I think Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana would be better read on the ground he covers. The amount of detail about the towns (living and dead) and buildings and monuments he visits is overwhelming when you’re reading it with your feet up at home, but it would very likely be amazing if you were standing in front of what’s he’s describing: “At Hamadan we eschewed the tombs of Esther and Avicennna, but visited the Gumbad-i-Alaviyan, a Seljuk mausoleum of the twelfth century, whose uncoloured stucco panels, puffed and punctured into a riot of vegetable exuberance, are yet as formal and rich as Versailles–perhaps richer considering their economy of means; for when splendour is got by a chisel and a lump of plaster instead of the wealth of the world, it is splendour of design alone.” (p.51)
I know now that the two major features the Muslims contributed to the world of architecture were the dome and the arcade. He also spends a great deal of time looking at towers with caps that make them look like penises, which gets a little tedious.
But there are sit-up-with-a-jerk historical echoes in the present day, too: “In 1885 the military came to the rescue after all. Russian troops were massing on the north-west frontier of Afghanistan, and the Government of India could not stop them because neither it nor the Afghans knew where the frontier was.“(p 92)
And there is also great writing: “No Persian would venture to entertain a single guest, much less give a party, without carpets. When dancing began, the floor rose like an angry sea, and not until several couples had been wrecked were nails employed to quiet the woolen breakers.“(p 173)
There is a new preface by Rory Stewart, who wrote The Places in Between and was responsible for bringing this book back into print, and an introduction by the fabulous Paul Fussell (I strongly recommend his Thank God for the Atom Bomb).
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