Archeology and History of the Silk Road

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Saturday, 4 January 2014

Expedition Silk Road, Treasures from the Hermitage

New exhibition about the Silk Road

Hermitage Amsterdam

1 March – 5 September 2014



In 1877 the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen introduced the name ‘Great Silk Road’ for a chain of age-old trade routes through Central Asia that connected the Far East to the West. For some 1,700 years, the Silk Road was the world’s largest trade network. Caravans of up to a thousand camels, horses, oxen and donkeys crossed deserts and high mountains to carry coveted goods from East to West and West to East. The first archaeological digs were carried out in the late nineteenth century, mainly by Russian expeditions. Vanished cities, cave monasteries, and necropolises came to light in Mongolia, western China, the Central Asian republics, and the Caucasus. Many treasures were found beneath the sands, from centuries before Christ and up to the Middle Ages: murals, silver, gold, painted silk, sculptures, and jewellery, all of high artistic quality and bearing witness to astonishing interactions between cultures and religions. Lost cities like Khara-Khoto, Panjakent, and Varakhsha were restored to their former glory. Ancient and sometimes forgotten empires were put back on the map: Sogdia, Parthia, Ustrushana. What the Silk Route revealed to Russian scholars is now waiting to be discovered in Amsterdam, with more than 250 treasures from the Hermitage.

Heads of Demons Battling a Rider, Ustrushana, Bunjikat, 8th–9th century,Fresco-secco wall painting

Expedition Silk Road


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, Buddhas, 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 kingdoms, monasteries, and oases, 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.
1 March - 5 September 2014

The Silk Road predates the Christian era, and until the fifteenth century, it was the world’s largest trade network and a source of unprecedented cultural interchange. It ran from China to the Mediterranean. The Silk Road was not a single path but a network of trade routes spanning a distance of 7,000 kilometres. It crossed the inhospitable and sparsely populated region of Central Asia, with its vast deserts and impassable mountain ranges, and connected great civilizations such as India, Persia, China, and the Roman Empire. The fertile oases in this enormous region, and the kingdoms that emerged there, played a crucial and welcome role as way stations and marketplaces.
State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

A thousand camels

The more than 250 treasures in the exhibition come from thirteen archaeological sites on the Silk Road, associated with a variety of kingdoms and places. Along the trade routes, an unprecedented interchange of goods and ideas took place, as shown by the monumental murals excavated all along the Silk Road. Buddhism was the earliest cultural phenomenon to spread by means of these roads, borne from India towards China by wandering monks. Centuries later, Islam began moving eastward along the same paths, replacing Buddhism in many places. Christianity and Judaism were also disseminated along the Silk Road. For instance, an incense burner with Christian iconography and a ring showing Daniel in the lion’s den have been found deep in Central Asia.
The largest-scale interchange was the trade in goods. Caravans with as many as a thousand camels, horses, oxen, and donkeys traversed the region from east to west, from north to south, and back again. Silk was one of the first trade items, and for a while it was even a means of payment. But many other products travelled the Silk Road. Besides silk, the products from China included lacquer, ceramics, and porcelain. From the Mediterranean region in the west came goods such as glass and textiles. Fur came from Siberia in the north, while topaz, emeralds, perfumes, henna, and exotic animals were brought from India in the south. Central Asian cultures, such as the vanished kingdom of Sogdia, produced exquisitely wrought silver for trade.
State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

The expeditions and the collection

The cultures of the Silk Road were not rediscovered until the late nineteenth century, when Russia, Great Britain, Germany, and Japan organized the first expeditions. Dozens of expeditions headed by Russian archaeologists set off for Mongolia, western China, and the Central Asian republics. On many sites, they uncovered treasures spanning many centuries, from long before Christ to the Middle Ages. In the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, these were presented as ancient treasures of the Soviet Union with its many peoples. The objects in this exhibition have been drawn from the vast collection of the Oriental Department of the Hermitage. Finds from thirteen archaeological sites form the basis for the exhibition, painting a vivid picture of the diversity and cultural influences along the Silk Road.

