Across the mountains of the Assassins

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I made this journey in October 2016. At the time, I did not yet have a method for continuous reporting on the trip – it only evolved later, with the “minute by minute” reports, increased from evening to evening, sometimes growing python-sized –, so what I did was to compose and publish one little story at a time, and I compiled the complete chronological travel report only later, linking the previously published posts to its appropriate places. Thus, the following posts about the journey across the mountains of northern Iran have long been on the blog:

A shepherd under Alamut: approaching the Assassin’s castle of the Old Man of the Mountains.

From Alamut to the sea: a description of the trip that is not included in any guidebook, which explored how one can cross the ridge of the Alborz Mountain and descend to the Caspian Sea once one has reached the castle of the Assassins, the last sight mentioned in the guidebooks.

Polish cemetery on the Caspian shore (also in Polish): exploring the cemetery in the port city of Bandar-e Anzali (until 1980, Pahlavi), established in 1942 to bury the deceased of the Polish deportees rescued from the Soviet Union.

Masouleh, 2016: two days in this world heritage town in the heart of Mount Alborz, attending the Moharram mourning festival.

Khan Öljeitü’s mausoleum in Soltaniye: the first and only stop of a “Kurdistan minute by minute” post, since the photos of the next stops have been lost.

• and Autumn in Iran, minute by minute:  this was the comprehensive chronological travelogue written afterwards, to which I linked the above posts, and in which I only reached Masouleh.

If you are curious about the whole trip, read the above posts in this order, and then we will continue from here together.

First of all: why did we travel to this specific place? Most of us if, once in a lifetime, we can visit Iran, we will almost certainly follow the route of the historic cities from Tehran through Isfahan to Persepolis and Shiraz. What is here, in the barren northern border mountains of Iran, that is worth visiting, instead of the Shah Mosque of Isfahan and the roses of Shiraz?

The first answer is: nothing. The two are not commensurable. When, some twenty years ago, I first went to Iran, I also visited the series of the historic cities. One goes to the border regions of Iran once the core subject is done. And my fellow travelers also trusted that, after the one-week Alborz tour, they would also see the historic cities. Indeed, the trip was organized so that the following week was Ashura, Iran’s largest religious celebration, which is especially nicely celebrated in the historic cities, so they will see them, too. This is why we have already come across the festive preparations in the towns of the Alborz, as I describe and photograph it in the above post on Masouleh.

The second answer is that here, in the once almost impassable mountains of the Alborz, lie hidden the castles of the Assassins, about which I first read as a child, in Marco Polo, and had wanted to reach ever since. Marco Polo drew his own romantic version of the story from the Crusaders, who were the sworn enemies of the Assassins, so no wonder it has some negative connotations. According to this, the Old Man of the Mountain, a cunning Muslim sheikh, seized the local castle of Alamut. His guards watched the roads day and night, and as a young man approached the castle, he was invited to dinner. During dinner, the Old Man gave him hashish – hence the naive etymology hashashin-assassin – and the young man fell asleep. When he awoke, he found himself in a lavish garden built in a verdant valley behind the castle, provided with all the good things on earth, and beautiful huris fulfilled all his wishes. When he asked where he was, the huris replied that in the Paradise, where the Old Man of the Mountains sent him, for it was in his power. Then, at the end of the best day of his life, he was given hashish again, and the next morning he awoke in the dining room of the castle, leaning on the table where he had fallen asleep two days before. And the Old Man told him that if he entered in his service and fulfilled all his commands with unconditional obedience, he would be sent to the Paradise at any other time, but surely at the end of his life.

The Old Man of the Mountains distributing hashish to his followers. From Marco Polo’s manuscript of ca. 1410-1412

Due to this unmissable offer, the number of the Old Man’s followers constantly grew, and he boldly engaged them in shaping Middle Eastern policy. The faithful fedayins – the word means “self-sacrificing” – infiltrated the environment of every ruler and struck him at the command of the Old Man. Once, when a fedayin failed at killing the Baghdad caliph, and the bodyguards seized him, two others immediately stepped forward from the line of the bodyguards, and told the caliph that he could surely execute them too, because there are even more fedayins in among the bodyguards who would do away with him. And Sultan Saladdin, when he set out with his army to finally sweep away the Assassins, was warned by the Old Man in a letter to abandon his plan. The letter was delivered, in an unorthodox way, nailed with a dagger to his pillow while he was sleeping, by which Saladdin had the clear understanding that it was a registered letter, and so, rather than facing up against the Old Man of the Mountains, he thereafter chose to favor the Crusaders with his attention.

