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At the Museums: Gems from the Silk Road Volume 54 Number 5, September/October 2001
by Shareen Blair Brysac

An exhibition of artifacts almost entirely unknown in the West

[image]Clay figure of Kasyapa
Western Wei period (A.D. 535-557)
Ht. about 140 cm
Maijishan cave 87, southern Gansu
Maijishan Research Insititue
Kasyapa, elder disciple of the Buddha, was one of the most popular figures in Chinese Buddhist art of this time, and was often paired with Ananda, Buddha's youngest disciple. He is here portrayed as a foreigner. (Courtesy Asia Society, NY) [LARGER IMAGE]

The confluence of short and long caravan trails running from Afghanistan and Uzbekistan in the west and ending in Changan (present day Xian, China) in the east was named the Seidenstrasse by the celebrated nineteenth-century geographer Baron Frederick von Richtofen--and the Silk Road it has remained. For centuries, caravans laden with silk, spices, gold, silver, and ivory wound for more than 4,000 miles through valleys and mountain passes, navigating some of the world's most hostile environments while skirting the perimeters of the treacherous Taklamakan Desert.

During the heyday of the Silk Road, the fourth through the ninth century A.D., luxury goods were not the only commodities carried along its trails. Ideas from the world's great religions--Christianity, Buddhism, Islam--spread from west to east along the route. The decline of the Mongols during the fifteenth century meant that travelers were no longer protected from marauding bandits and the fabled road fell into disuse--its trails encroached upon by deserts and replaced by sea-lanes, its oases abandoned.

The once great oasis emporia with romantic names like Niya and Loulan have disappeared into the desert waste, but the objects once traded, carried or manufactured along the route are now the subject of Monks and Merchants: Silk Road Treasures from Northwest China, Gansu and Ningxia 4th-7th Century, an exhibition that runs from October to January at the Asia Society in New York. (It will then travel to the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida.) The curators, Annette Juliano, a historian of early Chinese art from Rutgers University-Newark, and Judith Lerner, an independent scholar who specializes in the pre-Islamic art of Iran and Central Asia, have put together an unusual collection of works almost entirely unknown in the West. They focus on material from the crucially important Gansu corridor, which separates the Mongolian Plateau and Gobi Desert to the north from the Qilian Mountains of the Tibetan Plateau to the south. During the period of China's disunity, the Gansu corridor acted as the gateway between East and West, serving as the proverbial melting pot where cultures and religions intermingled. Artifacts found along the corridor display the influence of not only China but countries such as India and Afghanistan.

Visitors to this important exhibition will be able to examine a little known period and explore the cross-fertilization of ideas from East and West. As the catalogue suggests, "the story in this exhibition--of relationships among cultures and societies through trade and religion rather than through military conquests--has a powerful message for the new millennium." For more information, see

Shareen Blair Brysac is a contributing editor of ARCHAEOLOGY. Her article on Sir Aurel Stein, "Last of the 'Foreign Devils'" appeared in the November/December 1997 issue.

Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY's list of current exhibitions.

© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America