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The supermarket of historyThe Siege of Isfahanby Jean-Christophe Rufin trans Willard Wood373pp PicadorIn Letter 72 of Montesquieus Lettres Persanes which was published in 1721 a Persian nobleman who has travelled from Isfahan to Paris meets a Frenchman who was extremely satisfied with himself In a quarter of an hour he had decided three questions of ethics four problems of history and five scientific matters I mentioned Persia to him but I had hardly uttered four words when he contradicted me twice over on the authority of books by Messrs Tavernier and ChardinReading The Siege of Isfahan by the French novelist Jean-Christophe Rufin I kept thinking of the poor Persian in Paris Like Montesquieus Parisian bore Rufin has much scientific and historical knowledge and has read the accounts of Safavid Isfahan by Jean-Baptiste Tavernier and Sir John Chardin A founding member of Mdecins sans Frontires a veteran of humanitarian campaigns in Bosnia and Rwanda Rufin appears to be a good man wholly untroubled by fear There is surely no better character for the writer of historical fictionRufins Isfahan portrayed over hundreds of pages with tremendous panache and 18th-century charm bears no relation whatever to that beautiful and famous city at any time in its long history Entering into the geographical spirit Rufins American publisher WW Norton selected for the front cover a painting of Cairo Picador at least has an Iranian view though not of IsfahanThe Safavid dynasty which established itself at Isfahan in the 16th century inaugurated the most brilliant epoch of modern Iranian history Under Shah Abbas and his successors they restored the ancient Persian empire within its old limits which are more or less the frontiers of modern Iran Their capital became a great centre of Muslim learning miniature painting textiles architecture and handicraftsBecause of the liberal attitude of Shah Abbas to Christians we know from travellers accounts as much about 17th-century Isfahan as about say Edinburgh of the same period In 1722
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