Archive for the Central Asia Category

Blinded by the Light: Afghanistan’s Hidden Treasures

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Central Asia, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 7, 2009 by Liz Hager

Without art, there would be no record of the culture. —Fredrik Hiebert, National Geographic Society. 



Statue of the Buddha at moment of unwrapping, April 2004, Kabul (©National Museum of Afghanistan)


The context in which we view art often infuses it with additional meaning the artist never conceived or intended. Sometimes the contextual circumstances are so compelling that they become our predominant experience of the piece, eclipsing even the work’s artistic merits. 

Such is the case with the art on exhibit in Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul on view at the Asian Art Museum until January 25. The story of how these 228 items came to be on view—and, conversely, of how they easily might never have come to be on view were it not for the efforts of a small group of Afghanis—is thrilling. Like a good tale of espionage, this too is chock-full with elements of wartime danger and intrigue, brutish villains, high suspense, selfless acts. At its core this is a tale of collective heroism committed in the name of a greater good, in this case art. 


One of a pair of pendants showing the Dragon Master, Tillya Tepe, Tomb II; Second quarter of the 1st century CE; Gold, turquoise, garnet, lapis lazuli, carnelian and pearls, National Museum of Afghanistan (Photo © Thierry Ollivier/Musée Guimet)


First, the details of the story. The National Museum in Kabul was established in 1922. By mid-century its collection totaled some 100,000 items, including pre-Islamic and ethnographic pieces uncovered in 20th-century archeological digs throughout the country. Arguably the most famous of the excavated items—known as the Golden Hoard—were exhumed by Viktor Sarianidi in the fall of 1978 from an unassuming mound known as Tillya Tepe in the ancient land of Bactria

The Museum’s collection unequivocally established Afghanistan as a country with a sophisticated cultural heritage that stretched at least as far back as the Bronze Age. Moreover, the collection reflected the country’s central position at the cross-roads of great human migrations—Alexander’s march to the Indus, Buddhist monks trekking to China, Islamic armies fanning out from the Arabian peninsula, Silk Route traders, the campaigns of Persian conquerors, the invasions of Genghis Khan. And although the art of the Afghan region is stylistically unique, the museum’s artifacts displayed the telltale signs of the influences of Greek, Mesopotamian, Persian, Indian, Buddhist, Chinese, and nomadic tribal cultures.


Statuette of a woman standing on a makara, possibly a furniture ornament, Begram, Room 10, 1st-2nd c. CE, ivory 

The 1978 coup and ensuing Soviet invasion in 1979 made it clear that artifacts housed in Afghanistan’s museums were in grave danger.  It wasn’t until 1989 that curators began the process of moving pieces from the National Museum in Kabul, hiding them locations around the city, including the Ministry of Information and the Central Bank Treasury vault within the Presidential Palace.  Over the next few years, thousands of pieces were transfered. Workers were sworn to secrecy; “key holders” for various vaults were unknown beyond a tiny circle of people. Curators kept silent throughout the years of civil war and Taliban rule at enormous personal risk.

Unfortunately, not all of the collection could be moved by the Spring of 2001, when the Taliban mounted a catastrophic campaign to “destroy all images.”  Many will remember the most public of the casualties, the Buddhas of Bamayan.  But, museums suffered mighitly. As a result of the campaign, nearly two thirds of the 100,000 pieces in the National Museum’s collection, including many of the items stashed in the Ministry of Information, were destroyed or stolen.  

In a dramatic moment in 2004, after the Taliban had been run out of the country, curators gathered in at the Presidential vault. Sealed since 1989, noone knew what to expect. Museum inventory records had long been destroyed. Miraculously,  the Golden Hoard and many others of the magnificent treasures of the National Museum were safe.

