Sunday, 28 May 2017

The Bactrian Mirage: Iranian and Greek Interaction in Western Central Asia

The Bactrian Mirage: Iranian and Greek Interaction in Western Central Asia

(Edinburgh Studies in Ancient Persia)

Hardcover – 31 Jul 2018

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Head of Atargatis or Tyche with doves

Photo credit: Yale University Art Gallery
In the recently published volume 7 of the Journal of Inner Asian Art and Archaeology I came across this extremely beautiful Syrian limestone sculpture with the head of Atargatis or Tyche with doves
Dura-Europos (Syria)
Graeco-Roman or Parthian
On view
Ann Perkins, The Art of Dura-Europos, 1st ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973), 103–104, pl. 44, ill.
Susan B. Downey, The Excavations at Dura-Europos, Final Report III (Los Angeles: Insititue of Archaeology, University of California Los Angeles, 1977), 47–8, 172–180, no. 33, pl. 9, fig. 33.
Christa Bauchenss-Thüriedl, Erika Simon, and Ingrid Krauskopf, Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, 8 vols. (Zurich: Artemis, 1981–97), vol. 3, p. 356-57, no. 20; vol. 7, p. 156-57, no. 3, pl. 98.
Handbook of the Collections, exh. cat. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Art Gallery, 1992), 271, ill.
Jerome J. Pollitt, “An Obsession with Fortune,” Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin (1994): 23, no. 55, fig. 7.
“Catalogue of the Exhibition ‘An Obsession with Fortune: Tyche in Greek and Roman Art’,” Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin (1994): 116, no. 55, fig. 7.
Lisa R. Brody and Gail Hoffman, eds., Dura-Europos: Crossroads of Antiquity (Boston: McMullen Museum of Art, 2011), 351, no. 44, pl. 44.
Jennifer Chi and Sebastian Heath, eds., Edge of Empires: Pagans, Jews, and Christians at Roman Dura-Europos, exh. cat. (New York: Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, 2011), 53, no. 36, fig. 2–24.

Journal of Inner Asian Art and Archaeology 2012 

L. Russell-SmithJ. Lerner (eds.)

324 p., 200 b/w ill. + 58 colour ill., 216 x 280 mm, 2016ISBN: 978-2-503-54348-2Languages: English Paperback The publication is available.Retail price: EUR 69,00 excl. tax
How to order?

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Ancient Saraishyk settlement on the Silk Road to be reconstructed


ASTANA – The Kazakh Ministry of Culture and Sports has allocated 100 million tenge (US$319,400) for the first stage of reconstructing the ancient settlement of Saraishyk, reported Tengrinews on Apr. 3.
“After the construction work, where a dam will be installed in order to preserve the natural site of the settlement of Saraishyk, we will start restoration work. One hundred million tenge (US$319,400) was allocated for the restoration work; this is the first stage. Each year step by step, we will move forward,” said Minister of Culture and Sports Arystanbek Mukhamediuly.
Saraishyk is located on the right bank of the Ural River, 55 kilometres from modern Atyrau. The ancient settlement measures more than 100 hectares, according to archaeologists.
The biggest challenge for the work is the fact that most of the ancient settlement has been destroyed by the river’s floods and a modern Muslim cemetery with new burials was built on the surface.
Due to the change in the river channel, the shore washed up and the remains of the ancient city’s ruins were submerged, according to the ministry. As a result, structures have disappeared forever, taking valuable items with them. Each year, the Ural destroys about five-seven metres of the coast where Saraishyk is located. To solve the issue, 1.6 billion tenge (US$5.1 million) was allocated earlier from the Atyrau region local budget, according to Kazinform.
Mukhamediuly added the dam construction, which will protect the settlement, is almost half completed.
“About half of the works have already been done, despite the winter time. As soon as the construction works that are needed for restoration work are completed, we will start restoration work,” he said, adding that archaeological excavations will be carried out before the restoration to find the most significant parts of the ancient city.
“The excavations will be guided by academician Zeinolla Samashev. There is no need to cover the whole city with restoration work. Archaeologists should establish the main streets of the city, as well as where the central streets and the eastern and northern gates are,” he added.
Saraishyk is officially dated to the 13th-16th centuries. Based on the results of archaeological research, during its existence the city was an important trade and cultural centre on the Silk Road and its roads connected the East and West. This is evidenced by the numerous objects of everyday life discovered during the excavation, such as ceramic items decorated with various texts of Arabic script, as well as fragments of bowls made with Chinese porcelain and a large number of objects created from bone, iron and bronze. The rich numismatic material testifies to the development of active trade in the city.

