Uncovering Ancient Knowledge Along the Silk Road

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

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

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

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