The Rise of Iskander is a short pseudo-historical romance, which Disraeli wrote during his stay in Bath with his friend Edward Bulwer Lytton. This short novel, or novelette, consisting of 22 chapters, was published in London by Saunders and Otley in 1833, simultaneously with The Wondrous Tale of Alroy, in order to fill out the required length of the three-decker book. Its plot is loosely based on the life of the Albanian Christian chieftain Skanderbeg (Iskander), who led a successful rebellion against Ottoman rule in the 1440s. Albania and its national icon, Skanderbeg, were first popularised in English literature by Lord Byron in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812-1818). Byron went to Albania in 1809, and the country made on him a lasting impression.
Land of Albania! where Iskander rose,
Theme of the young, and beacon of the wise,
And he his namesake, whose oft-baffled foes
Shrunk from his deeds of chivalrous emprize;
Land of Albania! let me bend mine eyes
On thee, thou rugged nurse of savage men!
The cross descends, thy minarets arise,
And the pale crescent sparkles in the glen,
Through many a cypress grove within each city's ken.
[Canto II, Stanza 38]
Disraeli, who revered Byron greatly and even tried to present himself as his ‘moral, political and literary successor’ (Elfenbeim 225), followed his idol’s route to the East in the years 1830-31. Albania had been part of the Ottoman Empire since the late fifteenth century. However, in the nineteenth century, the name of Albania was used in two senses. It included the territory inhabited by ethnic Albanians, more or less within the limits of modern Albania, and also in the area south of Epirus. While on his grand Eastern tour, Disraeli visited Janina (Iôannina), then the capital of southern Albania under Ottoman rule. This area, which was mainly inhabited by Greeks, today is within the territory of the Republic of Greece. In a letter of 18 November 1830 to his friend, Benjamin Austen, he describes his journey through Albania (then South Epirus).
For a week I was in a scene equal anything to the Arabian Nights — such processions, such dresses, such corteges of horsemen, such caravans of camels — Then the delight of being made much of by a man who was daily decapitating half of the Province — Every morning we paid visits, attended reviews, & crammed ourselves with sweetmeats, every evening dancers and singers were sent to out quarters by the Vizier or some Pasha. [Jerman 114]
The historical Skanderbeg, also known by his Muslim name of Iskander, actually Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbeu (1404-1468), an Albanian leader, insurgent and national hero, who — incidentally — appears in Disraeli’s story as an ethnic Greek, was the theme and inspiration for many writers. Disraeli, like Byron, learned the history of Skanderbeg most likely from Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1789) and rewrote it in the form of a Walter Scott romance. In Disraeli’s account, Iskander is a brave Christian warrior who carried out a successful Christian resistance against the Ottoman Muslims and regenerated his nation – Epirus.
The novel opens on the Acropolis, amid the ruins of the Temple of Minerva, where the young Iskander, dressed in Albanian costume, meets his younger friend Nicaeus, the prince of Athens. He has come to bid farewell to his friend because he intends to defect from the Ottoman service to join the Christian forces under the command of the king of Hungary Hunniades. Iskander decides to fight for the independence of Epirus from Turkish rule. In Chapter Two, the title hero is presented against the historical background and personal history.
Iskander was the youngest son of the Prince of Epirus, who, with the other Grecian princes, had, at the commencement of the reign of Amurath the Second, in vain resisted the progress of the Turkish arms in Europe. The Prince of Epirus had obtained peace by yielding his four sons as hostages to the Turkish sovereign, who engaged that they should be educated in all the accomplishments of their rank, and with a due deference to their faith. On the death of the Prince of Epirus, however, Amurath could not resist the opportunity that then offered itself of adding to his empire the rich principality he had long coveted. A Turkish force instantly marched into Epirus, and seized upon Croia, the capital city, and the children of its late ruler were doomed to death. The beauty, talents, and valour of the youngest son, saved him, however, from the fate of his poisoned brothers. Iskander was educated at Adrianople, in the Moslemin faith, and as he, at a very early age, exceeded in feats of arms all the Moslemin warriors, he became a prime favourite of the Sultan, and speedily rose in his service to the highest rank. [III, 126]
The story, which largely concerns a romantic love triangle, only cursorily provides any historical background. Disraeli refers to the first phase of the long campaign led by János (John) Hunyadi (c. 1406-1456), a Hungarian voivode of Transylvania, called ‘Athleta Christi’ (Christ’s Champion) by Pope Pius I. With the support of Vladislaus, king of Poland and Hungary, Hunyadi crossed the Balkans, captured the Ottoman strongholds and defeated three Turkish armies. The advance of Christian forces in the Ottoman territory encouraged the peoples of the Balkan Peninsula to revolt against Ottoman rule. It was then that Skanderbeg expelled the Ottomans from Albania and kept the country independent for more than twenty years. Disraeli provides a historical, pro-Christian and philhellenic background to the story of Iskander:
