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Information Highway: Camel Speed but Exotic Links

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Published: November 12, 2009

“You are about to make an unusual journey,” a wall label proclaims at the beginning of an exhibition that opens on Saturday at the American Museum of Natural History. Normally that promise would provide reason enough to be wary. But this is something different.
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Michael Falco for The New York Times

Traveling the Silk Road A caravan of life-size camel models greets visitors in an exhibition opening on Saturday at the American Museum of Natural History. More Photos »

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You are welcomed by life-size camels laden with worn canvas sacks, their bodies framed by sand dunes stretching into the distance. A while later, near a 17-foot-long wooden Chinese loom, you find bowls filled with mulberry leaves on which scores of white worms are gnawing. You see, too, what kind of cocoons they soon will weave, and how these sacs might then be boiled and unwound into silk threads. And later still, you seem to arrive in an outdoor market in evening as the sounds of footfalls and animal cries mix with the murmur of voices; stalls are piled with produce, furs and spices, including a leopard skin, a yak tail, pheasant feathers, lapis lazuli and barrels whose smell suggests that they are filled with rose petals, jasmine oil and patchouli.

Museum exhibitions often aspire to theater, but the stagecraft of this show, “Traveling the Silk Road: Ancient Pathway to the Modern World,” succeeds with compelling vividness. Designed and produced by the museum, under the direction of David Harvey, vice president for exhibition, it is meant to suggest a journey over the Silk Road in its prime, covering “the entire distance from East to West — from Xian, the capital of China, to Baghdad, the heart of the Islamic world.”

The Silk Road, which has now become part of folklore, was a loose network of Central Asian trade routes that made up the most dangerous, exotic and economically valuable overland passages in the ancient and medieval worlds. And while you never really believe that your own “unusual journey” is anything comparable, that is just as well. As the exhibition points out, the Silk Road trek was accomplished on foot or by stumbling camel train through unrelenting desert and over steep mountain passes. It is some 4,600 miles long and takes at least half a year to traverse. And it passes through regions whose temperatures range from minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit to more than 120. In ancient times (as in our own) weapon-wielding robbers ambushed travelers, and tribal armies clashed over shifting frontiers.

And the point of it all, particularly during the era focused on here — from the years 600 to 1200 — was to trade the products of human invention, cultivation and belief: the luxuries of spices and silk, the pleasures of music and image, the convictions of religion and science. “Traveling the Silk Road” really does give you an idea of what was involved, how valued the cloth, manuscripts and pottery must have been, and how vital, too, the resulting cultural cross-fertilization must have seemed in a world of daunting obstacles.

I have intellectual reservations about this exhibition, even as I celebrate the remarkable pleasures and insights it offers. This is less a show of objects than of atmosphere and ideas, but it incorporates more than 90 rare artifacts, including a 7th-century Buddha; a 10th-century ceramic showing a Chinese official draped in silk; a stunning silver drinking horn made for 7th-century Tibetan rulers; a 13th-century Koran written on the pioneering medium of paper. You can press buttons to select which traditional Chinese instruments you want to hear in an ensemble and watch videos of folk stories that spread along these trading routes with their resonant tales of misguided greed or triumphant trickery. You can also manipulate the nested wheels of an astrolabe and learn to tell time from the locations of stars.

The exhibition’s curator, Mark A. Norell, chairman of the division of paleontology at the museum (who also worked with the guest co-curator, William Honeychurch, an assistant professor in the department of anthropology at Yale University, and with Denise Leidy, curator of the department of Asian art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art), structured this journey by focusing on four particular cities, as well as on a series of crafts and technologies.

You begin with Xian, which in the seventh century, the museum suggests, may have been the largest city in the world, a million people living within its walls, another million just outside them. Silk making holds sway here, a process that becomes more amazing as the exhibition teaches how silk is woven from the cocoons of the worms nibbling away in the covered bowls. A single cocoon can unwind into a filament about 3,000 feet long, but it takes about 2,500 cocoons to create a single silk robe.

