From Alamut to the sea

Nobody knows the road after Alamut. The guide books come only this far. They report only from hearsay about whatever lays beyond it. They do not even know whether there is a road, and if yes, what quality. Although the map shows a daunting series of serpentines from Garmarud upwards, it is not known whether it is only accessible by jeep, or not even that. The 2012 Lonely Planet goes so far as proposing the hire of a mule driver in Garmarud, “if we want to be one of just a handful of foreigners since Freya Stark (in the 1930s) to make such a trip”.

After the turnoff to Alamut, we cross a ravine. The narrower and narrower band of the Alamut river here had elbowed out for itself a spacious valley, showing how wide it swells in late spring, when snow starts melting up on Salambar Pass. The valley is now covered by a cobweb of rice fields, and it is filled with the humming of the threshing machines, like the chirping of cicadas. Then the road becomes increasingly steep, the mountains higher, the valley narrower, and the rice fields disappear. We arrive at the head of the valley, the last village, Garmarud.

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At the end of the village, a rock blocks the way, meaningfully towering from the river bed, as if indicating the end of the inhabited world. Before, whoever had any reason to go further could do so only via the riverbed. The shepherds had to wait until the end of spring flooding before they could drive their flocks to the summer pastures of Piche Bon. Only a couple of years ago they carved out a thin road in the rock face above the river, the vegetation has not yet grown back on the side of its embankment.

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The road rises with steep hairpin bends, from higher and higher up we look down upon the canyon. On the bare rock, dwarf pines, thistles, and some quick-growing flowers. A griffon vulture is circling above us.

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As soon as the serpentine comes up on the ridge, the asphalt suddenly ends. Only a dirt road goes further, who knows for how long. The great Alborz watershed is about forty kilometers away from here. If we manage to get there, from there we can descend to the sea. If we do not manage to do so before dusk, we can still turn back to Garmarud, to the Navizar guest house. A jeep comes from the other side. “What is the road like?” “Well, like this, er, viable. By evening you will get to Piche Bon”, he points to the tiny hamlet across the vast valley, “from there tomorrow morning you can go over to Maran.” Not very encouraging, we should travel thrice as much to reach the sea.

The golden hour reaches us on the plateau of Piche Bon. A flock is grazing on the plateau, the light tints with a golden contour the backbones of the animals and of the hills. On the same plateau, at the same afternoon hour, but eighty years before us, Freya Stark wrote this in her diary:

“Out in the sunset the homing flocks poured like honey down the hillside, with their shepherds behind them; beyond the cries and greetings, the barking and noises of the camp, lay the silence of uninhabited mountains, a high and lonely peace.”

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At the last ray of the sun we reach Salambar Pass. The small Safavid-era carvansaray built on the pass indicates that the road from Alamut to the sea was regularly used even in the times when the road was viable only on muleback indeed. The mountain landscape opens up around us, the snow of last year still lies between the rocks of Alam-Kuh that dominate the region. Here wrote Freya Stark:

“And then I took a last look over the landscape: the Assassins’ valley westward to its vaporous defile, Balarud on its ledge, like a toy far below, and, hiding the Rock of Alamut, Haudegan with a clean edge against the sky. Still three hours down our old route to Maran, along a narrow valley walled by the Salambar, green on its northern side. Steep fields appeared with cocks of hay made black by constant mists. The river rolled below us in a bed made by its own millenniums of effort; it dug itself a canyon, and wound like a worm in its earth hole.”

We also go downhnill towards Maran on the narrow dirt road, a steep serpentine, with a deep abyss to the right hand. I drive carefully, but I would like to reach the village before dark. From here there is no return to Garmarud. If the dusk surprises us before Maran, we must ask for accommodation in the 150-strong village. We do not even have time to get off to nearby Sahrestan, where I wanted to ask whether they remember the Hungarian engineer mentioned by Freya Stark. The engineer tried to sell gramophones in Tehran, but he failed, and then he moved here with his Greek wife, commissioned by Shah Reza Pahlavi to survey the estates confiscated by him from aristocrats who had been faithful to the Qajars.

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The dirt road is good, we manage to pass by Maran before dusk. The serpentine continues to descend, and at the sixty-strong village of Yuj we reach another river in the valley of Seh Hizar. This runs to the north, into the Caspian Sea. The landscape suddenly changes, as if we were walking in another country. The rocks are covered by thick green vegetation, we go ever lower through green forests. Leaving behind the last one, the dirt road changes back into an asphalted one. We reach a high plateau. Beneath us, the lights of a large city, and beyond them, on the horizon, a hazy gray stripe. Θάλαττα! θάλαττα! We made it.

