Study Guide

The Alchemist Setting

By Paulo Coelho

Setting

Spain and Northern Africa

Ultra-Marathon

When Santiago leaves Spain, the old king Melchizedek watches him go:

At the highest point in Tarifa there is an old fort, built by the Moors. From atop its walls, one can catch a glimpse of Africa. Melchizedek, the king of Salem, sat on the wall of the fort that afternoon [. . .]. Melchizedek watched a small ship that was plowing its way out of the port. He would never again see the boy (1.186-87)

Even in human form, Melchizedek gives us a sense of the novel's epic scope by connecting Spain and Africa with his vision. This gives us an idea of the old king's power and wisdom, but it also shows us how long Santiago's journey will be. It takes him

  • across southern Spain (the Andalusian city of Tarifa is mentioned explicitly)
  • across the Strait of Gibraltar
  • to Tangier, Morocco 
  • across the Sahara desert to Egypt, specifically the Al-Fayoum oasis and the Pyramids 
  • back to Spain
  • and finally back to the desert

Just slap on a rucksack, and this sounds like the perfect post-college backpacking trip. So why does Santiago take this journey across sea and sand? First, it gives Santiago the chance to learn a lot of ancient mysteries, really driving home the whole "journey-not-destination bit." Second, the ancient civilizations (Roman, Spanish, and Arabic) that populate the area give the whole novel an ancient, wise aura. This isn't just some modern self-help nonsense, Coelho is saying: this is ancient wisdom. But has he convinced you?

Timelessness

Even though Santiago must be alive sometime after the 15th century, when the Spaniards reclaim the last bit of Spain from the Moorish invaders (history lesson here) we can't really pinpoint anything else. There are ships, camels, and Santiago's own two feet, but no motorized form of transportation. At the same time, the novel could still conceivably take place in the present day.

If you ask us, timelessness is kind of the point. When the alchemist sees Santiago's caravan come in, he seems to feel all the centuries happening at once:

The times rush past, and so do the caravans, thought the alchemist, as he watched the hundreds of people and animals arriving at the oasis. [. . .]

But none of that mattered to the alchemist. He had already seen many people come and go, and the desert remained as it was. He had seen kings and beggars walking the desert sands. The dunes were changed constantly by the wind, yet these were the same sands he had known since he was a child. (2.216-17)

All this talk about countless caravans coming and going makes the alchemist, and his wisdom, seem permanent and the novel more like a fable than a work of realistic fiction. We can imagine that the truth he has to teach Santiago is unchanging, even if the way he transmits it might vary, just like the sands of the desert.

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