Stein, a brilliant archeologist of Hungarian origin, uncovered and brought
to light some of the ancient cities along the Silk Road, some of which
were earlier identified by Sven Hedin. Along with a succession of seven
fox terriers -- all named Dash -- he traveled over 25,000 miles,
collecting artifacts that have made their way to museums around the world.
Prague, Czech Republic
-- One morning in late October 1943, a procession consisting of
representatives of the king of Afghanistan, his foreign minister, British,
American, and Iraqi ministers, and the Iranian ambassador, moved slowly
toward the outskirts of Kabul carrying the remains of Sir Aurel Stein,
whom one newspaper described as "the greatest explorer of our time," to
his final resting place.
RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier visited the gravesite of Aurel Stein
during a recent trip to Kabul. "The grave of legendary Central Asian
explorer and doyen of Central Asian archeologists Aurel Stein lies in a
nearly forgotten mud-walled Christian cemetery in Kabul," he said.
"He died in 1943, a week after finally arriving in Kabul at the age of 82,
while he was planning yet another foray in search of Central Asia's
forgotten past. His grave sits under the trees among the graves of British
soldiers who fell during the Afghan wars and tourists who came to
Afghanistan in the time of relative safety, after World War II and prior
to the Soviet invasion of 1979. A large marble slab covers the grave,
noting that there is buried Aurel Stein, a Hungarian by birth who became a
British citizen, and one of the legendary figures of Central Asian
At an early age in his native Hungary, Stein became fascinated with the
travels of the Buddhist pilgrim Hsuan-Tsang, who traveled between 627-643
and whose account provides the first reliable information of the countries
along the Silk Road. The Silk Road was a collection of routes across
Central Asia which connected China and the Far East with the Mediterranean
and the Far West. It opened in the 2nd century BC under the Han Dynasty.
"Religions, languages, arts, fruits, tools, empires and plagues all
crossed Eurasia along the Silk Road," Stein wrote in one of his
narratives. "Strange civilizations, hybrids of India and Persia, of China
and the Hellenistic world, of Turkic, Tibetan and now-extinct
Indo-European tribes, arose along its path."
During a career that spanned almost six decades, Stein pioneered the Silk
Road and made three separate expeditions to Chinese Turkestan and other
parts of Central Asia and Afghanistan.
Accompanied only by a small fox terrier named Dash -- a total of seven fox
terriers, all named Dash, served him over the years -- Stein traveled a
total of 25,000 miles, over freezing Himalayan passes and across scorching
deserts. With the support of the British and Indian governments, he traced
the ancient caravan routes, oversaw the excavation of numerous
archaeological sites, and documented the spread of Buddhism from India to
China. His finds filled whole rooms in London's British Museum and Delhi's
Stein was a scholar, but he turned himself into a "remarkably driven and
self-contained man of action," as he was described in a book review. He
constantly attempted to obtain permission to explore Afghanistan,
particularly at Balkh, where he hoped to uncover remains of ancient
Bactria. "My hope of reaching Bactria made me take to Oriental studies,
brought me to England and India, gave me my dearest friends and chances of
fruitful work," he wrote in a letter.
In his first expedition in 1900, Stein traveled through the Taklamakan
Desert, uncovering Buddhist paintings and sculptures and Sanskrit texts.
As a result of this trip, other countries recognized the wealth of the
Silk Road and the race for ancient Buddhist treasures started. The
artifacts that he excavated found their way to more than 30 museums across
Europe, America, Russia, and East Asia.
Stein's second expedition charted the sites of Lou-lan, identified earlier
by Sven Hedin, and Tun-huang. Outside of Tun-huang, Stein excavated in the
Caves of the Thousand Buddhas and brought out thousands of manuscripts
written in Chinese, Sanskrit, Sogdian, Tibetan, Runic Turkic, and Uighur.
Among those was the oldest example of a printed book, a copy of the
Buddhist work, the Diamond Sutra from 863 AD, which is now one of the
British Library's prized possessions.
Professor Uli Schamiloglu, a professor and historian at the University of
Wisconsin, explained the significance of that find: "Aurel Stein is
perhaps the best-known explorer of Central Asia in part because of the
tremendous historical importance of his discoveries. He was the person who
did not find Tun-huang, but he found in the place they call the Temple of
the Thousand Buddhas troves of manuscripts in lots of different languages
and lots of different alphabets, and basically there are whole fields of
scholarship in the study of ancient China and the history of Buddhism in
Central Asia that all rely upon the manuscript discoveries that Stein made
in 1907 in Tun-huang, including things like the oldest printed book known,
the Diamond Sutra -- very, very important discoveries in the history of
In his final expedition, Stein revisited Tun-huang and took more documents
from the cave of the temples. He also uncovered a cemetery in the Turfan
region, and unearthed some of the silks encasing the corpses. These as
well as the earliest known printed book are artifacts that Stein brought
back and are now part of an important collection at the British Museum.
However, the items on display in London represent only a fraction of what
he brought back. According to Annabel Walker in her biography of Sir Aurel
Stein published in 1995, most of the materials have been stored in the
basements of the museum.
However, Carol Michaelson, curator of the Asian department of the British
Museum, denied this claim. "The majority of the masterpieces of the 3-D
collection are on display in the Khotan Gallery of Chinese antiquities in
the British Museum," Michaelson said. "What is not on display, but have
certainly been unpacked -- not in boxes -- is the light-sensitive material
that includes all the textiles and all the famous Chinese paintings
because we have windows on both sides of the Khotan Gallery. We are not
able to display any light-sensitive material there."
The historian Owen Lattimore described Stein as "the most prodigious
combination of scholar, explorer, archeologist and geographer" of his era.
Professor Daniel Waugh, a specialist on medieval Russia, Central Asia, and
the Caucasus at the University of Washington in Seattle, agrees with
"Aurel Stein was many things. He was a mapper for one thing, although he
himself didn't do the mapping. His Indian assistants were actually the
ones who did the mapping. His maps, however, the maps that his expeditions
compiled, contributed very much to the survey of India mapping project
which extended beyond India up into Central Asia," Waugh said.
Concening Stein's archeological pursuits, Waugh said: "Stein is most
important as an archeologist, and he was the one who really systematically
explored so many of the imperial sites along the ancient Silk Road. And
even though his techniques perhaps don't match up to modern standards of
archaeology, there was of course nobody at the time who could match the
modern standards, you know. I think that his archeological contributions
But the Chinese thought differently. To them, Stein was an imperialist
villain who systematically robbed them of their history. "He has been very
much criticized by the Chinese for stealing their archeological treasures,
including a great horde of manuscripts and paintings from the famous
Buddhist cave site at Tun-huang in Western China. But I think one can
argue that had Stein not taken them away for safekeeping in London and
Delhi, that probably many of them would not have survived to this day,"
The Chinese denied any further excavations of their ancient,
treasure-laden sites, although Stein's expeditions were praised by both
the British and Indian governments. In the eyes of the Chinese, Stein and
other foreign archeologists robbed China of its history. However, during
the 20th century many of the sites Stein visited were destroyed through
wars and upheavals that continued through the 1970s. As Waugh observed,
had Stein not saved them, perhaps these valuable treasures would have been
destroyed as well.
whether there have been requests from the Chinese to return any of the
materials, British Museum curator Carol Michaelson answered: "We have had
no formal requests from the Chinese government to return any of the
Tun-huang material. What we have been requested to do and we would very
much like to do is to send a loan exhibition of some of the Tun-huang
paintings to China, and that is under consideration at the moment."