Great Moments in Ismaili History: Ismaili Castles in Syria

A sign welcoming the current 49th Ismaili Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, to Syria. Photo: Arif Babul, Vancouver. Copyright.

Editor’s Note: In a highly elaborate and absorbing four part interview with Simerg (see link below) astrophysicist Arif Babul had raised the concern about the challenges many parents in the Western World face in giving their children a sense of identity. Arif and his wife Naznin have two daughters, Aliya-Nur and Shazia ‘Ayn. As parents, they have always felt that children should be “completely comfortable in their own skins.” Explaining this Dr. Babul said, “we would like them to be proud of their national identity as Canadians, we would like them to be firmly anchored to the concept of an Ismaili Muslim and all that it entails.” From the time their daughters were three years old, Arif and Naznin have taken them to different countries and regions around the world to “expose them to the rich tapestry of cultures and histories around the world to draw from all these legacies at different times of their lives.”

Last September the family explored Syria, and visited important Islamic and Ismaili monuments in a number of towns and cities. The photos on this page are from the trip.

The Syrian Jamat goes back to the earliest times of Ismaili history, and can be considered as the oldest Ismaili Jamat in the world.  The Imams of the dawr satr spent significant time in Syria, coordinating the activities of the dawa from Salamiyya. The 11th Ismaili Imam, al-Mahdi, left Salamiyya in the 10th century to establish the Fatimid Caliphate in North Africa and become its first Caliph (see link below to a reading on the establishment of the Fatimid Caliphate).

A few centuries later, following the death of the Fatimid Caliph Imam al-Mustansir, when the Ismailis became divided into two distinct communities,  Hasan Sabbah in Persia and, later, Rashid al-Din Sinan in Syria emerged as prominent dais of the Nizari Ismailis in their respective regions.  The Ismailis in Syria gained considerable prominence during the Crusades when they confronted both the Crusaders and Saladin who had assumed power in Egypt after the disintegration of the Fatimid Caliphate. Sinan and his predecessor, dai Abu Muhammad, acquired a number of fortresses to face the enemies’ challenges.

Most of the descriptions that accompany the photos are from Dr. Babul’s notes. The introductory short segment “The Nizari Ismaili Concept of Castles” is taken from the Web site of the Institute of Ismaili Studies. The brief biography of Rashid al-Din Sinan has been compiled from an elaborate article by Dr. Nasseh Ahmed Mirza of Syrian Ismaili origin. Finally, we recommend the Institute’s highly acclaimed publication, “The Eagle’s Nest: Ismaili Castles in Iran and Syria” by the late Professor Peter Willey.

Please click images for enlargements.


Nizari Ismaili Concept of Castles

A map showing Ismaili Castles. The primary locations are: Alamut, Girdkuh, Kahf (Syria), Khawabi (Syria), Lamasar, Masyaf (Syria), Maymun Diz, Shamiran, Saru. Professor Willey had calculated that the Ismā‘īlīs seized up to two hundred fortresses during their history, although not all of these were held simultaneously. It is thought that the pigeon postal system was used to communicate between the isolated fortresses and towers. Map:

Stemming from the original Norman castle, the Crusader concept of castles primarily depended on fortifications of a great citadel built on a natural or man-made eminence. The Ismailis, whenever possible, fortified the crown of a great mountain, dividing the fortifications up into self-contained sections, culminating in a great citadel.

The decision to fortify or build a new fortress on an existing site was based on four main principles:

1. The area chosen for fortification must be in a naturally strong defensive position with a terrain sufficiently remote and difficult to approach in order to discourage attack hostile parties.

2. The complex of fortresses within the chosen area must have the ability to support each other in the event of an attack and enable an efficient system of communication to be established, whether by beacon or other means.

3. The chosen area must contain enough material, especially wood and stone, to allow the construction and reconstruction in the case of an existing fortress, to be carried out expeditiously and with a minimal labour force.

4. The terrain should have fertile ground and water nearby to provide adequate water and food supplies.

The site chosen must also be sufficiently elevated to prevent undermining of sapping and it must be out of range of mangonel attacks. As a result, the immediate surroundings and approaches of a fortress must be as steep as possible. The fortress areas must also be of sufficient size to allow large underground storage chambers to be built for water and food and the surface area must be as sloping as possible to allow rainfall to run into the specially constructed water cisterns.


