Read Alamut Online

Authors: Vladimir Bartol


was originally written in 1938 as an allegory to Mussolini’s fascist state. In the 1960s it became a cult favorite throughout Tito’s Yugoslavia, and in the 1990s, during the war in the Balkans, it was read as an allegory of the region’s strife and became a bestseller in Germany, France, and Spain. The book once again took on a new life following the attacks of 9/11/2001 because of its early description of the world of suicide bombers in fanatical sects, selling more than 20,000 copies in a new Slovenian edition.

“First published sixty years ago,
is a literary classic by Slovenian writer Vladimir Bartol, a deftly researched and presented historical novel about one of the world’s first political terrorists, eleventh-century Ismaili leader Hasan ibn Sabbah, whose machinations with drugs and carnal pleasures deceived his followers into believing that he would deliver them to a paradise in the afterlife, so that they would destroy themselves in suicide missions for him. Flawlessly translated into English (and also published in eighteen other languages),
portrays even the most Machiavellian individuals as human—ruthless or murderous, but also subject to human virtues, vices, and tragedies. An afterword by Michael Biggins offering context on the author’s life, the juxtaposition of his writing to the rise of dictatorial conquest that would erupt into World War II, and the medley of reactions to its publication, both in the author’s native Slovenia and worldwide, round out this superb masterpiece. An absolute must-have for East European literature shelves, and quite simply a thoroughly compelling novel cover to cover.”

Midwest Book Review

“For all of its provocative ideas and sometimes eerily prescient incidents,
is also successful simply as an entertaining yarn … Bartol devises a shifting collage of passions, adventure, and sacrifice. The book’s exotic settings are sumptuously described, and the characters are charismatic and complex—despite the fervent aims of some of them to subscribe to single-minded devotion.”

Seattle Times

is … a finely wrought, undiscovered minor masterpiece that offers … a wealth of meticulously planned and executed detail and broad potential for symbolic, intertextual, and philosophical interpretation.”

—From the Afterword by Michael Biggins, translator

“Whoever wants to understand the success of the Al Qaeda leader’s strategy should read Bartol. It is as if Osama bin Laden himself concocted the most powerful fist of his organization only after reading
The dates line up fatally: The novel was published in Iran in 1995 and was clearly so attractive that it was translated again within four years. In 1996 the suicide attack on the American Embassy in Kenya begins.”

—Bernard Nezmah,
(Slovenian newsmagazine)

Translation copyright © 2007 by Michael Biggins. North American Trade Edition © 2007.
English Translation © 2011 North Atlantic Books. Afterword © 2004 Michael Biggins.
© 1988 Editions Phébus, Paris.

All rights reserved. No portion of this book, except for brief review, may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise—without the written permission of the publishers. For information contact North Atlantic Books. The translation was made possible in part by a grant from 4Culture, Seattle, Washington.

Published by
North Atlantic Books
P.O. Box 12327
Berkeley, California 94712

Cover image by Shirin Neshat: “Untitled.” 1996 RC print & ink (photo taken by Larry Barns) 47-7/8 × 33-3/4 inches © 1996 Shirin Neshat, courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York
Cover design © 2007, Ayelet Maida, A/M Studios.
Writing on hand by Forough Farokhzad:

I Feel Sorry for the Garden

No one is thinking about the flowers
No one is thinking about the fish
No one wants to believe
that the garden is dying
that the garden’s heart has swollen under the sun
that the garden
is slowly forgetting its green moments …

is sponsored by the Society for the Study of Native Arts and Sciences, a nonprofit educational corporation whose goals are to develop an educational and cross-cultural perspective linking various scientific, social, and artistic fields; to nurture a holistic view of arts, sciences, humanities, and healing; and to publish and distribute literature on the relationship of mind, body, and nature.

