By Shafique N. Virani
Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol.123:2 (2003)
Introduction: “None of that people should be spared, not even the babe in its cradle.” – Edict of Chingiz Khan and Mangu Qaan
“It is generally believed that the fall of the castle of Alamut in A.H. 654 (A.D. 1256) marks the end of the Ismaili influence in Gilan. This is a great mistake.” – Hyacinth L. Rabino
The catastrophic Mongol incursions into the heart of the Muslim world during the thirteenth century left a path of death and destruction in their wake. Though the assaults succeeded in vanquishing Baghdad, toppling the Muslim caliph himself, it is notable that the famous contemporary historian, Ata-Malik Juwayni, does not describe this as the pinnacle of Mongol conquest. Rather, for this Sunni historian, the zenith and culmination of the Mongol invasion is the obliteration of the tiny rival enclave of the Ismailis, a Shi’i sect centered at the mountain fortress of Alamut. It is to this singular event that Juwayni dedicates the concluding one-third of his History of the World Conqueror.
Ibn al-Athir and later historians record a charming anecdote about this fortress. Apparently, Wahsudan b. Marzuban, one of the Justanid rulers of Daylam, was on a hunting expedition when he saw soaring eagle alight on rock. Noticing how strategically ideal the site was, the ruler decided to build a castle there that was henceforth called Aluh amu[kh]t, which may mean “the eagle’s teaching,” ta’lim al-‘uqab in Ibn al-Athir’s rendering. The name, later simplified to Alamut, is significant in at least two ways. As noticed by a number of historians, in the traditional abjad system of alpha-numeric correspondence, the name is a chronogram for the year 483 AH, corresponding to AD 1090, the very year that Hasan Sabbah, the champion of the Nizari Isma’ili cause, came into possession of the fortress.