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Abstract

Whether overtly or covertly, the Ismailis have played an important role in the cultural history of Islam, particularly in Syria and Egypt, where they constituted the Fatimid , which was to last for around 200 years. After the fall of the in 1171 CE and during the subsequent diaspora, they became famous for their strongholds in Iran and Syria, from where they intervened in the various conflicts between Christian powers and the Muslim kingdoms in the Holy Land.

In religious terms, the Ismaili community is part of the larger diversity of the worldwide Muslim Over the passage of time, Muslims constituted a variety of groups, which exemplified diverse ways of understanding the primal message of Islam and different approaches to how that commonly held message could be reflected in the practical life and organisation of the community. The Ismailis are one such group. They are part of the branch of Islam, the Sunni being the other major branch, and have always constituted a minority, historically and in the contemporary world. At present, the Ismailis live in over twenty-five countries, in virtually every region of the world. In some of these regions, their history goes back over a thousand years. Syria is one such example where the Ismaili presence can be dated to the 9th century.

Among the Shi'a, there were those who remained faithful to the line of Imams who descended from Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq (d. 765 CE) through his son, Imam Ismail. Hence, they came to be known as Ismailis. There were other Shi'i groups who gave their allegiance to different lines of Imams. The largest group among such other Shi'is are called Ithna'ashari; they believe in a line of twelve Imams, ending in the who remains in occultation (ghayba) and would reappear to grant salvation at the end of time.

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Whether overtly or covertly, the Ismailis have played an important role in the cultural history听 of Islam, particularly in Syria and Egypt, where they constituted the Fatimid caliphate, which听 was to last for around 200 years. After the fall of the Fatimids in 1171 CE and during the听 subsequent diaspora, they became famous for their strongholds in Iran and Syria, from where听 they intervened in the various conflicts between Christian powers and the Muslim kingdoms听 in the Holy Land.听听

In religious terms, the Ismaili community is part of the larger diversity of the worldwide听 Muslim umma. Over the passage of time, Muslims constituted a variety of groups, which听 exemplified diverse ways of understanding the primal message of Islam and different听 approaches to how that commonly held message could be reflected in the practical life and听 organisation of the community. The Ismailis are one such group. They are part of the Shi鈥榓听 branch of Islam, the Sunni being the other major branch, and have always constituted a听 minority, historically and in the contemporary world. At present, the Ismailis live in over听 twenty-five countries, in virtually every region of the world. In some of these regions, their听 history goes back over a thousand years. Syria is one such example where the Ismaili听 presence can be dated to the 9th century.听听

Among the Shi鈥榓, there were those who remained faithful to the line of Imams who听 descended from Imam Ja鈥榝ar al-Sadiq (d. 765 CE) through his son, Imam Ismail. Hence, they听 came to be known as Isma鈥榠lis. There were other Shi鈥榠 groups who gave their allegiance to听 different lines of Imams. The largest group among such other Shi鈥榠s are called Ithna鈥榓shari;听 they believe in a line of twelve Imams, ending in the Mahdi who remains in occultation听 (ghayba) and would reappear to grant salvation at the end of time.

A Wide-Spread Network with Shifting Power Bases听听

The difficult and divisive political climate of the time caused the early Ismaili Imams, fearing听 persecution, to maintain anonymity. According to Ismaili historical sources, they lived during听 this time in Salamiyya in central Syria. It was from Salamiyya that the Imams secretly guided听 the activities of their followers from North Africa to Khurasan and Central Asia. During this early period, dating to the middle of the 9th century, the community came to be organised听 through the institution known as the 诲补鈥榳补. Although the term was not confined to the听 Ismailis, their skilful organisation and effective communications gave it a very unique听 character at the time. The individuals representing the 诲补鈥榳补 were known to lead exemplary ethical lives and possessed a keen knowledge of the highest intellectual sciences of the day.听 Known as 诲补鈥榠s, they also combined knowledge of diplomacy and public relations. Their role听 was to summon people to the cause of Islam and of the Ismaili Imams and to promote the听 social, moral and spiritual welfare of the community and the regions in which they lived.听听

The combined efforts of members of the 诲补鈥榳补 created strong support for the Imams in North听 Africa, Yemen and Syria. It was however from Syria that the Imams guided the activities of听 their followers in these different regions. Even after the Ismaili Imams began to rule as听 Fatimid caliphs in Cairo, Syria continued to be an important region for their 诲补鈥榳补 activities,听 also comprising one of the dominions of the Fatimid state. Syrian Ismailis have therefore听 constituted an important part of the Ismaili community throughout its history.听听

