Posts Tagged ‘Vladimir Bartol’



October 12, 2008

9/10/08, Gazor Khan, Alamut Castle

A crag. A mammoth shard of warped rock sticking near-vertically into the sky, and the valley like a vast basin below. Emptiness that arrests both breath and imagination, set against distant rolling peaks. The wispy, ashen clouds hovering closely overhead, betraying the altitude. A freak feat of nature that imposes itself on the entire valley, dominating the landscape. Its cracks and crevices a hundred eyes peering around, surveilling the space.

This is the location that Hassan Ibn As-Sabbah, twelfth century leader of the Ismaili Shi’a resistance to the Sunni caliphate of Baghdad and architect of the army of the assassins, chose as the seat of his ideological empire. The story of Hassan Ibn As-Sabbah, like the scenery which encourages a certain suspension of disbelief, is a fitting combination of fact, legend and lore. In the 1930s, Slovenian author Vladimir Bartol wrote the most modern rendition of the tale in his book Alamut, which, at the time, was framed as a metaphorical critique of the rise of fascism in Europe. Perched amongst those fabled cliffs and hillsides, I reran the story over and over in my head, and realised that it would be impossible to separate the myth from the reality.

Reputed around the region as the holder of the key to the gates of Paradise, Hassan Ibn As-Sabbah was a herbalist, philosopher and conflict mastermind who harnessed the intoxicating effects of hashish in order to build himself an army of followers. Among them was a small, elite force of expertly trained and absolutely dedicated assassins. Alongside his military tactics, Hassan created a series of luxurious gardens in hidden valleys behind the castle, which he filled with exotic plants, tame wild-animals (panthers, leopards), and a collection of beautiful, exquisitely manicured and groomed adolescent women. They were to bee the houris, and the gardens were to be Paradise.

The absolute dedication of the ‘hashishioun’ (from where the word ‘assassin’ is derived) to the cause of bringing down the Caliphate was ensured by Hassan drugging a select few with hash, and then transporting them in their sleep to his secret gardens. When they awoke, they were surrounded with all the indulgences of paradise: milk, honey, immaculate young women playing unearthly music and doting on them. They were allowed to taste such pleasures for a few hours, after which they were drugged again, then transported back to the castle. When they awoke there, they believed they had been in paradise. Therefore, the rumour of Hassan as the bearer of the keys to Paradise flourished. Moreover, having savoured the delights of the afterlife, they no longer feared losing their own lives, they no longer feared sacrificing themselves for the cause, confident of the other-worldly pleasures that awaited them on the other side of mortality…

As I sat gazing at themysical scenery with the tale of dark enchantment buzzing in my mind, I wondered: What did this rock say to Hassan? What did he feel as he gazed up at its sublime majesty and strength? Immense empowerment? Illusions of invincibility? Either way, a pertinent place for a man of such twisted brilliance, where natural grandeur complements unbridled human ambition.