I've read two other volumes by Freya Stark ("Alexander's Path" and "Rome on the Euphrates") and thoroughly enjoyed both of them. But I can't quite give this volume an unequivocal rave. I think the main problem was that I was led into false expectations both by the title and the subject matter heading (HISTORY/LITERATURE) that appears on the back of this paperback edition. While any book by Freya Stark will afford significant pleasures, prospective readers should be aware that there really isn't very much history in this volume, and what there is isn't always reliable (serious historians don't believe the Assassins smoked hashish, or that their chief deceived them with a pleasure garden that they thought was a foretaste of paradise). Thus, if you're primarily interested in learning about the fascinating medieval heretical/terrorist sect known as the Assassins or the archaeology of its storied castles in Iran's Elburz Mountains, you should look elsewhere (to Bernard Lewis's "The Assassins", for a general history, and to Peter Willey's "The Castles of the Assassins" for archaeological information). Stark does deserve credit for rediscovering the site of the Assassin castle of Lamiasar (of which the book does include a good sketch plan), but the two chapters which deal with Lamiasar and the main Assassin castle of Alamut comprise barely a seventh of the book.
The implied emphasis in the title - "The Valleys of the Assassins and Other Persian Travels" - is thus exactly the opposite of what it should be, for it's the "Other Persian Travels" that are the focus of the book. Marketing considerations aside, it might be more appropriately entitled "Grave-Robbing in the Pusht-i-Kuh," and the subject heading on the back of the book should more accurately say TRAVEL LITERATURE/MOUNTAINEERING/SOCIOLOGY.
Aside from the two chapters on the Assassin castles and their associated valleys, the book focuses by turns on a trip through Luristan, then an area notorious for banditry; a rather half-hearted treasure-hunt in a region known as the Pusht-i-Kuh; and a description of a trek through the high country of the east-central Elburz range beneath the mountain known as The Throne of Solomon. Aside from the rediscovery of Lamiasar, nothing of earth-shattering importance or even great adventure occurred during these travels. So you read Stark for the pleasures of her writing and for a picture of Iranian society at the time when the Pahlevi family was just beginning its fifty-year effort to transform the country into a modern state.
For me, this wasn't quite enough. There are occasional patches of beautiful and memorable writing here, but these are interspersed with lengthy and not always terribly interesting accounts of Stark's daily itineraries. Unlike, say, Paul Theroux, Stark isn't laugh-out-loud funny; the best you get are occasional flashes of a very English dry wit.
At its best, however, Stark's prose can serve as a kind of clinic on descriptive writing, especially with regard to the use of color. Here are a few examples:
"This most beautiful of valleys is in the jungle. Through glades and leafy waves, reddish mountains break into it like hulls of ships, high in the sky. The trees - thron, beech, ash, sycamore, `divar,' medlar, pear - spread there as in a park, great in height and girth; and the river stumbles over their roots in shining eddies. Over all is a virgin sense of freedom, a solitary joyousness, a gentle bustle made by stream and sunlight and the warm light wind, independent of the life of man."
"The father of our host was an old patriarch very nearly blind and dressed in strips of rags so multitudinous that only a principle of mutual attraction could, you would imagine, induce them to remain all together on his person."
"We climbed down and followed the defile to where it opens on the banks of the Saidmarreh, where rusty flanks of hills lie one behind the other in the sun, like hippopotmai after drinking, ponderous in their folds. Opposite to where we were sitting, a little zig-zag showed the Sargatch Pass and the way to Tarhan. The river wound between,a green water, its sunken bed lined with tamarisk, kurf, and broom and oleander."
"The outwork was a separate range, parrallel but lower, so that in section the two would look like the descending graph of a fever chart. It was called the Kuh Siah, the Black Mountain, and continued the formation we had already seen in the valley below Garau: here, as there, it was broken at intervals by black ravines. The Larti and Hindimini, the two tribes we meant to visit, lived each in one of these ravines, under the shadow of the mountain wall. Between us and them, across an open stretch of plain, were white and red small salty hills, untidily scattered in a straggling line."
One final regret. There are no maps whatsoever in the first two sections, dealing with Luristan and the Pusht-i-Kuh, so you'll need to independently consult a map of Iran if you want to have the vaguest idea of where Stark is and where she's going during the first half of the book.