“I have never encountered splendour of this kind before”. Visiting Isfahan with Robert Byron

On paper it sounded like a good idea: visiting a country whilst reading about it, journeying through the physical space and the mental one concocted by a great travel writer, attempting to match my experiences to those of the author. I was going to travel alone, a great book as a companion.
Robert Byron felt like the perfect choice. He’d made a positive impression on me from the start, for I’d heard that one of the highlights of his journalistic career was getting the sack from the Daily Mail, something that – had it happened to me – I’d have worn as a badge of honour. Then there was the book itself. The Road to Oxiana, the travelogue of a journey from Europe to Afghanistan, sounded irresistible. And it came with the endorsement of Colin Thubron (“some of the most precise and beautiful architectural descriptions in the language”) and Bruce Chatwin (“a sacred text).
Alas, it didn’t work. I don’t know why so many classics end up irritating me – Freud, once again, would be nodding knowingly – but such was the case with The Road to Oxiana. As the chapters unfolded, I found that the things I preferred to yet another page of that toff moaning about everything included: the nonstop bleating of a gang of spoilt brats, vacationing with their family in my same hotel; the rattling of the old aircon that regularly awoke me when it spluttered into life at 3 AM; another spoonful of the sticky mint mutton with lentils that made up the main breakfast staple. I don’t know what Chatwin and Thubron were on about – well, you can’t really slag off a book for which you’re writing the introduction for, can you? – but I was seriously finding it hard not to throw it away.
Things lumbered on until one morning at breakfast. In the crepuscular light of that room – the windows were inevitably blocked by pink curtains – I was juggling slabs of flatbread and sticky jam, whilst trying to read yet another page. The Road was my only book, and alternatives were pretty scarce. Then, unexpectedly, it happened.
“From the eleventh century, architects and craftsmen have recorded the fortunes of the town, its changes of taste, government and belief. The buildings reflect these local circumstances, but a few illustrate the heights of art independently, and rank Isfahan amongst those rarer places, like Athens or Rome, which are the common refreshment of humanity. The two dome-chambers of Friday Mosque point their distinction by their difference”.
At last, I was hooked. A break from the endless tirade of complaints, scorn and contempt! Within minutes I was out, trusting my photocopied Japanese map, walking towards the Friday – or Jameh – mosque. I couldn’t wait to see the building that had the power to turn that irritating sod into an adoring dervish.
Abdolrazzagh street is a main thoroughfare and a border, for it stands between the wealthier – and perhaps more salubrious – blocks of the south, and the old city in the north. I felt as if I was crossing a physical divide: over there were LED billboard, here hand-painted signs; there ice cream parlours, here pumpkin seed sellers. It went on: women with scarves precariously pinned to their ponytails and chadors, wealth and struggles to make ends meet, Korean SUVs and crumbling Paykan sedans.
An almost-deserted square appeared behind a clog of noisy roadworks; Imam Ali square. A newer, rougher, copy of Naqsh-e Jahan. To the north I could see the brown domes of Jameh mosque: I entered the bazaar, which continued uninterrupted from its gate on Naqsh, and almost by accident I found the entrance. The Friday mosque.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
“Here the whole history of the town is pictured in a single building and its restorations; the charm of Safavid colour recedes before its venerable grandeur. Much of it is clumsy, some ugly. But the great egg-dome of plain brick has few equals for that blind expression of content which is the virtue of Mohammadan domes”.
I read these lines as I stepped into the courtyard, finding an oasis of peace. A few women and men rested in the shadow, behind curtains drawn to protect them from the eyes of tourists who wanted to add another one to their Instagram feeds. Prayer carpets lied rolled up under the sun. A woman in overalls patiently laboured away on a stone inscription, restoring it with imperceptible touches of her chisel. An elderly janitor swept the courtyard, a Sisyphean task in a desert city. In front and behind me the two dome-chambers loomed, models for a style that became mainstream, in town, some four centuries later. This was the mother of all the Isfahan mosques.
A glass door led into the southern dome chamber. “In the larger twelve massive pillars engage in a Promethean struggle with the weight of the dome” I read in the pools of clarity granted by the occasional skylight. But it was clear that Byron preferred the smaller one, on the other side of the piazza. It was in that one, he maintained, that “embodies the precious moment between too little experience and too much, when the elements of construction have been refined of superficious bulk, yet still withstand the allurements of superfluous grace”. I looked on at the shapes, at the ornate brickwork, and read on. “This is the perfection of architecture, attained not so much by the form of the elements but by their chivalry of balance and proportion. And this small interior comes nearer to that perfection than I would have thought possible outside classical Europe”.
I lost myself in the forest of the columns behind the chamber Byron loved so much. Did I feel the same? Frankly, no. I felt more drawn towards the side iwans, with their ornate roofs, and towards the halls that ran around the piazza, with their columns, crooked by the years and inhabited by pigeons. Rather than by the single chamber, I was captivated by the whole building. Before Jameh, this architecture didn’t exist. Jameh was the seminal moment in Persian religious architecture. I read on, and found that, for once, we were in agreement.
“One wonders what circumstance at that moment induced such a flight of genius. Was it the action of a new mind from Central Asia on the old civilization of the plateau, a procreation by nomadic energy out of Persian aestheticism?” He left the question hanging, unanswered, and so did I.
Byron calls Isfahan’s main square, which my map names Naqsh-e Jahan, Maidan. Its main attraction is, undeniably, the Imam mosque, which, at his time, was still known as the Royal mosque. Whatever lyricism had possessed Byron at the Jameh must’ve fizzled out by the time he arrived there, for he was back to being his usual self
The Imam mosque’s dazzling shapes and tiles, became, in his words, “huge acreage of coarse floral tilework”, dear only to the “Omar Khayyam fiend” – and I sensed some beef with an unnamed rival – “pretty, if you like, even magnificent, but not important in the general scale of things”. My humble opinion, as soon as I stepped into the mosque, early one Sunday morning, was “he’s a twat”. And I even said it out loud, so much that the lady selling audio guides raised an eyebrow at me. It’s definitely inelegant to be slagging off a writer, especially one that comes with the great Colin Thubron’s seal of approval, but this place cannot be “pretty… but not important”.
Early mornings are precious, and this one was no different. I was alone under the large dome of the mosque when a guide stepped in, followed by his two clients. The guide stood where a few darker slabs of stone, on the pavement, indicated the location of the apex of the dome, dozens of meters above his head, and sung. A hymn to Allah, a profession of Islamic faith, grew magnificent – much grander than what his own lungs could’ve achieved – and filled the whole space under the dome. Pretty… but not important. What a sententious man.