Opening of the safe found to contain a trove of priceless Bactrian gold objects,  April 2004. (Photograph by Kenneth Garrett, ©National Geographic Society)


Given this extraordinary context, the exhibit cannot help but transcend pure artistic considerations. This is not to say that the pieces here are not delicate, elaborate, sophisticated, finely-wrought, entertaining, and fascinating for the glimpse they provide into lost civilizations. In the vein of Hiebert’s thought, however, it seems apparent that the overriding message of Hidden Treasures—the light that blinds us—is the enormous finality of culture extinguished. It’s almost impossible when viewing these recovered treasures not to ask “What if the Taliban had succeeded in removing this art from the world’s view?”  Thus, we are reminded that at stake is more than the culture of one peoples, but an exquisite record of humankind. 


Decorative plaque with a narrative scene, Begram, Room 13, 1st century CE, ivory and paint, 5.9 x 11.3 cm (©National Museum of Afghanistan)



Hidden Treasures brochure

Vandalised Afghanistan—Frontline (Hindu on Net)

Afghanistan Wants its “Dead Sea Scrolls” of Buddhism Back—British Library acknowledges that it has no idea how the scrolls came to London from Hadda.

Afghanistan: Images from an Era of Peace

Nancy Hatch Dupree—Museum under Siege and List of Stolen Items

Other Images

LACMA Head of a Bodhisattva (Gandahara)

Unique lunette with Buddha surrounded by adorants from Hadda area.

The Truth of Who We Are: Images of Afghanistan at SF Public Library

Posted in Bay Area Art Scene, Central Asia, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Photography, Words & Symbols with tags , , , , , on January 4, 2009 by Liz Hager
. . . Humankind is being led along an evolving course,
through this migration of intelligences,
and though we seem to be sleeping,
there is an inner wakefulness
that directs the dream,
and that will eventually startle us back
to the truth of who we are. . . 
Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, excerpt from The Dream That Must be Interpreted


Joseph Hoyt, The Great Buddhas of the Bamiyan Valley (destroyed by the Taliban March 2001), black & white photograph (© Joseph Hoyt 1979)

In early March 2001 the world was stunned by the news that the ruling regime in Afghanistan had destroyed the two giant Buddhas of Bamiyan. Claiming that these were idols and thus violated Sharia (Islamic law), the Taliban dynamited the 1500 year-old statues from their niches in the Hazarajat caves northwest of Kabul. The destruction of these exceptional and unique pieces of Buddhist art—despite worldwide protest and calls for moderation—should have been our wake up call about the ever-present danger inherent in the flash point that is Central Asia. Rather, for most Americans, the incident provided only a passing introduction to Afghanistan, a country so desperately poor and geographically remote that we failed to grasp the necessity of understanding more. We didn’t comprehend that a country, which has stood at a cross-roads of human history for millennia, has a rich culture. Alexander, the Silk Route merchants, Genghis Khan, Buddhists on their way from India to China all laid their specific cultural legacy on Afghanistan.  

Except for art historians, Buddhist scholars, and a relatively small number of concerned citizens, the event and the country were soon forgotten.   A mere six months later, however, Afghanistan roared violently back into the consciousness of every American. And little more than a year after that the country dropped from the radar screen once again, eclipsed by the US invasion of Iraq.

Soon, Afghanistan once again will colonize our consciousness. With Barack Obama committed to expanding military operations in the country, our notions, misconceptions, and prejudices of it are bound to surface. 

Operating on the theory that a picture is worth a thousand  words, those inclined to greater understanding of Afghani culture will want to see two San Francisco exhibits before they close this month—Joseph Hoyt’s Afghanistan 1970-1975: Images From An Era of Peace  (until Jan 18) at the Public Library and Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum, Kabul (closes Jan 25; reviewed in separate VR post) conveniently located next door at the Asian Art Museum.  

Joseph Hoyt arrived in Afghanistan in September 1970, solely on the strength of a fireside conversation in Crete. Thinking he would merely pass through the country, he ended up staying for nearly a year. Over the next five years, Hoyt spent nearly 40 months in the country. 

