The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War and Faith: Susan Whitfield, Head of the International Dunhuang Project, Introduces a New Exhibition of Treasures of Ancient Central Asia, Opening at the British Library

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LOST IN THE SANDS OF THE TAKLAMAKAN DESERT in western China, there are few places as remote or desolate today as Dandan-Uiliq, Niya or Miran. Lacking strategic or economic importance, their names are known to very few. No roads lead to them and the nearest railway stations and airports are hundreds of miles away. Yet over a thousand years ago they were cosmopolitan and bustling staging posts on a series of great trade routes which led over 5,000 miles from the shores of the Mediterranean to the heartland of China: the Silk Road.

Their remote desert location has ensured these towns'place in history; the dry climate has preserved documents, textiles and other artefacts and the moving dunes covered the ancient ruins and their treasures with a protective layer of sand, which has also hidden them from all but the most determined treasure seeker. But their treasure is not the gold of Egypt and Troy, but rather scholarly and historical treasure which needs years of interpretation by diligent scholars. It has taken almost a century, but these towns and their people are finally starting to emerge from a millennium of obscurity. The four hundred manuscripts, artefacts, textiles and paintings in the British Library exhibition, The Silk Road: Trade Travel, War and Faith, have been assembled from collections in the UK, China, India, Japan, Germany, France and Belgium to tell a few chapters in this complex but fascinating tale.

Before these desert ruins were discovered our understanding of the ancient kingdoms of the Eastern Silk Road--from Samarkand to China--was filtered through the lens of Chinese imperial historians. Chinese silk from 1500 BC found in present-day Afghanistan suggests early trade, but a thousand years later the nomadic Xiongnu (possibly ancestors of the Huns) controlled the lands to China's west. A Chinese mission to secure allies against these troublesome neighbours in the second century BC, although failing in its primary aim, brought intelligence of the great riches to be had: Ferghanan horses, lapis lazuli from Baluchistan mines, and Persian glass, silver and gold. Once China had defeated the Xiongnu they sent more troops to establish garrisons and secure routes along which trade and tribute could travel.

By AD 220 China had disintegrated into rival kingdoms. Two thousand miles to their west, the Zoroastrian city-states of Samarkand and Bukhara in the region then known as Sogdiana emerged as the great merchant cities of the Silk Road. A century later there were Sogdian merchant communities in Dunhuang, one of the garrison towns established by the Chinese on the edge of the Gobi, and in the ancient capitals of China.

Little would be known about these were it not for a postbag dropped at military fortifications near Dunhuang in 314 and found by the scholar and archaeologist Aurel Stein in 1907. It contained five letters from Sogdians resident in Dunhuang addressed to their relatives and others in Samarkand. Two are written by Miwnay and her daughter to her husband who has abandoned them in Dunhuang, leaving considerable debts which force her to become a servant in a Chinese household. She begs him to return but ends on a bitter and angry note: 'I would rather be a dog's or a pig's wife than yours.'

The postbag revealed a world which we hardly knew existed. Another find, Tibetan annals recording the activities of the emperors of the First Tibetan Empire from 629 to 764, builds a picture of several strong empires vying for control of these trade routes in the eighth century. In 751 China was defeated by the Arab armies at the Battle of Talas River (in present-day Kazakhstan). A few years later Chinese troops were withdrawn to fight internal rebellion and the Tibetans moved in to control the Silk Road kingdoms. …