Mirrors of the Unseen Journeys in Iran

Jason Elliot




Trade Paperback

448 Pages



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In our current climate of war and suspicion, Iran is depicted as a "rogue" nation, defined by the radical pronouncements of its leaders. But such rhetoric obscures the real Iran: an ancient culture, both sophisticated and isolated, which acknowledges "an invisible world, from which the soul receives a more rarefied nourishment."

Jason Elliot has spent the past three years traveling in Iran, and in this book he reveals the many sides of this misunderstood country. In Mirrors of the Unseen, we are introduced to the urban contradictions of the capital, Tehran, and invited to ponder the sublime architecture of Isfahan; we travel with Elliot on horseback through the forests of the north, across the bleak landscapes of Kurdistan, and retrace Byron's steps to such fables monuments are the tower of Qabus, the palace of Firuzabad, and Persepolis. Mirrors of the Unseen is travel writing that includes history, anecdote, and provocative analysis, as well as the author's own photographs.


Praise for Mirrors of the Unseen

"In this penetrating account of a series of journeys to Iran, Elliot reports on the 'double life' of the Persians he meets, who unanimously denounce the ruling mullahs. One insists that you're nobody in Iran if you haven't been imprisoned; another rolls his eyes at the author's obsessive trawling of mosques, protesting, 'People will think I'm with a fanatic.' The book is replete with historical arcana (such as the second-century Parthian tactic of catapulting jars of bloodsucking flies at enemies), ruminations on the 'turbulent calligraphies' of Islamic architecture, and labyrinthine footnotes that threaten to leap off into tomes of their own. Elliot is a travel writer of the old school: untethered to an itinerary, eager to be led astray, and as ardent an observer of the experience of traveling as of his destination."—The New Yorker

"Around his account of many months of travel, and sustained by extensive reading in libraries, [Elliot] aims to build nothing less than a cohesive idea of Iran's artistic development . . . Elliot's roving gaze holds an advantage for the reader. By consulting this single volume, one can learn about Cyrus the Great's Achaemenid Empire—and Herodotus's Hellenic-centered account of it—and about the consequences of the Arab conquest of the seventh century, which turned Iran . . . from a Zoroastrian into a Mulsim nation. [He] describes the later Mongol devastations and gives much attention to the Safavid Empire that flowered after 1600, when Shiism, Islam's main minority sect, came to occupy the position of political and cultural dominance in Persia."—Christopher de Bellaigue, The New York Times Book Review

"Though fascinated by the past, the author has a knack for meeting characters, often eccentric, who tell just the right stories: an American expatriate quietly breeding miniature horses thought extinct; a brilliant conversationalist recalling the day an Iraqi missile crashed through the roof of her Tehran kitchen; assorted taxi drivers, hoteliers and intellectuals revealing essential aspects of the national character. What the reader learns of Iran is mostly positive, but by no means sugar-coated; some of the adventures presented here are for the stout-hearted only. A tempering treatise, one hopes, for those rushing to make war on Iran—and an education for those trying to stop them."—Kirkus Reviews

"Briton Elliot is the author of the beautifully written An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan, in which his trips to that war-torn country were relived with graphic detail and trenchant understanding. His new book, equally stylish and meaty and compassionate, documents his journeys around another uneasy country. Elliot went to Iran for the purpose of writing another travel book, his desire to witness contemporary Iranian society in light of the shadow but also inspiration cast over it by the wealth of ancient Persian culture. No year in Provence, this author's traveling experiences will make armchair travelers gulp at the lack of creature comforts; on the other hand, splendid visual evidence of political and religious pasts will perhaps stir that very armchair traveler into ticket-holding action. Elliot visited the major cities as well as the smaller ones; his journeys took him over hill and dale. He knows Iranian history and culture, obviously, and equally obvious is his good sense, in composing travel literature, to smoothly integrate factual background into swiftly moving narrative foreground."—Brad Hooper, Booklist

"Elliot offers distinctive portraits of Iranians living in complex political times. Recommended."—Library Journal

"Elliot traveled to Iran and returned with this finely detailed, timely portrait of a country and culture precariously balanced between East and West, dark and light, integration and Armageddon. Whether careening around the smog and traffic clogged capital city of Tehran in a battered cab or crawling through the rubble-strewn ruins of Persepolis, capital of the ancient Persian kings, Elliot's keen eye, supple mind and compelling way with words captures the rich, complex, contradictory essence of Iran, its history and people. Everywhere he travels, Elliot explores a central question—will Iran, a country with a deep and abiding history of scientific innovation, fine art, high culture and beauty, step into modernity or will the revolutionary mullahs, the guardians and promoters of Islamic fundamentalism, take the country further down the road of isolation. In the cities, a culture of duality exists—behind closed doors, liquor flows freely, music is enjoyed and women are free to express themselves fully. On the streets, however, religious extremism rules, manifested by squads of bearded enforcers looking out for infractions of their version of Islamic law. With Iran so central in the news, this is a good read for the armchair traveler and amateur geo-political strategist alike."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Jason Elliot

  • Jason Elliot lives in London. His first book, An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan, was a New York Times bestseller.

  • Jason Elliot