Loulan Vanished in Sand
  • Sat, 01/15/2005 - 11:00

"What a wonderful place to stay this must have been," wrote the Swedish explorer Sven Hedin during his second visit to the ruins of Loulan, on the eastern outskirts of China's Taklamakan Desert in March 1901, seeing in his mind's eye the vanished town on the edge of Lake Lop Nor as it must have looked 22 centuries ago.

He had journeyed earlier to this desolate region in the heart of Asia to solve the riddle of the shifting Lop Nor, and unexpectedly stumbled on the ruins of Loulan, an oasis town founded in the second century B.C. that flourished for 800 years as the capital of the Shanshan kingdom, described in Chinese historical annals by visitors long ago, before it vanished into the sand.

The Tarim River gathers its water from the Kunlun Mountains in the south, the Pamirs in the west and the Tian Shan Mountains in the north, and flows in an eastward arc along the northern edges of the Taklamakan, an ancient inland sea, toward the salt marshes of Lop Nor.

In its lifetime, Loulan was situated on the north shore of Lop Nor. Then, in the fourth century, the Tarim River changed course and Lop Nor moved south into the desert. Loulan, a town on the Silk Road connecting China to Europe, was abandoned in the sixth century and slowly erased from the face of the Earth by centuries of blowing sand.

Chinese silk has been found in the Hallstatt tumulus in Saulgau, Germany, and in the Kerameikos graves of Athens, both of which date to the sixth century B.C. "The Silk Road" is a term coined by the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen in the 19th century. Silk must have begun traveling west soon after it was first produced by the Chinese of the Shang dynasty (1700 to 1100 B.C.).

The obstacles were formidable. To the southwest lay the Himalaya Mountains, highest in the world, and the Tibetan Plateau. To the west lay the world's second-largest desert, the Taklamakan. The northern steppes were controlled by hostile Mongols and Xiongnu.

This geographic and political reality channeled traders from central China along the Gansu corridor to the western extremity of the Great Wall and the oasis of Dunhuang. There, leaving the Chinese cultural sphere, traders began a 17-day trek across the waterless, treacherous Gobi Desert to the next oasis: Loulan, gateway to the Taklamakan.

Archaeologists have found the remains of several human settlements on the northern and western shores of the old Lop Nor. Intriguingly, they have discovered that Loulan and other oasis towns on the fringes of the Taklamakan once were inhabited by people who most closely resemble present-day Europeans.

In past decades, scores of naturally preserved, freeze-dried mummies with European features have been unearthed on the edges of the Taklamakan.

One of the most famous, known as "the Beauty of Kroran," was found by Chinese archaeologists in 1980 north of the old Lop Nor. Buried about 3,800 years ago, clad in a woolen shroud and leather boots, she was in a very good state of preservation. Her blondish-brown hair, about 12 inches long, was rolled up in a headdress made of felt over a woven base, and topped with two goose feathers. With her in the grave were a comb and a long, narrow straw basket.

In 139 B.C., the Chinese emperor Wudi dispatched his envoy Zhang Qian to seek an alliance with the Yuezhi people, who lived north of the Oxus River in present-day Uzbekistan. Sixteen years later, the envoy returned with news of the riches of Central Asia and "blood-sweating" horses, which the Chinese subsequently acquired to combat nomadic Xiongnu raiders in the north.

On his long journey, Zhang passed through Loulan, where he recorded 1,570 households, and 14,100 persons, of whom 2,912 were soldiers. The land was sandy and salty, and "the people accompany their herds of animals, following the water and grass. They have donkeys, horses and many camels. "

After Zhang's return, there were about 10 missions per year from the Han court to Central Asia, and, as traffic on the Silk Road grew, it became imperative for the Chinese to protect the route from the Xiongnu nomads.

The kingdom of Loulan was caught between the warring parties, and its king was obliged to send his sons as hostages to both the Xiongnu and the Chinese. In 77 B.C., at a banquet held in Loulan to greet the Chinese envoy Fu Jiezi, Chang Gui, the king of Loulan, was stabbed to death by the envoy's guards and his severed head was hung from the tower of the northern gate.

From then on, China asserted greater control over the area. It renamed the kingdom Shanshan, moved the capital to an area southwest of Loulan, and stationed a military commander there. In 55 B.C., Shanshan became a puppet kingdom of Han China.

At Loulan, Hedin, the Swedish explorer of a century ago, excavated the ruins of several houses, discovered a wooden tablet with Kharosthi script, an ancient alphabet used to write the north Indian Prakrit language, and documents of a Chinese official of the fourth century dealing with various deliveries and the rental of animals.

Hedin also found a wooden Buddhist sculpture that helped scholars understand the development of Buddhist niche styles in early Chinese Buddhist art.

In 1906 and 1914, Aurel Stein, a Hungarian-British adventurer, conducted excavations at Loulan. Among the many interesting objects he recovered was a small bale of yellow silk, a fragment of a wool pile carpet, and architectural wood carvings decorated in the Gandhara style.

Stein also investigated the remnants of the main site's defensive wall, a square with sides more than 1,000 feet long, about 20 feet wide at the base, made in the traditional Chinese method of packed earth mixed with reed straw.

In 1979 and 1980, a Chinese expedition collected 797 objects from the Loulan area, among them many Mesolithic stone tools, wooden vessels, bronze objects, jewelry and coins.

Within the remains of the town wall, the Chinese archaeologists discovered remnants of a man-made canal, 55 feet wide and 15 feet deep, running diagonally through the town from northwest to southeast. In the northeast corner of the town, the archeologists surveyed a stupa, a dome-shaped Buddhist shrine, of packed earth that rises 32 feet above the ground.