The history of Egypt itself, where the Fatimid rulers were in power from 969 CE to 1171 CE,听 experienced a long period of prosperity, during that period. The Fatimids established strategic听 control over Mediterranean and Red Sea trade routes with Cairo serving as an entrep么t. They听 generated a flourishing era of commercial activity which included Syria. Under Fatimid rule,听 Egypt participated vigorously in international trade with lands such as India and the Far East,听听

North Africa, Nubia, Europe, Byzantium (Constantinople in particular), Sicily and other听 islands of the Mediterranean. Agriculture led to self-sufficiency, and industry was promoted.听 Various religious communities, Jewish, Christian and Muslim, lived together in a spirit of听 mutual respect and enjoyed prosperity under the relative stability of the time.听听

It was, however, in the sphere of intellectual life that Fatimid achievements seem most听 brilliant and outstanding. The Fatimid rulers were lavish patrons of learning, and their听 generous encouragement of scientific research and cultural activity caused Cairo, their newly听 founded capital, to exert a degree of magnetic attraction, such as to draw renowned听 mathematicians, physicians and astronomers to the city from all over the Muslim world.听 Within the royal court, noted poets such as Ibn Hani and Tamim b. al-Mu鈥榠zz, and historians听 and geographers such as al-Musabbihi and al-Muhallabi, flourished under the patronage of听 the Fatimids. The universities of al-Azhar and Dar al-鈥業lm provided a monumental and听 enduring testimony to the Fatimids鈥 love of learning. Figures of outstanding ability, such as听 Abu Ya鈥榪ub al-Sijistani, Qadi al-Nu鈥榤an, Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani, al-Mu鈥榓yyad fi鈥檒-Din al Shirazi and Nasir-i Khusraw, made crucial contributions to the articulation of Ismaili thought听 which was characterised by a remarkably complex upsurge of intellectual activity which M.听 Canard in the Encyclopaedia of Islam has described as analogous to that which took place in听 Europe in the 18th century. The cultural impact of the Fatimid state was not confined to the听 Muslim world. At the height of its power, while the Fatimid fleet and commerce dominated听 the eastern Mediterranean, the influence of the universities in Cairo spread into Europe, with听 Fatimid writers contributing significantly to the development in the West of sciences such as听 optics, medicine and astronomy.听听

When the Persian poet and thinker Nasir-i Khusraw visited Cairo in 1047 CE, he was amazed听 by the high level of prosperity and the security enjoyed by its citizens. 鈥淚 saw such personal听 wealth there,鈥 he records in his Safarnama (Book of Travels),1 鈥渢hat were I to describe it,听 the people of Persia would never believe it.鈥 He goes on to report that 鈥渢he security and听 welfare of the people have reached a point that drapers, money changers and jewellers do not听 even lock their shops - they just lower a net across the front, and no one tampers with听 anything.鈥澨

The Fatimids attached great value and importance to education and learning. They听 established one of the world鈥檚 earliest universities. Founded in 970 CE as the mosque of al Azhar (meaning 鈥楬ouse of Illumination鈥), it was later transformed into a university with its听 own curriculum, lecture halls and residences for teachers and students, funded generously by听 the Imams. Al-Azhar became the foremost Fatimid institution of higher learning, specialising听 in various religious sciences such as Qur鈥檃nic studies, theology and law.听听

Another important academic institution of the Fatimids was the Dar al-鈥業lm (鈥楬ouse of听 Knowledge鈥), also known as Dar al-Hikmah (鈥楬ouse of Wisdom鈥). Founded by the Fatimid听 Caliph-Imam al-Hakim in 1005 CE, this academy was accommodated with its own library in听 a section of the Fatimid palace. It is likely that Hasan-i Sabbah himself, the future founder of听 the Ismaili State in Iran, received some of his advanced education at this academy when he听 visited Cairo in 1078 CE.听听

It was during the Alamut period in Nizari Ismaili history that Syrian Ismailis acquired major听 prominence and became well-known in Europe. In the final decades of the 11th century a听 group of Ismailis under the leadership of Hasan-i Sabbah (d. 1124 CE) established a state in听 Iran. They had given allegiance to Imam Nizar, the eldest son and designated as Imam by the听 last effective Fatimid Caliph-Imam al-Mustansir billah, who died in 1094 CE. As part of a听 policy of consolidating relationships with other Ismailis, Hasan-i Sabbah sent emissaries to听 Syria to assist the community in its organisation. Syria was politically fragmented. The first听 Turkoman bands had entered Syria as early as 1055 CE, and the country was subsequently听 invaded by the Saljuq armies. By 1078 CE, the whole of Syria, apart from a coastal strip听 retained by the Fatimids, was under Saljuq rule or suzerainty; Tutush, the brother of the Great听 Saljuq Sultan Malikshah, had come to be recognised as the Saljuq overlord of Syria. As in听 Persia, Saljuq rule in Syria had caused many problems and was resented by the Syrians who听 were divided amongst themselves and unable to expel the invaders. In time, factional fights听 among the Saljuqs caused widespread disruption and Syria was broken into a number of听 smaller states. It became the scene of rivalry among different Saljuq princes and amirs, each听 one claiming a part of the country, while various minor local dynasties were at the same time听 attempting to assert their independence.听听

