Paul Theroux / Travel

The Silk Road – A Portable Companion

Paul Theroux on a book he wishes he had over 30 years ago.

Paul Theroux on The Silk Road This spring we are delighted to be releasing over two volumes – The Silk Road: Central Asia and The Silk Road: China and the Karakorum Highway – a portable version of Jonathan Tucker’s acclaimed The Silk Road: Art and History, with new forewords by Paul Theroux.

Replete with fascinating details of the main historical sites, works of art, accounts by ancient and modern travellers, legends, poetry and other literary references, this will be essential reading for all those interested in or planning to travel the ancient Silk Road.

If you don’t believe us, maybe Paul Theroux will convince you.

Paul Theroux on The Silk Road

What is extraordinary about the lavish and loosely ravelled anfractuosities of thoroughfare that go under the name ‘The Silk Road’ – winding across half the globe, over deserts and rivers and mountain ranges – is that almost 2,000 years ago the Pacific Ocean was connected culturally with the Mediterranean. And the Mediterranean gave access to the whole of Europe. So, as Jonathan Tucker writes in this exhaustive and enjoyable book, the twain really did meet, East and West, in mutually satisfied curiosity, commerce, romance, swapping inventions, treasures and ideas.

And this is also why Tucker relates that an Asiatic parrot in an ivory cage might be found in ancient Athens, and ‘an Egyptian Pharaoh mask found in the thirteenth-century grave of a Mongol woman at Genghis Khan’s capital of Karakorum’. And it is, by the way, the reason that, with the benefit of Chinese technology, Europe had rudders (rather than steering oars) and compasses on their ships, and stirrups and bridles on their horses (thus allowing Europe the Age of Chivalry), and movable type (the Chinese preceded Gutenberg), and much else. Consider the ‘angels of Miran’ – European-style winged male figures carved on a Buddhist shrine in Asia. ‘The “angels of Miran” are nothing short of amazing,’ Mr Tucker writes, ‘and no one was more surprised at their discovery than [the archaeologist Aurel] Stein himself: ‘“How could I have expected by the desolate shores of Lop-nor, in the very heart of innermost Asia, to come upon such classical representations of cherubim?”’

And of course there was the silk – one of the earliest and rarest commodities that China exported to the West. Tucker tells the amazing story of sericulture; how Chinese silk was sought by Romans who could afford it; how the rearing of silkworms and the cultivation of mulberry trees remained China’s greatest secret, from the earliest times, until the widespread deforestation – and that included mulberry trees – of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

The Silk Road was the reason that China had Persian dancers, and lute players and ‘Sogdian dancing girls’ from the West; and why, in one of the happiest convergences on earth, Greco-Persian artisans were making their own versions of Buddhist images and bas-reliefs and temple carvings at Taxila – Buddha had a new somewhat Grecian face and robes; and why so too did the bodhisattvas , in the singular beauty of Gandharan art.

‘A famous visitor to Taxila during the Parthian era [first century ad ] was St Thomas who, according to Christian legend, was commissioned by King Gondophares (r. c . ad 20–50) to build him a palace.’ Like St Thomas, and the Chinese monk Xuanzang in the seventh century, and the Arab traveller Ibn-Wahab in the ninth century, and later Marco Polo in the thirteenth, and numerous others recalled in this book, Tucker tells these stories well. He is widely respected as a connoisseur of ancient artefacts. He knows, through handling, a Khmer statue, a Chinese celadon and a Bactrian chariot fitting – and much else; he has travelled the length and breadth of the Silk Road, and he is widely read so his book is learned and felicitous.

I wish I’d had this book 33 years ago when I was first in China, and on subsequent trips, when I was trying to understand the scattered remnants and tumbled walls of the ancient city of Turfan in remote Xinjiang, and the caves at Dunhuang and the (then vandalised) Buddhas in the Yungang caves outside Datong. As for the monumental Buddhas hewn from rock at Bamiyan, ‘among the greatest artistic creations of the earth’, Tucker does those full justice in his text, though they have been destroyed by fanatics. Many of the towns and cities still exist, yet some of what remains of the Silk Road befits the hubris of Ozymandias. I am thinking of Turfan and the Peshawar valley, and the dusty foundations of Merv, in present-day Turkmenistan, an enormous set of interlocked cities, now little more than an elegant crater.

Since the Silk Road was not one road, but many, it represented a series of suggestive directions, taking in – not cities, since cities are a recent phenomenon on earth – but a multitude of bazaars. Many of the bazaars still flourish, the Tolkuchka Bazaar – just outside Ashgabat in Turkmenistan – is a desert encampment retailing camels and carpets and silver, and the Silk Road Bokhara remains a venerable and busy town, and Xian (resurgent Changan) is a metropolis once more. The presence of mosques, synagogues, temples and Christian churches in such places demonstrates the complexity of belief on the road. Jewish travellers from the Levant found their way to Changan and Luoyang, and not only became involved in the production of silk, but their Chinese descendents, the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng, are still living in Henan province. There may be Nestorians in China too. Nestorians found their way to China when they expanded to the East – the Silk Road was thick with schismatics.

Recognising this back-and-forth of believers and thinkers, Tucker makes one of his shrewdest judgements when he describes the arrival of Buddhism in China along the ancient routes: ‘one of many instances of the passage of ideas (one of the Silk Road’s most important commodities)’. We take for granted objects, sculptures, terracotta, textiles, instruments, weapons and finery, and the excesses of Qin Shi Huangdi in his desire for immortality; but it was the exchange of ideas – faiths, beliefs, and songs and poems too – that gave the Silk Road its vitality.

The Silk Road is a good companion in all respects, a history that is readable, a guide for the traveller that is invaluable, a handbook for the seeker of antiquities, an essential vademecum for the puzzled and bewildered tourist; and for the chair-bound person who does not wish to experience first-hand the howling Taklamakan Desert, or the upsets of Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan, or the exotic cuisines en route, it is a wonderful reference book and an enlightening journey in itself. ■

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