Swiss explorer, photographer and historian of Eurasia Christophe Baumer has produced the second volume of his History of the Caucasus, splendidly illustrated with his large format, color photographs of imposing castles, fortified villages, and majestic monasteries and mosques. It looks like a coffee table book, but the dense text speaks to a higher purpose.

In 1868, as now, the Middle East seemed to be a place where fortunes could be made from the region’s mineral resources and from its central location between Europe and India. The Persian empire was slowly recovering from decades of invasion, civil war, banditry, and plagues. A new monarch, Naseroddin Shah, made a good impression in the capitals of Europe, which he visited frequently beginning in 1873. Yet “the well-protected realm” remained mysterious. A lack of information about its people and geography challenged international investors, who still relied on John Chardin’s accounts of 150 years earlier. They were greedy for up-to-date insights into the country. Albert Houtum Schindler was their providential man.

In the Middle Ages when representatives of different religions met for formal disputations, they did not cite chapter and verse from their own scriptures, knowing full well that their opponents would not consider these sources credible. Instead, they used common sense. They shared many common assumptions about the nature of reality, the sacred and the profane. They mostly agreed that God created the world, and humans had been set inside that world in order to fulfill their destiny. The question was how best to do this, and which religion offered the best guidance for that. 

On the Jewish festival of Purim, revelers are encouraged to get so drunk that they cannot distinguish between Mordechai and Haman, the hero and the villain of the Book of Esther. Sobriety is required to appreciate Llewellyn-Jones’s erudite and encyclopedic retelling of the story. By piling detail upon detail, Llewellyn-Jones brings to life the sumptuous feasts and intrigues of the court of Susa, the seat of Persia’s great kings. While a veritable renaissance in the study of ancient Persia has been going on for a while, this is the first time a scholar has used the Jewish Bible as a primary source. The Book of Esther is easily dismissed as a trite, orientalizing fairytale. What if it turns out the author wrote from direct experience of the great king’s court?

There once was a tradition of storytelling that enthralled kings and beggars, mixing simple language and lofty poetry, while deploying ingenious tricks to retain the audience’s attention. Usually there were three or four stories embedded one within another, like a Russian doll. Just when you thought you were coming to a denouement, a new story began—more amazing and amusing than the last, and so you listened, fought off sleep or wine, and tried not to miss a word of the storyteller’s tale. The home of many of these fabulous tales is India, which gave the world the Panchatantra, and later inspired Rudyard Kipling’s Just So and the Jungle Book.