Monday, 22 May 2017

Wu Zetian: The Secret History of China's Female Emperor Documentary

Wu Zetian  China's Forgotten Emperor 

The chances are you won’t have heard of Wu Zetian. But in her story Channel 4 has dug up one of those shards of history that still seems etched in vivid colours more than a millennium after it happened. In the late seventh century AD, Wu rose from being a teenage palace concubine to become the only woman across 3,000 years of history to rule China in her own right. How she did so is the subject of some dispute, because most subsequent historians painted her as a vicious monster, even prepared to smother her own infant child to frame a rival. But archaeological evidence also points to a strong, shrewd ruler who expanded her empire and dominated the economic and cultural superpower of her day. So what is the true picture? With access to priceless treasures from Wu Zetian's time, Secret History looks to set her record straight.

Tourism and development threaten ancient painted caves in western China

At the heart of the ancient Silk Road, on the edge of the Gobi Desert, lies a centuries-old place of pilgrimage: hundreds of caves hewn from a sandstone cliff, containing some of the most exquisite Buddhist frescoes and figures in the world.
Abandoned for centuries, the Mogao Grottoes somehow survived everything that nature and man could throw at them, including earthquakes, floods and sandstorms. Marauding Muslim rebels, plundering European explorers and White Russian soldiers all left their mark. Rampaging Red Guards were turned away at the height of China’s Cultural Revolution.

Pursuit of profit and hordes of visitors pose growing problem to fragile Buddhist wall paintings and sculptures in Mogao on the edge of the Gobi Desert

Today, the caves outside Dunhuang in western China enjoy a new stature, at the heart of China’s efforts to revitalise and rebuild the Silk Road as a testament to its growing power in Asia. They also stand as a symbol of Sino-American cooperation in China’s cultural preservation, thanks to pioneering work by the Getty Conservation Institute.
But the fragile wall paintings, some of which date to the 4th century and show stories from the Buddha’s life and visions of the afterlife, face another threat – from a new army of tourists and the lure of profit.

“In the past 100 years, most of the damage has been done by nature, but visits by more tourists will break the original balance inside the caves,” says Wang Xudong, president of Dunhuang Academy, which runs, preserves and restores the site. “Constant entrance and exit changes the temperature and humidity inside the caves. Human bodies also carry microorganisms, and if they start to grow inside the caves, it would be very scary.”

More than 1.1 million tourists visited the caves in 2015, a rise of 40 per cent in just a year and a roughly 20-fold jump in the past two decades.
The vast majority are Chinese, as the country’s growing wealth fuels a huge boom in domestic tourism and as interest is renewed in China’s Buddhist past.
With advice from Getty’s experts, the Dunhuang Academy initially tried to cap the number of tourists at 3,000 a day but later realised “that limit just would not stop people from coming”, Wang says. The limit was then raised to 6,000 a day, but demand regularly exceeds that in the peak July-to-October season.
To relieve the pressure, tourists are asked to register in advance and, before visiting the site, watch two 20-minute movies in a sweeping new visitors’ centre on the history of Dunhuang and the caves themselves.
Later, they are guided through a selection of the 40 caves that are open to the public, forbidden to take photographs in case their camera flash damages the frescoes.
Register too late, above the 6,000 cut-off, and you’ll miss the movies and get to see only four caves. By giving these latecomers “a very bad experience”, Wang says he hopes to encourage more people to come during the low season, when ticket prices are halved.

