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10th century fragment of a mural painting from Xinjiang (Chinese Turkestan) showing monks and Bodhisattvas listening to a sermon by the Buddha
105cm x 90cm approx. State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia 
From 1 March 2014 onwards, the Hermitage Amsterdam will offer visitors a glimpse of the long-lost civilizations along the legendary Silk Road. Until 5 September 2014, the exhibition Expedition Silk Road will present treasures from the Hermitage: 250 exceptionally beautiful objects, such as murals, sculpture, precious silks, silver, glass, gold, and terracotta, excavated by Russian expeditions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Visitors will follow in the footsteps of the explorers who mapped the routes of kings and merchants, and of the Buddhist monks who went before them. Like the caravans that crossed this inhospitable region ages ago, passing through oases, kingdoms, and monasteries, visitors will travel the trade routes from west to east or east to west, and discover spectacular ancient treasures along the way. Among the many highlights will be a more than nine-metre-long mural of a deity in battle with predators from the royal palace in Varakhsha (7th–8th century, present-day Uzbekistan). This prized work of art has never left the Hermitage before, but after its restoration, made possible by crowdfunding by the Friends of the Hermitage, it will be on display in Amsterdam for more than six months.
Details here.
A nameless, sun-baked clay minaret stands against a flawless blue sky. Dating from the 12th century and missed by Ghengis Khan and his marauding armies
Image credit Lynne O’Donnell
The BBC News Magazine reports last month on the incomparable heritage sites in Balkh Province, northern Afghanistan.  The ancient city of Balkh was known as the mother of all cities. “More than a decade after her first visit, Lynne O’Donnell returns with a group of archaeologists, trying to uncover more of its treasures.”
Across the far northern Afghan plain, a hot wind blows the dun-coloured dust into blinding clouds, and the women’s burkas into blue billows. It is 40C in the shade, and even the small black goats being herded through the sand dunes look sapped by the heat. These are the lowlands of Balkh, where ancient trade routes attracted nomads, warriors, settlers, adventurers and evangelists, who left behind secrets that archaeologists are just beginning to unlock. This area places Afghanistan at the heart of political, economic, social and religious power across Asia, as far back as 4,000 years ago. The last time I drove across the Bactrian plain was in 2001. I had sailed down the Amu Darya river on a barge from Uzbekistan as British and American forces were pounding the Taliban after the 9/11 attacks in the US.
I have returned 12 years later with Afghan and French archaeologists to tour some of the oldest, most magnificent and historically significant sites in the world – sites that are shedding light not only on Afghanistan’s past, but on the development of human civilisation, from India to China and beyond. The Bactrian plain is the treasure house of Afghanistan’s secret history. Across this desert, Alexander the Great marched his army, killed the king of Balkh and married his beautiful daughter, Roxanne. Some 1,500 years later, Genghis Khan swept through and destroyed teeming cities that were melting pots of diversity. The philosopher Zoroaster, founder of the first monotheistic religion 3,500 years ago, lived and possibly died here. Rumi, the 13th Century poet who wrote in Persian, was born in Balkh – and is also, some Afghans like to think, buried here.
Full article by Lynne O’Donnell here. See also The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination exhibition now showing at the Brunei Gallery, School of Oriental and African Studies, London until 14 December 2013.
Dunhuang mural as revealed under multispectral imaging
China Central Television reports Thursday that –
As a key stopover on the ancient Silk Road, the Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes in Northwest China’s Gansu Province have major historical significance. Now, a new technique has been adopted to preserve the ancient murals in the caves. What’s more, it can also help visitors see the murals in all their original glory.
The murals have suffered from on-going degradation 
However, with the help of a multi-spectral imaging technique, the original colourful paintings can now easily be seen. “We can’t see any paintings on this wall, but by using the multi-spectral imaging technique, all the layers of paintings can be ’reproduced’,” said Su Bomin, director of Conservation Institute of Dunhuang. Using this technique, archaeologists discovered several paintings featuring exquisite costumes.
Full article and video here. See also our earlier feature on The International Dunhuang Project.
Sir Aurel Stein
An  extraordinary individual who advanced human knowledge on many fronts, Sir Aurel Stein (1862-1943) pursued dramatic adventures with scientific purpose. Trained as an orientalists, Stein exerted a decisive influence on a wide spectrum of scholarly disciplines. His investigations touched on the neolithic to medieval periods and spanned the area from the Persian Gulf to the pacific watershed.

Sir Aurel Stein was one of a small, scholarly band of pioneers who expanded knowledge to include the European landmass and the interactions between each of its four high civilizations: the Mediterranean West, the Indian, the Iranian and the Chinese. Central Asia, the region with which Stein’s name is most notably associated, was a crossroads between East and West for commerce, and culture, religion, arts and peoples. Stein rediscovered the ancient Silk Route between China and the West and unearthed dozens of sites long buried in the sands of Central Asia. His recovery of the library at Tung-Huang (the Cave of the Thousand Buddhas) [see The International Dunhuang Project below] is comparable to that of the Dead Sea scrolls: and his excavations in Turfan, Nija, Miran, and other places provided important materials for the studies of Buddhism, for linguistics, for Han and T’ang history, law and administration, popular literature, painting, sculpture, and many other disciplines.
Source: Jacket introduction to Jeannette Mirsky’s Sir Aurel Stein: Archaeological Explorer. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1997.
Jacket cover to Jeannette Mirsky’s Sir Aurel Stein
Two passports used by Sir Aurel Stein and the banner given his caravan to identify and safeguard it on its way from Turfan to Kashgar in 1915
Image credit James Ballard


March 2023
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