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.
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“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”.
“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.