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Book Review – The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron

The Road to Oxiana  by Robert Byron follows the author on his journey through Cyprus, Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Iran to Herat, and eventually Mazar-i-Sharif (Oxiana) and Kabul. Byron presents his diary entries in this travel account and as can be expected from a diary there is a lack of introduction to people and events that have historical significance to Byron. This makes it difficult for the reader to understand his references to people and events, especially the Charcoal Burners but that doesn’t really matter or distract from the pleasure of reading this great book. He spends most of the time recounting the events of the day that just passed and does not often dwell on the past or look to the future, nor does he use the usual literary devices of foresight, suspense or foreboding so the reader often cannot know what will happen next.

Byron spends a lot of the time travelling with his friend Christopher but we do not find out anything about their friendship nor much about Byron or Christopher. Byron is obviously used to having servants and relies heavily on the assistance of hired help throughout the duration of his 10 1/2 month journey. He was classist, racist, and elitist and treated most people that he encountered with disdain. For example they travelled in Afghanistan with two guards for over 900 miles and still treated them like this:

Christopher was scrambling eggs with his dagger when the fire gave out, and he asked the Curate (one of their two guards) to fetch some more wood. He asked again. He then prodded the man with the dagger. Now at Shibar the Vicar (the other of the two guards) and he wanted to share our room. We said it was not big enough. Unused to such treatment, the Curate gave us a lecture. No doubt, he said, we had our own Frankish customs. But in Afghanistan he begged us to realize, everything depended on friendship. If he did things for us, it was because we were his friends, not because we told him to do them. He was a guard in government employ, not our servant. For the rest of the journey he hoped we should be good friends, so that he could do things for us… It is not our fault we have no servant. We have tried to engage one at every town since Herat, and in each case have been told by the authorities that the guards they supplied would act as servants. Thus in bullying the Curate we have only taken the authorities at their word. Nevertheless, his speech abashed us.

The level of hospitality extended to Byron stupefies me, for example when he and Christopher arrived with their guards and driver in Kunduz, Afghanistan they expect to be taken to a guest-house but it recently fell down, instead they are shown to a series of tents that have been pitched under a grove of rustling plane trees, with carpets, tables, and chairs set out, and lamps lit for the reception. Their host (Mudir-i-Kharija) states:

It would have been better done if he had known they were coming; but there was no telephone between here and Mazar to warn him.

Panorama of Persepolis. Source: Wikipedia

Panorama of Persepolis. Source: Wikipedia

The focus of Byron’s journey was on the architecture of the buildings and monuments that have survived since the Timurid and Sasanian periods. He read very widely and not only describes the structures in great detail (often with either scorn or praise, especially of the buildings sponsored by Gohar Shad, but rarely anything in between) he also relays descriptions made by previous explorers. I don’t know anything about architecture except what little I have picked up from reading novels like The Fountainhead and The Pillars of the Earth, however I have travelled to a few accessible countries in the region of his travels and I enjoy looking at beautiful structures and mosaics. I tried to absorb as much as I could of his wonderful descriptions because I suspect that I will never get to see many of the gorgeous structures built from the influence of Central Asia on Persia. Of the Bamiyan Buddhas (destroyed by the Taliban) he has nothing positive to say, instead stating neither has any artistic value, the material they are made from is unbeautiful and their monstrous flaccid bulk sickens him. He had a few problems along his way with authority figures, for example, he has a dramatic stand-off with an exclusionist archaeologist (Ernst Herzfeld sponsored by University of Chicago) at Persepolis in Iran:

Byron: …You may think you have the legal right to prevent my taking any photographs at all. But you must admit it would be morally indefensible. It would be as if the Parthenon had suddenly become a private villa and the rest of the world been excluded from it

Herzfeld (bridling): Not at all. In Europe there have always been these rules. When I was a young man, making excavations, we were never allowed to photograph anything.

Byron: But that is no reason why you should follow a bad example now you are older.

When he is told by Afghan authorities that he cannot visit the Oxus River (now called Amu Darya in the north of Afghanistan at the current border with Uzbekistan) he writes a letter asking for permission to visit the river, stating:

Afghanistan and Russia are not the only countries in the world to be separated by a river. We dare observe that an Afghan traveller, sojourning in France or Germany, would encounter no regulations to prevent his enjoying the beauties of the Rhine.

Smaller Bamiyan Buddha. Source: Wikipedia

Smaller Bamiyan Buddha. Source: Wikipedia

There were many sections of prose and dialogue that I loved in this book! On many pages I opened my eyes wider, chuckled out loud and looked around for someone to share it with. Sadly I didn’t encounter anyone during my reading of this book, mostly in public places, to share the pleasure of discussing it with. I suppose that’s my purpose when I write book reviews on here. I suppose that I hope (in vain mostly) that someone will enter a discourse with me and discuss the book. Some of the funniest passages are when he relates dialogue with the Afghan ambassador in Iran, Shir Ahmad who Byron calls a tiger and inserts into his quotes musical notation to help the reader to interpret his dramatic style of speech, e.g.:

(p) You know, my name is Shir Ahmad. And Shir, you know means loin. (Roaring, ff) When I ATTACK, (whispering, pp) it is terrible.

I’m going to transcribe a rather long passage here that amused and delighted me and will presumably resonate with those other readers and travellers out there:

We also have with us a work by Sir Thomas Holdich called The Gates of India, which gives a summary of Afghan exploration up to 1910 and describes the journey of Moorcroft, who died at Andkhoi in 1825. In this I find, on page 440: ‘Moorcroft’s books (thirty volumes) were recovered, and the list of them would surprise any modern traveller who believes in a light and handy equipment.’ What surprises me is that considering he was away five years, there should have been so few. A light and handy equipment! One knows these modern travellers, these overgrown prefects and pseudo-scientific bores despatched by congregations of extinguished officials to see if sand-dunes sing and snow is cold. Unlimited money, every kind of official influence support them; they penetrate the furthest recesses of the globe; and beyond ascertaining that sand dunes do sing and snow is cold, what do they observe to enlarge the human mind?

Nothing.

Is is surprising? Their physical health is cared for; they go into training; they obey rules to keep them hard, and are laden with medicines to restore them when, as a result of the hardening process, they break down. But no one thinks of their mental health, and of its possible importance to a journey of supposed observation. Their light and handy equipment contains food for a sky-scraper, instruments for a battleship, and weapons for an army. But it mustn’t contain a book. I wish I were rich enough to endow a prize for the sensible traveller; 10,000GBP for the first man to cover Marco Polo’s outward route reading three fresh books a week, and another 10,000GBP if he drinks a bottle of wine a day as well. That man might tell one something about the journey.

According to William Dalrymple of the Guardian:

The Road to Oxiana … is widely recognised as the greatest of all pre-war travel books.

Byron was killed in the second world war aged only 35, lost when his ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat off Cape Wrath. Yet in his brief 15 years as a writer, he achieved an astonishing amount. He was a brave and energetic traveller, an art historian of astonishing erudition, and a profoundly perceptive connoisseur of civilisations.

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3 comments on “Book Review – The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron

  1. Pingback: Book Review – The Lost Heart of Asia | strivetoengage

  2. Pingback: Book Review – A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush | strivetoengage

  3. Pingback: Book Reflections – Amurath to Amurath by Gertrude Bell | strivetoengage

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