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Travelling the Silk Road: public conversation

Dr Ken Parry, Joyce Morgan and Dr Mike Pickering, 22 June 2012

MIKE PICKERING: We’ll get started. I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of Canberra on the lands on which the Museum sits. We have a really exciting hour and a half ahead of us. The Travelling the Silk Road: Ancient pathway to the modern world exhibition for the Museum has been an extraordinary success and actually an unpredicted the success. We are proud of any exhibition we put on and we believe any exhibition as a relevance to the Australian community. But the Silk Road is quite a surprise to us. We were expecting good visitation and we are getting astounding visitation. Anyone who came to the night markets last Friday, it was astounding at the interest in the stories of the Silk Road.

Again as the National Museum of Australia, of course, we usually tell Australian histories. So we had that difficulty of saying: How do we make this story relevant to Australia? We promoted that Australia’s own intellectual legacy relies a lot of on what was happening during the heyday of the Silk Road: the sciences, philosophies, religion – all these things that have created the societies across Europe, the Middle East and Asia have influenced us in the long term. That was the message we were getting out to people. But it turns out we didn’t have to try so hard. People seem to have been extremely hungry for this sort of information. It’s been a challenge to me, because as a curator here at the Museum I would have told the story differently. But quite clearly this way of telling the story in the exhibition has worked. I have been forced to look at my own practices and my own ways of looking at how exhibitions should be done. That is always a pleasant surprise when you can get a chance to correct yourself.

Moving on, our first speaker will be Dr Ken Parry from Macquarie University. Dr Parry is a Senior Lecturer and Research Fellow of the Department of Ancient History, and member of the Ancient Cultures Research Centre. His studies include philosophy, theology and comparative religion, ancient medieval philosophy, church history and patristics, and a doctorate in Byzantine theology. There is a stack more here. It is incredible - he has done massive amounts, again to save time. He will be followed by Joyce Morgan, and I will talk more about Joyce when her turn comes. At this stage I will go and sit down and enjoy the papers as much as you do. Please welcome Ken to the stage. [applause]

KEN PARRY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, and thank you very much, Mike, for that introduction. I have 20 minutes to talk about the history of the Silk Road - it’s not possible - so I have confined it very much to the Chinese side of things. We are going to visit a few places in China associated with the ancient Silk Road. My particular interest is in the ancient religious cultures of the Silk Road, and that is what I am going to be talking about mostly this afternoon.

Let’s remind ourselves about the Silk Road and where it went [map shown]. If we start in Europe and we come through Asia or the Middle East in through Persia into the Central Asian part, you can see in the middle an ancient place called Bactria. This was the ancient Western Greek name for Central Asia, which is the area of Uzbekistan today. You can see it comes through into what is China in Central Asia, Xinjiang, and right down to Chang’an towards the right of the map, which is Xian, the ancient capital particularly during the Tang dynasty. Chang’an is another name given to it. But I want you to note also that it goes further and that it goes through to Japan. It’s often forgotten that Japan was part of the ancient Silk Road as well. So this is the overland road that you can see.

But we also have to remember there is a maritime Silk Road which comes down through Arabia to south India, on to Sumatra and up to the South China Sea. We always have to bear in mind that we have an overland and a maritime route for the Silk Road. The name ‘Silk Road’ is a very modern intention - not until the nineteenth century is it used in Western source sources.

I want to take you to Nara in Japan first, because there is a connection between Canberra and Nara. I am sure most of you know that Nara is a twin city of Canberra. And in Nara is a famous collection of Silk Road objects - perhaps the most famous in many ways but not so famous because it is not known so well. [Image shown] At Nara in the eighth century the Japanese emperor inaugurated a giant Buddha in the hall that you can see on the left, which is still one of the largest wooden buildings in the world. As a result of this inauguration of a giant Buddha at Nara, the emperor in China sent many gifts to the Japanese emperor. These gifts were put into a special collection called the Shoso-in in Nara and have survived right through. There are not many objects still kept in the particular building - they are in the museum in Tokyo, in Kyoto and in Nara – but this unique collection of objects is all pre-eighth century. If any of you know anybody connected with the Japanese embassy in Canberra, you might suggest that we do an exhibition because I have never seen an exhibition of some of these items from the Shoso-in in Australia.

You can see here some silk fabrics from the Shoso-in collection [image shown]. On the left these are very much in the Sasanian Persian tradition with some decorations, showing the mounted horseman on the left in these roundels and some other silk fabric on the other side showing some trees and birds. These motifs are known from the Sasanian Persian tradition.

Musical instruments came through from Persia through Central Asia to the Chinese court of the Tang dynasty in Xian in this period from the seventh through to the ninth century [image shown]. This was a great time of openness in Chinese history. These musical instruments are beautifully preserved with inlay of mother of pearl. These are part of the collection in Nara.