Was there anything to be saved, for Byron, in Naqsh-e Jahan? Luckily, there was. On the southeast side of the piazza, in facts, lied one of the four finest buildings in Persia, at least for him. Sheikh Luftullah mosque.

Despite a somehow shaky start – “the outside of the mosque is careless of symmetry to a grotesque degree” – the beauty of Shah Abbas’ private mosque soon captivates him. Long sentences describe, in terms that could be described as affectionate, the intricate ornament of the outer dome and the beauty of the effect devised by the Safavid architects. “The genius of the effect is in the play of surfaces. The inlay is glazed. The stucco wash is not. Thus the sun strikes the dome with a broken highlight whose intermittent flash, moving with the time of day, adds a third texture to the pattern, mobile and unforeseen”.
A dark corridor, covered in intricate tilework, led to the private mosque of the Shah. Like many visitors on that day, and I think like Byron in his time, I stopped dead on the threshold for, to quote The Road once again, “I have never encountered splendour of this kind before”.
Byron fills almost a page of convoluted description, a Joycean stream of consciousness, culminating into lyricism of the kind that I didn’t think he could be capable of. “Each part of the design, each pane, each repetition, each separate branch or blossom has its own sombre beauty. But the beauty of the whole comes as you move”.
And more:
“Versailles, or the porcelain rooms at Schonbrunn, or the Doge’s Palace, or St Peter’s. All are rich; but none so rich. In the mosque of Sheikh Luftullah, it is a richness of light and surface, of pattern and colour only. The architectural form is unimportant. It is not smothered; it is simply the instrument of a spectacle, as earth is the instrument of a garden”.
Later, as I sat on a bench in the square, watching the shadows getting longer in the late afternoon, I picked up the book again and read the last passage, the last thought of page 175, as Byron was – I suspect – leaving the mosque.
“And then I suddenly thought of that unfortunate species, modern interior decorators, who imagine they can make a restaurant, or a cinema, or a plutocrat’s drawing-room look rich if given enough for gold leaf and looking-glass. They little know what amateurs they are. Nor, alas, know their clients”.
Always a charmer, Mr Byron.

