Road Seattle is a project of the Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington. Additional funding has been provided by the Silkroad Foundation (Saratoga, California).