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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An eye opener in every way
This is a wonderful work, well worthy of the full five stars.

Byron's work concerns his travels around the near east and further afield into Persia (as was) and Afghanistan in search of the true origns of Islamic art and architecture. He is keen to seek out what he sees as the more tasteful genuine article, as opposed to the more overwrought, sentimental,...
Published on 15 Sep 2010 by Cardew Robinson

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2.0 out of 5 stars Flashman does Persia etc
I know this is a period piece and I know that one must make allowances for this but I just could not finish this book. It is set out in diary form and the descriptions are perfunctory and lack vividness. Byron is fairly good on the architecture he comes across but he is completely useless in describing the people and their customs. When he does turn his attention to...
Published 1 month ago by Matteo_B


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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An eye opener in every way, 15 Sep 2010
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This review is from: The Road to Oxiana (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
This is a wonderful work, well worthy of the full five stars.

Byron's work concerns his travels around the near east and further afield into Persia (as was) and Afghanistan in search of the true origns of Islamic art and architecture. He is keen to seek out what he sees as the more tasteful genuine article, as opposed to the more overwrought, sentimental, Alhambra-like architecture so beloved of those he dismisses as the "Omar Khayam brigade".

In this respect, Byron's work is firmly in the tradition of other scholar-traveller-writers like John Ruskin. As with a book like the latter's "The Stones of Venice", you will find a lot of meticulous and learned descriptions of the buildings that Byron saw along the way. I found myself re-reading a lot of these descriptive passages, since Byron's descriptions are so careful and evocative that it really is possible to picture in your mind's eye what he saw. This is a very welcome feature of the book for me, since with a young family and the political situation being what it is, I am unlikely to be following Byron's footsteps into Iran or Afghanistan anytime soon!

However, it's not just a digest of architectural wonders. The journey through these lands is just as important to this book. Having now read "The Road to Oxiana" I can clearly see why so many respected writers (Chatwin, Leigh Fermor et al) swear by it and why, in its way, the book initiated a quiet revolution in travel writing. It is written in diary form, and his personalised account of his travels and travails is very entertaining. His description of the journey with its mixture of fun and mishaps along the way serve to keep the narrative moving and to frame his descriptions of the art and architecture he goes in search of. In some passages Byron comes across as both adventurer AND aesthete, entertaining us to descriptions of his often difficult journies to some sites, and then treating us to a vivid description of what he saw when he got there.

If there is a drawback then it is, as Colin Thubron is careful to note in his informative introduction, Byron's stiff and superior attitude to some of the people he encounters. To be frank, he comes across as a sneering toff more than once. Then again, those were the prevailing attitudes at the time in the 30's when Britain was still a colonial power, so you just have to shrug them off. These are lapses into small mindedness and don't detract from the whole, however. What shines out from this book is Byron's irrepressible spirit and his sheer delight in both the countries he travelled in and the Islamic art he found there.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A man that travelled for all the right reasons, 21 Aug 2011
This review is from: The Road to Oxiana (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
The Road to Oxiana is a heady mix of travelogue, history and... a semi-academic discourse on architectural aesthetics.
OK, so I have to admit that, at very first, the passages on architecture are a very slight chore to read, but Byron's child-like enthusiasm for his subject swept me along until, quite soon, I found myself excited every time a new Kufic script appeared through the throng of the bazaar, or when the author discovers an early example of the squinch.

Squinch?

Before, I had no idea what a squinch even was... and now I notice them supporting London churches and art galleries. Byron artfully and poignantly indicates yet another aspect of the legacy that early Islam and the "Orient" have left for the world; a legacy that is perhaps overlooked.

More importantly, this ability to captivate the reader, irrespective of subject matter, is evidence of a great writer at work. Towards the final pages (tinged with irony and sadness) I felt an uneasy feeling that I was about to say goodbye to a good and interesting friend with whom I had shared an adventure. Byron is foremost an honest writer - there is no self-consciousness of technique here, or contrived attempts to excite. Subtlety most definitely wins the day.

