MASYAF, Syria (Reuters) - Nestled at the foot of Syria’s coastal mountains, an ancient citadel has been put on the tourist map by restoration and excavation that revealed mysteries of the medieval Assassins sect, once based here.
Saladin, the great Muslim leader, laid siege to Masyaf castle in the 12th century. But he thought twice before launching an assault on the Assassins, who had a reputation for mounting daring operations to slay their foes.
“Anyone who tried to take the Assassins’ castle would be dead the next day,” said Haytham Ali Hasan, an archaeologist involved in the restoration project.
Although Saladin had conquered Crusader castles with much stronger defenses, historians believe the Assassins’ death threats forced the Kurdish warrior to lift the siege at Masyaf.
Perched on a rock and overlooking a boulder-strewn plain, the castle has been restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.
Tons of debris have been cleared from the site since 2000, allowing researchers to learn more about the citadel’s secretive occupants.
One of the main conclusions, Hasan said, was that the Assassins were not very good at building castles, even if the site has lasted well and looks impressive to visitors today.
“The system of defense is very poor,” he said, reviewing newly acquired knowledge about Masyaf’s construction.
The Assassins had tried to copy the castles of the Crusaders and Saladin, “but not very well”, he said, suggesting the fort’s weaknesses might be evidence of the group’s relative poverty.
But what the Assassins lacked in might, they made up for in stealth. Saladin himself narrowly escaped one assassination attempt by their knife-wielding agents.
The Assassins were led by Rashid Al-Din Sinan, also known as “The Old Man of the Mountain”. He used Masyaf as a base for spreading the beliefs of the Nizari Ismaili sect of Islam to which he and his followers belonged.
Nizari Ismailis, followers of a branch of Shi‘ite Islam, today take the Aga Khan as their spiritual guide.
The restoration project, completed during the last year, has revealed much about the history of Ismailis in Syria while also saving parts of the castle from collapse.
Chambers, wells, passageways, coins and ceramics from the time have been unearthed. “We now know more about the life of Sinan. This is very important for writing the history of the Ismaili community in Syria,” Hasan said.
Ismailis were living in the castle as recently as the last century and the fortress is still part of the fabric of Masyaf town.
Locals had built houses right up to the castle’s main gate and 12 were bought and demolished as part of the project, making the site easier for tourists to visit.
“Getting inside the castle used to be a challenging operation,” said Ali Esmaiel, head of the Aga Khan Development Network in Syria.
Supposed to have been completed in three years, the project took double that because of the wealth of discoveries, said Baidaa Husseino, an architectural engineer and site coordinator.
“You’d find the edge of something and want to know what it was,” she said. “We’d work for many extra hours.”
The discoveries included a tunnel thought to be a secret escape passage, a traditional bath house and a system of channels designed to carry rain water into cisterns beneath the castle.
Much of the restoration work was done by hand using traditional techniques. Materials were reproduced to match those used by the original builders. Concrete used in preservation efforts in the 1980s was replaced with authentic materials.
Syria already boasts a list of well-preserved castles dating to the period, including the imposing Krak des Chevaliers -- a Crusader fort just an hour’s drive from Masyaf.
Like the Citadel of Saladin near today’s coastal city of Latakia and the fortress at the city of Aleppo, Krak des Chevaliers has the status of a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Aga Khan Trust for Culture has also conducted restoration work at the citadels of Saladin and Aleppo.
Husseino, herself an Ismaili, hopes tourists will add the smaller fortress at Masyaf to their list of sites to see.
“It deserves to be visited,” she said.