... it all depends on your perspective. I first read Peter Hopkirk's The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia
, which describes the collision of the British and Russian empires in Central Asia towards the end of the 19th century. The author focused on the efforts, dedication and yes, fool-heartiness of a coterie of adventurous men on both sides who believed it was their mission to "win" the area for their respective empires. "Foreign Devils on the Silk Road" was written a decade earlier; the region was similar: Central Asia, but the focus was a bit further east, in what was once called Chinese Turkmenistan, the Chinese "wild west." As Hopkirk says in his prologue, the book is primarily about six men, all, to one degree or another, adventurous, seeking fame, glory, wealth in varying proportions. The six were from six different countries: Sweden, Britain, Germany, France, United States and Japan.
The book commences with an excellent chapter on the "Silk Road" that once spanned Asia, from Sian, in China, all the way to Rome. Of course, there was more than one road through Central Asia. Legendary cities like Samarkand and Bokara were on it, as well as Balkh, in present day Afghanistan. The road went through Palmyra, in present day Syria, ending the overland portion at the Mediterranean ports of Antioch or Tyre. At the time it was utilized, it was not known by that name; rather it was a term coined in the 19th Century by the German scholar, Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen. The cities along the Silk Road, as well as China itself, achieved the apogee of glory and prosperity after Rome fell, during the Tang Dynasty (618-907).
Hopkirk is a master of his material, and tells the story with verve. He starts with Sven Hedin, a Swede, who sided with Germany in both World Wars, despite his partial Jewish heritage. Even though most of the six had links to museums, most archeologists today would be unlikely to honor any with the expression: "founding fathers of archeology." Mainly they came for the treasures, extracted them as expeditiously as possible, with reckless disregard to their provenance. The focus was on manuscripts and paintings that were light enough to be carried in camel caravans back to their museums. Naturally there were serious rivalries between the groups of adventurers, which Hopkirk aptly sums up by quoting Sir Mortimer Wheeler: "Archaeology is not a science, it is a vendetta."
The author also covers the familiar arguments of the time, that still resonate today, in essence: Does the British Museum have a right to retain the Elgin Marble frescos because if they had been left in their native country, they would have been destroyed? More relevantly, since the publication of this book, there was the example of the Taliban iconoclasts destroying the ancient Buddhist statues at Bamiyan. Hopkirk discusses Taliban "ancestors" who would deface human images if they were unearthed in archeological digs. The author does attempt to fairly present the many contradictions involved in the endeavor, since so many museums simply lack the space to properly display the treasures. Hopkirk says: "...one cannot help feeling that he merely dug them up in China only to see them buried again in Bloomsbury. There is a strong case, it could be argued, for a museum returning to the country of origin all antiquities - like these- which it has no prospect of putting on display."
Central Asia was once the ultimate symbol for remoteness: Shangri-La. Due to the efforts of primarily one man, now departed, many Western countries have had an intense interest in the region for more than a decade. This book provides a vital perspective on the antecedents. 5-stars.