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Silk Road explorer finds rest in Kabul

KABUL, Afghanistan – If there was ever one "foreign devil" on the Silk Road who most fascinates amateur history buffs, it must be Sir Marc Aurel Stein.

The Hungarian-born British archaeologist's career sparked an obsession of mine – and no doubt of countless others – with the history of the Silk Road, a series of trade routes linking China to the Mediterranean.

So upon hearing Stein was buried in Kabul, I made a beeline for his gravesite as soon as I arrived here.

Image: The British Cemetery sits on a dusty road in central Kabul.
Adrienne Mong / NBC News
The British Cemetery sits on a dusty road in central Kabul.

A race for ancient artifacts

Born in 1862, an era when archaeologists could still raise funds for lavish expeditions and gallivant about the globe, Stein single-handedly put the Silk Road back on the map, as it were, with a series of incredible discoveries in his later life. 

The fruits of his excavations and scholarship shed new light on the region by tracing the original trading routes along the Silk Road and, most importantly, documenting the spread of Buddhism from India to China.

Inspired by the Chinese Buddhist monk Xuan Zang, who traveled to what are now known as India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan during the 7th century, Stein conducted four major expeditions in Chinese Turkestan as well as countless other surveys and digs elsewhere in Asia and the Middle East.

But it was the first two voyages to Chinese Turkestan (now western China) that would secure his place in the pantheon of great explorers.

Stein undertook his first expedition in May 1900, setting out for the Taklamakan Desert, described by the Chinese as "a place in which you enter but never leave." 

During his two-year journey, Stein unearthed numerous invaluable Buddhist paintings and sculptures, Sanskrit texts, and some of the oldest Tibetan Buddhist manuscripts ever known.  Among the most compelling finds were wooden tablets dating from the year 105 A.D. and written in an early Indian script.

His finds – which ended up in dozens of museums across the world – sparked a fever for Silk Road treasures, pitting archaeologists from around the world against one another in a decades-long quest for ancient Buddhist riches.

Stein endeavored to lead his next expedition to Afghanistan, which had fascinated him from a very early age when he first learned about ancient Bactria and Alexander the Great's Eastern Campaign. But his application to explore Afghanistan was denied. So Stein turned back to Chinese Turkestan, this time using a different route, determined to cover as much new ground as possible. 

The second expedition garnered him even greater fame around the world but also ill repute in China. Stein wound up near Dunhuang to investigate the largely forgotten "Caves of a Thousand Buddhas," some 400 grottoes carved out of rock and decorated with lush paintings and sculptures. A hapless monk, Abbott Wong, was the gatekeeper for the caves as well as an enormous library of thousands of precious manuscripts and silk paintings in various languages such as Chinese, Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Turkic from the 9th-10th centuries. Among them was the world's oldest example of a printed book – a copy of the Diamond Sutra from 868 A.D.

Steeped in Oriental and Eastern religious scholarship, Stein immediately recognized the library's value. "Owing to the great size of many silk pictures, the delicacy of the material and other reasons, only a portion of these could be opened up and examined on the spot," wrote Stein in a report after the expedition. "But this examination has sufficed to prove that their importance to the study of early Buddhist pictorial art in China is quite as great if not greater than that of the frescoes of 'The Thousand Buddhas.'"
In an act that today raises questions of morality, Stein took possession of tens of thousands of manuscripts by flattering, cajoling, deceiving, and bribing the abbott.  In fact, he procured them "for a sum which will make our friends at the [British Museum] chuckle," wrote Stein in a letter to a friend.

Image: Sir Aurel Stein's final resting place.
Adrienne Mong / NBC News
Sir Aurel Stein's final resting place in the British Cemetery in Kabul.

Imperial archaeologist or protector of heritage?

Most of the items are now housed in the British Museum, the British Library, or the National Museum in New Delhi. Not surprisingly, Stein's loot earned him the wrath of Chinese authorities, who branded him a plunderer and a thief. In fact, China soon after tried to ban foreign excavations of all their ancient sites.

Today, Stein could be accused of imperial archaeology, but biographer Annabel Walker makes the case that the explorer believed "if objects were at risk in their original locations, they must be moved to a place where they were available to scholars."

Indeed, many people today inside and outside of China believe Stein did a good thing by carting off his discoveries back to Europe. In the decades of political and social upheaval that followed his expeditions to Chinese Turkestan, China lost untold numbers of great cultural riches, particularly in that last political spasm known as the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when Red Guards ransacked museums and destroyed and defaced monuments and sites across the nation.

Moreover, in addition to uncovering manuscripts and other historical artifacts that scholars are still learning from today, the archaeologist was an unparalleled explorer. "Stein's contributions to our geographical knowledge of many parts of Asia were unsurpassed," according to the Handbook to the Collections of Sir Aurel Stein in the UK (2008) edited by Helen Wang and John Perkins.  

In one region alone, he surveyed nearly 50,000 square miles. Two of his journeys alone covered almost 25,000 miles. His assistance in mapping the region invariably made him a key player in the Great Game, the struggle among Britain, Russia, and France for supremacy in the region from the late 19th century to the early 20th century.

Kabul, at last

Despite his legendary finds in Central Asia, however, Stein was still missing one piece of the geographical puzzle – Afghanistan.

Forty-one years after his first unsuccessful application to explore Afghanistan, Stein was finally granted permission to travel to Kabul in 1943.  In October that year, he set eyes on the Afghan capital for the first time in his life, only to contract bronchitis and then die within the week – a month shy of his 82nd birthday.

On a dusty road, behind a great stone wall and two wooden doors, lies the British Cemetery.  It's a lovely oasis meticulously tended to by an Afghan couple. Dozens of tombstones litter the lush green lawn, their owners reflecting the great panoply of nationalities that have converged in Afghanistan: British, Polish, South African, Chinese, American, Swiss, French, German, and so on.

To the far side of the cemetery, under a tree, I finally found Stein's tombstone:

"Marc Aurel Stein
Of the Indian Archaeological Survey
Scholar Explorer Author
By His Arduous Journeys In
India China Turkistan Persia and Iraq
He Enlarged the Bounds of Knowledge
Born at Budapest 26 November 1862
He Became An English Citizen in 1904
He Died at Kabul 26 October 1943
A Man Greatly Beloved"

It seems a cruel ending for someone who labored for so long to explore Afghanistan.

But, even on the doorstep of death, Stein was gracious about the incredible access he had enjoyed to Central Asia. "I have had a wonderful life," he told a friend. "And it could not be concluded more happily than in Afghanistan, which I have wanted to visit for 60 years."