Archaeologists find remains of ancient city founded on China's Silk Road

November 23, 1993|By Chicago Tribune

BEIJING -- Among the sand dunes and the ruins of once flourishing oases on China's legendary Silk Road, archaeologists have dug up an ancient city that may have been inhabited by dropouts from Alexander the Great's army.

The rediscovery of the mysterious city of Niya came 90 years after British explorer Sir Aurel Stein was led by villagers to its remains in 1903 and, according to the official New China news agency, "pillaged Greek-style furniture and ancient documents written in the long-dead Kharoshthi language."

A joint Sino-Japanese expedition found the ruins again after trekking by camel for months through the southern end of the Taklamakan desert in China's Far West. The discovery ended a 10-year search.

The city may help anthropologists solve the puzzle of the fair-haired, green-eyed Central Asians who still live in the region. It could be equal in importance to the discovery of Pompeii, the Roman city buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

Japanese and Chinese leaders of the expedition said they found the remains of old Greek-style homes. A 240-foot-long city wall and a 19-foot-high Buddhist stupa, or monument, still stood above the sand dunes. Grape trellises and desiccated fruit trees have been preserved by the desert climate 1,500 years after Niya residents mysteriously vanished.

Eight mummies wearing wool or silk clothes were found. Around the bodies, probably bared by the desert storms, the expedition found coins, bronze mirrors, knives, rings and pearls. In a handbag under the skirt of a female was a wooden comb with a strand of blond hair.

Expedition members quoted by the news agency said the high noses, narrow faces, long heads and blond or brown hair of the mummies indicated they were of Indo-European ancestry. The original inhabitants "could have come here during the military campaigns waged by the Macedonian king Alexander the Great in the 4th Century B.C.," an expedition member told the agency.

Han Xiang, the head of the Chinese team, speculated that a sudden disaster, man-made or ecological, abruptly ended a civilization that flourished at the foot of the snowy Kunlun mountains.

The Kharoshthi writings, all issued like edicts, puzzle scholars. The writings came from the Greek-dominated Kushan Empire, which includes modern Pakistan and Afghanistan and whose migrating people brought both their written language and Buddhism to the Taklamakan desert between 300 B.C. and A.D. 500.

About 30 wooden tablets inscribed in Kharoshthi were found inside a buried pottery jar.

Known as the Kingdom of Jingjue, the city was the jewel among the oasis states whose people carved out a paradise from the desert protected by gates and walls. Water drawn from wells or underground streams provided gardens and ponds.

The ruins are about 400 miles southeast of the famous carpet-making town of Kashgar.

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