Expedition Silk Road

Treasures from the Hermitage

The discoveries

In 1877, when the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen introduced the term ‘Great Silk Road’ for the trade routes between the Far East and the West that ran through Central Asia, it became clear to the world that beneath the sands of these forgotten regions, lost cultures could be found. It was a time when archaeologists were making great discoveries, and in the late nineteenth century they turned their attention to Central Asia. The earliest expeditions, organized by Russia, Great Britain, Germany, France, Sweden and Japan, competed for the most spectacular finds. Lost cities and monasteries were unearthed and caves discovered in Mongolia, western China, and later in the present-day Central Asian republics exclusively by Soviet archaeologists. Unexpected sites proved to hold treasures spanning many centuries, from long before Christ to the Middle Ages: Buddhist images, traces of Christianity and Judaism, silk, silver, gold, wall paintings, sculptures, and jewellery, all of high artistic quality and bearing witness to astonishing interactions between cultures and religions. Lost countries, cities and empires acquired names: Sogdiana, Chorasmia, Parthia, Khara-Khoto. This was the discovery of the Silk Road, a magical world where treasures ranging from long before Christ to medieval times attest to unprecedented cultural interchange.

The world’s largest trade network for more than 1,700 years

The origins of the Silk Road are said to lie in the second century BC. China was under regular attack by nomads, the Xiongnu, and responded by building the Great Wall of China. In search of allies in this struggle, the Chinese emperor Han Wudi sent a diplomatic mission led by Zhang Qian to the west in the late second century. Zhang Qian's reports included descriptions of all the regions, kingdoms, and city-states that he visited. His journey resulted in China’s earliest trade relations with the peoples to the west and Chinese products such as silk gradually spread to such far-off places as Rome. This was the start of a network of trade routes linking China to the Mediterranean over a distance of 7,000 kilometres. It branched to the north and south of the inhospitable and mostly barren Taklamakan Desert, running through the almost impassable mountain ranges of Pamir and Tian Shan to the fertile regions around the Oxus and Jaxartes Rivers (now known as the Amu Darya and Syr Darya). From there, it went south to Persia and north to the Caspian Sea, and through the Caucasus to Asia Minor.

Crossroads of civilizations

In the ancient and medieval worlds, Central Asia was at the crossroads of several great civilizations: India, Persia, China, and the Roman Empire. In the north, it bordered on steppes where nomadic peoples dwelled. The oases and kingdoms of this vast region played a crucial and welcome role as way stations and marketplaces. The Silk Road was not a single, fixed route, but a network of trade routes that grew out of China towards the west. And it carried much more than just silk. The region to which this exhibition is devoted is generally known as Central Asia. We define this as northwestern China, Mongolia and the Central Asian ‘stans’: Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, southern Kazakhstan.

A thousand camels

Silk was one of the first trade items and was highly sought after. For some time, it was even an official means of payment on the Silk Road. But many other products travelled this route. Caravans of horses, oxen, donkeys, and as many as a thousand camels traversed the region from east to west, from north to south, and back again. They were confronted with extreme climates, and most trips were to the closest trading post and back. Besides silk, the products from China in the east included lacquer, ceramics, and porcelain. Traders also brought glass, wool, and linen (often in the form of tapestries) from the Mediterranean region in the west. Fur came from Siberia in the north, while topaz, emeralds, perfumes, henna, and exotic animals were brought from India in the south. In Central Asia, halfway along the Silk Road in what is now Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, lay Sogdia, a pivotal trading post and a source of highly valued silver vessels. Every part of the Silk Road traded in paper, leather, and chemicals such as ammonium chloride, used in polishing metal and treating leather.

The spread of Buddhism

These trade routes became the site of an unprecedented exchange of goods and ideas. We can see the results in the magnificent wall paintings found in many places along the routes. Often wall paintings in a wide range of styles were found on the same site. Buddhism was one of the first phenomena to spread along these routes, from India towards China by way of Gandhara (modern-day southern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan). The first cultural interchanges took place when pilgrims returned from the birth region of Siddharta Gautama (the Buddha Shakyamuni). The teachings of the Buddha were said to lead to enlightenment (bodhi), to liberation from suffering in the endless cycle of birth and death (samsara), and to insight into the nature of reality. Many images of the Buddhas have been found, as well as of bodhisattvas, people who out of compassion help others achieve liberation before seeking it for themselves. Not only the historical Buddha, but every sentient being is said to be capable of reaching enlightenment.

