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The Valleys of the Assassins: and Other Persian Travels (Modern Library Paperbacks) Paperback – July 24, 2001


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The Valleys of the Assassins: and Other Persian Travels (Modern Library Paperbacks) + Passionate Nomad: The Life of Freya Stark (Modern Library Paperbacks)
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Product Details

  • Series: Modern Library Paperbacks
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Modern Library (July 24, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375757538
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375757532
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 5.3 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #535,622 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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

From Library Journal

Published in 1936 and 1934, respectively, these books brought Stark to the forefront of adventure travel writing. In Southern Gates, she relates her attempt to locate the lost city of Shabwe somewhere in Arabia. Although the city eluded herAit was discovered later by othersAthe trip was far from uneventful. Assassins finds the intrepid narrator in the Middle East on the Iraq/Iran border moving among its people, including the band of terrorists called the Lords of Alamut, who were unknown outside of the territory. Both these editions include new introductions by Stark's biographer, Jane Fletcher Geniesse.
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

66 of 68 people found the following review helpful By jeffergray on February 3, 2002
Format: Paperback
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.
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41 of 46 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 29, 2003
Format: Paperback
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.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Jeff S on July 6, 2002
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.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Mark White on October 24, 2005
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.
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