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This is Central Asia with a vengeance In 1933 Robert Byron made the trek into Central Asia by way of the Middle East specifically, the Soviet Union by way of Afghanistan The author s point of view is frequently called eccentric, but it is also very observant And Byron writes grippingly about a part of the world that still isn t that easy to explore If you like travel tales, this is quite a good one. After marking at least two dozen paragraphs to quote from, I gave up Robert Byron is a writer who has at least one extremely funny wisecrack per page except when he is describing yet another dome, minaret or entrance gate with such intensity and long breath that you get bored after the description of the fiftieth monument What makes this travelodge from 1933 so exceptional is that he travels through Iraq, Persia and Afghanistan, thus regions which are now quite impossible to travel through and which are probably lost for us to see for a very long time, if not forever He starts out from Jerusalem and there are some pages on Palestine under British rule where he has some really deadly things to say about the idiocy of British burocracy at the time Byron is a very daring traveller indeed He does not mind to sleep in sheds next to a pile of camel dung, but he takes it also for granted to be celebrated by the local lords or British consuls with lots of exquisite food and wine Very enjoyable book I can fully understand that it was the favorite guide for Bruce Chatwin I imagine when Chatwin needed his spirit lifted, he could just read a few pages and his mood would improve instantly [Download Kindle] ☿ The Road to Oxiana ♪ In The Delightfully Eccentric Robert Byron Set Out On A Journey Through The Middle East Via Beirut, Jerusalem, Baghdad And Teheran To Oxiana The Country Of The Oxus, The Ancient Name For The River Amu Darya Which Forms Part Of The Border Between Afghanistan And The Soviet Union His Arrival At His Destination, The Legendary Tower Of Qabus, Although A Wonder In Itself, It Not Nearly So Amazing As The Thoroughly Captivating, At Times Zany, Record Of His Adventures In Addition To Its Entertainment Value, The Road To Oxiana Also Serves As A Rare Account Of The Architectural Treasures Of A Region Now Inaccessible To Most Western Travellers When Paul Fussell Rediscovered The Road To Oxiana In His Recent Book Abroad, He Whetted The Appetite Of A Whole New Generation Of Readers In His New Introduction, Written Especially For This Volume, Fussell Writes Reading The Book Is Like Stumbling Into A Modern Museum Of Literary Kinds Presided Over By A Benign If Eccentric Curator Here Armchair Travellers Will Find Newspaper Clippings, Public Signs And Notices, Official Forms, Letters, Diary Entries, Essays On Current Politics, Lyric Passages, Historical And Archaeological Dissertations, Brief Travel Narratives Usually Of Comic Awful Delays And Disasters , And The Triumph Of The Book At Least Twenty Superb Comic Dialogues, Some Of Them Virtually Playlets, Complete With Stage Directions And Musical Scoring Mash up The Rough Guide to the Middle East with Brideshead Revisited, the whole thing written up by that saucy boy Anthony Blanche I did immoderately love flamboyant young Anthony up to no good in the louche bars of Oxford but when he morphs into Robert Byron and swans around sneering at Johnny Foreigner then it does get a bit too too I went to swim at the YMCA opposite the hotel This necessitated paying two shillings and changing among a lot of hairy dwarves who smelt of garlic.This is Anthony to the very letter At the turnstile, that final outrage, a palsied dotard took ten minutes to write out each ticket After which we escaped from these trivialities into the glory of Antiquity.On Baghdad When the temperature drops below 110 the residents complain of the chill and get out their furs For only one thing is it now justly famous a kind of boil which takes nine months to heal, and leaves a scar.Paul Fussell, a heavyweight if ever there was one, wrote in 1982 that The Road to Oxiana is to the travel book what Ulysses is to the novel between the wars, and what The Waste Land is to poetry And Bruce Chatwin wanted to get his copy surgically implanted into a cavity in his sacroiliac so he would never be parted It kind of depends on whether you throb with love gushes as you read such passages as While the cadent sun throws lurid copper streaks across the sand blown sky, all the birds in Persia have gathered for a last chorus Slowly, the darkness brings silence, and they settle themselves to sleep with diminishing flutterings, as of a child arranging its bedclothes And then another note begins, a hot metallic blue note, timidly at first, gaining courage, throbbing without cease, until, as if the second violins had crept into action, it becomes two notes, now this, now that, and is answered from the other side of the pool by a third Mahun is famous for its nightingales But for my part I celebrate the frogs.or I have never encountered splendour of this kind before Other interiors came into my mind as I stood there, to compare it with Versailles, or the porcelain rooms at Sch nbrunn, or the Doge s Palace, or St Peter s All are rich but none so rich Their richness is three dimensional it is attended by all the effort of shadow In the Mosque of Sheikh Lutfullah, it is a richness of light and surface, of pattern and colour only The architectural form is unimportant It is not smothered, as in rococo it is simply the instrument of a spectacle, as earth is the instrument of a garden And then I suddenly thought of that unfortunate