Also glass and metal: glass has come all the way from Syria. Syria was an important centre for glass making in the Roman period and in the early Christian period. The Chinese hadn’t really developed the art of making glass in the way that it had developed in the west. So they were very interested and keen to get pieces of glass which came along the ancient Silk Road into China. [Image shown] On the right you can see an example of Sasanian Persian metal work in the period of the Sasanians. Up until the seventh century of the common era metal work was highly developed in the Sasanian Persian world.

Dance masks: these are very interesting [image shown]. I am sure you will recognise the character on the left because he looks very much like ‘Mr Punch’ [of Punch and Judy]. There was a tradition of dance dramas that came through probably from India into Central Asia. It was often used by Buddhist missionaries to enact tales of the Buddha, the life of the Buddha and so on. These became very popular in Central Asia and again in China. There is quite an extensive collection of these dance masks in the Nara Shoso-in collection. We have the drunken Persian king on the left and that is Mrs Wu on the right. There is a whole drama that goes with this, which still goes on in various communities in Asia today.

This is the colossal Buddha that was inaugurated in the early eighth century at Nara [image shown]. It is still one of the largest metal Buddhas to survive from this period in the eighth century. It was to do with the inauguration of this particular colossal Buddha that these items were sent from China by the Chinese emperor to Nara, which form part of this collection that subsequently you can still see in Japan today.

The tradition of colossal images of the Buddha: of course, everybody is aware of the Bamiyan Buddhas and the disaster associated with this with the Taliban in 2001 [image shown], but most people don’t realise there is a whole sequence of colossal images of the Buddha that began originally in northern India and comes through into Afghanistan and into Chinese Central Asia and as you can see right through to Nara in Japan. There is a whole sequencing of these colossal images of the Buddha. But, as I say, unfortunately we can’t see the giant images in Bamiyan today any longer. It is worth pointing out that up until 2001 none of these giant images of the Buddha at Bamiyan showed any signs of deliberate destruction. Most of the state that you can see in the left photograph has been due to natural erosion. For example, when the Mongols they came through in the thirteenth century didn’t destroy these giant Buddhas. They remained right up until 2001.

Just to give you a few examples of this continuing tradition of building large Buddha images, if we come into China. This is Maijishan in Gansu province [image shown]. You can see on the side of the mountain a Buddhist cave complex with some giant images of the Buddha going back to about the sixth and seventh century.

Here is another example from the Gansu province where you can see a seated Buddha carved out of the cliff-face at Binglingsi [image shown]. The changes you can see on the bottom left photograph are due to the changes in the local river and reservoir that has been set up. The land that you can see with the shepherd and his sheep would have been much lower down in the ancient period. This would have been much higher up and more difficult to get at.

At Leshan in Sichuan province you can see this huge image of the Buddha [image shown]. Most of these Buddhas are dating back to this period of the sixth, seventh and eighth centuries in the early Tang dynasty. You get some idea of the scale from this photograph with people standing at the bottom of it. So bear in mind that the Bamiyan Buddhas are only one of a sequence of these colossal images of the Buddha. They were very important for demonstrating and showing the teaching of the Buddha and how important the Buddha was in Central Asia, because it was through Central Asia that Buddhism came from northern India eventually into China and into Japan. At Luoyang in Henan province there are some examples of the giant images of the Buddha, again dating to a similar period.

Transportation on the ancient Silk Road was mostly by camel. You can see the difference between the ancient and modern if you travel the Silk Road particularly in Chinese Central Asia in Xinjiang today.

Tang dynasty: in the exhibition here at the Museum you can see some examples of very fine Tang dynasty figurines. The one on the right is interesting [image shown]. It has a group of musicians. Many of these musicians often appear as Westerners who were travelling through Central Asia. Here you can see a group of them seated on the back of this Bactrian camel. Here are a few more examples again all from the Tang dynasty [image shown]. This is from the early seventh through to the late ninth century. The Tang dynasty was a period of great openness in Chinese history. There was a need within China to possess a lot of Western objects.

If we go to Xian, which was the capital during the Tang dynasty, this was the great city at the eastern end of the Silk Road. Nobody perhaps did the whole journey all the way from Xian to Constantinople or Rome; it was divided up into different sections with different geographical and ethnic groups being part of it. Here you can see a re-enactment of a Tang ceremony in Xian, if you visit there today [image shown].

Xian is well known for its terracotta army going back into the Han dynasty - I am sure there are people in the audience who have visited this. It is a spectacular thing to see [image shown]. I understand that very recently the Chinese archaeologists have opened up a new section of this. When you go as Westerners to visit you only see one or two sections. There are actually four sections, and at least two of them have not even been investigated by archaeologists yet.

In Xian too, on the right you can see the wild goose pagoda which is associated with the establishment particularly of Buddhism in the Tang dynasty [image shown]. Pagodas were based upon the stupa, which is an Indian tradition, and they were used for housing sutras and for keeping all sorts of liturgical objects to do with Buddhist ritual.

