Overview of the thirteen archaeological sites

The trading centres along the Silk Road belonged to a diverse array of kingdoms and civilizations. The objects in the exhibition came from thirteen places and regions where Russian expeditions conducted excavations, from east to west:

Noin-Ula

Among the best-known archaeological remains of the Xiongnu nomads are the burial mounds in the hills of Noin-Ula in northern Mongolia. China erected the Great Wall as a line of defence against attacks by these nomads. The exhibition will include two-thousand-year-old silk garments and fragments of felt carpets from the first century, decorated with scenes of combat between a yak and a horned feline predator and between an elk and a griffin. Excavated in 1923–26, expedition led by Pyotr Kozlov.

State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Khara-Khoto

Khara-Khoto, ‘the black city’, the Mongolian name for a former city in a flourishing oasis in the Gobi Desert. In the eighth century, it was the dwelling place of the Tangut people, who came from Tibet and founded their own state here in 1038. The city was destroyed by Genghis Khan in 1227. Highlights include Buddhist scroll paintings on silk, like those of the Bodhisattva Maitreya and Avalokiteshvara Moon-Water, a thangka depicting the Medicine Master Bhaisajyaguru, and seven paintings of the planets and the planetary gods. Excavated in 1907–09, expedition led by Pyotr Kozlov.

State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Dunhuang

Dunhuang, western China. This city was in an oasis on the south side of the Gobi Desert, along a small corridor leading from China to the west. This was where the Great Wall ended, and all travellers headed for Central Asia passed this way. The Buddhist cave temples of Qianfodong (Caves of the Thousand Buddhas) were carved out around Dunhuang. One of these complexes contains the renowned Mogao Caves, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987. Highlights include the a mural of Apsaras (celestial spirits), Buddhas, and donors, the head of an ascetic Buddha, sculptures of disciples of the Buddha, a painting on paper by a pilgrim, and a bodhisattva on silk. Excavated in 1914–15, expedition led by Sergei Oldenburg.

State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Turfan

This oasis is on the northern branch of the Silk Road, to the north of the Taklamakan Desert, 154 metres under sea level and beside the eastern foothills of the Tian Shan mountains. It was inhabited by several different peoples. Sogdian merchants settled all along the Silk Road in the fourth and fifth centuries AD; many of them chose Turfan as their home. From the fifth century onwards, the Chinese population grew. Two highlights from Turfan are the unique mural Praṇidhi – Taking the vow and a mural of a merchant with a donkey and a camel. Excavated in 1909–10, expedition led by Sergei Oldenburg.

State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Karashahr

Oasis on the northern branch of the Silk Road, bordering on Turfan to the east and Kucha to the west. Karashahr was frequently influenced by these other two cultures, both culturally and politically. The earliest traces of Buddhism in Karashahr are the ruins of two temple complexes, dating back to the third and fourth centuries AD. Highlights include murals of the siege of Kushinagara and of the Jataka (Buddhist tale) of the hungry tigress, as well as sculptures of Brahman. Excavated in 1909–10, expedition led by Sergei Oldenburg.

State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Kucha

Another oasis along the northern branch, somewhat further from China than Karashahr. Various remains of the ancient city of Kucha have been found, including Buddhist cave temples and above-ground structures. The largest and most thoroughly studied monument is the Kyzil monastery complex, with more than two hundred caves. To the north of the modern city of Kuqa is Subashi, a vast ruined city that may have been the ancient capital of the oasis kingdom. Over the centuries, the oasis was inhabited by many different peoples. Highlights include a sculpture of a Sogdian merchant and murals of a mountain landscape with signs of the zodiac, of Pranidhi scenes, and of a woman donor, an aristocratic Tocharian lady. Excavated in 1905–7 by Mikhail Berezovsky and in 1909–10 by Sergei Oldenburg.

State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Khotan

One of the oases along the southern branch of the Silk Road. Over time, this region was inhabited by a variety of peoples: Iranians, Indians, Chinese, Turks, and Tibetans. Khotan has been one of the largest Buddhist centres since the first century AD. Numerous art objects and many ancient texts have been found there, in various languages such as Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Chinese. Other highlights include a stone Buddha figurine and figurines of camels, 'the ships of the desert'. Provenance: 1897, collections of the Russian diplomat N.F. Petrovski and others.

