Mystery at a crossroads of continents

Deep in the Syrian desert, Edan Corkill finds that goods traded along the fabled Silk Road more than a millennium ago may have reached as far as Japan's ancient capital of Nara

by Edan Corkill

By the time I reached the small town of Palmyra, way out in the middle of the Syrian desert, I had become somewhat accustomed to the ways of the locals.

“Tell him we traveled 9,000 km from Japan to see these very tombs,” I hollered at our guide with exaggerated agitation, “and we aren’t budging until he lets us in.” In Syria, I had learned, you don’t delicately edge into disagreement through insinuation, as you might in Japan. You dive in head first.

By this, the fifth day of our Syrian Tourism Ministry-sponsored press tour of the nation’s uniformly stunning historical sites, we had already negotiated several such “disagreements,” usually with success. Our guide and I had developed a kind of good cop-bad cop routine; I, oddly enough, was the bad cop. On this particular occasion, our adversary was a middle-aged man who had wandered out of his Bedouin- style tent, past his goats and his dust- covered motorbike, to tell us he wouldn’t let us into the tombs we sought to see because we didn’t have permission from the appropriate government authority.

The Tourism Ministry, it appeared, was inappropriate.

My claim that the tombs were the reason I had come to Syria was only a slight exaggeration. Palmyra’s Roman-period tombs were always going to be a highlight of the trip. Not only do they date from the second century A.D., but they had been excavated and restored by a Japanese team of archeologists in the 1990s. Also, they are described in the Lonely Planet guidebook as “superb,” and, what’s more, I knew that their heavy stone doors had once concealed several items that hinted at ancient trade with Asia — trade, that is, along the famed and fabled Silk Road.

And that’s what had really brought me to Syria. Long accustomed to seeing evidence in Japan of a Silk Road connection with the Middle East, what I wanted to see on this trip was the opposite: evidence in the Middle East of Silk Road exchange with Japan, or, at least, eastern Asia.

But judging from the state of negotiations with the man with the goats and dusty motorbike, I may have come so far — only to be going no further. Deciding on a change of tack, I bundled the other journalists out of the minivan and proceeded to lead them in a march in the direction of the tombs, which it seemed were about 50 meters away.

Around 2,000 years ago, when these particular tombs were constructed, this part of the world probably seemed further from Japan than the planet Mars does today.

Back then, it would have taken several years to make the journey across Asia. The most recent space probe got to the red planet in a few months. And, like present-day interplanetary travel, it would have been objects, not people, that made the odyssey.

The types of things that were passed, from trader to trader, along the routes between the Mediterranean Sea and the Pacific Ocean — from Syria, then on through present-day Iraq, Iran, northern India, China and, in some cases at least, to Japan by boat — were mostly small, light and durable.

Precious stones such as turquoise and lapis lazuli; dyed and woven products such as Chinese silk brocade; containers made of gold, silver or glass; mirrors in bronze; swords and armor; clothes, masks and musical instruments, paintings and artworks; spices and medicine: All were traded and gifted back and forth along those routes, according to one of Japan’s preeminent Silk Road specialists, the late Namio Egami.

Egami was the director of one of Japan’s largest-ever celebrations of the Silk Road, 1988′s “Silk Road Exposition, Nara,” a massive undertaking that was primarily sponsored by Nara Prefecture but also involved the cooperation of dozens of countries. The event’s specific inspiration was that the final “Japan leg” of the Silk Road was opened up at about the time Nara and the surrounding area was at the center of Japan’s political life: the Asuka Period (538-710) and the Nara Period (710-794). It was during those more than 2 1/2 centuries that Japan’s rulers first became interested in Buddhism and teachings from the mainland, with Empress Suiko (554-628) and her influential Prince Regent Shotoku (574-622) leading the way.

One of the earliest temples built in Japan to honor the new religion brought over from China was Horyuji, which was completed in 607 but may have been rebuilt after a fire in the eighth century.

The interior of the main hall of the temple located in the west of present-day Nara Prefecture is filled with all manner of murals, including one that depicts winged angel-like figures. Some scholars have noted that this mural has much in common with religious depictions that can be found on the Asian mainland, and even at the western extremities of the Silk Road.

However, a second, even more spectacular Buddhist monument was built around the same time — the massive, 15-meter-high statue of Buddha that to this day dominates a large hall completed in 752 at Todaiji Temple in Nara City.