But even by the eighth century, Islam has found its way through Central Asia to Xian. There is a very nice garden with part of an early mosque complex in Xian. Islam has been on the scene from about the eighth and ninth century onwards.

[Image shown] In Xian, too, is a very important Christian monument, a stele dated to 781, which is very important in understanding that we have Christians in China by this period. In fact, there is a date on it that says the Christians arrived in Xian in 635, so in the early seventh century. It has a very interesting inscription and on the right you can see there is a cross on the lotus flower, which is the first example of it.

Dunhuang was very important for the Buddhist cave complex with many famous images in the cave painted here and for the manuscripts that were found by Western explorers in the early twentieth century. If you visit Dunhuang, which is a wonderful example of Buddhist art that has survived from the early period through to the Mongol period, you can see very fine examples of statues [image shown] as well as some of the wall paintings as well at Dunhuang [image shown].

A very important book, which Joyce will say more about in a moment, is the Diamond Sutra that was discovered and is now in the British Museum. It is considered to be the earliest printed book. It’s a wood block print of a book and a wonderful example of technology and book production in Dunhuang, China in the Tang dynasty.

Some modern explorers were the Hungarian Aurel Stein and the Frenchman Paul Pelliot. [Image shown] You can see him on the right picture in cave 17, the secret cave, where many manuscripts were taken by Western explorers and archaeologists in the early twentieth century and that have now ended up in Berlin, Paris and the British Library in London.

This is a great example of a journey that was made by the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang in the Tan dynasty period 602-664 [map shown]. If you start at the top right you can see his journey from Xian, Chang’An, right through to Turfan in Chinese Central Asia down into India proper. He was going on a journey looking for Buddhist sutras. The Chinese in this period in the seventh century didn’t feel that they had the true Buddhist tradition so Xuanzang and others made this great pilgrimage to India to recover the original sutras of the Buddha. Xuanzang is also known to you as ‘The Monkey King’ from a famous Chinese novel of the sixteenth century. I am sure many of you have seen the films made about Monkey King. It is based upon the great pilgrimage of Xuanzang in the seventh century.

Bandits on the Silk Road [image shown]: here is a wall painting from Dunhuang showing that this whole business of travelling through the Silk Road was a very dangerous business on occasions. So you could be attacked by bandits and held up as you can see in this wall painting.

Dunhuang not only has this fantastic collection of Buddhist statues and wall paintings but also has little illustrations of day-to-day life which are very important. This pilgrimage still goes on today in the modern form. [Image shown] You can see on the left this Chinese Buddhist monk with his mobile phone so he is keeping up to date with all the modern technology.

Turfan - I want to take you to Turfan which was a very important centre in Chinese Central Asia in Xinjiang. Just to give you a picture of the environment, it is very remote and very hot [image shown] and one of the lowest points on earth. It’s a very interesting area on the Silk Road and you can still visit it today. It was famous in the ancient world for grapes and for melons, melons which were taken from Turfan, along with grapes, all the way to Xian to the Chinese emperor’s court. They were packed in special boxes and packed around with ice which they brought down from the mountains. This is a really good example of refrigeration of fresh fruit, and then it went on a long day’s journey all the way into China to the Chinese emperor’s court from this area. Turfan is famous also for its raisins. [Image shown] You can see here on the left is one of the drying houses for producing these wonderful raisins.

Here is an example of the presence of Islam in the local architecture of Turfan where you can see the minaret in the local brick built tradition on the right [image shown]. Turfan has many examples from the ancient period of Buddhist caves. I would like you to note on the left that here is a standing image of the Buddha [image shown] but look at all the Westerners that are standing around bringing offerings to the Buddha. You can see Persians, Indians, Sogdians and others with all sorts of different head gear, facial expressions and so on. It is showing you about the cosmopolitan nature of Turfan in this Tang dynasty particularly and the Westerners who were passing through here.

There is another Western religion called Manichaeism that began in the third century of the common era which was very important in this area of Central Asia again in the Tang dynasty. Amongst the Uyghur people they embraced this Western religion of Manichaeism. [Image shown] You can see an illustration from the tenth century, a fragment that was found at Turfan. I find it very interesting that if you look at the bread in the middle of the section on the left it has a little design on it, and you can see that same design on the bread that is still produced in Xinjiang today. It’s a spiral design. You can see it on this tenth century manuscript on the left. So the traditions are still continuing.

Around Turfan there are many Silk Road cities which are now in a state of disrepair. From about the thirteenth-fourteenth century onwards the Silk Road began to decline. [Image shown] Here we have some wall paintings from a Christian church in Gaochang. You can see a few more examples of these ancient cities that you can visit which, in their heyday during the Tang dynasty, there were Buddhist communities, Manichean communities and Christian communities living side by side showing you the cosmopolitan atmosphere that existed on the Silk Road in this area of Turfan. Here you can see a Buddhist stupa on the left [image shown] and some idea of the local landscape in relation to these cities. There are three of these ancient cities that you can visit around Turfan. It is an oasis city that relies completely for its water and its fruit growing because of the water that is brought through on underground channels to the city. This is the same in many cities throughout Central Asia.

