Alexandria's founded by Alexander

Alexandria's founded by Alexander the Great (by year BC): 334 Alexandria in Troia (Turkey) - 333 Alexandria at Issus/Alexandrette (Iskenderun, Turkey) - 332 Alexandria of Caria/by the Latmos (Alinda, Turkey) - 331 Alexandria Mygdoniae - 331 Alexandria (Egypt) - 330 Alexandria Ariana (Herat, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria of the Prophthasia/in Dragiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in the Caucasus (Begram, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria of the Paropanisades (Ghazni, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria Eschate or Ultima (Khodjend, Tajikistan) - 329 Alexandria on the Oxus (Termez, Afghanistan) - 328 Alexandria in Margiana (Merv, Turkmenistan) - 326 Alexandria Nicaea (on the Hydaspes, India) - 326 Alexandria Bucephala (on the Hydaspes, India) - 325 Alexandria Sogdia - 325 Alexandria Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene / Alexandria on the Indus (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 325 Alexandria Xylinepolis (Patala, India) - 325 Alexandria in Carminia (Gulashkird, Iran) - 324 Alexandria-on-the-Tigris/Antiochia-in-Susiana/Charax (Spasinou Charax on the Tigris, Iraq) - ?Alexandria of Carmahle? (Kahnu)

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Foreign Devils on the Silk Road by Peter Hopkirk

I have been fascinated by the cities along the Silk Road following a recent exhibition held in Brussels about the Chinese part and further to my trip through Uzbekistan where I inevitably winded up on its traces. Yet, I didn’t have an overall picture, especially since we generally talk about “The” Silk Road while in reality there are many – although all are intertwined to reach east or west one way or another.

Foreign Devils on the Silk Road” is subtitled “The Search for the Lost Treasures of Central Asia (ISBN 978-0719564482) – how appropriate! In his book, Peter Hopkirk collects and summarizes the handful of expeditions made over less than thirty years. Basically, Central Asia was shared by Tsarist Russia and the British Empire because of their presence in India.

The very first westerner to set out in the inhospitable Desert of Taklamakan was the Swede Sven Hedin, a scientific explorer, fluent in seven languages who visited the area in 1895 and in1899. Although he was neither a historian nor an archaeologist, but a trained geographer and cartographer, his meticulous studies turned out to be very useful for the brave explorers who followed.

Next arrived Aurel Stein, a Hungarian-born orientalist who became a British citizen. He hit a soft spot in my heart because he was fascinated by the campaigns and travels of Alexander the Great, spending much of his early years retracing Alexander’s routes and battlefields, and eventually his legacy in Central Asia. Stein started his fruitful and daring explorations of the Taklamakan Desert in 1900. One his most exciting finds in my eyes is, for instance, the wooden tablets with clay seals with figures of Pallas Athena and other Greek deities, but this is only the tip of the iceberg of his fertile harvest, of course. By the time he returned to Britain, it became clear that an entirely new civilization had evolved in the very heart of Central Asia.

Soon it were the Germans who set out on an expedition in 1904 to be led by Albert Grünwelde. Unfortunately, he fell ill and was replaced by Albert von Le Coq, a most capable man, much to Grünwelde’s dismay as he wanted to reap all the honors. The French were late to show up in Central Asia (1906), simply because they had been busy in Indo-China’s jungle where they discovered the unique site of Angkor. Paul Pelliot was a linguistic genius, speaking thirteen languages including Chinese (which none of his predecessors mastered). This knowledge was highly appreciated by the locals and opened many doors otherwise locked. The Japanese were among the strangest diggers, sending two scholar-monks in 1908 financed by a certain Count Otani in Kyoto. They were generally seen as spies although nothing could be proved. The Russians, in spite of their priority location only made occasional incursions of no consequence. The very last visitors were the Americans in 1923, with the orientalist Langdon Warren who discovered a lost part of the Chinese Wall. By 1925 the free-for-all to take in this meanwhile well-mapped desert was all over, the first hostilities between China and Britain exploded. China closed all doors to foreign visitors.

To make this story complete, Peter Hopkirk has followed the road taken by the vast quantities of colorful wall paintings, gorgeous sculptures, precious manuscripts and other artifacts from the Silk Road. In fact, they are scattered among many different museums worldwide. Hedin’s collection has found a place in the Ethnographical Museum of Stockholm, while Pelliot’s artifacts are exhibited at the Guimet Museum in Paris. Stein’s treasures were generally split between the National Museum in Delhi and the British Museum in London. The German collection gathered by von Le Coq got its own museum in Berlin, unfortunately heavily bombed by the allied during WW2 destroying the biggest fresco’s that had been cemented in its walls. Smaller frescos, other artifacts and manuscripts could luckily be saved and are now part of the largest and most imaginative display at the Dahlem Museum in Berlin. On the third place comes the Japanese collection that originally was kept at Count Otani’s villa, but was later partially sold. A selection of the treasure ended up in Seoul, packed in the storerooms of the National Museum. Another part travelled to Manchuria from where it was probably removed by the Russians in 1955 when they handed this land back to China. Some pieces, however, are on display at the Tokyo National Museum. Finally and as a matter of course, The Hermitage in St Petersburg has its own display of the Silk Road treasures spread over eight rooms.  

It is amazing how much information has been gathered in this relatively small book, for the story is not complete yet. There is a special chapter dedicated to the early discoveries of manuscripts written in previously unknown languages and found accidentally by local treasure hunters. These documents among which fifty-one birch-bark leaves made their way to Calcutta and were found to be written in Sanskrit using the Brahmi alphabet in the 5th century. This made it one of the oldest written works to survive anywhere. A vivid interest from western scholars set a machinery in motion to find more of such manuscripts. There was money to be made and local forgers discovered that they could get away with their loads of faked manuscripts, even inventing unknown characters. To increase their production they didn’t refrain from using block printing. Some orientalists accepted these documents as originals, but Stein was one of the skeptics and he got to the bottom of the story, exposing the mastermind. A good deed that was not fully accepted by those who strongly believed they would be the first to decipher this new “unknown” language. Yet, all the news was not bad, for eventually the long-lost language of Khotanese was discovered.

Today the manuscripts from the Silk Road are divided between the British Library (Chinese, Sogdian, Uighur and Tangut works) and the India Office in London (Tibetan, Sanskrit and Khotanese). The thirteen thousand Chinese manuscripts and books are now neatly stored on the shelves of the British Library, an honorary place I would say.

After reading about this history of the Silk Road, the Taklamakan Desert and Central Asia, in general, it is hard not to be interested in digging any further. It certainly has sharpened my interest!

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