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Mirrors of the Unseen: Journeys in Iran

3.77  ·  Rating details ·  471 ratings  ·  64 reviews
As stated, "A fascinating journey through the history, land and hidden cultrue of Iran past and present, by one of the world's most perceptive travelers"
Hardcover, 432 pages
Published October 3rd 2006 by St. Martin's Press (first published May 5th 2006)
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Herrholz Paul It is difficult to judge. It looks like a mirror image or a Rorschach Test

The human face is very visible.…more
It is difficult to judge. It looks like a mirror image or a Rorschach Test

The human face is very visible. Looks almost too real and vivid to be a natural occurrence. But again, it is a reproduced photo and the vagaries of the repro industries are legend. (less)

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3.77  · 
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 ·  471 ratings  ·  64 reviews

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Apr 09, 2014 rated it liked it
A traveler's tale of his journey thru Iran in 2006. His observations and stories of encounters with Iranians were what I enjoyed most. Although his descriptions of geography are interesting, I was bored with his very detailed descriptions of the complexity of mosque architecture.

I was reminded of Persian's love for gardens and poetry.
Dec 26, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: travel-writing
Highly memorable description of the lives of ordinary people in 21st century Iran. I have a memory like a sieve so it says a great deal about this book that I remember so much even though I read it 5 or so years ago. It left a huge impression on me. Every time I hear or read about Iran, I remember that ordinary people are trying to live ordinary lives there, e.g. I had never considered Iranians going skiing at weekends, or sharing pirate Western DVDs. There are a lot of funny moments in this boo ...more
David P
Nov 28, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: travel
This travelogue about contemporary Iran reminds one of the fable of the elephant and the blind men. Six blind men (or men in complete darkness) grope about an elephant they cannot see--describing it, depending on the part they happen to touch, as resembling a tree (leg), wall (side), spear (tusk), rope (tail), snake (trunk) or fan (ear). So many different impressions, all from the same object! This fable originated in India and was also expressed in the poem "Elephant in a Dark Room" by the cel ...more
Theresa Leone Davidson
May 29, 2010 rated it really liked it
Much better, I thought, than Elliot's book about Afghanistan, Mirrors of the Unseen is a comprehensive look at a fascinating country that, sadly, suffers because of their government. My favorite parts were everything that dealt with the history and culture of ancient Persia, including this from poet Sa'di: "The sons of Adam are the members of a whole/ Each is created from a greater single soul/ Whenever fate to one of them brings pain/ No other can without distress remain/ You who for others' to ...more
Mar 11, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: memoir, nature-travel
Books like this make me sad, bored, and infuriated that there are such large portions of people within my own country which wish to "have a war" with Iran. Most of these have so little understanding of the Iranian national character, conflate the Iranians with other "ragheaded" nations such as Afghanistan and Iran, conflate the rule by a stagnant theocracy as 'the will of a governed people" and insist that despite all protestations to the contrary, Iran still wants a nuke so it can bomb the crap ...more
Apr 22, 2008 rated it it was ok
maybe I shouldn't include this, as I didn't finish it. I never give up on books! I read almost 300 pages of this one, and there were good things about it-the photos and analysis of architecture particularly. but the history was deadly boring-and, really now, how can that be?! mostly I got tremendously weary with the writer himself, bitching about the cost of taxis and hotels and being charged "tourist" price. hey man! you're from england, and you're in iran-you should pay at least triple! he als ...more
Aug 05, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: iran
Eliot is a gentle traveller with distinct interests and biases. His view of Iran is dominated by friends, encounters and monuments. He is interested in art and religion but not in politics. His perennial struggles to avoid being ripped off by taxi drivers and museum staff lighten the mood and the frustrations of life under theocratic rule are well drawn with a light touch. The obsessive attention to architecture can be tedious to those uninterested in the topic!
May 16, 2018 rated it really liked it
In the late nineties, before Afghanistan was rendered more chaotic and dangerous than usual, Jason Elliot visited the country and was moved by it. Building on the success of that trip, he looked over the border to Iran, a nation derided by the Afganis as full of sandwich-eating women, and decided to travel throughout it, as well. Mirrors of the Unseen collects the experiences of several trips made by Elliot throughout Iran, visiting it again and again as the seasons changed. What did not change ...more
Aug 20, 2018 rated it liked it
On the one hand, this is a very interesting and pleasant book. On the other hand, it could have used another round of editing.