I loved being there. Travel was cheap, safe, and easy. The people were friendly, open and generous beyond their means. The sounds, sights, and smells of everyday life were exhilarating. The contrasts were amazing: the deserts ran on seemingly without end. The mountains concealed green oases of vineyards, lush gardens, and apricot and mulberry groves. Even the names of the mountains were intoxicating: the Koh-I Baba, the Hindu Kush, the Pamirs. This was indeed a different world. It seemed I could not leave.. . The more I saw and experienced, the more taken by the people, the landscape, and the culture I became.


Afghanistan (click on map to enlarge) 

Hoyt shot hundreds of photographs during those 40 months, some 50 of which are included in the exhibit. All of the photos were taken before the Soviet invasion in 1979, at a time when the country was at peace and comparatively properous. The everyday shots in markets, on buses, and teahouses depict the Afghanis as a joyous, almost carefree, people.  


Joseph Hoyt, Nineteen boys cram a back-street shop to laugh and study the Koran in Kabul, black & white photograph (© Joseph Hoyt 1979)

The exhibit includes some stunning landscapes as well—in particular, the shot of hundreds of domed gumbazee structures rising from the dirt in the remote village of Lash-e Jouayn is mesmerizing in its strangeness.  Although they aren’t as engaging as the shots of people and landscapes, the several photos of the Bamayan Buddhas are interesting as cultural records. More interesting than the pictures themselves is Hoyt’s narrative about the excursion, for it evokes some of the specialness of the giant figures:

It was already quite cold as we were traveling in mid-October.  We arrived in Bamian quite late—probably after 2am—and were met by a tea house owner who showed us a place to put our mats.  To awaken and walk outside in the morning and be at the foot of the immense statues was stunning.  I spent the day climbing the cliffs and exploring the caves.  The two Buddhas are (were) quite far apart – it seems maybe nearly a mile from one to the other.  It was possible to actually climb through a series of caves to a room at the head of the larger Buddha where you could see out small opening and view the remains of the polychrome paintings of seated Buddhas and other scenes.  Some of the cave were quite large as I recall—high ceilings with openings looking out over the Bamian Valley and to the mountains beyond.

As I heard and read of the impending actions by the Taliban back in in 2001 I thought and hoped it was simply a publicity stunt.  As the days went on it became apparent they were serious.  To me it was unimaginable these uneducated religious thugs would go through with it.  How many generations had those massive figures dominated so benignly that lovely valley? 40? 50?

Regrettably, this era of peace in Afghanistan is virtually unknown to the the world at large; happily we have Hoyt’s record of it. His pictures are fragments in the larger truth of Afghanistan. And greater understanding of the Afghanis, their complex history, and rich culture, as Rumi observed, will eventually startle us back to the truth of who we are.

Note: According to tradition, Rumi was born in BalkhBactria, in contemporary Afghanistan, which at that time was part of the Persian Empire. The hometown of his father’s family; however, some Rumi scholars believe that he was born in Wakhsh, a small town located on the river Wakhsh in present-day Tajikistan. As a young adult Rumi fled to central Turkey to avoid war in his homeland.  In Konya, he founded the Mevlevi Dervish Order, also known as the whirling dervishes.  

More on Rumi.

Wider Connections

Joseph HoytImages of Afghanistan

Douglas Powell’s images of Afghanistan (1970s)

Obama’s Afghan Hurdles (Robert Kaplan, Atlantic Monthly)


Further Reading

Rory Stewart—The Places Inbetween. Just after the Taliban were deposed (2001), Scottish journalist/historian Rory Stewart ventured on a dangerous and seemingly impossible journey—walking across Afghanistan. He survived by using his wits, his knowledge of Persian dialects and Muslim customs, and the hospitality for which the Afghanis are well-known. In recounting this trip, Stewart meditates on the forces of tradition, ideology and tribal allegiance that shape life in Afghanistan’s countless places “in between.”

Greg Mortenson—Three Cups of Tea. An uplifting tale of how one person does make a difference. Mortenson, seriously lost in northeastern Pakistan’s untrammeled Karakoram Range, stumbled nearly 60 miles down a glacier to the Muslim hamlet of Korphe, where he was inspired to make a life-changing promise. This is the engaging story of how that promise became a reality. 