A shepherd under Alamut

The fortress of Alamut rises on an almost inaccessible rock. We are climbing up to it in the bed of the stream running down under the rock. The sun rises, it shines on the poplars along the stream, and the barren hillsides beyond the poplars. At the end of the village, when looking back from the beehives, we see that a small group turns up the road. Shepherds go in the mountain to replace their colleagues, and an old couple drive their six sheep to the pasture above the fortress. We await them. The old man on the white donkey returns with dignity our greeting. “So early?” he asks. “Did you sleep in the village? Where? Yeah, Agha Rusuli”, he places us in the coordinate network of the intelligible world. “Won’t it be very cold?” he asks by pointing at my short-sleeved shirt.” “By the time we reach the top, I will want to take this off as well”, I say. “I don’t go as high as you.” For a while we go along. Where the road forks, he beckons us to follow them. “Don’t go straight up, keep with us in the field, the fortress looks much nicer from here.” We go with them. At the next fork we look long after them, until they disappear behind the bend of the hill.

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Autumn in Iran, minute by minute

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The original plan was to arrive at the airport before sunrise, immediately rent a car, head to the west, and two hours later greet the sun in the valley of Alamut, between the mountains of the Assassins. But traveling with photographers is a risky business. With so many gadgets, it is impossible not to forget at home something, in lack of which the whole photo tour is meaningless. Therefore, from the airport we head to the city. The rich northern part of Tehran, where this kind of stuff is available, sleeps for long, the shops open late. In the meantime we pass our time on the Tabiʿat, that is, Nature Bridge. The world’s largest footbridge is so new that it is not even mentioned in the guidebooks. Built in the autumn of 2014 after the award-winning designs of a twenty-some year old architect girl, it links Tehran’s two favorite picnic parks, as if being the new main square of the city. Its three levels are filled with stylish restaurants and cafés, in the evening here strolls and dines everyone who counts in the thirteen-million-strong city. At dawn only one breakfast place is open, but its range is a stunning start to our week-long northern Iranian photo tour. The rising sun slowly adds color to the panorama of northern Teheran’s skyscrapers, light clouds are flying above the peak of Damavand. Iran welcomes its guests.

After Qazvin, the road turns sharply north, it winds steeply up to the Alborz mountain ranges. We cross two ridges, we look down in two valleys from dizzying heights. Small smokes rise from the curves of the auburn hills, little clay villages cling to the cliffs, poplar lines indicate where the region’s greatest treasure, water breaks to the surface. Flocks graze on the hill ridges along the road. This road was once flanked by fifty-two fortresses of the Ismailis, who in 1090 fled here from the Seljuk invaders, fifty-two bastions that formed an impenetrable wall around the Ismaili empire of Alamut, and in the middle of it, the castle of their imam, the Old Man of the Mountain. When Freya Stark in 1930, first among all Western travelers, traversed this path, she found traces of each fortress. Even today it is not hard to imagine on the steep mountain peaks and sharp ridges the fortifications controling the valleys, whose gradual conquest took more than twenty years to the Mongol army.

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At dusk we arrive in Gazorkhan village, at the foot of the fortress of Alamut. On the main square of the village, in the wooden mosque, Imam Hossein is mourned with beautiful rubato melodies. Yesterday began the mourning month of Moharram, on whose tenth days, at the dusk of Ashura, the Shiite Imam and his followers were massacred at Kerbala by the mercenaries of the vicious Sunni Caliph: the lamentation, the mourning celebrations and commemorations, as this time last year, will accompany our entire Iranian journey. Men are talking in front of the mosque. I come up to them, we ask us about each other’s health, we exchange pebbles of politeness perfectly polished by the thousand-year-old Persian etiquette, which does not allow me to hastily get to the point, neither them to immediately give way to their curiosity. I ask them about accommodation, they suggest Agha Rusuli, who has an empty “pretty room”. They accompany us. The host welcomes us with tea and fresh walnut. The traditional wooden house with porch is just a street away from the mosque. We can clearly hear the late-night memorial service, and then the call for the first prayer before sunrise.