The question is whether Wang can stem the tide. Beside the visitors’ centre, nine miles from the caves, construction workers are building a privately funded tourist complex, including a theatre and hotels.
In the city of Dunhuang, a US$250 million conference centre and a bigger, 2,000-seat theatre are being built to house an annual Silk Road Cultural Expo. The large modern airport is being expanded, with a US$150 million upgrade.
“There is enormous commercial pressure,” says Neville Agnew, who has been visiting and working in the caves for 28 years for the Getty Conservation Institute. “The growth of the city of Dunhuang depends ultimately on the Mogao Grottoes. They are going to have their work cut out to control visitation, and, of course, I think you’d find many people who are interested in development of the region want more visitors.”
Yet there is also state-of-the-art restoration work going on here, thanks to a longstanding collaboration between the Dunhuang Academy, Getty and other foreign experts.
Painstakingly, the restorers start in each cave by taking hundreds of high-resolution photographs, in colour and black-and-white. Then the frescoes are examined to see what materials were used – and the causes of deterioration diagnosed – before experts decide on the best materials and methods to restore them.
Some of the paintings, rendered on a base of mud and grass, are partly detached from the rock face, and enormously vulnerable to humidity or earthquakes. Different kinds of grout were extensively tested before one was chosen to fill the gaps.

The project has produced guidelines that have been applied to other grottoes across China, as well as principles that have helped the country better manage its heritage sites. It has also spawned a major new exhibition at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles that runs until September and includes full-size replicas of three of the caves.

It is a much happier example of Sino-Western collaboration than the caves experienced a century ago. In 1907, Hungarian British archaeologist Aurel Stein persuaded a local monk to sell him 24 trunks packed with ancient Buddhist scriptures and five trunks of paintings, embroideries and other artworks that had only recently been discovered in a small walled-up cave. He paid the equivalent of £130.
French, Japanese and Russian explorers took thousands more priceless documents in subsequent years before American Langdon Warner showed up in 1923 to find the portable treasures gone. Determined not to leave empty-handed, he took some of the sculptures and used adhesive glue to rip a dozen paintings off the walls.
The official history calls them the “despicable treasure hunters”.


Others who weren’t seeking relics inflicted their own sorts of damage. In 1870, Muslim rebels turned up at the caves, burning down many of the wooden ladders that gave access. They may also have been responsible for scratching off the faces from some of the paintings.

In 1921, White Russian soldiers who had retreated into China during the war against the Bolsheviks were detained by the Chinese government and temporarily jailed in the caves. The damage from their fires, and their graffiti, is still visible in several caves.
But history was kinder during China’s Cultural Revolution, when, on orders from Premier Zhou Enlai, People’s Liberation Army soldiers and police were dispatched to protect the caves from gangs of Red Guards intent on destroying them.
Today, 735 caves remain, hewn from the cliff over a period of 1,000 years. Nearly 500 have paintings on the walls – undecorated caves were for meditation – while more than 2,000 sculptures have survived.
With partners all over the world, the Dunhuang Academy is working on a major digital archiving project, photographing the caves and everything that was once contained within them. Wang says more than 40,000 artworks or scriptures are scattered around the world but this is a way to unite them and preserve them forever.
“Of course, we hope that when the world truly becomes a big family, they can come back to Mogao caves and unite with the other relics here,” he says. “But reality is quite cruel sometimes. If we can get them back to the internet family through digitalisation, that is a target we can achieve for now.”

Sunday, 21 May 2017

British artist visits 16 lost libraries along the Silk Road in epic motorbike trip

Abigail Reynolds’ ‘Ruins of Time’ exhibition is the result of a five-month journey through 2,000 years and half the globe
South China Morning Post

Abigail Reynolds and I peer at each other through a two-way mirror – the kind police use to observe suspects in interrogation rooms. We’re in the BMW Lounge at Art Basel Hong Kong, at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, in Wan Chai. The space is brightly lit, so the glass works as a mirror and a window at the same time. Both of our faces are looking directly at me. I know, however, that we are standing opposite each other. As my brain scrambles to solve the visual puzzle, my face, reflected in the mirror, registers confusion. Reynolds is pleased.
“I like to create distortion and play with perspective. I’m really aware of that in my work with sculpture, and I make things that you perceive differently, as you change position.”
“Stelae I, 2016”, by Reynolds, in the BMW Lounge, at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, Wan Chai, in March. Picture: Jonathan Wong
The British artist is in Hong Kong to showcase her latest exhibition, “The Ruins of Time: Lost Libraries of the Silk Road”. The mirrors are set into Stelae, a sculptural form made of square grids broken down into geometric shapes, like latticework. This, and the other works on show, are the outcome of an epic set of journeys Reynolds made over five months to the sites of 16 lost libraries along the Silk Road. Shattered by natural disasters, destroyed by war or dis­mantled by competing rulers, the libraries span half the globe, and over 2,000 years of history.
The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan is a dazzling piece of historical writing

