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An eye opener in every way
on 15 September 2010
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.