After breakfast we drove out of Tehran through heavy traffic, and past the Freedom Arch . Built in 1971 in commemoration of the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian Empire (a somewhat hazy concept this), the "Gateway into Iran" was named originally the Shahyad Tower, meaning "Kings' Memorial", but was changed to Azadi (Freedom) after the Iranian Revolution of 1979. It is 50 meters tall and completely clad in cut marble. In 2013 Reuters carried a story that included the remark by an Iranian "But the tower, having stood through Iran's explosive revolution in 1979 and an eight-year-long war with Iraq in the 1980s, is now falling victim to neglect and shoddy repairs, and suffers from extensive internal water damage."


The Tehran traffic thinned and we journeyed north via the city of Qazvin, a former capital of the Persian Empire, but had no time to stop there. The afternoon saw us amongst the mountain peaks. We stopped in a village to pick up food for a picnic lunch, later enjoyed beside a stream. And then on to Alamut. Destroyed by the Mongols in 1256, the fortress today lies in ruins, its fabled library and gardens as much a subject of debate and speculation as the sect’s own secret workings.

To the north of Tehran the Alborz Mountains stretch from the Armenian border to the Caspian Sea, forming a barrier between the south Caspian and the Qazvin-Tehran plateau. Steeped in Zoroastrian legend the high peaks are also home to the mountain fortress of Alamut (the Eagle’s Nest), an impregnable citadel that was once the headquarters of Hassan-i Sabbah, the founder of the powerful Hashshahins sect of the 11th century. A minority sect, surrounded on all sides by enemies, the Hashshashin developed a unique form of covert warfare that turned political assassination into a system of survival and in the process coined the term ‘Assassin’.

Click on any of the thumbnails below to get a larger photo

The daunting fortress of Alamut is on top of the great crag one sees from the road - it was quite a hike to get up there

In 1090 A.D, Hassan Sabbah, the leader of Ismailites in Iran, chose the Alamut region, as his headquarter to campaign, preach and convert new followers. This proved to be a turning point for the destiny of the Alamut Valley. The result of over two centuries Ismailite stronghold, the region witnessed innumerous castles throughout, of which at least 20 “castles“ dating back to this era have been identified. The most magnificent castle in the Alamut Valley is the Alamut Castle, which is built on top of a high rock reaching 2163 m above sea level near the Gazor Khan Village. The rock is 200 m high and covers an area of 20 hectares (49 acres); with its steep slope and deep and dangerous ravine, the rock is practically inaccessible and forms a part of the gort’s structure. Currently only ruins of the fort and some towers are apparent and it ws only through archaeological excavationthat the main portions were discovered.

The approach on foot was steep to scale the 200 metres of vertical height to the summit. There was a fairly good path, and steep sections had decent steps to climb. Chris stopped after about half the trek - concerned as much about getting down as going up. One other of the group stopped there too - one of the two ladies that refused to speak to me during the entire two weeks of our tour. The view from the top was dramatic, and one can understand why the assassins built there stronghold here, controlling Silk Road access across the mountain passes.

Back in the bus, we followed a dramatic switch-back road over the mountains to reach Zarabad, where we spent the night in a "homestay". Zarabad, at the 2006 census, had a population of 342, in 129 families. This part of Northern Iran sees few tourists, so hotels are not available.. Instead we were welcomed into the house of these 2 ladies, sisters-in-law, widowed many years ago, and who now get a small number of tourists staying each year.


We were allocated 4 to a room, due to the small number of rooms available. However many of the group opted to sleep on the balcony. The best thing here, for me, was the quality of the homemade food that the ladies put on for us. It is the little things that one remembers like the selection of homemade jams. Dinner was taken cross legged on the floor of the kitchen. All in all much more agreeable and memorable than a cheap hotel or a "soviet" hotel. As far as I could gather, the whole group paid 225 euros for our stay here.

Mosque with holy tree behind
The holy Tree
Holiday homes for Tehranians
Proud local man

We walked round the village before breakfast in order to see the holy tree. Zarabad is a quiet village all year except for a couple of days around a festival known as Ashura, when tens of thousands of pilgrims arrive to see the holy tree dripping blood. Every year on Ashura [Tenth Day of the month of Muharram, the day of the martyrdom anniversary day of Imam Husain] pilgrims witness the moment when this tree shed tears in blood in the morning of Ashura day. The holy buttonwood tree (chenar) is known as the ‘Bloody Chenar of Ghazvin’. Every Ashura night, the gathered crowd sing songs of mourning and honour the death of Imam Hossein and his companions and towards the morning they are witness to the first crimson coloured drops that ooze out of its branches. Accounts of this tree can be found in the writings of many historical saints and scholars. Residents of Zarabad believe the tree to be a messenger of the values enfolded in the event of Ashura, which would be spread and carried around by those who visit the tree annually. Apparently the tree emits its famous crimson gum each year, only on the dawn of Ashura, regardless of the fact that the dates shift every year according to the Islamic calendar which is lunar.

On to Masule

Silk Route Holiday 2013