However, looking around from the castle, nowhere in the barren mountains can one find a morsel of green that would have been suitable for the role of the Paradise. The plausible story was probably invented by the Crusaders who tried to understand the reasons for the blind discipline of the fedayins. The reality is simpler, but as always, more interesting. The Old Man of the Mountains, who established Alamut, was called Hassan-i Sabbah, and belonged to the Ismaili branch of Islam: these are the Shiites who accept only the first seven imams as authorities instead of the first twelve as the “twelver” mainstream of Iran does. Between 1169 and 1171, the Ismailis founded an independent caliphate in Egypt, and their dynasty was called the Fatimids (descendants of Fatima), which would be overthrown by the said Saladdin. In 1094, however, there was a rift between the Ismailis. After the death of the Egyptian caliph Al-Mustansir, the Grand Vizier and the army enthroned his younger son instead of Nizar, the legitimate heir to the throne. Nizar sparked an uprising, but he was captured and killed. His followers fled to Persia, and carried on his line in the mountain castles well prepared by the Old Man of the Mountains. And since the Ismailis were organized in a strict military sructure based on blind discipline as a means of attaining salvation, it is no wonder that they obeyed the commands of the imams, the earthly governors of Allah.

Golden dinar of Caliph Al-Mustansir (1029-1094). As I wrote in the previous post, and I will soon dedicate a separate entry to it: until the late 19th century, the six-pointed star was not a specific Jewish symbol, but rather, as the “seal of Solomon”, a favorite emblem of Muslim rulers.

The Assassins were, in the end, ousted from the Alborz Mountains by the Mongols, among whom a smuggled-in Ismaili bodyguard would have been just as conspicuous as a Black American spy in the Soviet Union, as in the well-known joke. But their line is still alive today, currently controlled from Lisbon by Aga Khan IV. And there still stand, although in ruins, their castles on the ridge of the Alborz, from the eastern Alamut to the western Rudkhan. The determined British-Italian explorer Freya Stark, the first European to reach Alamut, saw all fifty-two of them in the 1930s.

“This is a great moment, when you see, however distant, the goal of your wandering. The thing which has been living in your imagination suddenly becomes a part of the tangible world. It matters not how many ranges, rivers or parching dusty ways may be between you: it is yours now for ever. So did those old Barbarians feel who first from the Alpine wall looked down upon the Lombard plain, and saw Verona and its towers and the white river bed below them: so did Xenophon and Cortez, and every adventurer and pilgrim, however humble, before them or after: and so did I as I looked over that wide country, intersected by red and black ranges, while the group of hillmen around me, delighted with my delight, pointed out the way to the Rock in a pale green cleft made small by distance far below. There was the Assassins’ valley, tilted north-eastward: before it, among lower ridges, the Shah Rud showed a gleaming bend. Beyond and higher than all, uplifted as an altar with black ridges rising to it through snowfields, Takht-i-Suleiman, Solomon’s Throne, looked like a throne indeed in the great circle of its lesser peers. Its white drapery shone with the starched and flattened look of melting snow in the distance. The black rock arms of the chair were sharp against the sky.” (Freya Stark: The Valleys of the Assassins, 1935.)

Takht-e Suleiman

The third reason was the challenge of the unknown. In fact, guidebooks write almost nothing about the Alborz Mountains. Perhaps only how to get from Tehran to Alamut, but nothing more. No surprise: the market-leading travel guides are written for Anglo-Saxon readers, while American and British tourists are banned from entering Iran. At most, they can participate in tours to the historic cities strictly controlled by the Iranian Home Office. It would be an unnecessary investment to write for them about the regions beyond that, and indeed, the guidebooks do spare this effort. If you are curious about the border regions, you have to discover them for yourself.

Although Freya Stark, in 1935, published a sketch of a map as to how she reached the Caspian Sea through the Alborz passes, but she did so in four months and on muleback. (Even in 2012, Lonely Planet suggested renting a mule for the crossing.) Has the road improved enough so as to do it with a rented car? Does it not become an impassable dirt road somewhere in the middle, as so often happens in Iran’s border mountains?

The previous posts have shown that although the route turns into a dirt road around the ridge, it can still be done by car and you can descend on the other side to the Caspian Sea. We went all the way, and visited the mosques of Lahijan and the Polish cemetery in the port city of Bandar-i Anzali, and then we turned up again into the mountains, where we visited the Sassanid-Assassin castle of Rudkhan, and attended the preparations of the Ashura celebrations in the world heritage town of Masouleh.

But, in the meantime, we also made another detour, and this is where I pick up the thread of the narrative again. Descending from Rudkhan Castle, we headed south (see the starting map of the post), up the ridge of the Alborz, along a small river called in the same way as the village at the head of the valley we headed to: Emamzadeh Ebrahim.

