top of page

Alamut by V. Bartol: a reflection on the complementarity between fiction and historiography

Written by Vladimir Bartol and published in 1938, Alamut is considered as a classic among the historical fiction genre. Only in 2004 was its first English translation published; as a matter of fact, only after the World Trade Center tragedy in 2001 did the popularity of the novel slowly reach its peak.

Indeed, set in the North West of Iran in the 11th century, the story mainly focuses around the Assassins (Hashshashin), a sect lead by Haasan Ibn Sabbah, and as such, offers a reflection on religious fanatism. Through the points of view of three different protagonists, Hassan Ibn Sabbah the leader, Halima the houri, and Ibn Tahir the fedayin, Bartol proposes both a political philosophy essay and an adventure novel. By first examining the historical and scientific elements of the novel and then moving on to the fictional ones, the following analysis presents a reflection on how Bartol manages to associate fictional and historiographic literary elements in order to create an initiatiatory and didactic work, still relevant to this day.

Indeed, from the very first lines, the narrator sets the plot in time and space, precisely in year 1092, between Samarkand and Bukhara. In doing so, he manifests his intention to establish his narrative as factual, historically and scientifically accurate. The toponymy and onomastics used all along the novel are constant reminders of the writer's will to propose a narrative based upon historically coherent facts and events. The plots takes place in a setting related to a precise spatio-temporal background, described by an accurate description built around historiographic details:

"In mid-spring 0f the year 1092 [...] along the old military trail that lead from Samarkand and Bukhara through northern Khorasan and then meanders through the foothills of the Elburz mountains."

Figure 1: Alamut Fortress's ruins

Likewise, one of the three main characters, Hassan Ibn Sabbah, is an actual historical figure, and the Assassins sect he was leading actually existed, as proven by the available philological sources on that period. Operating as an extremist wing of the Nizari Ism'ailis, the group of fanatics did, to all intents and purposes, take action during the 11th century in the Middle-East, organizing the murder of different political figures. These political figures are mentioned in Bartol's novel, and thus reinforce the accuracy of the historical background in which the plot is set. For instance, grand vizier Nizam al-Mulk was an Iranian politician from the 11th century, and the alliance between Hassan Ibn Sabbah and the sultan Barkiyaruq is accurate.

Furthermore, the main historical events and figures are not the only elements reinforcing the accuracy of the historical representation in Alamut. Indeed, Bartol inserted details about the supposed way of living at that time, notably in the way he described the food and clothing habits of the characters:

"The girls dressed Halima in a long white gown of delicate silk. They tied a red cord around her waist..."

These particular elements, associated with a historical description on a larger scale, through the representations of the political dynamics at the time, create a historiographic and accurate spatio-temporal background for the narrative. There is definitely a scientific approach to the narration in the novel, and a manifest will to faithfully transcribe and depict a historical period, paying attention to both the details and the social dynamics related to that specific period.

However, Alamut is not only a representation of 11th century Persia, and the fictional component of the narrative is as present as its historiographic elements.

First and foremost, it seems important to notice that even though the existence itself of the Hashshashin sect is proven, as well as the existence of its leader, Hassan Ibn Sabbah, most of what is known today about its details and deeds is based upon sources considered to be of questionable reliability, scientifically speaking. The nature itself of this organization was based upon mystery, and one of the consequences of such a structure is that many testimonies concerning it are literary narratives, such as fables. The mysticism surrounding the organisation and their leader is made tangible to the reader as both Halima and Tahir enter the Alamut fortress, presented as a place out of the reality they know:

"Not far off, the grandson of Tahir saw two high towers which shone white over the dark mountains like a vision from a dream."

Figure 2: Aria Salahi, illustration of Alamut Castle

The clear mention of the oneiric perspective from an internal point of view is a direct way to introduce a fictional element within the narrative, detaching the reader from the historical reality and bringing him into that of the character. Bartol is not only describing Alamut as the fortress it was, but also as the character he created saw it.

The characters themselves are relevant when it comes to the structural balance between fiction and historiography in Bartol's work. One of the main feature of Alamut's narrative is its polyphony. Indeed, of the three characters that we may regard as the novel's main protagonists, one of them is a historical figure (Hassan Ibn Sabbah), while the two other ones are fictional (Halima and Ibn Tahir). Even though the existence of the two groups they belong to, the fedayin and the houri, is highly plausible, the testimonies attesting to it are full of mysticism, and there is no clear-cut certitude to this day.These two protagonists, even if they are inspired by historical characters, belong to groups ( Fedayin and Houri) that define them as protagonists, and that are both mystical in their representations. Bartol, instead of strictly keeping to the historiographic facts, chose to stage the legends surrounding these mysteries through the prism of his main characters.

