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Athena Review  Vol.3, no.1:  

The Buried Silk Road Cities of Khotan

The ancient desert settlements of Khotan and neighboring Silk Road towns from Chinese East Turkestan to Turkmenistan were once bustling, cosmopolitan centers that flourished from the exchange of goods, languages, religion and ideas. The Silk Road, today a busy highway with some recent notoriety for drug-smuggling, has been crossed by centuries of travellers from Zhang Quian to Marco Polo. Lands through which the western part of the ancient Silk Road passed, however, in many ways present a stark contrast to the insular, war-torn political and economic climate of today’s South-Central Asia.  

China’s original Silk Road (active from the 2nd century BC - 14th c. AD) led  westward from the T’ang Dynasty capital at Ch’ang An to Tun-huang at the edge of the Taklamakan Desert, then split at Kashgar into north and south routes through countries now becoming household names (figs.1, 2). The north branch crossed  Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan (with famous market towns at Tashkent and Samarkand); the southern branch entered Afghanistan along the Hindu Kush mountains between northern Pakistan and southern Tajikistan, then passed through the age-old cavern stop and camel center of Bactria. Converging in Turkmenistan, the Silk Road continued west through Iran to endpoints at Damascus and Antioch.

Fig.1: Map of the western Silk Road region between China and Iran, with modern political boundaries.

In Chinese Turkestan, the ancient province of Khotan lay along this east-west corridor connecting China with several early, hybrid civilizations including the Indo-Scythian (-Kushan), and Graeco-Buddhist (Gandharan) cultures in Afghanistan and Pakistan, plus commercial elements from the Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Empires further west. Although Khotan’s buried cities were rediscovered a century ago, today the unique archaeological remains in this region are tragically caught in a warzone’s crossfire of destruction. Furthermore, many Buddhist and other religious and cultural remains considered taboo by Islamic fundamentalists have recently been destroyed.

An ancient cultural melting pot: The region from Turkestan to Afghanistan has a long term history as a cultural crossroads. Between 2500-1700 BC, the Punjab in the Indus Valley of Pakistan was home to the Harappan civilization, one of the world’s first urban cultures, with writing, roads facilitating long-distance trading networks, and major cities at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa. Later, in the 4th to 1st centuries BC, the region witnessed an influx of Greek, Iranian, Palmyran, Parthian, Tokharian, and Chinese influences. Bactria (today’s Balkh in northern Afghanistan) was then the wealthy capital of the independent Bactrian kingdom, combining Hellenistic and Indian cultures. In nearby northern Pakistan, meanwhile, the Gandharan kingdom flourished from the 3rd century BC to the 4th century AD (eventually falling in the 6th c. AD to Hephtalites or White Huns). Centering at Taxila on the Indus River near today’s Islamabad, the Gandharan culture incorporated eastern and western (Graeco-Buddhist) art, symbolism, and architecture. Starting with King Ashoka (273-232 BC), Gandhara served as a gateway between India, Central and Eastern Asia, and the Mediterranean, promoting the spread of Buddhism, art, and mercantile culture northeast to the Tarim Basin and China.

By the 1st century BC, the Gandharan civilization was closely linked to the trading centers of Khotan. Despite being located in a relatively harsh environment skirting the Taklamakan Desert, both archaeological and historical evidence reveal that, for a full millennium, the ancient Khotan settlements thrived as places of economic, religious, and cultural exchange between east and west.

Rediscovery of Khotan: Clues to over a thousand years of major Silk Road settlements remained hidden in Chinese Turkestan’s desert sands until exposed between 1896 and 1910 by two of the most intrepid explorers ever known, Sven Hedin and Aurel Stein. Unexpectedly well preserved finds from the ancient Kingdom of Khotan dating from the 2nd century BC to after AD 1200 revealed that a forgotten commercial and cultural crossroads prospered there in the 1st millennium AD. Although the region is largely Islamic today, ancient merchants carried Buddhism along with their goods on the Silk Road, allowing it to flourish throughout this gateway to China.

