The Road to Oxiana

Robert Byron, on his 1933-34 travel in
Palestine, Persia, Afghanistan, Turkestan

Within are discerning and occasionally opinionated observations on people, custom and local architecture. Although not light reading because of the details on history and historical ruins, still, his writing is precise and well-crafted.

Reading him gives me the immersive feeling I was there in Teheran, Isfahan, Herat, Kabul and Gumbad-i-Khabus, soaking in the rain, picking fleas off the skin, arguing with frontier guards, and admiring the harsh beauty of the desolate land.

There was only one sour note in his account – his uncharitable description of the two great Buddhas in Bamian as “monstrous”, “unbeautiful” and “unfresh”. He viewed them as “idols” and remarked how Arab conquerors came, exterminated the monks living there, and broke the legs of the larger Buddha. One feels that he would have great difficulty raising any objection, if he were alive today, when the Talibans completely smashed the two Buddhas.

Afghanistan, Kashmir and central Asia have not always been inhabited by murderous tribesmen. Before the 13th Century, the region was a collection of peaceful Buddhist kingdoms that were more interested in spreading the Dharma, producing magnificient mountain paintings and sculptures to glorify Buddha and the Bodhisattvas, and sending missionaries to China and Tibet. The Arab invaders came like a plague and wiped out everything and re-settled the land, blanketing it with their dark and vicious culture to this day.

In February 1941, Robert Byron sailed from Scotland in a convoy for the Mediterranean. His ship was torpedoed and went down with all hands. It was a day or two just before his 36th birthday. The Talibans, too, met a violent end, only this time it was from American bombs falling out of the sky.

The Road to Oxiana stirs the wanderlust in every free-spirited adventurer. One wants to rush out and buy a plane ticket to Kabul, as soon as the dust of war stirred up by the Talibans and the American marines, has settled.

– Francis Chin, July 2001, January 2003

Page numbers in the excerpts are from the Folio Society edition (2000):


The Afghans
Hawk-eyed and eagle-beaked, the swarthy loose-knit men swing through the dark bazaar with a devil-may-care self-confidence. They carry rifles to go shopping as Londoners carry umbrellas. Such ferocity is partly histrionic. The rifles may not go off. The physique is not so impressive in the close-fitting uniform of the soldiers. Even the glare of the eyes is often due to make-up. But it is tradition; in a country where the law runs uncertainly, the mere appearance of force is half the battle of ordinary business. It may be an inconvenient tradition, from the point of view of government. But at least it has preserved the people's poise and their belief in themselves.

They expect the European to conform to their standards, instead of themselves to his, a fact which came home to me this morning when I tried to buy some arak; there is not a drop of alcohol to be had in the whole town.

Here at last is Asia without an inferiority complex. Amanullah (king of Afghanistan), the story goes, boasted to Marjoribanks (author's nickname for the Shah of Persia) that he would Westernise Afghanistan faster than Marjoribanks could Westernise Persia. This was the end of Amanullah, and may like pronouncements long be the end of his successors.

[Herat, Nov 21, 1933, p.98]

The pleasure of a walk
The pleasure of a walk in the rain this afternoon was completed by the clutch of a corpse. It was passing on a stretcher, the road was a bog, and we collided; the hands and feet, escaping from a check table-cloth, beckoned convulsively.  [Persia, p.155]

Rare moment of absolute peace
A little breeze stirred, and for the first time in months I felt a wind that had no chill in it. I smelt the spring, and the rising sap. One of those rare moments of absolute peace, when the body is loose, the mind asks no questions, and the world is a triumph, was mine. So much it meant to have escaped from Teheran.  [Isfahan, p.154]

Starlit night
We arrived on a dark but starlit night. This kind of night is always mysterious; in an unknown country after a sight of the wild frontier guards, it produced an excitement such as I have seldom felt.

[On first reaching Herat, p.98]

Sea of green
Suddenly, as a ship leaves an estaury, we came out on to the steppe: a dazzling open sea of green. I never saw that colour before. In other greens, of emerald, jade, or malachite, the harsh deep green of the Bengal jungle, the sad cool green of Ireland, the salad green of Mediterranean vineyards, the heavy full-blown green of English summer beeches, some element of blue or yellow predominates over the others. This was the pure essence of green, insoluble, the colour of life itself. The sun was warm, the larks were singing up above. Behind us rose the misty Alpine blue of the wooded Elburze. In front, the glowing verdure stretched out to the rim of the earth.

[On first perceiving the steppe, p.225]

Reading Proust
I have been reading Proust for the last three days and begin to observe the infection of uncontrolled detail creeping into this diary.  [In Turkestan, p.262]

It is cold. The sun has gone down. The mullahs have gone in and their pupils with them. The lustre has gone from the blue towers and the green corn. Their shadows have gone. The magic scent has gone. The summer has gone, and the twilight brings back the spring, cold and uncertain. I must go.

Goodbye, Gohar Shad and Baisanghor. Sleep on there under your dome. To the sound of boys' lessons. Goodbye, Herat. 

[Herat, p.252]


Photographs below, taken by Robert Byron in his travel, 1933-34
Tower of Kabus in Persia  bottom: Tower of Victory in Ghazni
The mihrab in the mosque in Ardistan, dating from 1158