The perils of excess

<strong>Mirrors of the Unseen: journeys in Iran

</strong>Jason Elliot <em>Picador, 407pp, £16.99</

Few countries have better captured the western imagination than Iran. For centuries "Persia", as it was always known in the west, was a source of fascination for western elites brought up on the classics and tales from the Bible. The image of Persia that emerged from these stories was a shimmering mirage of unparalleled wealth, teetering precariously on the verge of decadence. Indeed, decadence, foreign observers agreed, was the one thing the Persians did well, providing a salutary example of the perils of excess. But the very image that deterred the moralists proved tempting for a growing number of diplomats and merchants. On visiting Iran, many found themselves seduced.

Jason Elliot belongs to this tradition. In its first few pages, Mirrors of the Unseen presents a litany of achievements that would make all but the most chauvinistic Iranian blush. Some are downright quirky: few people realise that Iranians created the earliest electrical battery - reportedly found in Babylonia in the Parthian era (around 200BC). More gratifying, given Iran's current international status, is the discovery that a verse by the classical Persian poet Saadi about the unity of mankind has been adopted by the UN, and that the description of the ancient Persian postal service - "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds" - has become the unofficial motto of the US postal service.

At times, it seems that Elliot has swallowed the entire story of Iran's contributions to world civilisation as told by Iranians themselves. But this is a minor quibble. As with most travel writers before him, Elliot's interpretation of the country he visits is shaped by the prejudices of his own time. If his predecessors were drawn to Iran by its reported wealth, Elliot is attracted by the challenge of discovering how the reality on the ground matches the myth of the "axis of evil". Elliot's sympathy with Iranians serves as a useful antidote to the daily barrage of criticism of the country in the west. Not that he is without his own criticism of the organised chaos that constitutes modern Iranian life - his list of taxi drivers' excuses is a gem that all travellers to Iran will appreciate. He is also struck by the ease with which Iranians complain about - and in many cases condemn - their own government.

Such impressions are not new, but Elliot conveys them in a series of engaging and revealing vignettes. This is the real charm of Mirrors of the Unseen. It is a travel book from the inside out: neither an outsider's observation nor a geographical description, but an attempt to probe more deeply. Most often, this approach pays off. Elliot's attempts to explain the rigorous geo-metric complexity of Iranian art, for instance, are intriguing - although he is disproportionately fond of the adjective "vegetal" - and his emphasis on continuity reflects the realities of a growing social and cultural retrenchment.

Twenty years ago, in the aftermath of the Islamic revolution, such views would have been unfashionable. Then, the emphasis was on the distinction between Islam and Iran, and how the former had overturned the latter. Yet things were never that simple, and as Elliot suggests, if we look beneath the surface, we see that "captive Persia takes prisoner her conquerors": Islam and Iran are now inextricably entwined.

In his sense of the country's historical resilience, Elliot echoes the assessment of an ear-lier writer. "History suggests", concluded Lord Curzon in 1892, "that the Persians will insist upon surviving themselves."

Ali M Ansari is reader in Middle Eastern history at the University of St Andrews. His book "Confronting Iran" is published by Hurst & Co this month