The political fragmentation of Syria became more pronounced by the appearance of the听 Crusaders in 1097 CE. Starting from Antioch, the Crusaders advanced swiftly along the听 Syrian coast and settled down in the conquered territories, establishing four Latin states based听 in Edessa, Antioch, Tripoli and Jerusalem. The Frankish encroachment of Syria naturally听 added to the apprehensions of the local population, complicating the Saljuq quarrels. In these听 troubled times, the most important Saljuq rulers of Syria were Tutush鈥檚 sons Ridwan (1095听 CE-1113 CE) and Duqaq (1095 CE-1104 CE), who ruled respectively from Aleppo and听 Damascus.听听

The Ismailis therefore had to develop a strategy for survival and sustainability in these听 troubled regions. An evident solution to this problem was to create well-fortified centres听 where the community would find protection and freedom to organise and practise their faith.听 Over time, they were successful in obtaining a number of fortresses in the mountain area听 known then as the Jabal Bahra, today called the Jabal Ansariyya after its Nusayri population.

The Ismailis in Medieval Syria听

The first Nizari leader in Syria, mentioned by the Damascene historian Ibn al-Qalanisi and听 later sources, was known as al-Hakim al-Munajjim, the physician astrologer. Probably听 accompanied by a number of supporters from Alamut, he appeared in Aleppo, and, by the听 very beginning of the 12th century CE, managed to find a protector in the city鈥檚 Saljuq ruler,听 Ridwan. Aleppo, in northern Syria, proved to be a hospitable environment. It had an听 important Shi鈥榠 population and an existing link with Ismailis. They were thus able, under the听 protection of the ruler, to establish themselves in Aleppo from where they could build听 linkages with other Ismaili communities.听听

In due course, the Ismailis tried to extend their influence, with the support of the ruler of听 Aleppo, to adjoining areas and soon came in conflict with the invading Crusaders who had听 designs of their own for acquiring certain fortifications in the region. In the ensuing conflict,听 several Ismaili leaders and others were killed. This was probably the first encounter between听 the Nizaris and the Crusaders in Syria. In 1110 CE, the Ismailis also lost Kafarlatha to the听 Crusaders, a lesser locality in the Jabal al-Summaq, which had come into their possession听 sometime earlier.听听

Following the death of Ridwan in 1113 CE, the Ismaili fortunes began to be reversed in听 Aleppo, since Ridwan鈥檚 young son and successor Alp Arslan adopted a more hostile stance听 towards them. Many Ismailis were killed in ensuing conflicts. Some two hundred Ismailis of听 Aleppo were also massacred or imprisoned and their properties were confiscated. Many,听 however, managed to escape to different areas, some even finding refuge in Frankish听 territory. While unsuccessful in retaining a base in this region, many positive contacts had听 been made with the local population who was generally supportive and sympathetic to the听 Ismaili presence.听听

During the second period of their initial efforts to establish themselves, the Syrian Ismailis听 concentrated their activities in southern Syria. In 1124 CE the new ruler of Aleppo, arrested听 the local leader of the Ismailis and ordered the expulsion of the Ismailis who sold their听 properties and departed from the city. The Ismaili centre of activities now shifted to听 Damascus and other localities nearby. There, the Ismailis supported the local communities听 against threats from the Crusaders, joining them in defending the major centres. The Turkish听 atabeg (regent) of Damascus received Bahram, the Ismaili leader, with honour and gave him听 official protection, further enhancing the position of the community there. At the same time,听 Bahram found an influential and reliable ally in the ruler鈥檚 vizier, Abu Ali Tahir b. Sad al Mazdaqani. Bahram requested that the community be given a fortress from which to defend听 themselves, and in 1126 CE Tughtigin, the ruler, ceded the fortress of Baniyas, on the border听 with the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem, which was then menaced by a Crusader army. Enjoying听 the continued support of al-Mazdaqani, Bahram was also given a building in Damascus听 which he used as local headquarters. Henceforth, Bahram further fortified Baniyas,听 developing residential facilities for himself and other Ismailis.听听

In 1129 CE, the governor of Damascus turned on the community against the Ismailis and a听 massacre followed. His militia destroyed Ismaili homes and fortifications; those who听 survived the onslaught were forced to flee. The fortress in Baniyas was surrendered to the听 Franks, who were simultaneously advancing on Damascus. This ended a turbulent period in听 the attempts of the Ismailis of Syria to find a base for themselves in a very divided region听 beset by internal rivalries and external threats.听

