The Newsletter 68 Summer 2014

Expedition Silk Road: Treasures from the Hermitage

Martijn van SchieveenArnoud Bijl

1 March - 5 September 2014,
The Hermitage, Amsterdam,
The Netherlands.

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, France, Sweden and Japan, competed for the most spectacular finds. Lost cities and monasteries were unearthed and caves discovered in Mongolia, western China, and later in the present-day Central Asian republics exclusively by Soviet archaeologists. Unexpected sites proved to hold treasures spanning many centuries, from long before Christ to the Middle Ages: Buddhist images, 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 countries, cities and empires acquired names: Sogdiana, 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. Besides silk, the products from China in the east included lacquer, paper, bronzeware and later porcelain and tea. 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. Every part of the Silk Road traded leather, paper (a Chinese secret until the 8th century) and chemicals such as ammonium chloride, used in polishing metal and treating leather. 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 highly valued silver vessels. The Sogdian craftsmen 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. Their elite led lives of luxury, dressing in elaborate silk clothing and using beautifully decorated dishes and vessels at their banquets, as a superb mural in the exhibition 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.