An explorer, an epistler, an enigma

Aurel Stein
March 1, 1996

Sir Aurel Stein has entered the history books for his expeditions, research and collecting in Chinese Turkestan, along the Silk Road. It is the details and excitement of those four major expeditions packed into Annabel Walker's book that provide it with its most vivid material. During the second expedition Stein came across the famous Cave of the Thousand Buddhas at Tan-Huang. The story of his haul of Buddhist manuscripts dating from as early as the fifth century ad, and of the priceless Buddhas, artefacts and other finds, is an amazing narrative. The loads were bought from a Taoist priest, guardian of the shrines, for "a sum which will make our friends at the British Museum chuckle".

Walker continuously and almost apologetically defends Stein's lifelong ability to squeeze money, services, devotion and sacrifice from friends, family and officialdom alike in the pursuit of his goals. The book makes of Stein's explorations a thrilling detective story set against the dying phases of the imperial Great Game.

Stein had a complicated Hungarian childhood, in which he was encouraged and protected by an uncle and an elder brother to fulfil the family's intellectual aspirations. Already, as a student, Stein knew in which direction his work would take him. The influence of Indian art and religion on China and the influence on that same area of his childhood hero, Alexander the Great, were to be his guiding lights. These years also set a pattern for his later life. He was essentially a loner who seemed to use the outlet of letter-writing to express or perhaps even create emotions that he was unable to show in person. The initial recipients were his brother and uncle who looked extensively on his behalf for finance and contacts to enable the young Stein to follow his chosen course of study. Later, he began writing to a small circle of friends who had formed his surrogate family in Lahore, where he took up his first official teaching post and which remained the curious focus for his thoughts until his death in 1943.

"Home" for this itinerant scholar was either up a mountainside in Kashmir or in the house of whichever friend he happened to visit and stay with between expeditions. These were chiefly three younger men who had themselves become friends in Lahore towards the end of the 1880s. Like a group of intellectual musketeers they gave each other noms de guerre, by which they addressed each other. Stein, as the oldest and most dominant, was "the General".

Stein never married and his sexuality remains an enigma, even to his biographer. "He had grown up in a male dominated world I women were distant, difficult to know, easier to revere from afar I it seems perfectly possible that a man such as Stein experienced no sexual passions.'' Possibly the single-minded passion with which he pursued eastern archaeology left him little time, energy or emotion to expend on live human beings, male or female. Possibly the opposite was true: that, unable to find within him the emotion necessary for normal human relationships, Stein turned his energy to academic work. Whatever the truth, oriental studies is the richer for Stein's extraordinary and prolific efforts - not just in Chinese Turkestan but in Iran, Baluchistan, the Punjab, Kurdistan, Iraq and Trans-Jordan. He even finally succeeded in getting to Afghanistan, which had been blocked to him by various regimes throughout his career. Alas it was a brief achievement, for soon after arriving there he died, aged 80, in Kabul.

This is a curious book. Based on a biographer's dream - volumes of letters to and from the subject that cover practically the whole of his life - it is meticulously researched. Yet at the end of it Aurel Stein remains a rather elusive, distant and abrasive character whose great achievement we can applaud but whose personality we rarely warm to.

Andre Singer is adjunct professor of anthropology, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

Aurel Stein: Pioneer of the Silk Road

Author - Annabel Walker
ISBN - 0 7195 5751 8
Publisher - John Murray
Price - £25.00
Pages - 393

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