The Ancient Silk Road is Alive in Berlin

by Stefan Härtel

Silk Road Studies in Berlin

Between 1902 and 1914, four archaeological expeditions were arranged by the Berliner Völkerkundemuseum to the Oasis of Turfan in Xinjang, China. Along with many treasures of art and archaeology, the expeditions, led by Albert Grünwedel and Albert von Le Coq, brought some 40,000 manuscript fragments to Berlin. These so-called Turfan Fragments date between the 4th and 14th centuries and were written in a number of languages, some of which had previously been unknown. For the decades to come, scholars deciphered fragments in Middle Iranian languages such as Middle Persian, Parthian, Sogdian and Saka, in the Turkic Old Uyghur, and in other languages such as Sanskrit, Mongolian and Tibetan. They were also astonished to discover the completely unknown Tocharian language. The texts proved to be an invaluable source for the history of the ancient Silk Road and Central Asia. Many of the texts are stored in the Museum für Asiatische Kunst and the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin. The Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities is home to the project Turfanforschung, where currently Iranists and Turkologists are editing 13,000 fragments written in Middle Iranian and Old Turkic languages. Berlin has therefore been a hot spot for Silk Road studies for over a century now, and there could thus hardly be a better host to a summer school entitled “Languages and Cultures of the Silk Road” than the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

Languages and Cultures of the Silk Road

Nicholas Sims-Williams explained the Rhythmic Law in Sogdian | photo: © Stefan Härtel

Participants of the summer school took two-week courses in Old Turkic and Sogdian by Ayşe Kılıç Cengiz and Alisher Begmatov respectively. These classes were complemented by afternoon presentations by experts of Turfanforschung on Old Turkic and Middle Iranian linguistics and the mysterious Tocharian language, an Indo-European language known to us only from manuscript fragments from Central Asia. Specialists further explained the Sogdian Rhythmic Law and the difficulties of Uyghur lexicography.

Much attention was paid to the various scripts in which the manuscripts were written. Leading scholars explained the many complexities and pitfalls of reading a Turfan fragment, why Orkhon Runes are not actually runes, and how Brahmī made its way from the Indian subcontinent to Central Asia. Participants now know why Iranists and Turkologists would sometimes read the same manuscript horizontally and vertically respectively, and how three different derivatives of the Syriac script were used to write Christian, Manichaean and Buddhist texts in the Sogdian language.

Peter Zieme talked about Old Turkic religion | photo: © Stefan Härtel

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Tufan studies is that this one oasis was home to such a myriad of religions and cultures, each with their own languages and writing system. Before Islam became the dominant religion there, communities of Buddhists, Manichaeans and Christians lived alongside adherents to the Old Turkic faith of Teŋrism. These religions are a main focus of Turfan studies. Some afternoon lectures were devoted to the religion of the Old Turks, to Manichaeism, and to the daily lives of the people of Turfan. Participants learned about the information contained within Old Uyghur administrative documents and were baffled by the intricacies of Manichaean imagery both in texts and paintings.

It’s all about the Manuscripts

Participants came face-to-face with selected Turfan Fragments | © Stefan Härtel

One of the particular highlights of the summer school was an exhibition of selected manuscript fragments from the Berlin collection. These were carefully chosen to represent the entire scope of languages, scripts, material and content of the Turfan fragments. Participants marvelled at Sanskrit and Tibetan texts on birch bark, a leaf from a Parthian Manichaean paper codex, a wooden tablet written in Tumshuqese Saka in Brahmī script, Old Uyghur contracts and medical texts, and a fragment from a Šābuhragān manuscript in Middle Persian, a text composed by the prophet Mani himself.

The exhibition was complemented by lectures about the difficult task of the physical preservation of the manuscripts and the question of how they are appropriately stored and catalogued. Even German history is reflected in the collection, as the fragments had to be brought to safety during the Second World War and, just like Berlin and all of Germany, were divided into two collections housed in East and West Berlin after the war, and reunified after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

A Marketplace of Ideas

The participants of the Summer School with Prof. Dr. Abdurishid Yakup, Research Coordinator of Turfanforschung (second from right) | photo: © Stefan Härtel

Participants of the Summer School came from Europe, Asia and North America, and from various research backgrounds. Some were philologists, others were historians, archaeologists or art historians. Before, during and after the lectures, they had many opportunities to exchange ideas and viewpoints about the subjects they were studying and form personal bonds. The intellectual input of the summer school was stimulating, and many interesting and surprising perspectives were offered by teachers and students alike. The Einstein-Saal of the academy turned into a marketplace of ideas in which people from diverse geographical and cultural backgrounds met and returned home with new treasures of knowledge. For two weeks, it was as if the ancient Silk Road itself had materialised in Berlin.

The possibility for a follow-up to the 2019 summer school has been discussed. If you were to participate, what would you want to learn about?


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