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Journeys on the Silk Road    by Joyce Morgan & Conrad Walters order for
Journeys on the Silk Road
by Joyce Morgan
Order:  USA  Can
Lyons Press, 2012 (2012)
Hardcover, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

In Journeys on the Silk Road: A Desert Explorer, Buddha's Secret Library, and the Unearthing of the World's Oldest Printed Book, Joyce Morgan and Conrad Walters give us an enlightening account of Aurel Stein's acquisition of ancient scrolls. These included the Diamond Sutra, AD 868, 'one of the most revered texts in Buddhism' and the world's oldest dated printed book, which 'taught that life is illusory and as fleeting as a bubble in a stream.'

The Prologue sets the scene with the sweeping of sand outside the Library Cave in 1900, when a Chinese monk uncovered countless scrolls undisturbed for a thousand years. Then we are introduced to middle-aged Hungarian-born Aurel Stein racing through the Central Asian desert with his fox terrier Dash to Kashgar, and the home of Britain's representative there, his friend George Macartney. Stein was fascinated by 'lost worlds, ancient civilizations and early encounters between East and West. He craved to know how ideas and cultures spread', in particular Buddhism.

Archaeologist/adventurer Stein worked for both the British Museum and the government of India - his masters wanted 'antiquities to fill their museums and add prestige to the Empire.' But Stein was more interested in the documents that 'exposed how language, people, and customs traveled and revealed the poignant details of ordinary life.' Macartney helped Stein hire Secretary Chiang, a Chinese scholar who proved invaluable in his quest. But it had become a race against time as there were international rivals (German, French and American) for Turkestan's treasures.

Stein journeyed to Dunhuang, 'the Silk Road's gateway between China and Central Asia' and visited the painted meditation grottos to the southeast. He heard the rumor of a huge cache of manuscripts discovered in one of the painted grottos. The authors call the Silk Road 'the original information superhighway', along which ideas spread. With Chiang's help, Stein persuaded the abbot, Wang, in charge of the caves to sell him some of the ancient manuscripts, which turned out to be 'one of the greatest archaeological finds of all time.'

As well as religious documents there are many secular texts including 'hints for playing the board game Go', 'ten reasons why children should be grateful to their mother', 'a debate between Tea and Wine', and old musical scores. This volume (which includes eighteen black and white photos of Stein's travels) continues to address the scrolls' long journey to Europe, work to decipher them, their eventual fate, and how Stein is viewed today. It also mentions the possibility of online scrutiny of the Diamond Sutra as 'the contents of the Library Cave are being reunited in cyberspace.'

The authors address the ethics of Western acquisition of such treasures for their museums, and speak of the irony of the unlikely long term survival of a 'text about impermanence', one that concludes 'Thus shall you think of this fleeting world: / A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, / A flash of lightning in a summer cloud, / A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.' I highly recommend Journeys on the Silk Road to you as a totally fascinating and inspiring read.

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