Swimmers in the Desert: Von Le Coq and the Kizil Caves

“Swimmers,” wall fresco, Kizil, Cave of the Seafarers, ca. 500 (photo courtesy Museum of Asian Art, Berlin)

Aurel Stein belonged to a special breed of 19th-century European archeologists; classically overachieving Victorian-era men, who possessed a multi-disciplinarian body of knowledge, a curiosity about ancient civilizations, and a heightened sense of adventure.  Fueled by tales of the “lost” cities along the Silk Route, these men endured the brutal conditions of the Takla Makan desert in pursuit ancient cultural artifacts, which were often literally buried in the sands.  At its peak, the modern exploration of Central Asia became a race between scholars of different lands, each desperate to outdo the others in a discovery that might change contemporary understanding of these unknown cultures. In the process, as was the 19th century custom, Stein and others pillaged thousands of artifacts from their resting places, ferrying them away on camels and horses to various European museums.

By the mid-19th century with the British firmly ensconced in India a lively scholarly interest had developed in the cultures, religions,  and languages of India, the Middle East and China. Between 1889 and 1899 this world was set aflutter by a fragmentary manuscript brought to India from Kucha, an oasis town along the northern Silk Route in the province then known as Chinese Turkestan. This birch-bark page with Sanskrit and ancient Indian text prompted wide speculation on whether the culture and language of ancient Central Asia derived from India.

Albert Grünwald, director of the Indian Department in Berlin’s Museum für Völkerkunde (now The Museum of Asian Art) and a highly-regarded scholar in the field of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, took a particular interest in the manuscript. As a result of examining it, he paved the way for the German archeological involvement in Chinese Turkestan, mounting a first expedition in 1902.  For health reasons, Grünwald could not accompany the second expedition in 1904, and the Royal Prussian Turfan Expedition was headed by Albert von Le Coq, who had been working for two years as an unpaid volunteer in Grünwald’s department.

Present day Kizil caves (courtesy World Bank Traveller).

Von Le Coq came from a wealthy Berlin Huguenot family and studied commercial subjects in London and America, before entering his father’s wine trading business. He switched careers at the age of 40; by the time he was chosen to lead the expedition, von Le Coq had only been studying Oriental languages for five years. Despite the handicap of junior level experience in the field of Oriental studies, von Le Coq led four highly-successful expeditions along the northern fork of the Silk Route.  As a result, he became Aurel Stein’s most ardent rival in Central Asia.

It was not until 1905 and the third German expedition that von Le Coq and Grünwedel (having rejoined the team) discovered the Kizil Caves. Like the Dunhuang caves, Kizil is a warren of monk’s cells.  Regrettably,  von le Coq hacked off huge portions of the frescoes, leaving the remainder utterly defaced. Further damage was inflicted by Russian and Chinese soldiers hiding out in the caves during

View from a monk’s cave, overlooking the Muzart River at Kizil, photographer unknown (photo courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art).

Stylistically, the art at Kizil is more closely allied to India and the West than to China. You can see that in the faces of the Bodhisattvas, whether statues or figures painted on the wall. The Swimmers fragment was found in a long-narrow rectangular room with a barrel-vaulted ceiling. The paintings on either wall illustrate two Buddhist seafaring legends—the Shronakotikarna and the Maitrakanyaka Avadana, which remind viewers of the consequences of good and bad deeds.  The fragment pictured above was part of the ceiling scene, which still has not been fully identified.  The scene is enchanting both for the facial expressions of the swimmers and unusual aqua green color of the water (perhaps made from verdigris). It’s a color that doesn’t appear in the Dunhuang art.

Wider Connections

Peter Hopkirk—The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia

Frances Wood—The Silk Route: 2000 Years in the Heart of Asia

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