Silk Road in Rare Books

Narratives on cultural heritage along Silk Road with figures and photographs from rare books.

An Overview of the Silk Road: Time, Space and Themes

The Silk Road in the Digital Space

The Silk Road in Rare Books is a series of ten articles that have been compiled based on the rare books contained in the Digital Silk Road archives (See the list of articles in the table of contents on the right). In this introductory article, we take a look at the overall history of the Silk Road in terms of time, space and themes.

Beginning from the viewpoint of “Time,” we start by tracing the several thousand-year history of the Silk Road from ancient to modern times. We next examine the Silk Road in terms of “Space,” following the main routes which formed these long-distance overland trade roads from east to west. Finally, we take up several notable Silk Road events to explore the history of the Silk Road in terms of themes.

The Digital Silk Road is an attempt to take a fresh look at the scholarly achievements of those archaeologists, art historians and adventurers of the past. In doing so, we seek to look again at the important documents that these scholars left behind, and by digitally archiving them, make these valuable resources more accessible. It is our belief that the documents will serve as a significant resource through which people will be able to utilize from their own individual points of view, and in this way come to create new understandings and interpretations of Silk Road history and culture.

The documents contained in the digital Silk Road archives were compiled in great part by explorers from the nineteenth to the twentieth century (09) who risked their lives to travel over the then-obscure regions along Silk Road in order to make their valuable discoveries. It is our hope that in the future, explorers can travel in this digital world, and in doing so, they too can excavate all kinds of important information buried in the archives. Containing endless possibilities for producing new images of the Silk Road, it is possible that future digital explorers will then go on to share their findings will many others via the Internet; in this way preserving and passing down these valuable resources to posterity.

The Silk Road “Time”

1. Prehistoric Central Asia

Many things remain clouded in mystery regarding the ancient history of Central Asia. However, it is thought that agriculture started in the Tarīm Basin around 4000 BC. Studies undertaken on the Tocharian language (an extinct Indo-European language) suggest that Indo-European peoples first arrived from West Asia moving into the Tarīm Basin around 2000 to 1000 BC (06). Mummies found in Loulan (in the Xiao He Grave site (小河墓) (06), which are estimated to be 3,800 years old, show distinctly Caucasian features, and we therefore know that at one time Central Asia was home to Indo-European people.

2. The Dawn of the Silk Road

Our earliest records of Central Asian history come from Chinese records documenting various Chinese inroads into the e region, as well as recording tribute received from Central Asian nations. . The earliest records appear in the of the Early Han period, under the reign of the Emperor Wudi (141 BC-87 BC). It was under Emperor Wudi that the imperial envoy Zhang Qian (02) made his legendary journey through Central Asia and his reports are contained in such Chinese documents as “Accounts of Ferghana” (in Records of the Grand Historian); Dynastyand “Geographical Accounts of the Western Area” (in History of the Han Dynasty). Although the purpose of his journey was solely political, the information about Central Asia which he brought back was significant in helping to open up trade routes between east and west.

Emperor Wudi, using the knowledge brought back by Zhang Qian, pressed ahead with aggressive military campaigns in Central Asia, sending great generals such as Wei Qing and Huo Qubing to fight against the nomadic Xiongnu (Huns). In 121 BC, he succeeded in expelling the Xiongnu from the Tarīm Basin, and then in 102 BC, he invaded Ferghana in order to extend his control over neighboring countries in the region. The Tarim Basin, home to the important east-west trade routes, as well as being the sole place where superior horses could be obtained, held unending appeal for the Early Han Dynasty emperors. This was especially so concerning Han control of Ferghana, the home of the legendary “Blood Sweating Horses.” (For more on the history of the time and the legendary blood-sweating horses see Digital Silk Road’s “The Horses of the Steppe: The Mongolian Horse and the Blood-Sweating Stallions”) For about 100 years, the Early Han controlled the trade routes passing through Central Asia. It was around this time as well that the Kingdom of Loulan became a puppet state of the Chinese Han, thereby changing their name to Shan-shan in 77 BC (06).

