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About 55 km west of Hama (51 km inland from Baniyas); Masyaf is the best preserved, and probably the most famous, of the Ismailites castles of the mountainous region between the Orontes and the coast. It is superbly located and the sight of the castle outlined against the green of the Jebel Ansariye behind is striking when seen from road from Hama.


In the 12th century, a network of fortresses established by the Ismailites protected their presence in the mountains to which they had fled to escape persecution by orthodox Sunni regimes in Aleppo and Damascus. The site had been used for defensive purpose in Seleucid, Roman and Byzantine times. Written records indicate that it was seized by the Crusaders in 1103, shortly after the establishment of their presence on the coast but it was one of several inland sites that the Crusaders did not have the resources to maintain.


By 1140 - 1, it had been taken by the Ismailites and became a chief center of their sect, particularly under the leadership of Sinan. Sinan's control came under threat from Saladin who, following two assassination attempts by Sinan's followers, sought to assert his mastery over the sect. Saladin aimed to promote Sunni orthodoxy by ridding the country of Shi'ite influence following the ending of Fatimid rule in Cairo. Saladin laid siege to Masyaf in 1176 but suddenly broke off the campaign. It seems he had been the target of another Ismailite plot, this time in symbolic form through the appearance on his camp bed of a threatening verse, a dagger and a collection of hot cakes.


Masyaf Castle sits on a small elongated rocky prominence on the eastern side of the town.