A Day with the Assassins
Our guidebook remarked laconically that “finding al-Kahf can be a major exercise”. The first part of the journey was easy enough, taking a bus further into the heart of the Jebel an-Nusariye. The sky clouded over, but the scenery was magnificent nonetheless. Peering out the window as we ground uphill in a series of sharp curves, we saw rounded limestone hills stretch out steep-sided fingers towards the road. Pine forests alternated with villages of stone houses, olive groves and scrubby patches of grazing for herds of goats. Narrow ravines beckoned enticingly, a perfect place for heretics or bandits to hide from the world. After an hour we pulled into the town of Sheikh Badr. So far, so good.
In the main square pickup trucks sat touting for business. I asked the first driver “Qalaat al-Kahf?” and after repeating it a few times, he called over some colleagues for a conference. Suddenly the light went on. “Al-KaHAF!” We negotiated a price and climbed into the back of the truck. Our first stop was the local police station. We thought we just had to get a permit, but the driver emerged with Ahmed, young and enthusiastic in his police uniform. It seemed we were getting an escort. The driver and Ahmed wanted Joanne to ride in the cab with them, but Joanne, quickly sizing up Ahmed, decided she’d rather shiver al fresco with me than be crushed up against him.
It was a spectacular drive, diving into deep ravines and winding around mountain spurs, through villages that looked unchanged from Assassin times. The women were unveiled, although I don’t know if that meant they were Christian, Alawite or Ismaeli. The land became wilder, with brush covering the stony hillsides. Our driver got lost, unfailingly choosing the wrong way at every fork in the road before being put right by helpful villagers. Finally we dropped down onto a ridge that seemed to lead straight out into nothingness. At the end of the road, the driver stopped next to another battered pickup. It seemed we had arrived.
Ahmed grew agitated at the sight of the other vehicle and said something not in my 100-word Arabic vocabulary. When he saw I didn’t understand, he mimed putting handcuffs on. As the three of us wandered towards the end of the ridge, searching for a way up the low cliffs to where the castle had been, he kept looking around intently, as though Assassins were lurking behind every bush.
Unlike Masyaf, al-Kahf doesn’t impress from afar for the simple reason that it no longer stands. The Egyptian Mamluk Sultan Baibars rooted out the Assassins in 1271, and the ruins of the castle later became a hideout for bandits who kidnapped a French citizen in 1816. (Plus ca change!) After an Ottoman force rescued him, they razed al-Kahf to the ground to prevent any repeat. All that remains is the site itself, magnificent in its isolation, perched dramatically over deep valleys that enclose the ridge on three sides.
On the fourth side, where we had parked, 15 metres of precipice rise abruptly to castle, providing a perfectly defensible position. No wonder Rashid ad-Din Sinan, the fearsome leader of the Assassins in the late 12th century, had chosen it rather than Masyaf as his headquarters. It is a hopelessly romantic spot, with no reminders of the modern world to intrude: no signs, no souvenir stands, no soft-drink vendors. Looking up, it was easy to imagine the Crusader Henry of Champagne, visiting the Old Man of the Mountain to discuss an anti-Sunni alliance, watching two fidai hurl themselves to their deaths from the parapets to demonstrate their fanatical loyalty to the cause.
The absence of signs was all very atmospheric, but it made it difficult to find the entrance. We spent half an hour working our way along the ridge, pondering how to scale the vertical rock above us, before coming across a faint trail leading up to an ancient gateway carved through the solid rock of the cliff. To the left an Arabic inscription, worn with the centuries, covered the cliff in elegant curves. With a heavy stone doorway in place and defenders firing down from the walls, this would have been a formidable obstacle to Crusaders, Saladin, Baibars or any other enemy of the Ismailis. We entered and made our way up a gently-sloping stone ramp, meeting our band of thieves along the way. As we proceeded uphill, Ahmed continued his sign language suggestions while we tried to ignore him.
At the top, stone blocks lay scattered everywhere, half-buried in vegetation. Here and there we saw holes dug into the rock. Some of them seemed to be rainwater reservoirs, a necessity if the castle had to withstand a lengthy siege. One showed freshly-turned soil where the looters had been at work. We peered in hopefully, but no gold coins glinted below us. The views out over the deep chasms protecting the castle were stunning; we seemed to be in the middle of a vast uninhabited wilderness, and it was hard to believe that Sheikh Badr was only 13 kilometres away.
We prowled around, looking for traces of Assassins. Suddenly Joanne gave a shout of triumph. At her feet, half-hidden by shrubbery, there was another hole in the limestone. It had filled in with dirt, but we could make out the top two steps of what looked to be a narrow spiral staircase. It was near the edge of the cliff, directly above where we had hunted for the way in. It was a secret entrance! All at once the centuries fell away and the story of the Assassins came to life. I pictured fidai, disguised as Sufi holy men or Saladin’s soldiers, slipping silently down this staircase under cover of darkness, off to stab another enemy of the faith. The castle became more than a ruinous collection of stones, and I pictured Sinan keeping watch from his inaccessible eyrie, receiving messages by courier pigeon to maintain his dreaded secret service, selecting his next victim. Osama bin Laden would have been envious.
We sat down to a picnic lunch of bread, olives and soft white cheese, dangling our legs over the fallen ramparts. I wondered idly why the memory of the Assassins as ruthless terrorists has lived on. Killing a few leaders seems pretty small fry compared to massacring 30,000 civilians before barbecuing and eating them, as the First Crusade did in Maraat-an-Numan.
Ahmed had finally taken no for an answer and sat off on his own chain-smoking. Finally he came over and motioned to his watch. It was getting late and cold, and we had seen what we had come to see. Back at the parking lot Ahmed asked the driver if he had seen the thieves’ license plate number. He rubbed his hands with glee at the affirmative answer. If he couldn’t bed Joanne, he at least had an arrest to look forward to. It was refreshing to meet someone so easily satisfied by the simple things in life.
Dusk was stealing over the mountains as we settled into a bus bound for the coastal town of Baniyas. It had been a good day: ruins, history, crime, politics and a whiff of sex, par for the course in the land of the Assassins.