The Woman Who Captured The Assassins’ Castle

Lori Lamothe

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Alamut Castle(Wikimedia)

When Freya Stark set out for the Middle East in 1927, she brought Dante’s Inferno, a fur coat, a revolver and very little money. She had dreamt of exploring the region ever since an aunt gave her a copy of Arabian Nights for her ninth birthday but it had taken her almost 30 years to get there.

The “plain spinster” didn’t have the pedigree, the private education, the wealth or the beauty of Gertrude Bell, the famous British explorer who’d helped draw the boundaries of England’s colonies there. What she did have was a passion for Arabic, a talent for writing and an insatiable curiosity.

While most Brits stayed close to their fellow ex-pats, Freya had no intention of cutting herself off from the people and the land she’d wondered about for so long. Wherever she went, she shunned expensive hotels, preferring to live amid the narrow streets and twilight bazaars filled with turbaned Indians, Jewish merchants, Persian pilgrims, ancient Mullahs and Kurdish porters.

When she arrived in Baghdad after a sojourn in Beirut, she moved into a tiny living space in a neighborhood she later learned was known as the prostitute quarter. Far from being upset about the news, she just laughed. But the wives of local diplomats didn’t find her predicament the slightest bit funny.

“Are you aware you’re lowering the prestige of British womanhood?” an English lady asked her one night at a party.

Freya smiled but silently vowed to continue on as she had been. She liked living in her “slum,” whatever the consequences might be for British womanhood.

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(Siavash Ghanbari/Unsplash)

Harem visits

She already knew Arabic and a smattering of other languages, but she soon arranged to study Persian at a local girls’ school. Though she could spend no more than two rupees a day, she roamed the city in search of adventure and visited as many archaeological sites as possible. Unlike tourists and supposed experts, Freya talked freely with peasants, shop owners, religious leaders, school children, Bedouin travelers, African slaves, Armenian maids and anyone else she could pin down for a conversation. She visited harems and spent hours listening to wives tell stories — some of which were decidedly X-rated.

And she was always up for a little danger. In her book Baghdad Sketches, she describes how she disguised herself in black veils and persuaded a Muslim friend to smuggle her into one of the country’s holiest mosques. After passing through an open piazza with the constellation Orion shining above, she entered into an inner temple lit by glass chandeliers. “It was a weird feeling to know that really one’s life depended on not being recognized,” she noted, adding that both British and Iraqi natives didn’t give her a second glance because they dismissed her as yet another invisible Muslim woman.
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Freya in Jebel Druze, which is now part of Syria.(Wikimedia)

The Assassins

As Jane Fletcher Geniesse chronicles in Passionate Nomad: The Life of Freya Stark, the incident was not the first time Freya had put her life in jeopardy and it would be far from the last. Soon after her visit to Baghdad, she set out on the journey that would establish her not only as a courageous explorer but also as a respected authority on the Near East. Against everyone’s advice, she would travel alone through the Elburz mountains in search of the ancient castles once occupied by the mysterious Assassin cult.

Today we know the term “assassin” but its origin has fallen into obscurity. Freya herself was not aware of the group’s history until she heard about it when visiting with the secretive Druze, who had just revolted against French colonial rule in Syria. Though the Assassins were officially part of the Shi’a sect of Islam, both Shi’as and Sunnis lived in fear of this esoteric medieval sect.

While some argue its members acted under the influence of hashish (from which the name assassin derives), others claim they were a highly disciplined group of asymmetric warriors who abstained from all intoxicants.

Whatever the truth, members spent months or even years gaining the trust of powerful men, infiltrating their inner circles and eventually stabbing their victims with concealed daggers.

The Assassins were a small sect but an increasingly powerful one. They lived in dozens of fortified mountain fortresses across Iran that were nearly impossible to penetrate.

After hearing about the Assassins, Freya formed a plan to search for these castles, which had fallen into ruin. Because they were so strongly fortified, even the invading Mongols could not conquer the Assassins until the 13th century, long after all other groups in the area had been vanquished. Some ruins had stood untouched for centuries. What could be better than a trip to view these archaeological finds up close?

The chief problem, in Freya’s view, was the lack of accurate maps. Aside from misnamed villages and villages that didn’t appear at all on modern renderings of Iran, Freya later discovered an entire mountain range had been placed on the opposite side of the valley. Far from being discouraged, she simply decided to use Marco Polo’s Travels — based on his journey through the region 500 years earlier — as a guide.

