By Tom Perry
MASYAF, Syria (Reuters) - Nestled at the foot of Syria's coastal mountains, an ancient citadel has been put on the tourist map by restoration and excavation that revealed mysteries of the medieval Assassins sect, once based here.
Saladin, the great Muslim leader, laid siege to Masyaf castle in the 12th century. But he thought twice before launching an assault on the Assassins, who had a reputation for mounting daring operations to slay their foes.
"Anyone who tried to take the Assassins' castle would be dead the next day," said Haytham Ali Hasan, an archaeologist involved in the restoration project.
Although Saladin had conquered Crusader castles with much stronger defenses, historians believe the Assassins' death threats forced the Kurdish warrior to lift the siege at Masyaf.
Perched on a rock and overlooking a boulder-strewn plain, the castle has been restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.
Tons of debris have been cleared from the site since 2000, allowing researchers to learn more about the citadel's secretive occupants.
One of the main conclusions, Hasan said, was that the Assassins were not very good at building castles, even if the site has lasted well and looks impressive to visitors today.
"The system of defense is very poor," he said, reviewing newly acquired knowledge about Masyaf's construction.
The Assassins had tried to copy the castles of the Crusaders and Saladin, "but not very well", he said, suggesting the fort's weaknesses might be evidence of the group's relative poverty.
But what the Assassins lacked in might, they made up for in stealth. Saladin himself narrowly escaped one assassination attempt by their knife-wielding agents.
The Assassins were led by Rashid Al-Din Sinan, also known as "The Old Man of the Mountain".
He used Masyaf as a base for spreading the beliefs of the Nizari Ismaili sect of Islam to which he and his followers belonged.
Nizari Ismailis, followers of a branch of Shi'ite Islam, today take the Aga Khan as their spiritual guide.