The fortress and the assassins of Alamut were made a brand in Europe by Marco Polo. According to his narrative, taken over from contemporary Islamic legends, Hassan-i Sabbah, the “Old Man of the Mountains”, the leader of the Nisari Ismailis influenced the policy of the Near East, murdered or forced to grovel caliphs, sultans and crusader leaders from his inaccessible castle hidden among the Alborz mountains, virtually without any army, just by way of his suicide killers called fidaʿin, “sacrifices to God”. Thereby he set an imperishable example to today’s Muslim suicide bombers, who, too, call themselves fedayeens with the euphemism coined by him. According to the legend, he invited the selected young men to a dinner, at the end of which he dazed them with hashish – from here the name Hashashin, Assassin of the sect –, and had them carried over to the secret paradise garden created next to the castle. There, the zealous huries and the never experienced delights convinced them to have really come to the Paradise, thanks to the Old Man of the Mountains. When, at the end of the day, an after a new dose of hashish, they once again found themselves at the dinner table, they happily swore allegiance to the Old Man, and enthusiastically faced death, because they knew, that in turn he would again, ad now definitely, let them come to the Paradise.

Alamut is no longer inaccessible. To Freya Stark, who in 1930 first started on the trail of the Assassin legends, it took months to reach from Qazvin the valley of Alamut, and there some new weeks, until she, following the guidance of locals, localized the former castle. Nevertheless, she could get up there only a year later, when she returned with the right equipment. Since then, the road leading through two steep mountain chains has been asphalted, and a stair of hundreds of steps built in the side of the rock under the fortress. The locals immediately show us the path leading from the end of the village to the castle, and the old shepherd even the field from where you have the most beautiful view of it. The walls of the castle are ruined, but they can be restored, and the “Foundation for Alamut” has even begun at least scaffolding. From above we enjoy a wonderful view of the valley of Alamut, surrounded by mountains, which clearly illustrates, why the castle was inaccessible for centuries. The paradise garden cannot be seen any more, but its memory is preserved by the green poplar groves along the network of canals, which were established by the Old Man of the Mountains for the development of the region and for supplying his troops. Way down, we meet a Slovenian tour guide, who is on the way to the desert with his Slovenian client, but they absolutely wanted to make a detour to the castle. “You know, Alamut has a special significance in our Slovenian culture”, he says. “Because of Vladimir Bartol’s novel?” I ask him, referring to the Slovenian cult book of 1938. He reaches hand. “The fact that I hear this from a non-Slovenian, is at least as much of a miracle as to be here in Alamut.”

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Dictatorships cannot survive without campaigns, which again and again unite the people in the spirit of the shared values or against the common enemy. The slogan of the new Iranian campaign is zakat or sadaghe, the donation made for charity purpose. The zakat is one of the “five pillars” of Sunni Islam, and of the “ten commandments” of Shia Islam, that is, of those basic religious acts, which every Muslim must practice. It seems that the Iranian citizens do not practice them enough, at least in the government’s view, because in recent months, billboards have appeared along the roads, wherever we travel in Gilan, with this kind of texts: “The zakat and sadaghe is a duty for every Muslim.” The text usually has a strong octagonal frame, like a huge stop sign, to emphasize the message. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of octagonal collecting boxes have been set up across the country, so every Muslim could effortlessly practice his or her newly recognized duty. On the streets and in the bus stops, on the store counters and next to the toll gates on the highway, such an amount of collecting boxes, that a serious charitable foundation could have been created from their price. But the most unusual is that the collecting boxes also show up in private houses. In the Gilani peasant houses, wherever we stay at night, there is the zakat box attached to the porch column or to the house wall. The boxes are emptied every month, so it can be easily shown out, who how satisfies the demands of the campaign. “And what is the collected money spent for?” I ask my hosts. “Nobody knows.”

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According the entry “Rice” of Encyclopaedia Iranica, the two coastal “green regions” of Iran, Gilan and Mazandaran provide 85% of the country’s rice production, the raw material for chelo, saffron rice, the standard garnish for spit-roast meat. The fine drawing of the rice terraces cover the river valleys and coastal plains with a Chinese flair. By the beginning of October, the rice fields have been drained and dried up, the rice harvest has begun. From dawn till dusk, a persistent buzz permeates the whole area, like the humming of a trapped beetle: the rattling of the threshing machines. We stop above the river, take photos of the geography represented by the contour lines of the terraces. The farmer harvesting on the hardly one-hectare land invites us with a polite gesture to come down, since the mountains are much better visible from there. The rice is harvested with sickle, the threshing machine from the Shah’s era is driven by a diesel engine hoe, the threshed rice straw is carried on donkey-back to the village clinging to the hillside. A truck stands at the beginning of the village, a large crowd around it: the weekly gas cylinder delivery has arrived. Old women and old men drag the cylinders on their backs up the steep streets: the working hands and the load-bearing animals are now busy in another job down there in the valley.

