The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
”Baalbek is the triumph of stone; of lapidary magnificence on a scale whose language, being still the language of the eye, dwarfs New York into a home of ants. The stone is peach-coloured, and is marked in ruddy gold as the columns of St. Martin-in-the-fields are marked in soot. It has a marmoreal texture, not transparent, but faintly powdered, like bloom on a plum.
Dawn is the time to see it, to look up at the Six Columns, when peach-gold and blue air shine with equal radiance, and even the empty bases that uphold no columns have a living, sunblest identity against the violet deeps of the firmament.
Look up, look up; up this quarried flesh, these thrice-enormous shafts, to the broken capitals and the cornice as big as a house, all floating in the blue. Look over the walls, to the green groves of white-stemmed poplars; and over them to the distant Lebanon, a shimmer of mauve and blue and gold and rose. Look along the mountains to the void: the desert, that stony, empty sea. Drink the high air. Stroke the stone with your own soft hands. Say goodbye to the West if you own it. And then turn, tourist, to the East.”
Robert Byron’s passport.
Robert Byron took a ten month journey through the Middle East during the years 1933-34. He took a ship to Cyprus then travelled through Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Persia, and Afghanistan. His journey ended in Peshawar, India (now part of Pakistan). This book is considered by many travel writers to be the first great piece of travel writing. Bryon was a great advocate of ancient architecture and worked feverishly during his short life to try and insure that as much of it was preserved as possible. He gets rather rapturous when describing a column, or an arch or a minaret.
”The beauty of Isfahan steals on the mind unawares. You drive about, under avenues of white tree-trunks and canopies of shining twigs; past domes of turquoise and spring yellow in a sky of liquid violet-blue, along the river patched with twisting shoals, catching that blue in its muddy silver, and lined with feather groves where the sap calls; across bridges of pale toffee brick, tier on tier of arches breaking into piled pavilions; overlooked by lilac mountains, by the Kuh-i-Sufi shaped like Punch’s hump and by other ranges receding to a line of snowy surf; and before you know how, Isfahan has become indelible, has insinuated its image into that gallery of places which everyone privately treasures.”
Friday Mosque in the city of Isfahan, Esfahan Province, Iran. Photograph by Robert Byron.
Isfahan was located in Persia when Byron was there... now Iran.
Bryon travels by any means possible by truck, bus, camel, horses, asses, and by foot. He even at two different times buys an automobile out of desperation to continue to reach destinations. He suffers thirst, the smell of a fresh dung heap that resides next to the stables he is bunked in, cold, heat, and the constant frustration of officials unwilling to give him travel permits to see sights he must see. He is arrested at least twice for travelling without proper documentation.
Bruce Chatwin refers to this book as "a sacred text, beyond criticism," which attests to the influence the book had on his writing and his choice of career. Chatwin always carried a copy with him and reading Chatwin is how I first discovered the existence of Robert Byron. I did develop a literary intimacy with Byron while reading this book and could think of myself as waiting anxiously for his next letter describing the wonders of what he has seen. The book reads like dispatches from a close friend, but that illusion is sometimes broken when there seems to be information missing that is the type of intimate understanding assumed between friends. His style is jocular and laced with boyish enthusiasm.
I found the book charming.
Nancy Mitford had hopes, had hopes. *Sigh* isn’t it always the case that everyone is in love with the wrong person.
Byron was close friends with Nancy Mitford and at one point she had hoped he would propose marriage. She was later astonished as well as shocked to discover his homosexual tastes, complaining: "This wretched pederasty falsifies all feelings and yet one is supposed to revere it." Unfortunately for Nancy, Byron was in love with “Desmond Parsons, younger brother of the 6th Earl of Rosse, who was regarded as one of the most magnetic men of his generation. They lived together in Peking, in 1934, where Desmond developed Hodgkin’s Disease, of which he died in Zurich, in 1937, when only 26 years old. Robert was left utterly devastated.” Byron’s passion for Parsons was never reciprocated.
Desmond Parsons and Lord Snowden at the London wedding of Princess Margaret
As a precaution on the trip Byron must change the name of the Shah in his diary in case it is confiscated. This is the conversation he had with his travelling companion, Christopher Sykes, regarding naming dictators.
”’Sh. You mustn’t mention the Shah out loud. Call him Mr. Smith.’
‘I always call Mussolini Mr. Smith in Italy.’
‘Well, Mr. Brown.’
‘No, that’s Stalin’s name in Russia.’
‘Mr. Jones then.’
‘Jones is no good either. Hitler has to have it now that Primo de Rivera is dead. And anyhow I get confused with these ordinary names. We had better call him Marjoribanks, if we want to remember whom we mean.’”
Muhammad Nadir, the shah or otherwise known as Marjoribanks.
Byron does read on this trip. Early on he is reading Boswell. ”I spread my own bedding, dined off some egg, sausage, cheese, and whisky, read a little Boswell, and fell fast asleep among the aromatic herbs with my money-bags between my feet and my big hunting knife unclasped in my fist.”
They were stranded in an unfortunate section of road full of bandits and thieves thus the knife kept readily to hand.
I know I have many friends who have read Proust in the last year, as have I, so it was a special treat when he makes mention of the influence Proust is having on his writing.
”I have been reading Proust for the last three days (and begin to observe the infection of uncontrolled detail creeping into my diary). His description of how the name Guermantes hypnotized him reminds me of how the name Turkestan has hypnotized me.”
Byron’s influence on travel writing can not be denied. I have a good friend who writes travel articles for a living and he considers this book to be one of the most influential books that turned him to travelling for a living. I have been remiss for at least a decade in not reading this book sooner, as my friend has frequently reminded me. I enjoyed the unexpected humor and the grand, enthusiastic descriptions of places that Byron found so inspiring. It is always so shocking to discover that someone is dead who seemed so alive. Byron died in 1941 at age 35 when the ship he was travelling on, the SS Jonathan Holt, was torpedoed by U-97 a Type VIIC submarine in the North Atlantic. His body was never found.
May you rest in peace fair traveler.
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