Today in history: The fortress of Kahf was captured

The eastern end of Kahf. Image: The Institute of Ismaili Studies
The eastern end of Kahf. Image: The Institute of Ismaili Studies

On July 9, 1273, the Syrian fortress of Kahf was captured by the Mamluks.

In 1090, the Persian Ismailis, under the leadership of Hasan Sabbah, acquired the castle of Alamut in northern Persia. Over the next 150 years, the Nizari Ismailis acquired several fortresses in Iran and Syria with settlements in surrounding towns and villages, in order to escape persecution, thus establishing their own autonomous states in these regions.

Hasan took charge of the affairs of the state on behalf of the Imams who were residing in concealment, after the dispute over the successor of Imam Mustansir bi’llah endangered their lives, initiating the second dawr al-satr period in Ismaili history (the first being after the dispute over the succession of Imam Jafar al-Sadiq in the eighth century). Hasan and his successors acquired several fortresses, which were located in the inaccessible mountainous regions for refuge of the Ismailis fleeing persecution by the Saljuqs and others during the early Middle Ages.

Ismaili Castles in Iran and Syria. Image: The Institute of Ismaili Studies
Ismaili Castles in Iran and Syria. Image: The Institute of Ismaili Studies

The dawr al-satr period ended with the public appearance of Imam Hasan ala dhikrihi’l-salam, who, soon after his ascension to the Imamat in 1162, sent Rashid al-Din Sinan to Syria as chief da’i.

Amid the turbulent political climate, Imam Jalal al-Din Hasan recognised the impending danger of the Mongols and was “the first Muslim ruler to engage them in negotiations.”1

During the reign of Imam Ala al-Din Muhammad, when intellectual life of the community was thriving,  eastern Persia faced the onslaught of the Mongols, resulting in an increasing number of refugees seeking asylum in the Nizari strongholds. Scholars availed themselves of the Nizari libraries and patronage of learning, remaining free to continue their religious persuasions. Alamut and several of the Nizari strongholds were flourishing centres of intellectual activities with major libraries containing not only a significant collection of books and documents but also scientific tracts and equipment.

Masyaf. Image: Gary Otte/Archnet
Masyaf. Image: Gary Otte/Archnet

Shortly after Imam Rukn al-Din Khurshah’s ascension to the Imamat in 1255, he entered into negotiations with the Mongols, to no avail. He was forced to surrender in 1256, which ended the Alamut period of Nizari Ismaili history. Several of the Persian strongholds were captured a year later while the Syrian fortresses resisted capture for a few years.

Purchased by the Ismailis in 1138, Kahf was the base for Sinan, the prominent Ismaili da’i who was also buried in the fortress. Kahf remained a military outpost for the Ottomans.

1Farhad Daftary, “The Alamut Period,” A Short History of Ismailis,Edinburgh University Press, 1998
Nasseh Ahmad Mirza, Syrian Ismailism, Curzon Press, Surrey, 1997
Shafique N. Virani, The Eagle Returns, The Institute of Ismaili Studies
Peter Willey, Eagle’s Nest, Ismaili Castles in Iran and Syria, I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd.,New York, 2005
University Library, University of Saskatchewan

Compiled by Nimira Dewji

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