In the center of Western Turkestan’s Tarim Basin lies the forbidding, nearly waterless Taklamakan Desert, first accurately mapped by geographer Sven Hedin in the late 1890s (figs.2, 5). Over 750 miles wide (EW), the desert is flanked on the north by the Tien Shan mountains, and on the south by Tibet’s imposing Kunlun range. Spring-fed rivers that ran through this barren desert, supporting the Silk Road trade centers in Khotan, were harnessed by sophisticated irrigation systems and yielded cobbles of jade, the sanctified green stone sought throughout the ancient Orient.

Fig.2: Map of the Tarim Basin, with sites found by Sven Hedin and Aurel Stein (after Hedin 1898 and Stein 1933).

When Marco Polo passed through Turkestan in 1271 (fig.3) on his way to the court of Kublai Khan at Khanbalik (Beijing), he reported that Khotan - by then, long converted to Islam - still remained prosperous:

“Khotan is a province 8 days journey in width, subject to the Great Khan. The inhabitants all worship Mahomet. It has cities and towns in plenty, of which the most splendid, and the capital of the kingdom, bears the same name as the province, Khotan. It is amply stocked with the means of life. Cotton grows there in plenty. It has vineyards, estates, and orchards in plenty. The people live by trade and industry; they are not at all warlike.” [Marco Polo, Travels, chap. 33].

Eventually, by the time of the Ming Dynasty (AD 1386-1644), the rivers that fed the basin had shifted or dried up. Concurrently, the Ming Emperors’ policy of isolationism drastically reduced the importance of the Silk Road. As a result, these ancient cities were abandoned to the desert elements, and buried by sand.

Rediscovery of the buried cities of Khotan around 1900, first by Hedin and then by archaeologist Aurel Stein (fig.14), revealed an astonishing mixture of eastern and western cultures, as evidenced by inscriptions from Chinese, Semitic, and Indo-European languages, and by temple and household objects combining Asian and Hellenistic art styles. By 330 BC, Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Iranian Empire had infused Greek language, adminstration, and sculptural arts into the extant Persian and Indian traditions. Palmyran and then Parthian tribes reclaimed the region, but Greek influences persisted through the Bactrian kingdoms of the 2nd-1st centuries BC. The culture of this region further diversified with subsequent northern Indian contact. As Stein was to prove, the Kushan people (descendents of the Yüeh-chih, a group displaced to northern India by Hun ancestors called Hsiung-nu) moved into the Tarim Basin by the 2nd century BC, bringing with them writing, Buddhistic beliefs, and commercial ties with the Gandharan culture on the Indo-Afghan frontier. This melding of traditions produced striking art forms combining Eastern symbolism with Western realism.

The Silk Road: Knowledge in China of these cultural movements began with reports by Chinese officer Zhang Quian, called the “father of the Silk Road.” Emperor Wu Ti (140-87 BC) of the Han Dynasty had sent Zhang Quian to the Yüeh-chih rulers of northern India to persuade them to join the Chinese against the Hun progenitors called Hsiung-nu. After failing to recruit them, being imprisoned by the Hsiung-nu for 10 of the 13 years of his trip, and returning in 125 BC with only one of his hundred original men, Zhang Quian nevertheless had gained crucial information about sophisticated, wealthy societies in the West with a faith known as Buddhism, and a larger breed of horses that could benefit the Han militia.

 Upon learning of these Occidental states, the Emperor Wu Ti at once sought to control the lucrative trade corridor linked to the West that became known as the Silk Road. Han forces conquered it in 115 BC by beating the Huns back north of the desert. Starting in 6 BC, the Huns re-seized the contested area and, during the next 11 years, divided it into 55 territories. The pendulum swung back for the Chinese in AD 73 under Emperor Ming Ti, when the general Pan Ch’ao, famed as one of China’s greatest soldier-statesmen for his use of trickery and skillful diplomacy over brute force, reconquered the Tarim Basin.

