From Jerusalem, Ibn Battutah made his way north through Syria. Here is the route he followed:
Asqalan (Ascalon) – Sur (Tyre) – Saida (Sidon) – Bairut (Beirut) – Atrabulus (Tripoli) – Hamah – Sarmin – Halab (Aleppo) – Antioch
Having reached Antioch, he turned south, entering the coastal mountains and the country of the Nizari (a sect related to the Musta’li, both being offshoots of the Isma’ili branch of Shia Islam) people. The origins of the Nizaris and Musta’lis can be traced back to the death of the eighth ruler of the Fatimid Caliphate, Al-Mustansir Billah (r. 1036-1094). The Fatimid Caliphate was a Shia Isma’ili state that rose in the Maghreb among the the Iktamen (Kutama Berber) tribe of coastal Algeria. From the city of Raqqada in Tunisia, the Fatimids shifted base to Mahdia and El-Mansuriya, before capturing Cairo and bringing Egypt under their sway.
Though Al-Mustansir Billah was the longest reigning monarch of his line, the Fatimid kingdom was in terrible shape. The countryside was ravaged by famine and Berbers while Turkic and Sudanese factions jockeyed for influence at the Fatimid court. The treasury had been emptied by the caliphate’s mercenaries. When he died, a power struggle broke out in which his younger son, Al-Musta’li (r. 1094-1101) defeated the elder, Nizar, with the help of the vizier, Al-Afdal Shahanshah. Al-Musta’li was barely 20 years of age and not in line for succession. Sidelined by the vizier, Nizar revolted, only to be captured and imprisoned in Cairo.
He died in 1097. The conflict was inherited by the followers of Al-Mustansir Billah’s sons, the Nizaris and Musta’lis. Nizar had a child, the future Al-Hadi ibn Nizar, who was smuggled out of Egypt and taken to the mountain stronghold of Alamut (in the Daylam province of northern Persia), an operation directed by the great Isma’ili missionary and polymath Hassan-i Sabbah. The castle of Alamut became the headquarters of the Nizari Imamate. To protect the nascent state from the depredations of the Sunni Seljuq rulers of Persia, Sabbah created a body of soldiers, the fedayeen (known to Ibn Battutah as the Fidawis). They acted as the spies, warriors and assassins of the Nizaris.
More commonly known as the Hashshashin (from which comes the word assassin), they struck terror into the hearts of both Crusaders and Caliphs. Nizari strongholds were established in the mountains of Persia and Syria (the latter being the ones spoken of by Ibn Battutah). This is what he mentions:
“Here I passed by the castle of al-Qadmus, the castle of al-Mainaqah, the castle of al-Ullaiqah, the castle of Masyaf, and the castle of al-Kahf. These castles belong to a sect called the Isma’iliyah, known also as the Fidawis, and none may visit them save members of their sect. They are the arrows of al-Malik al-Nasir, by means of whom he strikes down those of his enemies who take refuge from him in al-Iraq and other lands, and they receive fixed emoluments. When the sultan desires to send one of them to assassinate some foe of his, he pays him his blood money. If he escapes after carrying out what is desired of him, the money is his, but if he is caught it goes to his children. They have poisoned knives, with which they strike the victim of their mission, but sometimes their devices do not succeed and they themselves are killed.”
Image Attribution: The image above is sourced from Wikimedia Commons and based on an 18th-century Ottoman calligraphic panel praising Ali ibn Abi Talib, the first Imam of the Shia Muslim community.