State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Ustrushana

Ancient kingdom on the territory of present-day Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, to the west of the major Pamir and Tian Shan mountain ranges. In ancient times, the culture of this area was already closely tied to that of neighbouring Sogdia. The people of Ustrushana spoke a Sogdian dialect. According to Arabic historians, the largest city was Bunjikat. The murals and wood carvings found in the palace there attest to a unique artistic culture with exceptional artists. Highlights include the murals from the grand hall of the palace with the Roman theme of a she-wolf suckling young children, as well as murals of various demons. Excavated in 1965–72, expedition organized by the Hermitage and the Donish Institute of History.

State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Sogdië

Sogdia, known to the ancient Greeks as Sogdiana, evolved into a shifting confederation of principalities and republics reminiscent of the Greek city-states. The Sogdians were closely involved in trade along the routes between China, India, and Persia. Their role in China from the sixth to the eighth century was especially significant. The prince of Samarkand was the nominal king of Sogdia, but for instance, the ruler of Bukhara was the only one who could mint silver coins. This latter sovereign had an opulent palace in Varakhsha with a famed ‘Red Hall’. There will be many Sogdian highlights, such as an enormous mural from the Red Hall, a dish with ‘the siege of a fortress’, a silver stand decorated with the head of a Simurgh, and an exquisite silver plate. One of the Sogdian city-states was Panjakent, founded in the fifth century AD. The city was dominated by two temples and had many richly decorated houses, a citadel, country houses, and a necropolis. Highlights from Panjakent include murals of a banquet with merchants, feasting artists, the king on a throne, a battle with the Amazons, and an Arab. Provenance: Sogdia, excavated c. 1950–present, Hermitage (Panjakent, Varakhsha).

State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Bactria

The ancient region of Bactria covered parts of the present-day states of Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Zarathustra (Zoroaster) once preached there; he was the founder of Zoroastrianism, which accorded a central role to fire. Buddhism also gradually grew in importance, even though Bactrian culture remained Hellenistic and its writing system was Greek. Objects on display from Bactria will include monastery and palace ornaments and precious gold and silver wares. The highlights are the Airtam Frieze and a golden vessel decorated with phoenixes. Provenance: 1930s–60s, Hermitage et al.

State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Chorasmia

Chorasmia is the fertile area along the lower reaches of the Amu Darya (in present-day Uzbekistan/Turkmenistan). Canals on either side of the Amu Darya, which channelled silt and water to fertilize the fields, provided rich harvests from the Bronze Age (c. 3000–8000 BC) onwards. Surrounded by deserts on all sides, Chorasmia had close trade relations with Bactria, the Volga region, and the Caucasus. Highlights include a relief of the goddess of victory and two silver dishes. Provenance: 1930s–1960s, Sergei Tolstov et al.

State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Parthia

The Parthian Empire was founded in the third century BC, after the disintegration of Alexander the Great’s empire, in what is now roughly northern Iran. Parthia was not a unified state and had no permanent capital. The king went from province to province with his army and retinue, dispensing justice and resolving conflicts. In the third century AD, the Iranian Sassanid Empire would emerge in this area. Parthian culture had Iranian, Hellenistic, and Mesopotamian elements. The kings practiced the Zoroastrian faith, but Parthia was a place of religious diversity and relative tolerance. Highlights include a cameo of Daniel in the lion's den and the ivory fittings of a rhyton (drinking vessel) with decorations depicting Parthians. Provenance: early 20th century, various sites.

State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Northern Caucasus

Finds from this area range in time from the sixth to the ninth century and have greatly enhanced our insight into the Silk Road. Thanks to the high mountain climate, textiles from Byzantium, Sogdia, and China have been preserved at the burial sites of Moshchevaya Balka and Hasaut. Art from neighbouring Persia has never been found here; this suggests that the route through the Caucasus was taken in order to avoid that area. Highlights include a ninth-century silk caftan lined with squirrel fur and a kilim carpet decorated with a pheasant. Coloured Roman glass from this area will also be on display. Excavated in 1964 and at other times, Hermitage expedition led by Anna Ierusalimskaya.

State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

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