As she and her assistants made their way through the sparsely populated area, local residents gathered around her to gawk at the first European they had ever seen. She made good use of this, sitting with them around the samovar night after night as she probed for names of places, rivers and natural landmarks.

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(Mehrshad Rajabi/Unsplash)

She made extensive drawings and recorded everything, to be turned over later to the Royal Geographical Society. At last she neared her ultimate goal, the Castle of Lamiasar, one of two Assassin strongholds that had held out the longest against the Mongols. The exact location of the castle had been unknown and Stark had to find her way by piecing together the bits and pieces of information she picked up along the way.

The final approach was arduous. She and her guides were forced to leave their mules behind as they ascended a precipitous mountain ravine, scrambling up the steep slope of black rock with the Lamiasar’s ancient battlements looming over them. When at last they reached the ruins, Freya recorded as much as possible then settled into one of the half-buried vaulted rooms to rest.

It wasn’t long before a man who’d shared figs with them turned up “out of nowhere,” along with another who sat down Eastern style on the floor and began to tell tales about the ancient sect. As she listened, Freya watched through an arched doorway as the burning sunlight illuminated distant mountains.

Exhausted as she was, she wasn’t through with her journey. After documenting the rest of the site, she egged on her guides to accompany her to Solomon’s Throne — which was located even higher in the mountains.

In The Valley of the Assassins, Freya describes these travels with wit and lyricism. The book made her famous and established her as an expert revered by the likes of T.E. Lawrence. There would always be people who disapproved of her, but far more now decided this tiny 5'1” woman who wore extravagant hats and slept in peasant huts was a true original.

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"Freya of Arabia"(Wikimedia)

A Bohemian childhood

Freya’s journey through the valley of the Assassins had not been easy, but in some ways it would have been riskier to go on living the life she had been.

Born to Bohemian artist parents who didn’t get along, she spent her early years shuttled from house to house. Even that precarious life seemed idyllic after her mother ran off with an Italian count. Freya was 10 and her sister Vera nine when Flora Stark took them away from their father to live in Italy.

The exact nature of Flora’s relationship with the younger count is still unknown, but she did give him enough money to start a factory in Italy. For the remainder of the girls’ childhood, they saw little of their mother because she spent most of her time in the factory with the count. Other than each other, Freya and Vera had no friends and received little schooling.

But the worst was yet to come.

Shortly before her 13th birthday, Freya visited the factory and edged too close to one of the machines. A few strands of her long glossy hair got caught and flung her into the air.

To save her life, the count violently ripped her away from the machine, tearing off part of her scalp. Freya lost an ear that day and spent the next four months in the hospital. Due to the intervention of an astute doctor, she didn’t die but she would bear the scars of that incident for the rest of her life.

In time, she began wearing her hair draped over one side of her face to conceal the damage (this was also the reason for her fondness for hats). Still, the internal scars never fully healed. In spite of all she accomplished, Freya would sometimes remark that what she had really wanted out of life was to be a great beauty.

There were other health issues during her youth as well. In addition, Freya would spend years trying — and mostly failing — to make a living as a flower farmer in Italy. Despite her intense desire to write, most nights she didn’t have the energy to pick up a pencil. And as an unsuccessful farmer, she was literally dirt poor.

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(Luca Micheli/Unsplash)
There was an upside to her problems, however, because they forced her to develop the skills and resilience she would need for her travels.

It was during a long convalescence that she began to learn Arabic in earnest and to read extensively about the East. This was especially important because unlike Gertrude Bell, who graduated from Oxford University, Freya was denied a proper education at every turn.

Though she did finally attend Bedford College after begging her father for funds, she never finished her degree. Instead she left for the Italian front to work as a nurse at the outbreak of World War I.

And she became a lifelong autodidact, reading endless books, memorizing long passages of poetry and studying Islamic religious texts. Before Freya left Italy, her mother often came upon her absently stirring a pot of stew, a copy of Virgil’s Aeneid or some other thick tome propped open before her.

Likewise, her self-consciousness about her looks and her status as an outsider made her sympathetic to ordinary people and more inclined to question British policies. She never considered herself anything besides English, but her writings are full of subtle unspoken questions about imperialism.

Upon arriving at one outpost, she wrote gratefully but also somewhat doubtfully: “It has beds to sleep in and waiters who spontaneously think of hot water…as I walked across my room I peered at [the Aleppo ladies’] untidy dishevelment where they lay asleep. I think it is not really good manners to be more comfortable than my fellow travelers.”

