A view of Masyaf, 2008
|Elevation||447 m (1,467 ft)|
Masyaf (Arabic: مصياف Miṣyāf) is a city in northwestern Syria, in the Hama Governorate. It is situated along the foothills of the Jabal Ansariyah coastal mountain range. Nearby villages include al-Rusafa to the southeast, al-Bayda to the south, al-Suwaydah to the southwest, Rabu to the west, Biqraqa to the northwest, Hurayf and Hayalin to the north, Zaynah to the northeast and al-Shiha to the east.
According to the Syria Central Bureau of Statistics, Masyaf had a population of 22,508 in the 2004 census. It is the administrative center of the Masyaf District and the Masyaf Subdistrict. The latter had a population of 68,184 in 2004. The inhabitants are predominantly Ismailis.
Masyaf and its fortress was first mentioned by Crusader chroniclers in 1099. At that time it had been under the control of the Mirdasid dynasty. In 1127, the Mirdasids sold it the Shaizar-based Banu Munqidh family. In 1140, Masyaf was captured by the Nizari Ismailis, a sect of Ismaili Shia Muslims who had been exiled from their previous stronghold in Alamut in modern-day Iran. The Ismailis had chosen Syria as their new home and successively settled in the cities of Aleppo and Damascus and the fortress of Banyas, each time being persecuted and massacred by the authorities and mobs of local residents incited by clerics who accused the Ismailis of being heretics or causing problems. Consequently, the surviving Ismaili leadership decided that establishing bases in Syria's cities and thus relying on the goodwill of various emirs (princes) was untenable. Instead, they chose to settle in Jabal Ansariyah, a coastal mountain range dotted with fortresses, including Masyaf.
Following its capture, Masyaf served as the principal fortress for the Ismailis' chief da'i. Together with other fortresses acquired at around the same time, including Kahf, Khawabi, Qadmus and Rusafa, the Ismailis were able to carve an autonomous territory for themselves amid hostile Crusader states and local Muslim dynasties nominally affiliated with the Abbasid Caliphate. Masyaf served as the headquarters of the Ismaili da'i Rashid ad-Din Sinan and his elite unit of fida'is who became known as the Hashashin ("Assassins").
In the mid-1170's, the Ayyubid sultan Saladin set about conquering Syria, ousting the Crusaders and uniting the Muslim world under Sunni Islam. The Ismailis considered Saladin a more dangerous threat than the Crusaders and allied with Saladin's rival in Aleppo to defeat the Ayyubids. Sinan's men launched two unsuccesful attempts to assassinate Saladin and in 1176, Saladin's army besieged Masyaf. However, within a few days of the siege, Saladin abruptly withdrew for unclear reasons. Possible scenarios regarding the withdrawal could have included a conclusion by Saladin that Masyaf was too strongly defended, fears that Saladin had for his life as a result of previous assassination attempts, an urgent need to redeploy against the Crusaders in Lebanon or a plea by the Ayyubid emir of Hama to make a truce with the Ismailis.
Masyaf was briefly captured by the Mongols in 1260 before the region was reconquered the Bahri Mamluks. The Ismailis surrendered the fortress to Mamluk sultan Baibars in 1270, but were allowed to continue inhabiting it throughout Mamluk rule (ended in 1517) and through the Ottoman era (1517-1917).
In 1808, an Alawite force captured Masyaf and its fortress and massacred many of its Ismaili inhabitants. The latter were in the process of expulsion from the coastal mountains, but the Alawites were forced to retreat upon the intervention of the Ottoman governor of Damascus.
In 1947, 3,808 Ismailis lived in Masyaf. In 1970, much of the town of Masyaf still remained within the confines of the fortress walls. However, by 1998, its population and urban space had expanded considerably outside the walls. The walls remained in place, but the homes and gardens of local residents were built immediately alongside them. Within the walls is a mosque dating to the 12th century and according to local residents, is associated with Saladin. The fortress is considered a national monument and is directly under the authority of the Syrian Directorate of Antiquities.
As of the mid-1940's Masyaf had a predominantly Ismaili population. Today, it is a considered a religiously mixed city of Ismailis and Alawites.
In popular culture, Masyaf is known for its appearance in the Assassin's Creed video game series. In that series, the castle of Masyaf is the headquarters of the Assassins. Although the castle once did really house the infamous Assassins, the game features a Middle Ages version of the town, as the castle and its surroundings are similarly comparable to Masyaf and its castle in the 12th century AD, but are not exact.
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