The discoveries

In 1877, when the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen introduced the term ‘Great Silk Road’ for the trade routes between the Far East and the West that ran through Central Asia, it became clear to the world that beneath the sands of these forgotten regions, lost cultures could be found. It was a time when archaeologists were making great discoveries, and in the late nineteenth century they turned their attention to Central Asia. The earliest expeditions, organized by Russia, Great Britain, Germany, and Japan, competed for the most spectacular finds. Lost cities and monasteries were unearthed and caves discovered in Mongolia, western China, and the Central Asian republics. Unexpected sites proved to hold treasures spanning many centuries, from long before Christ to the Middle Ages: Buddha paintings, traces of Christianity and Judaism, silk, silver, gold, wall paintings, sculptures, and jewellery, all of high artistic quality and bearing witness to astonishing interactions between cultures and religions. Lost cities and empires acquired names: Sogdia, Chorasmia, Parthia, Khara-Khoto. This was the discovery of the Silk Road, a magical world where treasures ranging from long before Christ to medieval times attest to unprecedented cultural interchange.

The world’s largest trade network for more than 1,700 years

The origins of the Silk Road are said to lie in the second century BC. China was under regular attack by nomads, the Xiongnu, and responded by building the Great Wall of China. In search of allies in this struggle, the Chinese emperor Han Wudi sent a diplomatic mission led by Zhang Qian to the west in the late second century. Zhang Qian's reports included descriptions of all the regions, kingdoms, and city-states that he visited. His journey resulted in China’s earliest trade relations with the peoples to the west and Chinese products such as silk gradually spread to such far-off places as Rome. This was the start of a network of trade routes linking China to the Mediterranean over a distance of 7,000 kilometres. It branched to the north and south of the inhospitable and mostly barren Taklamakan Desert, running through the almost impassable mountain ranges of Pamir and Tian Shan to the fertile regions around the Oxus and Jaxartes Rivers (now known as the Amu Darya and Syr Darya). From there, it went south to Persia and north to the Caspian Sea, and through the Caucasus to Asia Minor.

Crossroads of civilizations

In the ancient and medieval worlds, Central Asia was at the crossroads of several great civilizations: India, Persia, China, and the Roman Empire. In the north, it bordered on steppes where nomadic peoples dwelled. The oases and kingdoms of this vast region played a crucial and welcome role as way stations and marketplaces. The Silk Road was not a single, fixed route, but a network of trade routes that grew out of China towards the west. And it carried much more than just silk. The region to which this exhibition is devoted is generally known as Central Asia. We define this as northwestern China and the Central Asian ‘stans’: Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, southern Kazakhstan, and northern Afghanistan.

A thousand camels

Silk was one of the first trade items and was highly sought after. For some time, it was even an official means of payment on the Silk Road. But many other products travelled this route. Caravans of horses, oxen, donkeys, and as many as a thousand camels traversed the region from east to west, from north to south, and back again. They were confronted with extreme climates, and most trips were to the closest trading post and back. Besides silk, the products from China in the east included lacquer, ceramics, and porcelain. Traders also brought glass, wool, and linen (often in the form of tapestries) from the Mediterranean region in the west. Fur came from Siberia in the north, while topaz, emeralds, perfumes, henna, and exotic animals were brought from India in the south. In Central Asia, halfway along the Silk Road in what is now Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, lay Sogdia, a pivotal trading post and a source of silver. Every part of the Silk Road traded in paper, leather, and chemicals such as ammonium chloride, used in polishing metal and treating leather.

The spread of Buddhism

These trade routes became the site of an unprecedented exchange of goods and ideas. We can see the results in the magnificent wall paintings found in many places along the routes. Often wall paintings in a wide range of styles were found on the same site. Buddhism was one of the first phenomena to spread along these routes, from India towards China by way of Gandhara (modern-day southern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan). The first cultural interchanges took place when pilgrims returned from the birth region of Siddharta Gautama (the Buddha Shakyamuni). The teachings of the Buddha were said to lead to enlightenment (bodhi), to liberation from suffering in the endless cycle of birth and death (samsara), and to insight into the nature of reality. Many images of the Buddha have been found, as well as of bodhisattvas, people who out of compassion help others achieve liberation before seeking it for themselves. Not only the original Buddha, but every sentient being is said to be capable of reaching enlightenment.
Many faiths spread along the Silk Road network. Centuries later, Islam began moving eastward, replacing Buddhism in many places. It followed the same routes as the Silk Road traders. Christianity and Judaism spread into Central Asia in the same way, as shown by artefacts such as an incense burner with Christian iconography and a ring with a scene of Daniel in the lion’s den. Many remains have also been found of Zoroastrianism – the first world religion based on fire worship, which was founded by the preacher Zoroaster (or Zarathustra). These include representations of a simurgh (a creature from folklore with the body of a bird and the head of a dog). Languages and writings also spread by way of the Silk Road. The Turkic languages originally came from Mongolian, and the Indo-European languages from northern India. In some Central Asian regions, such as Bactria, people spoke Indo-European languages, as did the nomads further to the north.