The Han control over Central Asia, however, was loosened for approximately 60 years when Wang Mang usurped the throne and established his Xin Dynasty. Chinese control of the region resumed once again during the Later Han Dynasty, under Emperor Mingdi (57-75 AD). General Ban Chao (a younger brother of Ban Gu, the author of History of the Han Dynasty) ruled the region in a peaceful manner for many long years. During this time, the countries of Central Asia were reduced to subservient status with some under direct Han rule-- and then later Wei and Western Jin rule—and with others retaining their independence but made to pay tribute to the Chinese court. . Of the two different historical periods represented in the ruins found in Mīran (07), the older ruins (date of origin unknown up to end of the third century) were built and abandoned during this period.


Resulting from the political turmoil which occurred at the end of the Western Jin Dynasty, China was divided into north and south, in what is known as the Southern and Northern Dynasties period (420-589). In the north, Chinese and non-Chinese steppe peoples (known collective as the Wu Hu—or five non-Chinese nomadic tribes), established the short-lived Sixteen Kingdoms. Some of these tribes attempted to extend their power over Central Asia, intending to gain control of the trade routes in the region . In the famous “Li Bo Document(1) (in 328) (06) found at Loulan, we learn that the later Liang Dynasty had gained control of the region. During this period, as mainland China fell into political disarray and conflict, the main east-west trade route through the Hexi Corridor became insecure. The Tuyuhun tribe exploited this situation to make forays into the lucrative east-west trade using another route through the Qinghai region during the fourth to the seventh centuries (07).

The period of the Northern and Southern dynasties was also a time when many Buddhist priests immigrated to China from Central Asia. The period saw the flowering of Buddhist culture in Central Asia, and it was in this period that much of the great cave temple art was created in the region. The Kizil Caves (04), for example, were constructed starting in the the late third or the fifth century and the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang (05) in the second half of the fourth century.

3. The Tang Protectorate over Central Asia

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With the reunification of northern and southern China under the Sui Dynasty, east-west trade in Central Asia achieved unprecedented prosperity. This prosperity was further increased under the Tang Dynasty which came to control a vast area of Central Asia (having overthrown the Qu-shi Gaochang Kingdom (498-640) in Turfan in 640 in addition to its subjugation of other countries in the region). The Tang installed a Protectorate General of Anxi to serve as the base for the management of trade in Central Asia. It also established a Protectorate General of Beiting in 702 to prepare against attacks from Turkish tribes based in the Dzungarian Basin to the north of the Tian Shan mountains.

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Tang Dynasty influence over Central Asia can be seen in the antiquities found in the ancient cemetery of Astāna, to the north of Kara-Khōja (Sketch Plan of Kara-Khōja by Grünwedel(2), Sketch Plan of Kara-Khōja by Stein(3)), at the Ancient Cemetery of Astāna(4). These antiquities showing a clear Tang influence include Clay Figures(5) and Silk Paintings(6). In addition, Chinese-style Wall Paintings(8) can be found in the Kumtura Thousand Buddha Caves(7) as well.

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Tang power over the area quickly waned after its defeat against the Arab Abbasid Caliphate at the Battle of Talas in 751. This devastating defeat was then followed by the chaos within China following the the aftermath of the An Shi Rebellion from 755 to 763. With China in chaos, in 786, the Tibetan Tubo Kingdom (07) seized the Hexi Corridor (05). Occupying both the Protectorate Generals of Anxi and Beiting, they therein expelled the Tang from Central Asia. The second period ruins of the Mīran site (07) is that of a Tibetan fort. The ruins of Dandān-Uiliq (near Khōtan (03)) were of a city also deserted at the time of Tang withdraw from Central Asia and the desertion of the city is thought to be linked with the end of Tang power in the region.

4. Turkic-Islamification of Central Asia


At the end of the eighth century, Uighurs (01, 08), originally inhabitants of the Mongolian Plateau (02) migrated south into the Turfan basin where they establisged their Uighur Empire. The Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves(9) (01) were built by Uighurs between the ninth and the tenth century. At Kara-Khōja, for example, banners portraying Uighur donors (01) have been excavated.

