The Silk Road less travelled

Aurel Stein on the Silk Road
June 4, 2004

The Hungarian-born Sir Aurel Stein, who died in 1943, is not a household name, either as an explorer or as an archaeologist. His travels on the Silk Road in the deserts and mountains of Central Asia in the early years of the 20th century were not of the first significance to geographers; neither can his discoveries of Buddhist treasures be compared to those from India, China or Southeast Asia. As a man and a writer, he lacked the personality of, say, his contemporary Sir Arthur Evans.

Even so, Stein's life and work deserves celebration, especially by scholars. The British Library has recently opened a major exhibition of the Stein collection stored at the British Museum, "The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War and Faith". Imaginative though the display is, the content is likely to be overwhelming for all but specialists, given the unfamiliarity of Central Asia and of the many overlapping, interacting civilisations investigated by Stein. The exhibition organiser, Susan Whitfield, has therefore produced an introductory book, attractively and intelligently illustrated with Stein's discoveries along with photographs and memorabilia from his expeditions, which should go some way towards bringing the histories and cultures of Central Asia to life.

The most famous of his journeys, dramatised in the exhibition with a full-scale cave reconstruction, concerns the "Thousand Buddha Caves" at Dunhuang. Reaching there in 1907, after the gruelling trail from Kashmir, Stein persuaded the caves' monk custodian to part with some 3,000 Buddhist paintings and manuscripts written in Chinese and Tibetan on high-quality paper (a Chinese invention) - in exchange for some horseshoes of silver.

The manuscripts included the Diamond Sutra , dated 868, the world's earliest complete book, its text printed (also, of course, a Chinese invention) in Chinese characters.

Such acquisitions - which Stein added to on a later expedition before being stopped - were not appreciated by Chinese scholars, then or now, and he became a key imperialist villain. Yet he prevented further destruction of the Chinese heritage by removing it to Europe. His primary motive was certainly scholarly, not financial or egotistical - witness his decision to leave some murals at Miran in place and make an exhaustive photographic record of them under very trying conditions of dust and cold, before reburying them in the desert sand. Later, he found most of the murals destroyed by a Japanese expedition that had tried to remove them. There can be little doubt, as Whitfield says, that Stein would have been the first to welcome the dissemination of his Dunhuang acquisitions now taking place online through the International Dunhuang Project, directed by her. As she nicely remarks: "a page on the internet showing a digital image of a Buddhist text accrues merit for the world every time it is opened, working on the same principle as a Tibetan prayer wheel."

The stoic, celibate Stein was something of a Buddhist himself, directly inspired as he was by the Chinese monk Xuanzang, who travelled the Silk Road in the 7th century AD (as well as the earlier Alexander the Great and the later Marco Polo). Stein, writes Whitfield, "saw beyond the desolation surrounding him to thousands of years of history, to armies on the march, great cultures, travelling monks, skilled artists and craftsmen, diplomatic missions, Chinese princesses, Buddhist scribes, nomadic warriors and bandits".

Anyone wishing to get a feel for Stein's life and work will benefit from this book. But it should have had a map of his many convoluted expeditions, and also have been better copy-edited and proof-read. It is unacceptable to find the date of the most recent biography of Stein given as 1989 in the text and 1998 in the bibliography - when it is in fact 1995.

Andrew Robinson, literary editor of The Times Higher , is the author of Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World's Undeciphered Scripts .

Aurel Stein on the Silk Road

Author - Susan Whitfield
Publisher - British Museum Press
Pages - 143
Price - £18.99
ISBN - 0 7141 2416 8

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