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(Continued every day for three weeks)

Synagogue under the ground

“Old Prague, with its red roofs, zigzag streets and towers is the saddest city in the world”, writes Michael Chabon, referring to the devastation of World War II in the capitals of Central Europe, which comparatively spared this city. But we know well – from among others, the example of Prague –, that the destruction of the medieval or early modern heritage began much earlier, due to other wars or deliberate urban planning. The Jewish quarters were especially vulnerable to such destruction. While that of Prague was irrevocably reshaped by bailouts, in modern Ljubljana – at that time, Laibach – only two street names recall the former presence of the Jews, expelled in 1515. The Jewish monuments of medieval Buda in the Castle Quarter have fared somewhat better.

So-called “Tatar money”, in reality, coins with Hebrew letters as mint marks, referring to the head or to the place of the mint: צ (tsadi, above) and א (aleph, below). Reign of Bela IV (1235–1270) and Istvan V (1270–1272) respectively, auction material, from here and here.

The first Jewish settlers appeared in the territory of Buda – at that time called Novus mons Pestiensis, Pest’s new hill – shortly after its founding, following the Mongol invasion of 1241-1242. The first Jewish quarter was set up around today’s St. George (at that time, Jewish) Street, and today’s Palace Street, giving its name to the nearby Jewish (later, Fehérvári) Gate. Its location was uncertain until ten years ago, when the remains of the synagogue under today’s Palace Street, and those of the mikveh beneath the former Joseph Garden, were found. The later can be visited since last September, at times one day of the week. The Jewish quarter lay outside the city walls, between today’s Alagút, Roham and Pauler Streets. Here was also buried the judge of the Christians in Buda, István Verbőci, author of the Tripartite Law defining Hungarian law for centuries, after he was killed in 1541.

The first Jewish quarter ceased to exist in 1360 with the expulsion of its inhabitants. Nevertheless, only four years later the Jews were allowed to return to Buda. By then, their former houses had gone into the possession of Hungarian aristocrats, so the new Jewish quarter was established in the northern part of the civil town, in today’s Táncsis Mihály Street. This second foundation was more lasting. With minor interruptions, it remained the Jewish quarter of Buda until the recapture of the city from the Ottomans in 1686, and its name as Jewish Street survived for another half century. Its late Gothic synagogue was built in 1461. Under the reign of Matthias I, the office of the Jewish Prefect was created. It was provided from the beginning with the members of the Mendel family – first with Jacob, until 1516 –, who had two houses on the two sides of Jewish Street, linked by a bridge over the street at the height of the second floor. The Ottoman army, in sacking Buda after the Battle of Mohács in 1526, also took the Jewish population of the city to Constantinople. Until the definitive conquest of Buda by the Turks in 1541, the houses of the Jewish quarter periodically changed hands between the supporters of Ferdinand I of Austria and John I of Hungary. The role of the Mendel palace as a status symbol is demonstrated by the report of Court Chaplain György Szerémi:

“Fertur dixisse unus Judeus, tot dicias secum ducebat, quod solus spopondisset gubernatori Gritti, ut ipsum duceret ad Budam, et domum Mendel ac Judeorum vicium relaxaret ei, quod propriis expensis alevisset dominum gubernatorem ad decem annos, omni anno decem milia markas presentaret gubernatori ad manus.”

“They say that a Jew brought so great wealth with himself, that he promised to Governor Gritti [Lodovico Gritti, from 1530 to 1534 Governor of Hungary; his father, Andrea Gritti Doge of Venice between 1523 and 1538], that if he allows him to settle in Buda, and gives to him the Mendel house and Jewish Street, he would provide for the Governor for ten years, giving him ten thousand marks every year.”

(Epistola de perditione regni Hungarorum, cap. 107.)

