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Central Asia: Early Travelers -- Sir Aurel Stein Explored The Silk Road (Part 3)

  • Charles Carlson

Sir Aurel Stein, a brilliant archeologist of Hungarian origin, uncovered and brought to light some of the ancient cities along the Silk Road, some of which were earlier identified by Sven Hedin. Along with a succession of seven fox terriers -- all named Dash -- he traveled over 25,000 miles, collecting artifacts that have made their way to museums around the world.

Prague, 29 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- One morning in late October 1943, a procession consisting of representatives of the king of Afghanistan, his foreign minister, British, American, and Iraqi ministers, and the Iranian ambassador, moved slowly toward the outskirts of Kabul carrying the remains of Sir Aurel Stein, whom one newspaper described as "the greatest explorer of our time," to his final resting place.

RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier visited Stein's gravesite during a recent trip to Kabul. "The grave of legendary Central Asian explorer and doyen of Central Asian archeologists Aurel Stein lies in a nearly forgotten mud-walled Christian cemetery in Kabul," he said.

"He died in 1943, a week after finally arriving in Kabul at the age of 82, while he was planning yet another foray in search of Central Asia's forgotten past. His grave sits under the trees among the graves of British soldiers who fell during the Afghan wars and tourists who came to Afghanistan in the time of relative safety, after World War II and prior to the Soviet invasion of 1979. A large marble slab covers the grave, noting that there is buried Aurel Stein, a Hungarian by birth who became a British citizen and one of the legendary figures of Central Asian exploration."

At an early age in his native Hungary, Stein became fascinated with the travels of the Buddhist pilgrim Hsuan-Tsang, who traveled between 627-643 and whose account provides the first reliable information of the countries along the Silk Road. The Silk Road was a collection of routes across Central Asia which connected China and the Far East with the Mediterranean and the Far West. It opened in the 2nd century BC under the Han Dynasty.

"Religions, languages, arts, fruits, tools, empires and plagues all crossed Eurasia along the Silk Road," Stein wrote in one of his narratives. "Strange civilizations, hybrids of India and Persia, of China and the Hellenistic world, of Turkic, Tibetan and now-extinct Indo-European tribes, arose along its path."

During a career that spanned almost six decades, Stein pioneered the Silk Road and made three separate expeditions to Chinese Turkestan and other parts of Central Asia and Afghanistan.

Accompanied only by a small fox terrier named Dash -- a total of seven fox terriers, all named Dash, served him over the years -- Stein traveled a total of 25,000 miles, over freezing Himalayan passes and across scorching deserts. With the support of the British and Indian governments, he traced the ancient caravan routes, oversaw the excavation of numerous archaeological sites, and documented the spread of Buddhism from India to China. His finds filled whole rooms in London's British Museum and Delhi's National Museum.

Stein was a scholar, but he turned himself into a "remarkably driven and self-contained man of action," as he was described in a book review. He constantly attempted to obtain permission to explore Afghanistan, particularly at Balkh, where he hoped to uncover remains of ancient Bactria. "My hope of reaching Bactria made me take to Oriental studies, brought me to England and India, gave me my dearest friends and chances of fruitful work," he wrote in a letter.

In his first expedition in 1900, Stein traveled through the Taklamakan Desert, uncovering Buddhist paintings and sculptures and Sanskrit texts. As a result of this trip, other countries recognized the wealth of the Silk Road and the race for ancient Buddhist treasures started. The artifacts that he excavated found their way to more than 30 museums across Europe, America, Russia, and East Asia.

Stein's second expedition charted the sites of Lou-lan, identified earlier by Sven Hedin, and Tun-huang. Outside of Tun-huang, Stein excavated in the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas and brought out thousands of manuscripts written in Chinese, Sanskrit, Sogdian, Tibetan, Runic Turkic, and Uighur. Among those was the oldest example of a printed book, a copy of the Buddhist work, the Diamond Sutra from 863 AD, which is now one of the British Library's prized possessions.

Uli Schamiloglu, a professor and historian at the University of Wisconsin, explained the significance of that find: "Aurel Stein is perhaps the best-known explorer of Central Asia in part because of the tremendous historical importance of his discoveries. He was the person who did not find Tun-huang, but he found in the place they call the Temple of the Thousand Buddhas troves of manuscripts in lots of different languages and lots of different alphabets, and basically there are whole fields of scholarship in the study of ancient China and the history of Buddhism in Central Asia that all rely upon the manuscript discoveries that Stein made in 1907 in Tun-huang, including things like the oldest printed book known, the Diamond Sutra -- very, very important discoveries in the history of world civilization."

In his final expedition, Stein revisited Tun-huang and took more documents from the cave of the temples. He also uncovered a cemetery in the Turfan region, and unearthed some of the silks encasing the corpses. These as well as the earliest known printed book are artifacts that Stein brought back and are now part of an important collection at the British Museum. However, the items on display in London represent only a fraction of what he brought back. According to Annabel Walker in her biography of Stein published in 1995, most of the materials have been stored in the basements of the museum.

However, Carol Michaelson, curator of the Asian department of the British Museum, denied this claim. "The majority of the masterpieces of the 3-D collection are on display in the Hotung Gallery of Oriental Antiquities in the British Museum," Michaelson said. "What is not on display, but have certainly been unpacked -- not in boxes -- is the light-sensitive material that includes all the textiles and all the famous Chinese paintings because we have windows on both sides of the Hotung Gallery. We are not able to display any light-sensitive material there."

Historian Owen Lattimore described Stein as "the most prodigious combination of scholar, explorer, archeologist, and geographer" of his era. Professor Daniel Waugh, a specialist on medieval Russia, Central Asia, and the Caucasus at the University of Washington in Seattle, agrees with Lattimore's characterization.

"Aurel Stein was many things. He was a mapper for one thing, although he himself didn't do the mapping. His Indian assistants were actually the ones who did the mapping. His maps, however, the maps that his expeditions compiled, contributed very much to the survey of India mapping project which extended beyond India up into Central Asia," Waugh said.

Concening Stein's archeological pursuits, Waugh said: "Stein is most important as an archeologist, and he was the one who really systematically explored so many of the imperial sites along the ancient Silk Road. And even though his techniques perhaps don't match up to modern standards of archaeology, there was of course nobody at the time who could match the modern standards, you know. I think that his archeological contributions were immense."

But the Chinese thought differently. To them, Stein was an imperialist villain who systematically robbed them of their history. "He has been very much criticized by the Chinese for stealing their archeological treasures, including a great horde of manuscripts and paintings from the famous Buddhist cave site at Tun-huang in western China. But I think one can argue that had Stein not taken them away for safekeeping in London and [New] Delhi, that probably many of them would not have survived to this day," Waugh said.

The Chinese denied any further excavations of their ancient, treasure-laden sites, although Stein's expeditions were praised by both the British and Indian governments. In the eyes of the Chinese, Stein and other foreign archeologists robbed China of its history. However, during the 20th century many of the sites Stein visited were destroyed through wars and upheavals that continued through the 1970s. As Waugh observed, had Stein not saved them, perhaps these valuable treasures would have been destroyed as well.

When asked whether there have been requests from the Chinese to return any of the materials, British Museum curator Michaelson answered: "We have had no formal requests from the Chinese government to return any of the Tun-huang material. What we have been requested to do and we would very much like to do is to send a loan exhibition of some of the Tun-huang paintings to China, and that is under consideration at the moment."