Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Road to Oxiana

In 1933 an Englishman named Robert Byron began a pilgrimmage to Persia, or what is now called Iran.

His main interest was Islamic architecture, and one of his goals was to reach the ancient river of Oxus (now called the Amu), which at the time marked the boundary between Afghanistan and the former USSR.

His description of this journey has been called the first modern travel book for its unique combination of humour, erudition, and splendid writing. His influence on Bruce Chatwin is immediately obvious.

One of my favourite passages, which even my schoolboy French was able to comprehend, takes place in Damascus:

“Guide, Monsieur?”


“Qu’est-ce vous désirez, Monsieur?”


“D’où venez-vous, Monsieur?”


“Où allez-vous, Monsieur?”


“Vous avez des affaires ici, Monsieur?”


“Vous avez des affaires à Baghdad, Monsieur?”


“Vous avez des affaires à Téhéran, Monsieur?”


“Alors, qu’est-ce que vous faites, Monsieur?”

“Je fais un voyage en Syrie.”

“Vous êtes un officier naval, Monsieur?”


“Alors, qu’est-ce que vous êtes, Monsieur?”

“Je suis homme.”



“Je comprends. Touriste.”

It's a silly passage, but a good example of Byron's irrepressible wit, which runs throughout the book.

Sadly, the places he visited (Iran under Reza Shah, Afghanistan with Russia menacing the border) are no less volatile today. When he learns a rumour is circulating that he works for the Secret Service, he remarks prophetically, "Next time I do this kind of journey, I shall take lessons in spying beforehand. Since one has to put up with the disadvantages of the profession anyhow, one might as well reap some of its advantages, if there are any."

Back in England he spoke out loudly against the policy of appeasement, and in 1941 agreed to work for British Intelligence. The ship he set out on to return to the Middle East was torpedoed before it arrived. He was only 36.

The edition of The Road to Oxiana pictured above contains excellent introductions by Rory Stewart and Paul Fussell, as well as maps and several B&W photos of the buildings that Byron sought out.

If you enjoy travel writing, read this book.