In addition, although his existence is confirmed, Hassan Ibn Sabbah remains a mythical figure, and the character is treated accordingly by the narrator. He is a prophetic figure, worshipped as a man imbued with the Divine. Indeed, he only appears during the fifth chapter of the novel. Before that appearance, he is only mentioned by the companions of the other two main protagonists, Halima and Tahir, presented as a divine figure able to understand the depth of their reality through religion:

"All of Our Master's calculations since he took hold of this castle two years ago have proven correct. The sultan is still in no hurry to cut short our ownership of this fortress, just as Hassan Ibn Sabbah predicted two years ago."

Figure 3: Hassan commanding his fedayin to commit suicide, gravure by Léo Taxil.

Besides the use of the term "Master" to talk about him, it is the fact that "he took hold of this castle" that is the main element showing the dominance that Hassan Ibn Sabbah has over the mind of the inhabitants of the fortress. While it is known that the man bought the fortress in 1090, he is represented in the novel as a conqueror, one who managed to take a whole castle as his own. There are no mentions of any kind of monetary transaction. Instead, thanks to such discursive processes, the faith the fedayin placed into that figure only grows throughout the novel, in an ascending gradation represented through the verticality of the text, with its peak found in the supreme commander room:

"They reached the highest terrace and walked past guards bearing maces and into the building of the supreme commander."

The historical facts are substituted by the mystical perception of a single man taking over a safe place, this mystical perception being carried through the grasp and senses of the fictional characters in the narrative.

The representation of the characters in this novel, historical figures being mixed with fictional ones, is not the only way Bartol merges fiction into History. Actually, two of the major instances of the narratives process are, as much as Hassan Ibn Sabbah, based on potential historiographic elements that are romanticized. They is, indeed, no proof that gardens were actually hidden in the fortress, and scientists still do not hold as certain that the fedayin were given drugs to obliterate their self-consciousness. These elements are theories, and instead of trying to confirm them through a scientific an historiographic process, Bartol chose to incorporate them into his narrative, with the internal point of view of fictional characters inspired by historical figures. It is such an association between historical and fictional elements that create the narrative structure of Alamut.

Figure 4: Cover illustration of Alamut, Bartol's novel. French Libretto edition, 2012.

This association allows for the creation of a polyphonic initiation narrative. First, the initiation process is applied to the two main protagonists, Ibnh Tahir and Halima. While they both followed an initiation led by the orders of the supreme leader Hassan, Tahir managed to go beyond the indoctrination and became a proper hero, and Halima, by learning love and sexuality, became a martyr. Both of these characters are symbols, representations of the possible ways to escape from the totalitarianism represented by Hassan Ibn Tahir. The geopolitical context Bartol was in while he wrote Alamut is hard to ignore at this point. The novel seems to mirror this context, with the rise of dictatorship in western Europe during the 30s. The cult of personality created by Hassan Ibn Sabbah in the novel is highly similar to those created by the dictators, and the way he uses the fedayins and houri groups, as well as the reappropriation of History and beliefs, are all elements easily compared to such more modern political systems.

Thanks to this comparaison, Bartol not only proposes an antagonist via the character of Hassan Ibn Sabbah, but he also transforms his narrative into a didactic text, advising the reader of the threat a man could become if followed blindly. The fact that the author used the internal point of view of fictional characters allows the reader to consider History through different angles. By not strictly keeping to the historical facts and leaving space to the feelings and perceptions of the individuals, even if fictional, he creates what Jean Molino called "the intelligibility of History" (1975).

Basing his narrative upon historiography as well as fiction and legends, Bartol created a work that appears plausible and gives a voice to the masses, forgotten in the shadows of the historical figures. This work allows the readers to reflect on the sense of History, its echoes, causes and consequences, but also on historiography, on the meaning of History itself as a science. The last words of the novel illustrate these reflections in a memorable way:

"He [Hassan Ibn Sabbah] locked himself inside his chambers and died to the world. And legend enfolded him in its wings."

Bibliographical References

BARTOL V. ,1938, Alamut, Translation by Michael Biggins

FOLEY B., 1986, Telling the truth: The theory and Practice of Documentary fiction, Cornell University Press

LUKACS G., 1965, Le Roman historique, Paris, Payot

MARQUIS, R. 2008. «Le roman Alamut de Vladimir Bartol: des rapports troublants avec l'Histoire», Postures, Dossier «Les écritures de l’Histoire», n°10, En ligne (Consulté le xx / xx / xxxx). D’abord paru dans : Marquis, Robert. 2008. «Le roman Alamut de Vladimir Bartol: des rapports troublants avec l'Histoire», Postures, Dossier «Les écritures de l’Histoire», n°10, p. 129- 139.

MOLINO J. " Qu'est-ce que le roman historique ?", Revue d'histoire littéraire de la France, n" 2-3, mars-juin 1975, p. 195-234. 93

Visual references


Author Photo

Martin Chef

Arcadia _ Logo.png

Arcadia has an extensive catalog of articles on everything from literature to science — all available for free! If you liked this article and would like to read more, subscribe below and click the “Read More” button to discover a world of unique content.

Let the posts come to you!

Thanks for submitting!

  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
bottom of page