Freya Stark: Into the valley of the assassins

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On a beautiful sunny morning in May 1930, Freya Stark was trekking through the mountains of Persia, on her way to the Valleys of the Assassins, writes Jo Woolf, Writer in Residence at the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.

The name itself was enough to suggest a degree of concern: although the assassins themselves were largely consigned to history, there was conflict between local tribes and people were still occasionally murdered on the high mountain passes. The country was far from safe, but Freya was anything but fearful. It wasn’t so much that she faced danger, but wheedled her way around it with a persuasive charm that generally proved to be unstoppable.

Aged 37, Freya spoke Arabic and Persian fluently, and had an intimate knowledge of the Middle Eastern peoples and their history. Her curiosity about little-known regions often propelled her into uncharted territory: ignoring the dire warnings of friends and diplomats, she would set off on epic treks in search of lost treasure or archaeological remains. She preferred to travel at her own pace, with no companions except local guides. Quite simply, exploring brought her joy. She wrote: ‘I know in my heart of hearts that it is a most excellent reason to do things merely because one likes the doing of them…’

It was the writing of the Italian explorer Marco Polo that first alerted Freya to the Valleys of the Assassins. The story went back a long way. In the 11th century, a young Persian man named Hasan-i Sabbah rebelled against the Turks and wandered around the Elburz mountains as an outcast. He gathered support in remote villages and became the powerful ruler of a new sect, building a string of castles on the high mountaintops that lined a secret valley.

According to the storytellers, Hasan had a unique way of inspiring fanaticism in his warriors. He invited them into a lush garden where delicious fruits and fragrant plants were growing, and beautiful girls in rich dresses were waiting to entertain them. He offered them hashish, and when its euphoric effects wore off they could be bidden to carry out any number of premeditated murders. The cold-blooded reputation of the Assassins – from ‘hashishin’, meaning ‘users of hashish’ – struck terror into the hearts of rulers across the Middle East and Europe. But after about 200 years, invading Mongol armies wiped out Hasan’s strongholds and they were largely forgotten by history.

Freya’s quest to rediscover them took several weeks. She started out from the town of Qazvin with three local guides and a couple of mules; they wended their way past glades of mulberry trees and fields where oxen were ploughing, and climbed slowly up into the foothills of the Elburz mountains, picking their way along precipitous paths and crossing streams that had dried to a trickle in the summer sun. Beneath their feet was a Persian flower-carpet of cornflowers, poppies, lilies, delphiniums and forget-me-nots.

This was a sparsely populated region, but the tracks were by no means deserted. Coming up from the Caspian Sea, traders were driving long trains of mules laden with sacks of rice. The men’s beards were dyed red with henna and they wore traditional white frieze coats. They looked wonderingly at Freya, but responded warmly to her greeting and welcomed her to their country. In the evenings, eating pilau by the welcoming fire of a hill tribe, Freya gathered information about local landmarks so that she could plan her route. Smoking their long pipes, the villagers told her about the harshness of life in winter, when bears and wolves roamed the hills and food was so precious that families slept on their sacks of grain.

Several days later, Freya stood on a high ridge and gazed across at one of the Assassins’ fabled fortresses. It had a commanding presence, being perched atop a promontory known as the Rock of Alamut, which loomed several thousand feet above the valley floor. Few people had ever climbed up to it. Next morning, accompanied by a handful of excited local people, Freya scrambled to the top.

The castle was so ruinous as to be mostly unrecognisable in terms of layout and structure, but it still held echoes of power. Standing amid its crumbling walls, Freya imagined herself back in the time of Hasan-i Sabbah, strolling there in the cool of the evening and watching the sunset cast amethyst shadows across his valley. The once impregnable fortress must have seen armies massing at its feet, but now it was being reclaimed by nature: grapevines and wild roses sprawled across the rocks, and tulips made vivid splashes of red and yellow.

Wrapping themselves up against the wind, Freya and her companions lit their samovar or water-urn to make tea and sat to eat a picnic lunch. Some of the men sang songs on the way back down, melancholy ballads that must have evolved over hundreds of years, telling of daily life in a tradition that stretched back in an unbroken strand to the time of the Assassins and beyond.

Freya’s report helped cartographers to draw the first detailed maps of the Alamut region. She shared her experiences with audiences of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, and was presented with the Mungo Park Medal in 1935. She was naturally hesitant about accepting praise: during her long life she travelled on impulse, just for the pleasure of it. ‘I have no reason to go,’ she wrote, ‘except that I have never been, and knowledge is better than ignorance. What better reason could there be for travelling?’

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*Quotes: ‘The Valleys of the Assassins’ (1934) and ’A Winter in Arabia’ (1940)