And yes... perhaps he does complain at one point of not having a servant to brew his tea (although I don't remember that bit); and yes, he travels across Asia predominantly by car and truck, but - and you may differ here - I'm not automatically endeared to a travel book by an author having walked through a country (perhaps with an adorable, unexpected mascot thrown in for good measure). I'm not automatically endeared to a travel book by an author having kayaked along the Amazon with a toothpick. Yes, that's potentially very impressive, in the same way as a friend asking to be sponsored for an upcoming marathon, but it doesn't guarantee good literature.

Byron's main aim is to trace Islam's aesthetic legacy, and he does this by whatever means he can. He takes a truck across the Hindu Kush because that's what the Afghans do! He rode horses in north-western Persia (and parts of Afghanistan) because there were no roads! Again, this is a delightful illustration of his lack of pretension.

In Byron's own words:

"I wish I were rich enough to endow a prize for the sensible traveller; 10, 000 for the first man to cover Marco Polo's outward route reading three fresh books a week, and another 10, 000 if he drinks a bottle of wine a day as well. That man might tell one something about the journey. He might or might not be naturally observant. But at least he would use what eyes he had, and would not think it necessary to dress up the result in thrills that never happened and science no deeper than its own jargon."

I sincerely wish he had survived long enough to achieve his ambition. All in all, a dream of a book.
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37 of 39 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A rakish classic, 31 May 2008
By 
Minkle MacTinkle (A rock at the edge of the known world) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Road to Oxiana (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
Byron set out to investigate and explore Islamic architecture but he found himself doing far more. I don't doubt his interest and knowledge on the initial subject matter, but I feel it was mainly an excuse to express his unique perspective on all manner of things.
The narrative takes in the people and places surrounding his quest from Persia through to the Oxiana river in Turkestan (present day Afganistan I think). There is a vast cast of characters breezing in and out of the pages which gives it a real Jazz-age feel. This style is of its time and takes a while for the modern reader to be aquainted with the fractured descriptions. Once you get past this the book rewards you with intense dry humour and witty asides. Byron is at his best when recounting his rakish behaviour e.g - passing himself off as Muslim to enter a Mosque, he is also a master at recording and mocking numerous eccentric conversations.
This book is not really for a general readership, by this I mean if you enjoy those 'picking-olive-blossoms-in-the-Tuscan-breeze' type books you may not get into this. If you like well written classics from the Imperial past like Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene etc you will love this book.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Classic!, 4 Jun 2011
This review is from: The Road to Oxiana (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
This is quite simply the greatest English travel book of the twentieth century! A beautiful catalogue of fragmented impressions, and a genuine work of art in its own right.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Afghanistan before it was destroyed, 17 April 2012
By 
Ms. D. M. Neale "Dizzie Di" (Rochester, Kent) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Road to Oxiana (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
This book was written before WWII by a well-educated man who delighted in everything he saw. It should be essential reading for the younger generation, who have only been able to learn from the last thirty years of foreign invasion and destruction that the Afghans are fierce fighters who live in primitive circumstances. In fact, Afghan civilization is much older than ours in Europe. When Robert Byron travelled there, many ancient monuments could still be found and their age-old customs of civility and hospitality could still be enjoyed. Road to Oxiana may well be an instructive, eye-opening read. It is also totally delightful, beautifully written and often very funny.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Another way to walk in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, 2 Aug 2013
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This review is from: The Road to Oxiana (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
It does not matter which book I pick for reading, Alexander is always in the back of my mind. This is also the case when I hold The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron were it only because Alexander the Great spent nearly three years of his short life in Oxiana, corresponding more or less to today's Afghanistan.

Robert Byron travels from Venice, via Jerusalem, Damascus and Bagdad (Iraq) to Persia in 1933 and finally reaches Afghanistan in 1934, keeping a detailed diary of his journey. In those days the King of England, George V, was still emperor of India; Afghanistan was ruled by King Nadir Shah who was assassinated in November 1933 to be succeeded by his 19 years-old son Zahir Shah; the Imperial State of Persia was governed by Reza Shah Pahlavi; meaning that the reader gets a good picture of the peculiar background against which the story evolves.