Many faiths spread along the Silk Road network. Centuries later, Islam began moving eastward, replacing Buddhism in many places. It followed the same routes as the Silk Road traders. Christianity and Judaism spread into Central Asia in the same way, as shown by artefacts such as an incense burner with Christian iconography and a ring with a scene of Daniel in the lion’s den. Many remains have also been found of Zoroastrianism – the first world religion, which was founded by the prophet Zoroaster (or Zarathustra). These include representations of a so-called simurgh (a creature from folklore with the body of a bird and the head of a dog). Languages and writings also spread by way of the Silk Road.The languages of the Silk Road, apart from Chinese, generally belonged to the Indo-Europaean family (as English does): there were Indo-Aryan, Iranian and Tocharian branches of Indo-Europaean used in various places. Later they were supplemented and largely replaced by Turkic and Mongol tongues.

Murals and silver

The more than 250 treasures in the exhibition come from the glory days of the different places along the Silk Road. The story of the Silk Road is best told by the many paintings excavated in the region, such as the Buddhist silk paintings from Dunhuang in western China and Khara-Khoto in Mongolia, or the more secular monumental wall paintings from Sogdia. The kingdom of Sogdia also produced fine silver that was in great demand. Sogdian merchants settled in various locations along the Silk Road and played a dominant role in trade. They led lives of luxury, dressing in elaborate silk clothing and using beautifully decorated dishes and vessels at their banquets, as a superb mural shows. Their interest in the good life encouraged the advancement of the applied arts to a very high level.

Sogdian kings built palaces whose majesty has been uncovered by archaeologists. One of the exhibition's many highlights is a nine-metre-long mural from the Red Hall of the palace of the kings of Bukhara in Varakhsha. This 1,300-year-old painting depicts a deity in battle with predators. The fragile work was restored specifically for this exhibition, thanks in part to support from the Friends of the Hermitage.

The secret of silk leaks out

For a long time, China was the only country that exported silk. Its production process remained a carefully guarded national secret – until the fifth century, when the secret leaked out. According to legend, a Chinese princess was given in marriage to the ruler of Khotan, where the secret of silk was unknown. But she hid the eggs of the silk moth and the seeds of the mulberry tree (on which the moth and the silkworms fed) in her headdress and took them with her. The silk production process thus became known outside China and slowly made its way to western countries, enabling them to make silk of their own. According to another legend, two Christian monks brought around 550 silk moth eggs to Byzantium by concealing them in their hollow canes.

The end of the Silk Road

The conquest of Central Asia by the Mongols under Genghis Khan ushered in the region's last golden age, as part of a vast, centrally controlled empire and continued well into the fourteenth century, despite the fact that the Mongol Empire was separated into minor principalities. In the fifteenth century, China's Ming Dynasty stopped exporting silk. The maritime roads along the coasts in the Indian and Pacific oceans was known since antiquity, but it developed rapidly after 1488 when the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias discovered a sea route around the Cape of Good Hope, which soon replaced trade routes on land. The rise of companies for maritime trade, such as the Dutch East India Company (VOC), brought the story of the overland Silk Road to an end. By this time, Islamic culture was for a long time dominant in Central Asia, and the mosques and mausoleums along the Silk Road could be recognized by the blue colour of their domes and outer walls.

The expeditions and the collection

The cultures of the Silk Road were not rediscovered until the late nineteenth century, when Russia, Great Britain, Germany, France, Sweden and Japan organized the earliest expeditions and competed for the most impressive finds. The Russian expeditions hit their stride after 1905 under the leadership of scholars such as Mikhail Berezovsky, Sergei Oldenburg and Pyotr Kozlov. Dozens of expeditions headed by Russian archaeologists set off for Mongolia, western China, and, in the Soviet period, to the now independent Central Asian republics. In numerous places, they uncovered treasures spanning many centuries, from long before Christ to the Middle Ages. In the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, these were put on display as ancient treasures of the Soviet Union with its many peoples. To this day, the Hermitage has continued its excavations in Central Asia – for instance, in the Sogdian city of Panjakent in Tajikistan. These projects are now led by experts from the Oriental Department of the State Hermitage Museum, who are also involved in the making of this exhibition.

The objects to be displayed are drawn from the large collection of the Oriental Department. The exhibition will focus on thirteen archaeological sites and historical regions, painting a vivid picture of the diversity and cultural influences along the Silk Road.

Opening hours

Daily 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Closed on 25 December 2014 and 27 April 2015
Open on 1 January 11 a.m.- 5 p.m.

© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

The Hermitage Amsterdam is located on Amstel 51, Amsterdam

Photo Janiek Dam

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