I would like to finish with the Mongol empire because this is another period. [Map shown] You can see from this map how this huge land mass and empire extended from the South China Sea towards the Mediterranean. This opened up things for international trade and cultural exchange during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. [image shown] Khubilai Khan, shown here with one of his consorts in a beautiful hat, was a famous leader in China.

Marco Polo is known to us Westerners. He is one of many Westerners by the way who made this journey, not the only one. We have other accounts which are just as important as Marco Polo’s account. Marco Polo and his family got rich on the back of Westerners going to China at this point because they were used as middle men in trade between the Mongols and the Chinese. The Mongols tended to use foreigners in this international trade. They weren’t dealing necessarily directly with the Chinese in terms of trade.

At Hangzhou in China you can see Marco Polo is celebrated where one of the manuscripts mentions that he was a governor in this city for about two years. One of the things that Marco Polo discovered in China was paper money, which was unknown in the West. [Image shown] Here you can see an example of it on the right from the Mongol period. The Chinese paper money on the left is an illustration of this in a Western book of the tales of Marco Polo.

Just to tell you something about research that I do in China, these are still from there Mongol period. [Image shown] Here we have some tombstones from a family of Italians, two tombstones have been found. You can see there are dates from the Vilionis family – [Katerina Vilionis 1342 / Antonio Vilionis 1344]. - showing the presence of foreigners in China in this period of the Mongols on the back of the international trade.

In South China at Quanzhou where I have worked and we have a research project, this was a very important port during the Mongol period. It is where Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta, another famous Muslim traveler, arrived and left China. [Image shown] You can see the boat building on the right of an ancient ship there. Quanzhou on the South China coast is famous for its Buddhist monuments and also for its mosques showing this mixture of religious communities here.

We even have a Manichean shrine. Manichaeism lasted in China through to about the seventeenth century, so it is quite late when it was absorbed into the local Buddhist tradition. Here in this local shrine Mani is considered to be a Buddha, but it’s a religion that has come from Syria, Mesopotamia, right back from the third century.

We have a whole collection of Christian tombstones which we have been investigating and publishing. [Image shown] Here you can see the cross on the lotus flower. You saw that earlier on in the Tang dynasty. Here it is from the Mongol period. [Image shown] And with a script here, the Phags-pa, which was invented during the Mongol period that is based on Tibetan.

This is another example of a long journey [map shown] from 1280-1294. This is the one that Rabban Sauma made all the way from Khan Balik, (Peking or Beijing) all the way to the West. He met the Pope in Rome, met the English king and the French king in Bordeaux. This was part of a diplomatic mission the Mongols were making to the West at this point.

It is very interesting to speculate that if this diplomatic mission had paid off and the West had joined the Mongols to drive out the Mamluks and the Muslims from the Middle East, we would have a totally different Western history. But the West wasn’t interested in this alliance with the Mongols at this period. It was a very interesting journey. You can read about this journey. It is available in an English transition.

In inner Mongolia, these are some of the Christian monuments that have been discovered in recent years [image shown]. There are quite a few of these, showing again how widespread oriental eastern Christianity was to Central Asia and to Mongolia in this period of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

So at the end of your journey when you want something to eat and you want a bit of a brush-up, this is the sort of you have to indulge in [image shown] so sheeps heads and having a shave in Kashgar is what you need, I am sure, if you don’t need a sleep at the end of the day.

That is all I have time to give you a bit of an overview about some of the things I am interested in. If any of you are interested in travelling the Silk Road, there is a possibility of a new tour coming up fairly soon. I have left a sheet on the table by the front door so if anybody wants to leave their details, please do, but I will have to finish there. Thank you. [applause]

MIKE PICKERING: Thank you, Ken. Again it is all just a teaser, isn’t it? We want more.

Our next speaker is Joyce Morgan. Joyce is an arts journalist at the Sydney Morning Herald and co-author of Journeys on the Silk Road, which is the story of the world’s oldest printed book, the Diamond Sutra printed in 868. Joyce has worked as a journalist for more than three decades in London, Sydney and Hong Kong. Her writing has appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Guardian and the Bangkok Post and has written on arts and culture since 1994.

She is the senior arts writer at the Sydney Morning Herald and former arts editor of the paper, has worked as a producer with ABC Radio and has travelled extensively in Asia, India, Pakistan, China and Tibet. By coincidence, we worked remotely on a little case about a year ago where we were trying to prevent the sale of some human remains in a Sydney art shop. So quite a diverse series of experiences. I would like to welcome Joyce to the podium. [applause]

JOYCE MORGAN: Thank you, Mike, for that introduction and thank you all for coming along. It’s great to be here and to talk to you in conjunction with this fantastic exhibition *Travelling the Silk Road. My partner and co-author Conrad Walters is going to help me with the slide show.

