Monday, 24 September 2012

Book Review - The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron

The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron

Many editions extant

Robert Byron may have been a thoroughly unlikeable man. A product of Eton and Oxford, he was a product of the time when to be an upper-class Englishman meant that there was a certain expectation that you could go where you liked and do what you wished. Added to that, Byron seems to have had a certitude of manner - that he was right and everyone else was wrong - that may very well have been very annoying to his companions.

Despite all this, in his short life (he was killed in 1941 at the age of 35, when a ship he was on was torpedoed by a U-Boat) he managed to write several critically acclaimed books on travel and art, of which The Road to Oxiana is perhaps the most famous. Bruce Chatwin listed him as a big influence, and The Road to Oxiana as one of his favourite books.

The book takes the form of a diary, and is written in a fashion that would guile the reader into thinking it was written on the spot, but apparently Byron took several years to fashion it into a form he was happy with.

Travelling with his companion Christopher Sykes through what was then Persia (modern-day Iran) and Afghanistan, primarily to view the architecture of the ancient Caliphs and Emirs, but also to reach the River Oxus, the end point of the conquering Alexander's rampage through Persia. While Byron's trenchant views on Islamic architecture are interesting (try to find an edition with Byron's photographs, which admirably illustrate his text), his pen portraits of local dignitaries and foreign diplomats provide an amusing background to his more serious work.

While he never did make it to the Oxus (being British, he and Sykes were thought spies for much of their journey), he did make it to many sites of architectural significance, some more famous than others - here is what he had to say about the Bamyan Buddhas - "I should not like to stay long at Bamian. Its art is unfresh....The result has not even the dignity of labour." His views are always certain, and trenchant.

While the work has aged a little, it is still worth a look - a precursor to many current styles of travel writing, an insight to the time and place.

The Road to Oxiana is available via Amazon.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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