Uncovering Ancient Knowledge Along the Silk Road

At the turn of the 20th Century, the great race was on to uncover ancient knowledge on the Silk Road.

Journey On The Silk Road Cover

"Journeys on the Silk Road" tells the story of archaeologist Aurel Stein and the ancient knowledge he seeks in the deserts of Central Asia.

Cover Courtesy Lyons Press

Content Tools

The Silk Road once linked China with the Mediterranean. It conveyed merchants, pilgrims and ideas. But its cultures and oases were swallowed by shifting sands. Journeys on the Silk Road (Lyon’s Press, 2011) tells the story of Aurel Stein, a Hungarian-born scholar and archaeologist whose expeditions in Central Asia uncovered hidden ancient knowledge along the once lost Silk Road. In this excerpt from chapter 1, “The Great Race,”, follow Stein through a desert sand storm on the eve of a planned, two-year expedition. 

An unforgiving wind blew clouds of dust and sand as if every grain were aimed at one tired man astride a weary pony. He urged his mount forward, determined to keep a promise. He had set out long before dawn, leaving behind his team of men and pack animals, knowing he would have to cover in one day ground that would typically take three. Traveling through the heat and glare of the Central Asian desert, he now looked on his vow—to arrive that day on the doorstep of friends in a distant oasis—as uncharacteristically rash. But for seventeen hours he pressed on across parched wastes of gravel and hard-baked earth.

As dusk approached, the sting of the day’s heat eased, yet the failing light compounded his struggle to keep to the track amid the blinding sand. His destination of Kashgar could not be far away. But where? He was lost. He looked for someone—anyone—who could offer directions, but the locals knew better than to go into the desert at night during a howling wind storm. He found a farm worker in a dilapidated shack and appealed for help to set him back on the path. But the man had no desire to step outside and guide a dirt-caked foreigner back to the road, until enticed by a piece of silver.

The rider still had seven miles to go. He groped his way forward as the horse stumbled in ankle-deep dust. Eventually, he collided with a tree and felt his way along a familiar avenue until he reached the outskirts of the old town. Then, as if conceding defeat, the wind abated and lights could be glimpsed through the murky dark. He crossed a creaking wooden bridge to reach the mud walls that encircled the oasis. The guns that signaled the sunset closing of the iron gates to the old Muslim oasis had been fired hours ago.

The only sound was the howling of dogs, alert to the clip-clopping of a stranger on horseback passing outside the high wall. He continued until he reached a laneway. He had covered more than sixty miles to reach Chini Bagh, the home of good friends and an unlikely outpost of British sensibilities on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert.

Its gates were open in anticipation. He shouted to announce his arrival. For a moment, silence. Then surprised voices erupted in the darkness as servants recognized him. At last Aurel Stein had arrived. They moved closer to greet the man they had not seen for five years. At forty-three, he was no longer young, but his features were as angular as ever, and his body—though just five feet four inches tall—still deceptively strong.

Water was fetched so he could scrub away the sweat and grime etched into his skin. Only then did he present himself in the dining room. He eased into a chair, glad at last to sit on something other than his exhausted horse, and talked with his friends until well past midnight.

At the dining table were Britain’s representative in Kashgar, George Macartney, and his wife, Catherine Theodora, both eager to hear of Stein’s journey so far and, equally important, his hopes for the trip ahead. The last time they had been together in Chini Bagh, in 1901, the explorer was at the end of his first expedition to Turkestan. He had been loaded with ancient treasures recovered from the desert, treasures that would stun scholars across Europe. Now he had returned, better equipped, better funded and better educated about the obstacles that lay ahead. George Macartney had been invaluable then, helping Stein assemble the crew that would pluck antiquities from beneath the sands. This time, the stakes were higher, the journey longer and the route more deadly.

George and Catherine Macartney knew what drove their stocky middle-aged visitor to embark on his dangerous journey. It was not a thirst for adventures, although there would be plenty of those. Ideas were what fired him. Stein spoke of lost worlds, ancient civilizations and early encounters between East and West.

