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Trade, Travel & Faith

North of the modern town of Samarkand lies a grassy plateau called Afrasiab, the name of an evil ruler of the Iranian national epic, the 'Book of Kings'. This marks the site of the first city of Samarkand from its foundation in the 7th or 6th century BC to the Mongol invasion in the 13th century AD.

Samarkand lies at the heart of the Silk Road in the area once called Sogdiana. The merchants of the Sogdian city-states dominated trade on the Eastern Silk Road from the 3rd and 4th centuries AD onwards. Sogdians lived in market towns along the route all the way into China acting as local agents for their countrymen.

The Sogdians were originally Zoroastrians, worshipping at fire altars. Later some became Manichaeans and there were also Buddhist and Nestorian Christian communities. They converted to Islam after the Arab conquests from the late 7th century.

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A Kingdom of Remarkable Diversity

The kingdom of Khotan thrived through the first millennium AD. Yotkan, the site of its ancient capital, lies 10 kms west of the present-town of Khotan in western China. The founding legends of Khotan are all concerned with Buddhism, and the city's links with India and its thriving Buddhist society is attested by several Chinese monks who visited Khotan en route to India.

Khotan had a thriving paper industry, and also produced wool, rugs and fine silk. However, it was most famous for jade, brought down as river boulders, which was in constant demand by the Chinese for its hardness, beauty, and durability. It was probably jade that first made Khotan an important trading stop on the Southern Silk Road. Trade exposed Khotan to diverse influences and the art, manuscripts, terracottas, artefacts and coins found at its capital Yotkan and the town of Dandan-Uiliq, reveal a rich mix of cultures.

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Official & Religious Life

Dunhuang has a history of over two thousand years. Lying on the Dang River, which flows south and disappears into the Gobi desert, the town was established as a Chinese military garrison in the 2nd century BC. Defensive walls with watchtowers were built to its north. On the junction where the main Silk Road split into northern and southern branches around the Taklamakan desert to its west, Dunhuang grew and prospered.

In the 4th century an itinerant monk excavated a meditation cave in a cliff face south-east of the town. Others followed and by the 8th century there were over a thousand cave temples. One cave was used as a library and filled with manuscripts and paintings. It was sealed and hidden in about AD 1000 and its discovery in 1900 revealed an unrivalled source for knowledge of the official and religious life in this ancient Silk Road town.

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Settlements in the Desert

Stretching east of Khotan through the Taklamakan and Lop deserts was a string of oases belonging to the kingdom of Kroraina. They flourished in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. By the 7th century many had already met their demise and reverted to the desert, possibly because of climate change. In the extreme aridity of the Taklamakan desert climate, whole landscapes of abandoned towns and farmsteads with their vineyards and orchards still standing were swallowed up by drifting sand dunes. One of the best preserved of these oasis landscapes is the site of Niya.

Hundreds of wooden tablets written in the Gandhari language were found here. These everyday letters, administrative and legal records, and tax returns, along with the many items of everyday use discarded as the residents left, open an intimate window onto the realities of daily life along the southern Silk Road.

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War & Faith

Miran is situated where the Lop Nor desert meets the mountains on the southern Silk Road, between Niya and Dunhuang. Over two thousand years ago, a river irrigated the desert and the settlement developed as an early centre of Buddhism in the kingdom of Kroraina. Many monasteries and stupas were built, decorated with murals and sculptures.

After the 4th century, Kroraina declined and Miran was abandoned. It was not until the conquering Tibetian armies arrived in the mid-8th century that it was occupied again. Miran lay on a mountain pass over which the Tibetan armies crossed into Central Asia, and was an ideal location for them to establish a garrison. They built a substantial fort and the community of soldiers and their families restored the old irrigation system. This settlement remained there until after the Tibetan Empire crumbled in the mid-9th century.

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Death & the Afterlife

The Tarim Basin lies north-west of Dunhuang across the Gobi Desert. It is the second lowest place on earth with the Heavenly Mountains rising to its north. Meltwater, fertile soil and searing heat produce fine crops here, especially grapes.

From the 5th century the capital was at Gaochang, a large walled city. The area fell under the control of several nomadic powers before being conquered by the Chinese in 640. Two centuries later it was taken by the Uighurs, a confederation of Turkic tribes who called the capital Kocho.

The plain north of Gaochang, known as Astana, was used as a cemetery from the late 4th century. Almost all the manuscripts from the tombs are in Chinese, but Manichaean texts in Sogdian and Uighur and numerous Buddhist texts in various languages have been found in the ancient city itself.

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