On the occasion of the temple’s opening, a great number of gifts were brought from China. One of those, it is believed, may have been a cut-glass bowl about 10 cm in diameter and 8.5 cm high whose outer and inner surfaces feature a pattern of circular indentations that look as if they could have been made by pressing a small ball into the glass as it cooled.

Like most of the treasures brought over from China, the Haku Ruri no Wan (White Glass Bowl), as it is now known, was kept at Todaiji in a large wooden storeroom called the Shosoin. And despite the passing of more than a millennium, that’s where it remains to this day, only occasionally being brought out for conservation or exhibitions.

Mention the word “oasis” and most people are likely to imagine the stereotypical small clump of palm trees growing around a water source in the middle of a desert.

Well, strange as it may seem, that is pretty much what Palmyra is like. The “clump” of palm trees there covers about 400 hectares, but, when viewed as a panorama from above — as is possible from the nearby 17th-century hilltop castle Qala’at ibn Maan — then suddenly even those 400 hectares of greenery come to resemble a “small clump” in a very big desert indeed.

It was around the first century B.C., when present-day Syria was part of the Greek-influenced Seleucid Empire extending from the Mediterranean to the Indus, that the small settlement on the northern edge of this oasis developed into a stopping point for camel-caravan travelers crossing the Syrian desert. The town’s importance grew further when the Romans took over the region in the first century A.D.

The ruins of that ancient town remain to this day, and they are extraordinarily evocative. Even the most casual visitor is able to ascertain not only the size and scale of the old town, but its grandeur, too. There are giant arches, a semicircular theater that’s still largely intact, a huge temple that predates the Romans and, most strikingly, the remains of a series of giant columns that had lined what must have once been a beautiful colonnaded street just over a kilometer long.

Most of those structures are built using limestone, and many display indications of Palmyra’s ancient history as a caravan town. High reliefs depicting men leading camels laden with goods can be found easily on stone walls and at the bases of columns.

Palmyra thrived with Silk Road trade. As Egami notes in the catalog of “The Sea Route,” one of the exhibitions held for the 1988 “Silk Road Exposition, Nara”: “Most of the Chinese and Indian products were unloaded in Palmyra, while imported goods from the Mediterranean coastal cities stored in Palmyra were, in exchange, sent east.”

Taxes were extracted from traders, an army was built up to defend the trade routes surrounding the town and, gradually, Palmyra developed its own society of wealthy families. Egami explains that part of the belief systems of those families, who were descendents of nomadic equestrian tribes, was that when family members died they were regarded as “members of a holy family, and as a demigod or a hero who protects the tribe.” Hence, a short distance from their town, the Palmyrans built lavish underground tombs for their dead.

The two tombs that I wanted to see are located to the southeast of Palmyra’s oasis, and are named Tomb C and Tomb F — at least that’s what I knew them as. Those names were bestowed in the 1990s by a Japanese team of researchers led by Takayasu Higuchi, an archeologist now in his 90s who had then recently retired from a professorship at Kyoto University. A specialist in China and Afghanistan, Higuchi had participated in the “Silk Road Exposition, Nara” and, in the course of his research, had become interested in Syria.

Nara Prefecture agreed to fund continued research into Syria’s Silk Road connections after the Expo’s completion, and, in 1990, Higuchi departed for Palmyra armed with a variety of high-tech gear including a “georadar” with which he could detect subterranean structures. Within a year, Higuchi’s team had located five tombs, which they named A through E. In 1991, they began excavating Tomb A and Tomb C.

To their disappointment, Tomb A contained the bones of only five people and no artifacts. Tomb C yielded more, including the skeletal remains of 60 people, many identifiable by name. More important, however, was what they discovered in the process of excavating Tomb C: a sixth tomb, which Higuchi and his team labeled Tomb F.

It was to Tomb F that I and the other journalists had made our short march. The staircase leading down from the desert floor had been beautifully restored. Twenty-one deep steps led down five meters to a large door, above which was a carving of one of the Gorgons of Greek mythology, Medusa — snake-hair and all. There was also an inscription in Palmyran indicating the names of the occupants: Bwlh and Bwrp. Needless to say, the door was bolted safely shut.

And it looked like it would stay that way. Our Tourism Ministry guide had apparently been bureaucratically outflanked by the guy with the goats and dusty motorbike, and it looked ominously as if we wouldn’t be able to get inside.

