I began to feel dazed, dazed at the prospect of coming to a stop
The last entry of Robert Byron’s travelogue is dated to the 8th of July 1934. His journey started on the 20th of August the previous years. Considering he spent 11 months traveling (but probably more, since in the first entry he was already in Venice), we can understand his state of mind upon returning.
Returning is for Byron synonym of immobility: returning home is for him a collision “between eleven months’ momentum and the immobility if a beloved home”.
Byron, in these 11 months, travels across Iran and Afghanistan, meeting people, and visiting cities and monuments. The book that will emerge from this long journey is not only a travelogue but a sort of artistic Bildungsroman, where the author, who is also the main character, learns and develops a new taste and a new awareness for what concerns Islamic art. This growth is visible in the descriptions of the monuments and in the comparisons: if the first sites visited were compared to English and European architecture, in the descriptions of the last monuments Byron draws connections with Iranian and Islamic art. In this regard, The Road to Oxiana is a journey in space, but also in the world of art.
The person that comes back to England in 1934, after almost one year, is an expert in the field of Islamic art of Iran and Afghanistan.
It is not a coincidence that Robert Byron contributed to such an important work as the Survey of Persian art by Pope with essays on the Timurid art. Byron was one of the first European travelers to perform such a long journey in the area and came back to England with photos and notes on places that the majority of Europeans could only imagine up to that point.
The photos taken by Byron became an important source to Pope himself, for his book.
To us, Byron’s photos are even more valuable since they depict monuments that have vanished or have been heavily damaged after his visit. It is the case, for instance, with the Musalla of Herat: a monument already heavily damaged when Byron visited it, but that underwent even more damages in the following decades.
The Road to Oxiana is a formative novel, where the author, as well as the readers, learn how to appreciate Islamic art and how to look at it. The reader slowly develops the same awareness and fascination that Byron developed during his long journey.
For this reason, this book is a masterpiece, and it is a book that the more you read, the more you appreciate.