During the tenth century, the Turkish Karakhanid Dynasty conquered a large area of Central Asia not including Turfan. These two Turkic Kingdoms, the Uighur Kingdom and the Karakhanid Dynasty, brought the Turkic language into Central Asia—thereby replacing the Aryan people and their languages. At the same time, there was an increased mixing between peoples, which further contributed to the Turkification of the region. In addition, because the Karakhanid Dynasty was Islamic, this contributed to the Islamification of Central Asia (Muhammadan Tombs in Tumshuk(10), Ruin of Muhammadan Tomb in Khara-Khoto(11)). Such was the extent of these influences that the region came to be known as Turkestan, which literally means “the Land of the Turkic peoples” (08).

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During Song dynasty times in China, the Tangut people established their Western Xia Dynasty (1032-1227) in the northwestern part of China. This powerful state came to control the Hexi Corridor during this period. Fervently Buddhist, the Western Xia constructed new cave temples at the Mogao Caves at Dunhuang , in addition to repairing the older ones which had been built there much earlier. The famous Library Cave (Cangjing-dong, Cave 17) (05), where a great number of manuscripts and paintings were famously found in 1900 was walled up for some reason during the Western Xia period. The Tanguts of the Western Xia also built the city of Khara-Khoto (08) at the point on the Silk Road where two routes (the east-west route connecting outer Mongolia to the Tian Shan and the north-south route connecting the Oasis cities of Jiuquan and Zhangye along Hexi Corridor) come together.

5. The Twilight of the Silk Road

Around the time that Central Asia was becoming both Islamified and dominated by Turkic peoples, the world was seeing great changes in systems governing the movement of goods. In the northern part of Central Asia, for example, a route running east- west through the steppe, which had long been an insignificantly small trade route grew greatly in importance. Maritime trade, something which had long been monopolized by Islamic merchants, gained in significance as well. The discovery of new sea routes by Europeans became the decisive factor in reducing the importance of Central Asia for trade. With these new routes for moving goods, Central Asia slowly lost its significance and later fell into oblivion.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, with its former prosperity long gone, Central Asia once again began to attract attention. This time, though, it attracted attention as a geographical vacuum, luring explorers from all over the world (09).

The Silk Road “Space”

1. Mountains, Deserts, and Trade Routes

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Located in the center of the Eurasia Continent, Central Asia geographically stands as a bridge between east and west. A region of tremendous extremes, Central Asia extends over a vast dry zone composed of the world’s largest mountains and most desolate deserts. Because of its incredibly challenging terrain, human settlements and trade routes were built between oasis towns just like drawing dot-to-dots on a line.


Known as “the Roof of the World”, the Pamir Mountain range is made up of mountains with an average height of 3,500 to 4,500 meters (Map(12), Muztagh-Ata(13) of 7433 meters high). To the east of these mountains spreads the Tarīm Basin. In the middle of the basin is the Taklamakan Desert, with the Tian Shan Mountains(14) to the north, and the Kunlun Mountains(15) to the south. Oasis routes have long served travelers crossing these towering mountain ranges.


Among these routes, the route running along the northern foothills of the Tianshan Mountains is called the Northern -Tianshan Circuit, while the one running along the southern foothills is called the Southern -Tianshan Circuit. This latter route then divides once again to skirt the the Taklamakan Desert, and these two routes north and south of the Taklamakan desert are the Northern and Southern Routes of the Silk Road. Most of the ruin sites lie along these two routes.

