Vladimir Bartol’s “Alamut”

In the contemporary media-laden world of today, new developments and projects are commonly considered “new” when they are, in fact, merely renditions of previous works. Such it is with Ubisoft’s recent “Assassin’s Creed” video-game series. The world of assassins and ancient Arabic mysteries captured the imagination of many before there were video-games to tell the tale, and Vladimir Bartol’s 1938 novel “Alamut” is commonly viewed as the beginning of the assassin hype.

The story begins in the late 11th Century in the Southern Caspian province of Daylam, Persia, or what is now known as Iran. Hassan ibn Sabbah, known to his students and followers as Sayyiduna (Master), has just captured the fortress of Alamut, a mountain stronghold known as the “Eagle’s Nest” for its formidable defenses. Hassan is a figurehead of Ismaili Islam, a large faction within Shia Islam, and at this fortress in the mountains he is training an army to wrest his native Persia from the hands of the vast Seljuk empire.

 The army that Hassan is attempting to raise is an army like no other- with honeyed words and the use of a relatively recent discovery from the east known as Hashish. Hassan intends to indoctrinate young men into the belief that he is capable of sending his holy servants to Heaven after death. These servants, known as a Fedai, which is a word very similar to the Islamic Fedayeen, are the primary protagonists of “Alamut”.

 The process of constructing an artificial analogue to the paradise shown in the Islamic Quran is no easy task, and Hassan goes to great lengths to create a believable “heaven”. Houris in the form of brainwashed slaves from the East, and a heady scent of hashish flowing through the air captures the frame of mind with which Hassan presents his own “paradise”. With colored glass and sparkling fountains, the able young men who Hassan has brought under his care truly believe that Hassan has been blessed by Allah to hold the keys to paradise.

 Bartol’s writing style is to be cherished here. While some archaic tonalities and dictionary choices are obvious, the Slovenian author faithfully portrays a wartorn world where one man hatches a blasphemous plan that taps both into the psychology and spirituality of the human mind. Hassan deviously manipulates his chosen warriors into soldiers willing to die at a moments notice for the paradise that Hassan has shown them, a situation eerily similar to the modern concept of suicide bombers. In one shocking scene, Hassan orders the suicides of two of his indoctrinated pupils, an order the pair immediately fulfill without hesitation.

 The chaotic tumult between the thin veil of life and death is illustrated extensively through “Alamut”. This interaction between two cosmic forces can be seen in contemporary examples as well: soldiers who throw their lives away in warfare, suicide bombers who do so for religious and political purposes, and humans who order death around to many others without forethought for the after-effects. The lessons in Bartol’s “Alamut” echo through time to our own fortresses and strongholds as well.

 The Fedai of Hassan ibn Sabbah, Alamut’s Master and Patron, constitutes a dangerous subversion of proper thought on the balance of life and death. Life is a precious thing, yet when faced with a faux paradise that is created in a physical or mental realm it is disturbing and unnatural to see the lengths that some may go to achieve this deadly fruit.

 

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