Saturday, 27 July 2013

Mr. B’s Reading Year No. 2: The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron (1937)

Bruce Chatwin writes the introduction to this travel book, marking this book, written in 1933, as perhaps the best written travel book ever and bemoaning the loss of so many sights, smells and experiences to history.   Starting in Venice, this is the description of Byron’s journey to Oxiana, land of the River Oxus on the border between Afghanistan and Russia, with much time in Persia, today’s Iran.  He makes it on to India and ends back at home in Savernake, near where I went to school, where he cryptically hands his notes to his mother to see what she makes of it – yes, it was published!  What a joy this book is to read.  What writing!  His particular interest is in the ancient architecture of the lands he travels through.  Towers, tombs, triumphal arches, even old cities, as well as mosques and mausoleums are brought to life, some over 1000 years old.  Along the way, the vistas and people he meets and how they live are wonderfully described.  This must have been a tough trip to make, from all perspectives.  Many people helped him, some hindered, including the Shah of Persia (not named, except as the nickname Marjoribanks) and his administration.  As ever, the people continue their lives in spite of their leaders, just as I found in Tehran in 2010, 77 years later.  I too visited Isfahan and marvelled at the beautiful and wonderfully constructed mosque of Sheikh Lutfullah near the Blue Mosque and saw the stone polo goal posts at each end of the parade ground in front.  Alas, I suspect many of the monuments Byron saw are no more, though the best are preserved as World Heritage sites, including ancient ziggurats. Persia is a romantic, interesting, hard working, well-educated country that still, after all its changes, deserves better leadership.  One hopes it will happen soon.  Visit if you can.  It is worth it.  Tragically, Robert Byron was torpedoed off West Africa in 1941 aged just 36, while working as a correspondent.  He published four travel books.

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