In 1933 Robert Byron set out to Iran and Afghanistan on a Grand Tour of the area’s Islamic architecture. Written in diary form the book, The Road to Oxiana, documents his journey.
Although the region is of interest to me, I thought I’d struggle to read a whole book on Islamic architecture. Luckily, descriptions of architecture rarely extended over more than a couple of paragraphs. For Byron architecture is simply a reason for exploration and, instead of long descriptions of buildings, the book is packed full of hilarious antidotes of Byron’s journey. Despite the journey having taken place in 1933 into 1934, and no doubt many of the places he describes have changed beyond recognition (but I’d like to imagine not), the stories he tells are ones that many travellers can relate to. His style and tone conjure colourfully images of exotic lands whilst also being wonderfully British and self-deprecating.
“On my return to the Legation, an apocalyptic rumble heralded a runaway horse and cart, which came pelting down the drive, scattering the benches it had been unloading for the children’s play. Not feeling heroic, I stepped out of the way. The porter shut the gate, and the horse, unable to break through it, was precipitated up the bars like a gorilla, while the cart disintegrated underneath it.”
Some of the language Byron uses is out-dated, or could even be interpreted as colonialist. However, if the reader allows the language to rule over the meaning then they misunderstand Byron. He actually has a deep respect for local people and always has the ability to laugh at himself.
“A mountain freshet had cut the road outside Isfahan. With the help of twenty peasants we pushed the car through water up to the waist. By the time we had changed our clothes, changed oil, petrol, and plugs, and dried the cylinders, the water had gone down, and the other cars, which had been passively waiting, went on ahead of us. British initiative looked rather foolish.”
Byron’s journey starts in Venice in August 1933, he travels to Cyprus where he meets Christopher Skyes, his travel partner in crime on the pier before boarding a boat to Palestine. As Byron travels he comments on the people he meets, the history of the land and its architecture.
“Kyrenia (Cyprus): History in this island is almost too profuse. It gives one a sort of mental indigestion.”
From Iran Skyes and Byron planned to travel through Afghanistan by joining an expedition driving a newly invented charcoal-burning steam-powered car which was to prove it’s worth by driving from London to India.
“No word from the Charcoal-Burners. But the latest courier from Baghdad brings a rumour that the cars have finally broken down.”
On account of this Byron abandoned this plan and struck out alone. So, it was with much surprise, after a long day full of adventure;
“We were lost. It was a tiresome predicament in a country where personal safety ceases with the curfew.”
and after reaching Herat at 4 am they finally met the ‘Charcoal-Burners’ who presented themselves on the doorstep, with which Byron could only respond with,
“I’m sorry I’ve finished the whisky.”
Byron’s writing is untrammelled by political correctness.
“There is a lot of missionary effort here….their behinds stick out as if their spines were too righteous to bend.”
But he is as generous with his empathy and admiration as he is indiscriminate with his criticisms and insults.
“People who abuse missionaries have not seen their medical work. The whole health of Khorasan depends on them.”
On a handful of occasions he is even able to contain his urge to entertain the reader with his dry wit, instead quietly reflecting on the place in which he finds himself.
“I smelt the spring, and the rising sap. One of those rare moments of absolute peace, when the body is loose, the mind asks no questions, and the world is a triumph, was mine.”
However, Byron does not hold back when he dislikes somewhere. He despises Tehran (“Still here”, “Damn this place”, “Still here. Still Snow. The bag and his messenger still lost.”). This reaction is due to two reasons; it being the place he waits with increasing frustration whilst the authorities continually prevent him from entering Afghanistan and the lack of available alcohol. Bowing to cultural sensitivities was not in his nature. He enjoys Southern Iran much more, probably due to the widely available wine.
“The red wine of Julfa tastes of a Burgundy grown in Greece. We have drunk a bottle a piece today.”
Byron plays the lovable rogue. He would be a terrible travelling companion, he gets bored easily, is cantankerous with officials, and gets himself into all sorts of scraps, which he expertly extracts himself from but I fear if I was an associate of his I may not fare so well.
“I took a horse without permission and rode off to Bostam…..I was arrested on returning to Shahrud, but, the Chief of Police was amiable enough.”
Skyes must have been an extremely patient man, or maybe his frequent bouts of illness were actually a tactic to get some peace and quiet, and excuse himself from Byron’s latest hair-brained idea. On occasions Skyes must have feared for his job as a diplomat in Iran. Knowing Byron too well Skyes suggests they refer to the Shah as Mr. Smith in their conversations in case Byron, yet again, puts his foot in it. In the end they settle on Majoribanks as their code name for the Shah.
Despite (or because of) Skyes’ diplomatic status, Byron and himself are continually plagued by officialdom and suspicion.
“A Nicaraguan leper would have fared better with the port authorities of a British Mandate than we did yesterday.”
“our chauffeur Jamshyd Taroporevala, spread a tale that we were Secret Service agents engaged in map-making. Next time I do this kind of journey, I shall take lessons in spying beforehand. Since one has to put up with the disadvantages of the profession anyhow.”
And on several occasions this not only delayed but halted their journey completely.
“The letter has at least provoked a response: Refusal.”
But Byron is resourceful and persistent, mostly managing to find a solution, and eventually makes it to Afghanistan, where his desire to continue exploring endures.
“Far away, through the misty sun-shine, rose the mountains of Badakshan, carrying my mind’s eye up the Wakhan to the Pamirs and China itself.”
After crossing the Khyber Pass and travelling to Peshawar Byron returns to England by P&O ferry and comments on it in true Byron style:
“a fortnight blotted out of one’s life at great expense.”
Tragically there are few other books by Robert Byron. He was killed, aged 35, in the Second World War when the boat he was travelling in was torpedoed off the coast of Cape Wrath, Scotland.
The Road to Oxiana goes down in the annals of travel writing as a classic. Surprisingly easy to read and constantly entertaining it’s a must. Highly recommended and great inspiration for my return to Afghanistan this summer.