The route of the hanging chains

Godfrey Hodgson marvels at the life of a fearless 19th-century adventurer; Aurel Stein: Pioneer of the Silk Road by Annabel Walker John Murray, pounds 25

In the last decade of the 19th century, scraps of writing of immense antiquity began to arrive in British India from the remote heart of Asia, the oases skirting the fearsome Taklamakan desert. Some were written on paper, some on wood, some on silk and others on birch bark.Among the scholars, travellers and intelligence officers whose imaginations were excited by these discoveries was a young Jewish Hungarian, Aurel Stein, who was then the principal of a college in Lahore.

Stein, who had already spent much time and effort searching for manuscripts of an ancient history of Kashmir, was a remarkable linguist. Besides Hungarian, German, English and French, he taught himself Hindi, Sanskrit and several other of the ancient languages of India. He grasped immediately that the writings and other artefacts came from the ancient cities of the Silk Road which, from the time of Alexander the Great to that of Marco Polo, linked the high civilization of China with that of the Mediterranean. Here, at last, might be traces of the old Chinese and Indian civilization which had prevailed before the Silk Road fell into the hands of the Muslims.

He also realized that there, in the sandblown oases of Turkestan, might lie the evidence of how Buddhism, a religion that had long since died out in its native country, India, had been transmitted to China. In three great expeditions, travelling with a handful of Indian lieutenants, a caravan of bearers and camels, and a succession of seven dogs all called Dash, he explored the Tarim Basin. He brought back caravan loads of texts, objects and sculptures, including Buddhas of great beauty showing unmistakable traces of the Greek art brought to north India by Alexander the Great's army in the fourth century BC.

A fourth expedition, intended to explore the Chinese end of the Silk Road westward from its terminus in Xian, was frustrated by the new nationalism that had grown up after the Chinese revolution of 1911. And Stein never fulfilled his ambition of retracing Alexander's steps in what is now northern Afghanistan. He died in Kabul, at the age of 80 and in the middle of a world war, still trying to get there.

In the meantime, his activity was prodigious. He helped to establish the track of Alexander's campaign across the Indus and to pinpoint the site of the mountain fortress which the Macedonian carried with one of his most famous assaults. At the age of 66, he was following the voyage of Alexander's naval commander, Nearchos, in a leaky 45-foot boat. At 77 he was standing up in the open cockpit of an RAF plane photographing the traces of the Roman frontier forts in the Iraqi desert, and just before his 80th birthday he explored the terrifying "route of the hanging chains", which the Chinese pilgrims took along the precipices of the upper Indus valley.

Stein was both learned and fearless. He was not a patient archaeologist. He was more interested in exploring historic routes through the wildest country in the world than in digging down through layer after layer of a site. He was also predatory, not for himself, but in the way he carted off mountains of artefacts to western (and Indian) museums.

Chinese scholars, in particular, have counted Stein among the "robbers" who despoiled China of its treasures, and the great English China scholar Arthur Waley agreed with them. In fairness, the artefacts Stein brought back from the desert would probably not have survived if he had not taken them away from sites where they were the prey of treasure-seekers, revolutionary bands and local officials. as well as white ants and archaeologists.

Annabel Walker has written a careful and delightful biography. She has followed Stein's tracks where she could, in Budapest and Oxford, in Lahore and in the mountains. She has painted an unforgettable picture of this angular, indomitable man, with his faithful dog and his band of servants, tramping Asia from Syria to Xian in search of the secrets of the past. I expect I will read more important books this year, but I will be lucky to read one that has given me more pleasure.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living