Valley of the hashish assassins

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The Alamut Valley seems like a good place to play hide and go defend yourself. Its hills are craggy, perfect for building castles on top, and its views are long, perfect for seeing who is coming to get you.

It is likely for this reason that in the 12th century Hasan-e-Sabah and his followers setup a network of intensely fortified castles here. Sabbath led the heretical Ismali Muslim sect which differs from the dominant Twelver Shiia form of Islam because it only recognises five Imams.

Sabbah trained a ferocious mercenary organisation and would send his subjects out on daring missions to assassinate religious and political leaders who posed threats. To convince his warriors to accept certain death on their missions he told the they would go to paradise as martyrs. In fact, or at least as the story goes, he would cultivate these beliefs by showing them beautiful secret gardens, filled with alluring maidens while they were unwittingly stoned on hashish. This practice gave root to the term ‘hashish-iyun’, the root of the modern English word, assassin.

There’s a competing explanation that all this was made up to discredit Sabah and his particular brand of Islam (which coincidentally was more free-thinking and pro-science). But that’s a less interesting story.

In any case, the formidable defences of the castles of the assassins were eventually broken and Ismali Islam all but disappeared in Iran. It did pop up again, though, in Tajikistan and northern Pakistan. We stayed with an Ismali family on Morkhun.

Most of the castles were thoroughly destroyed but we still thoroughly enjoyed our trip to the valley. The landscape is impressive: shades of Central Otago, but with a sense of scale that you never really see in New Zealand. There were also red rocks that looked like they belonged in Australia. Plus, most tourism in Iran is city based, and it was nice to be out and about.

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