Pyongyang Review of Books // Robert Byron's 'The Road to Oxiana' and the literature of Central Asia

And the caravan is painted red and white
That means ev'rybody's staying overnight.
- Van Morrison

Bruce Chatwin wrote in his introductory essay to Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana that ‘genius visits Persia from the northeast’. To the northeast of Iran, of course, lies the vast expanse once commonly called ‘Turkestan’, today’s Central Asia, those lands over the Kopet-dag Mountains, across the Karakum Desert, and beyond the mighty Amu Darya, the Oxus River of antiquity, the old caravan roads stretching all the way to Cathay and India beyond the high passes. In a few words Chatwin summarises Bryon’s thesis that the artistic and spiritual origins of medieval Islamic architecture – the splendors of Isfahan and Herat, the marvels of Samarkand and Bokhara, the ruins of Merv to Dehli’s Taj Mahal – are rooted in that age-old interaction between the peoples of Persia, Turkestan, and their neighbours.

Byron’s thesis could easily be extended to literature. It was a photo of the Tower of Kabus in the Turcoman lands of northeast Iran that inspired Byron first to set out from Venice by steamer in August 1933. Landing in Levant, he then drove through Iraq, Persia, and Afghanistan to cross over the Khyber Pass into British India more than a year later. Byron then spent the next few years meticulously working his diaries into the lucid prose that would become The Road to Oxiana. This book has inspired generations of writers in the English language from Byron’s contemporaries of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh to more modern writers such as Paul Theroux and, of course, Bruce Chatwin.

Although Byron’s descriptions in The Road to Oxiana are exceptionally well-written, he has also chosen as his subject a region which has resonated with travellers and writers far beyond 20th century English-speaking adventurers. Across the millennia this region has inspired some of the greatest literature not only in its native Persian and Turkic languages, but also Arabic, Chinese, Russian, and German.

Some speculate that it was in the wilds of Central Asia where at the age of thirty, after he the prophet Zoroaster ‘abandoned his home and the lake of his home, and went into the mountains. Here he enjoyed his spirit and his solitude and for ten years did not tire of them’, before returning to the world of men to lay one of the foundations of world civilization. At least thus spoke the Zoroastrian scriptures and, many millennia later, Friedrich Nietzsche.

Much of the Persian national epic the Shahnemah, or the The Book of Kings, written down by Ferdowosi in Persian around the 10th century describes the struggle between the settled peoples of Iran and their semi-nomadic neighbors in Turan to the northeast. Ferdowsi himself lived in Khorasan - a region encompassing today’s northeast Iran and modern Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and part of Afghanistan – that also produced the polymath Avicenna, the poets Rumi and Farid ud-Din Attar, among many others.

Nearly 500 year later, Babur, the founder of Moghul India, described the culture, landscape, and nature of the region in great detail in his Baburnama written in Chagatay Turkic. And about the same time in China, Wu Cheng’en wrote The Journey to the West from ancient accounts, real and fictional, of earlier Tang Dynasty pilgrimages and military expeditions to inner Asia and India.

Time spent in the once remote outpost of Semey in today’s Kazakhstan is thought to have inspired elements of Dostoevsky’s keysky’s Crime and Punishment, while Andrei Platonov, perhaps modern Russia’s greatest prose writer, fell in love with Soviet Turkmenistan around the same time Byron set out in search of the Tower of Kabus.

Here on the Koryo Tours Blog, we’ll be exploring the literature of Central Asia and its relation to where we travel in Central Asia, including Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and Russia.

And the caravan is on it's way...

The Pyongyang Review of Books (PYRB) is a modest literary review of books. Regular visitors and browsers of Pyongyang’s bookstores and beyond.

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