Nizari Ismaili Castles of Iran and Syria


In 483/1090, the Persian Ismailis under the leadership of Hasan Sabbah occupied the castle of Alamut, situated in a remote and mountainous area of the Rudbar district in northern Iran. Over the next 150 years, the Ismailis succeeded in capturing more than 200 large and small fortresses in Iran and Syria with settlements in surrounding towns and villages, thus establishing their own autonomous states in these regions. Despite the hostility of local rulers and threats posed by Crusadersinfo-icon and Mongols active in the region, the Nizari state survived until 654/1256 when the Persian fortress of Maymun Diz surrendered. The Syrian fortresses, however, clustered around Qadmus were able to resist surrender until 671/1273.

The dispute over the succession of the Fatimid imam al-Mustansir (d. 487/1094), permanently divided the Ismailis into two distinct communities, later designated as the Nizari and Musta‘li Ismailis. The imamat of al-Musta‘li, installed into the Fatimid caliphateinfo-icon was acknowledged by the official da‘wa establishment in Cairo, as well as the Ismaili communities of Egypt, Yemen and western India. The situation was, however, quite different in the eastern lands where the Fatimidsinfo-icon no longer exercised political influence. By 487/1094, Hasan Sabbah (d. 518/1124) had emerged as the leader of the Ismailis in Persia and supported Musta‘li’s older brother Nizar as the rightful imaminfo-icon. After severing his ties with the Fatimid regime and the da‘wainfo-icon headquarters in Cairo, Hasan was supported by the Ismaili communities in Iraq, some parts of Syria and later in Central Asia.

The scattered territories of the Ismaili state consisted of Rudbar, a large area of Quhistan and the area of Qumis in Persia as well as the southern part of Jabal Bahra’ in Syria. Although separated from one another by long distances, the territories of the Nizari state maintained a remarkable cohesion and sense of unity both internally and against the outside world. Rudbar, a district in the upper Shahrud in northern Persia acted as the headquarters of the Persian da‘wa from 1090 when Hassan Sabbah acquired Alamutinfo-icon.

In Syria, the Ismailis were able to retain their independence until 671/1273 when the last of the castles surrendered to the Mamluk Sultan, Baybars (d. 675/1277). The most important Syrian fortress was Masyaf, though the castle of Kahf was probably the main residence of the Ismaili leader Rashid al-Dininfo-icon Sinan (d. 589/1193). This stronghold remained a military post until Ottoman times and was destroyed at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The cluster of castles around Qadmus was another important Ismaili centre and included the castles of Khawabi, Rusafa, Qala‘at, Maniqa and Uleyqa.

The larger Ismaili fortresses provide outstanding examples of militaristic prowess that despite the vagaries of terrain, ensured the castles were well-supplied with food and water enabling them to withstand prolonged sieges of many months, even years. In his account of the destruction of Alamut by the Mongols, the historian Juwayni (d. 681/1283) describes with admiration the vast underground store rooms built by the Ismailis and the difficulty the Mongols faced in attempting to destroy the castle’s fortifications. Some of the Ismaili castles were built, as at Alamut, on sites that had already been fortified. Others were entirely new constructions.

The genius behind the construction and organisation of Ismaili castles seems to have rested with Hasan Sabbah and his successor Buzurg Ummid (d. 532/1138). Ummid rebuilt Lamasar, the largest of the Ismaili castles, 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. In some cases, such as the site of Saru, in addition to a water catchment area inside the main castle, water was also channelled from a smaller castle two kilometres away, showing the highly skilled water engineering techniques used by the Ismailis.


This gallery of selected images is based on the ongoing research of Peter Willey who has made more than 20 field visits to Iran and Syria over a period of 40 years to study the remains of Ismaili castles. The Institute would like to thank him for kindly providing materials for this gallery.