Read by Christopher Williams
Being presented with immediate free rein in The Courtauld’s Conway photographic library was delightfully overwhelming, and I spent much of my first day flitting between folders of images of Cumbrian churches, the Callipygian Venus, and Florentine stained glass.
Eventually and unsurprisingly, I was drawn to the section of files on the architecture of Iran, and soon came across the two on Isfahan. Having visited the city a few years ago, I was curious to see the photographs of what I remember as one of the most beautiful cities in the country of my family. An ancient Silk Road city, Isfahan flourished in the Safavid period, and its skyline is still marked by the imperial sandstone of Shah Abbas’ golden age.
The domes and minarets of Isfahan’s mosques and palaces colour the city a vibrant blue, evoking memories of invading Mongols and their eastern ceramics. In The Road to Oxiana (1937), travel writer and aesthete Robert Byron (1905 – 1941) saw reflections of this dominating colour in the Zayandehrud river which cuts through the city; he describes it “catching that blue in its muddy silver… and before you know how, Isfahan has become indelible, has insinuated its image into that gallery of places which everyone privately treasures”.
Expelled from Merton College, Oxford, Robert Byron was a member of the infamously flamboyant Hypocrites Club, and in the 1920s a “bright young thing” of the London social scene. While the excess of his early years was immortalised in novels by Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford, much of Byron’s life was spent travelling and soon he became a wildly successful travel writer, ahead of his death in combat in 1941.
Here at the Courtauld can be found Byron’s own photos from his Middle Eastern trip of 1933–34, taken during the writing of his most famous work, The Road to Oxiana.
Central to his view of Isfahan, is the river, “Zayandeh” literally meaning “life-giver”, and its two main bridges, Pol-e-Khaju, Khaju Bridge, and Si-o-se Pol, the Bridge of 33 Arches.
Pol-e-khaju and Si-o-se Pol were both built in the seventeenth century, and function as pedestrian bridges as well as weirs. In Byron’s photographs the Zayandehrud tears between their arches, whilst in more recent years the waterbed has been dry.
The river’s pilgrimage from the Zagros Mountains has fallen short every summer for 10 years now. Some blame bureaucratic mismanagement and the over-allocation of water to steelworks and farms upstream, whilst officials have been quoted as instead blaming the immorality of Isfahanis for the drying of the river.
Robert Byron’s several visits to the city over those two years provide evidence of the instability of the Zayandehrud’s water levels. In one photograph of Pol-e-Khaju the water is low enough to allow locals to wash and bathe on the crumbling Safavid steps.
In one of Byron’s photos of Si-o-se pol, a group of people seem stranded in his symmetrical framing, the water rising, with several of the men staring deep into the camera’s lens, almost imploring the viewer for help. Photographing this middle section of the bridge isolates these pedestrians, eliminating any view of escape from the Zayandehrud, reframing a simple social scene into a near biblical scene of flooding.
The two bridges have served as meeting-places and social spaces for Isfahanis since their inception, particularly in the evenings, when the workday ends and crowds are drawn to the aureate glow of the lit arcades and arches.
Byron describes the foot passages on Si-o-se Pol being as overwhelmed as the river; “it was crowded with people, and all the town was hurrying to join them; there was never such a flood in living memory”.
Despite Byron’s poetic synonymity of crowd and water, the drought of recent years have allowed for the continued tradition of singing underneath the arches of Khaju. Groups of men drink tea, smoke shisha pipes, or “hubble-bubbles” as Byron called them, and sing in groups or unison, their voices echoing off the high, curved roof of the cavernous spaces.
The sound is haunting, and one almost feels transported to a bygone era in awe of this storied tradition.
Much of Byron’s journey through Persia in The Road to Oxiana is impeded by bureaucracy and illness. Many of the entries of his many weeks stuck in Tehran start with some defeated variation of “Still here”. By contrast, the verdant splendour of Isfahan is celebrated, in what I find to be the most beautiful passage of the book:
“The bridge encloses the road by arched walls, on the outside of which runs a miniature arcade for foot passengers. This was crowded with people, and all the town was hurrying to join them; there was never such a flood in living memory. The lights came out. A little breeze stirred, and for the first time in four months I felt a wind that had no chill in it. I smelt the spring, and the rising sap. One of those rare moments of absolute peace, when the body is loose, the mind asks no questions, and the world is a triumph, was mine. So much it meant to have escaped from Teheran.” Robert Byron on Si-o-se Pol, The Road to Oxiana
For the first summer in ten years, 2019 saw the Khaju and Si-o-se bridges flushed with water once again. Through drought and flood, from their building in the 1600s, to Byron’s 1930s, to the present, the serene beauty of these “cafe-au-lait” bridges endures.
 The Independent, June 2016, “Iranian women’s clothing “causing rivers to run dry”, says senior cleric” https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/iranian-womens-clothing-is-causing-a-river-to-run-dry-cleric-says-a7077021.html
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