I. Masyaf Castle

Masyaf Castle is the best preserved and most famous Ismaili fortress on the Syrian coast, where the persecuted Ismailis took refuge in the 12th century

The following two pictures of Masyaf Castle as seen on approach to the town from Salamiyya and the desert flats. The castle sits strategically at the mouth of one of the important routes into the mountains as a counter against a nearby crusader castle, Krak de Chevalier, and other threats at the time. The mountains host a chain of medieval Ismaili fortresses and villages and the region reached its zenith under the leadership of dai Rashid al-Din Sinan. Stories of the encounters between the famous Ayyubid ruler, Saladin, and Sinan during a siege of the castle by the former that led to a truce and eventually an alliance are still recounted with great pride by the Syrian Ismailis.

Masyaf Castle. Photo: Arif Babul, Vancouver. Copyright.


Masyaf Castle. Photo: Arif Babul, Vancouver. Copyright.


Who was Rashid al-Din Sinan?

Two key Ismaili leaders in post Fatimid Nizari Ismaili history; Hassan-i Sabbah of Alamut, Iran, shown at left and Rashid al-Din Sinan of Syria. The obedience of the Ismaili fidai's to these two leaders were crucial in safeguarding the Jamat for many decades.

Precise details of the early life of Rashid al-Din Sinan are difficult to establish. The statements from non-Ismaili sources about the environment in which Sinan spent his early years suggest that his parents were Twelver Shi’is. It is believed that he went to Alamut during the reign of the 22nd Ismaili Imam, al-Qahir, where he immersed himself in the study of Ismaili theology and philosophy. During his stay in Alamut he became a confidant of the future Imam Hasan II ( or ‘Ala Dhikrihi al Salam), who later sent him to Syria to succeed the chief dai Abu Muhammad under whose leadership the Ismaili Jamat in Syria had fallen into disarray.

Thus when Sinan assumed the leadership of the dawa, his main efforts were aimed at consolidating the position of the Ismailis and to solve their manifold internal problems. Also, another objective was to defend Ismaili territory against hostile Muslim and Frankish neighbours. Sinan thus began reorganizing his men, and chose the most eligible and devoted to form the core of fidais. His strong personality paved the way towards bringing harmony and unity in the Jamat. Sinan also spent considerable resources in reconstructing the fortresses.

Sinan was a great administrator and a superb organizer. He had his fidais trained in various languages and in the art of collecting secret information from the courts of kings and princes. He set up an elaborate communication system, making full use of pigeons and coded messages by which the commanders of the various Ismaili strongholds were kept informed about his plans in response to possible threats to any of the widely scattered Ismaili fortresses. Sinan successfully transformed the Syrian dawa from a state of weakness which depended mainly on the help from Alamut, into a powerful autonomous dawa with its own hierarchy of leaders, while remaining true to the authority of the Imamat in Alamut.

A major challenge for Sinan was Saladin’s attitude towards the Ismailis in general. Saladin’s gross ill-treatment of the Fatimids caused indignation and anger among all the Ismailis, whether Nizaris or Musta’lis. Saladin had also embarked on a systematic campaign to suppress Ismailism in Egypt, destroying the rich Fatimid libraries, exterminating the Ismaili system, and introducing Sunni institutions. Moreover, it was Saladin’s ambition to recreate a Syrio-Egyptian state under his rule; and the rise of a strong anti-Ismaili ruler in Syria was bound to be a source of anxiety to the Syrian Ismailis.

On May 1176, Saladin invaded Nizari territory and besieged Masyaf. The siege did not last long, with  Saladin’s forces withdrawing from the area and a truce was reached between him and Sinan. Stories of the encounters between Saladin and Sinan during the siege by the former that led to a truce and eventually an alliance are still recounted with great pride by the Syrian Ismailis.

Sinan is believed to have died in 1193. Non-Ismaili sources indicate that he was either buried at al-Kahf or al-Qadmous. Ismailis believe that his grave is in Jabal Mashhad where Sinan used to spend much of his time praying and practising astronomy. (Link to photos of Jabal Mashhad provided below in Tombs…)


A section of the Masyaf Castle. Photo: Arif Babul, Vancouver. Copyright.

