Thursday, November 20, 2014
On The Silk Road with Pamela
The Asian Art Museum holds a monthly members' event called Tour, Talk and Tea. Last Saturday museum docent Pamela Fischer above gave a wonderfully helter-skelter tour of the museum's permanent collection illustrating centuries of porous east and west trade on the Silk Road of raw materials, finished goods, philosophies and religions.
The group was a bit grouchy at first because the event had been advertised as a tour of The Roads of Arabia exhibit rather than an improvised Silk Road. Pamela was also making them climb staircases, and wind through obscure doorways and exhibit rooms to arrive at the next treasure.
We started just off the main staircase with classic blue and white Chinese porcelain. Pamela announced that the blue was made with cobalt which wasn't mined in China but came from Persia thousands of miles away. The finished porcelains then became a luxury good in Western Asia, and Pamela noted that the best collection of this pottery can be found today in Istanbul.
Silk was not cultivated in the West until the 7th century when a couple of silkworm eggs were smuggled out of China to the Mediterranean. Bolts of silk became a form of currency, used to buy horses from Uzbekistan in the 4th century to equip a Chinese army. "Before that, all they had were Mongolian ponies," Pamela said.
The story of how Buddhism spread from northern India to the remainder of Asia is filled with all kinds of twists and turns. Tibet was once the center of a powerful empire that spread northward, and it could shut off Silk Road trade any time it desired. In the eighth century, the Tibetan king Songtsän Gampo was offered a Chinese Tang Dynasty princess, Wencheng, and a Nepalese princess, Bhrikuti, as tribute. Both princesses were Buddhists and soon their husband was too, followed by the entire empire.
The Seated Buddha above who looks like Gertrude Stein turns out to be the oldest dated Chinese Buddha sculpture in the world, from the year 338. The style came from the Pakistan/Afghanistan area when traders would wear small Buddha talismans as they traveled on the network of trails known as the Silk Road..
One of those traders is represented in the sculpture above, in a room devoted to precious "favorite things" found in Chinese tombs.
For Pamela, the exhibit room was a multicultural treasure chest of east and west influencing each other.
The final stop was the opening exhibit hall at the top of the museum where 4th century Buddhas stare out, looking remarkably like Western, specifically Hellenic, sculptures. The pieces were from the Afghanistan area, and Pamela reminded us that Alexander the Great had launched armies all the way to the Indus River and had left plenty of soldiers behind in those lands.
I walked out of the museum with my brain buzzing. If you'd like to join Pamela for a Roads of Arabia tour, her schedule is as follows: Tuesday, December 16th at 3:00, Tuesday, December 30th at noon, and Tuesday, Jan 13th at 3:00 PM.