The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron
Much has changed in the Middle East since Robert Byron’s 280-page travelogue, The Road to Oxiana, hit bookstore shelves in 1937: the Islamic Revolution overthrew the Shah of Iran, vast swaths of Palestine became Israel, Pakistan broke away from India, Afghanistan went through a Soviet invasion, a multi-stage civil war, Taliban rule and an American invasion. In short, it’s been a busy eighty years. Byron’s insightful book is a thought-provoking odyssey through an almost forgotten time in a land where hope still existed and jihadism calmly slept in its crib.
Traveling from Venice through the British-occupied Cyprus, Byron—along with his on-again off-again companion, author Christopher Sykes—journeys across Palestine, Syria and Iraq before heading into the Shah’s Persia and tribal Afghanistan. All the while, exploring and cataloguing some of the greatest architectural treasures of the region, from the majestic Sheikh Loffollah Mosque, with its almost mystical dome design, to the last remaining vestiges of the Silk Road, Ghazni’s Towers of Victory.
Themes of politics and history are vital to setting the journey in the context of its time. Nazi Germany—along with anti-Nazi expats—come up throughout the trek be it in conversation or subtle insinuation between Byron and the adventurers he encounters, giving a foreboding aura akin to viewing a film noir where a bomb is hidden in the trunk of the hero’s car, you being aware of the coming doom while the characters sit silent, oblivious to that hidden future. Bolshevik expansion into Afghanistan brings with it fleeing Russians who share their experiences with Byron of what it means to live under the iron fist of Stalinism. Local bureaucracy acts as a tertiary character, appearing in the most unexpected points in the journey be it getting letters from local governors to go from one town to another, renting government approved horses or taking photos of a Persian ruin. The odyssey is as dream-like as that Alice in Wonderland.
But don’t think that Byron’s masterpiece is as dry as the deserts and steppes that he traversed. Written in poetic prose, Road to Oxiana’s centers on the simple human details of the way that people interact with each other in the vast landscapes of the pre-air travel era. While wayfaring from mountain-encircled Tehran to the arid Herat, Byron encounters murder, flooding and a blizzard that force him back, stalling his quest by several months. And the characters encountered along his journey are as colorful as the Afghan flower fields in spring: generous peasants, clueless tourists, nosy imams, frightened police officers, obstreperous archeologists and larger than life ambassadors and governors, among whom the fable-reciting Shir Ahmad is bound to find a permeant place in the reader’s memory.
Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana, is an experience worth undertaking. Overflowing with historical insight, thought-provoking anecdotes and perception-changing reflections, it’s a book that any reader will ponder for weeks after they’ve put it down. After finishing the book, the reader’s emotions will mimic Byron’s, a feeling of being “dazed at the prospect of coming to a stop, at the impending collision between eleven month’s momentum and the immobility of a beloved home.”1 In short, the book awakes one’s curiosity and a need to quench a deep thirst within each one of us, simply known as, imagination.
By Adam Zmarzlinski.
Cite this article as: Adam Zmarzlinski, “The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron,” in Open Culture, 12/07/2017, https://oc.hypotheses.org/431.
- Robert Byron. The Road to Oxiana, New York: Oxford University Press, 1982, 286.