Byron’s taste in The Road to Oxiana

Byron is known for writing everything he wanted: he had strong opinions and was not afraid to say anything. He was “opposed”, his friends will remember: opposed to authority, against norms, provocative in his style and manners.

In The Road to Oxiana, his political incorrectness emerges in many ways: Byron, for instance, makes fun of the Iranian government by calling the Shah “Marjoribanks” in a hilarious sketch that cites and mocks all the European dictators of the time, Mussolini (Mr. Smith), Hitler (Mr. Jones), Stalin (Mr. Brown).

Byron’s strong opinions are not only about politics, though: he has a strong taste for art and architecture and he is not afraid to say what he does not like in the sites and monuments he visits.

When it comes to art, Byron appears totally overwhelmed and fascinated by Islamic art: he falls in love with the Timurid and in front of the Iranian monuments he is happy to find himself totally detached from the European standards. Europe and European architecture become a mere reference and the Islamic art best known in the continent (Alhambra and Taj Mahal) are no longer aesthetically satisfying.

Naqsh-i Rustam. Photo by Robert Byron (link).

But not everything in Persia amazes the traveler: Byron is not easy to fascinate and more importantly he has a clear taste. He does not fall in love, like many Orientalists and travelers, with everything that is exotic and different from Europe. Being labeled Islamic is not enough to be appreciated by Byron’s eyes. Not every monument Robert Byron visits is beautiful to his eyes, but he is able, nonetheless,  to focus on particular aspects that he finds most noteworthy. For instance, while visiting the Ganj-i Ali Khan Complex in Kerman, Byron describes it as “an ugly building” but manage to pinpoint in the monument the mosaics, which he finds of great interest.

Likewise, he has no problem in deeming the decoration of the mosque of Shiraz, made in bricks and faience, “an unhappy combination”.

Byron has a clear taste then and is not blinded by a love for exotic art that prevents him from remaining focused and objective when describing the monuments. This is something uncommon and unusual: it is easy, and it is an attitude visible today also, to quickly define everything Islamic as beautiful. Byron does not make this mistake and keeps being focused on his aesthetic taste.

This said, it is even more curious to notice how Byron seems to despise Iranian and Afghan art when this is not Islamic. If it is true that he has a critical point of view on Islamic art, it is also true that throughout the travelogue, every time Byron is confronted with architecture and monuments that are not Islamic, he usually harshly criticizes them.

Persian sites such as Persepolis and Naqsh-i Rustam are totally despised. Byron describes the site and of course recognizes the historical importance of what he sees, but he cannot but dislike the sites, when it comes to their artistic value: in Persepolis he finds the columns architecturally infertile, the stairs, platforms, and doors having no artistic value, the decoration a “horrid shock”, and the crenellation ugly. Likewise, even if conceding the importance of the site, in Naqsh-i Rustam Byron finds the low-reliefs tedious and monotonous.

What strikes the reader, even more, is Byron’s attitude in front of the Bayman Buddhas: they are ugly, graceless, and clumsy. An opinion no one will dare to share now that the two Buddhas have been terribly destroyed by the Talibans.

The larger Buddha. Photo by Robert Byron (Conway).

Within Iran and Afghanistan, then, art and historical monument are beautiful as long as they are Islamic, preferably Timurid. And of course, if they match the taste of the traveler.

Outside Iran, Islamic art is not the same and Byron is no longer impressed: in the description of the Qutb Minar in Dheli, it is clear that Byron has an issue with the ‘Indian’ features of the monument. Even if the minaret has Ghaznavid influences (that Byron calls ‘Seljuks’), it becomes ugly and “loses it freedom” since the decorative patterns become ‘Indians’.

Detail of the second-story balcony and decoration. Photo by Aftab Jalia (archnet).

“It was curious at the Kutb to see ornament in the Seljuk style carved out of stone instead of stucco. The virtue goes out of it in this other material; it becomes Indian and painstaking, and loses its freedom.”

According to Byron Islamic art is magnificent, of course, yet, he is always very well aware of his taste and he does not compromise it in front of political correctness or temporary emotions. He does not fall in love with Islamic art per se: in his appreciation of the Islamic patterns, he is consistent with his feelings and tastes.


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