Here we are already in the area of regular rains. Our journey is accompanied by dark green mountains and light green rice fields. From the fields, herons and cranes flutter away at the approach of a rarely seen car.

Arriving to the border of the village, we are struck by the sight of the colorful multi-storey wooden-frame buildings covered with tin, plastic sheets and carpets, temples of bricolage. Even though I had seen photos of them on Persian sites, because this is why we are coming here, what is unbelievable in the picture is even more unbelievable in reality.

And these are not poor buildings. Many of them display prosperity, at least in the local context. The flamboyant colors, the use of mismatched materials is not an expression of poverty, but of the local Kunstwollen. “That’s exactly what we wanted here, because this is how we like it.”

Arriving in the village, the road splits in two: the one to the left is the bazaar street, the one to the right goes up steeply to the sanctuary of Imamzadeh Ibrahim

Emamzadeh Ebrahim is among those Iranian places about which there is no guidebook, nor any site in Latin letters. I found an amateur, but relatively informative description of it in Persian on

The name of the village means ʻIbrahim, son of an Imam’. According to local tradition, one of the sons of Musa al-Kazim (745-799), the seventh Shiite imam is buried here. But which one? Musa indeed had a son named Ibrahim, Ibrahim ibn Musa al-Kazim (ca. 763-837), who lived in Yemen, occupied Mecca during the rebellion against the Abbasids, and was then killed and buried together with his father in a mosque – an important Shiite pilgrimage site – in the northern part of Baghdad, which is named after them Kadhimiyya, “the city of the two Kazims”. Thus the Ibrahim who rests here, in Emamzadeh Ebrahim, is not of Musa, unless Musa had two sons named Ibrahim.

Iranologist and geographer Manuchehr Sotoudeh, who researched this region in the 1960s, writes in his book از آستارا تا استاراباد (From Astara to Astarabad) that the literature knows nothing about this Ibrahim. Nevertheless,

“… it is widely known and accepted among the people of Gilan that he was one of the sons of Imam Musa Kazem, who is buried in this area, and is a generous patron of the afflicted and of those who come in pilgrimage to him. The region has a great respect toward him, so much that no one dares to steal anything in that village. Perhaps this is why Ibrahim is called «the Abolfazl of Gilan».” (Abolfazl, younger brother of Imam Hussein is the model of the impeccable chevalier among the Shiites.)

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Thus, the center of the village is the pilgrimage sanctuary of “Ibrahim”, at the head of the valley, where the river also originates. It is surrounded by springs to which are said to be healing. Due to the multitude of pilgrims, a large bazaar was established in the center of the village, with peculiar colorful houses, which has been the local folk art for centuries. The frameworks of the four or five-storey houses are constructed from roughly-worked, color-painted wood, and have neither external nor internal walls. Inside, the rooms are separated by curtains and carpets, and on the outside, they hang up large plastic tarpaulins when the dawn winds are already cool (it’s never really cold here). Most of the houses are rented out to pilgrims. In winter some 80 families live here, but when the flood of pilgrims resumes in the spring, three hundred more families come up from the coastal towns to run the houses.

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We sit in one of the convenience stores on the bazaar street, where they also cook. The hosts are kind, but they answer our questions in Persian very succintly, with the most basic words only. They are, however, all the more talkative with incoming customers – but in a language from which we only think to understand a few words on the basis of Persian. “What language are you speaking?” we ask them. “In Talysh”, they reply.

Talysh is a member of the Iranian language family, a close relative of Persian, spoken mainly by nomadic shepherds here in the northern mountains, roughly from here up to the Azerbaijani border and beyond. The nomadic origin may also provide some explanation for the almost temporary nature of the houses. We will see similar makeshift buildings to the north, in the Talysh shepherd villages. According to Iranian linguists, Talysh is a remnant of the ancient Iranian Azari dialect, which, acccording to medieval geographers, was spoken in the province of Azerbaijan (in ancient Persian, Âtarpatakân) by the descendants of the ancient Medes, before most of the local population (with the exception of the mountain dwellers) was assimilated by the nomadic Turks – today’s Azeris or, in Persian, Torkis – arriving here in the 10th century.

In the absence of any ethnic census, the number of Talysh speakers is difficult to ascertain. It is generally estimated between 200 thousand and 2 millions, roughly half of whom live in Iran and half in Azerbaijan. In Iran, they are mostly shepherds and residents of small town, without any nationalist aspirations. In Azerbaijan, however, many of them moved to the industrial cities of Baku and Sumgait, where they produced an intellectual elite. However, Azerbaijani authorities are trying to prevent all forms of ethnic self-organization, and thus, for example, the entire editorial board of the first cultural and historical journal in the Talysh language was arrested.

