With Toby Ash at The Browser, Gall discussed five notable books on foreigners in Afghanistan, including:
The Road to OxianaRead about another book on the list.
by Robert Byron
Your next choice divides opinion. [The explorer Wilfred] Thesiger, I believe, thought it was nonsense while Bruce Chatwin described it as a “sacred text beyond criticism”.
I think it’s one of the classic books about travelling in Afghanistan. Robert Byron is an intellectual – unlike Newby, whose genius is in the way he can see the funny side of everything. Byron is more serious, but they complement one another in a way. Byron goes to places like Herat to look at the minarets. He says the citadel’s minarets were “the most beautiful example of colour in architecture ever devised by man to the glory of his God and himself”.
The purpose of his journey is to search for the roots of Islamic architecture, isn’t it?
Yes, that’s exactly right and Herat figures as a highlight in the history of Islamic architecture.
He didn’t much like the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, did he?
No, he wasn’t impressed. I think that’s rather strange since I think Bamiyan is magnificent. Although the buddhas have been destroyed, the place to me still has enormous power. There is talk of restoring them. Whether they will do it, I don’t know. This book is a wonderful diary and very amusing. There are lots of wonderful conversations with people he meets on his journey. Byron is a good travelling companion. It’s fun to travel with him and hear what he has to say, although he is quite a snob.
Yes, he comes across as an aesthete who likes gossip and is happy to express often quite outrageous opinions.
Yes. That’s true when it came to the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Of them, he says: “Neither has any artistic value. But one could bear that; it is their negation of sense, their lack of any pride in their monstrous flaccid bulk, that sickens.” It’s very extreme and I wouldn’t agree with any of that at all. But it’s quite entertaining to read, even though you end up thinking what a frightful snob he is. But the book is a must for anyone thinking of travelling to Afghanistan and that part of the world.
Also see Thomas Barfield's five books on Afghanistan and Ann Marlowe's five best books about Afghanistan.