Converse's Reviews > Foreign Devils on the Silk Road

Foreign Devils on the Silk Road by Peter Hopkirk
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Sep 26, 2011

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bookshelves: archaeology, history, non-fiction, religion, travel
Read in September, 2011

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, until the 1920s, several European and American explorers searched western China for artifacts associated with the silk road, which was a collection of trails connecting China with the Middle East and India. The significance of this area is that it preserved writing and artifacts of a variety of religions, principally Buddhism but also Nestorian Christians and Manicheasm, whose early history has not survived elsewhere.

The area they searched is near the border of China meets the borders of India, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakstan. This locality is surrounded by the Kunlun Mountains to the south (which separate it from the Tibetan plateau, the KarakKarakoram Range to the southwest, the Tien Shan mountains to the west and north, and the Gobi Desert to the east. In between these mountains is the Takla Makan Desert, an extremely dry area (much more so than the Gobi, apparently). Running down from the mountains are rivers, fed by glaciers. During roughly 300 to 1000 AD, there were a number of cities, benefiting from the trade along the Silk Road in oases along these rivers, in areas now covered by sand. There are still oases in the area, but they have shifted (generally closer to the mountains) as the glacial melt as slowly subsided. Furthermore, they prosperity of the area varied in direct proportion to the ability or interest of the Chinese in policing and protecting the Silk Road. Finally, the arrival of the Muslim religion in the area proved to be a damper to trade. As a consequence of these factors, cities were gradually abandoned and covered with sand. The dry environment preserved scrolls and other artifacts that would not otherwise survived.

The most important explorers were the Swedish Sven Hedin, the British subject (of Hungarian descent) Aurel Stein, the German Albert von Le Coq (he was descended from French Hugeunots who settled in Germany, hence the French name), Paul Pelliot of France, the agents of the Japanese Count Kozui Otani, and the American Langdon Warner. The Russians, who were closest to the area, made a smaller impression in archaeology. Sven Hedin was primarily interested in geographical exploration, and so made fewer archaeological collections. However, Hedin was the first western explorer to cross the Takla Makan desert, showing others that it could be done. Stein was probably the best archaeologist of the lot, with an understanding of stratigraphy.

One of the interesting things the explorers found was evidence of the combining of western, Indian and Chinese influences in the Buddhist art preserved in abandoned monesteries in the area. The western influence is apparently due indirectly to Alexander the Great, whose successors established kingdoms in what is now Afghanistan. Buddhism, although originally an Indian religion, reached China via the Silk Road, and picked up these western artisitic influences from what is now Afghanistan.

The collections of these explorers became controversial. The Germans especially had a tendency to hack out frescos from abandoned monasteries and bring them back to Berlin (a number were destroyed by American bombing during the Second World War). Stein's collection of Buddhist manuscripts, resulting from giving a self-appointed caretaker a contribution for restoring an ancient site, is also contraversial. By the middle of the 1920s Chinese opinion was sufficiently hostile that further western exploration (and taking the stuff back) was abandoned.

The book was first published in 1980.

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