At the repair garage at the entrance of the village, we stop to ask where the nearest gas station is. The young mechanic says that this is it, and he measures twenty liters out of a large barrel into the car. The workshop is also a pet shop. The mechanic’s little girl puts her favorite, a red-eyed white rabbit on the counter, and coyly watches us to see if we like it.

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From here, our journey continues in the Talysh area. Already Masouleh is of Talysh majority, but the real Talysh pastoral area only unfolds before us after that. The road leads along the ridge of the Alborz. Deep valleys to the right and left, whose vibrant greenery is radically different from the dry red-brown mountain ranges of the eastern Alborz. Soon the first flocks appear, seemingly without a shepherd, but a fearsome sheep dog is always by their side. Then come the shepherd villages, whose houses have apparently recently been tossed together of cheap materials, on a temporary basis. I can imagine that once the grazing is done in one area, the sheds are dismantled and the stubble and tin plates are carried on donkeys to the next one where the grass still grows, like the wooden-cum-blanket, tarp-insulated shepherd’s huts that are also plentiful to see in this region.

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We are so high and the valleys so deep that the clouds pass beneath us. It’s an awe-inspiring sight, as if we could watch in slow motion the rupture of a reservoir dam when, after the first few wisps, the thick clouds suddenly flood the entire valley. It flows on, from time to time allowing glimpses of the mountain peaks underneath, and finally, after long, it leaves as it came, with a farewell trace.

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We descend to Iranian Azerbaijan along the reservoir of Hiruchay river.

What is Iranian Azerbaijan? We know Azerbaijan only as an independent country, where the ax is the object of national pride, and they are not afraid to use it. However, the name originally referred to the northwestern province of Persia. Its original Persian name was Âtarpatakân, which is derived from the Persian âzar or âtash meaning ʻfire’: it means ʻland of fire’, probably due to the perpetually burning surface gas leaks also described by Marco Polo. Its inhabitants were originally descendants of the ancient Medes, who spoke the Iranian language of Azari, before the Turkic nomads settled here in the 10th century and assimilated the Medes, with the exception of a few Iranian language islands.

In 1828, the tip of the province north of the Araz River was annexed from Persia by Russia, and incorporated into the empire as the Baku Governorate. Its Turkic inhabitants were called “Mountain Tartars”. Due to the negative overtones of this, in 1918, at the secession of the Caucasus republics, the new country did not take the name of “Mountain Tatarstan”, but that of the Iranian province from which it originated: Azerbaijan. Its Turkic inhabitants also began to call themselves “Azerbaijani” or “Azeri” at this time. This story is somewhat similar to Macedonia, which also became a Yugoslav member state and then an independent country from the historic province of Macedonia, and adopted its name, while the southern part of that province still belongs to Greece. After the annexation back to the Soviet Union in 1920, Azerbaijan as a member republic was able to keep its name, to signify that – similarly to other “truncated” republics, such as Moldavia, Eastern Ukraine, Eastern Belarus or Eastern Karelia – its territory was “waiting to be completed”. The “completition” was attempted by the Soviet Union in the fall of 1945, when, in agreement with the British, it retreated from Iran, invaded by them in 1941, but left a Kurdish and an Azerbaijani People’s Republic behind in the Iranian mountains. The breakaway republics were annexed back to the country by the Iranian army in December 1946. The Baku government has since cherished hopes for a future reunification, which causes tensions with Iran.

The majority of the province are Turks, whom the Persians call Torki: the ethnic names “Azeri” or “Azerbaijani” are not used by them. They are about 16 million, almost twice as many as in the Republic of Azerbaijan. This region is also home to the Iranian Christian Syriacs / Assyrians, and of many Armenians (who are in good relations with local Turks), as well as Kurds, Talysh, and other small ethnic groups.

Azerbaijan is surprisingly golden in color. I already showed it in previous photos, for example, when I went up with my friends from Isfahan to Savalan Sultan, the highest mountain in Azerbaijan. Gold is the earth, the rocks, the vegetation, and somehow even the air. And of course the setting sun, the golden hour underscores that perfectly.

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Through the gorge of the river Qezel Ozan, we reach the plain, the highway to Tehran, where we traveled uphill to Savalan last time. But now we can stop to take photos, unlike last time, when I could only take some snapshots through the bus window. But the landscape is just as golden now. In a few hours we will be in Soltaniye, at the mausoleum of Khan Öljeitü. From there we turn south to Kashan. Now begins the Ashura celebration week in the historic cities.

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1 comentario:

MOCKBA dijo...

When I lived in Sumgait in 1982, we heard from the local Talysh how they considered themselves to be more skillful and intelligent than the locals, at the same time valued and detested for that. "Our language is very different from Azerbaijani, but we can't admit it, we must pretend to be the same"