species, modern interior decorators, who imagine they can make a restaurant, or a cinema, or a plutocrat s drawing room look rich if given money enough for gold leaf and looking glass They little know what amateurs they are Nor, alas, do their clients.Me, I m such a pleb I kind of go yeah, yeah yeah in that irritating know it all tone you know so well by now I discovered I was utterly uninterested in what Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan looked like in 1932 I realised I had wandered into the wrong book by mistake We all do that sometimes Oops, sorry Close door hurriedly, face flushing madly The trick is to get out as quickly as possible whilst maintaining a shred of dignity It wasn t too hard, since I found that this book consists of sneery remarks describing how Robert gets from A to B, and what frightful but sort of delicious indignities he has to put up with plus a lot of pure gold comedy vignettes where he recounts conversations with amusing foreign dignitaries or station porters It s all not a little self congratulatory, which may be my problem with the whole genre of travel writing Here is an example of Robert at his most Byronesque from p 96 RB is on a bus to Meshed and a brouhaha erupts when the driver tries to collect fares The guy sitting next to RB is involved, gets thrown off the bus but then is allowed back on The Pharisee sought his old place in front, by me But now it was my turn to go mad I would not have him near me, I said In reply, he seized my hand, and pressing it to his prickly, saliva trickling beard, sprayed it with kisses A shove sent him sprawling, while I leapt out on the other side, declaring to the now befogged, exhausted and unhappy driver that rather than suffer further contact with the man, I would walk into Meshed on my own feet and keep what I owed him in my pocket.I had decided to skip all the purply prose rhapsodies about architecture and just read the lofty insults but eventually these paled as pale as the moonlight above Turkmenistan I parted from Mr Byron on rather frosty terms between Teheran and Kum It was a Thursday and a donkey was chewing my ear off. I had never heard of Robert Byron distantly related to Lord Byron, but that s by the by , nor am I a natural fan of travel writing, preferring my reading matter to be fictional Nor had I a clue where or what Oxiana is It is an area around the River Oxus, the ancient name for the river Amu Darya, which snakes down from southern Russia into northern eastern Afghanistan So I think it is fair to say that I approached this book with some caution, finding the very last copy of it in a bookshop fortuitously soon after someone whose opinion I value greatly had mentioned it as being one of those Must Read Unmissable gems of the twentieth century.Byron was a journalist, delightfully eccentric and with a passion and knowledge of ancient architecture The book is written as a journal, describing a trip he made in 1933 through the Middle East via Beirut, Jerusalem, Baghdad and Teheran to Oxiana, on a quest to see the legendary eleventh century tower of Qabus, or Kabus The quest is achieved The tower, depicted in my copy in a photo as a menacing but plain cone topped construct of pillared bricks, is brought to life by Byron s extraordinary knowledge and powers of description, as is everything else that crosses his path, from local people, to breathtaking landscapes, as well as the countless other ancient and often abandoned monuments that he seeks out Byron is also very funny, particularly about the endless set backs he encounters on his travels no vehicle lasts than a few days, the weather is regularly catastrophic, disguises are required, food is often scarce, and never does any single day go according to its original plan Within that humour however, is a marked humility and respect for all that he encounters And this to me, quite apart from the power of his prose to transport the reader into every place he visits, is key to the mastery of the book For Robert Byron is a traveller in the truest, greatest sense that is, he does not, ever, attempt to impose himself on the terrain and cultures he is exploring he simply observes every detail with awe and gratitude and intelligence, managing in this great book to allow the reader to share that privilege with him.Reading The Road to Oxiana made me sad too For even though Robert Byron wasn t always greeted with open arms, so much of the area he explored has now become synonymous with suffering and conflict on a vast scale, its innumerable wondrous antiquities destroyed or rendered utterly beyond access What the book depicts therefore is literally, a lost world a fact which made me all the grateful to the genius and courage of the man for deciding to explore and document it Sadder still, Robert Byron died just 8 years later, in 1941, thanks to a torpedo sinking the ship on which he was travelling as a journalist in the Second World War He was thirty six It is impossible not to lament the unwritten journeys and spellbinding prose that sank with him.I know spellbinding is a powerful adjective So here is an example of why I have deployed it Suddenly, as a ship leaves an estuary, we came out onto the steppe a dazzling open sea of green I never saw the colour before In other greens, of emerald, jade, or malachite, the harsh deep green of the Bengal jungle, the salad green of Mediterranean vineyards, the heavy full blown green of English summer beeches, some element of blue or yellow predominates over the others This was the pure essence of green, indissoluble, the colour of life itself See what I mean Spellbinding is the only