The Bezeklik Grottoes in the Flaming Mountains near Turfan hang precariously off a cliff above a steep gorge. However, the Buddhist carvings and murals within these caves were not sufficiently remote to escape both the onslaught of Islam and the intentions of foreign archaeologists and treasure seekers. Now there is a new threat: that of numerous coach loads of foreign and domestic tourists, keen to see what's left.
The grotto building was not confined to the Taklimakan; there is a large
cluster at Bamiyan in the Hindu Kush, in present-day Afghanistan. It is here
that the second largest sculpture of Buddha in the world can be found, at 55 metres high.
For the archaeologist these grottos are particularly valuable sources of
information about the Silk Road. Along with the images of Buddhas and
Boddhisatvas, there are scenes of the everyday life of the people at the time.
Scenes of celebration and dancing give an insight into local customs and
costume. The influences of the Silk Road traffic are therefore quite clear in
the mix of cultures that appears on these murals at different dates. In
particular, the development of Buddhism from the Indian/Gandharan style to a
more individual faith is evident on studying the murals from different eras in
any of the grotto clusters.
Those from the Gandharan school have more classical features, with
wavy hair and a sharper brow; they tend to be dressed in toga-like robes
rather than a loin cloth. Those of the Northern Wei have a more Indian
appearance, with narrower faces, stretched ear-lobes, and a more serene aura.
By the Tang dynasty, when Buddhism was well developed in China, many of the
statues and murals show much plumper, more rounded and amiable looking figures.
By the Tang dynasty, the Apsara (flying deity, similar to an angel in
Christianity) was a popular subject for the artists.
It is also interesting to trace the changes in styles along the length of
the route, from Kuqa in the west, via the Turfan area and Dunhuang, to the
Maijishan grottos about 350 kilometres from Xian, and then as far into
China as Datong. The Northern Wei dynasty, that is perhaps the most responsible
for the spread of Buddhism in China, started the construction of the Yungang
grottos in northern Shanxi province. When the capital of the Northern Wei was
transfered to Luoyang, the artists and masons started again from scratch,
building the Longmen grottos. These two more `Chinese' grottos emphasised
carving and statuary rather than the
delicate murals of the Taklimakan regions, and the figures are quite impressive
in their size; the largest figure at Yungang measures more than 17 metres in
height, second only in China to the great Leshan Buddha in Sichuan, which was
constructed in the early 8th Century. The figures are mostly depicted in the
`reassurance' pose, with right hand raised, as an apology to the adherents of
the Buddhist faith for the period of persecution that had occurred during the
early Northern Wei Dynasty before construction was started.
The Buddhist faith gave birth to a number of different sects in Central
Asia. Of these, the `Pure Land' and `Chan' (Zen) sects were particularly
strong, and were even taken beyond China; they are both still flourishing in
Christianity also made an early appearance on the scene. The Nestorian sect
was outlawed in Europe by the Roman church in 432 A.D., and its followers were
driven eastwards. From
their foothold in Northern Iran, merchants brought the faith along the Silk
Road, and the first Nestorian church was consecrated at Changan in 638 A.D.
This sect took root on the Silk Road, and survived many later attempts to wipe
them out, lasting into the fourteenth century. Many Nestorian writings have
been found with other documents at Dunhuang and Turfan. Manichaeism, a third
century Persian religion, also influenced the area, and had become quite well
developed by the beginning of the Tang Dynasty.
The height of the importance of the Silk Road was during
the Tang dynasty, with relative internal stability in China after the divisions
of the earlier dynasties since the Han. The individual states has mostly been
assimilated, and the threats from marauding peoples was rather less.
During this period, in the seventh century, the Chinese traveller Xuan Zhuang
crossed the region on his way to obtain Buddhist scriptures from India.
He followed the northern branch round the Taklimakan on his outward journey,
and the southern route on his return; he carefully recorded the cultures and
styles of Buddhism along the way. On his return to the Tang capital at Changan,
he was permitted to build the `Great Goose Pagoda' in the southern half of the
city, to house the more than 600 scriptures that he had brought back from
India. He is still
seen by the Chinese as an important influence in the development of Buddhism in
China, and his travels were dramatised by in the popular classic `Tales of a
Journey to the West'.