The story that I want to talk to you about today is about the discovery of the Silk Road’s greatest hidden treasure. The story starts in the year 1900 when a monk in a Buddhist meditation cave on the edge of the Gobi Desert noticed a crack in the wall. He broke it open, and behind it lay a hidden chamber that was full from floor to ceiling with scrolls. These scrolls had been hidden in that cave for 1,000 years. Among those thousands of documents was the world’s oldest printed book. That’s the Buddhist text that Ken spoke about before by the name of The Diamond Sutra.

The story I was interested in and the one I wrote about was how it got from a cave in the Gobi Desert to become one of the most precious items in the British Library, and that’s where it is today. The fact that it is there is due to an explorer by the name of Aurel Stein. Stein set off on a remarkable journey in a very dangerous and secret journey in the year 1906 and to write the book I retraced his steps across the desert. I will tell you a little bit about that in a while.

First of all, Stein himself was born in Hungary in 1862. He was skilled in languages. He was quite an eccentric man and was certainly a loner. He never married. He never even had a permanent home. In fact, he lived in a tent for much of his mature years on a hillside in Kashmir in the north of India. Although he didn’t marry and he didn’t have a family, he was never entirely alone because he always had a little dog by his side. In fact, he had seven dogs and all but one of them were fox terriers and he called each one Dash, all the same name. That’s his hillside in Kashmir with one of the Dashs sleeping under it [image shown]. That in fact was his very favourite Dash the dog and the one who accompanied him all the way on this extraordinary journey that took him across the desert from India to Dunhuang.

Stein was interested in ancient civilisations and in particular he was interested in the way in which Buddhism travelled. He suspected that under the sands of the Taklamakan Desert, which is in west of China now, he suspected under what is now a Muslim region lay lost Buddhist civilisations. The Taklamakan Desert is like an egg-shaped centre of what is now Xinjiang province in China. It is a very fearsome desert. Taklamakan has perhaps an apocryphal translation because it is said to translate as ‘go in and you won’t come out’. And plenty of people have never come out of the desert. It’s dangerous because it’s prone to incredible dust storms that even in the early years of last century buried an entire caravan of I think it was 40 men and their animals. They were all lost under these storms. They can blow for days. You can read various accounts of these dreadful storms. They sound apocalyptic. People have written about the sky turning red and then black and these howling winds, so it is a very fearful desert. There are other tales that Marco Polo related, lots of local stories about this region being inhabited by goblins, evil spirits and demons.

Anyway, this was the desert that in 1906 Aurel Stein headed across. It was a journey of extremes because he had to cope with completely different climates. This was a journey of more than two years. At times in the summer it was so hot that he would have to travel at night, as many ancient people along the Silk Road did. But in winter when he was also working in the desert it was so cold that his moustache would freeze in the night and he would have to sleep breathing through the arm of his coat.

When Aurel Stein headed off on this journey, he headed off from the north of India where he had been working as a minor official with the British Raj. He arrived in the great oasis of Kashgar, which Ken showed you a few pictures of, right at the edge of the Taklamakan Desert. He was accompanied on that journey by ‘Dash the great’ who he had a special coat made for to cope with this weather. Kashgar was then, as it still is, a major oasis. In Kashgar he put together his caravan of animals. He bought lots of camels and horses and also hired a number of men. [Image shown] The gentleman on the right was his translator who became very important and without him he may never have got The Diamond Sutra. The man at the top is his mailman who used to take his letters - and Stein wrote many, many letters – and carry them across the desert and get them back to an oasis. The man on the left his camelman who had an incredibly bad temper and was forever having to be pulled out of scraps. But he was a really good camelman and he loved his animals so Stein thought he was worth the trouble.

Stein’s goal ultimately was Dunhuang. It took him about a year to get there because he was doing a lot of exploration in the desert. He was digging at various sites along the way. But the reason he wanted to get to Dunhuang was he wanted to see those Caves of the Thousand Buddhas that are just outside Dunhuang. He had heard about them. At that stage in 1906 very few Westerners had been there at that stage. He had heard of them from an Hungarian who had been on one of the first expeditions to ever go there so he was very keen to see these caves.

Dunhuang was once one of the most important oases along the Silk Road. We know now that the Silk Road was the great trade route that connected China with the Mediterranean. It wasn’t just goods that travelled the Silk Road; ideas also travelled. One of the most important ideas that travelled along the Silk Road was Buddhism. Buddhism was born in India in the Himalayan foothills, but to reach China it took a very roundabout route largely because of the geography. It had to go around mountains, it couldn’t go directly, it had to skirt around them. [Image shown] That is in some ways what we think of as the archetypical Buddhist image, but as it travelled it took on many of the characteristics of the lands through which it travelled.