Fig.3: Map of China and Central Asia, showing Great Wall locations

Increasing trade amid hostile territories led to the extension of the Great Wall of China along the Silk Road (fig.2). The Great Wall was first built at the end of the 3rd century BC, when the Qin (Ch’in) Dynasty (221-206 BC) unified China’s Warring States and connected their regional protective walls into one solid frontier. Now, to protect new trade networks with India, Han Emperor Wu Ti extended the Wall westward along the Silk Road. For centuries it was periodically maintained and lengthened as far as the Tibetan Plateau. Remains of the Great Wall with 7th-8th century AD guard outposts were found by Stein as far west as Tun-huang (see below).

Along with facilitating China’s prosperous trade in silk (its manufacture long a jealously guarded secret) and many other goods ranging from salt and glass to jade and ivory, the Silk Road provided Buddhism with a ready avenue for expanding and flourishing in alliance with merchants and urban culture. Mahâyâna or “Great Vehicle” Buddhism spread from India to China via the trade route, after the Han Emperor Ming Ti (AD 57-75) was convinced that the golden figure in his dream was a sign from Buddha. In AD 68 he sent a minister named Cai Yin to learn about this mysterious god of the West. Yin returned not only with Buddhist sculptures and scriptures, but with two Buddhist monks to teach their faith to the Chinese.

Later, by AD 166, Emperor Huan formally introduced the western religion by hosting Buddhist ceremonies in his palace. At the end of the Han Dynasty, both regional unrest and disillusionment with the traditional Confucian order had encouraged people to adopt a new faith (Montell 1935). Buddhism continued to gain popularity and experienced its greatest inflow into China during the Northern Wei Dynasty (in the Six Dynasties) in the 4th-5th century AD. The earliest known Chinese Buddhist image with a precise date, from AD 338, is a bronze Buddha imitating a Gandharan prototype (Sullivan 1979).

In AD 399-400 Fâ Hsien, a Buddhist monk from China, travelled through the Khotan province on foot on his way to India to obtain Buddhist texts for his homeland. On his journey, he made invaluable observations about the people and places he visited. By AD 514, at least two million people in China were practicing the religion.

During this time the Chinese Empire witnessed a boom in the construction of Buddhist monasteries, stupas (shrines; fig.4), and grottos (cave sanctuaries). Grottos carved into soft sandstone cliffs were especially abundant on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert. They often held a wealth of offerings to Buddha from merchants giving thanks for, or asking for, a safe trek across the unforgiving desert. Not coincidentally, the Mogao grottos at Tun-huang at the edge of the desert’s most difficult crossing have yielded some of the richest caches of Buddhist art and ancient documents, dating from the Northern Wei Dynasty (AD 386-535). Also known as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, they were heavily used during the Sui and T’ang Dynasties (AD 581-906). Here, important new discoveries were made by Stein (fig.8).

Fig.4: Buddhist stupa discovered by Stein's expedition at Miran (Stein 1912).

Further evidence for the popularity of Buddhism in China comes from the writings of 7th century traveller Hsüan-tsang (Xuanzang), who undertook a mission to collect Buddhist teachings during the height of the Silk Road. Upon his return, he built the “Great Goose Pagoda” in Ch’ang An, the capital of the T’ang Dynasty, to house the more than 600 scriptures he retrieved. Today Hsüan-tsang is seen as an important influence in the development of Buddhism in China. He also chronicled in great detail the customs of the people and places of Turkestan as well as Tibet and India. In his work Hsi Yu Chi, he wrote of Khotan:

“What land there is, is suitable for regular cultivation and produces abundance of fruits. The manufactures are carpets, haircloth of a fine quality, and fine-woven silken fabrics. Moreover, it produces white and green jade...They have a knowledge of politeness and justice...They love to study literature and the arts...This country is renowned for its music” (Hsüan-tsang, in Montell 1935:149-150).

