Iran’s ancient medieval sect, the Assassins of Alamut
We had come Mo’llam Kelayeh, a tiny village, but a strategic base for the seeing the isolated Alamut Castle. Tomorrow was a long time away. First we needed to find somewhere to bed down. We had heard that a small restaurant offered a room, where we could sleep on the floor for the night. When we arrived there, and after a Farsi translation session, we were ushered out of the restaurant and down the road, then began a descent through a dark muddy driveway with no end in sight.
We were following who we believed to be the restaurant owner, but started to feel anxious when one person appeared to by following behind us, which then became two people. Elena grabbed my arm and, as woman tend to do, began whispering encouraging things in my ear such as ‘Oh my god what is happening, we’re going to die’ which is not exactly what you need to hear in those situations. Still, all was OK and we were led into a small room with a heater that burned petrol (inside the room).
With Elena still spooked from the walk, she was reluctant to leave the door open to relieve the smell. The man also lived above this small, nauseous room, and I must admit it took a long while to fall asleep from all the banging and dogs barking.
The Next Day
The freezing cold shower the next morning was a refreshing way to start the day, and the small bathroom provided some reprieve from the fumes of the heater. Breakfast was simple, two eggs and a flat type of bread they use, equivalent to a wrap used for Kebabs in the west. The Persians have their weekends on a Thursday, and a Friday.
Today was a Friday, equivalent to our Sunday, and no shops were open for food. If we had known this later in the day, we would have eaten more of that dry bread! Not to worry, the pressing issue was trying to explain to the collected group of interested onlookers, what our intended plan was for the day. This required us hiring a taxi for the bulk of the day, and again the Farsi book was next to useless. I drew a picture of a car on a scrap piece of paper, and drew several round clocks with the hands pointing to the time, and an arrow corresponding to the names of where we wanted to go, and when. I thought this was quite clever on my part, but it still took a while to get the message across.
The next issue we discovered was that in our generosity to the driver of the mud-filled taxi, and after paying for the “room” and breakfast.. We did not have enough Rial (currency) to pay for the day in the taxi. I took out a 20 euro note, and spent several minutes explaining that this single piece of paper was the equivalent to 1,000,000 Rials, a stack about 4 inches tall of their paper currency. One Iranian man took the bait.
Departing Mollam Kelayeh, the road slowly wound up the side of the canyon, which eventually morphed into a valley separating different sides of a mountain range. The valley walls were a dark red crimson, the same colour you would expect to find in an Australian desert or from a Grand Canyon rock. The ground of the valley below was dotted with lush green irrigated fields, with the remainder covered with brown, waist height wild grass and the occasional settlement. We drove through a small village before looping down to the valley floor and following the road out through the canyon and onto the plains, then taking a road north through another village and eventually parking below the face of a sharp uprising in the land that continued across the face of the mountain’s in the rear.
This was the location of the once impenetrable mountain castle of the medieval sect Assassins of Alamut, who through the 11th and 13th centuries were responsible for political sabotage and murder. During the final stand of the assassins the castle, it is said they were under siege for over 17 years, and able to survive through extensive storage of food supplies and water reservoir’s built into the mountain for self-sustainability.
Most normal (if there is such a thing in Iran) tourists come here in June or July, during summer. We arrived in February and the castle and its steep climb up a shale face now covered in 3 feet of snow, made for tough work. The castle was interesting, if a little unremarkable. The setting was beautiful but the rusted scaffolding erected over the site to protect it from water damage was unsightly.
The most interesting part of the site was unfortunately out of bounds for tourists and was blocked off with a high fence. After a quick scan of the area looking for the resident security guards, we clambered over the fence, down a rickety ladder and then had an interesting snoop around the areas not seen by the average visitor. From the top of the site we had extensive views of the village below, and the mountain range behind it. In fact, rotating 360 degrees around, the views were fabulous. Snow capped mountains, followed by more. For a moment I felt envious of the ‘assassins’ and their hideout. It must have been a peaceful reprieve for them here, while it lasted.
The assassins were led to believe their actions would transport them to a paradise of beautiful virgins, and plentiful wine, which they were shown while unknowingly stoned on hashish
The return drive was a missed opportunity to take the pictures I desperately wanted, as our driver took the direct route back to Mo’allem Kelayah and bypassed the canyon, despite our Farsi requests. When we arrived back at the town, he announced we would take the rest of our journey to Qazvin with a taxi driver, and proceeded to load our bags into the bright yellow car. We had already paid this driver for the entire trip to Qazvin, and something did not feel quite correct with the latest turn of events. But against our better judgment we departed, after being assured that he had paid the taxi driver for this trip to Qazvin in advance.
Upon arrival we found out that the taxi driver had no idea what we were talking about, and this mysterious private driver of earlier, and simply taken our money and disappeared. Before I explain what happened next, first you must understand the mentality of the Persian people. At a young age, we are taught not to stare, and to let people go about their business. In Iran it seems, this is not an issue. Standing with our taxi driver trying to explain with pictures what was going on, first one, then two, and then three. Before we knew it, a whole crowd of various people had gathered around us. Drivers, women, kids, military, police, all listening to the conversation and either nodding in agreement with whatever was going on, or making thoughtful facial expressions to display their reactions.
I felt for sure we would be hauled off to prison for civil unrest, and never heard from again!
It was very bizarre at first, before we realized that everybody was trying to help, and at the same time fascinated by two white tourists standing in their station. Through the help of a translator we explained the situation and everybody felt terrible for us.
The taxi driver refused to take any of our money, and everybody was concerned about how we must feel about Iran after being ripped off by this other man. In the end we insisted that we pay the driver as many people are terribly poor, and we did not want him to be out of pocket for us.
The crowd dispersed. We waited for 4 hours for the next train, with constant strangers coming up to us and trying to talk. Finally, we boarded the train, direction Zajan, about 2 and half hours travel further west.