But silk (and its once state-kept secrets) was just one reason for the development of the trade route. The China scholar Frances Wood has pointed out that the “romantic name” the Silk Road was coined in 1877 by a German explorer. Silk was actually accompanied by all manner of goods for trade. They encompassed paper (“of all the treasures that moved along the Silk Road,” the exhibition points out, “none was more powerful than paper”), glassware and pottery work, and the accomplishments of Baghdad’s scholars (whose studies of math and astronomy, the exhibition notes, “helped form the foundation for science in the West”).

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These technologies spread along paths like the ones the show maps out, touching down in Turfan, a Central Asian oasis (now in China and officially Turpan) between the Gobi and Taklimakan Deserts, where plentiful produce was made possible by a sophisticated system of underground irrigation tunnels, one of which is modeled here.

Another stopping point was Samarkand, once a cosmopolitan city of merchants at the heart of the Sogdian empire (in present-day Uzbekistan). But the most compelling exhibits come at the road’s beginning, in China, and at its end, in Baghdad. Throughout the show, though, the theme of cross-cultural fertilization recurs: we see ninth-century Chinese silk patterns influenced by Persian designs, and a stone pillar erected in Xian in 781 displaying both Chinese characters and Christian iconography.

Paper, “Traveling the Silk Road” argues, moved in the opposite direction; it may have been invented in China around 50 B.C., made its way into the Islamic world and ultimately migrated to Spain in the 12th and 13th centuries. A final gallery with a wall-size video screen challenges viewers to see parallels between the camel-driven trails of a thousand years ago and contemporary information highways with links provided by cellphones and the Internet.

Joining this message of cultural confluence, there is also a spirit of sentimental multiculturalism, which must have helped the exhibition’s international appeal: beginning in 2011 it will travel to Rome and to Canberra, Australia, and to Taipei and Taichung, in Taiwan. Supplementary programming here will include regular Sunday performances organized by the Silk Road Project, founded by Yo-Yo Ma in 1998.

Harmony is the focus: the show presents an almost pastoral perspective with its amiable portrait of cultural transmission and trade. Yet Christopher I. Beckwith, professor of Central Eurasian studies at Indiana University, suggests in his recent book, “Empires of the Silk Road” (Princeton University Press), that “the most crucial element” of societies all through Central Eurasia — including the ones analyzed by this exhibition — was the “sociopolitical-religious ideal of the heroic lord” and of a “war band of his friends” that was attached to him and “sworn to defend him to the death.”

This idea, he suggests, affected the organization of early Islam as well as the structure of Tibetan Buddhist devotion. In fact, this “shared political ideology across Eurasia,” Mr. Beckwith suggests, “ensured nearly constant warfare.” The region’s history is a history of competing empires; trade became part of what was later called the Great Game.

If this is so, then the Silk Road explanation for cultural influence is seriously limited. Strangely, too, the exhibition also seems to treat the golden age of Baghdad almost as if it sprang up there fully formed, while Mr. Beckwith suggests that “virtually all of the greatest philosophers and scientists of classical Islamic civilization were either from Central Asia or of Central Asian origin.”

This is something that historians will puzzle out. In the meantime, though, the critical intellectual shortcoming of the exhibition is that with Baghdad, the Silk Road seems to come to a prematurely celebratory end. Why, instead of dealing with the development of Arab shipping in a final gallery, didn’t the show follow a narrative, visible on one of its maps, leading past Baghdad and to the port of Venice? By extending the history another few centuries, we would have seen how the Silk Road led to a fertilization of Western thinking, not just with the discoveries of Islamic scientists but also with a variety of philosophical and religious perspectives that proved influential over the course of centuries. We know how deeply affected Marco Polo was by the Silk Road in the 13th century: he passed that enthusiasm on.

This would have helped the exhibition make a more cogent contribution to Western cultural self-understanding. It would have also helped explain why, once European shipping and exploration took off in the late Renaissance, the overland Silk Road route became more and more a commercial backwater, leading to centuries of cultural and political decline, whose effects are still being felt.