Khotan’s success, which was interdependent upon the strength of the Chinese Empire, the success of the Silk Road, and the proliferation of Buddhism, suffered great losses when all three began to decline. In the 10th century AD, the region witnessed the weakening of the T’ang dynasty in the East and invasions by Arabs in the West, who brought Islam to the area at the expense of Buddhist practices and art. Henceforth, while east-west trade continued, the once-flourishing Buddhist shrines were destroyed or replaced by those of Islamic culture. The ensuing instability as well as the rise of the Silk Sea Route caused traffic on the Silk Road to decline.

By the early 1200s, the Mongolian tribes united, elected a leader, Genghis Khan, and conquered a huge portion of Eurasia as far west as the Mediterranean. With the later Sung Dynasty (AD 960-1279) now unable to protect the Silk Road from Mongolian, Arab, and other invasions, populations and wealth (still evident at the time of Marco Polo) dwindled in Chinese Turkestan. Shifting rivers and desert sands soon reclaimed the once-flourishing towns.

Fig.5: Swedish geographer Sven Hedin, who first rediscovered the buried cities of Khotan (Hedin 1898).

Rediscovery: Swedish geographer Sven Hedin (fig.5), who spent much of a long and successful career exploring and mapping large but little known portions of Turkestan, Tibet, and northwest China, rediscovered the desert settlements of Khotan in 1896 under highly dramatic circumstances. After crossing the formidable Kun-lan mountains, whose melting snows fed streams once flowing through the Taklamakan Desert past ancient towns, Hedin attempted to cross the waterless desert itself. As described in his 1898 book, Through Asia, this Taklamakan trek in the summer of 1896 proved to be nothing short of disastrous. After most of his party, including all the pack camels, had died of thirst and heat exposure, Hedin and two companions managed to crawl to safety at an oasis in the southeast corner of the desert, to be rescued by a passing caravan.

While recovering at the nearby bazaar town of Khotan, Hedin learned of lost cities along abandoned riverbeds whose wooden house beams stuck out through desert sands, and of artifacts collected by local people. Within a few months he had visited several sites at Khotan and Niya, making limited excavations at houses and temples. Recognizing the significance of the finds which included Buddhist- and Gandharan-influenced carvings, paintings, and texts, well-preserved in the dry climate, Hedin reported them in both scientific and general publications.

Fig.6: Ruins of Niya house XXVI excavated by Stein. Fantastic animal effigies including winged beasts with crocodile heads are carved on wood panels (Stein 1912).

Hedin’s descriptions of the buried cities soon inspired the Hungarian archaeologist and linguist M. Aurel Stein to explore Khotan and surrounding areas. Stein had a mastery of the Oriental languages of northern India, and a keen interest in deciphering the missing history of Central Asia. In pursuit of these goals, Stein organized four expeditions into Turkestan and western China from 1900-1930.

Leaving Kashmir on May 29, 1900, Stein and his crew travelled by camel and horseback to reach Khotan on October 2. Stein ingeniously solved the problems of both crossing and working in the deadly Taklamakan Desert by travelling in winter and having camels carry large blocks of ice, an easily transportable source of water. He proceeded to unearth phenomenal finds in the Tarim Basin at Khotan, Dandan-Uiliq, Niya, Endere, and other sites as far east as Tun-huang, including included Buddhist temples and artifacts, house-dwellings, inscriptions, and ruins of the extended Great Wall.

Fig.7: Sir Mark Aurel Stein (1862-1940), the Hungarian archaeologist who uncovered Buddhist sites from Khotan to Tun-Huang (Stein 1912).

Buddhist temples and artifacts: Stein discovered excellently preserved Buddhist temples (called But-khana, or temple of idols) at Dandan-Uiliq. These had an inner, square sanctuary room or cella, enclosed by four equidistant outer walls in a square passage used for the ceremonial processions or pradakshina of Indian custom. In the center of these rooms were elaborately stuccoed pedestals holding large idols of Buddha (indicated by remnants of the statues’ feet still in place).

