The Road To Oxiana by Robert Byron
Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007
In 1933 Robert Byron, British author and art critic, traveled through the Middle East to Oxiana, the country of the Oxus, the ancient name for the river that forms the border between Afghanistan and what was then the Soviet Union. On his journey he stopped in many cities, including Jerusalem, Baghdad, Teheran and Herat. The Road To Oxiana is his travel journal and it contains many different elements, like a collage. Newspaper clippings, letters, official forms, essays and dialogues make up a wonderfully intimate and witty description of his travels.
Most of Byron’s journey involved visiting mosques and monuments but the really entrancing parts of the book are the descriptions of the people Byron met and the things that happened to him along the way.
Yesterday morning we got up at three and were out of town by six, intending to make Isfahan in one day. After ten miles the road became an ice-floe; a drift had thawed and frozen again. I accelerated. We crashed on twenty yards, nearly overturned, and came to a lugubrious stop. At this moment the sun rose, a twinkle of fire lit the snowy plain, the white range of the Elbuzr was suffused with blue and gold, and a breath of warmth endeared the icy wind. Cheered by the beauty of the scene, we returned to the capital.
Then there are the conversations, which never failed to make me burst into laughter.
I met a young Swede at dinner, whose expensive jewellery and talk about his father’s estates made me wonder why he was living in Teheran.
Swede : I am in the business of cases.
R.B. : Cases?
Swede : Cases for sausages.
R.B. : Tins do you mean?
Swede : No, cases for sausages themselves made from sheep’s intestines. Some people think it is not a nice business. I do not always talk about it.
R.B. : I thought those cases were made of rice paper or some such material.
Swede : Not at all. Every sausage has a gut case.
R.B. : What happens, ha, ha, with a sausage six inches across?
Swede (seriously) : We use not only sheep’s guts, but also ox guts. The big intestine of the ox will hold the biggest sausage manufactured.
R.B. : But have Swedish cattle no intestines? Why come to Persia for them?
Swede : Persian cases are of a high grade. The first grade comes from the Kalmuckian steppe in Russia. The second from Australia and New Zealand. The next from Persia. It is an important business for Persia. Cases are one of the largest exports under the Swedish-Persian trading agreement.
R.B. : What made you choose cases as a profession?
Swede : It is my father’s business.
Hence the estates, I suppose.
Even as a vegetarian I found this whole exchange at the dinner table very funny. As I was reading I thought of all the changes that have taking place in this area of the world.
Byron changed travel writing by using different elements, humor and very irreverent comments in his work. His book has influenced travel writers ever since. Bruce Chatwin described it as “a sacred text, beyond criticism” and carried it with him through central Asia. A wonderful collection of photos from Byron’s journey to Oxiana can be found here.