Jonathan Holslag On world order and disorder

Hitting the Silk Road in Amsterdam

AMSTERDAM – he Silk Road is popular again, both as a result of growing cultural fascination with Asia and political fascination with the economic opportunities of consumer markets in the West. The Chinese President recently came to Amsterdam and other European capitals to urge for the development of a new trade corridor between the two ends of the Eurasia; the Hermitage museum opened an entrancing exhibition to celebrate the historical cross-pollination between East and West.

Entering the main room, one wanders between blurred celebrations of both spiritual sensitivity and military bravery. A very rare pranidhi wall painting from Turfan, in today’s Chinese Xinjiang, comes first, showing a number of bodhisattvas vowing to strive towards enlightenment. Other wall paintings displayed are no less impressive than the ones found in Pompeii: elephant riding goddesses fighting fanged lion-like creatures, amazons fighting, and so forth. Most of them originate from temples or residences in ancient cities like Varakshka and Panjakent, reviving the opulence that must have characterized these places.

The next part of the exhibition invites the visitor to explore the Silk Road from the West or the East. One gets the impression that, as far as trade concerns, the corridors tended to be more off a one-way street. What came from the East is very clear: silk, gems, lacquer, and other luxury goods. European exports seemed largely confined to some Roman glass and lots of silver and gold. This is probably what instigated writers like Livy to complain about unbalanced Eastern trade draining the Roman treasure. It is also a rather humbling experience to see Western merchants being depicted by polychrome wooden sculptures like rather primitive creatures or even a smirking monkey in garb.

Silkroad 1


In comparison, the splendour from the East is startling, starting with a beautiful silk kaftan from the 9th century, the meticulously crafted silver works from Sogdan, a piece of nicely ornamented mirror from the Chinese Tang Dynasty, a gilded dish with a semurv, jade pedants, and so forth. Once again, the silks are remarkable. I had not imagined that silk banners, damask, and paintings from over 1,900 years old could have preserved their refinement and colour so well. Interesting is that China’s silk industry boom drew from other places: weaving techniques from Central Asia, special techniques for petal flowers from the Near East, and Indian dying techniques.

The further East one ventures on this trail, the more spiritual it becomes. I was impressed by the wall paintings of bodhisattvas from Bezelik: sensual, mystique, and with nice patches of green and terracotta. That was also true for three clay sculptures of Bodhisattvas and Buddhist pupils: timeless almost in their contemplation. Especially the Ananda seemed to embody the whole idea of Buddhism in just one cast of twigs, straw, and clay. That the lure of the East was huge shows a 9th century ink painting of a Western pilgrim from the Dunhuang caves, carrying manuscript scrolls on his back and accompanied by a tiger to protect him during his travels.

More silk paintings follow of mandala, displaying the different ends of the earth and nine segments, depicting the sun, man, woman, planets, zodiacs, and so forth. The planets also return in individual paintings: Yuebo, the strange warrior; the planet moon, an elegant enchantress; and the planet Jupiter and the planet Saturn, two wise men. Just from an aesthetic perspective, this collection is exceptionally rich.

It draws from 13 different Russian excavations, assembling over 250 unique pieces. It successfully revives the splendour of the vanished Silk Road cities – from Mongolia and India to the eastern Mediterranean. There is not much of an original story behind it, no specific angle to look at the Silk Road and the societies that it connected, no new archaeological revelations or insights. In light of today’s world affairs, however, it is curious to be confronted with the seemingly junior role of Europe. That one better remains on his guard against premature conclusions about strength and weakness, is aptly depicted in a small corner of one of the mural paintings from Sogdinia: two men bend over the remains of a tiger, ready to collect them, but suddenly finding themselves being pounced by the resurrected animal…

The Allard Pierson Museum could never have expected that its exhibition on the Crimea would become the focus of a dramatic political tussle. Drawing from many museums on the Crimea, the question became whether some of the pieces had to return to Ukraine or to Russia: not to its newly gained district on the Black Sea, but even to one of Russia’s own museums. “The Hermitage in Saint Petersburg thinks it is safer to administer the Crimea collection,” I heard the museum director confiding, “But it is probably playing political games.”

Silkroad 3The exhibition itself does not display the spectacular, large mural paintings and silk paintings that are in the Hermitage’s Silk Road project. It also concentrates on an earlier part of history, roughly between the 7th century BC and the 7th century AD. But it does have several remarkable objects and the focus is similar: as a geographic crossroads the Crimea was influenced deeply by the exchanges between East and West.

From the West came the Greek traders, driven by their need for wheat and Black Sea fish. They brought architectonic sophistication to the settlements in the Crimea, religion, and gold – lots of gold, here displayed in numerous refined artefacts, clasps, helmets, swords, jewellery, and so forth. From Italy, a tasteful and curious little dolphin in crystal and gold is presented. And there is even a bit of China, in the form of lacquer boxes that were unearthed from a Scythian grave. Almost 2,000 years old, they are, the westernmost find of Chinese lacquer in the world and meticulously reconstructed by two Japanese lacquer masters. In Scythian rings, we discern gems, imported from places as distant as Sri Lanka. Perhaps the most symbolic expression of this cultural interbreeding was a gravestone with on the one side classic Greek motives and the other Asian symbols.

  • avatar Martijn van Hamond says:

    Hi Jonathan,

    I’m very curious how you judge the book from Peter Frankopan “The silk roads”.

    Love to hear your comments!

    KR, Martijn van Hamond

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