The surviving Ismailis concentrated their efforts on acquiring a network of safe strongholds.听 They directed their attention to the Jabal al-Bahra, a mountainous region between Hama and听 the coastline southwest of the Jabal al-Summaq, which was inhabited by Nusayris and听 possessed a number of suitable castles. Few details are known about the Syrian Nizaris and听 their 诲补鈥榠s during this period, when they transferred their activities out of the cities, but it听 seems that they were able to recover swiftly from their setback in Damascus.听听

After reorganising under the leadership of Abu鈥檒-Fath, they established themselves in the听 Jabal Bahra, where the Crusaders had failed to gain permanent strongholds. In 1132-33 CE,听 the Nizaris came into possession of their first fortress in the Jabal Bahra by purchasing听 Qadmus from the local warlord of Kahf, Sayf al-Mulk b. 鈥楢mrun who, with the assistance of听 the Nusayris, had recovered the place from the Franks the previous year. From Qadmus,听 which became one of their major centres and often served as the residence of their leader, the听 Syrian Ismailis extended their presence in the region. Shortly afterwards, they acquired Kahf听 and were also able to drive out the Frankish occupants of the fortress of Khariba.听听

In 1140-41 CE, the Nizaris were able to control Masyaf, their most important stronghold in听 Syria. Masyaf, situated about forty kilometres to the west of Hama, subsequently served as听 headquarters of the Ismaili leadership in Syria. They also captured several other fortresses in听 the Jabal Bahra, including Khawabi, Rusafa, Maniqa and Qulay鈥檃, which became collectively听 designated as the qila鈥 al-诲补鈥榳补 or the fortresses of the 诲补鈥榳补. The famous Crusader听 chronicler William of Tyre, writing a few decades later, puts the number of these castles at听 ten and the Ismaili population of the region at 60,000.

The Ismaili Strongholds in Syria and Iran听听

Indeed, in less than twenty years after their misfortunes in Damascus, the Syrian Ismailis had听 succeeded in establishing a network of mountain fortresses and consolidating their position听 despite the hostility of the local rulers and the threats posed by the Crusaders, who were听 active in the adjacent areas belonging to the Latin states of Antioch and Tripoli. As in Iran,听 however, they remained a local power controlling a particular territory and enjoying for some听 time an independent status.听听

Life inside the castle would have been spartan and uncomfortable at the best of times. In听 winter the temperatures are always icy, with freezing gales blowing down from the snowy听 peaks surrounding the valley. In spite of the altitude, the summer months are hot and dusty,听 requiring the greatest vigilance for attacking forces. The castle itself would have been the听 centre of continuous activity in all seasons. The water channels and cisterns had to be kept听 clean, the armourers were busy forging new weapons, the carpenters and masons constructing听 or maintaining mangonels, or repairing and enlarging the defences. The cooks were busy in听 the kitchens, replenishing the food stores and keeping them in good order. Study, learning听 and discussion filled the day for many, especially for those who aspired to become 诲补鈥榠s.听听

Our account of life in the castles of Iran and Syria is based on historical data and听 archaeological evidence. The same pattern is likely to have been replicated in all the great听 fortresses of the Ismailis, such as Maymundiz, Girdkuh and Qain in Iran and Masyaf and听 other Syrian castles, too. Time was spent in general maintenance and defensive work. Much听 of the mythology surrounding the castles and the Ismailis is based largely on the highly unreliable account of the Venetian traveller Marco Polo, which became accepted by many as听 fact until disproved by modern scholarship.听听

Marco Polo recounts during his journey to the court of the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan in the听 years 1271-1290 CE that while passing through northeast Iran, he heard from local people听 about the 鈥極ld Man of the Mountain鈥 and his fanatical band of devotees who lived in a听 remote valley hidden in the mountains. The 鈥極ld Man鈥 was said to have built a garden in听 which there was a palace where young men were seduced by drugs and wine into believing听 that they were in Paradise as a reward for their acts of assassination.听听

The fictional nature of Marco Polo鈥檚 account was long suspected by scholars, and its听 absurdities have been exposed more recently by various scholarly accounts. The very name听 鈥極ld Man of the Mountain鈥 was never used in the Persian sources for Hasan-i Sabbah, but听 applied in fact to Rashid al-Din Sinan of Syria. The persistent legend that the Ismaili 蹿颈诲补鈥檌s听 were drugged and received a foretaste of Paradise before being sent out on their mission is听 clearly as absurd as it is fantastical. There is no contemporary Muslim evidence that this was听 so.听听

