Home / Books / The Valleys of the Assassins by Freya Stark | Book Review

The Valleys of the Assassins by Freya Stark | Book Review

Modes of travel have changed drastically over centuries and in today’s jet-setting age you could be visiting remote corners of the earth in a matter of days. But there was a time that journeys to remote places and cultures came with lots of unknown and the travel memoirs from those times have become cherished pieces of historical records of ancient civilisations and cultures. Even today, travel chronicles in form of blogs, TV shows and pictorial diaries are popular amongst watchers who love to explore the world.

About a century ago, an Anglo-Italian woman called Freya Stark travelled extensively through Middle East and wrote more than two dozen books from her travels. Recently, a travel series was put together for re-publication of some of the best loved travel books and Freya Stark’s book The Valleys of the Assassins was re-published in 2021 as part of this.

We came across this lovely book and it was an intriguing experience to read about her travels through Persia in 1931 – 1932 and here is our review on behalf of Team Thinkerviews.

Book Title : The Valleys of the Assassins
Author :
Published by : John Murray Modern Library Inc ( 24 July 2001)
# of Pages : 348 (Paperback)
# of Chapters : 5
Purchase Link(s) :

Book Cover:

Let us take a look at the cover page of this book.

The Valleys of the Assassins by Freya Stark | Book Cover

The Valleys of the Assassins by Freya Stark | Book Cover

The cover page of this book is an attractive medley of middle Eastern motifs including minarets, palm trees, thatched rooftops and desert skies. This new publication certainly makes the book an easy pick for casual browsers.

The stories and the reviews

The full title of the book is The Valleys of the Assassins and Other Persian Travels. So as the name applies there is a story about Freya Stark’s travel through Luristan in 1931 and a pursuit of hidden treasure make up part one, while part two comprises of her travels during 1930 – 1931 through Mazanderan.

The author starts this journey by telling us – very lightly –  how she came to be in Syria in 1927, by way of a young girl reading the Arabian Nights, a childhood illness giving her time to learn Arabic and the inherent love of travelling for the sake of the pleasure of travelling with no grand scheme or purpose to it.

Some souls are wanderers at heart and it is quite funny to visualise her answering the curiosity of the established society gatherings of the 1930s about the how and the whys that led to her travels through Persia.

Considering that she was a woman travelling alone, relying on guides, not always speaking the language or understanding the culture and customs of the parts she was going through, you can imagine what a courageous and adventurous person she would have to be.

But thinking about that also serves as a nostalgic reminder of how there was some inherent goodness in the isolated, remote parts of the world that welcomed a stranger. And throughout the book, the author tells us how abjectly poor some of these places were and how in spite of that, they live by a code of hospitality, where the guest is made to feel welcome.

The laws of hospitality are based on the axiom that a stranger is an enemy until he has entered the sanctuary of somebody’s tent: after that, his host is responsible, not only for his safety, but for his general acceptability with the tribe.

Coming from England, she would have been seen as wealthy, even for her possession of tinned food and first-aid kit with essential medicines, where a battery powered torch is an inconceivable luxure, she also remarks on how we develop the tendencies of looking down upon places and cultures which are not known to use. Through colonisation era, somehow it came to be common to remark that the West was somehow superior to the East in all manners of things:

The worship of the East for mechanical thing seems to us deplorable and shallow; but seen here against so naked a background, the glamour of the machine, of something that gives comfort without effort in a place where bare necessities themselves are precarious, and every moment of ease comes as boon and a miracle; seen here by the fire in the tent that swayed in the cold night, the light that sprang at will from the palm of my hand did indeed hold a divinity about it – a promethean quality as of lightning snatched from heaven and made gentle and submissive to the uses of man.

However, one of the striking difference that has existed for hundreds of years is their respective attitudes towards materialism and need to have things in order to be happy. Today with the continuous peer pressure geared towards consumerism and materialism it is important to remember that:

It is pleasant now and then, to go among people who carry their lives lightly, who do not give too much importance to this transitory world, and are not so taken up with the means of living that no thought and time is left over for the enjoyment of life itself.

As much as I enjoyed reading about the landscape, customs and people that the author comes across, some of my favourite parts of the books are her reflections. Far away from home and amongst the strange and the new, she sits down to the majesty of the Nature and reflects on life, our world and our place in it:

Solitude is the one deep necessity of the human spirit to which adequate recognition is never given in our codes. It is looked upon as a discipline or a penance, but hardly ever as the indispensable, pleasant ingredient it is to ordinary life, and from this want of recognition come half  our domestic troubles.

Modern education ignores the need for solitude: hence a decline in religion, in poetry, in all the deeper affections of the spirit: a disease to be doing something always, as if one cold never sit quietly and let the puppet show unroll itself before one: an inability to lose oneself in mystery and wonder while, like a wave lifting us into new seas, the history of the world develops around us.

Travelling is bound to bring you across so many different personalities. And when you don’t speak the common language, the non-verbal communication becomes a very big part of what you see and make of the places and people you come across.

The author tells us of many incidents and snippets from lives and characters she meets on these journeys and some of her remarks resonate with the modern world just as they were true to her a century ago:

It is a remarkable thing, that indifference should be so generally considered a sign of superiority the world over; dignity or age, it is implied, so fill the mind with matter that other people’s indiscriminate affairs glide unperceived off that profound abstraction.

Love, like broken porcelain, should be wept over and buried, for nothing but a miracle will resuscitate it: but who in this world has not for some wild thought to recall the irrecoverable with words?

The book is filled with all the joys and troubles of the travel. It is not all fun all the time. She gets really sick at a remote corner in the mountains, she has to get through encounters with criminals, police and other border officials, chieftains of tribes, bandits and roadworks to come on the other side, alive and in one piece.

One of the interesting facets of the book is the language itself. If you are used to modern, easy reads, then this book will force you to slow down your pace a bit and savour the diary entries of a woman who lived and travelled the world a century ago and left her reminiscences so we can revisit it with her…

Not the thing itself, but the sense of other and contrary things, makes reality.

Summary:

A travel memoir that brings to life parts of the middle East and people that lived a century ago…

ThinkerViews Rating:

Around 8 stars out of 10.

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Over To You:

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