In 1541, some of the former Jewish inhabitants returned to Buda. They restored the medieval synagogue which was damaged in the siege of 1530. During the Ottoman period, another, Sephardic synagogue was also active in the building of the former Mendel palace. The fate of the synagogue and of the medieval Jewish quarter of Buda were sealed by the recapture of Buda in 1686. The devastation was described by Isaac Schulhof (c. 1650 – 1733) in his Chronicle of Buda (Megillat Ofen). Schulhof was born in Prague, came as a prisoner to Buda, where he became Rabbi, and later victim and witness of the events that he described. During the siege, the majority of Jews fled to the synagogue, which was first defended by dragoons, but later the victorious Christian forces also invaded it, killing everyone inside, including the wife and son of Schulhof, and set the building on fire. Some of the survivors of the siege were scattered across the country and Europe: ten of them were brought to the Kismarton/Eisenstadt estate of the Esterházys, many of them to Győr and Komárom, and a few distinguished Jews to Berlin. The captives who remained in Hungary were ransomed for a high sum by the Jewish Viennese army contractor and banker Samuel Oppenheimer. Alexander Tausk of Prague, who worked on behalf of Oppenheimer, also bought out two hundred and seventy four Jews during the siege with the support of General Charles of Lorraine, covering their ransom with loans from the Jewish communities of Krakow, Amsterdam and Frankfurt, among others. Many of the rescued Jews – including Isaac Schulhof, who was saved due to a mysterious lady and her husband, as well as Oppenheimer – found a new home in Nikolsburg.

The former Jewish Street today

This is more or less all that is known about the late medieval synagogue of Buda from written sources. The exact location of the building was forgotten after the recapture of Buda. Its remains were brought to light on a plot on Táncsics Street 23 only in 1964, during the restoration of the Sephardic synagogue at No. 26, which is today a memorial museum. The excavations were led by László Zolnay, Rózsa Feuerné Tóth, and István Gedai. After the siege, the ruins were simply filled with debris, which preserved the original conditions relatively well. An ash layer, two to three fingers thick, mixed with human bones, came to light during the excavation, and serves as sad proof of Isaac Schulhof’s description. (The human remains were later buried in the Kozma Street cemetery.) The excavations also showed that the 26.26-meter long, 10.73-meter wide and 8.5–9 meter high building, had it survived, would be now a unique Central European monument, about twice as large as the Old-New Synagogue in Prague. In size and design it can be compared only to the hundred-year-earlier, and since also destroyed synagogue of Regensburg.

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The interior of the synagogue. Reconstruction of Aurél Budai, from here

The further fate of the synagogue could be seen as a mirror of the present-day relationship of Hungarian politics and the protection of monuments. As the excavations of 1964 established, a partial reconstruction of the synagogue – if not to 1461 conditions, then at least to those of the Ottoman period – would be possible even today. Only the women’s gallery is covered by a modern building, the Horányi-Zichy Palace, which has also become “former” since 1945. However, Professor Sándor Scheiber, Director of the Jewish Theological Seminary – who helped identify the Hebrew inscriptions during the excavations – was not as fortunate as his predecessor, Alexander Tausk, who collected ransom for the prisoners from all over Europe. Although the “ransom” of the synagogue, the costs of the reconstruction of which would have been covered by the American Jewish sponsors, nevertheless the Hungarian State Office for Church Affairs did not give permission to use foreign – American, and, in addition, Jewish! – capital to do the work. As there was no other option, the excavation trench had to be buried again. They did so with an eye on the future, as the ruins were covered so that during an eventual new excavation only the surface layer would need to be removed before beginning the restoration work. Nevertheless, both individuals and organizations – most recently, the Ássuk ki! Egyesület (the “Let’s Dig It Out! Association”) – have to date unsuccessfully called for the opening of a new excavation and the restoration of the synagogue. For the time being, we have to rest content with the excavation photos published by László Zolnay, as the only documentation from an important monument of medieval Hungarian – and Central European – Jewish heritage. That is, almost the only one.

Indeed, on the Christian feast day of St. Michael the Archangel, on 29 September, the Hungarian Jewish Cultural Association and the Buda Municipality inaugurated a memorial plaque along Mihály Babits Walkway, reminiscent of the buried synagogue of the late medieval Jewish quarter, at least until the resumption of the excavations and the beginning of the restoration. There’s nothing better we can wish for for the Jewish New Year, which just begins today.

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