word. I am not sure I would have liked Robert Byron, him being pretentious and self conscious bordering the pompous, I would probably have kept a distance at dinner parties But, I would have listened in and smiled at his adventures in Persia and Afghanistan It is the journey, not the destination , and then again, so many destinations that I would love to go to, though in different company.When he is at his best, he is the keen observer, enriching his observations with historical facts and never shy to ask around for facts He can convey to the reader the scents and colors of flowers ad grass and the felling of the rain pouring down This is what makes a travel writer great and fit to enter the travel writer s hall of fame.In The Road To Oxiana the journey goes through Persia and Afghanistan Robert Byron never actually gets his feet wet in the River Oxus Amu Darja, it being too close to the borders for access, but on his way, he sees all the wonders of the area, some worth seeing and quite a few not to his taste Travelling by car, lorry, train, on horseback or on mule or camel, all has its charms and challenges but the travel tale is never about hardship or dangers, though naturally a hint of dissatisfaction occasionally shines through, e.g when your car is impaled on a rock hidden in a riverbed It most certainly was not such a pleasure ride as the lack of high pitched exclamations suggest 10 months on the road, met by local bureaucracy, unobtainable permits, bedbugs and mosquitos must have taken its toll Bad roads, bad weather, constant change of transport means would drive most people crazy But focus is set on the monuments, the architecture and the people.I like that a lot, that is my own way of traveling and I have enjoyed the trip.I have been revisiting places in Iran that I have seen, smiling at little things that apparently did not change in 80 years and mourning all the places I never had the chance to see.When I years ago went Transoxania into now Uzbekistan, I regrettably had only little knowledge of the interchange between Uzbek and Persian architecture If I had met Robert Byron at an earlier stage in my travel life I would have been able to seek out the influence of Queen Goharshad Begum who was a great patroness of architecture and art in the area during the fist half of the 15th century.When I return to Iran I will make sure to take a copy with me to guide me to all the forgotten treasures If anyone should ask, Afghanistan is on my bucket list too. It only took me a few days to read this book about Robert Byron s 1934 journey through Persia and Afghanistan, but those few days were spread across six years Byron s artfully artless entries ramble from exquisite lyricism to passages of undiluted boredom although now, at the end, I ve succumbed to its enchantment Rory Stewart, in his Preface which like all prefaces and introductions is best enjoyed after reading the book observes that Byron or less invented travel writing In Byron, literature about the Orient is no longer tragedy it is burlesque Byron opens his book in Venice with a splash of brilliant, brittle repartee quoted in another review here the kind of comedy you d expect from Sebastian Flyte if he d ever left Brideshead But Byron isn t the feckless, upper class Oxonian he appears he was small, round, unathletic, and homosexual, a cash starved, self taught authority on Byzantine and Islamic art His appreciative descriptions of medieval Islamic architecture kindled my own curiosity inducing me to order Robert Irwin s Islamic Art in Context. I had a shocked laugh, though, when I read his description of giant Buddhas of Bamyan, dynamited by the Taliban in 2001 Neither has any artistic value But one could bear that it is their negation of sense, the lack of any pride in their monstrous flaccid bulk, that sickens Even their material is unbeautiful, for the cliff is made, not of stone but of compressed gravel A lot of monastic navvies were given picks and told to copy some frightful semi Hellenistic image from India or China The result has not even the dignity of labour.This is typical of Byron s best independent, impolitic, disgusted with cant in all its guises The Road to Oxonia is than a travel classic, it s a witness to an Afghanistan that s largely disappeared thanks to the Soviets, the warlords and the Taliban, and our own embittered intervention. There are many engaging European travel narratives of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but this is one of the very best better than Lawrence or Thesiger possibly one of the greatest ever In 1933, Robert Byron an English writer, art critic, and gentleman adventurer joined up with his friend Christopher Sykes and embarked on a journey of nearly a year that took him from Italy through Cyprus and Jerusalem, thence across Persia and Afghanistan, and at last to the tiny country of Oxiana in the Afghan borderlands Along the way he encounters an assortment of peculiar characters, whose quirks he captures in a score of retrieved conversations so hilarious that Samuel Beckett would have been proud of himself if he d written them.Byron en route suffers a host of deprivations but also regularly encounters fabulous works of art and particularly architecture, and in his descriptions of these his awe is palpable He can conjure an image of such understated beauty, natural or man made,that it sets you back on your heels and makes you feel as if you re suddenly reading something entirely different The book is a concatenation of odd elements that somehow works perfectly.Byron died at the rather unripe age of 36 when a ship he was traveling on was