The despots of Bosnia, Servia and Bulgaria, as well as the Greek princes of Aetolia, Macedon, Epirus, Athens, Phocis, Boeotia, and indeed all the regions to the straights of Corinth, were tributaries to Amurath, and the rest of Europe was only preserved from his grasp by the valour of the Hungarians and the Poles, whom a fortunate alliance had now united under the sovereignty of Uladislaus, who, incited by the pious eloquence of the Cardinal of St. Angelo, the Legate of the Pope, and, yielding to the tears and supplications of the Despot of Servia, had, at the time our story opens, quitted Buda at the head of an immense army, crossed the Danube, and, joining his valiant Viceroy, the famous John Hunniades, Vaivode of Transylvania, defeated the Turks with great slaughter, relieved all Bulgaria, and pushed on to the base of Mount Haemus, known in modern times as the celebrated Balkan. Here, the Turkish General, Karam Bey, awaited the Christians and hither to his assistance was Iskander commanded to repair at the head of a body of Janissaries, who had accompanied him to Greece and the tributary Epirots. [128-29]
Next, the story recounts the romantic adventure of Iskander, who defects from the Ottoman army to join the Christian forces. Lady Iduna, the daughter of Hunniades, is captured by the Turks and kept in a seraglio at Adrianople. When she falls ill, the Sultan Amurath offers a reward of one hundred purses of gold to anyone who can cure her from a strange affliction. Iskander, disguised as an Armenian physician with Nicaeus as his servant, arrives in the town in order to set her free. When the Armenian physician offers to cure the captive lady, the chief eunuch allows him to enter the walls of the seraglio. The disguised Iskander reveals to her in Greek that on behalf of Nicaeus, the Prince of Athens, he has come to rescue her. When finally Iduna is free, Iskander is torn between his growing affection for Hunniades’ daughter and his friendship with Nicaeus, who declares his love for her, but is rejected because she has fallen in love with her rescuer. Nicaeus delays Iduna’s reunion with her father and imprisons her in his castle. Eventually, Iduna manages to escape her captor through the window. There to her horror, she comes upon Mahomed, plunging his sword into the water and calling out the name of Iskander. At this moment, Iskander and Hunniades rush forth from the wood to rescue the Christian lady again. Iduna tells Iskander and her father of her second captivity. Eventually, Iskander receives the hand of the fair Iduna to jubilant cries of ‘God save Iskander, King of Epirus’.
Like the title hero of Disraeli’s other Oriental novel, Alroy, Iskander has ‘a mission to renew the nation — in his case Epirus’ (Flavin 38). Disraeli liked to present in his early fiction messianistic heroes whose political aims concentrated on national renewal because he also saw himself as a person of great promise who was strongly committed to upholding Britain’s place in the world and its imperial authority.
The Rise of Iskander is ‘a tale of love, war, and patriotism, in which a hero is portrayed as a god, and the Cross beats the Crescent by double-crossing it’ (Pearson 42). Although not a great piece of literature if judged by modern standards, the novel is nonetheless a work of some significance since it is the first and most notable instance of a literary adaptation of the Scanderbeg theme in English prose. Interestingly, in his later life, Disraeli, as a statesman, dramatically changed his attitude to the Eastern Question and, fearing Russian expansionism, expressed little sympathy for the plight of Balkan Christians within the Ottoman Empire.
References and Further Reading
Blake, Robert. Disraeli. London: Eyre & Spottiswode Publishers, 1967.
____. Disraeli's Grand Tour: Benjamin Disraeli and the Holy Land, 1830-1831. London: Faber & Faber, 2013.
Cesarani, David. Disraeli: The Novel Politician. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2016.
Disraeli, Benjamin. The Wondrous Tale of Alroy. The Rise of Iskander. London: Saunders and Otley, 1833.
Elfenbeim, Andrew. Byron and the Victorians. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Elsie, Robert. ‘Benjamin Disraeli and Skanderbeg: The Novel The Rise of Iskander (1833) as a Contribution to Britain’s Literary Discovery of Albania’, Südost-Forschungen 52, Munich, 1993, 25-52; also available at: http://www.elsie.de/pdf/articles/A1993Disraeli.pdf
Flavin, Michael. Benjamin Disraeli: The Novel as Political Discourse. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2005.
Jerman, B. R. The Young Disraeli. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1960.
Kirsch, Adam. Disraeli. New York: Nextbook and Schocken, 2008.
Kuhn, William M. The Politics of Pleasure: A Portrait of Benjamin Disraeli. London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2006.
Monypenny, William Flavelle, George Earle Buckle. The Life of Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield. Volume: 1. Edition: Revised. New York: Russell & Russell, 1968.
O’Kell, Robert. Disraeli: The Romance of Politics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013.
Richmond, Charles, Paul Smith, eds. The Self-fashioning of Disraeli, 1818-1851. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Ridley, Jane. Young Disraeli, 1804-1846. New York: Crown, 1995.
Smith, Paul. Disraeli: A Brief Life. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Schwarz, Daniel R. Disraeli’s Fiction. London: Macmillan, 1979.
Sultana, Donald. Benjamin Disraeli in Spain, Malta, and Albania 1830-32: A Monograph. London: Tamesis Book Limited, 1976.
Walton, John K. Disraeli. London: Routledge, 1990.
Last modified 25 January 2017