We have now been in Turkey for almost a week and still I am finding it strange to feel the wind in my air and the sun on my bare arms. Despite these personal freedoms and the ready availability of beer Iran is still very much in our thoughts. Sure Turkish people are friendly, and we were definitely ready to leave Iran, but I don't think I have ever travelled in a country where I have made so many real connections with everyday, ordinary people. It is this that really made our time in the country so amazing.
Our final destination in Iran was Gazor Khan village which lies at the foot of Hasan-i-Sabbah's Alamut Castle, one of the castles scattered through the Valley of Assassins. Ever since I had read about the legend of the assassins (and yes, came across the SCIII references) I had been keen to visit.
The assassins were Ismaili muslims who were feared throughout the region until they were wiped out by the Mongols in the 13th century. The story goes that Hasan-i-Sabbah would lure young men to his stronghold with promises of the eternal paradise they would attain by training and working as assassins. This pitch was further assissted by drugging the trainees with marijuana (although possibly this last part is not true and the term Assassin - Hashshashin came from other sources) and having them awake in a garden abounding with beautiful virgins and delectable foods. Hassan-i-Sabbah used his army of men to intimidate and manipulate political empires. The assassins would work their way into trusted positions in their victims staff and death would always be by dagger.
It was late afternoon when we began the 40 minute hike up the hill to the ruins of Alamut castle. It was a public holiday in Iran so there were many Iranians making the climb with us. We asked one man what the holiday was for and he told us that it was the anniversary of the death of Fatima (the daughter of Prophet Muhammad). "I am very happy for this holiday and so I say: Allah bless you Fatimah, I wish you long life!" It turns out he is an Iranian with a french passport and as such is able to travel freely. He told us that the previous month when it was the anniversary of the death of Imam Khomeini he went to Thailand and from Krabi uttered similar words of encouragement in Khomeini's name.
At the top of the hill we stopped and sat down to take in the sweeping, stunning views. I could certainly understand how difficult a place this must have been to reach and conquer. I spied a group of people around our age coming our way and at first wondered whether they were Turkish given that the women were wearing clothes that would be normal in Australia. One had a hat on her head, but no scarf! In fact, I started to feel downright dowdy in my hot and demure wimple-like scarf (unbecoming yes, but very practical in terms of staying on your head).
They tripped over to us and were very excited to discover that we were Australian.
"Excellent, now we can ask you a question that we have been thinking about!!"
It turns out that they are very much Tehranis and that they had been drinking some newly home-made red wine in their apartment the other week and decided that they would like to move to Australia so that they could perfect their wine-making skills. We informed them that Australia was just the place and they were very amused with their idea.
We then took some photos, and I was introduced to the interesting fact that when in places of isolated natural beauty particularly bold Iranian women take their headscarves off for photos.
Our new Tehrani friends left after an exchange of emails and we sat on the hill watching the sunlight play over the undulating landscape and musing about Iran now and in the past. In terms of the castle their wasn't much left, making it hard to get a sense of how the assassins really lived. Recently I read one article which credited the assassins as being the first terrorists. However, unlike their 11th century descendants Ismaili muslims now are a very peaceful and tolerant group. Many live in Pakistan, in particular in the north of Pakistan where we travelled recently.
It continually amazes me how wonderfully welcoming and hospitable people in countries such as Pakistan, Iran and Syria are. These are countries which are met with the most fear and concern when we tell people we are travelling there, but in reality they are also some of the places where I have had the most rewarding and unexpected experiences as a tourist. In fact, there almost seems to be a direct relationship between the despoticness and fear of a government and the warmth and hospitality of the people.