For the most part, it isn't anything I didn't already know or suspect--the history Elliot introduces is pretty general, for the most part, though his interest in architectural history is by turns charming and a discouraging. I like architecture, too, but there does come a time when I'd rather another illustration or two instead of such a long description of a building. I
May 13, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: persia-iran
"As mirrors of the invisible world, they conform to a rigorous order, in poetry achieved by metre, in music by mode, in calligraphy by proportion, and in architecture by geometry" (334). Sometimes the book was good fun -- erudite, thoughtful, even luminous. There were points when he makes a meaningful and moving connection with someone he meets. I skimmed through some sections that were just too much more of the same thing (so many taxi drivers), too hard to follow (architectural detail without ...more
Katherine Phillips
Nov 06, 2017 rated it really liked it
I read this recently while visiting Iran for the first time in 21 years (having lived there for a number of years as a child). I found it on the whole an interesting, thoughtful and personal account from a scholarly but adventurous individual. Elliot seems to rather fancy himself as a less grumpy contemporary version of Robert Byron who visited Iran and Afghanistan in the early 20th century and wrote about Islamic art among other things in his Road to Oxiana. Following in Byron's footsteps is a ...more
Aug 23, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A fine account of Elliot's journeys across Iran in 2004-2005. From a horse-breeding farm in the hills above the Caspian to clambering through the ruins of Persepolis to semi-clandestine cocktail parties in Tehran apartments, Elliot depicts a society exhausted by a generation of war, revolution, and corrupt theocracy, a society proud of its past and its religion, yet contemptuous of its clerical rulers and aware of its pariah status in the world. Elliot speaks Persian (though his appearance convi ...more
Jan 19, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: nonfiction
I must admit that I enjoyed Elliot's An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan a lot more. While this book does relate some information about daily life and politics, it focuses a lot more on the art of Iran. Even though I normally enjoy art history, it did not work well in the book.
May 07, 2013 rated it it was ok
There were parts of this book that just entranced me - I felt as if I were seeing what the author described. He has some beautiful descriptions of the art, the atmosphere, and the geography of Iran. There were too many areas, however, where I was bored...sometimes his descriptions were sappy or long-winded. As a travelogue, it was good. As an art book, it wasn't.
May 18, 2018 rated it liked it
Travel literature meets university lecture. And I do not write that unkindly, as Elliot has done a lot of research and he wants to be thorough. Unfortunately, from my perspective, it often bogged me down, even with some extremely beautifully written passages. I like the intellectual parts of my travel reading to hit my in lightning strikes, not large-scale ground offensives. I jest a little, cause I must say I could almost see the beautiful tile work and architectural delights he was trying to c ...more
Nov 17, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is one of the most beautiful books I've ever read. The prose is stunning: every page shimmers with exquisite and insightful descriptions of art, architecture, gardens, history and poetry. The book also features many wonderful anecdotes about encounters with ordinary people, sometimes amusing, sometimes unexpectedly tender. Though the author at times comes across as arrogant and presumptuous, it's clear that he has a genuine love of Iran and he goes to great lengths to explore the culture an ...more
Cynthia Nichols
Feb 25, 2018 rated it liked it
Many people will want to skim the long and detailed (and frequent) commentaries on Islamic art and architecture. (I did, even though I normally consider myself to be interested in such things) I found the book worth it for the glimpses into the lives of ordinary people, even though the author himself acknowledges that he never got near the truly impoverished segments of society, but that okay I guess. Nor would most travellers.
Eric Randolph
Sep 11, 2018 rated it liked it
A nicely written, traditional travel book with some amusing interactions, but you better be seriously into architectural geometry to make it to the end.
Dec 03, 2008 rated it really liked it
The elements of this book make for really great travel writing. Elliot doesn't stick to a hard line of historical facts, documentation, and observation, although you find this in abundance. He'll also give you snapshots of conversations with people "on the ground" and these are often insightful, revealing, and sometimes incredibly funny.

His writing is nice, he has a wonderful vocabulary, and I'm glad I read this book, but -- and here's the compliment-amendment that you all knew was coming -- the
Feb 20, 2017 rated it really liked it
Fascinating look into the veiled world of Iran
Sarah Bringhurst
Aug 12, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Travel writing is an interesting genre, which apart from acquainting the reader with a place, gives him or her a rather intimate introduction to the author in a variety of unusual and highly challenging settings. Jason Elliot is a well-read, cultured traveler with an adventurous spirit and an affinity for meaningful cultural exchange. In short, I think he would make an absolutely delightful traveling companion. Not to mention the fact that his prose is so flawlessly elegant that I think I'm deve ...more
No, I haven't finished Elliot's Unexpected Light yet, but it's not that I don't like his writing. And I picked this up from the New Book shelves at the Neilson Hays Library, so I only have two weeks to read it. Nothing like a time limit to get me reading.