2. The Northern Route of the Silk Road


There are two population centers located on the Northern Route of the Silk Road: Turfan to the northeast (01) and Kucha in the center (04). Turfan, which is located in a bowl-shaped basin separate from the Tarīm Basin, has its lowest elevation at 154 meters below sea level. This area flourished not only as a strategic point on the North Route of the Silk Road, but also for its location at a significant transportation crossroads where one could travel along the Northern -Tianshan Circuit, or into Mongolia, and Dzungaria, all areas where nomadic peoples lived. The geographical proximity to China made it easy to bring Chinese culture into this area (Painted Image of Chinese Mythological Gods of Fuxi and Nvwa from Astāna Cemetery(16)). The later Cheshi Kingdom was located at Yār-khoto during the Early Han Period and then in later times, the city of Gaochang (Kara-Khōja) prospered in this area around Turfan

Kucha was situated almost in the center of the Northern Route and in former times was known as Qiuci (亀玆国). In 658, the Protectorate General of Anxi was established there, making Kucha an important base for trade in Central Asia. The notable Buddhist priest Kumārajīva (04 was from this area and introduced Mahayana Buddhism to East Asia during the Sixteenth Kingdoms Period.

3. The Southern Route of the Silk Road

The Southern Route is divided into Khōtan district (03) to the west and the Lop district (06) to the east. The most important oasis city on the Southern Route was the ancient Buddhist kingdom of Khōtan. The oasis city of Khōtan stood on a fertile plain sandwiched between the Yurungkash or White Jade River and the Karakash or Black Jade River, both rivers originating in the heights of the Kunlun Mountains. As suggested by their names, the rivers are well known for their quality jade which is found along the river beds. The jade produced in Khōtan was traded widely across the world from prehistoric times. It has been discovered from as far away as China in the east to Iran, Iraq and Egypt in the west. Located in proximity to India across the Karakorum Range, Khōtan had long been influenced by Indian Buddhist culture right down till the time it was conquered by the Karakhanid Dynasty in the early eleventh century. Dandān-Uiliq (03) are Buddhist ruins found to the northeast of Khōtan in the Taklamakan Desert.

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The Lop district located on the east part of the Route is famous for the ruins of Loulan (06) and Mīran (07). This district is also known as the Lop Desert. The “Wandering Lake,” Lop Nor, was once located in this area, and the landscape is characterized by its unusually-shaped hills called Mesas (small hills)(17) and Yardangs (table-like hills)(18) which were created by wind erosion so that only the hard layers remain. Because soil salt levels were so high, agricultural cultivatation was impossible in the area. According to the History of the Han, Loulan depended on neighboring countries for food even during its heyday.

4. Hexi Corridor

The Hexi Corridor is located in the northwestern part of China and is a historical route leading to the Tarīm Basin. The route is sandwiched between the Qilian Mountains, (a mountain range on the northern edge of the Tibetan Plateau), and the Gobi Desert (on the southeastern edge of Mongolia). Connecting China in the east with Central Asia in the west, the route was dotted with oasis towns and was a main artery for the east-west trade. From the very early days of the Silk Road during the Han DynastyHan Period, Chinese people began to colonize this area. Dunhuang (05) was the westernmost Chinese city at that time, and north of Dunhuang the remains of the Han-built section of the Great Wall still remains.

The Hexi Corridor now is part of Gansu Province. The origin of the province’s name comes from Ganzhou (present Zhangye) and Suzhou (present Jiuquan). From each province runs a river: the Ganzhou River (or Zhangye River) and the Beida River. Running north, both rivers flow into the Etsin-Gol River (or Juyan River). This area has long been a route for those traveling from Mongolia to the Hexi Corridor. At the end of the route on the side of Etsin-Gol, was the city of Juyan (09), which was established as a base for Chinese colonization during the Han Period. During the Western Xia Period, the city of Khara-Khoto (08) was established here as well.

Silk Road “Themes”

1. Ruins

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In addition to the flourishing of east-west trade, Central Asia was also a region through which Buddhism was transmitted eastward from India in to China. From the tenth century, Islam became the dominant religion in Central Asia, but until that time, it was Buddhist religion, philosophy and art which flourished there under the influence of India, Iran (former Persia), and China.