Robert Kaplan—Soldiers of God: With the Mujahidin in Afghanistan. Kaplan reports first-hand on the Afghan resistance to Soviet invasion in the 1980s. 

Steven Coll—Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001

Takla Makan Tartan

Posted in Central Asia, Fashion, Liz Hager, Textiles with tags , , , , , , , on November 20, 2008 by Liz Hager



Assorted Scottish Tartans, digital illustration (©2008 Liz Hager)

Yesterday, under the headline “The Dead Tell a Tale China Doesn’t Care to Listen To,” The New York Times offered an unusually long article on the subject of the Tarim Basin mummies. Although the mummies aren’t a new discovery, periodically they are revived author Edward Wong noted, “as protagonists in a very contemporary political dispute over who should control the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.”  (For more on the conflict between ethnic minority Uighers and majority Han Chinese, see What’s in a Vowel?)

Sven Hedin was the first to unearth (although un-sand might be a better description) Tarim Basin mummies in the early 1900s near the oasis town of Loulan on the northern fringes of the Takla Makan desert. Without proper excavation equipment or transportation, Hedin had to leave the bodies in situ. They were largely forgotten until 1978, when Chinese archeologist Wang Binghua uncovered 113 bodies, while excavating a hillside.

In 1987 Chinese culture expert Victor Mair was one of the first Westerners to see them. He was astounded: “The Chinese said they were 3,000 years old, yet the bodies looked as if they were buried yesterday.” Ironically, it was the harsh conditions of the desert—the extreme temperatures and arid climate—which preserved the bodies in near pristine condition. Unfortunately, the altered condition of the “Loulan Beauty” (as evidenced in attached video) might cause one to wonder whether their above-ground environment has been a tad toxic for them.

The “Loulan Beauty”  (photo ©Gilles Sabrie)

Other than their condition, what really intrigued Mair (as a wider audience now knows thanks to the Times) was the mummies’ distinct Indo-European (i.e. Caucasoid) features and traces of reddish-blond hair. Could these people be Europeans? DNA marker testing hasn’t settled the matter definitively, and experts continue to debate all manner of topics relating to the origin and culture of these mysterious people.  One thing is clear, however: the mummies would seem to refute the claim, long-held by the Chinese, that they were the first people to settle the area.

For textile lovers there was one additional intriguing detail in the story—microscopic examination of their clothes revealed fibers not of wool, but of the outer hair of goat, which had been elaborately dyed green, blue, and brown, and woven in a twill pattern, otherwise known as tartan.

Generally speaking, twill weaves are produced by crossing the weft (horizontal) threads over and under multiple warp (vertical) threads. It yields a softer and more wrinkle-resist cloth than plain weave (over on, under one). In tartans, the pattern of colored threads is repeated through both the weft (vertical) and warp threads to form a cloth of interlocking squares.


Various Twills (illustration ©Christina Martin)

Tartan is an ancient weave, dating back at least 5,000 years. In addition to the Tarim graves, it has been found in the salt-mine graves of Hallstatt peoples in the Austrian Salzkammergut, where it has been dated to 1200 BCE. After making a detailed study of the Tarim basin mummy fabric, Elizabeth Barber concluded that it was strikingly similar to Celtic tartans in weave structure. She conjectured that the two shared a common origin in the Caucasus Mountains of Southern Russia and that quite possibly peoples had migrated out of the Caucasus in two waves, one west to Europe, the other east to Central Asia.

In the contemporary world tartan is most closely connected with the Highland clans of Scotland, although It is often mistakenly referred to as plaid. Plaide, from the Gaelic word for “blanket,”  is used specifically in the Scottish context to refer to a large length of material.  The original kilt was known as the “belted plaid” and consisted of a length of cloth (basically a large blanket) that was gathered and belted at the waist. But this is perhaps a subject for a later post.