Murals and silver

The more than 250 treasures in the exhibition come from the glory days of the different places along the Silk Road. The story of the Silk Road is best told by the many paintings excavated in the region, such as the Buddhist silk paintings from Dunhuang in western China and Khara-Khoto in Mongolia, or the more secular monumental wall paintings from Sogdia. The kingdom of Sogdia also produced fine silver that was in great demand. Sogdian merchants settled in various locations along the Silk Road and played a dominant role in trade. They led lives of luxury, dressing in elaborate silk clothing and using beautifully decorated dishes and vessels at their banquets, as a superb mural shows. Their interest in the good life encouraged the advancement of the applied arts to a very high level.
Sogdian kings built palaces whose majesty has been uncovered by archaeologists. One of the exhibition's many highlights is a nine-metre-long mural from the Red Hall of the palace of the kings of Bukhara in Varakhsha. This 1,300-year-old painting depicts a deity in battle with predators. The fragile work was restored specifically for this exhibition, thanks in part to support from the Friends of the Hermitage.

The secret of silk leaks out

For a long time, China was the only country that exported silk. Its production process remained a carefully guarded national secret – until the fifth century, when the secret leaked out. According to legend, a Chinese princess was given in marriage to the ruler of Khotan, where the secret of silk was unknown. But she hid the eggs of the silk moth and the seeds of the mulberry tree (on which the moth and the silkworms fed) in her headdress and took them with her. The silk production process thus became known outside China and slowly made its way to western countries, enabling them to make silk of their own. According to another legend, two Christian monks brought around 550 silk moth eggs to Byzantium by concealing them in their hollow canes.

The end of the Silk Road

The conquest of Central Asia by the Mongols under Genghis Khan ushered in the region's last golden age, as part of a vast, centrally controlled empire. Trade went into decline in the fourteenth century, as the Mongol Empire started to crumble. In the fifteenth century, China's Ming Dynasty stopped exporting silk, and in 1488 the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias discovered a sea route around the Cape of Good Hope, which soon replaced trade routes on land. The rise of companies for maritime trade, such as the Dutch East India Company (VOC), brought the story of the Silk Road to an end. By this time, Islamic culture was dominant in Central Asia, and the mosques and mausoleums along the Silk Road could be recognized by the blue colour of their domes and outer walls.

The expeditions and the collection

The cultures of the Silk Road were not rediscovered until the late nineteenth century, when Russia, Great Britain, Germany, and Japan organized the earliest expeditions and competed for the most impressive finds. The Russian expeditions hit their stride after 1905 under the leadership of scholars such as Sergei Oldenburg and Pyotr Kozlov. Dozens of expeditions headed by Russian archaeologists set off for Mongolia, western China, and the Central Asian republics. In numerous places, they uncovered treasures spanning many centuries, from long before Christ to the Middle Ages. In the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, these were put on display as ancient treasures of the Soviet Union with its many peoples. To this day, the Hermitage has continued its excavations in Central Asia – for instance, in the Sogdian city of Panjakent in Tajikistan. These projects are now led by Kira Samosyuk, Pavel Lurjé, and other experts from the Oriental Department of the State Hermitage Museum, who are also involved in the making of this exhibition.
The objects to be displayed are drawn from the large collection of the Oriental Department. The exhibition will focus on thirteen archaeological sites, painting a vivid picture of the diversity and cultural influences along the Silk Road.