We know further that when the historian Juwayni inspected Alamut after its surrender to the听 Mongols in 1256 CE, he was greatly impressed by its library, water-cisterns and storage听 facilities, but he makes no mention of any delectable secret garden or sumptuous palace听 inside or outside the castle. It is unfortunate that Juwayni himself, after having examined the听 original Ismaili documents and finding them full of 鈥渉eresy and error鈥 cast them into the听 flames. The distortion of Ismaili history was thus often based on sheer invention and听 fabrication.听听

The leadership of the Ismailis in Syria now came to be assumed by their most famous leader听 Rashid al-Din Sinan. One of the prominent figures in Ismaili history, Sinan b. Salman (or听 Sulayman) b. Muhammad Abu鈥檒-Hasan al-Basri, known also as Rashid al-Din, was born into听 a Shi鈥榠 family in 鈥楢qr al-Sudan, a village near Basra on the road to Wasit. Sinan was brought听 up in Basra, where he became a schoolmaster and adopted Ismailism. Subsequently he went听 to Alamut and studied under the future Imam, Hasan II. During his stay at Alamut, Sinan听 studied philosophy and in particular the well-known works of the Fatimid and Nizari periods听 as well as benefiting from the library and other intellectual resources in Alamut. Soon after听 his accession to power in 1162 CE, Imam Hasan II sent Sinan to Syria. Initially, Sinan听 remained at Kahf, one of the major Nizari fortresses in the Jabal Bahra, making himself听 extremely popular with the local Nizaris, until Shaykh Abu Muhammad, the head of the听 Syrian Nizari 诲补鈥榳补 died in the mountains. Soon afterwards, Sinan assumed the leadership of听 the Syrian 诲补鈥榳补 on the instructions of the Imam.听听

Once established, Sinan began to consolidate the position of his community while building听 relations with neighbouring rulers as well as the Crusaders who constituted, by their听 presence, a general threat to all. He rebuilt the fortresses of Rusafa and Khawabi, fortified听 and constructed other strongholds, and captured the fortress of Ullayqa, near the Frankish听 castle of Marqab held by the Hospitallers. At the same time, while moving among the various听 Nizari castles, especially Masyaf, Kahf and Qadmus, Sinan rapidly reorganised the Nizari听 community.

Externally, Sinan aimed to protect the Ismailis from various potential threats and to balance听 the various interests in the region. Clearly the Ayyubids under Salah al-Din represented a听 stronger threat than the Crusaders at this time. Recognising existent realities, Sinan adopted听 suitable policies in his dealings with the outside world; policies which were revised when听 needed to reassure the safety and independence of his community. As a result, from early on,听 Sinan established peaceful relations with the Crusaders, who had been sporadically fighting听 the Nizaris for several decades over the possession of various strongholds.听听

Meanwhile, the Nizaris had acquired a new Frankish enemy in the Hospitallers, who in 1142听 CE had received from the lord of Tripoli the celebrated fortress of Crac des Chevaliers (Hisn听 al-Akrad) at the southern end of the Jabal Bahra. The Nizaris continued to have minor听 entanglements with the Hospitaller and Templar military orders, which owed their allegiance听 directly to the Pope and often acted independently. Subsequently, around 1173 CE, Sinan听 sent an embassy to King Amalric I, seeking a formal rapprochement with the kingdom of听 Jerusalem. The negotiations were evidently proceeding successfully. But the Templars听 disapproved of this Nizari embassy, and on their return journey Sinan鈥檚 emissaries were听 ambushed and killed by a Templar knight. Amalric took punitive measures against the听 Templars, but as he himself died soon afterwards in 1174 CE, the negotiations between听 Sinan, known to the Crusaders as the 鈥極ld Man of the Mountain鈥, and the Franks of听 Jerusalem proved fruitless.听听

When Sinan assumed power, Nur al-Din, the Zengid ruler of Syria, was preoccupied with his听 policies against the Crusaders and the later Fatimid caliphs who were recognised as Imams听 only by the Musta鈥榣i Ismailis. Nevertheless, relations between Sinan and Nur al-Din remained听 relatively tense, due to the activities of the Ismailis in northern Syria. But Nur al-Din, who听 finally succeeded through Salah al-Din in overthrowing the Fatimids in 1171 AH, did not听 attack the Ismailis, though it is reported that he was planning a major expedition against them听 just before his death. The death of Nur al-Din in 1174 CE, the same year in which Amalric I听 died, finally gave Salah al-Din his opportunity to act as the champion of the Muslims and the听 leader of the holy war against the Crusaders. As the strongest of the Muslim rulers in the听 area, Salah al-Din strove towards incorporating Egypt, Syria and Iraq into his nascent听 Ayyubid empire. As a result, he targeted the Ismailis of Syria, as well as the rulers of Aleppo听 and Mawasil. Salah al-Din entered Damascus in 1174 CE and in the following year invaded听 the Ismaili territory besieging Masyaf. The siege was brief and following mediation by a听 local governor, Salah al-Din concluded a truce with Sinan and withdrew his forces from the听 area. Henceforth, hostilities ceased between the two men, who had come to an agreement on听 peaceful co-existence.听听

