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‘Old Men of the Mountains’: a comparative study of the Ghūrids and the Ismā‘īlīs of Alamūt

‘Old Men of the Mountains’: a comparative study of the Ghūrids and the Ismā‘īlīs of Alamūt

By David Thomas

Journal of Historical and European Studies, Vol.1 (2007)

Abstract: The twelfth and thirteenth centuries CE saw tumultuous political and social upheavals in central and western Asia. The ‘Abbāsids, the erstwhile regional power and leaders of the Muslim world, were incapable of repelling the threat of the Crusaders – the Saldjūks, Turkic nomads from the steppe, had virtually imprisoned the ‘Abbāsid caliphs in their harems, after seizing control of Baghdād in 447 AH / 1055 CE.  Less than a century later, however, the Saldjūk’s greatest sultan, Sandjar b. Malik Shāh, was himself held captive by nomads encroaching on the sedentary Muslim world, in search of pasture and bounty. As the political landscape continued to fracture, quasi-independent fiefdoms emerged. Two such fiefdoms were the Ismā‘īlī Nizārīs (known colloquially to Crusader chroniclers as the ‘Assassins’) and the Ghūrid dynasty in central Afghanistan.

Striking parallels exist between these two dynasties – marginalised and despised by their neighbours, they established secure mountain strongholds, which acted as refuges and bases from which to expand. They reached their zenith under charismatic and astute leaders, who extended Ismā‘īlī and Ghūrid domains far beyond their heartlands. Ultimately, however, both dynasties succumbed to invading nomad armies from the steppe – the Khwārizm-Shāh and then Ögedey’s Mongol armies overran the Ghūrids in 619/1222, while thirty-five years later, Hülegü’s Mongol armies forced the surrender and dismantlement of the Ismā‘īlī fortresses. Both dynasties were lost to the vagaries of history – all that remains, apart from the tumbled stones of their fortresses, are the often biased and exaggerated accounts of medieval chroniclers.

Amidst the similarities between the Ismā‘īlīs and the Ghūrids, distinct differences are evident which help to explain their changing fortunes. The Ismā‘īlīs were an oppressed Shī‘a minority, viewed as heretics by the majority of their Muslim brethren. Consequently, they developed a strong sense of identity and ideology that ensured unquestioning allegiance to their ‘Grand Master’. Ismā‘īlī leaders generally recognised their limitations, and modified their goals and tactics in the light of the prevailing political and military circumstances.

The Ghūrids were more prone to internecine rivalries, but once united, they were territorially more ambitious than the Ismā‘īlīs. Seizing upon the weaknesses of their neighbours, they rapidly accumulated an empire stretching from eastern Iran to Bengal in India. The primary purpose of Ghūrid expansion, however, seems to have been to extract tribute and appropriate booty. These external sources of income enabled them to aggrandise their urban centres and sustain a population beyond the natural carrying capacity of the land.

Although the histories of these two dynasties are now relatively well understood, they have received little archaeological attention. Archaeological fieldwork at Djām (the Ghūrid summer capital of Fīrūzkūh) in central Afghanistan, and exploration around Alamūt, the Ismā‘īlī fortress capital in the Alburz mountains north-west of Tehran, are starting to complement the historical sources. This paper will present some of the historical and archaeological data available and conclude by comparing the reasons for the downfall of these two intriguing dynasties.

Click here to read this article from La Trobe University

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