The temple walls of Dandan-Uiliq and elsewhere had paintings and stucco reliefs of Buddha, Buddhist saints (Bodhisattvas), and flying Gandharvas (Buddhist angels), all created in a Graeco-Buddhist style similar to that in Gandhara In AD 400 Fâ hsien reported Buddhist figurines and temple walls coated in gold leaf, and Stein in fact discovered minute traces of gold on some of the artifacts.

Further east at Tun-huang, even richer examples of Buddhist art are housed in the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas (fig.8) . The prolific stucco statues and fresco paintings of Buddhist heavens, saints, and even everyday life reflect a mixture of Indian and Chinese styles. In each cave, a large Buddha statue sits surrounded by a number of Dvarapalas, the heavenly “Guardians of the Quarters,” and Bodhisattvas (fig.9). So industrious were these artists that some paintings of Buddha are nearly one hundred feet high.

Fig.8: Middle and southern groups of Caves of the Thousand Buddhas at Tun-Huang (Dunhaung) in western China, with Buddhist paintings and inscriptions from 4th-9th centuries AD (Stein 1912).

Preservation of such works throughout the Silk Road cities offers precious insights into their varied religious traditions, symbols, and legends. At Dandan-Uiliq and Endere, Stein uncovered a number of paintings depicting both Buddhist and Hindu deities, including Ganesha, the popular elephant-headed Hindu god of wisdom. At the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, Stein documented an ancient silk painting depicting King Vaisravana, Buddhist god of Wealth and patron god of Khotan, moving on a cloud across the ocean with his divine hosts. At left, a demon attempts to shoot an arrow at Garuda, half-man half-bird, who flies to the safety of heaven. In Buddhist Khotan temples, depictions of a local rat-headed divinity were discovered that, as initially described by Hsüan-tsang, represented the story of how rats helped Khotan’s king repel a Hun invasion by destroying their horse harnesses. Another story told through art is a painting of the Chinese princess who introduced silk manufacture (sericulture) to Khotan.

House-dwellings and associated artifacts: Stein, in excavating many towns of the ancient Khotanese, preferred to dig out the more deeply buried structures, as the sands protected them and their contents from the elements as well as looters. Houses and temples were built of sun-dried bricks and clay, due to the lack of stone in the Khotan region. Wooden beams and poles incorporated into the walls and roofs for support were often the first remains found sticking out of desert sands.

Both local life and long-distance commercial contact with China are reflected in these household remains. Everyday items include pottery, and dyed cotton, silk, and woolen fabrics with designs showing both eastern and western influence. At Lou-lan, Stein found both polychrome silk and damask fragments revealing 2000-year-old Chinese manufacturing techniques; and tapestries of wool with a style “unmistakably Hellenistic,” one with a head of the Greek god Hermes (Stein 1933).

Fig.9: Sculptured group in Mogao Cave, one of the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas at Tun-huang, showing Buddha surrounded by Dvarapalas (guardians) and Bodhisattvas (saints) (Stein 1912).

Other finds included leather shoes, animal bones, bone spoons, and wooden horse combs. Inside household structures at Niya, Stein found tatters of antique rugs, silk and woolen fabrics, glass, pottery and metal fragments, agricultural tools, chopsticks, and wooden furniture such as an elaborately carved armchair with lion-claw legs and armrests in Hellenistic style. Leisure activities are indicated by remains of musical instruments such as guitars, and multitudes of sheeps’ knuckles, painted red and yellow, that were used as dice.

Evidence for commerce with China consists of coins, delicate laquered ceramic wares, finely woven silk, green and yellow glass, and porcelain sherds with Chinese seals on them. Both Chinese and local coins were plentiful at Endere, Khotan, Aksipil, Hanguya, Kara-dong, and Rawak. Local coinages displayed the bilingual nature of business, with one side printed in Chinese and the other in Kharoshthi. Most Chinese coins, with their distinctly square-holed centers, date to the T’ang dynasty (AD 618-907; fig.28). Another clue that the Khotan region flourished for centuries in the 1st millennium AD is the abundance of precious stones. Jade was cherished and used, among other ways, as seals that the inhabitants of Khotan ceremoniously touched to their brows before opening letters.