Rashid al-Din Sinan died in 1193 CE in the castle of Kahf. In the course of some thirty years,听 Sinan had led the Syrian Nizaris to a position of power and influence. The ablest of their听 chiefs, he gave the Syrian Nizaris an independent identity; with their own sphere of influence,听 a network of strongholds and a strong organisation. His shrewd strategies and appropriate听 alliances with the Zangids, the Crusaders, and Salah al-Din, served to ensure the听 independence of the Ismailis of Syria in difficult times.听听

The inscriptions at Masyaf, Kahf and other strongholds, and from a few Syrian literary听 sources indicate continuity after Sinan鈥檚 death. The Ismailis were led by several able听 individuals until 1258 CE, in consultation with the Imams in Alamut. Like the Nizari听 community in Quhistan, in eastern Persia, the Syrian Nizaris continued during this period to exercise a certain degree of local initiative in dealings with their Muslim and Frankish听 neighbours. The Syrian Ismailis had, on the whole, maintained peaceful relations with Salah听 al-Din鈥檚 Ayyubid successors in Syria. But occasional conflict continued in their dealings with听 the Franks, who still held the Syrian coast.听听

There were over 60 castles and forts in the Alamut valley and in Rudbar, about 80 in听 Khurasan, and some 50 in other parts of Iran. In Syria, the Ismailis held 60 castles of various听 sizes in the Jabal Bahra between Aleppo and Damascus. Thus in Iran and Syria there were听 some 250 fortifications, illustrating the extent and organisation of the Ismailis. All the major听 fortresses were well-built and provided for, with cisterns of water fed by springs or rain water听 and well-supplied with provisions, stored in huge underground chambers. Their libraries, too,听 were renowned and the objects of much envy.听听

鈥淭here can be no doubt鈥, says Peter Willey, 鈥渁bout the efficiency of the Ismaili听 administration. This is reflected most impressively in the immense logistical tasks involved in听 the construction and maintenance of more then 200 castles scattered over vast distances. The听 construction of new castles required, first of all, detailed survey work and planning of a high听 order. The execution of the project must have been carried out by a group of supervisors in听 charge of quarrying the required stonework, and its transportation to the castle site. Under听 their command would be teams of masons, builders, water engineers, plasterers and other听 skilled workers. The huge amounts of stone required for keeping the castles and garrisons in听 good repair for many months and even years demanded what we would call today a听 quartermaster general and his staff of the highest quality. Finally, the continuous construction听 and strengthening of these castles would not have been possible without a large and听 permanent labour force, moving from one site to another as required. We have no information听 on the composition of these workers, although a good portion of them are certain to have听 been Ismailis recruited and trained locally.鈥 2

Between Crusaders and Mongol Invasions听听

In the previous section, reference has already been made to the relations between Sinan and听 the Crusader kingdoms in the Holy Land. Other historic contacts need to be mentioned here.听 In 1227 CE, Frederick II (1212-1250 CE), the Emperor of Germany who went to the Holy听 Land on his own Crusade, sent envoys to Majd al-Din, the Syrian Ismaili leader. However,听 around the same time, the Hospitallers who had been highly displeased with the dealings听 between the Ismailis and Frederick II, demanded a tribute from the Ismailis. The Ismailis听 refused, announcing the fact that indeed they themselves were recipients of gifts and听 payments from Frankish emperors and kings.听听

The last important event in the history of the Ismaili community of this medieval period听 relates to the dealings between them and Louis IX, better known as St Louis, the French king听 who led the Seventh Crusade. These dealings, recorded by Jean de Joinville, the king鈥檚听 biographer and secretary, occurred soon after the arrival of St Louis in 鈥楢kka (Acre) in May听 1250 AH. At the time, they were most probably still under the leadership of Taj al-Din Abul Futuh, whose name is mentioned in an inscription at Masyaf dated February-March 1249 CE.听 At any rate, Ismaili emissaries came to the French king and asked him either to pay tribute or听 at least release them from the tribute which they themselves paid to the Templars and the听 Hospitallers. On the intervention of Reginald of Vichiers and William of Chateauneuf, the听 Grand Masters of the Temple and the Hospital, the negotiations between the Ismailis and St Louis did not lead to any results. St Louis, himself more interested in establishing friendly听 relations with the Mongols, did not pay any tribute to them. But the French king and the听 Syrian Ismaili leadership exchanged gifts. It was in the course of these embassies that the听 Arabic-speaking friar Yves le Breton met with Ismaili scholars and discussed religious听 doctrines in Masyaf.听听