Wider Connections

Elizabeth Wayland Barber — The Mummies of Ürümchi

JH Mallory and Victor Mair—The Tarim Mummies

Aurel Stein’s 1910 photo of a Tarim Basin mummy

More mummies: Ötzi the Iceman

Matthew Newsom—Who Says Tartan is Just for Scots?

History of Scottish Tartan

A Seated Buddha from Tumshuk

Posted in Central Asia, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , on November 14, 2008 by Liz Hager


seated-buddha-tumshuk-5th-cSeated Buddha, Tumshuk (Xinjiang Provence) 5th century,
Wood, approximately 6 1/3″ high

The end of the Han dynasty in the 2nd century CE ushered in three centuries of unrest in China and its Western territories.  After a series of weak Emperors, the Huns (“barbarians”) ruled for centuries, although reunification of the Northern and Southern Dynasties did not happen until the Sui Dynasty took power in 580. It was during these chaotic centuries that Buddhism established its foothold in China.  Under the aegis of Ashok the Great, Buddhism pushed north and east out of India, first into Central Asia, and from there east into China along the Silk Route.  Perhaps the Chinese embraced it for the stability it brought to their lives.

Buddhist monks established early outposts in the oasis towns of Central Asia—Kashgar, Khotan, Dunhuang, Turfan. During the 4th and 5th centuries these settlements grew into bustling centers of religion and commerce. Conversely, Chinese monks, seeking to study the Buddhist scriptures, passed through these towns en route to India. In the oases, cultural and artistic traditions—Buddhist, Chinese, Persian, Bactrian, Turkic tribes—mingled freely.  Some 1500 years later in the monastery caves outside these towns European archeologists Aurel Stein and Albert von Le Coq excavated the exquisite artifacts produced by unique Buddhist societies.

The 6-inch high treasure above was uncovered by Albert von Le Coq in the caves at Tumshuk (just east of Kashgar, now in Xinjiang Province, China). Statues of this type and small size are thought to have been votive offerings from pious Buddhists.

This Buddha assumes the classic dhyanasana position, a posture of meditation, in which the legs are locked in full-lotus position with the soles of the feet turned upwards so as to be visible. In unusual style, he wears a smooth and unwrinkled robe, and its lack of embellishment emphasizes the serenity of the pose. Traces of polychrome suggest that the sculpture was once entirely painted; the brilliant pigments of the various cave wall paintings suggest that the original colors of this Buddha would have been stunning.

In general form this seated Buddha displays attributes of the Gandharan style, in which Hellenistic or Greco-Roman artistic techniques (first brought to the Gandhara, now the borderlands of Afghanistan/Pakistan, by Alexander) blended with Indian Buddhist iconography. In keeping with their desire to depict the Buddha as a man, not a deity, Gandharan artists employed naturalistic modeling and realistic detail.

Similarly-dated artifacts of many different styles fill the caves; unfortunately this statue offers no clue as to the reason for its form. Did the sculptor bring artistic traditions with him from Gandhara to Tumshuk? Or did he become infatuated by the down-to-earth simplicity of another artifact?

There are many possibilities. Buddha does not reveal all secrets.

Wider Connections

The Silk Roads—an historical overview.
A Buddhist Library
Marilyn Rhie—Early Buddhist Art of China & Central Asia
Buddhist Art News
The Science of Meditation

Venetian Red in Berlin: Ethnological Arts from Azerbaijan

Posted in Central Asia, Embroidery, Liz Hager, Textiles, Travel with tags , , , , , , , on October 22, 2008 by Liz Hager


Azerbaijan embroidered coverlet, 19th century, silk, metallic thread

Azerbaijan embroidered coverlet (detail)

Ethnology is the branch of anthropology that compares and analyzes the origins, distribution, technology, and social structure of the ethnic, racial and national divisions of humanity. Simply put, ethnologists interpret the output—whether language, artifacts, social customs—of various families of man.  By the mid-19th century, Europeans were captivated by the Middle Eastern and Central Asian cultures, both ancient and contemporary. So much so, that the term “Orientalist” was coined to describe the people who studied these cultures.

