On the Trail of Alexander: Aurel Stein & the Caves of Dunhuang


Traveling Monk sutra, colored inks on paper, 10th century CE,

Five Dynasties or Northern Song Dynasty
from Cave 17, Mogao, near Dunhuang, Gansu province, China. (courtesy British Museum) 

In July, 1900, Marc Aurel Stein stood amidst the high glaciers of the Pamir Mountains at the source of the Oxus River (now the Amu Dayra). As a young student in Dresden in the 1870s, Hungarian-born Stein was captivated by the military campaigns of Alexander, who marched his sizable armies from Greece through the steppes of Central Asian all the way to the Indus River valley, some 3000 miles as the crow flies.   Stein must have had a sense of what Alexander felt when he arrived at this place, the edge of the known world for the Greeks.  Although Stein couldn’t have known it then, this spot carried additional import. He was more or less at the midpoint of the famed “Silk Route,” the vast and shifting network of trade routes, which for centuries had connected China with the Mediterranean. Rediscovery of the civilizations along the Silk Route would make Stein’s reputation in his day.  And yet, today,  Aurel Stein is one of the least known explorers and archeologists of the 20th century.

Aurel Stein, Mogao Cave Grotto, Dunhuang, 1907,
photograph (courtesy Digital Archive, Toyo Bunko Rare Books)

Stein’s side trip to the Oxus was part of but one of 11 archeological expeditions he mounted during his lifetime, eight alone through the treacherous Tarim Basin in the heart of Chinese Turkestan (modern-day Xinjiang Uigher Automous and Gansu Provinces).   Altogether these expeditions lasted 7 years and covered some 40,000 kilometers over the most inhospitable terrains on camel, horse-back, and, when the going got rough, by foot.  The teams endured hurricanes of sand, frostbite, blindness and death in pursuit of Stein’s singleminded quest for ancient secrets buried in the sand.  Quite simply, Aurel Stein was able to see beyond the absolute desolation of the Central Asian landscape, beyond the acute physical pain he and members of his party often endured, to the cultural promise that a thousand years of history had bestowed on this part of the world.

Manjushri visiting Vimalakirti, ink and colours on paper, mid 10th c. CE,
Five Dynasties
from Cave 17, Mogao, near Dunhuang, Gansu province, China (courtesy British Museum).

Stein’s enduring legacy is his 1907 “discovery” of the Buddhist shrines at Dunhuang, a network of thousands of caves that once housed pilgrims and monks as they made their way along the northern and southern routes that skirted the large and formidable Takla Makan desert. The import of his find cannot be overestimated, for in the caves were tens of thousands of manuscripts, paintings, wall-hangings, sculptures and artifacts, undoubtedly the world’s largest collection of Buddhist art.  In the tradition of the day, Stein carted off as much as his camels could carry—literally tons—but not for himself.

The booty from Stein’s excavations was split among the governments of Britain, India, and Hungary. Portions of it are on view at the British Museum, the British Library, Srinagar (Kashmir) Museum, and the National Museum in New Delhi.  Some of it has been digitalized, but most lies in the basements.

In addition, see Venetian Red posts on elements of the Stein collections—Talisman of the Pole Star; Flying Down the Central Asian Steppe; Little Paper Offerings.

The Dunhuang discovery in particular provided invaluable documentation of life along the Silk Route. Much of it dated from the Tang Dynasty, a period more than 1000 years ago of particular prosperity along the Silk Route. Stein’s most important find was the “Diamond Sutra”— dated at 868 AD, it is the world’s earliest known printed book. In an interesting side note, the collection also provided scholars with the data necessary to connect the path of Buddhism from India to China.

Although Stein has been dead for over 65 years, the Chinese haven’t forgiven this “imperialist villian” for purloining a part of their national heritage.  Today, mostly due to vandalism in the 20th century, fewer than five hundred caves survive intact. We’ll never know what the Chinese would have done with the pieces that Stein took.  The way things are going in the museum world, they may get some of them back.

Wider Connections

Today in the Takla Makan desert

Foreign Devils on the Silk Route —Peter Hopkirk’s engaging overview of the early 20th c. archeological “raiders”  in this corner of Central Asia.

The Thousand Buddhas (digital copy of 1921 original book)

Aurel Stein: Pioneer of the Silk RoadAnnabel Walker’s informative and highly-readable biography of Stein (now out of print)

Aurel Stein at the British Museum

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2 Responses to “On the Trail of Alexander: Aurel Stein & the Caves of Dunhuang”

  1. David Chang Says:

    The thousands of manuscripts looted from Dunhuang and dispersed around the world is a disgraceful act of theft on a grand scale. The names of Stein, Pelliot, Oldenburg, Warner, Ohtani and others will be remembered forever as thieves. The graceful thing to do is to gradually repatriate those stolen artifacts, but given the self-righteous attitude of museums and their governments, they will stubbornly refuse to return them. A farse is being spread that those looters helped save the artifacts for posterity. If they did save it then why not re-unite it with their place of origin now that there are good museums and research institutions in China to properly study them.
    Remember Confucius’ dictum: do not do onto others what you do not wish upon yourself.

    • Considering the fate of many of China’s monuments and treasures during the “cultural revolution” Stein’s ‘theft’ may have been a blessing in disguise.

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