The art and civilisation of the Silk Road achieved its highest point in the
Tang Dynasty. Changan, as the starting point of the route, as well as the
capital of the dynasty, developed into one of the largest and most cosmopolitan
cities of the time. By 742 A.D., the population had reached almost two million,
and the city itself covered almost the same area as present-day Xian,
considerably more than within the present walls of the city. The 754 A.D. census
showed that five thousand foreigners lived in the city; Turks, Iranians,
Indians and others from along the Road, as well as Japanese, Koreans and Malays
from the east. Many were missionaries, merchants or pilgrims, but every other
occupation was also represented. Rare plants, medicines, spices and other goods
from the west were to be found in the bazaars of the city. It is quite clear,
however, despite the exotic imports, that the Chinese regarded all foreigners
as barbarians; the gifts provided for the Emperors by foreign rulers were
simply considered as tribute from vassal states.
The muslim food street in Xian, the modern city that was once Changan, the Tang Dynasty capital. This street leads off the main westward thoroughfare only a stone's throw from the Drum Tower in the centre of the city which could justifiably lay claim to being the eastern end of the Silk Road; much of the muslim culture of Western China is still in evidence here.
After the Tang, however, the traffic along the road subsided, along with
the grotto building and art of the period. The Five Dynasties period did not
maintain the internal stability of the Tang dynasty, and again neighbouring
states started to plunder the caravans. China was partially unified again in
the Song dynasty, but the Silk Road was not as important as it had been in the
From the point of view of those in the far west, China was still an unknown
territory, and silk production was not understood. Since the days of Alexander
the Great, there had been some knowledge of India, but there was no real
knowledge of, or contact with,
the `Seres' until about the 7th century, when information started to filter
along the Road. It was at this time that the rise of Islam started to affect
Asia, and a curtain came down between the east and west. Trade relations soon
resumed, however, with the Moslems playing the part of middlemen. The sea route
to China was explored at this time, and the `Sea Silk Route' was opened,
eventually holding a more important place than the land route itself, as the
land route became less profitable.
But the final shake-up that occurred was to come from a different direction;
the hoards from the grasslands of Mongolia.
Trade along the route was adversely affected by the strife which built up
between the Christian and Moslem worlds. The Crusades brought the Christian
world a little nearer to Central Asia, but the unified Moslem armies under
Saladin drove them back again. In the Fourth Crusade, the forces of Latin
Christianity scored a triumph over their Greek rivals, with the capture of
Constantinople (Istanbul). However, it was not the Christians who finally split
the Moslem world, but the Mongols from the east. Whilst Europe and Western Asia
were torn by religious differences, the Mongols had only the vaguest of
religious beliefs. Several of the tribes of Turkestan which had launched
offensives westwards towards Persia and Arabia, came to adopt Islam, and Islam
had spread far across Central Asia, but had not reached as far as the tribes
which wandered the vast grasslands of Mongolia. These nomadic peoples had
perfected the arts of archery and horsemanship. With an eye to expanding their
sphere of influence, they met in 1206 and elected a leader for their unified
forces; he took the title Great Khan. Under the leadership of Genghis Khan, they
rapidly proceeded to conquer a huge region of Asia. The former Han city of
Jiaohe, to the west of Turfan, was decimated by the Mongols as they passed
through on their way westwards. The Empire they carved out enveloped the whole
of Central Asia from China to Persia, and stretched as far west as the
Mediterranean. This Mongol empire was maintained after Genghis' death, with the
western section of the empire divided into three main lordships, falling to
various of his descendents as lesser Khans, and with the eastern part remaining
under the rule of the Great Khan, a title which was inherited from by Kublai
Khan. Kubilai completed the conquest of China, subduing the Song in the South of
the country, and established the Yuan dynasty.
The partial unification of so many states under the Mongol Empire allowed a
significant interaction between cultures of different regions. The route of the
Silk Road became important as a path for communication between different parts
of the Empire, and trading was continued. Although less `civilised' than people
in the west, the Mongols were more open to ideas. Kubilai Khan, in particular,
is reported to have been quite sympathetic to most religions, and a large number
of people of different nationalities and creeds took part in the trade across
Asia, and settled in China. The most popular religion in China at the time was
Daoism, which at first the Mongols favoured. However, from the middle of the
thirteenth century onwards, buddhist influence increased, and the early lamaist
Buddhism from Tibet was particularly favoured. The two religions existed side by
side for a long period during the Yuan dynasty. This religious liberalism was
extended to all; Christianity first made headway in China in this period, with
the first Roman Catholic arch-bishopric set up in Beijing in 1307. The Nestorian
church was quite widespread in China; Jews and Moslems also populated several of
the major cities, though they do not seem to have made many converts.