Though perhaps not as well-known as their English counterparts, German “Orientalists,” such as  Albert van Le Coq and his contemporaries were actively digging in the Sahara, the Levant and Chinese Turkistan. Like the British, they ultimately “liberated”  huge caches of artifacts from their resting places with the result that an exceptionally good collection of ethnologic art resides in Berlin.

For anyone with an interest in the tribal arts, a visit to the Ethnologisches Museum is a compulsory stop. Founded in 1873, the composite Museum (several separate collections have been merged under one roof) boasts over 500,000 artifacts, representing peoples from every continent, including North America, although only a fraction of the collection is on display at any given time. Still, the serious student could spend hours, if not days, properly absorbing it all.  Of course, it doesn’t hurt that (for now) the Museum is located in Dahlem, an idyllic spot southwest of the city center, which has retained its leafy village origins, despite being within city limits. Or that Die Brücke, the Museum of the German Expressionist movement, is a short walk up the road.

Although on a pilgrimage specifically to see the Kizil Cave frescos, I nonetheless wound up spending much additional time (though not nearly enough) in the comprehensive Oceanic collection and a temporary exhibit—”Azerbaijan—Land of Fires.” Apparently the first of its kind in Europe, this exhibition features 5,000 years of Azeri ethnographic arts; it encompasses not only household and decorative items, but fine arts.

The nation state of Azerbaijan is sandwiched between Russia, Georgia, Armenia and Iran on the Caspian Sea. Beginning in the 6th century the Turkic tribes, migrating in vast numbers from the Mongolian steppe, overpowered local populations throughout Central Asia. Azerbaijan was no exception. The term “Azerbaijan” refers to the dominant Turkic tribe in the region, but derives from a root word—Azer—”fire keeper,” because the local population were fire worshippers.  By the early 20th century observers in the capital, Baku, noted the effects of the ever present smoke from fires pluming out of the city’s numerous oil derricks.

The tribal arts of Azerbaijan generally reflect either Iranian or Turkic traditions, although some Russian traditions were absorbed when the country came under Soviet control in the early 20th century. In the case of textiles, like other Turkic peoples, Azeris use embroidery to decorate many household objects—cushions, covers, wall panels, details of clothing, purses, comb cases, etc. Typically artisans embroidered intricate geometric or fanciful floral and fauna motifs on cotton or velvet using “chain” or “satin” stich techniques in silk or metallic threads. In the above detail, the chain stitching is particularly evident.  The wide use of spangles tends to differentiate Azeri embroideries from others, although this aspect is not well demonstrated by the example above.

Embroidery Craftsmen, Azerbaijan—Yelizavetpol Province, late 19th century
(Photo courtesy Russian Museum of Ethnography)

Wider Connections

Berlin Ethnographisches Museum
Azerbaijan State Museum
Azerbaijan History
More embroideries
Tom Reiss—The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life, the absolutely fascinating story of Essad Bey, a Jew from the Caucasus, born in the first throes of the Russian Revolution, he styled himself a Muslim prince.

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

Posted in Central Asia, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , on September 28, 2008 by Liz Hager

“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

Little Paper Offerings

Posted in Central Asia, Liz Hager, Paper, Sculpture with tags , , , , on September 22, 2008 by Liz Hager

Editors Note: For more on the Buddhist art of Dunhuang, see Flying Down the Central Asian Steppe; Talisman of the Pole Star; On the Trail of Alexander.


Collaged Flowers, Tang Dynasty (9th-10th c. AD),
“retrieved” from Cave 17, Mogao, near Dunhuang, Gansu province, China, by Sir Aurel Stein
(photo ©The British Museum)

The paper flowers above, found in the Mogao caves by Aurel Stein, are probably the earliest surviving examples of Buddhist votive flowers. Stein must have been electrified when he discovered these prosaic gems among the sacred art. It’s nothing less than a miracle that they even survived, having been in the caves for perhaps as long as 1500 years.