What captivates me especially is the fact that part of the roads correspond exactly to those followed by Alexander some 2,000 years earlier. The landscape is a commanding factor in antiquity as well as today and the obvious itineraries always follow the same rivers, oasis and towns, skirting the same deserts and mountains, using the same passes and goat-tracks.

Byron is mostly interested in Islamic art and evidently he finds lots of examples along his journey, giving very detailed and lively descriptions, especially in Persia and later in Afghanistan. He often is not allowed to take pictures, so he makes drawings. The way he writes, however, corresponds in a way to drawing with words, stopping at the many discussions with officials as he moves from one stop to the next, generally by lorry but also by car or on horseback. Old caravanserais are still used when there is no local governor or friendly Brit around to offer him a room to spend the night and he relates all the folklore details of such encounters.

This book is extremely interesting from different points of view, either for its detailed Islamic architecture and art, or for daily life in that part of the Middle East in the early twentieth century. So in the end, I read it twice as after these most evident reasons I went in search of landscapes and cities which Alexander most probably encountered in places like Ecbatana, Persepolis, Pasargadae, Balkh, Kabul and Peshawar, crossing the Elbruz Mountains towards the Caspian Sea or his perilous march over the famous Khyber Pass of the Hindu Kush. Lots of pertinent information for whoever wants to take a closer look!
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2.0 out of 5 stars Flashman does Persia etc, 25 May 2014
This review is from: The Road to Oxiana (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
I know this is a period piece and I know that one must make allowances for this but I just could not finish this book. It is set out in diary form and the descriptions are perfunctory and lack vividness. Byron is fairly good on the architecture he comes across but he is completely useless in describing the people and their customs. When he does turn his attention to them, his views reek of arrogance and patronising superiority. One gets the impression that the damn natives are more of a nuisance than a cultural interest. This is about all I can say about the book. Byron strikes me as a cad and a snob and I really would not want him as a travelling companion. Anyway the book is certainly not the best early 20th Century travel book. Norman Douglas' Old Calabria or Alone beat this book hands down for colour and local empathy.
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4.0 out of 5 stars A true period piece, 7 April 2014
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K. Catleugh - See all my reviews
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The extraordinarily laid back travel arrangements and the resulting fascinating - but often very problematic progress provides glimpses of an area which is highly topical today. The political changes since the 1030s have ensured that we are looking at governance and dynamics of a world that no loger exists. The Empire and it's influence and reach were still very much a fact of life. National characteristics however, are not so much prone to change and Iran, Afghanistan and the adjoining areas are still inhabited by people recognisable as the heirs to Byron's contacts 80 years ago. The occasional muddled handling of continuity is a slight irritant; a better editor would surely have smoothed these out.
KC
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4.0 out of 5 stars A classic combining travel social comment and architecture, 8 Mar 2014
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It's easy to see why this has endured as a remarkable record of a journey made at a time when road travel was far from easy, and the politics of the area - Persia/Afghanistan - always problematic. The lengthy and comprehensive descriptions of the architecture/archaeology of the region may not be for everyone, but the richness and originality of description of colour and form keep the lay reader interested.

Byron's acid tongue provides some moments of great humour when he encounters pompous or self-important individuals, and his calm response to dangerous and uncomfortable circumstances earns the reader's admiration.

His understanding of the social and political issues in the region he travels through is valuable for the modern reader in understanding current issues in that region.
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5.0 out of 5 stars The Road to Oxiana, 9 Feb 2014
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This review is from: The Road to Oxiana (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
A classic of travel writing! Written in diary form, it takes you on a journey through 1930s Iran and Afghanistan with Byron and his companion, Sykes.
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The Road to Oxiana (Penguin Classics)
The Road to Oxiana (Penguin Classics) by Robert Byron (Paperback - 5 July 2007)
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