North Atlantic Books’ publications are available through most bookstores. For further information, visit our website at
or call 800-733-3000.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Bartol, Vladimir, 1903–1967.
   [Alamut. English]
   Alamut / Vladimir Bartol; translated by Michael Biggins.
        p. cm.
   eISBN: 978-1-58394-695-4
   1. Hasan ibn al-Sabbah, d. 1124–Fiction. I. Biggins, Michael.
PG1918.B33A7813 2007




—The Supreme Ismaili Motto




“The most blinkered reading of
,” writes translator Michael Biggins in his afterword to this edition, “might reinforce some stereotypical notions of the Middle East as the exclusive home of fanatics and unquestioning fundamentalists … But careful readers should come away from
with something very different.”

In publishing this book, we aim to undermine hateful stereotypes, not reinforce them. What we celebrate in
is the ways in which the author reveals how any ideology can be manipulated by a charismatic leader and morph individual beliefs into fanaticism.
can be seen as an argument against systems of belief that eliminate one’s ability to act and think morally. The key conclusions of Hassan ibn Sabbah’s story are not that Islam or religion inherently predisposes one towards terrorism, but that any ideology, whether religious, nationalistic, or otherwise, can be exploited in dramatic and dangerous ways. Indeed,
was written in response to the European political climate of 1938, as totalitarian forces gathered power over the continent.

We hope that the thoughts, beliefs, and motivations of these characters are not taken as a representation of Islam or as any sort of proof that Islam condones violence or suicide bombing. Doctrines presented in this book, including the supreme Ismaili motto of “Nothing is true, everything is permitted,” do not correspond to the beliefs of the majority of Muslims throughout the ages, but rather to a relatively small sect.

It is in this spirit we offer our edition of this book. We hope you’ll read and appreciate it as such.


In mid-spring of the year 1092 a good-sized caravan was wending its way along the old military trail that leads from Samarkand and Bukhara through northern Khorasan and then meanders through the foothills of the Elburz Mountains. It had left Bukhara as the snow started to melt, and had been underway for several weeks. The drivers brandished their whips, shouting hoarsely at the caravan’s draft animals, which were already on the verge of exhaustion. One after the other in a long procession stepped Arabian dromedaries, mules, and two-humped camels from Turkestan, submissively carrying their freight. An armed escort rode short, shaggy horses, glancing in equal measures of boredom and longing at the long chain of mountains that had begun to emerge on the horizon. They were tired of the slow ride and could barely wait to arrive at their destination. They drew closer and closer to the snow-covered cone of Mount Demavend, until it was blocked out by the foothills that absorbed the trail. Fresh mountain air started to blow, reviving the people and livestock by day. But the nights were ice cold, and both escorts and drivers stood around the campfires, grumbling and rubbing their hands.

Fastened between the two humps of one of the camels was a small shelter resembling a cage. From time to time a small hand drew the curtain aside from its window, and the face of a frightened little girl looked out. Her large eyes, red from crying, looked at the strangers surrounding her as if seeking an answer to the difficult question that had tormented her for the entire journey: where were they taking her, and what did they plan to do with her? But no one noticed aside from the caravan leader, a stern man of about fifty in a loose Arab cloak and an imposing white turban, who would blink in disapproval when he caught sight of her through the opening. At those
moments she would quickly pull the curtain shut and retreat inside the cage. Ever since she had been bought from her master in Bukhara, she had been living in a combination of mortal fear and thrilling curiosity about the fate that was awaiting her.

One day, as they neared the end of their journey, a band of horsemen raced down the hillside to their right and blocked their path. The animals at the head of the caravan stopped on their own. The leader and escort reached for their heavy, curved sabers and assumed positions for a charge. A man on a short brown horse separated from the attackers and came close enough to the caravan that his voice was audible. He called out a password and received a response from the caravan leader. The two men galloped toward each other and exchanged courteous greetings, and then the new troop took over leadership. The caravan turned off the trail and headed into the brush, traveling this way until well into the night. Eventually they made camp on the floor of a small valley, from where they could hear the distant drumming of a mountain torrent. They built fires, ate hastily, and then fell asleep like the dead.

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