Glue found on the backs of the flowers suggests that they were offerings pasted by devotees onto the walls of the shrines or perhaps on to the Buddha statues themselves. Flowers, the lotus in particular, are a central motif in Buddhist iconography, so it is not surprising that the Dunhuang grottos would be full of floral rosettes; stylized flowers have been painted on ceilings, woven or embroidered in textiles, added to borders and patterns. In the harsh desert climate of the Takla Makan, it would make sense that delicately cut and painted paper would stand in ceremoniously for natural flowers.

As Susan Whitfield observes in the Dunhuang chapter of The Silk Road, her catalog of the 2004 British Library exhibit:

Despite the wall to ceiling painting, the Mogao caves as they appear today are denuded of much of the decoration which would have once adorned the walls and the Buddha statues. . . It is difficult to image now but the caves full of offerings, colorful hangings, and other decorations, with the sound of prayers being recited and the smell of the hemp oil from the flickering lamps mingling with the incense offered to Buddha, must have had a very different atmosphere from today.

Wider Connections

Susan Whitfield—The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War And Faith

Flying Down the Central Asian Steppe

Posted in Central Asia, Ceramics, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , on September 10, 2008 by Liz Hager

“Female Polo Player,” ca. 500 AD, terracotta with slip and pigments (photo courtesy International Dunhuang Project)

Among the nearly 100,000 items in the Magao Caves (“The Caves of the Thousand Buddhas”) that  Aurel Stein packed off to London and New Delhi were small animal figurines and humans on horseback.  

For additional Venetian Red posts on the “Caves of a Thousand Buddhas” — On the Trail of Alexander;Talisman of the Pole Star, Little Paper Offerings.

The figurines are unusual; among the thousands of Buddhist-related items, they really don’t have religious significance. However, like the Buddhist items, they too have little stories to tell about the intermingling of cultures along the Silk Route more than a millennium ago.  “Female Polo Player” is unique for its depiction of leisure time on the Asian Steppe.

Polo was first played in the Persian empire certainly from the first century CE, perhaps earlier.  It was first developed as war training for the cavalry; each game emulated a miniature battle.   Polo was largely confined to the nobility. But here’s the interesting part: women, as well as men, played the sport enthusiastically.  Through Persian conquest, polo was exported to Central Asia. From there, thanks to the Silk Route, it was introduced into China sometime in the 6th c. CE. 

The exquisitely-rendered figures of this sculpture are deceptively sophisticated.  In many respects this pony is classic Tang —its elongated face, thick neck, and chunky haunches are reminiscent of those highly glazed cousins rendered in China proper.  Nevertheless, its unglazed finish and terracotta coloring, together with its endearing Appaloosa-like spots, clearly identify it as a Central Asian breed, perhaps the Heavenly Mountain pony so prized by the Chinese for its endurance. The rider is a brilliant counterpoint to her mount. Her long tunic hangs over loose pants, which are tucked snugly into her boots.  (The style was originally adopted from the “foreigner’s costume,” and later became the rage among women in China.) The turquoise color of her outfit subtlely complements the terracotta of her mount. Her pose is artistically refined for she pivots and leans, breaking the straight forward plane of the horse. Though it’s no longer there, we imagine she has lifted her polo stick to gallop downfield after the ball.    

The piéce de resistance of course is the “flying gallop” gait. Balletic and powerful. Though photographer Eadweard Muybridge would prove this gait to be anatomically incorrect in the late 19th c. (Galloping into History), I am quite sure this is the only pose this polo pony could have assumed. It seemlessly combines the essence of nobility—the speed and grace that is polo—with a naive folk quality that makes this ride look like a heck of a good time.