And in the southeast corner, the team again sifted through the remains of the Chinese official's residence, a three-room house measuring 41 by 28 feet, with sturdy wooden pillars.

Most recently, an expedition to the Loulan region in 2003 by the Xinjiang Archaeological Institute yielded some spectacular objects. The excavation was conducted 110 miles east of the Loulan ruins at the Xiaohe No. 5 burial ground, discovered in 1910 and first excavated by the Swedish archeologist Folke Bergman in 1934.

The burial ground, a large sand mound 115 feet by 245 feet and 25 feet high, is covered with 140 upright poplar logs and littered with many more logs that have fallen over.

Near the center of the mound, the archaeologists unearthed yet another spectacular mummy, naturally preserved through the centuries by the lucky combination of desert climate and freezing winters. The female corpse, found in a boat-shaped coffin, was wrapped in a wool blanket, with a felt hat on her head and leather shoes on her feet.

Although the body has largely disintegrated, her facial features are eerily intact. Among grave goods were ephedra sticks, a string bracelet with a hollow jade stone, a leather pouch and a woolen loincloth.

Another intriguing find was a wooden mask painted red with a rather grotesque nose protruding two inches from the face, and two large teeth. The mask is decorated with seven strings across the bridge of the nose and one string over the eyebrows.

In another boat-shaped coffin in the mound near that of the female corpse was a wooden human figure, also wrapped in a wool blanket, buried with a bow, arrows and a straw basket.

From Loulan, the oldest part of the Silk Road continues along the southern edge of the Taklamakan, where archeologists have found several other ghost towns and important sites called Miran, Charkhlik, Cherchen, Endere and Niya buried in the desert sands.

The distance from Loulan to Niya, the westernmost town of the Shanshan kingdom, is about 370 miles. To the west of Niya was the powerful kingdom of Khotan. As the Taklamakan Desert expanded and water became increasingly scarce, Niya was abandoned in much the same way as Loulan.

As silk and other precious objects traveled west, Buddhism, having spread to the Tarim Basin from Bactria in present-day Afghanistan about 2,000 years ago, traveled east, entering China through Loulan and Dunhuang. The ancient oasis towns on the fringes of the Taklamakan Desert have all yielded abundant archaeological evidence of a thriving Buddhist culture, with monasteries, temples, stupas, Buddhist scriptures, sculptures and art.

Travelers and Buddhist pilgrims in the region from that time reported that there were hundreds of monasteries and thousands of monks. In addition to the archaeological remains and the Chinese historical records, an important source of information regarding the Shanshan kingdom are documents in Prakrit, dated to the third and fourth centuries, discovered at Loulan, and above all Niya, where Stein discovered more than 700 documents.

Prakrit was an administrative language of the Kushan empire, established by the Yuezhi in Bactria to the west of the Pamir Mountains. In the second century B.C., the Yuezhi people had been driven out of the Gansu corridor by the Xiongnu, and were pushed west, where they established their capital north of the Oxus River.

From there, the Kushan conquered the Indo-Greek empire of Bactria, taking Kabul sometime after A.D. 25. The Kushan empire reached its height in the second century, when, some scholars think, it extended its influence into the Tarim Basin and eventually took control of the Shanshan kingdom.

Most Prakrit documents found in Loulan and Niya were written on rectangular wooden tablets, and deal with royal decrees, reports to high officials, personal correspondence, Buddhist affairs, sales contracts for land, slaves, and animals, verdicts and decisions, and various lists. From these inscriptions, scholars have been able to establish the names of five kings of this second Shanshan kingdom: Pepiya, Tajaka, Amgvaka, Mahiri and Vasmana.

From 1902 to 1914, the Berlin Ethnological Museum carried out several expeditions to the region north of the Taklamakan Desert, and took home documents in 17 languages, written in 24 scripts.

One of the languages was Tocharian. In 1908, the German scholars Emil Sieg and Wilhelm Siegling published the first successful grammatical analysis and translation of Tocharian, which was written in the north Indian Brahmi, the script also used to write Sanskrit. The Tocharian documents, mostly Buddhist writings, have been dated to the fifth to seventh centuries.

Interestingly, Tocharian is not as closely related to the neighboring Indo-European languages, Indo-Aryan and Iranian, as it is to western Indo-European languages such as Italic and Celtic and the southeastern branches of Indo-European: Thracian, Phrygian, Greek and Armenian.

The last document found at Loulan has been dated to A.D. 330.

According to the Chinese historian Li Jiangfeng, the final demise of Loulan was not caused by a sudden change in the course of the Tarim River, but by gradually diminishing water in the rivers that fed Lop Nor.

From Chinese and the Prakrit documents, we can see how the Loulan people's rations of black millet were gradually cut in half. Fees were imposed for water, and misuse of that vital resource was fined.

According to what may be one of the world's earliest environmental protection laws, the fine for cutting down a living tree was a horse. Finally, however, no political or economic wisdom could prevail against the forces of nature, and Loulan was buried in sand.

In an ironic postscript to the history of Loulan, the Tarim River again changed course in 1921, and Lop Nor returned to its northern position. When Hedin revisited the ruins of Loulan in 1928, the old town was again by the shore of Lop Nor.

After the Chinese Communist revolution in 1949, irrigated agriculture and cotton production expanded all along the Tarim River. Several reservoirs were built, and less and less water reached the river's terminal lake. By 1971, Lop Nor no longer existed and today, on satellite photos, the salt-encrusted lake bed it left behind has the intriguing appearance of a giant ear.

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