 

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21 Responses to “I have never encountered splendour of this kind before”. Visiting Isfahan with Robert Byron

  1. Great description and nice photos. It’s always risky relying on other writers’ descriptions; witness Paul Theroux’s relentless contempt for just about everyone he encounters. (I gave up halfway through Dark Safari.) But it’s disappointing to hear that Bron missed the mark: I like him!

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      I concur on Theroux, even though I quite liked The Dark Star Safari. I mean, he had some killer lines in that book, but others – the one on the Transsiberian for instance – was intolerable.

      Like

  2. Whoops… wrong Byron! (I was referring to the poet!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Ha! That’s *another* thing he gets annoyed at, on the way to Syria, after being mildly pissed off at the state of the boat he’s on and being greatly pissed off about the service in Middle Eastern hotels. Somebody mistakes him for the poet, and he’s averagely pissed off about it.

      You get the idea of the guy here.

      Like

  3. Maverick says:

    I have never had the opportunity to travel and see works of art of which I have a superficial understanding. But your posts are always great and sometimes evokes nostalgia of bygone days of Muslim glory in art and science.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. TSAGA says:

    Yes! Thank you for this very interesting post and so nice pictures! We’ll read this book as soon as possible!

    Like

    • awtytravels says:

      Hi there, thanks for reading. Would I recommend Byron’s book? I don’t think so. It’s too full of moaning, complaints, bickering. I’d rather read Colin Thubron’s “Shadow of the Silk road” or, Bernard Ollivier’s “Vers Samarcande” which has the great benefit of being in French! 🙂

      Like

  5. lexklein says:

    I love your linkage of your reading to your destination, something I regularly try to do – sometimes successfully and sometimes not. Interestingly, one of my most recent failures was taking Bruce Chatwin’s book with me to Patagonia, so had I seen his testimonial for Byron’s book, I would have skipped The Road to Oxiana right then and there!

    Meanwhile, your own writing on what you saw here is much more evocative, and the photos capture so much. They almost induce a religious feeling (not even my thing), with the intricate, muted colors vaulting up into the rooflines and the procession of arches leading deeper and deeper into the buildings. I also loved the B&W of the woman in front of the fountain in front of the dome. (As a last, silly comment, “sticky mint mutton with lentils” is surely the most wretched-sounding dish I have ever heard mentioned.)

    Like

    • awtytravels says:

      Hi Lexi, thanks for your comment. I haven’t read In Patagonia yet, but somehow I suspect I won’t really like it, don’t know why…
      I’m glad you liked the photos and the wordy stuff. With the photos I was a bit in a strange situation, for I’d only brought one set of lenses, and a GoPro, so it was either details or fisheye, no middle bit, and I had to make things do, but I was quite happy with it. The B&W shot is my favourite of the whole trip, thank God that there was more than one fountain, I had to track that lady as she was going her own way to get it nicely done!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. LaVagabonde says:

    It’s a tough one – reading another’s words while traveling the same destination. Sometimes it’s better to write our own litanies in our heads, creating as we savor and stroll. I sure enjoyed your version.

    Sorry it took me so long to get to this post, Fabrizio. I was on the road, and will be leaving again very soon for another trip. I will catch up with any new posts on my return.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Iran was my favorite trip ever. This is a phenomenal post. Just looking at your fabulous photos intensifies my desire to return. I am crossing my fingers that President Rouhani is reelected and that President Trump does not follow through on his campaign promises. Like you, I plan my reading list around destinations. I am now reading a lot of books that take place in South America, as that’s my next big trip.

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Thanks Maggie! Whereabouts you’re going in LatAm? My experience is scant there, but I do have two books to suggest! One is “Chile: travels in a thin country” by Sara Wheeler, the other is the marvellous, splendid, epic “A Death in Brazil: A book of Omissions” by Peter Robb. I reviewed Sara’s book, but I’m still struggling to write about “A Death” because no matter how hard I try, I can’t make it justice. It’s just too good.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: “Out of Steppe” by Daniel Metcalfe, Arrow – Random House | Are we there yet?

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