Clay pottery and figurines ranging from plain coarse-ware to elaborately designed effigy bowls were abundantly produced in all shapes and sizes. At Niya, Stein found an intact pottery jar three feet in diameter. Effigy bowls and other pots were often decorated with appliqué masks of terra cotta depicting people, animals, and mythological beings. Handles, spouts and figurines were also often intricately moulded into realistic or mystical animals .

Agricultural artifacts and features were discovered near many of the houses. At several sites, shrivelled, bleached trunks of long-dead poplars, willows and fruit trees protruding from the desert sand indicate the use of ancient orchards. In a Karagong ruin, Stein discovered the remains of ancient agricultural goods such as tarigh (millet), wheat, rice, oats, roots, and dried black currants. To support such agriculture, complex irrigation works were needed; their gradual abandonment led to the demise of Dandan-Uiliq, Niya, Endere, and neighboring towns through the Tarim Basin.

Fig.10: Ancient silk embroidery of Buddha surrounded by Bodhisattvas, from Tun-huang (Stein 1912).

Inscriptions: A wealth of information has come to light from the abundant writings found throughout the Khotan region. First found by Hedin at the Khotan sites, and later a focus of Stein’s investigations from Khotan to Tun-huang, the texts represent a number of writing systems or scripts whose succession or co-existence in Turkestan helps illuminate this little understood yet literate region (fig.11).

Aramaic: Several scripts found in the Tarim Basin developed out of Aramaic, a Semitic alphabetic writing system containing 22 consonants and no vowels, that was developed by Canaanite tribes (Hebrews, Phoenicians, Aramaeans) from 2000-1000 BC. By 800 BC, the Phoenicians had lent their highly useful alphabet to the Greeks, their trading partners, who in turn modified and adopted it to their own language. Hebrew was and has remained more of a secondary, scholarly language (until its recent re-adoption in the modern state of Israel). Aramaic, meanwhile, became an international language during the 1st millennium BC and the root of many new languages, as it was carried with travellers and traders from the eastern Mediterranean spreading east, south, and north.

Aramaic spread into India and heavily influenced the development of Indic writing, especially that used in N. India for the Indo-European language Sanskrit. Emperor Ashoka (273-232 BC), a convert to Buddhism, had his edicts etched in stone in two local scripts which grew out of Aramaic: Kharoshthi, a cursive, syllabic script using 252 separate signs, read from right to left; and Brahmi, a semi-alphabetic script which later becomes the dominant form in India. Kharoshthi scripts, probably introduced when Persians ruled NW India in the 5th century BC, were used in Central Asia until the 8th century AD for commercial and calligraphic purposes. Aramaic writings at Khotan represented Sogdian, an Iranian dialect from ancient Sogdiana (present day Samark and Bokhara), and were discovered at Lop-nor and Tun-huang.

At a ruined portion of the Great Wall in Tun-huang, Stein discovered both Kharoshthi and Sogdian-like Aramaic writtings in a trash pile dated to the beginning of the 1st century AD. The spectacular find uncovered some of the earliest known forms of paper and exemplifies the intersection of the East, West and South at this desert tower.

Sanskrit: The semi-alphabetic Brahmi script was also used to write Sanskrit documents in the Tarim Basin. Sanskrit manuscripts representing canonical Buddhist writings were found at Dandan-Uiliq along with documents in Chinese and a mysterious, previously undiscovered language (Khotanese).

Tocharian: Another early language in the Tarim Basin was Tocharian, somewhat controversially considered an Indo-European language. Sieg and Siegling (1908), who made this identification, also linked it (based on ancient Greek and Latin historians) with the Tochari of the upper Oxus River, which may be incorrect. Hedin (V.2, p.69) claimed that, in 157 BC, the Tokhari (or Tukhari) people migrated from Bulunghir-gol to west Turkestan and settled in and around Khotan, and that geographical names such as the town of Tokhla and the Taklamakan Desert are remnants of the Tocharian language.

