The Silk Road was not simply a highway for the trade of precious items, it was the main East West artery for the flow of ideas. Buddhist monks from India rubbed shoulders with Persian Manichean priests, and Zoroastrians whilst Nestorian Christians sought converts among the travellers and settlers of the roads. Advances in navigation first by the Arabs and later by the Europeans led to the decline in the land routes. The great sites and artistic treasures of the Silk Road were buried in the sands of the desert lost to generations of scholars and explorers. The dry sand however was a wonderful preservative for these great treasures. The special mix of salt and sand was especially effective at preserving human corpses – most notably the ‘Mummies of Urumqi’.
When the first archaeologists began working on the great sites of the Silk Road at the turn of the century, their discoveries were staggering. Manuscripts of an entire ancient Indo-European language, Tocharian, which shares some linguistic features with Celtic, a treasure trove of Buddhist sculptures and paintings and some of the earliest and most beautiful carpets and textiles were found.
Since the last great archaeological work in the 1930’s, great swathes of East Turkistan were closed to travellers and scholars by the Chinese government. But times have changed. With the gradual opening of routes across western China it is now possible, once again, to explore the lost cities, marvel at the great artistic achievements and discover the magic and beauty of these ancient routes.
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