The Mongol onslaught on the Muslim world and in particular on the Ismaili state in Iran must听 have disheartened the Syrian community, who could no longer count on the support and听 leadership of Alamut and the personal guidance of the Nizari Imam after the destruction of听 Alamut in 1256 CE. Considerably weakened, the Syrian Ismailis eventually submitted to al Malik al-Zahir Rukn al-Din Baybars I (1260-1277 CE), the Bahri Mamluk Sultan of Egypt,听 who soon extended his hegemony over Syria and its different principalities.听听

Meanwhile, having destroyed the Ismaili state of Iran, Hulagu, the Mongol conqueror had听 proceeded towards his second major objective, the extinction of the Abbasid caliphate. By听 February 1258 CE, the Mongols seized Baghdad and devastated the ancient capital of the听听

Abbasids for a whole week. The Caliph al-Mustasim, who had endeavoured in vain to听 prevent the Mongol cataclysm, was put to death on Hulagu鈥檚 orders. Hulagu鈥檚 third campaign听 was directed against the Ayyubid states in Syria. In 1260 CE, the Mongols seized Aleppo,听 and soon afterwards Hama and Damascus surrendered to the Mongols. In March 1260 CE,听 Ket-Buqa, who had been in charge of the advance operations of the Mongols in Syria, made听 his triumphal entry into Damascus. It was during the same year, 1260 CE, that four of the听 Nizari fortresses, including Masyaf, were surrendered to the Mongols by their governors. The听 Mongol success in Syria was, however, short-lived. Hulagu returned to Iran in the summer听 upon hearing the news of the Great Khan Mongke鈥檚 death, which in fact had occurred a year听 earlier in 1259 CE, leaving Ket-Buqa in command of his reduced forces in Syria. In 1260 CE,听 the Mongols suffered a drastic defeat at Ayn Jalut, in Palestine, at the hands of the Mamluk听 armies of Egypt, led by Sultan al-Muzaffar Qutuz (1259-1260 CE).听听

The vanguard of the Mamluk forces was commanded by Baybars, who succeeded Qutuz to听 the Mamluk sultanate and thwarted the Mongols in their subsequent attempts to establish听 themselves in the region. Soon, the Mongols were expelled from all of Syria, where Baybars听 rapidly emerged as the dominant power. The Ismailis were now faced with the challenge of听 developing relations with the Mamluks and other Muslim rulers whom they joined in听 repelling the Mongols from Syria. They also recovered the four fortresses which they had听 earlier lost.

Epilogue: The Ismaili Community under the Mamluks听听

The Ismailis attempted to consolidate their relations with Baybars by sending him embassies听 and gifts. Baybars, who was then preoccupied with the Mongols and the Franks, reciprocated听 by granting certain favours to the community. Nonetheless, from early on Baybars听 systematically adopted measures which ultimately led to the loss of the independence of the听 Ismaili community. They eventually granted rights to Ismaili territories to al-Malik al-Mansur听 (1244-1285 CE), the Ayyubid prince of Hama. The Ismailis however retained possession of听 eight permanent strongholds, Masyaf, Qadmus, Kahf, Khawabi, Rusafa, Maniqa (Maynaqa),听 Ullayqa and Qulay鈥檃.听

Increasingly, Baybars compelled the Ismailis to adhere to a practice of paying them tributes听 and ensuring that they acknowledged the suzerainty of the Mamluk state. Around 1270 CE,听 Baybars demanded possession of Masyaf, which was to be entrusted to one of his own amirs,听 Izz al-Din al-Adimi. Sarim al-Din, who was to hold the Nizari castles as the deputy of听 Baybars, proceeded to take charge of them. But Sarim al-Din, too, angered the sultan by听 attempting through trickery to take possession of Masyaf, in violation of the sultan鈥檚听 instructions. Once inside, he put to death a large number of the residents of Masyaf, who,听 abiding by the sultan鈥檚 orders, had refused to yield the castle to him. On Baybars鈥 request, al Malik al-Mansur, the ruler of Hama, dislodged the rebellious Sarim al-Din from Masyaf and听 sent him as a prisoner to Cairo, where he later died.听听

By February 1271 CE, Baybars had decided to deal more assertively with the Ismailis. Their听 leaders were arrested and forced to surrender control of the fortresses to the Mamluks. The听 Ismaili castles now began to submit in rapid succession to Baybars, who used military听 blockades, threats and negotiations in dealing with the Ismailis. Ullayqa and Rusafa听 surrendered in May 1271 CE, and by May 1273, Khawabi, Qulay鈥檃, Maniqa and Qadmus had听 also capitulated. The residents of Kahf mustered some resistance, and with the fall of that听 fortress in July 1273 CE the last independent Nizari outpost in Syria fell into the hands of the听 Mamluks, less than three years after Girdkuh, the last stronghold in Iran had surrendered to听 the Mongols.听听

