If there is a template for travel writing from which the likes of Bruce Chatwin, Wilfred Thessiger, Patrick Leigh-Fermor and Eric Newby were shaped, perhaps it comes in the form of Robert Byron, the author of The Road to Oxiana. Chatwin himself, in the introduction to the Picador edition that I have, called it ‘the masterpiece’, raising it to the status of ‘sacred text’, his own copy spineless and floodstained when he wrote about it in 1980. The ‘gentleman, scholar and aesthete’ - as Chatwin calls Byron - left us, with Oxiana, a travel book that entertained and informed, especially on the origins of Islamic architecture that he encountered in Persia and Afghanistan.
Oxiana bristles and fizzes its way to us from the late 1930s, just as Europe’s lights were about to dim in the run-up to the Second World War. Byron (no relation) went to Eton, and then on to Oxford, where he read history. Socially well-connected as he was, doors opened to him, smoothing a series of travels that took in Greece (particularly Mount Athos), India, Tibet, Persia and Afghanistan. His life was cut short in 1941, when the ship he was on was torpedoed off Cape Wrath. He was 35 and had just been commissioned by the Foreign Office, under cover as war correspondent for the Sunday Times, to travel to Meshed (now Mashhad in north-eastern Iran, close to the Afghanistan border) as an observer to keep an eye on Russian activity in the region. Oxiana, written when he was but 32, has the tone of a more seasoned traveller of considerable learning and taste. It details his 1933-34 journey to Peshawar via Venice, Cyprus, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, these last two countries being the focus of the book.
Unlike some of his English contemporaries, Byron was passionately anti-Nazi, having attended the last of the Nuremberg Rallies. The fiercely non-appeasing Byron, therefore, comes over as having been on the right side of history. Oxiana is very much of its time, as much history text as travel journal, capturing the vicissitudes of Persia (as Iran was then called) and Afghanistan, and the suspicion in which western visitors to them were then held. That much has not changed. An engaging writer, Byron was at times hilarious, irreverent and coruscating, and ably conveyed a sense of place, often depicting the surreality of the moment, but was above all passionate about architecture as an expression of man’s genius.
Writing of the Palace of Ardeshir in Iran, built in the third century AD, Byron explains the squinch, “a simple arch across the angle of two walls”. As these became enlarged and “multiplied into zones of stalactites and bats’-wings, a dome became possible to buildings of all shapes and sizes”, he wrote. “Previously, there was no means of placing a dome on four square walls, or on a building of any shape whose inside area much exceeded that of the dome itself”. Tracing this architectural innovation to the semi-rubble palace that Byron encountered in February 1934 is one such example of his erudition.
It is in Isfahan, that Byron’s prose flies. “Its beauty”, he wrote, “steals on the mind unawares”. Comparing the two domes of Isfahan’s Friday Mosque, the inside of the smaller, an 11th century kind of tomb-tower contained within the mosque, focuses his attention.
The smaller (dome-chamber) embodies that precious moment between too little experience and too much, when the elements of construction have been refined of superfluous bulk, yet still withstand the allurements of superfluous grace; so that each element, like the muscles of a trained athlete, performs in function with winged precision, not concealing its effort, as over-refinement will do, but adjusting it to the highest degree of intellectual meaning. This is the perfection of architecture, attained not so much by the form of the elements - for this is a matter of convention - but by their chivalry of balance and proportion. And this small interior comes nearer to that perfection that I would have thought possible outside classical Europe. (The Road to Oxiana, p. 173)
Byron was not slave to architectural form and structure. No distance from the Friday Mosque above, still in Isfahan, he provided a lengthy description of the 17th century Mosque of Sheikh Lutfullah, a two-page stream of praise in which he seemed intoxicated with what he witnessed. Whereas the dome-chamber of the Friday Mosque was “form only, has no colour and obliterates its ornament by the intentness of its construction, the outside surface of the dome of the Mosque of Sheikh Lutfullah hides any symptom of construction or dynamic form beneath a mirage of shallow curved surfaces”. In this wholly different building, Byron saw “a richness of light and surface, of pattern and colour only”. He saw a hint of William Morris, more intensely magnified Genoese brocade, too formal for pre-Raphaelite. There is foliage and “under-foliage”:
But the genius of the effect is in the play of surfaces. The inlay is glazed. The stucco wash is not. Thus the sun strikes the dome with a broken highlight whose intermittent flash, moving with the time of day, adds a third texture to the pattern, mobile and unforeseen… . But the beauty of the whole comes as you move. Again, the highlights are broken by the play of glazed and unglazed surfaces; so that with every step they rearrange themselves in countless shining patterns … (The Road to Oxiana, p.175)
For Byron, this was a kind of splendour that he had never encountered before. Versaille, the Doge’s Palace and St. Peter’s were all rich, but not so rich as what he encountered in Isfahan.
Byron’s architectural pilgrimage continued. In Meshed the 15th century Mosque of Goharshad provided something wholly different, a frieze of Kufic, “the size of a boy” (as in height), “the life spark of the whole blazing apparition”, one white on a field of gentian blue, the other white and yellow on a field of sapphire. For Byron, this was one of “the four finest buildings in Persia”.