The castle has long history going back to the early Byzantine period, which is demonstrated by its architecture. It stands on a platform about 20 metres above the surrounding plane guarding the approach to other Ismaili castles in the area. It was captured by the Ismailis in 1141 and was later refortified by Rashid al-Din Sinan. Writing in 1170, William of Tyre mentions there were about 60,000 Ismailis in Syria, holding ten castles.

Masyaf castle. Photo: Arif Babul, Vancouver. Copyright.


II. Al-Khawabi Castle

Rashid asl-Din Sinan’s house (or the Aghas House) was situated in the upper part of the citadel.

The Al-Khawabi castle is termed as “a continuously inhabited citadel on the Syrian coast.” The Citadel is located 20 kilometres to the North-East of Tartous City in the Syrian Coast. The area has numerous “Ismaili” villages strung out across mountaintops and high ridges. The region is remarkably beautiful, with cool breezes, gurgling mountain streams, rushing rivers, beautiful views, lush olive, orange and pomegranate orchards, and most of all incredibly warm hospitable people.

The Citadel was built by the inhabitants of the mountain, and then restored by the Byzantines in 1025. It was possessed by Mohamed Bin Ali Bin Hamed, who handed it to the Crusaders in 1111. Then the Franks conquered it, took it from a local governor in 1140, and called it Le Coïble. Afterwards, it fell to the Ismailis, and Rashid Al-Din renovated it in 1162-1193, by removing some walls and building others. And according to many historical accounts stories, the entrance was attributed to him.

Al-Khawabi castle. Photo: Arif Babul, Vancouver. Copyright.
Al-Khawabi Castle. Photo: Arif Babul, Vancouver. Copyright

The building has two main sections: Harat Sinan Rashid Al-din or, as the residents call it, “The Aghas houses”, situated in the upper part of the citadel, and Harab Al-Saki. Many of the citadel’s historical features deteriorated in the early 1990’s and new residences were constructed in the upper portion. The houses were then abandoned by their former inhabitants who have built new residences near by. The remains of the medieval walls and houses, some with cellars, are still visible.

Al-Khawabi Citadel is an example of traditional architecture which, the Web site Islamic Tourism notes, “is unfortunately threatened by absent mindedness and neglect.”

Al-Khawabi Castle. Photo: Arif Babu, Vancouver. Copyright


III. Al-Kahf Castle

Visiting the castle today conjures images of Raiders of the Lost Arc…This is where the fidais were trained and the famous story of the fidais who jumped from the walls in a sign of loyalty to Sinan is supposed to have taken place here.

Al-Kahf was Rashid al-Din Sinan’s preferred residence. It was located deep in the forests of Jabal Bahra. The castle was 500 metres long and 40 metres wide and was divided into four self-contained sections. The ruins still show the existence of seven water cisterns and a well-preserved and intricately designed bath-house. The castle was bought by the Ismailis around 1132-3, which they held until around July 1273 when it felt to the Mamluks. The Ottomans destroyed the castel at the beginning of the 19th century.

This castle, being well hidden in the mountains, was one of the most inaccessible of the Ismaili castles. It rests on a narrow spine in a middle of a steep valley, which provides the only access to the castle. Other than the ridge, the castle is ringed by steep drops. The entrance to the castle, which has a cave-like appearance (see below), is located approximately 30 degree around the castle wall and involves walking along a very narrow path, now overgrown with plants and grass. The castle would have been virtually impossible to storm.

Its location and defense had led some to suspect that this was the true headquarters of the Ismailis. Sinan is known to have spent much time here. This is where the fidais were trained and the famous story of the fidais who jumped from the walls in a sign of loyalty to Sinan is supposed to have taken place here. Visiting the castle today conjures images of Raiders of the Lost Arc. The adventure starts with one having to hack one’s way through the overgrown brush along a narrow path with a steep drop to one side. All of the sudden, one comes upon a large cave-like entrance hiding a small tunnel and that is just the beginning. The ruins reverberate with magic and mystery.

