At a time when many people around the world are reluctant to venture beyond their front doors, travelogues can be particularly therapeutic. In late February, a few weeks before I was scheduled to fly to Uzbekistan for an academic exchange programme, I picked up Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana, hoping to get a flavour of travel in Central Asia from eight decades ago.
The Road to Oxiana is a landmark book in travel literature. In a series of snappy journal entries, Byron narrates a journey he made in 1933, when he was all of 28 years old, through Iran and Afghanistan to reach the banks of the Oxus River. The book broke the mould of the heroic British travel narrative, revelling instead in cultural confusion and mistranslations while documenting Central Asia’s medieval Islamic civilisations in relatively novel terms of respect and admiration.
While there remains, in the narrative, the clear whiff of a cocksure British elite, The Road to Oxiana still makes for a remarkable and engaging read. It is a celebration of the type of wide-ranging mobility currently denied to us.
Byron’s abiding passion was architecture: his book is, fundamentally, a testament to the importance of Iran and Afghanistan from the standpoint of the world’s built heritage. He sought out a tower in Gorgan where the body of the king was suspended in a glass coffin, and meticulously tracked down the monuments of Gohar Shad, a Timurid empress.
Byron also made signal contributions to the field of architectural history. Clambering up the walls of a river gorge, he determined the third-century palace of Ardashir to be the birthplace of the squinch – a support mechanism for domes – and therefore an architectural forerunner to monuments like the Taj Mahal or the US Capitol.
Elsewhere, Byron was left mesmerised by Islamic monuments. “I have never encountered splendour of this kind,” he remarked after stepping under the dome of the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque in Isfahan. Its brilliance outshone that of Versailles or St Peter’s Basilica. The shrine of Imam Reza at Mashhad was equally radiant: “It was as if someone had switched on another sun.”
Byron was also a shrewd observer of contemporary politics. In Britain, his vocal anti-Nazi sentiment estranged him from many fellow aristocrats (Byron was killed aboard a ship attacked by Nazis in 1941). Traveling through Iran, he quickly saw through the ruse that Reza Shah was an enlightened and modernising monarch. Dubbing the shah “Majoribanks” – “I always call Mussolini Mr. Smith in Italy” – he correctly diagnosed the shah as a blustering megalomaniac with a penchant for killing off former allies.
His political critiques were not limited to Iran. While he was prohibited from approaching the Soviet frontier, Byron reported ominously about Jews and Turkmens fleeing from the USSR. Impoverished Jewish refugees, indeed, feature across the book – in Italy, Iran, and Afghanistan, a spine-chilling signpost to what would soon transpire in the Second World War.
As for India, reached after a quick descent from the Khyber Pass, Byron hobnobbed with the British viceroy but declared his sympathies to be mostly with the nationalists.
Above all, The Road to Oxiana is an ode to the joy and pedagogical value of travel. “I might have been a dentist, or a public man, but for that first sight of a larger world,” he noted. As we remain locked up in our houses or apartments, and as international borders stay firmly shut, Byron’s descriptions of border-crossing become particularly evocative. He beautifully captured cultural and geographical zones of transition: the intermingling of Indian- and Russian-style horse carriages on a road in Afghanistan, or a mountain pass where, one side, water flowed to the Oxus and the Aral Sea while, on the other, it drained into the Indus and the Indian Ocean. “Geography has its excitements,” he wryly remarked.
Ultimately, Robert Byron never reached the Oxus River. Red tape and anti-Soviet paranoia kept him just short of his destination, where he “felt the presence of the river fifty miles away as one feels the presence of the sea before seeing it”. I finished the book just as the world began to shut down and – needless to say – my own plans for travelling to Uzbekistan quickly evaporated.
Byron’s unfinished journey can perhaps be seen as a metaphor for our current predicament: the interruption of our plans and ambitions, goals placed beyond reach, a world at the hinge of crisis. It is also a stirring reminder of the imperative to get out and explore the world around us once the lockdown is over. Oxiana still beckons.
Dinyar Patel is Assistant Professor of History at the University of South Carolina. He is the author of Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism.
Read the other articles in The Art of Solitude series here.