The two arms of Stelae stand at 90 degree angles, like an open book. “Lattice structures are a common feature,” says Reynolds. She explains that some ancient libraries contained papyrus scrolls, rather than books. “The papyri would have rolled off traditional shelves, so instead they were slotted into lattices, like bottles in a wine rack.” I ask where her fascination with libraries stems from.
“I have always loved them,” says Reynolds. “I was born in the UK in the 1970s, when the welfare state was alive and kicking and libraries were well supported. As a child, I was allowed to go to the library, on my own, every day after school. It was a freedom for me. The way I perceive libraries is that they’re a place that’s free to enter, where people’s voices travel through time.”
Reynolds with her Bolex camera at Pergamum, Turkey.
Reynolds is a member of a group fighting to save the library (one of many falling victim to austerity measures) near her home in the most westerly town in England – St Just, on the north coast of Cornwall.
“I’m a big fan of proper, democratic, non-commercial structures like libraries; I’m incensed by the lack of funding for them and I don’t understand why they aren’t more valued,” she says. “Can we really not stump up the relatively tiny amount of money that’s required to keep them running?”
Does her work have a political element?
Tourism and development threaten ancient painted caves in western China

“I planned the journey before Brexit,” says Reynolds. “Those developments really depressed me because it feels as if we are turning our backs on the march of progress. Since then, the work has taken on a political resonance. It felt important to be travelling, to visit Islamic countries, to meet people and think about the Silk Road and its story of connectivity and migration, and how people, books and knowledge travelled up and down it.”
The BMW Art Journey prize – of which Reynolds is the third recipient – was created to support emerging artists. A panel of judges selected three artists who were invited to submit proposals for their journeys.
“I hadn’t heard of the prize so the call came completely out of the blue,” says Reynolds. “I realised it was a chance to do something on a grand scale. With the support that was being offered, I could take more risks and be more adven­turous than I would ever dare to be on my own.”
Abigail Reynolds, in the BMW Lounge, at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, in Wan Chai. Picture: Jonathan Wong
Reynolds’ bid won by a unanimous vote. Two pieces of machinery were central to her plan.
“I wanted to travel by motorbike as much as possible,” she says. Reynolds commutes daily from her home to her studio, located in the seaside town and artistic hub of St Ives. “There’s very little car parking and I can’t bear crawling around looking for an available space.” So at the age of 40 she bought a motorbike and learned to ride it. “Initially it was just a solution to a transportation problem, but it quickly became this fantastic thing in my life. I absolutely love it. The journey to the studio has become as important as arriving there. I’ve got the high moor on one side, and the cliffs and sea on the other. It’s totally beautiful. And it’s very freeing – on the bike, I don’t have any encumbrances, and I can move through space fast, and I’m not dependent on other people. The motorbike has become closely attached to my sense of identity.”
The other piece of kit was a 1960s, 16mm, wind-up Bolex camera.
“I filmed at each library site, and I found that the camera helped me to simplify complex experiences,” she says. “The mechanical process of using it was very stabilising and gave structure to my work. I believe that creativity sometimes benefits from constraint. If you have all the possibilities in the world, it can be hard to know how to start. So I limited my options to this one piece of equipment.”
Reynolds filming at Pergamum, Turkey.
The camera, though, wasn’t an easy travelling companion. “It added an extra layer of physical arduousness to the trip,” she says. “I had to carry it everywhere, and it’s unbelievably heavy and lumpy. And it’s difficult to use. You have to load it in the dark and each spool gives only three minutes of footage.”
Would a digital camera have been more convenient? “Digital imagery is a whole load of babble and chatter; it’s too fast. I chose film because it’s slow, and it records glimmers and glimpses and captures the feeling of a place. When you watch the footage, you have to project yourself imaginatively.”
Film is sensitive to X-rays, which gave rise to another set of challenges.
Samarkand: the cultural crossroads of Central Asia that few people have heard of, and you’ll never forget

