Masyaf Castle (مصياف)

Location: 60 km West of Hama Map


Description of Masyaf Castle

Masyaf Castle is situated in the town of Masyaf (60 km West of Hama) in Hama Governorate of Western Syria. Masyaf Castle became famous as the seat of Order of Assassins who used this stronghold as a base for their operations. Masyaf Castle was badly damaged by Mongol forces who captured the citadel in 1257 and badly damaged its defences. It was retaken shortly thereafter, but it largely lost its strategic importance due to improving military technologies and was abandoned. Fortunately for us Masyaf Castle is located in the desolate Orontes Valley so local peasants didn't get the chance to quarry it for stone. Much of the original structure survives despite centuries of neglect. You can spend a whole day exploring the castle. It is remarkable for its underground structures that remain fairly stable. Keep in mind however that parts of underground cavern might be dangerous due to a danger of cave ins. Don't try to remove stones, look for secret passages or unknown rooms. Although there might be undiscovered spaces in Masyaf Castle risking your life to find them might be foolish and not worth it. Take plenty of fresh water and protect yourself  from the sun. Summer months in Syria are especially hot and thus dangerous for the tourists.


Masyaf Castle History and Assassins of Masyaf

First military fortifications on a site of Masyaf Castle date back to the 8th century BC or Aramaic times. Much of the current structure that you see today date back to the Byzantine times. Protection of the inland trade routes was a key to keep an empire afloat so no expanses were spared to erect a line of defensive fortifications. Later additions to the citadel occurred during Ismaili (also known as Seveners, a branch of Shia Islam) occupation in the 12th century after they captured the castle from Sanqur in 1141.


Masyaf citadel was used as an important stronghold by Rashid ad-Din Sinan also known as the Old Man of the Mountain. He was the head of a  Syrian wing of the Hashshashin sect. Initially the term that is translated roughly as "smokers of hashish" was a derogatory, but over time it became well known and feared. The term "assassin" comes from the name of this organization.


In May 1176 great military leader Saladin (Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb) laid a siege to Masyaf Castle. Master Assassin of the order Umar Ibn- La'Ahad managed to sneak into a center of the enemy camp and finally make his way inside the tent of the Saracen leader. The legend claims that famous Muslim ruler suddenly awoke in his tent and saw a dark figure disappear in the darkness. A body of a dead Arab general laid besides his bed. Loyal body guard probably tried to protect Saladin during his sleep, but paid with his life. A poisoned dagger pinned a note next to his bed. There the Old Man of the Mountain threatened to kill him if he will not lift his siege of the Masyaf Castle. Realizing that the Assassins would simply execute him in his sleep, Saladin told his advisors to make peace with the stubborn defenders under a single condition. He demanded the head of Umar for exchange for peace and captured spy of the Assassins, Ahmad Sofian. Umar Ibn- La'Ahad agreed to give up his life to save his beloved Order. Shihab Al'din executed him, passed the head to Saladin and Saracen army retreated from the walls of Masyaf Castle.


New threat came just several years thereafter. An army of Templar knights Crusaders attacked Masyaf Castle in 1189. Little is known about that siege, but it seems that Templar spy managed to make his way into a stronghold. Masyaf Castle fell as a result of a betrayal and one of the Assassin leaders Al Mualim was captured by the Christian troops. Masyaf Castle didn't stay in Crusaders' hand for a long time. Remaining Assassins and their supporters re- grouped and under leadership of Altair Ibn- La'Ahad they re- captured their fortress. Templar knights were either killed or expelled from these lands. Two years later in 1191 they returned under leadership of Robert de Sable. Assassins managed to construct several traps made from logs and timber. Many knights were killed in a failed attack and Robert was forced to retreat from Masyaf Castle again. He died two years later in the Holy Land still fighting as part of the Third Crusade.


Between late 12th century and 13th century Masyaf Castle served as the capital of Nizari emirate. In 1260 Masyaf Castle was briefly held by the invading Mongol army, but Mamluks managed to kick them out the same year. In February 1270 Baibars or Baybars, Mamluk sultan of Egypt, added Masyaf to his possession along with surrounding lands. Over time Masyaf Castle lost its strategic military importance and was abandoned. Only in 1830 it was used again as a military fortification serving as a base camp for the Egyptian expedition of Ibrahim Pasha. His soldiers vandalized parts of Masyaf Castle upon their retreat, but the damage was limited. Fortunately for us the regions is not very densely populated so much of the structure is preserved in a fairly good condition.