When it reached the north of what we now think of as Pakistan and Afghanistan, Gandara, it took on very kind of Western features. That’s not your traditional image [image shown]. That is what I like to think of is a Buddha with a six pack, it’s very macho with a moustache and the rippling muscles. So Buddha’s face kept changing. These were the ideas and stories that Stein was interested in - how these travelled and what were the changes.

As I said, he was very keen to get to Dunhuang. One of the reasons Dunhuang was such an important oasis is because it was where this part of the Silk Road separated to skirt around that desert. So one route went over the top of it, another route went underneath it. That route from Dunhuang to Kashgar was a very dangerous section of the Silk Road. It was dangerous because of the dust storms but it was also prone to the bandits - Ken showed us a picture of some of the bandits - and lack of water. In a way it’s not surprising that these caves were created in that area because anyone who was going along that section of the Silk Road would naturally want to pray for a safe journey or, if they have just arrived having come the other way from the West, they want to give thanks that they actually survived. As long as the Silk Road was surviving and thriving, Dunhuang and the caves did too.

The caves themselves, they are also known as the Mogao Caves, are a network of painted caves full of beautiful frescos. Today they are the world’s greatest gallery of Buddhist art. They were painted over about a 1,000-year period. The first one was carved out in about 366. They stretch over a kilometre in a river valley that is surrounded by the desert. Five hundred of those caves still remain today.

When Stein set his heart on visiting there, he had to cross the desert which he did in 1907. He actually went from what we think of as the southern Silk Road right across the desert. That is him with his caravan [image shown]. That is one of the few shots there are of him with his team crossing the Taklamakan Desert. He did stop obviously along the way. He also had a photo taken with his core people [photo shown]. That is him in the front; that is little Dash the dog with his especially made little coat on; and his key men. They were the main people who accompanied him on this journey.

When Stein got to the caves they were pretty much deserted. This is how they looked in 1907 [image shown]. Some of you have perhaps been there and know they look very different today. For a start they all have doors on them which helps preserve the artwork that is left inside them. When he arrived in Dunhuang he was very keen to get to the caves. But while he was in the oasis, something made him even more keen to get out there because he heard a rumour. The rumour he heard was that within the cave complex quite recently a hidden cave had been discovered that contained manuscripts, and the rumour was that these manuscripts were still there.

So he got out to the caves - he described them as looking like troglodyte dwellings - and met the guardian of the temple. This is a man by the name of Abbot Wang who was a Taoist priest not a Buddhist priest. He was a sort of self-appointed guardian there. Of course Stein wanted to see inside this hidden cave, and initially Wang didn’t want him to get inside at all. Wang was worried that he would lose his patronage because he relied on patrons to support his restoration and looking after his guardianship of the caves. So he was frightened of what would happen. There was a quite a lot of argy bargy but eventually Wang does allow Stein in to the cave, and of course he is absolutely amazed at what he sees with all these thousands upon thousands of scrolls. We are not sure exactly how many scrolls but there are possibly around 60,000.

Of course Stein wants to get them out and have a look at them. Reluctantly Wang allows a few out and then a few more. Because they have been locked away for 1,000 years in this cave in this dry desert, they are perfectly preserved. They are absolutely ideal conditions. Stein starts looking at some of the scrolls but then there are so many that are coming out that he can’t look at them properly. Although he is a scholar and he is very experienced in a number of languages, Chinese isn’t one of them and most of them are in Chinese. He doesn’t really know what he has got. But eventually he and Wang negotiate, and Wang agrees to sell him - controversially - some of these scrolls.

Nearly all of them were handwritten but there was one completed printed text, and that is The Diamond Sutra. But because he was so busy going through them and took so many, he really didn’t know what he had. So the fact that he got it in one way was simply a lucky accident for Stein. The Diamond Sutra itself is five metres long and 23 centimetres high. At one end it has a colourful inscription [image shown] which tells you its date, which translates to 868, and it tells you that it was made to be given away for free. It is wood block printed but it is 500 years before Gutenberg got ink on his fingers. Printing in the West was the great revolutionary invention that helped to usher in things like the Enlightenment.

At the other end of The Diamond Sutra is this beautiful illustration [image shown]. Obviously the Buddha is the centre of it. Just down the bottom is this little figure that is one of the Buddha’s great disciples called Subhuti. The Diamond Sutra itself is a question and answer session between the Buddha and this disciple Subhuti. The essence of The Diamond Sutra tells us about how reality is ever changing, that what we think is reality isn’t really, that it is about fleeting illusions. It talks about a bubble in a stream as the way to look on reality. I think it is incredibly ironic that this scroll which is dealing with impermanence has been so enduring.

It wasn’t, as I said, the only scroll in the cave, although it is the only completed dated one and printed one. There were many other items. Some of them were works on paper like this [image shown] drawing of a camel, which I think looks so contemporary. You could imagine Tandberg having drawn that yesterday. That’s a beautiful drawing.