torpedoed by the Germans during World War II Hard not to wonder what so gifted a writer would have produced had he not been carried off so early. Essential reading In fact, this was such a fresh conception of the travel amid ruins cum history cum memoir that it has served as a model for Bruce Chatwin, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Pico Iyer, Peter Matthiessen, Jan Morris and other writers over the years It contains a great many references to Persian and some Afghan antiquities, many of which author Byron photographed on his 1933 excursion I was thrilled to read about these antiquities That pleasure was made keener by the linked and annotated version of the text which is available on Google Play books What a relief it is not to have to repeatedly enter funny spellings for the necessary background information, without which I would have found the text unreadable Byron s original B W photographs are available through the ebook s links as are many current images, like this one of the Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque s interior The author does show us something about the architectural styles of each of the regions successive empires Elamite, Achaemenid, Timurid, Ghaznavid, Seljuk, ad infinitum Very interesting stuff, often witty, too, explicating an area of Eastern architectural history until now unknown to me True, Byron at times delivers sneering critiques, a form of old school connoisseurship, as when the reliefs at Persepolis aren t pretty enough to suit him, or when the Buddhas of Bamiyan are roundly deprecated as lacking any pride in their monstrous flaccid bulk p.271 Need I remind the reader of the international outcry that ensued when these buddhas were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001 Small minded connoisseurship again, I m afraid It s the book s only flaw The Road to Oxiana reminds me of V.S Naipaul s Iran book, Among the Believers, though his focus was on Islam among the non Arab peoples, both books share a certain view of the Persian character Author Byron s intrepidity is also worth noting, too, especially when he travels to Firuzabad in southern Iran, accompanied by a squad of the Shah s policemen ostensibly in attendance to fend off bandits just so he can photograph and closely describe the local antiquities The travel is unbelievably arduous at times Something like three or four cars are totaled during the journey As for the lodgings, well, vermin ridden would be putting it too kindly Vivid, highly learned and jauntily written. 2.5 starsThis book and its writer are a bit of an enigma and I found myself liking and disliking Robert Byron in equal measure The Road to Oxiana tells of a journey Byron made with Christopher Sykes to explore the architecture of what is now Iran and Afghanistan If you want well written descriptions of Islamic architecture then Byron is your man illustrated below I have never encountered splendour of this kind before Other interiors came into my mind as I stood there, to compare it with Versailles, or the porcelain rooms at Sch nbrunn, or the Doge s Palace, or St Peter s All are rich but none so rich Their richness is three dimensional it is attended by all the effort of shadow In the Mosque of Sheikh Lutfullah, it is a richness of light and surface, of pattern and colour only The architectural form is unimportant It is not smothered, as in rococo it is simply the instrument of a spectacle, as earth is the instrument of a garden And then I suddenly thought of that unfortunate species, modern interior decorators, who imagine they can make a restaurant, or a cinema, or a plutocrat s drawing room look rich if given money enough for gold leaf and looking glass They little know what amateurs they are Nor, alas, do their clients Byron was a fairly typical product of the English public school system A snob and an aesthete with some strong opinions he hated western art and was a champion of El Greco and he once famously described Shakespeare s plays as exactly the sort of thing a grocer would write Byron survived the era of the Bright Young Things and grew up to oppose Nazism and fascism Having been a good friend of Evelyn Waugh, they became estranged On Byron s death in 1941 he was on a boat that was torpedoed Waugh said It is not yet the time to say so but I greatly disliked Robert in his last years think he was a dangerous lunatic better off dead Byron was a little too left leaning for Waugh.Byron is a relatively detached narrator who mostly ignores the obvious dangers his party were often in and there is an amused acceptance of the hardships His writing about architecture appears to be first rate, but he is not a good observer of people and nor does he appear very interested in them There is the arrogance of the travelling Englishman who is apt to treat anyone as a servant There are some quirks in the book It is in diary form and there were sensitivities about talking about the Shah in Iran and so he is referred to as Marjoribanks throughout There was a poignancy in the travels in Afghanistan as the names mentioned are well known names in today s context, for very different reasons This is a very male book The women are anonymous and absent It is also possible to see the fault lines that are much sharper today and of course it is illuminated by western arrogance Byron was an Eton and Oxford man as is our current prime minister Byron s ideas come from Spengler and Clive Bell and if you want to read a travel book from the 1930s then read Patrick Leigh Fermor However Byron does write about Islamic architecture very well, at a time when it was not fashionable to do so