Overview of the thirteen archaeological sites

The trading centres along the Silk Road belonged to a diverse array of kingdoms and civilizations. The objects in the exhibition came from thirteen places and regions where Russian expeditions conducted excavations, from east to west:

Noin-Ula

Among the best-known archaeological remains of the Xiongnu nomads are the burial mounds in the hills of Noin-Ula in northern Mongolia. China erected the Great Wall as a line of defence against attacks by these nomads. The exhibition will include two-thousand-year-old silk garments and fragments of felt carpets from the first century, decorated with scenes of combat between a yak and a horned feline predator and between an elk and a griffin. Excavated in 1923–26, expedition led by Pyotr Kozlov.
State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Khara-Khoto

Khara-Khoto, ‘the black city’, the Mongolian name for a former city in a flourishing oasis in the Gobi Desert. In the eighth century, it was the dwelling place of the Tangut people, who came from Tibet and founded their own state here in 1038. The city was destroyed by Genghis Khan in 1227. Highlights include Buddhist scroll paintings on silk, like those of the Bodhisattva Maitreya and Avalokiteshvara Moon-Water, a thangka depicting the Medicine Master Bhaisajyaguru, and seven paintings of the planets and the planetary gods. Excavated in 1907–09, expedition led by Pyotr Kozlov.
State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Dunhuang

Dunhuang, western China. This city was in an oasis on the south side of the Gobi Desert, along a small corridor leading from China to the west. This was where the Great Wall ended, and all travellers headed for Central Asia passed this way. The Buddhist cave temples of Qianfodong (Caves of the Thousand Buddhas) were carved out around Dunhuang. One of these complexes contains the renowned Mogao Caves, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987. Highlights include the a mural of Apsaras (celestial spirits), Buddhas, and donors, the head of an ascetic Buddha, sculptures of disciples of the Buddha, a painting on paper by a pilgrim, and a bodhisattva on silk. Excavated in 1914–15, expedition led by Sergei Oldenburg.
State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Turfan

This oasis is on the northern branch of the Silk Road, to the north of the Taklamakan Desert, 154 metres under sea level and beside the eastern foothills of the Tian Shan mountains. It was inhabited by several different peoples. Sogdian merchants settled all along the Silk Road in the fourth and fifth centuries AD; many of them chose Turfan as their home. From the fifth century onwards, the Chinese population grew. Two highlights from Turfan are the unique mural Praṇidhi – Taking the vow and a mural of a merchant with a donkey and a camel. Excavated in 1909–10, expedition led by Sergei Oldenburg.
State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Karashahr

Oasis on the northern branch of the Silk Road, bordering on Turfan to the east and Kucha to the west. Karashahr was frequently influenced by these other two cultures, both culturally and politically. The earliest traces of Buddhism in Karashahr are the ruins of two temple complexes, dating back to the third and fourth centuries AD. Highlights include murals of the siege of Kushinagara and of the Jataka (Buddhist tale) of the hungry tigress, as well as sculptures of Brahman. Excavated in 1909–10, expedition led by Sergei Oldenburg.
State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Kucha

Another oasis along the northern branch, somewhat further from China than Karashahr. Various remains of the ancient city of Kucha have been found, including Buddhist cave temples and above-ground structures. The largest and most thoroughly studied monument is the Kyzil monastery complex, with more than two hundred caves. To the north of the modern city of Kuqa is Subashi, a vast ruined city that may have been the ancient capital of the oasis kingdom. Over the centuries, the oasis was inhabited by many different peoples. Highlights include a sculpture of a Sogdian merchant and murals of a mountain landscape with signs of the zodiac, of Pranidhi scenes, and of a woman donor, an aristocratic Tocharian lady. Excavated in 1905–7 by Mikhail Berezovsky and in 1909–10 by Sergei Oldenburg.
State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Khotan

One of the oases along the southern branch of the Silk Road. Over time, this region was inhabited by a variety of peoples: Iranians, Indians, Chinese, Turks, and Tibetans. Khotan has been one of the largest Buddhist centres since the first century AD. Numerous art objects and many ancient texts have been found there, in various languages such as Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Chinese. Other highlights include a stone Buddha figurine and figurines of camels, 'the ships of the desert'. Provenance: 1897, collections of the Russian diplomat N.F. Petrovski and others.
State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Ustrushana