Since Tocharian shows no obvious relationship to other Indo-European languages, it now forms an independent branch of this group and holds a large number of borrowed words from Turkish, Iranian, and (later) Sanskrit. The Tocharian literature is heavily Buddhistic in content. Examples of this language written in Brahmi script have been found in the Tarim Basin dating between AD 500-1000. There were two Tocharian dialects, A (from Turfan area in the east) and B (from Kucha region in west but also from the Turfan area). It is possible that dialect A was a “dead” language, only used in Buddhist monasteries, while B was more commercially used.

Chinese: The largest collection of Chinese writings found by Stein were Buddhist texts at Tun-huang. He also discovered military and administrative documents at a number of Tarim sites including Endere, Dandan-Uiliq, and Khotan. Hedin recovered many Chinese records on paper and wood at Lop-Nor.

Khotanese: Khotanese (Saka) was a Middle Iranian language written in Brahmi script, containing many borrowed words from the Prakrit (local, Sanskrit-derived) languages of India. There are two Saka dialects; one seen in many Buddhist and other types of scripts at Khotan from the 7th-10th century AD, while the other dialect is connected with Tumshuq. According to Stein, this non-Sanskritic language represented the local dialect of the Khotan people.

Fig.11: Leaf from a Khotani Saka sutra, discovered by Sven Hedin (Hedin coll., Stockholm Ethnog.Museum, Montell 1938).

An unnamed Prakrit dialect in Kharoshthi script: Of all the writings found in the Tarim Basin and eastward, Stein was most interested in an Indian Prakrit dialect written in the Kharoshthi script that, he concluded, entered the area during the 2nd century BC conquest of Khotan by the northern Indian Kushan kingdom. He first encountered this writing at the site of Niya in January of 1901, in the form of hundreds of administrative documents written on wooden tablets. Many were wedge-shaped from seven to thirty inches long, with some rectangular ones up to seven and a half feet in length. All the variant tablet forms were named in the ancient writing using bureaucratic categories which Stein, somewhat jokingly, compared to those of modern India. Some tablets were originally fastened in pairs to make an enclosed envelope. Sunken sockets filled with clay seals of Greek figures next to an address written in Kharoshthi marked the outside of the joined wooden pieces. In a few instances, wooden tablets with double seals displayed one in Hellenistic style and the other in Chinese characters.

Stein’s interest in the Kharoshthi materials lay in the fact that the script used in Khotan was exactly like that used around Taxila. This directly ties early Khotan influences to the Kushan people of the Indo-Scythian dynasty who ruled over the Punjab (the Indus River zone in Pakistan) during the last three centuries BC.

Stein, furthermore, found historical evidence in both the 7th century writings of Hsüan-tsang and old Tibetan texts, which said that Khotan had been conquered and colonized about 200 BC by Indian immigrants from Taxila (Stein 1904, p.383). Hsüan-tsang learned from early accounts that a number of chieftains from Taxila (Pakistan) were forced to emigrate to an area north of the snow mountains to escape the vengence of the king and founded a kingdom in the Tarim Basin. These are the people, he reports, who introduced Buddhism to Khotan, and told legends of how the Buddhist divinity Vaisravana  granted the kingdom a dynasty whose first ancestor sprung from the head of the god’s image.

Taken together, the inscriptions in the Tarim Basin, written on materials including wood, leather, silk, and paper, provide extraordinary information about business, politics, and personal life in the ancient towns. One officer’s report found at Dandan-Uiliq, dated precisely to AD 768, requests that the people of his town be allowed to pay their taxes late, due to economic harships from a recent rash of robberies. Another ancient (but undated) document depicts a military requisition for an animal skin to re-cover a drum, and feathers to repair arrows. The manuscripts in the local Khotan writing system from Dandan-Uiliq denote recoveries of debt, bonds for small loans, and reports from local officers, all dating between AD 781-790. This coincides with the end of the Chinese T’ang Dynasty’s control over the region around AD 791, followed by the Tibetan invasion. Likely not a coincidence, maintenance of the vital irrigation system subsided around the same period, as Chinese officials in charge of them abandoned their stations. Tibetan texts dated to AD 719 from Endere foreshadow the Tibetan rise to power.

