The Road to Oxiana

Robert Byron

Picador 1981 [1937]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2000
In 1933 and 1934 Robert Byron spent ten months travelling around Persia and Afghanistan; The Road to Oxiana is his account of that trip. Taking the form of a diary, it weaves descriptions of people and places and the mechanics of travel together with architectural and historical digressions. The result is entertaining, even enthralling in places, but in some ways also superficial.

Byron's primary goal was to visit monuments and buildings, and a good deal of The Road to Oxiana is taken up with architecture. This is never boring or staid, however, with Byron's lively prose and strong personal opinions (including an aversion to Buddhist and Greek art) making even the sections I barely understood rather fun. As an example, here is a short comment from Delhi, right at the end of the trip.

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.
There are also digressions on the history — the Achaemenids, the Sassanids, the Seljuks, the Timurids — and comments on the current politics, on the Anglo-Russian conflicts over Afghanistan, the effects of westernisation on the region, and so forth.

Byron's great talent is his ability to capture something of a scene or a meeting in a few words. He is a rather detached and unemotional narrator, however: we never feel threatened by the dangers he faces or exult with him at his successes. (On the other hand, neither does he inflict on us the artificial second-hand nostalgia of Bruce Chatwin's introduction to this edition.) Nor do we get much of a picture of any of the people Byron met, or of his travelling companion Christopher Sykes. Indeed he seems quite insensitive to people and culture, with that careless arrogance of the English imperial elite abroad: only a month before the end of the trip, for example, do he and Christopher realise that they can't treat the Afghan guards accompanying them as if they were English domestic servants.

I know too little to really appreciate Byron's architectural commentary. Outside of that there is little of intellectual substance in The Road to Oxiana: the history is episodic, the comments on contemporary politics are often uninformed, and there is little of ethnographic depth. When all is said and done, I think I would have enjoyed as much and learnt more from an introduction to Islamic art and architecture, a history of Persia and Afghanistan, and something about life in the region in the 1930s. But it is perhaps travel writing generally that doesn't appeal to me: The Road to Oxiana is certainly an outstanding example of the genre.

October 2000

External links:
- buy from or
Related reviews:
- books about Central Asia + Mongolia
- books about architecture + urbanism
- more travel
%T The Road to Oxiana
%A Byron, Robert
%I Picador
%D 1981 [1937]
%O paperback, index
%G ISBN 0330264451
%P 286pp