19 March 2008
In this, his second book, his editor seems to have given him his head when he might have reined him in just a bit. As I mentioned in a
Dec 13, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: iran
This is one of the better books I've read on Iran.
It drove me mad with all:
- the lists (actual, and cleverly disguised by stringing them together with commas / semi-colons). It's great to do research, but maybe he didn't need to put all of it in?
- the whining about cab drivers asking for money. See his list on pp370-1. These men are truly poor (they're not lying to him about this). They work to feed their families, in a high inflation economy, with petrol rationing. While the author gets to g
Mar 28, 2013 rated it liked it
Elliot didn't seem to write with the same affection for the Iranian people as he did with the people of Afghanistan in his book An Unexpected Light. This book had a good deal more history which sometimes seemed like a laundry list of facts. But his descriptions of everyday Iranian life and his encounters with ordinary people, were beautifully written. His list of excuses he was given by taxi drivers as to why they tried to charge him more than bargained for at the end of the ride, was priceless. ...more
Aug 18, 2015 rated it really liked it
A very interesting read about Iran, its nowadays customs and culture, history and mainly architecture. Alrhough I am interested in architecture but there was a bit too much of it in the book for me. The authors's descriptions are very vivid but still I rather see it with my own eyes than to read about it, because no matter how good the description is, it still doesn't evoke the true picture for me. But in the end it just ignites my interest in further reading about Iran and its culture.
I loved
Oct 17, 2007 rated it really liked it
A brilliant book, full of great anecdotes and sharp, offbeat observations. The people, history, art and culture of Iran are absolutely fascinating. They have a momentous history and have made an unbelievably important contribution to "Western Civilization." At least based on the author's impressions, the people are open minded and realistic about the limits and weaknesses of their own government and are genuinely concerned at the bad image that their leaders give them around the world. Everythin ...more
May 25, 2008 rated it it was amazing
This is a fantastic book. The author has an immense knowledge of Persian/Iranian history, architecture, art, philosophy and the dynasties that have ruled there. He brings all of this to bear as he travels around the country and meets regular people. It's a view of a type of life hat no longer exists in our hectic depersonalized western world and it brought tears to my eyes more than once. I've long had the thought of visiting Iran back in the back of my mind; now it's moved to the front. So I ne ...more
Jul 27, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is a very detailed account of a British journalist's travels across Iran. It is packed with tons of details even if you really don't like them when reading diaries of a traveler. I am not sure if those detailed stuff were necessary at all. Any how, this book is fun to read. Takes you back and forth and give you a pretty good brief of the contemporary and ancient Iranian history and politics. Highly recommended if you want to learn about the Iranian ethnic minorities, persian culture an ...more
Jan 21, 2009 rated it liked it
Elliot provided an intriguing inside look on Iran, its people, culture, and especially the art of its historic buildings and monuments. He takes the reader along for the ride with him, sharing what seems like all of his inner musings, questions, and epiphanies as he traverses the country arguing with taxi drivers, having tea with friendly merchants, and discovering hidden treasures. I could have done without the subtle dissing of Americans that pops up throughout the book (we're not all like tha ...more
Mar 12, 2008 rated it liked it
A necessary addition to modern travel writing, shedding light on a people that are too often misrepresented in Western media. Elliot clearly has a gift for interacting with people of every ilk (screw all you linguistic traditionalists who think I've misused that word), for which he should be credited. If architecture and design is your bag, you'll be delighted by the last 1/3 of the book. It isn't mine, which is why I gave it 3 stars instead of 4.
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“Except, perhaps, in Iran itself. A new round of musicians had taken up their instruments, and the beat was quickening, growing louder and wilder by the minute. Men and women had gathered to dance again and were stamping like matadors, or circling one another with gazes interlocked. I moved closer, to a marble-topped bar, where the exhausted musicians had swapped their instruments for tumblers of vodka.” 0 likes
“Aggression is the last emotion to cross their brows and the youngest are, on the contrary, almost meek, their features suggesting an untempered idealism more fitting to a gallery of poets than of soldiers.” 0 likes
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