The Ismailis were permitted to remain in their fortresses in the Jabal Bahra, but only under听 the strict supervision of Mamluk lieutenants. Amongst the later medieval sources speaking of听 the Syrian Nizaris, an elaborate account is related by the celebrated Moorish traveller lbn听 Battuta, who passed through Syria for the first time in his travels in 1326 CE. He names听 Maniqa, Ullayqa, Qadmus, Kahf and Masyaf as the fortresses which were still in the hands of听 the Ismailis, and then proceeds to give interesting details on the arrangements existing听 between them and the Mamluk Sultan al-Nasir Nasir al-Din Muhammad, who reigned听 intermittently between 1294 CE and 1340 CE. The Syrian Ismailis thus lived at the time as听 loyal subjects of the Mamluks and after them, the Ottoman Empire鈥檚 representatives in Syria.听听

In the midst of fluctuating political fortunes, the Ismailis of Syria as elsewhere, sought to听 maintain, as far as was possible, an active and vibrant intellectual and cultural life. As the late听 Marshall Hodgson observed: 鈥淭he Ismaili society was not a typical mountaineer and small town society (...) Each community maintained its own sense of initiative in the framework of听 the wider cause, and probably a sense of large strategy was never completely absent (...) but听 what was most distinctive was the high level of intellectual life. The prominent early Ismailis听 were commonly known as scholars, often as astronomers, and at least some later Ismailis听 continued the tradition. In Alamut, in Kuhistan, and in Syria, at the main centres at least,听 were libraries (...) which were well known among Sunni scholars. To the end the Ismailis听 prized sophisticated interpretations of their own doctrines, and were also interested in every听 kind of knowledge which the age could offer.鈥3

  1. Nasir-i Khusraw, Safar-name [鈥淏ooks of Travels鈥漖, N.W. Pur, Tehran 1972
  2. P.Willey, Eagle鈥檚 Nest: Ismaili Castles in Iran and Syria, London 2005
  3. M.G.S. Hodgson, The Order of Assassins, The Hague 1955听

Author

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Professor Azim Nanji

Azim Nanji is currently Special Advisor to the Provost of the , and a member of the Board of Directors of the in Ottawa, a joint partnership between His Highness the Aga Khan and the Government of Canada. He has held many prestigious academic and administrative appointments, most recently as Senior Associate Director of the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies at , where he was also lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies. From 1998 to 2008, Professor Nanji served as Director of the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London.

Professor Nanji has published numerous books and articles on religion, Islam and Ismailism, including: The Nizari Ismaili Tradition (1976), The Muslim Almanac (1996), Mapping Islamic Studies (1997) and The Historical Atlas of Islam (with M. Ruthven) (2004) and The Dictionary of Islam (with Razia Nanji), Penguin 2008. In addition, he has contributed numerous shorter studies and articles in journals and collective volumes including The Encyclopaedia of Islam, Encyclopaedia Iranica, Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Modern Islamic World, and A Companion to Ethics. He was the Associate Editor for the revised Second Edition of The Encyclopaedia of Religion.

Within the , he has served as a member of the task force for the (AKU-ISMC) and Vice Chair of the Madrasa-based Early Childhood Education Programme in East Africa. He served as a member of the Steering Committee of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1998, 2001 and 2016.鈥嬧

Dr Farhad Daftary

Co-Director and Head of the Department of Academic Research and Publications

An authority in Shi'i studies, with special reference to its Ismaili tradition, Dr. Daftary has published and lectured widely in these fields of Islamic studies. In 2011 a Festschrift entitledFortresses of the Intellect听was produced to honour Dr. Daftary by a number of his colleagues and peers.

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Bianquis, Thierry. Damas et la Syrie sous la domination Fatimide, 359-468/969-1076.听 Damascus, 1986-89. 2 vols.听听

Canard, Marius. 鈥淔atimids鈥, in The Encyclopaedia of Islam (revised ed.), vol. 2, pp.850-862.听 Daftary, Farhad. The Ismailis: Their History and Doctrines. Cambridge, 1990.听 Daftary, Farhad. The Assassin Legends: Myths of the Ismailis. London, 1994.听听

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Lewis, Bernard. The Assassins. London, 1967.听听

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Nanji, Azim. 鈥淎ssassins鈥 in the Encyclopaedia of Religion, vol. 1, pp. 469-471.听听

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Nasr, S. Hossein. ed. Ismaili Contributions to Islamic Culture. Tehran, 1977.听 Willey, Peter. Eagle鈥檚 Nest: The Ismaili Castles of Iran and Syria. London, 2005.听听

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