Passageway for more than goods

The artist who, about 500 AD, painted this lively fresco in what is now called the Cave of the Seafarers at Kizil, in Central Asia, flourished when that region was central to the great trade routes. The caravans, laden with precious merchandise, had in their train diverse travellers, among them Buddhist and Christian priests who had a strong influence on the peoples they encountered, making many converts. Temples were built in the oasis towns and enriched with murals and carvings, but it was found that here, as over so much of Asia, cave temples hollowed out of cliffs had particular advantages. Such enclaves offered greater protection from the fierce winds and blowing sands of the deserts, from the terrible cold and heat, and from marauders. Here statuary and sacred manuscripts, pictures and banners, could be placed in relative safety.

This fresco, where black-haired swimmers plunge through turquoise waters studded with pink lilies, is in the Indo-Iranian style and illustrates a Buddhist legend. It holds for us the element of surprise because it was done, with such verve and facility, in this rocky fastness far from the world of the sea.

After centuries of oblivion, the caves at Kizil were discovered before World War I, by a German expedition, which took The Swimmers, with other treasures, to Berlin, thus ensuring their preservation from vandals. They could never have dreamed that long afterwards many of these would be destroyed in the bombing of that city during World War II; The Swimmers, who seem to lead a charmed life, survived.

Harsh and forbidding, as is most of Central Asia, no place on the globe has exercised a more romantic spell than has this vast area. But now, under the aegis of the Russians or the Chinese, the oil rig, the lorry, the plane, hold sway over much of that desolate country which we think of as Russian or Chinese Turkestan. However, between the second and the tenth centuries it was the domain of the wonderful oasis towns, artistic and bold - places like Turfan and Kucha, the home of the Uighurs and other Turkic and Mongol peoples, and of the caravans.

Trade had somehow to pass between East and West, and perilous though the overland journey was, it was less dangerous than its only alternative, the sea route which by difficult stages led from Canton to Syria and thence to Rome. The luxury-loving Romans were willing to pay fortunes for silk. In addition to this lustrous and gauzy tissue the Chinese sent ceramics, bronzes, lacquers, furs and exotic trivia like stick cinnamon, brittle and fragrant. In return went metals, ivory, amber, coral, glass, asbestos, and woolen and linen textiles to traverse the same perils in reverse. The journey led over the roof of the world, over the Hindu Kush, the Pamirs and the Karakoram, immense ranges with passes twenty thousand feet high. Farther east lay the Takla Makan Desert, with the Tien Shan to the north and the Kunlun ranges to the south. After this the Gobi had still to be crossed before the caravans reached the Yu Men, the Jade Gate, the western terminus of the Great Wall. From here they pressed on to the capital - often Ch'ang-an, today's Sian - where the court of the Emperors proved a ready customer.

Those early centuries of our era were a time of great missionary zeal. Priests and monks accompanied the eastbound caravans, and preached the doctrines of Buddhism, Manichaism, Nestorian Christianity and Mazdaism to the peoples of Central Asia and China. Of all these Buddhism made by far the greatest impact until Islam was felt.

Strangely enough the Chinese sent none of their philosophical concepts westwards - it was a one-way traffic, except for the pilgrims who went to learn more of the new religions. All this was transacted in a score of tongues: Sanskrit, Sogdian, Iranian, Tibetan, Chinese, Uighur, Turkish, directed at a host of ethnic groups. In the remote, solitary Central Asian wilderness, the desert people longed for wider and more universal ideas than their shamans could offer them. With the new faiths came their religious art.

After the arrival of Islam in the ninth century, after the destruction of the former irrigation system, the drying up of the Tarim Basin, and China's closing of her frontiers, the region fell into neglect and oblivion, not to be seriously recalled to the world until late in the nineteenth century. Then a few distinguished savants from Europe, Russia and Japan - among whom we particularly remember Sir Aurel Stein, Paul Pelliot and von le Coq - rediscovered this lost world and brought back to their own countries treasures of this rich, complex, sophisticated civilization which had so nearly vanished. For local peasants had spread the rubble of frescoed walls on their fields for fertilizer and dumped manuscripts in rivers in superstitious dread.

Thanks to these archaeologists and scientists the high passes, the blowing singing sands of the deserts, the plodding camels, the green of the old Tarim Basin oases, the priests, the artists, pass before us now as one of the strangest and most multifaceted mirages of our insubstantial pageant.

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