“Talisman of the Pole Star”—Protection Along the Silk Route

Posted in Central Asia, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , on September 9, 2008 by Liz Hager

Talisman of the Pole Star, ink and colors on paper, mid-10th century, Cave 17, Mogao Grottos, Dunhuang (©The British Museum)

In early March, 1907, archeologist Aurel Stein reached the square-walled oasis of Dunhuang on the edge of the Lop Nur, now just a dried lake bed at the eastern end of the Tarim Basin. Twelve miles SE of the oasis in a shallow depression, known as the “Valley of 1000 Buddhas,”  Stein would soon uncover the world’s most extensive and celebrated cache of Buddhist art, some of it more than 1500 years old.

For more Venetian Red posts on Dunhuang Caves—On Trail of Alexander; Flying Down the Central Asian Steppe; Little Paper Offerings.

“Talisman of the Pole Star” was one of perhaps 40,000 manuscripts that Stein eventually removed from the caves.  At 17×12 inches, it was designed to be carried, rather than read in a library. Certainly its magical powers and delightful design have made it an object of interest. However, the real value of the scroll for me was in its context in the history of human development, specifically the migration of Buddhism from India to China.

Ashoka the Great did much to spread Buddhism beyond India in the 3rd c. BCE. As Aurel Stein’s many Central Asian digs were to make clear, Alexander and his armies introduced Hellenic culture to lands already steeped in Buddhist beliefs.  It was only natural that proselytizing monks should travel along the well-established roads of the Silk Route, establishing monasteries and enclaves in and around key trading center.   Though Daoism and Confucionism were well-established in China, the Chinese were curious about new ideas. Or perhaps they perceived a threat.  By the 1st c. BCE, the Hou Hanshu chronicles describe Emperor Ming sending envoys West to “inquire about the Buddha’s doctrine.”

By the 2nd/3rd c. CE, many Silk Route cities came to be dominated by Buddhist stupas and monasteries, some of them evident today.   In the 7th century, Dunhuang became a prosperous way station at the juncture of the northern and southern routes around the Takla Makan desert. Also by the 7th century, the Chinese had embraced Buddhism and were undertaking the wholesale translation of Buddhist texts into Chinese. This endeavor was to require many generations of scholars traveling back and forth from India to China. It’s not surprising with this confluence of factors that a considerable and lasting Buddhist outpost was established near Dunhuang.

The scroll form is believed to have come to China with Buddhism along the Silk Route. The layout of the “Pole Star” scroll with the image on top and text below was to become the dominant form for Chinese illustrated books from the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries.  Further, the imagery on this scrol beautifully the absolute demonstrates the absolute fungibility of cultures, where they mix freely.

The Pole Star was an established figure in Chinese Daoist and Hindu religions, so undoubtedly the Buddhists adopted from either of these sources.  In depicting the figure of the Pole Star (left) holding a paper and a brush, the artist was careful to follow existing traditions that associated the figure with imparting of information. On the right of the scroll is mythological figure, Ketu, a Hindu tradition whom the Buddhists embraced. Together with deity Rahu, Ketu represents a point on the ecliptic where the Moon is in alignment with the Sun and the Earth.

Thus, the pairing of the Pole Star and Ketu denotes precise harmony with the celestial elements—i.e. the Sun, the Earth, the Moon, the stars; important to Buddhists in the enfolding of individual consciousness and no doubt appealing to the Chinese.  For extra protection, the artist has added text in Chinese and Daoist writing (transcribed below), penned in red to confer extra good luck and/or supernatural powers on the bearer of the talisman.

Whoever wears in his girdle this talisman, which is a dharani (magic chant) talisman, will obtain magic power and will have his sins remitted during a thousand kalpas (eras). And of the Ten Quarters all the Buddhas shall appear before his eyes. Abroad in the world he shall everywhere encounter good fortune and profit. Throughout his whole life he shall enjoy other men’s respect and esteem. His religious merit shall be unparalleled, and this protection and purification shall come to him as swiftly as Lü Ling (a Daoist sage) rides.

—Roderick Whitfield (Caves of the Thousand Buddhas) translation of the “Pole Star” text.

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

Posted in Central Asia, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, People & Places, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , on August 30, 2008 by Liz Hager

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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