“One thinks of…” Robert Byron describing monuments

As I have already written, the Road to Oxiana can be seen as an artistic  Bildungsroman, where the author, while traveling, becomes more and more aware of Islamic art. This awareness changes Byron’s perspectives and point of view: the more Byron travels, the more knowledge of Islamic art and architecture he builds.

This background change is clearly visible in the descriptions of the monuments.

Particularly at the beginning of his long journey, Robert Byron has a tendency to focus on the Western features of the buildings, and he frequently compares the monuments he visits with European architecture.

For instance, when in front of the Dome of the Rock, visited as early as the 6th of September 1933, Byron focuses on the Greek and Byzantine features that are visible in both the architecture and decoration of the building.

The reading room of the Marciana Library, Venice. Byron wrote that the Great Mosque of Damascus reminded him of the Library. Photo by histouring.com.

When describing the  Umayyad mosque of Damascus (13th of September 1933), instead, he compares it to the Sansovino Library (Biblioteca Marciana) of Venice.

When in Iran, this attitude is still visible, in many descriptions: the mosque of Varamin reminds him of the Tintern Abbey, the brick of the Gunbad-i Qabud are similar to those of “an English kitchen garden”, the pillars of the Tarik Khana “recall an English village church of the Norman period”. In front of the Tomb of Uljaytu in Sultaniyya, and its wonderful dome, he cannot but think of Brunelleschi.

This attitude, anyway, fades away with time: the more he travels, the less European architecture is a reference for his descriptions.

The last comparison to European architecture is in the entry dated 9th of January 1934, when Byron compares the Mashhad-i Bayazid Bastami and its towers to the “Kentish oast-houses”.

Byron compares the Mashhad-i Bayazid Bastami and its towers to the Kentish oast-houses. Photo by Phil Parsons.

At this point,  it looks like Byron has built up enough knowledge about Islamic architecture and art to be able to enjoy the monuments without thinking too much about improbable comparisons with European, familiar architecture. Instead, the terms for comparison that emerge are taken from Islamic and Iranian architecture itself.

In the description of the architecture of the Friday Mosque of Isfahan, Robert Byron compares the features of the  with building with those of the tomb tower of Maragha (the Gundab-i Qabud); and the Shrine of the Twelve Imams in Yazd “has a frieze of Kufic in the same style as that inside the Pir Alam Dar at Damghan”, that was one of the very first monuments Byron visited.

Interestingly enough, in the entry dated 30th of May 1934, Byron goes even further and compares the dome of the Shrine of Khoja Abu Nasr Parsa with two other domes: one in Herat and the second one in Samarkand. He does not give any other indications, but reading the article Byron himself published in the Bulletin of the American Institute for Persian Art and Archaeology a couple of years before the travelogue Road to Oxiana was published, it is clear he is referring to the dome of Timur’s tomb in Samarkand and the Timurid mausoleum in Herat.

The Timurid mausoleum in Herat is the Gawhar Shad mausoleum, that Byron visited 6 months before, on the 23rd of November 1933. Instead, the Tomb of Timur in Samarkand was not visited by Byron during this trip, but he frequently cites it in the travelogue for its magnificence.

Tintern Abbey: recalled by Byron while visiting the mosque of Varamin. Photo by Mark Fowler.

Comparing the references he makes in the first and last descriptions of Islamic monuments it is beautiful to notice how in The Road to Oxiana we witness a change in the taste of the writer: he grows, learns, and becomes more and more aware of Islamic art and architecture.

It is in this regard that The Road to Oxiana can be seen as an artistic Bildungsroman: the author develops a new taste, that is no longer relying on his European origin and culture, but that is built up on the experiences of the author.

This is clearly a narrative device since the book has been written well after the trip actually took place: the Road to Oxiana was written while the author was in England. This change in the point of reference becomes even more meaningful to understand how Byron built the book and the narration: also architectural comparisons are used to create the setting and the idea of travelling.

Highlighting this smaller features of The Road to Oxiana helps us really appreciating the book, its style, and its construction.

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