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The Gardens of Light - Amin Maalouf Prophet Mani, founder of Manichaeism, is one of the forgotten figures of history, although he was very popular (and also much hated) in the 3rd century Babylonia - today's Iraq. Forgotten is also the town of Ctesiphon (near present-day Baghdad), capital of the Persian Empire under the Sassanid dynasty, where Mani was born and where he spread his religious beliefs.

Little information about the prophet was preserved throughout the centuries, until a parchment was discovered in 1969, containing accounts of Mani's life and fragments of his writings. This brought into light the elusive personality of the once famous painter, doctor and philosopher, accounted as the founder of Oriental painting, a visionary who attracted crowds with his speeches, a man - or possibly a saint - who was favored even by the powerful king Shapur I and his successor, Hormizd I.

Amin Maalouf gathers the known facts and weaves them into an interesting story which chronicles Mani's life from his birth in a wealthy family until the age of 60, when he was executed for heresy. His childhood was far from happy - he was separated from his mother and brought into his father's sect (I couldn't help but hate that stupid bastard of a father), which he left at 24, after having visions of a celestial twin. Then on, Mani started to spread his own beliefs, which were centered upon the struggle between a good, spiritual world of light, and an evil, material world of darkness. He believed that this duality resided in every human being and that the material aspects were weighting down (or annulling) the triumph of spirituality. He didn't reject any religion, he accepted all the Gods of his time - Christ, Zoroaster, Ahura Mazda or Buddha, but he dismissed the social classes. He preached the need for a new way of life which excluded power and wealth, greed and lust. In every religion, in every idea, one must seek the luminous core and discard the shell. Mani had a lot of followers and was even protected by the king of the Sassanid Empire, Shapur I, who valued his advice, although he never converted to Manichaeanism. But he also had a lot of enemies, powerful men who regarded his beliefs as a threat to the established social and religious order of the empire.

Prophet Mani

The story of Prophet Mani is a very interesting one and I recommend it to all lovers of historical fiction and history in general. From the informational point of view, Maalouf did a great job - at the end of the novel we have a clear view over Mani's life and the religion he preached.
Why the three stars then? Amin Maalouf charmed me with his gift as a storyteller in [b:Ports of Call|232071|Ports of Call|Amin Maalouf|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1348941431s/232071.jpg|1552948], but I found little of it in The Gardens of Light. I felt more like listening to a good history lesson than reading a beautifully crafted account of Mani's life. I could not lose myself into the story, because Maalouf kept bringing me back to reality with phrases such as "...and information states that...", "...as it is known/not known...". Fiction and non-fiction alternate, but seldom come together in a harmonious, fluid, pleasant writing. I still want to read more by Amin Maalouf, but not too soon.