BOOK REVIEW: ‘Journeys on the Silk Road’: Account of Search for Buddhist Literary Treasures in Central Asia Is More Amazing than Fictional Exploits of Indy Jones, Lara Croft

Joyce Morgan

Conrad Walters

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen 

The golden age of explorer-archaeologists — fictionalized in recent years by moviemakers with Indiana Jones and Lara Croft as central characters — is long gone and will never return, thanks to countries that forbid foreigners from plundering their national cultural heritage.

In “Journeys on the Silk Road: A Desert Explorer, Buddha’s Secret Library, and the Unearthing of the World’s Oldest Printed Book” (Lyons Press, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press, 336 pages, photographs, map, select bibliography, index, $24.95) Joyce Morgan and Conrad Walters tell the story of Marc Aurel Stein, one of the most unusual treasure seekers in a colorful group that included Swedish explorer Sven Hedin, British Army engineer and archaeologist Alexander Cunningham and Langdon Warner, an art historian from Boston who purportedly was the model for Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones.

Accompanied by a series of faithful fox terriers — all named “Dash” — Stein (1862-1943) had the demeanor of a bank manager rather than the stereotype of the flamboyant explorer. But his logistic skills and ability to get along with just about everybody in explorations in Chinese Turkestan in the first decade of the 20th century led to the transportation to England of a treasure trove of ancient Buddhist scrolls and art — and a copy of The Diamond Sutra, the world’s oldest printed book — all hidden in a man-made cave just off the legendary Silk Road.

Stein was born in Budapest into a middle class Jewish family. His parents had him and his brother, Ernst Eduard, baptized as Lutherans, while they and their sisters remained Jews. Given the quotas imposed upon higher education for Jews in Austria-Hungary, this was a common way at the time to increase the chance of one’s sons being successful. Stein studied Oriental languages in Vienna and Leipzig and Tubingen, where he earned a doctorate. He also completed his required service in the Hungarian army. Stein later became a British subject and made his famous expeditions with British sponsorship. Stein was knighted — a KCIE (Knight Commander of the Indian Empire) — in 1912 for his contributions to the empire. The authors note that it was an unusual honor given that he was born both Jewish and Hungarian.

The trove was uncovered when a Chinese monk broke into a cave in 1900, uncovering one of the world’s great literary secrets: a time capsule dating from heyday of the ancient Silk Road. Inside, scrolls were piled from floor to ceiling, undisturbed for a thousand years. The jewel in the crown was The Diamond Sutra of 868 CE. This key Buddhist teaching, made 500 years before Gutenberg inked his press, is the world’s oldest printed book.

The Silk Road once linked China with the Mediterranean. It conveyed merchants, pilgrims and ideas. But its cultures and oases were swallowed by shifting sands. Stein was the explorer perhaps most identified with the rediscovery of the Silk Road. He was also a fearless explorer, crossing the highest passes in the world, including one crossing resulting in frostbite and the amputation of several toes. Despite the injuries, Stein was able to walk after a lengthy recuperation — necessary in an archaeologist and explorer.

Stein crossed thousands miles of unexplored desert with his fox terrier Dash and a crew of camel and horse handlers and laborers financed by the Indian and British Empire governments. With the aid of a Chinese scholar named Chiang who became a faithful companion, in 1907 Stein met the Chinese monk who had discovered the cave and was its guardian and negotiated the purchase of a large number of scrolls that — unknown to Stein — included the block-printed Diamond Sutra. The transaction would later be bitterly criticized by a Chinese government commission that asked how the British would feel if a Chinese explorer had looted a British monastery or church of its art and books.

The purchase of the scrolls would later be compared to Britain’s acquisition of the Elgin Marbles from the Ottoman Empire in Athens in the 19th Century and Napoleon’s armies looting Egypt, securing the famous Rosetta Stone. Morgan and Walters discuss the ethics of archaeology, if this isn’t really an oxymoron.

 

The British weren’t alone in securing treasures from the monk: Russian, French and Japanese collectors and the Indy Jones model, Langdon Warner, were among those acquiring treasures, paying the monk in solid silver horseshoes. Warner even stripped murals from the walls of the cave, “with the conviction that, like Stein before him, he was ‘rescuing’ the artworks,” the authors write. The concept of rescuing wasn’t far from the truth, with pilgrims and soldiers and others damaging the artworks in the caves, Morgan and Walters write.

 

The journey of the treasure trove, packed carefully in wooden boxes, by camel through the desert, over the Himalayan passes to India, by boat to London where it was studied by scholars from the British Museum, reads like a fictional exploit. In 1939 and 1940, when German bombs destroyed much of central London, the treasurers secured by Sir Aurel Stein were shipped by train to safe locations in Wales and rural England. The book addresses the exploration, adventures, political intrigue, and continued controversy of the scrolls and The Diamond Sutra. Morgan and Walters also discuss the spread of the Buddhist faith from its birthplace in India to Tibet, China, and Japan — and its recent rebirth in India.

Morgan and Walters tell how The Diamond Sutra has inspired Jack Kerouac and the Dalai Lama. Its journey has coincided with the growing appeal of Buddhism in the West. If you’re a history buff, interested in exploration and buddhism, or just like a good read, “Journey on the Silk Road” will draw you in and keep you reading.

 

About the authors

Joyce Morgan 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. She has written on arts and culture since 1994. Morgan is a senior arts writer at The Sydney Morning Herald and a former arts editor of the paper. She has also worked as a producer with ABC Radio. Born in Liverpool, England, she has travelled extensively in Asia, including India, Pakistan, China and Tibet.

 

Conrad Walters has worked in the media for more than thirty years in the United States, where he won awards for investigative journalism, and in Australia, where he is a feature writer and book reviewer at The Sydney Morning Herald.

Walters was born in Boston, educated in Europe and the Middle East and has lived in seven countries. He has travelled widely through North America, Europe and Asia. He has a master’s degree in Creative Writing from the University of Technology, Sydney.

For more about the Elgin Marbles, which remain controversial to this day, with the Greek government seeking their return: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elgin_Marbles

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