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The Valleys of the Assassins and Other Persian Travels (Modern Library) [Paperback]

Freya Stark , Jane Fletcher Geniesse (Introduction)
3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
Price: 10.99 & FREE Delivery in the UK. Details
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Book Description

23 Aug 2001 Modern Library
Since 1917 The Modern Library prides itself as The modern Library of the world s Best Books . Its paperback series feature treasured classics, major translations of great works, and rediscoveries of keen literary and historical merit. Featuring introductions by leading writers, stunning translations, scholarly endnotes and reading group guides. Production values emphasize superior quality and readability. Competitive prices, coupled with exciting cover design make these an ideal gift to be cherished by the avid reader. Hailed as a classic upon its first publication in 1934, The Valleys of the Assassins firmly established Freya Stark as one of her generation's most intrepid explorers. The book chronicles her travels into Luristan, the mountainous terrain nestled between Iraq and present-day Iran, often with only a single guide and on a shoestring budget. Stark writes engagingly of the nomadic peoples who inhabit the region's valleys and brings to life the stories of the ancient kingdoms of the Middle East, including that of the Lords of Alamut, a band of hashish-eating terrorists whose stronghold in the Elburz Mountains Stark was the first to document for the Royal Geographical Society. Her account is at once a highly readable travel narrative and a richly drawn, sympathetic portrait of a people told from their own compelling point of view.

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The Valleys of the Assassins and Other Persian Travels (Modern Library) + A Winter in Arabia: A Journey Through Yemen (Freya Stark Collection) + The Minaret of Djam: An Excursion in Afghanistan (Freya Stark Collection)
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Product details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Modern Library Inc; New edition edition (23 Aug 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375757538
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375757532
  • Product Dimensions: 20.4 x 13.5 x 1.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 67,115 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

First published in 1934, Freya Stark's The Valleys of the Assassins and Other Persian Travels has been reprinted once again and is just as much of a gem now as then. 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 former home of cult of the Assassins and locate an ancient fortress described by Marco Polo. 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 planes and crested mountain ranges into the practically impregnable valley. There she found the castle ruins covered with wild tulips and surrounded by breathtaking views of the Elbruz Mountains, and 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, considered one of the best adventure writers of the century, and even 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. --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

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In the wastes of civilization, Luristan is still an enchanted name. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
9 of 14 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Interesting character, boring book 8 Dec 2008
I bought this book attracted by its fame 70 years after it was first published, and by the topic itself. It was a let down: the book is boring. Even if it includes a bit of tension in the shape of a treasure or lost city quest, it is bogged down by the accumulation of descriptions of monotonous landscapes and general lack of rhythm. It's interesting as a glimpse into the life of long-forgotten tribes, but, all in all, books like The Marsh Arabs (Penguin Classics), which are roughly from the same area and time, offer a much more engaging read than this one.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A visit to remote parts of Persia (Iran) 7 Jun 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is another close insight into the Arab mind and habits and includes a touch of antiquarian exploration. It visits some out-of-the-way places.
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Amazon.com: 3.9 out of 5 stars  17 reviews
66 of 68 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Beautifully-Written Travel Memoir of 1930's Persia 4 Feb 2002
By jeffergray - Published on Amazon.com
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.
41 of 46 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Surprisingly dull 30 April 2003
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
This book was disappointing, especially considering that some call it a classic.
Freya Stark traveled among the remote valleys of western Persia (today's Iran) in the early 1930s, when this area was barely known and rarely visited by Europeans. (Actually, it's not much better known today.) But while her travels may have been pioneering, this account is surprisingly dull and mundane. Stark travels from village to village, briefly meeting the locals, eats a meal or two, then goes on the next day to repeat the process. There's rarely a spark of excitement or adventure -- just a dry recording of events and observations.
Stark's aloof writing style doesn't help. She seems to keep the reader at arm's length from the characters she meets, offering just a superficial look at most of them.
The first half of the book is further handicapped by a lack of maps. As Stark travels about, she casually rattles off the names of landmarks and places as if the reader were intimately acquainted with the area. In fact, frustrated readers will soon discover that it is impossible to tell whether she is traveling east, west, north or south -- or just wandering in circles. The second half of the book has three maps, which helps, although you'll need a magnifying glass to read one of them.
I don't want to make it sound like there is NOTHING interesting in this book. There are a few moments of tense encounters, and occassionally she shows off a dry wit. But these are too few and far between. I can only recommend this book to someone who has a scholarly interest in this region of Iran.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful Travel Story 6 July 2002
By Jeff S - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Like jeffergray, I wish there were maps and would agree that the title was somewhat misleading. At times, I found myself confused by some of the historical references since they were cursory and seemed to assume a good knowledge of the history of the Middle East. Perhaps I need to go back to school...
On the other hand, I found this to be a wonderful narrative of a trip to a land that most people will never see, a visit to cultures that are most likely gone in today's world, and, most interestingly, the story of a woman in an area in which women never venture far from their homes. Her descriptions of the details of the countryside and the lives of the people she meets are exquisite and conjure up images despite the absence of pictures. Because of the quality of the writing, it is an easy and fairly quick read.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Dull, Perhaps, But Groundbreaking 24 Oct 2005
By Mark White - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I agree with much of what is said in the reviews below: Stark's travelogues aren't to be read in bed if you have any intention of keeping your eyes open for more than a dozen pages or so. Her writing is clear and concise, but not scintillating by any means. What's of interest in this book is less the style of writing and more the travels themselves. Here was a single woman in the 1930s traveling in an area of the world virtually unknown to Westerners, making the radical choices, for instance, to study the Koran and live with the locals. She was a true radical of her own time who dared to tread places that Marco Polo didn't even approach, despite his (in)famous claims to the contrary.

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.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Freya, queen of the desert 5 May 2013
By mizzo - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Read "Passionate Nomad" first, the biography of the incredible Freya Stark. "Valley of the Assassins" is interesting but a bit tedious. I kept a map handy to see where she was travelling which was helpful. She had nerve and stamina travelling in a hostile and dangerous environment in the Middle East back in the days before anyone knew or cared much about this wild and barren place. My favorite of her books is "Rome on the Euphrates" which reminds the reader how little we have learned about that part of the world in 2000 years.
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