“I spent a lot of time weepily trying to hang onto it in airports,” says Reynolds. In Uzbekistan, gun-toting soldiers wrenched film from her hands and threw it under a scanner. On another occasion, she was stranded for six hours in the Kamchik Pass when the car she was travelling in broke down. The film, which must be kept cold, cooked in the scorching sun. “When I made my plans, I didn’t realise what I was setting myself up for,” she says. “It was more stressful than I can tell you.”
When she returned home, Reynolds developed and surveyed the film. The X-ray damage appears as a blue pulse, running through it. She realised it wasn’t a problem – in fact, it helped express what she wanted to communicate.
I was often bewildered and it frequently felt like I was moving through a cultural fog. There was a lack of clarity. You know that feeling when you’re a bit too drunk to get your key in the door? It was like that.
Abigail Reynolds
“The material registers where I went and what I experi­enced, and it mirrors the disintegration of many of the library sites,” she says.
Selected clips are playing on monitors at the Convention Centre exhibition. We watch one together. A large black circle wheels through the centre of the moving footage.
“When 16mm film is developed, the end of each roll is hole punched with a ‘sync mark’,” explains Reynolds. “I didn’t know about this until I had the film developed.” For her, the unexpected holes – dramatic negative spaces in the middle of the landscape – echoed the libraries that had been lost. So she took sections of the footage and punched a hole in every frame. “I wanted to convey an experience of blindness, because that was at the heart of my journey. I was travelling to arrive at places that aren’t there anymore.”
It makes for strangely compelling viewing. “The holes make the viewer focus on the film more intently,” she says. “It heightens our sense of what is left and what has been lost forever. What remains becomes very precious.”
Reynolds filming at the entrance to Cave 17 at the Mogao Caves complex, Dunhuang, China.
To me, the hole recalls a total eclipse of the sun – perhaps the most fundamental of absences.
As well as filming, Reynolds wrote extensively, in diary form, to help capture and make sense of her experiences. She writes beautifully, describing landscapes and structures with an artist’s eye for texture and detail. She conveys feelings of disorientation and recounts relationships – sometimes harmonious, sometimes fraught – with the English-speaking locals employed to act as her guides in various countries, exploring how those interactions strengthen or soothe the emotional intensity of the journey.
Travelling solo, as a woman, and encountering unfamiliar places and cultures, was gruelling at times.
“I was often bewildered and it frequently felt like I was moving through a cultural fog. There was a lack of clarity. You know that feeling when you’re a bit too drunk to get your key in the door? It was like that. I couldn’t read the road signs, I couldn’t speak the language, I couldn’t interpret peoples’ body language. It was very isolating and created a sense of disembodiment – like I was floating.”
In some places, her presence attracted more attention than she was comfortable with.
Hong Kong adventurer takes on China’s ‘desert of death’

“I have such a European face that even in a hijab, I stand out like a sore thumb. Usually I like to go under the radar. I dress unobtrusively because I prefer being able to do my own thing and make my observations unobserved.”
But the clear definition of the project helped her to stay focused.
“At each destination my mission was simply to find the site where the library used to stand. Nothing else. Often I couldn’t locate it precisely, or couldn’t access the actual site. But I tried to get as close as possible, and to stay for as long as I could, to experience it fully.”
The motorbike also helped to combat the feeling of being lost in space.
“I’m a very physical, practical person, and on a motorbike, I know who I am and I feel like myself,” says Reynolds. “It kept me grounded in a very literal way."