There was also a lot of secular material. There was a eulogy for a donkey. There was a drunken apology letter. If you had behaved very badly, it was the letter you wrote the morning after to apologise for your bad behaviour.

There were also silks and embroideries. [Image shown] That one is now one of the great treasures in the British Museum, and it was one that Abbot Wang was actually using to level the floor in the cave. This one is a painting on silk that is now in Paris [image shown]. What is interesting is that I think it is the first depiction of a firearm in art, up the top, and below is someone throwing a hand grenade. I find that quite a curious image. It’s about the demons attacking the Buddha but they are really interesting kind of demons.

Stein had to get all this material across the desert and then back to England. It was a very arduous journey. In fact, just getting across the desert he very nearly died of thirst, as did his team. That was probably the lowest point of their whole time. They just found water in time. What saved their life was they came across some water after they had run out and they were preparing to make what they called a starvation camp.

After that he had to get it through the mountains back to India. I won’t go into that except to say it was a journey in which he lost most of his toes to frostbite. Of course, if you are doing this journey today, it’s a lot easier than it was in Stein’s time. As I was researching the book, that’s the journey that Conrad and I undertook [image shown]. We started off in Kashgar in the oasis where Stein had assembled his caravan. It is still a very busy oasis and a market. We travelled during Ramadan in summer where the days were incredibly long, so people were without food or water all day. In the evening at some signal from the mosque you would go down to the bazaar and it would actually be like a feeding frenzy. All this food would suddenly just vanish and more than once we had to change places. We didn’t feel like we could eat before people who hadn’t eaten all day but by the time we got to the wok there was just an oily heap left in the bottom of it. Food becomes very important and very attractive. That bread that Ken also described is actually the best bread I have ever tasted [image shown]. Some of you who have been there will know what I mean. It is absolutely delicious. I wish there was somewhere I could get it here. The butcher appealed a little less to me, I must say [image shown]. A Uyghur child in Kashgar.

The city is changing dramatically as more and more Han Chinese more in there. Of course, it’s quite a restive area. There was no greater example of change than this sign we saw in the middle of the bazaar [image shown] which is for what every oasis needs - a golf course.

We went on briefly Khotan where Stein had worked for quite a while, which again has a huge fabric bazaar that was once a centre of silk making. There is still some silk being made there. I visited a family business that was still making silk. I was also even more interested to find that not only was silk still being made but I discovered a man billed as the last mulberry paper maker in the Taklamakan Desert. Why I found that so fascinating was because he is making the paper from the same sort of material that The Diamond Sutra was made of, mulberry paper, which is extremely strong. We rocked up without any appointment on his doorstep. He took us into his compound and was very happy to show us how to he made it.

If you cross the desert now you can catch a bus; you don’t have to rely on camels or anything. The landscape is quite extraordinary in parts. [Image shown] That whole area is almost a desert within a desert which look like great sculptural forms. You get to Dunhuang today - this is a little crescent-shaped moon lake just outside it [image shown] – which is where Stein actually would have liked to have been buried, he said. But he probably would be glad he isn’t now because there is an awful lot of sand tobogganing and tourists there today.

Mogao itself is about a 30-minute bus ride from Dunhuang. This is a very typical kind of design of the cave [image shown]. There is a central altar covered in murals. All these caves have been hand carved into the cliffside. They are not natural caves; they have all been carved out. Some of them are undergoing conservation, and I was lucky enough to spend some time in the caves with the conservators to see what they are doing [image shown]. There are quite a lot of statues still there, including this huge sleeping Buddha [image shown].

The library cave itself from which Stein took all the material is empty today, except for a statue of a monk - that cave was initially his memorial. The scrolls have all gone. Many of them are in London in the British Library, but some are elsewhere in Russia and in Paris.

Why the cave was sealed in the first place 1000 years ago is still a mystery. Nobody really knows why they were sealed in there. Some say it was just a storeroom. Some say it was the threat of invasion. Nobody really knows. What we do know is that it’s because of the material that was found in that cave, from which we are still learning, that we know so much now about the Silk Road today. What it says to me is that this dry desert: dead men don’t tell tales but dead deserts do. Thank you very much. The website for the book is http://www.journeysonthesilkroad.com. [applause]

MIKE PICKERING: Thank you, Joyce, for again another visually stunning pictorial of the area. I believe you are having a book signing after this down in the Hall. If you haven’t seen the exhibition already, have a look but also the shop attached to the exhibition is great fun even just to browse. Conscious of time I think we will go to straight to any questions from the audience.

QUESTION: I was curious as to why all the scrolls have gone to England and all the other places. Are any retained in China?