Our guide had already told us that it wasn’t possible to open Tomb C to the public — “because it’s never opened.” That had already dealt us a disappointing blow because it was in Tomb C that Higuchi and his team discovered a particular relief carving depicting two winged goddesses hovering one each above either shoulder of a deceased Palmyran boy. The relief, according to a report made by the team, “reminds one of the painting of angels in the Main Hall of Japan’s Horyuji Temple.”

So near, yet so far, I thought. I would go home without seeing the carving that, at least some archeologists believe, links the tombs of Palmyra with the murals of a Japanese temple half a world away.

But things were looking a little more positive regarding Tomb F. Our guide came over to tell us that her persistence had paid off, and she had learned that the staff at the Palmyra Museum, in the modern-day settlement adjacent to the ruins, possessed their own set of keys to the tombs. They might be persuaded to let us in.

Off we headed, and, after the customary series of negotiations (more good cop-bad cop), we returned. This time we had a new passenger in our minivan — a mustachioed museum curator who was clasping the biggest key-ring, dangling the biggest set of keys, I had ever seen in my life. Several keys hung all the way to his knees as he plunged one into the waist-high padlock on the steel-and-plastic door protecting Tomb F from the elements.

That door opened to reveal behind it the original door, which consisted of a single slab of limestone. The curator unlocked it and then stepped back and beckoned for us to try to open it. One well-built journalist succeeded, but only after he’d summoned all the strength he had and shoved for about a minute.

Inside, the curator turned on some electric lights to reveal the tomb in all its splendor. We were confronted with a main chamber just under three meters wide and about 16 meters long. At the end was a sculptural representation of the tomb’s founder, reclining on a couch. On the walls to the side, there were two more carved sculptures depicting funerary couches, each bedecked with the figure of a lounging person. I first ducked to the right into a slightly smaller side chamber.

The walls there were lined with deep narrow slits into which bodies of the deceased could be placed head- or feet- first. Below several such stacks of slits were two large bean-shaped holes dug into the floor. “That is where they buried babies or fetuses,” said the Tourism Ministry guide, pointing down at the holes.

According to records of Higuchi’s work, when the tomb was first excavated, in the summer of 1994, the remains of 80 people were identified, including 14 babies.

Running around the edges of the floor were gutters, and near the door there was a small well. “They provided water for the dead from the well,” the guide said.

I ventured back to the main chamber, and looked closely at the two carvings depicting funerary couches on either side. It was these that I had come for.

In line with the custom of the Palmyran people, senior members of families were depicted in sculptures reclining like this on couches. Each was lying on their left side, propped up on their left elbow. In their left hands they each held a kind of bowl — a vessel that would have been of particular significance. While some of the bowls held by these long-dead men looked to have been made from precious metals such as gold, the patterns in some indicated they were made of cut-glass — the exact same kind of cut-glass seen in the Shosoin’s Haku Ruri no Wan glass bowl.

It was long believed that the bowl kept in the Shosoin originated from Gilan in present-day Iran, although a more recent study by academic and glassmaker Tsuneo Yoshimizu suggests it actually came from a region just south of Baghdad, now the capital of Iraq. Two millennia ago, of course, that would have been a relative stroll down the Silk Road from Palmyra.

To be precise, the kind of bowls held by the patriarchs depicted in Tomb F were probably not made of cut-glass. Their protruding bases seem to suggest they were made of some kind of metal, although depictions of bowls that clearly were made of glass — and bear a striking similarity to the Shosoin bowl — have been found in other tombs at Palmyra. Indeed, I later saw one such sculpture that had been relocated to the National Museum in Damascus.

It is those depictions that have led archeologists to postulate that when Shosoin’s Haku Ruri no Wan was made, glassware was being sent from where we now call Iraq in both directions along the Silk Road — westward toward Palmyra, the Mediterranean and beyond; and eastward toward India and China. A century or two later, the theory goes, one such bowl was taken from there on the final leg of the Silk Road — across the seas from mainland Asia, to Japan. There it was added to the Shosoin collection, possibly at the time that the Great Buddha was built in Nara. And there it remains to this day.

I stared at each of the men clasping their variously shaped bowls. Little did they know that these painstaking depictions of them and their possessions would, almost 2,000 years later, help researchers identify mysterious objects that had turned up on the other side of the world. And little did they know that on account of those depictions, one of their distant descendents, a goat-herder-cum-caretaker with a dusty motorbike, would have to deal with demanding visitors from abroad.

I’ll have to go and thank him, I thought to myself, as several of us hauled a cloth strap to pull the heavy door shut.