This wonderful book is an account of a journey through Afghanistan in 1969, a decade before the Soviet invasion and over thirty years before the American-led invasion which, in the convoluted way of Afghan politics, was the sorry off-spring of the Russian misadventure. In those days Afghanistan was a different country where westerners were could travel freely without the threat of kidnap or worse. Anyone with more than a passing knowledge of the region will be aware of the delightful hospitality of Afghans. In 1969, outsiders were honoured guests not gun-toting invaders.
A classicist and an archaeologist, Peter Levi set off to Afghanistan in search of Hellenic influences, of the remnants of Alexander the Great at the furthest reaches of his empire. The title of the ensuing book -- The Light Garden of the Angel King -- is from the inscription above the monument in Kabul to Babur, the found of the Mughal Empire who loved Afghanistan. It was one of the very first travel books that I read, and I could hardly have started with a more illustrious example of the genre. Levi shows us how capacious travel writing can be. He moves between elements – history, landscape, art, culture, cuisine, literature, politics, gardens and of course the encounters of the road, weaving them seamlessly together so these diverse threads are all part of the same tapestry. He writes about Persian miniatures, an elderly shepherd in the passes of Nuristan, Islamic architecture, the ruined tomb of Shah Rukh’s mother, the trade routes of Central Asia, as well as snuff, shepherds, smuggling and snake charmers with the same delightful touch. Levi was a poet – he was Oxford Professor of Poetry in the 1980’s and was at one point suggested for Poet Laureate -- and his prose has all the lyricism and metaphorical resonance of poetry. No one writes about landscape with such elegance. In this book, Afghanistan has found a wonderful memorial to happier times.
A curiosity of The Light Garden is that it is one of the first appearances of Bruce Chatwin in a travel book; Chatwin was Levi’s companion in Afghanistan. But this book is superior to anything Chatwin produced. Former Jesuit, novelist, biographer, archaeologist, and classical scholar, Levi brings to the book the sensibilities of all these disciplines. As with Chatwin, critics might complain that his scholarship may occasionally have lacked rigour but they are missing the point. He introduced me to Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, to Robert Byron’s Road to Oxiana, and to the Baburnama, the Emperor Babur’s wonderful autobiography. But above all he introduced me to the idea that travel writing need have no boundaries, that its subject was not just travel but the richness and mystery and romance of life itself. I still turn to it for inspiration.
As a child, award winning travel writer, Stanley Stewart dreamed of crossing Mongolia on horseback. This is the story of how he fulfilled his dream following in the footsteps of a 13th century Franciscian friar.