Click on the map to see the 16 sites in 14 locations Abigail Reynolds visited

Map based on one in Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World
The oldest lost library on the Silk Road, Xianyang Palace Library was founded in 350BC by Qin Shi Huang – the first emperor to rule a unified China, and head of the Qin dynasty, from which China derives its name. When his empire toppled, the library and its holdings were burned. The scholars and readers who used the library were buried alive. All that remains today is a barren plot of wasteland.
“It was incredibly difficult to locate the library. The tourist bureau claimed the site didn’t exist and my guide tried to persuade me to visit the terracotta army instead. I did eventually find a small museum on the site of the palace, which is close to the airport. It was miserable and totally neglected. There was a dusty, crumbling model of the palace, some faded photographs and a pot that had been scrawled with indelible marker pen. The site outside has fallen apart, and the old brick pathways are broken up with tree roots. But I found a plaque with the palace’s name on it, and some earthworks that looked as if they had supported the palace walls.”
During the Tang dynasty, around AD837, the Analects of Confucius were carved on large, upright stones and mounted at the roadside, so the public could read them. Around AD900 the city shrank in size and the stone books were abandoned in the wilderness outside the city wall. On being rediscovered, in the 10th century, they were removed to a Confucian temple within the new city wall, where they remain.
Abigail Reynolds filming at the Forest of Stone Stelae, Xian, China.
“The Confucian temple feels much more like a library than a religious building. It’s a very tranquil space. The first room contains a stone library of the ancient Confucian texts. These stelae create a wall, which is dark and vast and forbidding. In other rooms, the stelae date much later and are very ornate. They are prized for the quality of the calligraphy, rather than the text itself. Many of them stand on the backs of ornately carved stone turtles, which have shiny heads because people have been petting them for hundreds of years. The writing is an old form of Chinese. I spent a long time trying to capture the characters on film.”
Reynolds filming in the desert surrounding Dunhuang.
In 1900, a smoker in the Mogao caves, near the oasis town of Dunhuang, observed his cigarette’s fumes disappearing through a crack in the wall. The wall was removed to reveal a cave that contained an extraordinary library. It housed 50,000 documents, dating from the 5th to the 11th centuries. Among them was the Diamond Sutra – the world’s earliest dated book printed on paper. The texts, which encompass religion, history, literature, astronomy and astrology, are written in Chinese, Tibetan, Uygur, Mongolian and Hebrew, and a number of extinct languages, including Sanskrit, Khotanese, Tangut and Kuchean.
“This is the single most celebrated lost library in the world. Long corridors, decorated with beautifully painted murals, open into huge Buddhist cave temples. The library was hidden in the entrance to Cave 16 and is out of bounds to visitors. I stood outside it for three days and, eventually, the director arranged for it to be unlocked, out of hours. To enter, I had to crawl through a doorway at waist height. All that remains inside are some modest wall paintings and one white statue of Buddha, but breaching that barrier was an Alice in Wonderland moment for me.”
The Hast Imam Library contains just one book – the Uthman Koran, the oldest Koran in the world. It was written shortly after the death of the Prophet Mohammed in Kufic, the oldest Arabic script. Around 500 years later, the Central Asian Emperor Timur (also known as Tamerlaine) defeated the Ottomans in present-day Iraq and took the Uthman Koran, as a trophy, back to his splendid capital in Samarkand. There it stayed until the 19th century, when the occupying Russians transferred it to the Imperial Library in St Petersburg. In 1924, Lenin returned it to Uzbekistan, where it has remained ever since.
Hast Imam Library, Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
“The Uthman Koran isn’t a lost library and is not the reason I went to Uzbekistan. The book’s story isn’t clear – when history goes back this far, the narrative threads get twisted. But what’s known is that it was used as a political pawn. Throughout history, books have been seized and added to different libraries because of their immense cultural significance and financial value. The Koran is huge. You’d need two people to carry it. Each page is larger than A1. Each letter is 10cm long. The parchment, made of calfskin, is so old and brittle and yellow, the pages look like a pile of poppadoms. The giant letters, traced with a split bamboo using ink made from charcoal, are beautiful.”
Nishapur was a key city on the Silk Road, and wealthy until it was sacked by Oghuz Turks in the 12th cen­tury, in revenge for the killing of Genghis Khan’s son-in-law. The entire population was slaughtered.