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[Buddhist Cave Temples] We find many Buddhist cave temples in the region which were carved out of cliffs by Buddhist artists and monks. These cave temples in the Kucha area include the Kizil Grottoes (04), the Kumtura Grottoes, the Kizilgaha Grottoes, the Sim-Sim Cave, and the Shikchin Thousand Buddha Caves (Floor Plan(19), Wall Paintings(20)).

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In the Turfan region, there are the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves (01) and Toyuku Caves (Floor Plan(21), Distant View(22)).

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Along the Hexi Corridor, we find the Mogao Grottoes (05) in Dunhuang (which are the largest and the most famous), and the Yulin Grottoes in Anxi (Distant View(23), Interior of a Cave(24), which also displays the Present View) many wall paintings and stucco sculptures made between the Early Tang and Western Xia Period.

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[Buddhist Temple Remains] On the Northern Route, there are various temple ruins including, Shorchuk (Panoramic View(25), Wall Painting(26), Standing Image of Bodhisattva(27), Seated Buddha(28)), Tumshuq, Chotscho (Kara-Khōja) (01), and Yār-Khoto (Sketch Plan(30), Photo(31)), Murtuk.

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On the Southern Route, there are the ruins found at Yōtkan (03), Dandān-Uiliq (03), Rawak (Plan of Ruined Vihāra(33), Relief Sculptures of Buddhas(34)), Head of Buddha(35)), Endere Fort(36), Lou-lan (06), Mīran (07), and Khara-Khoto (08).

2. Ancient Documents

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[Ancient Languages] Central Asia is a treasure trove of documents in ancient languages. In Kucha on the Northern Route, experts have found documents in the Tokharian B (West Tocharian, or Kuchean) language. In Loulan (06), Niya (Detailed Map of Niya Site(37), Ruined House(38)), and Khōtan on the Southern Route, archaeologists have discovered Chinese documents which tell us about Chinese control over this area, along with documents in Indo-European languages like Kharoshthi (Documents on Rectangular Tablets(39), Documents on Double-Wedge Tablets(40)), Brāhmī and Khōtanese.

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The Dunhuang Manuscripts (09) discovered at the Library Cave (05) in the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang have been particularly historically significant. These documents include those written in Chinese, Khōtanese, Kuchean, Turkish, Uighur, Tibetan, Turkish Runic, Sogdian(41) and Gupta scripts. In Khara-Khoto, documents in the Western Xia language created originally by the Tanguts have been discovered (08).

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[Manichaeism] Manichaeism is a syncretic religion which originated in the Persia during the Sassanian Dynasty. As the Sassanian Empire flourished, the religion also saw its influence spread east. Introduced into the Tarīm Basin, many Manichaeism relics have been uncovered (Miniature with Uighur Scripture from Kara-Khōja(42), Manichaean Khuastuanift Text in Turkish from Dunhuang(43)).

3. Deserts

While the harsh climate caused bythe desert sands and the dry climate created tremendous challenges for to inhabitants or travelers in Central Asia (09), these same conditions made for a highly favorable environment for preserving historic objects such as ancient houses, temples, tombs, and documents. Dandān-Uiliq (03) in the Taklamakan Desert and Loulan (06) in the Lop Desert are some typical examples.

It is thought that Central Asia once had had huge inland seas full of water, but that these waters gradually dried up as time passed. It was climate change which caused the Tarim Basin’s largest lake, Lop Nor (06), to shift its location through fluctuations in the movement of the rivers flowing into it. Once known as the “Salty Lake” by ancient Chinese in the Han Dynasty, it later came to be known as the “Wandering Lake.” Not far from the lake, the ancient city of Khara-Khoto (08) was built during Western Xia Period and was continuously inhabited and even expanded up until the Yuan dynasty. The reason why the city was eventually abandoned is thought to be linked with the aridness that plagued the entire Central Asia.

To Learn More

English Edition : 2008-03-07
English Revised Edition : 2010-04-14
Japanese Edition : 2005-12-10
Author : Makiko Onishi, Asanobu Kitamoto
Translator : Yasuhiro Itami ; English adaptation by Leanne Ogasawara

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