Right up against the border with Turkmenistan (then a Soviet Socialist Republic), close to the Caspian Sea, Byron headed for the 10th century Gonbad-e Qabus tower, a 150-foot tall, “tapering cylinder of café-au-lait brick” topped with a roof “like a candle extinguisher”:
Up the cylinder, between plinth and roof, rush ten triangular buttresses … The bricks are long and thin, and as sharp as when they left the kiln, thus dividing the shadow from the sunshine of each buttress with a knife-like precision. As the buttresses recede from the direction of the sun, the shadows extend on to the curving wall of the cylinder between them, so that the stripes of light and shade, varying in width, attain an extraordinary momentum. It is the opposition of this vertical momentum to the lateral embrace of the Kufic rings that gives the building its character, a character unlike anything else in architecture… . There is nothing inside. The body of Kabus used to hang there suspended from the roof in a glass coffin. (The Road to Oxiana, p.198)
If there is hyperbole here in turning opinion into fact, it is counterbalanced by the precision of Byron’s description, compensating for the complete absence of photographs in the book itself. Although Byron did take many photographs throughout his journeys, including this one, his writings were often published on a shoestring budget. The ‘strangeness’ of these buildings to a western eye in the period when Byron was writing justifies the detail Byron employs. Elsewhere in the book, in contrast, Byron’s account of buildings fall short of the photographs he took. One particular example is of the ninety feet tall, 12th century victory minaret at Ghazni, Afghanistan, which exhibits astonishingly detailed brickwork with Kufic lettering which deserves just three short sentences. The brickwork is “rusty red”, “arranged in tweed patterns” resembling the shine “of a well-groomed horse”, yet his own photographs show craftsmanship infinitely more elaborate. Evidently, taste ebbs and flows within the same pen.
Oxiana is undoubtedly a plea to re-direct attention beyond the confines of Europe. In the same way that today we question the myth of mankind’s dominance that results in a climate crisis (yes, perhaps nature and the planet are our superiors), Byron was passionate for people to be alert to the splendours of the Persia and Afghanistan. The previously untold wonders to be found there needed a spokesman, and Oxiana demonstrates that he accepted that role with authority. Yet Oxiana is more than an architectural digest of what these two countries offered. It is a travel book with a chronological structure packed with the hardships of journeying in that region in that time. Cars may be laden with books and bottles but roads are grim, people suspicious, local authorities mercurial, camels and horses sore-inducing. There are privations in the form of rationing, the cold, and wounds that don’t heal, as well as hilarious set pieces that could have come from the pages of Evelyn Waugh.
James Knox’s insightful biography of Robert Byron (John Murray, 2003) confirms many things about the man that one suspects from having read Oxiana. He was a fine draughtsman, fluent with perspective as much as portraits, and born with a keen eye for local views, an excellent junior school teacher having nurtured these skills early in his life. His knowledge of wild flowers was another strength. Oxiana is dotted with their names, showing his instant ability to recognize different species carpeting ditches and hillsides in rural Afghanistan or cultivated courtyards in Persia. These predilections lend to Oxiana a prose poem style rather than that of documentary.
The Afghanistan of which Byron wrote is the one that had been occupied by the British in the first half of the 19th century, then again in the late 1870s. It is the one that briefly invaded ‘British India’ in 1919. Byron’s travels there, of course, predate the Soviet occupation of 1979-89, and the American invasion of 2001, and describe a pre-electricity, pre-Taliban country of unfathomable material poverty and substantial cultural wealth. Oxiana is a window onto a lost world, evocative and relevant still today.
Robert Byron’s architectural photographs
On several occasions, Byron describes the requirement to find the right vantage point to photograph a particular building. On others, his camera ellicits the suspicion of local authorities. One can only imagine the logistical challenge of lugging a camera (or two), a heavy tripod and a huge number of photographic plates with him in such a famously dusty (and damp) environment. Although Oxiana contains none of these, James Knox’s biography carries some - and many more of the author, his family and friends. Fortunately, the Courtauld Institute in London holds some 707 of these (not all of which were taken just on this Oxianajourney), all of which are available online. Although these are small and low-resolution, they give a clear indication of where Byron’s attention lay, as well as providing a record of the state many of these buildings were in at the time.
- Byron’s architectural photographs, the Courtauld Institute
- Byron’s 10 photographs of the Gonbad-e Qabus tower, Afghanistan (Courtauld Institute)
- Byron’s 4 photographs of the funerary Tower of Radkan, Afghanistan (Courtauld Institute)
- Byron’s 15 photographs of the Friday Mosque in Isfahan, Iran (Courtauld Institute)
- Byron’s 10 photographs of the Sheikh Loft Allah Mosque, Isfahan, Iran (Courtauld Institute)
- Byron’s 10 photographs of the minaret at Ghazni, Afghanistan (Courtauld Institute)
[The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron is available in the UK from Hive.co.uk.]