Freya’s familiarity with hardship may also have made the health difficulties on her travels, of which there were many, seem less serious. Her bouts with malaria, dysentery, measles, sandfly fever, typhoid, influenza, boils and many other illnesses were in some ways no worse than what she’d already endured.

Still, had it not been for her sister, Freya may well have remained in Italy, eking out a safe existence that she didn’t want. It was Vera’s death in 1926 after a miscarriage that spurred Freya into action. At 18, Vera had married the same count their mother ran off with years earlier and continued to live with even after he married her daughter. She had birthed multiple children and buried several until she finally lost her own life as well.

In Freya’s view, her sister had sacrificed her own happiness for others and had paid the ultimate price for it. “Vera’s death is as harsh as ever and will be as long as I can feel.” She was devastated — and determined not to follow the same path.

She didn’t.

Travels across the globe

Despite their differences, it’s hard not to believe Vera wouldn’t have been happy for her older sister. After her trip to the valley of the Assassins, the traveler who threatened British womanhood went on to visit almost every country in the region: Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Kurdistan, Yemen, Jordan, Kuwait, India and many more.

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(Andrzej Kryszpiniuk/Unsplash)
The people fascinated her but it was the land itself that took hold of her from the moment she arrived. “I never imagined that my first sight of the desert would come with such a shock of beauty and enslave me right away.” Nor did she stop writing. Like In the Valley of the Assassins many of her future works became immediate bestsellers. In all, Freya wrote more than two dozen books, as well as hundreds of articles, essays and letters.

She also worked for British Intelligence during World War II; despite her misgivings about French and British attitudes, she deplored the Nazis and repeatedly drove herself to the point of exhaustion to thwart their efforts. In 1943, she toured the United States as part of a controversial state-sponsored effort to familiarize Americans with British policy, especially in relation to Palestine.

Sadly, it was a difficult tour. Many Americans dismissed her as a manipulative British propagandist and labeled her “naive, or worse.” For her part, Freya grew frustrated with the tour and it only fueled her sense of foreboding about the region. Despite the fact she had been assigned to go on the American mission, she believed in what she said. Her extensive knowledge convinced her that post-war visions for the Middle East were not viable.

Freya also expressed deep fears about the effect the scramble for oil would continue to exert on the area. She had voiced her concerns for years to no avail.

When in Kuwait in 1937 she wrote, “the drilling machine too is an Idea, stronger than the elemental matter around it…the cynosure of its human devotees: and as one looks at their ministering figures moving about it, actively adoring, feeding it with grease and water, one is reminded of that definition of the Englishman, which will do across the Atlantic just as well — “a self-made man who worships his creator.”

Following the end of the war, she never wrote another book about the region.

Pet lizards and shopping sprees

She was far from finished with her adventures though. Admired for both her knowledge and her originality, Freya played by nobody’s rules but her own. Some of her friends called her a genius but she didn’t let their praise mold her into a type or restrict her freedom.

At one point she brought back a pet lizard from the desert and would carry him along with her to London parties on a harness (not too surprisingly, he often escaped, to guests’ horror). At others, she would paint the nails of tribal leaders or go on wild shopping sprees in Paris.
She loved bright dresses and enormous outlandish hats — to the point where even her General friends would write to ask about her latest headgear. Despite her perpetual feeling of being an outsider, she relished her differentness. “Some day I must make a list of the reasons for which I have been thought mad and by whom: it would make such an amusing medley.”

Her interest in fashion and frivolity didn’t mean she was not to be taken seriously. Over the years Freya received countless awards for her contributions to archaeology, geography, cartography, anthropology and many other fields. She also gained recognition as a gifted writer. Dubbed the “poet of travel,” she had the ability to capture the beauty of places without sacrificing honesty (as one New York Times reviewer noted, somewhat acerbically, “She is given to salty commentaries.”).

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Freya never lost her fondness for hats.(Wikimedia)

Perhaps most important, Freya’s passion for discovery never flagged. She continued to go on learning, writing and traveling until she was in her eighties. Though she separated after a brief, late marriage and never had children, she spent her later years exploring with her many godchildren. In her sixties she learned Turkish and wrote multiple books about that country based on her trips. At 75, she visited Afghanistan and at 86, the Himalayas.

By the time of her death at 100, there was really only one undiscovered country left for her slip into. Far from dreading it, she viewed even death as an adventure.

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Writer, assistant professor, former baker. I cover cold cases, history, recipes, and culture. If you have a story idea you'd like me to investigate, you can email me at lorilamothe29@gmail.com.

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