“I wrote for a modern audience, and yet! I had the feeling that I was simultaneously writing for an audience that will live fifty years from now, and almost also for an audience that lived fifty years ago.” – Vladimir Bartol about his novel Alamut
Alamut is a novel by Vladimir Bartol, first published in 1938 in Slovenian, dealing with the story of Hassan-i Sabbah and the Hashshashin, and named after their Alamut fortress. The maxim of the novel is “Nothing is an absolute reality; all is permitted”. This book was one of the inspirations for the video game series Assassin’s Creed.
Bartol first started to conceive the novel in the early 1930s, when he lived in Paris. In the French capital, he met with the Slovenian literary critic Josip Vidmar, who introduced him to the story of Hassan-i Sabbah. A further stimulus for the novel came from the assassination of Alexander I of Yugoslavia perpetrated by Croatian and Bulgarian radical nationalists, on the alleged commission of the Italian fascist government. When it was originally published, the novel was sarcastically dedicated to Benito Mussolini.
The novel is set in the 11th century at the fortress of Alamut, which was seized by the leader of the Ismailis, Hassan-i Sabbah or Sayyiduna (سیدنا, “Our Master”). At the beginning of the story, he is gathering an army for the purpose of attacking the Seljuk Empire, which has taken over possession of Iran. The story opens from the point of view of Halima who was purchased by Hassan to become an houri. The story begins with the journey of young ibn Tahir, who is, according to his family’s wish, intending to join the Alamut garrison. There, he is appointed to the squad of the most valiant soldiers, named the fedai (فدای). Fedai are expected to obey orders without demur and forfeit their lives if necessary. During their demanding training, they come to be convinced that they shall go to heaven immediately after their death if they die in the line of duty. Meanwhile, Halima joins the other houris in the garden which Hassan has been building, the young girls are educated in various arts by the leader of the houris and confidant to Hassan, Miriam. Hassan managed to achieve such a level of obedience by deceiving his soldiers; he gave them drugs (hashish) to numb them and afterwards ordered that they be carried into the gardens behind the fortress—which were made into a simulacrum of heaven, including houris. Therefore, fedayin believe that Allah has given Hassan the power to send anybody to Heaven for a certain period. Moreover, some of the fedayeen fall in love with houris, and Hassan unscrupulously uses that to his advantage.
Meanwhile, the Seljuk army besieges Alamut. Some of the soldiers are captured and Hassan decides to demonstrate his power to them. He orders a pair of fedayeen (Yusuf and Suleiman) to kill themselves; Suleiman by stabbing himself, Yusuf by jumping off a tower. They gladly fulfill their master’s order since they believe that they will soon rejoice with their beloved in heaven. After the siege, Hassan orders ibn Tahir to go and kill the grand vizier of the Seljuk Sultan Nizam al-Mulk. Hassan wants to take revenge for al-Mulk’s treachery against him long ago. Ibn Tahir stabs the vizier, but, before he passes away, the vizier reveals the truth of Hassan’s deceptions to his murderer. Upon hearing of his success, Hassan informs Miriam that Ibn Tahir is likely dead as a result of discovery, Miriam commits suicide from her disillusionment. Halima also commits suicide when she learns she will never be with Suleiman whom she fell in love with. Ibn Tahir decides to return to Alamut and kill Hassan. When ibn Tahir returns, Hassan receives him and also reveals to him his true motto: “Nothing is an absolute reality, everything is permitted”. Then, he lets ibn Tahir go, to start a long journey around the world. Another fedai kills the Seljuk Sultan and the Seljuk empire dissolves. The fight for the Seljuk throne begins. Hassan encloses himself in a tower, determined to work until the end of his days. He transfers the power over the Ismaelites to the hands of his faithful dai, military, and religious chiefs.
The philosophical question of whether the world is real or just a lie of our emotions has divided philosophers and other people for as long as they can remember. There is no answer to this question and there probably never will be. Perhaps Vladimir Bartol came closest to this answer with the historical story about the ruler of Alamut, Hasan Ibn Saba. Or was he merely presenting the insights that the false senses had offered him on a platter?
And so one Monday in late September of 2017, late in the afternoon, I walked up to the rocky cliff on which the Alamut fortress is perched like an eagle’s nest. A harrowing drive from Tehran, first on the highway full of traffic, and later on winding side roads all the way to the valley below the fortress.
Countless steps lead from the valley to the top. When I’m panting towards the top somewhere halfway, I meet a middle-aged Iranian couple. Word after word and after the debate about where I’m from and the question of what I’m doing here, I tell them the story of Alamut from the pen of our writer Bartol. They listened to me with interest and found the whole thing incredible. And they said that they had to read this book. I later learned that the book was also translated into Farsi.
Just a few more steps and I’m at the top. Apart from some rubble and scaffolding, nothing earth-shattering. At home, Tina told me before that she was here ten years ago and that I should tell her if the renovation has made any progress. Unfortunately, it seems not…
But the view from the fortress outweighs all the steps.
And Ines, who had a copy of the book with her and we all took selfies with the book in hand.
In the evening twilight and serene silence, the view takes you far to the south. When you stand on the edge of the cliff and think about the events of a thousand years ago and about Bartol’s Alamut, Hassan-i Sabbah’s motto comes to mind – “Nothing is an absolute reality, all is permitted”.