It was at this time that Europeans first ventured towards the lands of the
`Seres'. The earliest were probably Fransiscan friars who are reported to have
visited the Mongolian city of Karakorum. The first Europeans to arrive at
Kubilai's court were Northern European traders, who arrived in 1261. However,
the most well known and best documented visitor was the Italian Marco Polo. As a
member of a merchant family from Venice, he was a good businessman and a keen
observer. Starting in 1271, at the age of only seventeen, his travels with his father
and uncle took him across Persia, and then along the southern branch of the Silk
Road, via Khotan, finally ending at the court of Kubilai Khan at Khanbalik, the
site of present-day Beijing, and the summer palace, better known as Xanadu. He
travelled quite extensively in China, before returning to Italy by ship, via
Sumatra and India to Hormuz and Constantinople.
He describes the way of life in the cities and small kingdoms through which
his party passed, with particular interest on the trade and marriage customs.
His classification of other races centre mainly on their religion, and he looks
at things with the eyes of one brought up under the auspices of the Catholic
Church; it is therefore not surprising that he has a great mistrust of the
Moslems, but he seems to have viewed the `Idolaters' (Buddhists and Hindus) with
more tolerance. He judges towns and countryside in terms of productivity; he
appears to be have been quick to observe available sources of food and water
along the way, and to size up the products and manufacture techniques of the
places they passed through. His description of exotic plants and beasts are
sufficiently accurate to be quite easily recognizable, and better than most of
the textbooks of the period. He seems to have shown little interest in the
history of the regions he was passing through, however, and his reports of
military campaigns are full of inaccuracies, though this might be due to other
additions or misinformation.
The `Travels' were not actually written by Marco Polo himself. After his
return to the West in 1295, he was captured as a prisoner of war in Genoa, when
serving in the Venetian forces. Whilst detained in prison for a year, he met
Rustichello of Pisa, a relatively well-known romance writer and a fellow
prisoner of war. Rustichello was obviously attracted to the possibilities of
writing a romantic tale of adventure about Polo's travels; it should be
remembered that the book was written for entertainment rather than as a historic
document. However, the collaboration between them, assuming that the story has
not been embroidered excessively by Rustichello, gives an interesting picture of
life along the Silk Road in the time of the Khans. Some of the tales are no
doubt due to the romance-writing instincts of Rustichello, and some of those due
to Polo are at best third-hand reports from people he met; however, much of the
material can be verified against Chinese and Persian records. As a whole, the
book captured public notice at the time, and added much to what was known of
Asian geography, customs and natural history.
However, the Mongolian Empire was to be fairly short-lived. Splits between
the different khans had erupted as early as 1262. Although the East was
considerably more stable, especially under the rule of Kubilai, it also
succumbed to a resurgence of Chinese nationalism, and after several minor local
rebellions in the first few decades of the fourteenth century, principally in
the south of China, the Yuan dynasty was finally replaced by the Ming dynasty in
1368. With the disintegration of the Mongol empire, the revival of Islam and the
isolationist policies of the Ming dynasty, the barriers rose again on the land
route between East and West.
Despite the presence of the Mongols, trade along the Silk Road never reached
the heights that it did in the Tang dynasty. The steady advance of Islam,
temporarily halted by the Mongols, continued until it formed a major force
across Central Asia, surrounding the Taklimakan like Buddhism had almost a
millennium earlier. The artwork of the region suffered under the encroach of
Islam. Whereas the Buddhist artists had concentrated on figures in painting and
sculpture, the human form was scorned in Islamic artwork; this difference led to
the destruction of much of the original artwork. Many of the grottos have been
defaced in this way, particularly at the more accessible sites such as Bezeklik,
near Turfan, where most of the human faces in the remaining frescoes have been
The Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar, spiritual centre of the town. Islam was one of the later imports along the Road, and now has a firm footing throughout Xinjiang.
The demise of the Silk Road also owes much to the development of the silk
route by sea. It was becoming rather easier and safer to transport goods by
water rather than overland. Ships had become stronger and more reliable , and
the route passed promising new markets in Southern Asia. The overland problems
of `tribal politics' between the different peoples along the route, and the
presence of middlemen, all taking their cut on the goods, prompted this move.
The sea route, however, suffered from the additional problems of bad weather and
pirates. In the early fifteenth century, the Chinese seafarer Zhang He commanded
seven major maritime expeditions to Southeast Asia and India, and as far as
Arabia and the east coast of Africa. Diplomatic relations were built up with
several countries along the route, and this increase the volume of trade Chinese
merchants brought to the area. In the end, the choice of route depended very
much upon the political climate of the time.
The encroach of the deserts into the inhabited land made life on the edges of
the Taklimakan and Gobi Deserts particularly difficult. Any settlement abandoned
for a while was swallowed by the desert, and so resettlement became increasingly
difficult. These conditions were only suitable in times of peace, when effort
could be spent countering this advance, and maintaining water sources.