Laden with intrigue and echoes of ancient plots, Masyaf fortress stands on a hilltop overlooking the neighboring village and the expanse of rocky plain stretching beyond. The castle, once an operations base for an infamous band of assassins, has for centuries provided historians with both scope for the imagination and concrete information about one of the region’s lesser-known groups.
Archaeological evidence suggests that Masyaf was first built during the Byzantine era on an easily defensible hill in the heart of the surrounding coastal mountain range. In the following years, a number of people and dynasties rose to power in the region and took possession of the fortress. In 1141 CE, Masyaf was taken by a group of Nizari Ismailis, members of a religious sect that often found itself in conflict with the more dominant groups in power around it. Overseen by a leader known as the Old Man of the Mountains, the Ismailis responded to this conflict with calculated efforts: from their strongholds at Masyaf and similar fortresses in the area, they would send out trained warriors to serve as spies and assassins against their enemies. They tended to be incredibly efficient in their missions, and that efficiency began to inspire fear in other regional players. The group came to be known by some as the hashashin, literally Arabic for users of hashish. Historians are uncertain of the exact origin of this nickname; traditionally, many believed that the assassins had a reputation for using the drug in order to summon the fortitude necessary to carry out their operations. Others, however, suggest that it was merely a derogatory term used to belittle and scoff at the assassins’ group.
Due to the fear with which many regarded the assassins, the group held significant power in the regions in which they were present, a fact which did not sit well with the actual ruling authorities. Overtaking Masyaf, then, became a key strategic aspiration among many of the region’s leaders. Many tried and failed, and word had it that anyone who tried to take the castle would be dead the next day.
In 1176, Saladin laid siege to Masyaf; his attempt was unsuccessful. According to legends surrounding the event, Saladin awoke one night to catch a glimpse of someone leaving his tent. Next to his bed were poisoned hotcakes, a poisoned dagger, and a poem promising his assassination if he did not leave the castle and end the siege. The next morning, Saladin and his warriors packed up their camps and left the assassins at peace in their castle.
When archaeologists and historians began to restore the castle in 2000, the inner workings of the structure revealed something of the assassins’ tactics and lifestyle. They discovered secret tunnels leading into the castle, allowing the assassins to make a stealthy exit and entrance when necessary; they also found intricate systems of channels and cisterns designed to store water under the castle for the eventuality of extended periods of siege. At the same time, these researchers realized that the fortifications added to the structure by the assassins were of poor quality; though they had tried to mimic the Crusaders’ and Saladin’s mighty fortresses, Masyaf was not actually well defended, structurally. This may have been due to the group’s lack of financial resources.