Reynolds in Iran.
“Very little archaeological excavation has been done here, and the exposed walls of the Palace of Happiness are mere stumps of muddy brick. Local children enjoy riding their trail bikes up and down them.
“I found Iran confusing and challenging. As a woman, I had to have my head covered at all times in public, and wear a long coat that reached half way to my knees. My phone didn’t pick up a signal other than Wi-fi. I couldn’t ride a motorbike but I could drive a car.The year starts mid-March, not January. The weekends are on Thursday and Friday. And they start their common era when the Prophet Mohammed was 40, about 600 years after our year zero. More than any other nation I have visited, the Iranians want you to love their country. They are exceptionally proud of it, and they desire to share its magnificence with you. Women and girls of all ages wanted to talk to me, and a photograph with me was often requested.”
Reynolds filming at Ephesus library in Turkey.
Western Turkey is home to three historically important lost libraries, Ephesus, Nysa and Pergamum – from which we get the word “parchment”. Built by wealthy patrons during the second century AD, at the height of the Roman Empire, they served the community.
“I was very excited to go to the Roman libraries. Until that point on the trip, I’d been looking at cultures I didn’t understand. But in Turkey, I was re-engaging with my own cultural history. I love Roman and Greek mythology. Of the three, Nysa is the least well-known, but was the most magical. It’s the only library I went to that has an intact reading room. It’s located in an olive grove in a silent, remote valley of the River Maeander, whose winding course gives us the word ‘meander’. The building is a ruin, but the niches that the papyri scrolls once occupied are still there in the walls. The library, in common with all Roman libraries, had a Latin section and a Greek section.”
Reynolds standing in a niche at Nysa library.
Founded in 58BC, the library was destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD79. Its collection of scrolls was carbonised by the intense heat and buried under 30 metres of ash. The villa was not discovered until 1752. Since then, more than 1,800 papyri – crushed into stubs and fused around their umbilical sticks – have been retrieved. They would disintegrate if unrolled but new X-ray technology may allow researchers to see inside the scrolls without damaging them.
Replica skeletons in the position that the bodies were found after the volcanic flow in AD79, in Herculaneum, Italy.
“The story of Herculaneum was the main catalyst for my journey. I heard a radio report about a group of academics who had petitioned the Italian government to fund continued excavation at the villa. At least one library room has not been unearthed and is thought to contain the lost Greek tragedies. I assumed that arranging a visit would be relatively easy, because the site’s in Europe. But it turned out to be the hardest and most frustrating experience of all. After six months, I finally received a reply, and the answer was no. My final attempt was to simply walk there, but the area is walled off, and I couldn’t get near. Nothing is happening at the villa because no one is funding the research. The papyri are not valued as they should be.”
Established by Napoleon Bonaparte, the Institute of Egypt sits at the edge of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the heart of civil unrest during the Arab spring. It was destroyed on December 17, 2011, during clashes between the military and protestors. Volunteers and staff salvaged what they could. Of a total of 200,000 volumes, 30,000 were saved.
Institute Of Egypt, Cairo.
“Egypt is not strictly on the Silk Road but I went there because it was too dangerous to visit the libraries in Syria and Iraq that are currently being lost. Cairo was the closest I could get to experiencing the modern-day destruction of a library. I was told that under no circumstances was I to get my camera out. But I’d come all that way, and I couldn’t contemplate not attempting to film. Almost as soon as I started, there was shouting and a man snatched the camera out of my hands and took off down the road with it. I followed him through a series of courtyards. There were men with guns and dogs on leashes. We arrived at a government military building and I waited on a chair for two hours. There was lots of gesticulating and shouting. I was frightened because I couldn’t read the situation. I didn’t know if I would be detained; I didn’t know how badly they perceived my ‘crime’. Sometimes the guards stood right next to me, which felt threatening. And then, without explanation, they just gave me the camera and let me go.”
Also visited by Reynolds
 Baisikou Pagoda, Yinchuan (lost 1970)
 Hidden Libraries of Tehran (libraries hidden during the revolution in Iran, 1979)
 Khanate of Kokand (Qu’qon) Palace Library (Lost 1876)
 Ulpian Library, Rome (lost around AD600)
 The Cairo Genizeh (dispersed 1900)
 The Ancient Library of Alexandria (lost 393BC)