Ancient kingdom on the territory of present-day Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, to the west of the major Pamir and Tian Shan mountain ranges. In ancient times, the culture of this area was already closely tied to that of neighbouring Sogdia. The people of Ustrushana spoke a Sogdian dialect. According to Arabic historians, the largest city was Bunjikat. The murals and wood carvings found in the palace there attest to a unique artistic culture with exceptional artists. Highlights include the murals from the grand hall of the palace with the Roman theme of a she-wolf suckling young children, as well as murals of various demons. Excavated in 1965–72, expedition organized by the Hermitage and the Donish Institute of History.
State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Sogdië

Sogdia, known to the ancient Greeks as Sogdiana, evolved into a shifting confederation of principalities and republics reminiscent of the Greek city-states. The Sogdians were closely involved in trade along the routes between China, India, and Persia. Their role in China from the sixth to the eighth century was especially significant. The prince of Samarkand was the nominal king of Sogdia, but for instance, the ruler of Bukhara was the only one who could mint silver coins. This latter sovereign had an opulent palace in Varakhsha with a famed ‘Red Hall’. There will be many Sogdian highlights, such as an enormous mural from the Red Hall, a dish with ‘the siege of a fortress’, a silver stand decorated with the head of a Simurgh, and an exquisite silver plate. One of the Sogdian city-states was Panjakent, founded in the fifth century AD. The city was dominated by two temples and had many richly decorated houses, a citadel, country houses, and a necropolis. Highlights from Panjakent include murals of a banquet with merchants, feasting artists, the king on a throne, a battle with the Amazons, and an Arab. Provenance: Sogdia, excavated c. 1950–present, Hermitage (Panjakent, Varakhsha).
State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Bactria

The ancient region of Bactria covered parts of the present-day states of Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Zarathustra (Zoroaster) once preached there; he was the founder of Zoroastrianism, which accorded a central role to fire. Buddhism also gradually grew in importance, even though Bactrian culture remained Hellenistic and its writing system was Greek. Objects on display from Bactria will include monastery and palace ornaments and precious gold and silver wares. The highlights are the Airtam Frieze and a golden vessel decorated with phoenixes. Provenance: 1930s–60s, Hermitage et al.
State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Chorasmia

Chorasmia is the fertile area along the lower reaches of the Amu Darya (in present-day Uzbekistan/Turkmenistan). Canals on either side of the Amu Darya, which channelled silt and water to fertilize the fields, provided rich harvests from the Bronze Age (c. 3000–8000 BC) onwards. Surrounded by deserts on all sides, Chorasmia had close trade relations with Bactria, the Volga region, and the Caucasus. Highlights include a relief of the goddess of victory and two silver dishes. Provenance: 1930s–1960s, Sergei Tolstov et al.
State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Parthia

The Parthian Empire was founded in the third century BC, after the disintegration of Alexander the Great’s empire, in what is now roughly northern Iran. Parthia was not a unified state and had no permanent capital. The king went from province to province with his army and retinue, dispensing justice and resolving conflicts. In the third century AD, the Iranian Sassanid Empire would emerge in this area. Parthian culture had Iranian, Hellenistic, and Mesopotamian elements. The kings practiced the Zoroastrian faith, but Parthia was a place of religious diversity and relative tolerance. Highlights include a cameo of Daniel in the lion's den and the ivory fittings of a rhyton (drinking vessel) with decorations depicting Parthians. Provenance: early 20th century, various sites.
State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Northern Caucasus

Finds from this area range in time from the sixth to the ninth century and have greatly enhanced our insight into the Silk Road. Thanks to the high mountain climate, textiles from Byzantium, Sogdia, and China have been preserved at the burial sites of Moshchevaya Balka and Hasaut. Art from neighbouring Persia has never been found here; this suggests that the route through the Caucasus was taken in order to avoid that area. Highlights include a ninth-century silk caftan lined with squirrel fur and a kilim carpet decorated with a pheasant. Coloured Roman glass from this area will also be on display. Excavated in 1964 and at other times, Hermitage expedition led by Anna Ierusalimskaya.
State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

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