Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana is certainly one of the best-known and most-read travelogues: ‘perhaps the best travel book of the 20th century’, it’s book no. 40 in the list of the 100 best nonfiction books of The Guardian. The book is a marvelous and addictive account of the 10-month-long journey of Robert Byron across the Middle East, from Venice to Iran and Afghanistan.
Byron set out on his journey in August 1933. Apparently, the primary impulse for this travel to such a remote area, came from a photo of Gonbad-e Qabus: after seeing the image of the funerary tower, in the middle of the Turkmen steppe, Byron decides to start his personal quest for the Central Asian roots of Islamic art. Arthur Upham Pope, the architectural historian, provided him with all the information needed on the history of Persian architecture prior the departure. And the architecture is the fil rouge that connects the whole travelogue.
Byron stops and visits as many monuments as possible and his journal is full of evocative descriptions of Central Asian architecture. However, Byron’s tribute to Central Asian monuments is not confined to the descriptions in the travelogue: the British traveler also took photos. Lots of valuable photos, that were also included in Pope’s monumental work Survey of Persian Art. These photos, even more importantly, depict buildings that in many cases have since been destroyed or incompletely restored.
What I want to do here is to set off with Byron in his quest for the roots of Islamic Art. In the next weeks, I want to follow Byron’s journey throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, stopping with him in front of the monuments he visits, reading his descriptions, checking his photos and giving more information on the inscriptions, on the history of the monuments itself and the context. I will also include some discussion on the book, its author, and the context of this incredible journey.
It will be a huge journey, with much to be discovered. Let’s start then.
The Road to Oxiana – the book and the editions
The English version is, of course, available in various editions and format: on archive.org, it can be downloaded for free. For a printed edition, I would suggest the one edited by Penguin Classic, with an introduction by Colin Thubron. The English edition I am using, instead, is the Kindle version, edited by MarcoPolo Editions. This edition features very brief but informative and useful notes and links to online resources, most importantly to Byron’s photos on archnet and on the catalog of The Courtauld Institute of Art.
My personal copy of the book is the one that I found at my parent’s home: a beautiful and poetic Italian translation of the book, published by Adelphi, which has marked my first encounter with the Islamic monuments of Central Asia.