This work is the culmination of more than 20 expeditions (spanning the past 40 years)
made by Peter Willey to the castles that were inhabited by Nizari Ismailis from 1090 CE until the Mongol invasion in1256 CE. The discovery and investigation of these long abandoned medieval Ismaili castles throughout the course of these expeditions gives a new perspective and understanding about the Ismailis of Alamut.
The Ismaili state, from 1090 until its final collapse in 1273 in Syria (1258 in Iran), consisted of four principal semi-autonomous areas. The first of these is Rudbar, the home base of the Ismaili community in Iran from 1090 when Hasan-i Sabbah gained control of the castle of Alamut. The most important castles in that area were Alamut, Lamasar, and Samiran. The second area is Qumis, which is the area around Damghan and Semnan, that contained the fortress based around Soru.
The third area is Quhistan in the south of Khorasan, where a large number of recent discoveries were made. There were additional sites in Khuzistan, Arajan in particular, where the Ismailis ruled for a few years by occupying Shahdiz, overlooking Isfahan, the Saljuq capital, and the neighbouring fortress of Khanlanjan.
The fourth area was in Syria, where the Ismailis remained independent until 1273, when the last of the castles surrendered to Baybars. The most important Syrian fortress there was Masyaf, though the castle of Kahf was probably the main residence of the Ismaili leader Rashid al-Din Sinan. This stronghold remained a military post until Ottoman times and was destroyed as late as the beginning of the nineteenth century. Another important Ismaili centre in Syria was the cluster of castles around Qadmus including Kawabi, Rusafa, Qalaat, Maniqa and Uleyqa.
These castles and fortresses were built in the inaccessible mountainous regions of Iran and Syria for refuge by the Ismaili Muslims who were fleeing persecution by the Saljuqs and others during the early Middle Ages. Often superior in construction to those built by the Crusaders, these castles withstood numerous offensives for over two centuries until the middle of the thirteenth century when most were captured and demolished by the Mongols.
According to Peter Willey, the larger Ismaili fortresses are quite outstanding as examples of military architecture, their strategic position and the skilled use of natural resources to ensure that, despite the difficulties of the terrain, the castles were well supplied with food and water and, therefore, able to withstand a prolonged siege of many months, and even years.
In his account of the destruction of Alamut after the garrison had surrendered to the Mongols, the Persian historian Juvaini describes, with considerable admiration and even awe, the vast underground store rooms built by the Ismailis and the difficulty the Mongols had in destroying the castle’s fortifications. Some of the Ismaili castles were built, as at Alamut, on sites that had already been fortified. Others like Gird-kuh were totally new constructions.
The military genius behind the construction of Ismaili castles seems to have been Buzurg-Umid, Hasan-i Sabbah’s successor. He rebuilt the castle of Lamasar, the largest Ismaili castle, with its complex and highly efficient water storage system. Wherever the slope of a fortified hill was large enough, a well-constructed water catchment area was installed. When visiting the site of Soru, not far from Damghan, it was noted that in addition to the water catchment area inside the main castle, water had also been channelled from a smaller castle a mile away. According to the author, the Ismailis were highly skilled water engineers, as well as showing an expertise far ahead of their time in the fields of agriculture and military architecture.
The design of Ismaili castles differs from the Crusader’s concept. The latter derived from a Norman archetype (fortification of a great citadel, built on a natural or man-made eminence). Instead, the Ismailis fortified the top of a great mountain, dividing the fortifications into self-contained sections, culminating in the great citadel (this also contrasts with castles of the Byzantines or those adopted by the Frankish invaders of Outremer).
The Ismaili approach to castle architecture was more elaborate: for example, water was stored for the garrison and the local population (who took refuge inside the fortress walls). The author asserts that “the construction of such a fortress and its associated
defensive positions and walls were an engineering achievement of the highest order.”
It is generally accepted that without the security provided by their castle, the Ismaili state would probably have crumbled much earlier. The location of the castles is, in fact, a geographical marker of the boundaries of the Alamut Ismaili state. The author considers these medieval castles as tangible evidence of the extraordinary genius of the Ismailis of this time. The construction of these fortresses is in itself a tribute to the expertise and scientific understanding of the Ismailis of this period, as well as an administrative ability of a very high order.
This publication provides a significant and timely contribution to Ismaili scholarship and history, by challenging and correcting the misinformed medieval myths that have pervaded to the present about the Ismailis of that era, the so-called Legends of the Assassins. The book is well illustrated with numerous photographs, maps and plans. As well as being a piece of original scholarship, it is a readable personal account of the challenges encountered in expeditions to remote, inaccessible and often hazardous locations. Eagle’s Nest is a rich source of information and resources, and is essential reading for scholars, students and others with an interest in medieval or Ismaili history.
Interview with Peter Willey about his research on medieval Ismaili Castles.
The online gallery on Ismaili Castles of Iran and Syria contains pictures and information about castles of this period.