Kahf Castle. Photo: Arif Babul, Vancouver. Copyright
Al-Kahf Castle. Photo: Arif Babul, Vancouver. Copyright


IV. Al-Qadmous Castle

The castle protected the Ismaili “state” from surprise attack from the coast

The handsome mountain town of Qadmous is dominated by the ruins of an Ismaili castle. The area is renowned for its many religious shrines, but also for its natural beauty. The greenery and cool mountain air of Qadmous is refreshing and welcoming to any traveler who arrives from the dusty plains.  The castle is one of two that is believed to have protected the Ismaili “state” from surprise attacks from the coast.

Al-Qadmous Castle. Photo: Arif Babul, Vancouver. Copyright

Al-Qadmous. Photo: Arif Babul, Vancouver. Copyright.

Al-Qadmous castle. Photo: Arif Babul, Vancouver. Copyright.

Date reading posted on this Web site: February 5, 2011

Photos copyright: Arif Babul.


References and links to useful articles

1. Babul Talks about Identity, Aspirations for the Family and the Jamat, “An Ismaili Academy”, Family Pursuits, Frontierless Brotherhood, and Allah’s Blessing (on this Web site)

2. See IIS article, Nizari Ismaili Castles of Syria and Iran for more information and technical data related to the castles

3. Great Moments in Ismaili History: The Establishment of the Fatimid Caliphate (on this Web site)

4. Rashid al-Din Sinan by Dr. Nasseh A. Mirza

5. Islamic Tourism, Syria

6. Military architecture, Al-Khawabi Citadel


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14 thoughts on “Great Moments in Ismaili History: Ismaili Castles in Syria

  1. Dear Arif Babul,

    Interesting article. Thank you.

    I´m a researcher at de Polytechnic University of Valencia, and I´m working at the Peñiscola Castle near Castellón, that has remarkable similarities to Masyaf Castle, and there must be some connection that justifies it.

  2. I greatly appreciate all the kind comments posted here.

    I would like to take a moment to pay a special tribute to our many brothers and sisters in Damascus, Salamiyyeh, Al Khawabi, Musyaf and Al Khawabi who went out of their way to make us feel not only welcome but part of the family. Their hospitality and kindness transformed our visit into our most memorable experience.

    I would encourage everyone to take up Derar Abbas’s invite to visit Syria…and while there, do take the time to experience amazing ruins beyond those linked to Islam and Ismailis. As Razan suggests, every stone, every step in Syria recall events that literally cover the entire history of humankind, from the very first human settlements (ever), the very first pieces of “art”, to remarkable Roman ruins (some even better than those in Italy), to places linked to transformative moments in early Christian history, and history of any incredibly vibrant (and ancient) Jewish community.

    Three weeks was by no means enough!

  3. The photos are lovely! I remember visiting Shmemis, Masiaf, Al-Qadmus and the Aleppo Citadel castles in 1979. I revisited Aleppo and Qadmus as well as the Latakia castle two years ago. Mr. Muhammed Adra will have some interesting facts to tell about the lovely Qadmus jamat which would be of historical and social significance to the community. Good job.

  4. Thank you, Arif Babul, for these marvellous pictures of the Ismaili castles. I’ve read about them in “Nizari Ismaili Castles of Syria and Iran” and in Medieval Arabic sources, but pictures are more efficient and attractive.

  5. Thank you Arif and I hope we will see you again here in Syria. This is also an invitation to all of you, brothers and sisters, to visit Syria and enjoy in her history and lovely views as well as the kindness of her people.

  6. Yes, we all need to learn about lots of things…as long as we keep learning, and use that knowledge to good. It is isnpiring to see Dr Babul take such thought and be able to give what he does to his children and to the rest of us as well as Simerg and all the places where we can be reminded. And then we must pray for the opportunity and circumstance and His Grace.

  7. Dear Arif Babul

    Ya Ali Madad

    I like your photos and I agree with Dr. Kurwa’s observation.

    Thank you for your marvellous work.

    Anwar Allahwala

  8. A very informative and well illustrated article. Professor Babul says he does this for his children but the adults need to learn about their identity as much as children. Now there seem to be regular trips by Ismailis to Syria and the Jamat is most helpful. The usual travel agents do not cover the sites or history as we need.

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