Another intriguing text centers around Hwi Chao, a Korean monk who grew up in China and travelled to India via the sea. He ended up living and travelling in India and Turkestan from AD 713 to 741. Based on his adventures, Chao wrote The Record to Five Indian Kingdoms, a work widely referenced by other ancient scholars that provides valuable information on Islamic and Buddhist distributions in Central Asia at this time. The book had been declared lost since the T’ang Dynasty, until French explorer Paul Pelliot found a 14-page section of it in a Tun-huang cave in 1908.

The extended Great Wall: During his second expedition in 1906-1908, Stein ventured as far east as the western gate of the Great Wall in Chia-yü-kuan. Strategically located with several thousand miles of mountains to its south, it protects eastern China’s only accessible entrance from the west. However, at Tun-huang, much further west, Stein noted Chinese limes, or frontier fortifications, of great antiquity. Stein describes the guard towers as 30 ft high with bases of 20 square feet tapering towards their tops (fig.35). Usually, Stein found the adjoining living quarters, originally built of wood, to be badly damaged by the elements. However, in some instances, he discovered guard rooms that were buried and preserved by fallen tower sections .

In one of these initial excavations of the limes, Stein first encountered written records of the guards on a solid block of wood, painted black and thickened at one end, with a string attached, On this wooden tablet were two red Chinese characters. Puzzling Stein and his co-workers, the meaning of this artifact was realized weeks later after one of Stein’s excavators recalled a similar item still used in modern armies. He explained how soldiers from garrisons would carry large conspicuous permits of leave to prevent confusion and limit the number of soldiers allowed to be away from their posts at any one time. Along with the ancient permits Stein and his crew found a wide variety of everyday materials in the guardhouse, including administrative accounts, pottery jars, wooden combs, broomsticks, wooden hooks, cross-bows, and arrowshafts. All of this evidence made it clear that these limes dated as far back as the Han Dynasty (202 BC-220 AD), as supported later by the date inscribed on an artifact to the third year of the Chü-shê period in 8 AD.

Interestingly, at the Great Wall extension Stein also found a box fastened in a manner unmistakably like the triangular wooden Kharoshthi script “envelopes” of the Niya sites. Here, however, they were three centuries older and inscribed with Chinese characters. Based on this evidence, Stein contended that these Chinese limes dated to the T’ien-han period in the 2nd century BC. He further suggested that these western limes were identical to the Great Wall. Their purpose, he deduced, was largely for defense against the Hsiung-nu (Hun ancestors), but also provided the Chinese military a strategic point from which they could patrol and extend their own territory.

Khotan’s Legacy: Sven Hedin’s and Aurel Stein’s achievements in revealing early Central Asian history have enlightened scientific and public communities alike about a large but little understood area. In spite of great hardships in the Tarim Basin’s harsh environment (Hedin almost died from dehydration, and Stein lost the toes on his right foot to frostbite), they persevered to make lasting contributions, which seem especially relevant today to our understanding of this region’s history.

Stein and Hedin’s important work has seen surprisingly little follow-up by modern archaeologists. Within the past 10 years, the search for the lost cities of the Silk Road has recommenced by investigators using satellite imagery to detect traces of ancient settlements in the desert. Current dramatic political events in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region will also no doubt rekindle widespread interest in its remarkable role as an east-west crossroads, but make it more difficult to study . Yet the Khotan sites show how positive cultural exchange between diverse cultures is itself part of the shared background of the Silk Road region, and may serve as a kind of beacon of hope in the midst of today’s grave misunderstandings and conflicts in the mountains and deserts of Central Asia.

 by William Rust and Amy Cushing


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