I tend to slip into an unconscious routine in bookshops, drawn past the endless racks of Crime and Romance, through the Bestsellers and Autobiographies to the dark corner that is Travel. Once there I make my way along the shelves, halting briefly at R for Raban, T for Thubron or C for Chatwin. One day I encountered a rogue B for Byron surrounded by slim Chatwin volumes, and I picked up “The Road to Oxiana” without the faintest idea of what I had just discovered.
In 1933-4 Robert Byron travelled to Iran (then known as Persia) and Afghanistan. It was an age before mass-tourism, and the lands that lay beyond the Oxus River were rarely visited. Persia was under the grip of the Shah, who had decided to turn the country into a police state along the lines of the fascists he so admired, and Afghanistan was if anything even more chaotic than it is today. Fascinated by Islamic architecture, Byron is drawn towards the glories of the region’s ancient past, and there are wonderfully descriptive passages on many of the sites, such as when he writes of the temples of Baalbek in Lebanon having a faintly powdery feel to the stonework like bloom upon a plum, or looking up at the magnificent Six Columns when the early morning sun paints them peach-gold against the deep blue of the sky.
Some of the descriptions in the book, especially with regard to architecture, are almost akin to a scholarly essay in the depth of knowledge Byron displays, and yet the narrative remains interesting due to his perpetual enthusiasm on the subject. On reaching Esfahan he describes the town’s beauty as stealing up on him unawares: “before you know it, Isfahan [sic] has become indelible, has insinuated itself into that gallery of places which everyone privately treasures.” He compares the exquisite Mosque of Sheikh Lutfullah with Versailles, or the Doge’s Palace, or St Peters, and considers it more splendid than all three. In Meshed, Persia’s holiest city, Byron is drawn inexorably toward the town’s crowning glory, the Mosque of Gohar Shad. Entry is prohibited to non-Muslims, but such minor details do not deter him, and a disguise is found – burned cork to darken his complexion, a coat borrowed from the boarding house servant, the regalia topped with a Pahlevi hat. This is gripping stuff, reminiscent of Richard Burton disguising himself as an Arab to get into Mecca, but it is the mosque itself that takes centre stage, with a conglomeration of spectacular archways interspersed with minarets, liquid arabesques, vaults alive with calligraphy and turquoise Kufic script unfurling along the domes.
Strewn throughout the book are comical anecdotes and character sketches of the people he meets along the way, such as Shir Ahmad, the Afghan ambassador, who resembles a tiger and roars like one – his dialogue is marked with musical notation such as [piano] or [fortissimo] indicating the sheer volume that he produces when warming to his theme. Caustically witty, Byron captures a character neatly in a few deft phrases, whether dealing with officious policemen, snobbish Europeans, or loose-limbed Pathans in the bazaars of Herat carrying rifles decorated with roses. He lambasts the British administration in Cyprus for turning ancient ruins into a fairground by sticking up signs for tourists saying “bathhouse” or “dining room” on Roman ruins in much the same way that you’d see a sign saying “teas” or perhaps “Gents”. Nowadays, of course, such things are commonplace. With a wonderfully dry humour he makes light of his discomforts (“As I shall probably be here for the rest of my life – which won’t last long at this rate – I have decided to clean the room,”) and his discomforts are many; the fleas in an Azerbaijani guesthouse that torment them throughout the night and leave them covered in boils, hitching a lift through the desert in an open lorry full of pilgrims, or riding a horse through a snowstorm for 13 hours while stricken with dysentery. But it is the love of travel, and the urge to always go further, which draws him onwards, and which continually emerges to make this such a memorable read.
“The Road to Oxiana” is one of the great travel books; one that has often been emulated but never equalled. In my Picador edition, published in 1981 and now falling apart, there is an introduction by Bruce Chatwin speaking of his own journeys to the region and of how “The Road to Oxiana” had shaped his itinerary, and to an extent his style. At the time his introduction was written in 1980 the Russians had just invaded Afghanistan, and in it he predicts that the Afghans will rise up and do something dreadful to their invaders. History has of course proved him correct. Byron himself wanders around the ruined city of Balkh, levelled by Genghis Khan in 1220 AD, in the company of a guide who remarks: “It was beautiful until the Bolsheviks destroyed it a few years ago”, and later travels to Bamiyan, location of the famed giant Buddhas that stared out across the valley until they were blown up in a tragically ignorant act of cultural vandalism by the Taliban. History repeats itself amidst the ruins of other ages, and nowhere more frequently, or more poignantly, than in the lands beyond the Oxus.