He craved to know how ideas and cultures spread. And one in particular: how had tolerant, compassionate Buddhism, born in the Indian Himalayas, reached China, transforming and shape-shifting along the way? He was convinced the answer lay just beyond Kashgar, beneath the Taklamakan Desert, the vast almond-shaped eye in the center of Chinese Turkestan.

But this was not a landscape that surrendered its answers readily. With dunes that can rise 1,000 feet, the Taklamakan is one of the most inhospitable places on earth. Even its local name has an ominous, if apocryphal, translation: Go in and you won’t come out. Its shifting dunes, beside which the deserts of Arabia, Africa, and America seemed tame to Stein, are not the only formidable barriers to would-be explorers. To the east lies the legendary Gobi Desert. In the other three directions loom some of the world’s highest mountain ranges: the Kunlun and Karakorams to the south, the Pamirs to the west and the Tian Shan, or Celestial Mountains, to the north. No divine protector could have conjured a more effective cosmic “keep out” sign.

Much depended on this latest expedition. Stein had only reached this point by the tenacious persuasion of his dual masters—the British Museum and the government of India—and each would demand tangible results in return. What Stein’s masters wanted were antiquities to fill their museums and add prestige to the Empire. Some fortunate archaeologists and adventurers could fund their own explorations, but Stein was a civil servant and obliged to plead and cajole for time away from desk-bound duties in steamy Calcutta.

And he did so for what to many must have seemed dubious rewards. Although he lived in an era of exploration, Europe’s attention was focused on the rich archaeological pickings closer to home—especially in Greece, Egypt and the biblical Middle East. Few people gave more than a passing thought to the backblocks of Muslim Central Asia, let alone the possibility that lost Buddhist kingdoms might lie buried beneath its vast sands. Who even knew that long before the rise of Islam, a great Buddhist civilization had flourished across what we know today as Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the far west of China? Who even cared?

Stein knew—and cared—more than most. He had already completed his first successful foray into the southern part of the Taklamakan, returning from his year-long trip with evidence of sophisticated and unknown cultures. Among his treasures were coins, statues, and murals, but to Stein, with his love of the written word, it was the documents that were most fascinating.

He returned with records on wood, paper, and leather and in a range of languages: Chinese, Tibetan, and, most intriguingly, ancient Indian scripts. Documents can never compete with glittering jewels and golden statues for dramatic, visual appeal, but for Stein they could reveal so much more.

To his trained eye, the written word exposed how language, people, and customs traveled and revealed the poignant details of ordinary life. Whether it recorded the daily duties of soldiers, the chores of monks or even the clumsy attempts of a child to complete his schoolwork, a document could reconstitute a life, and through that Stein could glimpse a civilization. Such discoveries had dazzled his colleagues and made his name as an archaeologist and explorer. They also made him hungry for more.

His first trip had convinced him he could push much farther into the desert to uncover the secrets of the sands. If successful, he would cement his reputation and he could then devote his life to uncovering ancient knowledge. And if he failed? He risked forever being frustrated as a colonial wage slave and never again being allowed the freedom to explore.

As Stein and the Macartneys conversed around the wooden dining table at Chini Bagh, the immediate concerns were practical. Stein’s main task in Kashgar was to put together the team of men and animals for a two-year journey. The wise selection of both would be critical to its success.

Macartney knew all too well the reasons for Stein’s race to Kashgar and his eagerness to get his caravan together as quickly as possible. Stein had fought long and hard to get this expedition under way. He had badgered and maneuvered, he had planned with meticulous care. But his masters had dragged their feet, delaying him a year. In that time formidable competition had mobilized.

Others now had their eye on what Stein regarded as his stamping ground, among them teams from Germany and France. They were rivals for Turkestan’s treasures who, gallingly, had been inspired by the success of Stein’s first trip to mount their own expeditions. They had their eyes on the very places to which Stein was headed. The French were en route to the desert and the Germans had already arrived.

Reprinted with permission from Journeys on the Silk Road: A Desert Explorer, Buddha’s Secret Library, and the Unearthing of the World’s Oldest Printed Book by Joyce Morgan and Conrad Walters, published by Lyons Press, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press, 2012.