JOYCE MORGAN: Most of them went to England and Paris. Stein was the first one at the caves, and it’s because of him that thousands of them ended up in London. He was then followed by subsequent explorers, such as Paul Pelliot that Ken referred to, who also took a lot of those scrolls. Some of them are still in China but most of them have been spread around the world. There are quite a lot in St Petersburg in Russia so they have been spread. Of course that is controversial today, because to do what Stein did is not how an explorer and an archaeologist would behave today. However, 100 years ago it was in somewhat different conditions. At the time Stein took them it was the height of the imperial era so that is why they ended up being dispersed around the world.

In the last decade these scrolls are in a sense being re-united in cyberspace. You can now see them on websites that I can mention that have very good resolution. A lot of the scrolls are too fragile and you wouldn’t be able to see them wherever you were but, because of the technology now, you can see the scrolls, including The Diamond Sutra, in incredible detail. That is the reason they ended up dispersed.

KEN PARRY: Perhaps we should say that the International Dunhuang Project (http://idp.bl.uk/) based at the British Library in London is an international project and there are many Chinese scholars involved with the work on these scrolls. It has become an international project not just a British or Western project now.

QUESTION: I was wondering what Stein did after he delivered the scrolls to the British Library in his later career. Was he a scholar or did he keep adventuring looking for other treasures?

JOYCE MORGAN: He kept exploring basically. He did go back to Dunhuang and he went back to Turkestan a couple of times. He kept exploring right until his 80s when his great dream was to go to Afghanistan. For various reasons he was denied that through his life, and finally when he was in his early 80s he got permission to go. He headed off and got to Kabul and he took ill, he had a stroke and didn’t recover. He’s actually buried in the Christian cemetery in Kabul. His grave site is there today. I recently asked one of my colleagues at the Sydney Morning Herald if he would go and visit and take some photos and he did. Stein’s grave is still being tended there by a Muslim man and has been by him, and his father before him, for many years.

QUESTION: You mentioned that there was a period of decline on the Silk Road. I am wondering if you could give us some sense of what were the main factors involved in the decline of the use of the Silk Road for whatever it had been used for previously.

KEN PARRY: A lot of it was to do with the change in politics. After the Mongol period that ended towards the end of the fourteenth century, the states of Central Asia started splitting up so there wasn’t overall political control of this area. Once it started splitting up into smaller states, in both the east and the west of the Pamir Mountains, into Uzbekistan on one side and Xinjiang on the other, then you have a whole different geopolitical situation. So after the fourteenth century it started to decline and never attained its heyday that it had during the Tang dynasty.

And at the same time the maritime route was opening up. And the development in technology at least from the fifteenth century with Chinese technology meant that there was much more to do with the maritime route, which was an easier route for this sort of shipment and international trade that was going on. That is why when you go to Turfan and these places in Central Asia discovered by Aurel Stein and others in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century they were in such disrepair because these cities were just abandoned. But it meant that when Western emperors went in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century they were able to rediscover many of these fantastic cities on the Silk Road - and not just discover the cities but also scrolls, wall paintings, all sorts of artefacts and objects which we can see today.

QUESTION: Who funded Stein’s adventures?

JOYCE MORGAN: His adventures and his travels were funded by the British Museum and by the government of India. He was funded at a time when – it sounds quite appalling to us today - when museums thought it was okay to go off and dig up in other people’s countries and bring it home. It was a time of great rivalry between the imperial powers to get these objects to fill their museums. The British Museum and the government of India were the two backers of his travels - certainly the first two travels that he did into Turkestan.

QUESTION: This question is for either speaker. In the exhibition there was a letter that I saw written by a woman. I am not sure what the letter was referring to but there was a lot of distress and that sort of thing. Do you know the letter that was exhibited? I am wondering whether along the research that you have done you have discovered anything about women’s experiences during journeys on the Silk Road?

JOYCE MORGAN: I do know that letter. I wasn’t familiar with that one before but I have just seen it. The only other letter that sticks in my mind written by a woman is a Sogdian woman married to a merchant. Her husband had basically dumped her in Dunhuang. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, not even a thousand-odd years ago. It was a letter Aurel Stein found that had been dropped. He found it somewhere near the Jade Gate. The fury from this letter - she talks about how angry she is that she has been dumped in Dunhuang, she has no money and she ends up by saying, ‘I would rather be a pig’s wife than yours.’

KEN PARRY: It is worth pointing out too that, both at Dunhuang and in Turfan, women are represented in wall paintings a lot. It shows that the patronage to the Buddhist communities not only came from men but also came from women, particularly those who were in a position to give money for the painting of these wall paintings and these sculptures. I think women seem to have been quite prominent in the history of the Silk Road, and maybe there is much more to discover because many of these manuscripts in the British Library have still not been fully edited. So we still don’t know what is yet to be found out and maybe more things will be discovered.

MIKE PICKERING: I think that is a lovely human and humorous note on which to finish this session. I would like you all to thank Ken and Joyce. [applause]

Date published: 5 July 2012