Mirrors of the Unseen: Journeys in Iran By Jason Elliot

Cradle of civilisation - and picnics
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Jason Elliot's first book, An Unexpected Light, was an account of his travels through Afghanistan during the war with Russia and the civil war that followed. It captured the country in a moment of paroxysm, and made the extremes of climate and circumstance, the resilience of a people in the grip of war, almost palpable. It won a prize, and comparisons with T E Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

That stunning debut was a hard act to follow, and Elliot took his time, but he has succeeded admirably. This is quite a different book: not a young man's initiative journey across a war-torn landscape, but a mature traveller's adventures through a vast country of 70 million in peacetime. His charm, knowledge of Persian, a few introductions and chance encounters, made him welcome and provided him with gentle companions. The result is a portrait of a nation, and a survey of its long history and heritage. Informed by intelligence, humour, erudition, descriptive power and poetic prose, Mirrors of the Unseen is a joy to read, and a perfect antidote to the current image of Iran in the West.

A taxi-driver in Teheran asks Elliot why he has come to Iran; in order to write a book, he replies. "What is there to write about?", retorts the driver, and there follows a list of what Iran and Iranians have contributed to the world, particularly to Europe, in religion, philosophy, astronomy, medicine, architecture, the arts and crafts, poetry and literature. Among others are the concept of resurrection, the institution of empire, the extraction of water from the desert, the creation of the garden as the reflection of Paradise (paradaiso), the building of domes, and the first Charter of Human Rights. The rest of this engaging and instructive book is the development of that initial enumeration.

Until recently, the West saw Persia through the eyes of the ancient Greeks, who wrote after the Greco-Persian wars: "Herodotus and Xenophon... were the world's first 'Orientalists'" while the Romantics, such as Delacroix, Jerome and Pierre Loti, were "fascinated by the allure of the harem". But recent scholarship, east and west, has provided a more balanced view.

Alexander, who conquered Persia in 330BC, found "a flourishing and sophisticated civilisation", which Elliot describes in his chapter on Persepolis. Plato and Plotinus were influenced by Zoroastrian ideas, while later scholars fled Roman persecution and took refuge in Persian universities. Alexander married two thousand officers to Persian women and left them to run Persia. They ruled for a century and were overthrown by native dynasties until, in in in 640, the Arab conquest ushering in the Islamic era. From then on invaders from the east - Chengiz Khan, Tamerlaine and other Turkish chieftains - devastated the land and decimated its population only to be "seduced by Persia", settle down and start to build.

Shiraz, near Persepolis, is the city of poets and gardens, famous for its architects. Further south, Isfahan rises from the desert like a mirage - one of the most beautiful cities in the world, built by the Safavids in the 16th century. Elliot's lyricism and knowledge make him a perfect guide to the dazzling blue of the domes, the intricacies of tiles and calligraphy, the cypress- and plane-lined roads.

Elliot intended "to give politics a wide berth", but found this impossible on the frontier with Iraq. From a high hill he looks down on Halabja, the Kurdish village whose 6,000 inhabitants were massacred by Saddam with gas given by his "Western friends".

Enchanting and informative, Mirrors of the Unseen is full of funny anecdotes, fortuitous encounters, conversations, parties and picnics. They give an idea of the Iranian people: their propensity to wild conspiracy theories, the young's disenchantment with politics and contempt for their rulers, pollution, humour, hospitality and "exquisite courtesy". It occurred to me that this book would make a lovely birthday present for Tony Blair, and for George W Bush - if only he wanted to learn.

Shusha Guppy's 'The Secret of Laughter' is published by IB Tauris