- Paperback: 320 pages
- Publisher: Modern Library; New edition edition (24 July 2001)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0375757538
- ISBN-13: 978-0375757532
- Product Dimensions: 13.3 x 1.7 x 20.3 cm
- Average Customer Review: Be the first to review this item
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #2,25,258 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
The Valleys of the Assassins: and Other Persian Travels (Modern Library Paperbacks) Paperback – 24 Jul 2001
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First published in 1934, Freya Stark's classic tale of her travels through Persia has been reprinted once again and is just as much a gem now as when first published. At the age of 37, Stark shocked her fellow Brits by moving to Baghdad, befriending the locals, studying Arabic and the Koran, and then setting out on expeditions to remote and uncharted areas of the Islamic world by foot, donkey, camel, and car. With her fascination for secret Islamic societies, she resolved to travel to the former home of the Cult of the Assassins and to locate an ancient fortress described by Marco Polo. (The founder of the cult inspired his recruits to murder through the use of hashish, hence their name Hashishin, from which we get assassin.) There was only one problem: she couldn't find the valley on her map. Intrepid and indefatigable, she found a guide to lead her across the empty Persian plains and crested mountain ranges (Stark leaping like a mountain goat while her guide huffed behind) into the practically impregnable valley. There she found the castle ruins covered with wild tulips and surrounded by breathtaking views of the Elbruz Mountains. While there, Stark charted the first accurate maps of the region. Stark also used her charm and her understanding of Persian ways to infiltrate Luristan, a dangerous and forbidden place where she hunted for Neolithic bronzes (by persuading the chief of police to help her loot graves) and searched for buried treasure. The Lurs, a mountainous tribe, were infamous for murder and thievery, but she found them "as cheerful a lot of villains as you can wish to meet, and delighted with us for being, as they said, brave enough to come among them." The Lurs were consistently generous hosts, but thought nothing of raiding her luggage while she slept (stealing being their national pastime and hence nothing to get upset about). While Stark began as an obscure and idiosyncratic adventurer, she was ultimately backed by the Royal Geographic Society, was considered one of the best adventure writers of the century, and even was knighted by the queen of England. With her lively voice and natural perceptiveness she painted a picture of a fascinating world inhabited by charming bandits and armed tribesman now largely gone. While she did it for her own pleasure, in the end, the pleasure is ours. --Lesley Reed
[Freya Stark] writes angelically in the great tradition of Charles Doughty and T. E. Lawrence. The pulse quickens as you read, because she can bring the sights and sounds of incredible countries before you in the twinkling of an eye."
--The New York Times Book Review
"[The Valleys of the Assassins] remains a wonderful description of a people and a place, altered today by Progress, perhaps, but through [Freya Stark's] eyes still alive with bandits, dervishes, idol worshippers, armed tribesmen, and mountain scenery of great beauty."
--From the Introduction by Jane Fletcher Geniesse
"Stark is constantly alive to her immediate surroundings: indeed, what gives her work its extraordinary depth and power is just this ability to focus past and present... stereoscopically, in a single image."
--Times Literary Supplement [London]
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Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
As for the criticism of the lack of maps in the book that some of the reviewers here have brought up -- well, that may be a criticism directed at the publisher, but it shouldn't be aimed at Stark. The maps that are in the book are the ones that Stark made herself during her travels and handed over to the Royal Geographic Society, and are considered the first Western maps of the area. In my own research, I was in contact with the Society repeatedly, trying to procure additional maps of the Elburz Mountain region for background information on Vladimir Bartol's ALAMUT, an historical novel based on the most famous Valley of the Assassin resident, Hasan ibn Sabbah. Frankly, Stark's maps are some of the few that actually exist, even to this day. The area of her travels -- perhaps aside from CIA maps that we mere mortals are not privy to -- has not been mapped very well. Spend a few hours scouring antiquarian map collectors and see what you come up with. True, it would have been helpful for the publisher to add some basic "Rand McNally" type overviews of her route, but a criticism of Stark on this point is completely beside the point and neglects to recognize her true contribution to the literature.
The real enjoyment of reading about her colorful adventures comes from her insights into the region as a journalist and the origins of the people, along with her vivid descriptions of life and her dry wit. When you think of this Western woman, often traveling alone, moving throughout the Muslim world of the 1930s [one that hadn't changed in centuries] you become instantly in awe. By simply reading at random any passage that she wrote, you are turned into the traveling companion of this amazing lady and shown those people and their customs in lands that are now forever lost to us, with Stark's compelling words being the only exception. Her true gifts to the world are these wonderful sojourns into the past.
Bob Magnant is the author of The Last Transition... - a fact-based novel about Iran, Iraq and the Middle East...